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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Phantom Limb


It’s a sad day today. NASA has conceded defeat in its attempts to get the Martian sands to yield up its rover vehicle “Spirit”. The unfortunate mechanical geologist found itself mired in the “mud” of Mars last May having spent the previous five years roaming the rust red countryside of our near neighbour. “Spirit”’s sister/brother/other, “Opportunity” remains fancy free trundling along on the other side of the planet.

The landing of “Spirit” in late 2004 was in sharp contrast to the loss of our own Mars explorer “Beagle 2” which went awol on Christmas Day 2003 when it should have been planting the Union Jack on the Red Planet. But that was not as embarrassing as the 1999 American mission “Mars Climate Orbiter” which mixed up its “pounds force” and “newtons” resulting in a mid air break up.

Any alien watching our attempts at Mars landings might surmise that we were keen if a little inexperienced at the planet shooting business. They might decide that we were so inept at inter planetary travel that we posed no threat to more advanced civilisations light years from our green and pleasant planet. On the other hand they might deduce that technically we were so feeble we couldn’t put up a fight should they decide to invade.

They couldn’t be more wrong. Anyone who saw “Independence Day” will know that any upstart alien will get a bloody nose (if they have any). Who can forget the picture of Will Smith (rumoured to be slated for a bio-pic of Barak Obama) dragging that alien behind him? Made you proud to be an earthling. Or Tom Cruise’s pluckiness in “War of the Worlds” as monstrous monsters from the Red Planet tried to dig him and his daughter out from the cellar in an abandoned house? Or Steve(n) McQueen’s titanic struggles against the blancmange from space in “The Blob”? No, there ought to be a big beacon on the moon flashing a 50 mile high neon message “Don’t make us angry” to warn off any foolhardy ET thinking of grabbing some of our real estate.

But the bloody scientists have to go and spoil it all. Having got us all going with SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence); they’re now equivocating about the possibility of life out there. (How can you fight a war if you have to take account of expert advice? – a topical in joke for my English readers).

Last night the Royal Society hosted a talk by Professor Paul Davis – he’s a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and general big brain – but he English so that’s ok even if he works in Arizona. His talk “The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe” was fascinating, if disappointing. To be honest I was hoping to hear him say “Nope; they’re on Europa and we’ll be calling on them in a couple of centuries.” But all he said was “... And on the one hand but on the other”. Mainly he talked about the other. But what got me sitting up in my chair was the idea that aliens were already here.

Forget your average bug eyed monster or the enormous headed creature with claws for hands out of "This Island Earth". Cast to one side the loveable, troublesome Tribbles that infested Kirk’s star ship, and give up on the curiously cuddly ET. When Prof Davis talks about non terrestrial life forms he talking small and hugely invasive.

In fact we are the aliens; or we could be. The idea is that way, way back aliens landed here, wiped out the existing higher life form, sentient or otherwise, and took over. That’s us – you and me. We are the aliens! Neat don’t you think? Alternatively, aliens came in the form of a “virus”, which got into the body of the existing life form here and took over. Changing DNA etc and creating a new evolutionary branch which is us (and the apes?).

Sounds a bit far fetched? Maybe but Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe argued in the 1960’s that life didn’t evolve here on earth but in interstellar clouds and that the earth is subjected to a bombardment of complex organics and viruses which then develop into the life forms that we are familiar with.

Fred Hoyle was fascinated with comets and the possibility that highly complex organic chemical could be synthesised within them. He developed this idea in his novel “Comet Halley” where it is discovered that intelligence has developed within a comet’s structure and that the thousands of comets that move in and out of our Solar System are intelligent. Hoyle had the brilliant idea that although they were intelligent and could communicate with us, they couldn’t communicate with each other. Earth then acted as a huge telephone exchange and by linking them together a complex and powerful intelligence was generated. Professor Davis, in his talk yesterday suggested a similar possibility.

He went even further suggesting that ETs had developed as information clouds contemplating their own being, never needing to interact with the outside universe. We’d never know they were there, and they’d not be bothered with us.

I still yearn for some complex life form having developed in the huge warm oceans that quite possibly exist under the ice on Europa. It doesn’t have to be much: a snail, a slug, even some lowly slimy living stuff. If that’s found then we know life can evolve elsewhere other than here on “Ol’ Blue Seas”. And that means the reality of life throughout our galaxy.

God, what a fearful thought that is!

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