Keeping a Closed Eye on the Stars

The BBC has a long and honourable tradition of documentaries that expand our perspective and nourish our curiosity. Documentaries that do not shy away from complex subjects. In this tradition Professor Brian Cox has explained many of the mysteries of astrophysics, and proposed to take matters till further in a proposal for his series Stargazing Life. To search for an alien civilisation live on air.

Sadly his plan to point the Jodrell Bank telescope at Threapleton Holmes B (a planet that has never been studied with radio telescopy) on live television has been vetoed. The BBC believe it poses an unacceptable health and safety risk. It is unclear whether the concern is over the risk of attracting the attention of a hostile civilisation or causing existential angst to those who believe hell is other people.

You mean we would discover the first hint that there is other intelligent life in the universe beyond Earth, live on air, and you’re worried about the health and safety of it? It was incredible.
They did have guidelines. Compliance. – Professor Brian Cox

Humour aside, behind Cox’ passionate call for regulation to not stifle exploration, is a field fully aware of the potential risks of seeking to expand beyond one planet. The Drake Equation predicts a very high number of sentient civilisations in the universe. High enough that it is very unlikely that Earth would not have been visited or at least contacted by now. There are several theories on why we have not, from a very scientific scepticism over one or more of the terms in the equation to a more emotional scepticism over the truth of SETI’s published results. One of the least reassuring is Robin Hanson’s Great Filter. This hypothesises that the lack of civilisation could be due to a high chance of civilisations destroying themselves before they leave their planet, either by violence or exhaustion of resources. And, more unnervingly, that the more evidence we find of multi-celled life on other planets, the more likely it is that advanced civilisations destroy themselves.

Moving beyond prediction into speculation, there might be only two types of civilisation that survive to leave their planet. A race so driven to expand that it has colonised other planets before it has rendered its own unsuitable, and a race so wholly opposed to weapons of mass destruction they will not countenance their existence. Whether or not we are equipped to defend ourselves either of these would pose a risk to our world should we attract their attention. This is of course the realm of fiction.

Do you believe we are alone in the universe? If not why have we not been visited? Or have we been visited?

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2 thoughts on “Keeping a Closed Eye on the Stars

    1. I did not think of the possibility of aliens quantum tunnelling from a parallel reality. That would make the figure of the Drake Equation much (infinitely?) higher, but would also add a step to the Great Filter (Inter-Brane Transit perhaps?), so I am unsure if it would make contact more or less likely.

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