It is indeed possible there is advanced, complex, diverse, sentient and intelligent life elsewhere, but there might be nothing for extra-terrestrials to visit if we don’t learn to live with each other, live within nature’s means, and promote fair, just and stable societies globally for all.
As a boy I often used to follow Sir Patrick Moore’s TV series ‘Sky at Night’, who was one of the inspirations of a life time interest in astronomy with his fabulous Mitchell Beazley publication, forward by Sir Bernard Lovell in 1970, ‘Atlas of the Universe’ before the days of calculators, computers and the Internet – yes fancy! And Isaac Asimov became my preferred master of galactic fictional intrigue and stunning twists on space and time with the ‘Foundation Trilogy’ and ‘End of Eternity’.
I understand the school astronomical society I founded at Monmouth still meets today almost 50 years later. All those years ago I’d have my faithful 3-inch Greenkat refractor telescope out at night on the quad in front of School House, and the headmaster would jostle out from New beneath the stars and bellow, ‘Well George Ches, what are we looking at, any intelligent life up there tonight?’ ‘Stars but no aliens sir’ and sometimes ‘a planet’ or ‘odd comet’ I’d reply, he’d chuckle and request a peek himself.
One of the field trips I organised with our physics teacher was to the 250-foot Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, built in 1957, then the largest steerable dish in the world. Not for aliens like SETI, but to examine cosmic rays, meteoroids, pulsars, quasars and masers. It pioneered early work in gravitational lensing theorised by Albert Einstein, now used by the James Webb space telescope today, which has just begun its lifelong mission this year with a fleet of stunning pictures of the early universe in ever more detail than NASA’s 33-year-old Hubble telescope and window on time.
All this for me began in my earlier prep school days in East Sussex, visiting the 98-inch reflector Isaac Newton telescope built and opened in 1967 at the Old Royal Observatory in Herstmonceux, relocated 10 years earlier from Greenwich, London, where I once used to feed red squirrels on Saturday afternoons, after morning matinee, popcorn, ice cream or monkey nuts at the Odeon, all for less than a shilling. Then came the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in the summer of 1969 – Launched on 16 July and walking on the moon four days later (53 years ago this week).
I contemplate the possibilities still – Space, time from various angles, traveling among the stars, in time and of advanced, complex, diverse and intelligent life elsewhere. After all there’s an estimated 100-400 billion stars just in our own galaxy, most with exoplanets and a Goldilocks zone, and many far older than us at a mere 4.5 billion years, one third the age of our universe. There’s 100 billion other galaxies out there estimated from Hubble, that will likely double with James Webb on line. We won’t find ETs looking back in time at the early universe and other galaxies in between, too early and far away for contact or interstellar travel.
But an older solar system in the local spiral of our Milky Way (13.6 billion years old) – that is possible once we can establish after all the planetary forming hurdles of evolution, if advanced life is ubiquitous or rare. Laws of probability indicate there may be many, and far more technologically and socially advanced than us, but do they have a hyperdrive, have they found a way to travel through wormholes or bend space and time? It is only 5,000-10,000 years since we emerged from the last glacial period in hunting tribes across the planet, although a precious 4.5 billion years in the making. Already we teeter on the edge of climate change, nuclear annihilation, a rogue asteroid, mass solar ejection or just that common frailty of human civilisation – getting on with one another. What if we threw in another 4.5 billion years or two in either direction, what might we find? One thing for sure – none of us will be remotely around to know. But we can imagine with a few new and old tools at our disposal and a curious mind.
This takes me back and forth in time, a few more pieces for your pleasure:
- ‘Why we can’t rule out a visit from alien beings‘ by Sir Patrick Moore, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, 4 July 2022 (originally published in November 2009).
- Galaxies like dust from the beginning of time 13 billion years ago captured by gravitational lensing from the new infrared James Webb Space Telescope Observatory orbiting the sun – NASA unveils first images from James Webb Space Telescope, Washington Post, 12 July 2022.
- The Hubble Odyssey over 33 years – Space Odyssey: Stunning pictures for the Hubble Telescope, Reuters, 11 July 2022.
- The stunning universe we live in – Two experts break down the James Webb Space Telescopes’s first images, and explain what we’ve already learnt, The Conversation, 13 July 2022.
- Big Bang when space and time as we know it was created, not just gravity, energy, matter – Five questions about the Big Bang – answered! BBC Sky at Night Magazine, 28 June 2022.
- A Star is born – The James Webb Space Telescope.
- The Hubble Legacy – The Hubble Space Telescope. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/main/index.html
- Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night – Dylan Thomas, 1947 Villanelle narrated by Anthony Hopkins from the movie ‘Interstellar’:
- Crossing Eternity – 2017 poem and narration by Barddylbach.
- And just for the fun of it all – The Galaxy Song – Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’:
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