Jun 26 2013

Award-Winning British Astrophysicist Throws Cold Water on Smart Aliens

Dr. Paul Murdin of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, recently published his provocative book, Are We Being Watched (2013). Murdin added the subtitle, “The Search for Life in the Cosmos,” not so much to distinguish it from recent NSA controversies (j/k), but to focus on an issue of great cosmic importance: Are there actually intelligent space aliens out there?

Despite the fact that our Galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars and planets almost everywhere, it isn’t obvious we have company, according to Murdin, who previously identified the first stellar black hole (Cygnus X-1) in our Galaxy.

Murdin, a high-energy astrophysicist who received the 2012 Royal Astronomical Society Award and in 1988 was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire), reports doing a one-eighty during the writing of his book and now takes a doubtful view of space aliens, especially those with big brains.

Murdin’s book is interesting in a variety of ways, including that it is strongly consistent with two key trends. The first, a megatrend, is that interest in space aliens (as indicated by science, the media, etc.) increases rapidly as we approach a Maslow Window; Click:Citizen Hearing on Disclosure Supports Maslow Forecasts.”

The second trend is a growing science-based view — based on new science about the Earth, Solar System, and our Galaxy — that we may indeed be alone in our Galaxy; Click: “Is Earth Unique? What this “Benchmark Moment” Means for ETs and our Future

Murdin rightly disposes of the Drake Equation, which astronomers have tried to use for ~50 years to estimate the number (N) of high-tech civilizations in our Galaxy, by quoting ASU physicist Paul Davies who, at a 2011 conference in London, described N as “utterly moot,” and concludes that:

It is an unsatisfactory position to be in after fifty years of hard work…

It’s interesting that Murdin chooses to not mention the the well-known ideas of Richard Gott (the Copernican Argument) or Andrew Watson (anthropic model for development of intelligence) to illuminate N. They support Murdin’s bottomline that N is most likely very small.

I was surprised that Murdin included a description of the Roswell UFO story in a book primarily about astrobiology, and then surprised again when he casually dismissed it (“inconsistencies,” “hoaxes”). Actually some of the compelling testimony associated with Roswell and the strange history of government cover-ups (even self-admitted!) to the present day, make Roswell of continuing interest — although not necessarily in the context of ETs.

The reason is that Murdin’s and others’ science-based belief in small N argues against accidental crashes by clumsy space aliens. Click:New Science and Prospects for Visits By Extraterrestrials.”

Murdin saves his best stuff for the last chapter when he admits that,

I changed my mind as I wrote this book … I began … thinking on general grounds that it was impossible for us to be the only intelligent life in the Cosmos. I was rather surprised to find … that it is conceivable that intelligent life on Earth is, to all intents and purposes, unique.

In the stimulating spirit of the approaching 1960s-style Maslow Window and especially of the Rare Earth Hypothesis, he leaves the door open slightly but continues to point to very low N:

If there is complex life elsewhere , it would seem that it is very rare, quite likely not as advanced as humans (possibly hardly advanced at all), and probably a very long way away indeed.

One response so far

One Response to “Award-Winning British Astrophysicist Throws Cold Water on Smart Aliens”

  1. James McEnanlyon 11 Jul 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I could think of three possibilities that would allow for there being intelligent life in the galaxy, but not having it stop by here.
    1. They have no further interest in living or obtaining resources on planetary surfaces. If these beings have the capability to travel between stars, it is certain that they will have learned to build self-sustaining space settlements, such as those proposed by Professor G.K. O’Neil in 1970, and to use low mass moons, asteroids and comets for their materials. They would not need a planetary surface to live on, nor would they want to mine on a high gravity planet. Unlike Well’s Martians, they would not look upon the Earth with envious eyes, but would me more interested in our asteroid belt and Oort cloud.
    2. They may never have developed the technology or the philosophy needed for interstellar exploration. We tend to think of human history as a progression from the Stone Age through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age to the Stars, with the various Dark ages being nothing more than minor setbacks. However, there have been many civilizations that would not have had the capacity for spaceflight, no matter how much time they had. If a culture is so hidebound that the authorities rapidly suppress new technologies and philosophies, they will never venture to the stars.
    3. The planet may have a surface gravity so high that escape is exceedingly difficult. Considering how difficult it is for us to launch from our own planet, and then seeing how many of the worlds in the habitable zones of other stars Super-Earths are, it is plausible that even though the beings on such a world can observe other worlds, the high gravity on their planets makes it infeasible to leave. They may also live in an aquatic environment, which would also preclude constructing craft that could leave the atmosphere.
    The conditions that lead to our becoming a civilization that is ready, willing and able to explore the cosmos are not readily duplicated.

    Thanks for your comment. And I think you have them correctly listed from highest to lowest probability.

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