Tech UPTechnologyPaul Davies:

Paul Davies:

paul-davies British physicist Paul Davies (London, 1946) may not need an introduction for the readers of VERY. Throughout his career he has developed a notable facet as a popularizer of science in the form of articles, books, radio programs and television documentaries.

Winner of several prestigious awards, including the Templeton Prize for essays in which he connects such disparate subjects as science and religion, Davies has focused his dissemination activity on Astrobiology, the vibrant scientific specialty that investigates the possibilities of life in the world. Universe. Now, the British physicist is a member of a curious scientific panel, called The Post-Detection-Task Group (PDTG, acronym in English), which would be in charge of handling all the scientific and media commotion in the event that the first one is detected. alien intelligence signal with a radio telescope. The PDTG is something like a shadow emergency committee ready to step forward in the face of what would be a journalistic story in capital letters. Davies has just published a new book on this subject, The Eerie Silence (The Creepy Silence, which will be released in a few months in the Spanish market) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the SETI project in search of extraterrestrial intelligent life. But in addition, this British researcher offers us a good thermometer about the state of the popularization of science , of which VERY INTERESTING is the maximum exponent in our country.


Very Interesting: What is the current public’s sensitivity towards science?

Paul Davies: It has changed quite a bit in the last fifteen years, but the interest is still very mixed. Some topics, such as cosmology, aliens, or medicine continue to attract the well-informed public, but there are other areas of science where people get lost.
I recently read an article by biologist Robert Winston in The Times newspaper, in which he says that public ignorance is not acceptable. There are very important decisions to be made on issues such as stem cells, nuclear energy or climate change. And for this, it is essential to be well informed. Things haven’t gotten much better when it comes to basic science education.


MI: You talk about the importance of addressing the climate change debate, an issue that popularizers didn’t care much about just 20 years ago.

Paul Davies: But it is what dominates scientific debates now, even though it contains a chaotic jumble of issues. If we are talking about black holes or dinosaurs, one can be quite precise about what we know and what we do not know. However, climate change has become politicized, and it is not surprising that people are confused. For scientists dedicated to communicating their findings to the public, the controversy over climate change is a step backwards. Investigators have been presented as conspirators. And it is quite sad.


MI: Do you think the media are dedicating more space to science? I am also referring to whether the interest shown by television producers has changed or not.

Paul Davies: Producers aren’t any more reluctant than before, but one of the most depressing things I’ve found is that they tend to focus on just a few issues, their vision is always narrow. In the last three years I have participated in programs about time and temporary travel, and they always do the same. This year the star theme is aliens, which is good for my book. I’ve been in three or four documentaries about SETI. Okay, but it’s a bit depressing that they are always after the same topics.

In addition, a threat looms over science writers in the United States. I participated in the awarding of awards to science journalists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Of the ten winners, seven later lost their jobs. Science journalists are now a near-endangered species, especially in the United States. I think it is part of the problem that plagues the written press in general. Newspapers that were very big are now in trouble, like The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and here in London, The Times newspaper. On the other hand, and having said that, I am back in London because in Birmingham there is a science festival that is financed by The Times. Money is still being put into issues like this and it is good news.


MI: VERY INTERESTING is the oldest journal of scientific dissemination in Spain. You have published articles on these pages, and despite the current crisis, you continue to be the favorite of Spanish readers. It seems that despite all the problems there is a public eager for science. What do you think of this Spanish case?

Paul Davies: I think this is very good news. There is a similar case in Australia, with a magazine called Cosmos. I know the editor. Although it has a small circulation, its demand is very stable. [It is estimated that the online and print editions of Cosmos accumulate an audience of 400,000 people, six issues are published a year and the publication has received many awards]. In New Scientist’s case, it’s been a couple of years since they celebrated their fiftieth anniversary and they are doing well. The problem is the generalist media and the space they dedicate to science.


MI: Let’s talk now about your book, The Eerie Silence, about the search for extraterrestrial signals and the SETI project. It’s a topic you’ve written about before. Why a new book?

Paul Davies: Well, it’s the 50th anniversary of SETI. The Ozma project was launched by Frank Drake in April 1960. It was a good opportunity to return to the subject, offering some ideas on how we can improve the search for extraterrestrial life. Now I am more involved, I am a member of the PDGT, and one of my attributions is to think about what will happen if we find a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence. It is not like the previous book, which collected many of the lectures I gave on the subject in Italy in the early 1990s.

MI: You also work in the field of astrobiology. And it seems that more people are working in this field now looking for microbial life on other planets than in the early days of SETI. Do you think the scientists of the latter have been displaced?

Paul Davies: It’s funny, because the first work on astrobiology turned out to be the search for intelligent life. But now astrobiologists are interested in looking for microbes on Mars, extrasolar planets, or organic molecules in space. However, I think there is a common place for both.


MI: What is that common place?

Paul Davies: Intelligent life requires, of course, a prior way of life. We do not know what is the possibility of life appearing on a planet like Earth. We can assume that there are billions of planets like ours in the galaxy. It is something that is accepted, there are a lot of places where life could happen. But we have no idea what the probability is of it arising on those worlds. We do not yet have a good theory about the origin of life, nor do we know anything about its mechanisms.
So we can only speculate on what the probabilities are of it happening.

And we can perform the following experiment. If we assume that it is true that life can arise on these planets (something we have no proof of), then perhaps it could have started several times on Earth. We could examine our planet to see if we found more than one life form. That is, it is possible that in the microbial kingdom there are descendants of a second genesis, of a separate branch of life. In a sense, they would be like alien organisms, that is, not necessarily from space but completely independent of the life we now know.


A short break to now recall Frank Drake’s famous equation for calculating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. The equation is N = R * x fp x Ne x Fl x Fi x Fc x L. N is the number of extraterrestrial intelligences, and the rest of the terms are probabilities or fractions. R * is the number of stars formed in the Milky Way, Fp is the fraction of stars with planets around them, Ne the number of planets that can potentially support life, Fl the number of planets in which life has already arisen, Fi is the number of civilizations that have reached intelligence, Fc is the number of civilizations capable of building a technology with the possibility of transmitting messages, and L is finally the time span of existence of the intelligent civilization itself. Humanity conceived as such would be, for example, 90,000 years old (the age of the oldest Homo sapiens).


MI: You speak of two independent genesis on a planet like Earth. What implications would it have for SETI if something like this happened?

Paul Davies: If you take Drake’s equation, the Fl, the fraction of planets on which life has occurred, refers to a completely uncertain number. If we find that life has started twice on Earth, then that fraction would be pretty close to 1, which would be a huge boost for the SETI project. Life could then be something very common in the Universe. Although intelligence alone would not be a very ordinary thing. However, if life on Earth turned out to be an anomalous event, it would be highly unlikely that there would be other intelligent life in space. For the SETI project to move forward, we have to investigate this possibility.

MI: That is, to find out if life could have arisen on Earth independently, perhaps on two, three or even four occasions, which would dramatically affect that end of the equation. How could it have happened?

Paul Davies: What I have in mind goes back 4 billion years, in the beginning. During the early bombardment of the Earth by large asteroids, the planet’s surface was probably sterilized. But at the same time, that bombardment could have ejected a large amount of material around the Sun, ripped from the planet itself after impact. Some of this material could have returned back to Earth to collide with it again. That is to say, any type of life that could have formed before the impacts could survive in these materials located in an orbit around the Sun. Once the conditions of the Earth have normalized, opening the way to life again, it would be feasible that the return of the material in orbit gave rise to a new form of life on our planet. The same mechanism that produced an organism for the first time would originate more over time. This may have happened long ago, when conditions were favorable for life to emerge. Those same conditions could be repeated over and over again, producing many genesis in turn. So it is possible that the descendants of those genesis events could have survived to this day.


MI: Still, even if life had arisen several times on Earth and on other planets, you have to recognize that the emergence of intelligence is something really very strange. We are talking about intelligent life, not microbes. There is a huge slope between the two.

Paul Davies: Okay. But the biggest leap is the one from inanimate matter to life. That is, jumping from a mixture of chemicals to a bacterium is something that is much larger than what separates that bacterium from a human being. At least we understand the mechanisms that exist between a bacterium and a person, it is about Darwinian evolution. We know how the process works. Therefore, we have at least an idea of how it could happen. But in the case of the leap from matter to life, we have no idea what the mechanisms were. The first step is the most important. And most scientists admit that we are in a blind spot.

MI: You belong to this special group of experts that would be in charge of handling the information if the authenticity of a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence is confirmed. Can you imagine what the first 24 hours would be like?

Paul Davies: There is a distinction to be made here. If we are talking about capturing a signal like the one shown in the novel and film Contact, by Carl Sagan, that is, a message deliberately transmitted by aliens to Earth, it would be a rather unlikely or credible event, precisely because the time difference. That civilization could be thousands of light years from us. So long ago we did not have a radio telescope, so it would not make sense for them to send us messages without being sure that we have the means to detect them. It does not seem credible to imagine deliberate messages being launched towards Earth today.

What we can capture is a trace of an alien technology, perhaps some radio signal. Imagine that an astronomer discovers that in a star system there is an object that is not natural, that is, one that was built by an alien civilization. It would be announced in a specialized magazine as a great astronomical discovery, but that would not paralyze our society. It would be something of the caliber of Copernicus’s findings, which showed that it is the Earth that revolves around the Sun, but it would not alter people’s daily lives. It would have an immense effect on the perception of people’s place in nature, our rightful place in the Universe. It would be something with profound implications for religions.

However, if we were to detect a message of some kind, despite being highly unlikely, the effects on today’s society would be dramatic. It would be impossible to have any kind of control over the situation. Even if the message were of an altruistic kind, like explaining to us how to produce energy by fusion in a stable way, something that has been pursued by physicists for more than fifty years, it would not be good news.

Imagine what would happen to the stock markets, the fight unleashed between companies or between countries to control that knowledge. It would be very destabilizing, even dangerous. So one of the things that we have agreed in our committee is that if someone collects any evidence of the existence of an intelligent civilization that comes from a particular point in the sky, we would not make the coordinates of this life form public until let’s not have the scientific evaluation. In this way, we would prevent people from sending messages via radio telescopes to this civilization until the subject is widely consulted.


MI: However, in case of receiving that signal, we would not be able to establish a conversation because of the delays in the time between question and answer.

Paul Davies: Yes, it is true. It would be a one-way message. Maybe with the history of the civilization that sent it, or some kind of scientific information. We could not carry on a conversation, we would have to wait thousands of years. And still, we should operate very cautiously before starting a conversation like this. Responding automatically doesn’t have to be a good thing just for the sake of it. In my opinion, yes it is, but many people disagree.


MI: You have explored the connections between science and religion in your books. How, for example, would Christianity assume the idea that we are not alone in the Universe?

Paul Davies: Christians, in particular, have a problem with the existence of advanced alien beings precisely because of the nature of the incarnation. I recently had a meeting at the Vatican on the subject of salvation. Christians believe that God transformed into a human being to save humanity, not to save dolphins, chimpanzees, or even Neanderthals. It is a religion directed to a single species. Therefore, a problem is created here. How to save an alien species? Should multiple incarnations occur throughout the Universe? Or does humanity have a responsibility to bring God’s word to aliens? It sounds ridiculous. If you examine the history of Christianity, you discover that there was about 300 years ago a very intense debate among Christian theologians about how to proceed with these problems with alien beings. And yet, today, very few are asking this question, although some, like George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican Observatory, are willing to broach the subject.
Still, it remains a problem in the Christian religion.


MI: And in the Vatican, were they open to discussing this matter?

Paul Davies: Well, officially I didn’t find much propensity. But individually they seemed happy to do so. I believe that there are people in both the Observatory and the Vatican Academy of Sciences prepared to address this topic, but it seems to me that the Vatican as a whole is not going to issue an official statement or form a study group. Perhaps in the Protestant Church there is more willingness to talk about it, but even there the issue is a bit thorny.



In SETI, scientists often portray so-called aliens as benevolent beings, far removed from the hostile aliens characterized in movies and novels. Science fiction and its fears do not marry very well with the cold reality of a peaceful intelligence, distant and ready to help in any case the poor inferior humans. Hasn’t Paul Davies ever thought of fierce and dangerous aliens? There is a lie in this, Stephen Hawking has already commented on it on occasion. If the aliens wanted to take over our planet they could have come here in the last four billion years.

There is no reason why they would have to wait so long for human beings to emerge as fixed residents on the planet. They could have come at any time. If they are there and they are so advanced, why didn’t they do it sooner? It is irrelevant. For Davies, what happens is that people do not have an idea of the timescale. The risk is not from now, it has always existed throughout the history of life on Earth. So it is better to be optimistic, because if the Milky Way is seething with life, “nothing has happened. The possibilities are reduced: either they do not exist or they cannot travel long distances, or they are not hostile and do not need to colonize or invade new worlds. “I don’t think there are reasons for that fear,” Davies says.


Luis Miguel Ariza


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