The night sky is more provocative when viewed from the countryside. In the city we barely notice it, but not only because there are more delightful things to distract us from looking – the night sky is obscured by the sodium yellow of streetlights and the glare of the high street. In the Dordogne, in the south west of France, the cosmos is harder to ignore, and when I looked at it the other day it occurred to me that my feelings and thoughts probably didn’t differ markedly from the feelings and thoughts of prehistoric man as he gazed at the Milky Way 25,000 years ago from the mouth of his cave.
He knew less about the world, about himself and about the universe, I suppose, though I’m sure he knew his constellations rather better than I know them (I only know the Plough). He had no other visual entertainment, at night, other than the embers of his fire. But he didn’t know anything about what he was looking at, about planets, galaxies, dark matter or the dark energy that is tearing the universe apart at every greater velocity, though, to be frank, we too know almost nothing about dark energy.
Perhaps he imagined that the stars spoke to him somehow, and augured good or ill for the weather or the availability of mammoth meat. Sadly, we know now that they didn’t and don’t. Millions of hours of signals analysis by SETI programs running whilst our PCs are at rest have as yet failed to find evidence of a signal in the noise.
But if there is one thing I wish for in my lifetime (apart from world peace, the end of fundamentalist religions, universal democracy, a cure for cancer, the abolition of the unaccompanied madrigal and the Peruvian flute band) it is the discovery of extra terrestrial intelligence. Not just life, which would be interesting but neither amazing nor surprising, but intelligent life.
It will happen one day, though perhaps not soon. It won’t be communication, and it won’t be conversation unless we discover something even more remarkable, such as a Star Trek style warp drive that could take us or our signals faster than the speed of light. But simply to receive a ‘signal’ would be the most remarkable thing, to know that there are others out there, like us. And I believe they would be like us. Not to look at, of course, though I suspect they would have at least two eyes and at least two hands, but in terms of the cluster of things that go with intelligence.
Intelligence, the purposeful pursuit of knowledge, control and cooperation, is unimaginable without language, self-consciousness and thought, and the recognition by every intelligent creature that there are other intelligent creatures like them. Indeed language could only develop in a community of conscious creatures. And I believe that ethical systems inevitably follow, because one creature must, in virtue of language, be able to imagine itself as another. Perhaps even religion follows, at least for a while, until intelligence prevailed, though, to my mind, religion is false as science and a misleading foundation for value.
There must be intelligent life out there somewhere. We can’t be alone when there are billions of galaxies containing billions of stars. Even if intelligent life arrives late in the evolution of living things and doesn’t last long it would surely last long enough for there to be some ‘chatter’ radiating outwards (episodes of the alien version of The Archers, the Eurovision Song Contest, the speeches of Fidel Castro, and other entertainments) even if there were no formal signal replete with indicators of intelligence such as the atomic weights of the elements.
But if they set about sending a signal, what would they want to tell us? How to make fusion work? How to avoid annihilation? And what would we send them?
If I were the editor of transmissions into the unknown I would want to convey both knowledge and the idea of value. I doubt that intelligent life could evolve without both. So I would transmit the energy levels of fundamental particles, such as we currently understand them to be (or some such quantity if what I’ve suggested doesn’t make sense). These would indicate how far we’ve progressed in understanding the framework of the universe, and I presume they would be immediately recognisable in virtue of their ratios to each other. And I would send the whole of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
What else would be worth saying?