Out There

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?


Robots and Aliens – Would They Be Like Us?

There’s been a flurry of articles in the UK press about a scientist’s suggestion that intelligent aliens would resemble us physically and psychologically. This means, I suppose, that we might have met a few without knowing it.

Alien Life Would Look Like Us

Probably not a clever creature….

Improbable Alien

This makes me consider robots (aliens of a kind, I suppose), and what it would take for us to accept that a robot is alive and intelligent, with an interior life, and therefore demanding of moral consideration. The Turing Test sets a very low bar in this respect since we demand more of life (unless we are extremely limited emotionally) than that an intelligent creature should type some textual responses from behind a screen.

As for intelligent alien life, I think the argument would go something like this:

The Implications of Language

  • Intelligent life requires language and language goes with thought
  • Language and thought can develop only in a community of creatures (where meanings and criteria for the use of words, especially mental words, can be implicitly agreed)
  • Communities can only exist when language permits the ascription of thought by one individual to another, and this recognition of the other thereby involves compassion, the instinctive understanding (and feeling) of another’s thoughts, beliefs, pains, joys and feelings
  • A moral, perhaps even legal, code based on such compassion would underpin any community of intelligent life
  • Language and communities must evolve together
  • A language can only exist if a life form possesses a face capable of highly complex (mostly involuntary) physical configurations, since language, thoughts, feelings and beliefs are ascribed and learned through facial expression (note that a blind person generally grows up in a community of sighted people)

Head, Brain, Eyes and Face – All Go Together

  • Electromagnetic radiation (in our case the visual spectrum) offers the most powerful means of knowing things from a distance. Therefore aliens would have eyes.
  • Eyes would be found near the highest point of an alien’s body so that the field of vision would be as large as possible
  • An alien would possess at least two eyes (or some such similar mechanism) to enable the detection of distance
  • Eyes would evolve in a face since the focus of the eyes is a vital component of understanding facial expressions which underpin the mental life and it wouldn’t make sense to look in two directions at once
  • The eyes would evolve in proximity to the brain for rapid signal transmission
  • They eyes would be heavily protected (sunk into something like a skull)
  • The eyes would need to change their field of focus rapidly, therefore would need the ability to swivel. Protuberant eyes would be vulnerable, and it would be inefficient to swivel too much of the body, therefore intelligent creatures would have heads on necks, probably containing brains


eyes in feet

Ears Also Useful

  • Language would probably use a medium other than electromagnetic radiation, because of the many advantages in being able to use eyes and ears separately, especially when the sun isn’t shining. You might imagine that a creature with more eyes than two would reserve at least one for language and communication, but eyes mean focus and that the interlocutor be in the field of vision, as well as that there should be light, so there would be advantages in using a separate medium such as distortions of the atmosphere (sound).

Hands are Special

  • An intelligent creature would need precise control of as much of its environment as possible. Therefore it would have hands, probably at the end of highly mobile sticks (arms), since this would enable rapid movement near the body. Prehensility is another requirement (the opposing motion, for example, of thumb and first finger) since this enables grasping. The ability to write, draw and conduct orchestras might follow.


  • Wheels are unlikely, since, although they are efficient, they are less adaptable for jumping, reaching and stepping over things, than equipment such as legs. In any case roads and flat surfaces rarely occur in nature. Legs and/or fins of some kind would be the obvious choice, but I wonder if intelligent life could evolve underwater.

Unlikely to occur naturally…

cat on wheels

What else might we assume? I am sure that many other aspects of biology and psychology might be derived from first principles, or am I being too anthropocentric in my thinking?

So, how different might an alien be? I think it’s logical to assume at least:

  • Eyes, ears, face, brain, and at least one head
  • Language, probably based on sound (in the atmosphere or in a liquid)
  • Morality and community
  • Arms, digits and prehensility, but no reason to stop at two and five of these
  • At least two legs

We often wonder if we could create intelligent life. A lot depends on what you mean by intelligence, but setting the bar high, at the point where we must take moral account of such a creature, we would require the ability to use (even invent) language, to suffer convincingly, to express an inner life, to care, to learn and so on. I would think that the best materials for the manufacture of such a creature would probably not be metal and wire, but would be of biological origin – such as skin, muscle, etc. – so a convincing ‘robot’ would probably have to be human or look like an intelligent alien. Dr Frankenstein had the right idea.

Almost human…but made of the wrong stuff


HAL, the intelligent computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey is a robot/computer that’s almost human. HAL lacks skin and facial expression, (though he has a rather alarming red all-seeing ‘eye’), but his(or her?) beautifully modulated voice, and ability to plan, to deceive, even to ‘die’ in some distress at the end of the film, almost convince us that he is, or was, alive. That he could never have evolved independently of human life is irrelevant to the issue of whether he lives alongside human life. I think it’s his dying that tips the balance, since he evokes our reluctant compassion, but in reality this is the least plausible aspect of his behaviour, since it’s hard to see how or why his gradual regression to childhood makes any sense in a programmed device that did not grow up (as far as we know) in an organic way.

In fact, computers and robots are useful precisely because they do some things (simple, repetitive, number-crunching things) better than we do, and the more human they become – vulnerable, fallible, moral – the less useful they will be.