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A Shock to the System


The University of St Andrews in Scotland was founded in 1413. If by some curious contrivance, the founders had sent a signal to Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion, the message would be arriving about now. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant with about 100,000 years of life left to it so it’s likely that any inhabitants of a planet in its vicinity will have more to worry about than messages from the University of St Andrews.

St Andrews may be of future importance to the creatures that live around Betelgeuse or anywhere else in the depths of space.



Since the confirmed discovery of the first exoplanet in 1992, astronomers have confirmed the existence (unearthed might be a good word) of more than 5,000 more with 1000s of potential candidates that might be added to the list. And this is just in our galaxy.

Not surprisingly, given the difficulty of identifying a planet circling around a bright star light years away, the ones that we have found tend to be gas giants that are probably inimical to life. But around 60 are potentially habitable.

Is There Life Out There?

Virtually everywhere on Earth, there is life. Some of this life tolerates conditions that would seem to be impossible. Living under enormous pressure at the bottom of the oceans, in acidic hot springs, or indeed, everywhere you look, life has adapted to the local environment. These “extremophiles” are usually simple microorganisms. This lack of complexity means that there is less that can go wrong with their systems so they are more readily adaptable to harsh conditions that could never support more sophisticated creatures.

There are planetary bodies in our solar system that might well support life - Triton, a moon of Neptune, and volcanic Io, circling Jupiter, are just two possibilities.

It seems that life will appear given the smallest chance. If this is the case in our solar system, there seems to be no reason why it wouldn’t be true throughout our galaxy and beyond.


Where Are They?

Our galaxy contains anywhere from 100 - 400 billion stars. Data obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that our galaxy is just one of around 125 billion galaxies in the knowable universe. If most stars have planets, then the number of planets is in the billions of billions. Some of them will have life. It’s true that the majority of these might only support simple biological creatures. But, on a fraction of these many worlds, life will surely have evolved beyond the point of merely reacting to its environment and reached the point where it is controlling its surroundings.

To pluck a figure out of thin air, let’s assume that complex life has evolved on one out of every million planets. Let’s then take another speculative leap and say that on 1% of these, life has reached a level of complexity where one species has become dominant and created something that we would recognize as civilization. We are still talking about an enormous number of civilizations.

We are now using new systems, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, that can detect changes in an exoplanet’s atmosphere that may have been caused by life. These biosignatures might detect changes caused by industrialization. There will be, we can be almost certain, civilizations out there that have reached (or surpassed) our level of sophistication. Some will be looking around for alien life forms and one day, perhaps tomorrow, they will find us.


Can We Talk?

Saint Andrews

Institutions across the globe are involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The University of St Andrews in collaboration with the Centre for Global Law and Governance has set up a post-Detection Hub to deal with the consequences of what happens when (not if) we make contact with aliens. To quote from their website:

“The potential discovery of microbial life will likely raise different types of concern that would follow the discovery of intelligent life - we are as yet entirely unprepared as a species for the latter. The time is thus right for consideration of humanity’s response - and responsibility - following the detection of both life and intelligence in the Cosmos. We should plan now for this eventuality by setting out impact assessments, protocols, procedures, and treaties designed to allow humanity to respond responsibly.”

St Andrews, and like-minded institutions, are right to take the initiative on this because there is currently no international framework dealing with the first contact with aliens.

Will We Be Able to Talk?

As we currently understand physics, the distances involved in interstellar communication would be a barrier to any meaningful communication. St Andrews’ message to Betelgeuse would probably be on an alien’s desk today as the Betelgeusians decided how to respond. When they do decide to reply, their answer will take another 600 years to reach here.

There’s another problem too. We have an anthropocentric view. Science Fiction generally treats aliens as similar to us. They might be wiser, more malicious, or have two heads but they are, in some way “human”. But what if they are not? What if their intelligence has developed along lines that we could not conceptually recognize? If that is the case, could we communicate at all?

A Final Thought

We humans see ourselves as the masters of our world. We are dominant. Meeting another culture that sees the Universe differently will be a massive psychological shock - even if distance means that we never actually meet an alien civilization.

Best to start thinking about it now.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.