Life in the universe: Alien hunters in Edinburgh

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As experts and alien hunters gather in Edinburgh on Saturday to talk ‘exoplanets’, Shân Ross finds that they are more prepared to meet ET than you might expect...

In the labyrinthine underground of corridors beneath King’s Buildings in Edinburgh is a laboratory which would be used to examine any specimen of extraterrestrial life which crashed on to Scottish soil. While the United Nations for Outer Space Affairs has a protocol in place, Professor Charles Cockell, director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology, based at the University of Edinburgh’s sprawling science complex to the south of the city, is responsible for the initial handling of any such event in Scotland. He would also be consulted by government officials on how much information is released to the public

Saturday sees a unique event – free to the public – taking place in Edinburgh, which will see Prof Cockell and a multi-disciplinary range of the UK’s leading scientists meet for the Life In the Universe – There is Life on Earth, but is There Life Out There? conference.

Among the speakers are Dr Chris Lintott of the BBC’s The Sky at Night, who recruits members of the public as “planet hunters” searching for habitable exoplanets – Earth-like planets orbiting other stars – and renowned cosmologist and mathematician Professor Sir Roger Penrose, who will reveal that he believes signals could have already been sent from a previous aeon … by some form of life which managed to manipulate black holes.

Last month’s meteorite accident which hit Russia and the potentially catastrophic asteroid which hurtled past Earth on the same day, coupled with the popularity of Brian Cox’s Stargazing Live series on BBC2, have stirred appetites for immediate answers from experts.

There has never been a more exciting time for developments, with NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009, constantly sweeping the skies following the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1992. The Holy Grail now is to find one which resembles Earth in the “Goldilocks zone” – a place which, like the porridge in the fairy tale, is “not too hot” and “not too cold”, which has water and where life of some sort could be thriving. Meanwhile, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, currently on the red planet, is sending back data which could only be dreamt of just ten years ago.

Then, last week, space tourist and billionaire entrepreneur Dennis Tito, chair of the Inspiration Mars Foundation unveiled plans to recruit a man and woman for 501-day Mars fly-by mission to be launched in 2018.

Professor John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, who has organised the event along with Edinburgh astronomy enthusiasts Lorna McCalman and Charlie Gleed, backed by the Institute of Physics in Scotland, The Royal Society of Edinburgh and the UK Centre for Astrobiology, said finding life elsewhere in the Universe – even microbes or fossils of long-dead ones – could cause a huge sea change in people’s outlook and religious beliefs. “It is hugely arrogant to think we are the only life the cosmos has spawned,” says Prof Brown, who is also speaking at the event. “All the scientific indicators are that it would be very strange if life has only formed and developed here.

“The discovery could be hundreds of thousands of years ahead or next week. But in my view it will happen sooner rather than later. We should prepare ourselves for that and given the level of interest, there’s no time like the present.”

Prof Cockell, whose work involves the study of life in extreme environments and the possibility of life beyond Earth, said that while he believed there was no evidence for extraterrestrial life at the moment, he did not rule it out.

“It would be staggering to find that there was nothing out there. It is perplexing we don’t see anything. Either it is too rare or can’t travel across intergalactic distances.”

Prof Cockell, who has worked at NASA, is chair of the Earth and Science Foundation which links Earth and space exploration and runs an alien-hunting night class at the university, added: “If something did happen the public would have to be made aware. There would have to be a decision on how much to tell them, but I don’t know any government who would be competent enough to hide it.”

The fascination with outer space has a long history, with the majority of “aliens” being pre-judged as aggressive and hostile.

HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) conjured up an image of aggressive Martians invading Earth who were only wiped out by their lack of resistance to microbes. Indeed, Martians continued to receive a bad press with the release of the movie Devil Girl from Mars (1954) in which a leather-clad woman from Mars, armed with a ray gun and a menacing robot, lands in a spacecraft in the Scottish Highlands to recruit virile males after a battle on the Red Planet wiped out most of the men. Clips of the unusual encounter, which now has a cult following, can be viewed on YouTube.

Dr Lintott, an astrophysicist at Oxford University, who will be giving a talk on Cosmic Environments, was one of the main driving forces behind the planethunters.org website which gets volunteers to sift through time-lapsed data from the NASA Kepler space telescope looking for any “blips” in light indicating a planet.

Kepler has already discovered nearly 3,000 potential exoplanets, with 50 found by the public. A total of 114 have been confirmed as exoplanets, with the vast majority still waiting for verification predicted to be real. While computers can deal with high-volume processing the human eye is still far advanced in pattern recognition.

Scottish scientists are at the forefront in the search for habitable exoplanets with the building of the massive £950 million European Extremely Large Telescope, some of it at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. Billed as “one of the key astronomical facilities of the 21st century” and planned to begin operating around 2022, it will also attempt to solve two of the biggest mysteries baffling astronomers – the formation of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

Dr Lintott said: “My background is work on the chemistry associated with star formation, but these days I run citizen workshops to investigate galaxy formation. Rocky Earth-like planets are common and we’re close to being able to say they are in the Goldilocks zone. The real acceleration has been due to Kepler, which stares at around 150,000 stars and waits for them to blink.

“If there is a repeated pattern they know there’s a planet candidate – potential alien planets. My guess is that there is life out there – the exciting thing is, we’re about to be able to test the idea.”

Dr Lintott says that as well as the search for habitable exoplanets, scientists are searching 24/7 for a signal being sent across the universe from another life form.

“The UN procedure if a repeat-pattern signal is received is to make that signal public very quickly as we would need every telescope to track it. But the real question is, ‘do we reply?’”

Speculative debate about life in outer space has been rife since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. As a finale to the conference Prof Sir Roger Penrose will talk about his research on how signals might have been sent from a previous aeon by alien life forms for us to see today.

“You could ask is there any signal we would be able to see in our aeon which indicates a signal from a previous aeon with life in it?

“I’m claiming that we actually see these things. Maybe people from a previous aeon found a way. That sounds pretty wild, but not inconceivable. The only thing I can think of is that they could somehow manipulate the motion of black holes when they run into each other.” Stranger things have happened – haven’t they?

• Life In the Universe, 9 March, 10am-5pm, Edinburgh Students’ Debating Hall, Teviot Row. Free.

• Out Of This World Ceilidh, Edinburgh Students’ Debating Hll, tickets £12; £7, bar and stargazing