Half a century of seeking out life beyond our planet

SPACE is big. You can see that just by looking up on a clear night. And the more we look, and the more sophisticated the tools we look with, the bigger it seems.

Or perhaps the smaller we seem. It just depends, I suppose, on which end of the telescope you look through.

Anyway, it’s so big we surely can’t be the only beings capable of looking up and noticing. Can we?

This is the thought that led, 50 years ago this month, to the creation of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

HG Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898 but the obsession with UFOs and space aliens really took off in the 1950s.

It was essentially a Cold War phenomenon, fuelled by paranoia and a deep sense that post-Hiroshima the world was no longer quite as we had always thought it.

In a strange way, little green men may have seemed easier to imagine – and cope with – than the new but real threats that stalked our lives.

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Books, films and comics all rushed to fuel the fantasy.

And where science fiction leads, actual science is sure to be there on some related path.

Stephen Hawking, everyone’s favourite thinker about the truth that might be out there, thinks waving hello to the unknown is foolish.

He points out man’s own lousy record in dealing with less-developed civilisations. Despite this warning, SETI continues to flourish and grow.

You might think scientific minds and resources could be employed on more important tasks, with more prospect of success. But the whole point about science is that you can’t stop minds inquiring.

And few of us, surely, have never stood gazing up into the infinity of the night sky wondering.

The particular conditions that allowed life to evolve here were extremely specific and incredibly unlikely to occur in any particular place. But the number of places in the universe appears to be infinite. And the idea that this is the only planet to sustain life we’d call intelligent is even more unthinkable than the opposite.

Whether intelligence has evolved anywhere close enough to notice us or care is another question entirely.

Of all the possible explanations for all the thousands of UFO “sightings” it seems very much the least likely.

For what it’s worth, my personal estimate of the likeliest causes is: 1 Pure imagination; 2 Natural phenomena; 3 Unfamiliar, but entirely explicable and benign, man-made objects; 4 Things the authorities (probably military) would like to keep secret.

I have some experience of all these types. My most recent, and perhaps eeriest, UFO encounter was in Rendlesham Forest, of all places.

It turned out to be a collection of balloons that someone had sent up with candles in baskets tied under them. The effect was very pretty despite – maybe partly because of – the initial puzzlement.

More sinister was the red light I, and many other people, saw travelling fast through the sky along the Humber river in late 1978.

It was suggested to me later that it was the afterburn from the testing of a Trident or similar missile. Whatever it may have been, I am certain it was of mundanely terrestrial origin.

If it was indeed military – and, let’s face it, the great UFO mysteries, such as the Rendlesham and Roswell incidents, all seem to take place at or near military sites – then it throws light on another aspect of the search for life in the sky.

Even if ET is out there, he’d have to be highly technologically advanced to notice us, or for us to notice him.

Cosmologist and SETI researcher Paul Davies puts it neatly in a new book, The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?

He says: “It could be that life is common, but intelligence is rare.”

And what might make it rarer still is the awful possibility that intelligence of the kind that can build civilisations and advanced technology actually contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Humanity, after all, occupies a mere blip of time in the history of life on earth. And we are so clever we’ve found any number of ways of making sure that blip doesn’t last much longer.

Global warming? Super-virus? Pollution? Nuclear catastrophe, either by war or accident? Economic collapse leading to world famine? Simply running out of materials and fuel before we’ve properly engaged the alternatives?

We may be back in the area where science fiction melds into fact.

We may also be about to bomb or otherwise blast ourselves back into the stone age, where we could neither see nor be seen by any possible beings from beyond.

And – here’s a thought – it may not be the first time the human species will have done that, either.