LibLink..Lembit Opik: We are not alone

This article deviates from our normal style of LibLink, but I thought that the fact that it’s the weekend, and Solstice Weekend at that, permitted it.

The UFOlogist at The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, that’s The Artist Formerly Known as Lembit Opik to you and me, has been writing over at the Huffington Post on the occasion of the closure of the Government’s desk dealing with claimed alien encounters. Could there, he asks, be other life forms across the galaxies. He seems to think so:

We live on a single planet in a galaxy which may have about six trillion planets – that’s 6,000,000,000,000 planets – a huge number. It’s inconceivable to me that out of all those other planets, not one is like earth. More probably, there are many earth-like planets. Since life started on our earth – and probably more than once before it took hold – it’s reasonable to believe life also started on at least one of those other planets too.

Unforgiveable

So where are these other life forms?

Well, three possibilities here. The first one is that UFO sightings are genuinely extra-terrestrial in origin. I regard this as unlikely, given the very large proportion of them which are subsequently explained in more conventional ways. Next, perhaps, they have visited, but in keeping with ‘Starfleet Command’s’ directive in Star Trek, they carefully avoid interfering with evolving and primitive civilizations such as ours. Thus they watch from a careful distance without revealing themselves. This, by definition is impossible to prove but also makes sense in terms of biological safety: there’s a real chance of accidental catastrophe from mutual diseases against which one or both species have no immunity.

Lembit may know his extra terrestrials, but getting the name of Star Trek’s Prime Directive wrong is simply unforgivable.

You can read the whole article here.

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12 Comments

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Jun '13 - 9:46am

    There are many arguments for the idea that life exists on other planets, but Lembit’s argument quoted above is not a good one. Richard Dawkins points out the flaw in The Blind Watchmaker. There is nothing inconceivable at all about Earth being the only planet with life. Maybe the formation of life is indeed so improbable that it has only ever occurred on one planet in the entire universe. Obviously, if that’s the case, then the planet in question is our planet, for the very reason that we are the ones discussing the question.

  • jenny barnes 22nd Jun '13 - 9:52am

    ” It’s inconceivable to me that out of all those other planets, not one is like earth. ”
    proof by personal inconceivability is dubious, to put it mildly.

  • In all likelihood we are effectively alone as anything that might be ‘out there’ would be of several tens of light years away.

    The likelihood that evolution has occurred elsewhere though must be so high as to regard it as a certainty. Whether even if we were able to stumble across it, we would recognise its importance is another question. Although the unit of a light-year is fixed; there is no reason why any other products of evolution should live by our time-scales. Does that mean we might be ‘discovered’ at some time? Would we know about it if it did happen? – Very probably – there is no reason why it should be shrouded in mystery, so all weird reports can be dismissed.

    One further observation is that in the time-scale of the universe H sapiens has not been around long an that species usually die out an become superseded by other forms. The planet and the evolution process are likely to far outlive our own species (with its penchant for self destructive tendencies).

  • Alex and Jennie have it wrong. It really is simply a question of probabilities that can at least be estimated on the basis of known information. It really is not a question of incredulity. It depends on an understanding of the fundamental requirements of Evolution. These are an ability to reproduce in a way that characteristics are passed to new generations (some crystals can do this) but that variation can be spontaneously introduced (mutations for us) that also are passed on (inherited). Once in place the outcome can be very complex!

    That said, if the Earth were the only planet in the entire universe to have supported evolution this would not count as evidence of divine intervention (Richard Dawkins point). However more incredulity is involved in believing that Evolution is so special that it cannot have happened elsewhere than that it has.

  • For evolution to happen, life (i.e. a self-replicating molecule like DNA) has to form first. So the question isn’t about the probability of evolution happening, but the probability of a DNA-like molecule forming. Porbably once this happens, evolution is probably inevitable given time.

  • Evolution is simply a process that makes it *more likely* (not absolutely certain) that, out of a large number of variable instantiations of a pattern, those instantiations which are most favorable to a replication of that pattern will tend to replace instantiations that are less favorable, resulting in an overall shift of the average pattern type. The pattern is likely to be some kind of replicating chemical, but it doesn’t have to be what we call “life,” certainly not cellular life. Viruses (unfortunately for us) evolve. It seems quite probable that the evolution of non-living and maybe even inorganic compounds preceded the development of the first living cell — i. e., that evolution precedes life.

  • paul barker 22nd Jun '13 - 2:46pm

    A Life evolved on Earth on at least 3 times, probably a lot more so we can reasonably assume that our sort of life is widespread in other solar systems.
    B The history on our planet of more advanced groups meeting less advanced ones is ghastly. Even where the more advanced were honestly trying to do good the effects were always terrible. Think of the Australian experience with cultures seperated by a few millenia & then try to imagine how we would cope with meeting people millions of years ahead of us.
    C There will be lots of cultures at a similar level to ours but its unlikely that any of them will be nearer than a few hundred lightyears, next door in galactic terms but no use to us. Wait a few centuries & we will make contact of a sort, it wont be a conversation though more likely it will be us hearing them talking to each other, then a few more centuries while we say “Hi” & they say “Hi” back.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Jun '13 - 4:59pm

    Lembit is, of course, correct. There ARE alien sentient beings living in a different star system to him. For he has long inhabited a parallel universe. 🙂

  • Paul Barker makes the outlandish claim “life evolved on Earth on at least 3 times”: I think he would have great difficulty substantiating that statement. All life we know of has a common origin. If there had been other forms, they have been comprehensively out competed. But this is only to be expected. Although it is quite likely there were competing structures that could allow evolution, we can speculate about possibilities but we cannot really test the speculations and it is nigh on impossible to adduce evidence that these possibilities ever existed.

    David states that “Evolution is simply a process that makes it *more likely* (not absolutely certain)”: if evolution did not happen in a case where there was reproduction with inheritable variation, this would be a crippling blow to the Theory of Evolution. In effect it would be an experiment that falsifies the theory.

  • Martin, the only thing that could possibly make you think that by “not absolutely certain” I meant “not absolutely certain that evolution would happen” is if you simply failed to read the rest of the sentence.
    What I obviously meant (because it’s what I actually said) is that it’s not absolutely certain that the traits most favorable for continued reproduction of a species will be perpetuated. In fact it’s not at all uncommon for unfavorable traits to be perpetuated. When this happens sometimes a species goes extinct: an event which has happened millions of times, without it ever being a “crippling blow to the theory of evolution.”

  • Simon Banks 23rd Jun '13 - 6:32pm

    The statement that because many alleged UFO sightings are explained as something else, it’s unlikely any of them are genuine, is a bit strange. First of all, some of the explanations are, though not impossible, not obviously plausible. Secondly, there are a few incidents which remain unexplained. There is nothing at all implausible about the idea that a very few genuine incidents would have encouraged large numbers of false reports (I don’t mean lies, but overactive imagination). Thirdly, though if say 60% of incidents had been investigated and all had been found to be explicable in terrestrial terms, this would suggest the chances of some of the remaining 40% being genuine would be low, the mere fact that most, but not all, incidents appear on investigation to be explicable merely tells us we’re not being flooded by real incidents. The fact that the great majority of noises in the night are not caused by burglars does not mean none are.

    Yes, it’s perfectly possible that the inception of life is so unlikely that it’s only occurred once. We still know rather little about how life began. But we can now say that many of the conditions which are essential for life on earth do occur elsewhere, and as we’re now regularly finding new planets, the odds against one somewhere having all the requirements are dropping. What we don’t understand yet is the likelihood of the “spark” happening, or even if simple life might be transferred from one planet or moon to another.

    We can say, though, that of the planets or moons suitable for life, very few will be as suitable as our planet. It’s not just a matter of size, the character of the sun and distance from the sun, but also of the influence of the moon, particularly on tides. A medium-small planet with such a big moon will be very rare indeed.

  • Malcolm Todd 23rd Jun '13 - 6:54pm

    Of course, it’s not just the likelihood of life existing on other planets that has to be considered (and until we find life on one other planet that’s not really calculable). There’s also the question of how likely it is that a species with intelligence, the ability to create complex technology and the desire to explore will evolve (same point with knobs on). And then the sheer problem of the vast distances between star systems, combined with the limitations imposed by the speed of light and other physical laws, with all that those imply for feasibility of interstellar travel — journey time as a proportion of lifetime, energy requirements for travel and life support, practical barriers to communication. All in all, if there is life — intelligent life — out there, it remains rather likely that communication between life forms in different solar systems will be effectively impossible and so, for our purposes, we may as well be alone in the universe. Fortunately, there’s quite a lot of us to keep each other company, so “alone” needn’t mean lonely.

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