If The Cosmic Phone Rings ... Don't Answer


By Nick Pope

This week a historic two day conference was held at the Royal Society in London, discussing the search for alien life and the implications for the world if we find it.

I used to run the MoD’s UFO project and I follow the latest scientific developments in relation to the question of whether or not we’re alone in the Universe. I attended on both days, heard a series of fascinating presentations and had the chance to have some private discussions with many of the key figures.

The full title of the event was “The detection of extraterrestrial life and the consequences for science and society”. Normally you might expect such an event to be organised by the British UFO Research Association. But this was the Royal Society, an organisation founded in 1660, whose members have included legendary figures such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

The event included representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency and the UN Office for Outer Space affairs. Physicists, chemists, biologists, astronomers, anthropologists and even theologians came together to discuss a subject which, a few years ago, would have been regarded at best as fringe science. Speakers included Colin Pillinger, designer of the ill-fated Beagle 2 spacecraft, and Frank Drake, the first person to send a message into space in a deliberate attempt to signal our presence to extraterrestrials. Attendees included Jill Tarter, the astronomer on whom the character of Ellie Arroway is based in the movie Contact. Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, chaired a number of the sessions.

Plenty of time was devoted to updating attendees on the latest scientific progress. A few years ago we had no evidence of any planets other than those in our solar system. Now we’ve discovered over 400 planets around other stars. Radio telescopes scan the skies, listening for signals from extraterrestrial civilisation and do so with power unimaginable just a few years ago. We are looking and listening further into the Universe than ever before, striving for the answer to the ultimate question: is Earth unique in supporting life and if so, why? Or as many scientists now believe, is the Universe teeming with life?

Frank Drake believes there may be 10,000 civilisations in our galaxy alone, but points out that given the staggering number of stars in the galaxy, this would mean only 1 star in 10 million would support such a world. Cosmologist and best-selling author Paul Davies refers to the lack of a signal as “the eerie silence”. Frank Drake says that given that our search has only really scratched the surface, the silence isn’t eerie, but predictable.

So what are the big issues that arise? They fall into a number of headings.

Friend or Foe?

If we find life and it’s more than just picking up a signal or finding alien microbes, will they be friendly, like ET, or will they be something like the aliens in the movie Independence Day, here to exterminate us? Views were split. Frank Drake and others believed that we might have much to gain, in terms of scientific knowledge. It’s been suggested that civilisations might broadcast information about themselves – a sort of cosmic Facebook. Might we tap in and learn something helpful? Others pointed out what has happened in our own history when a technologically advanced society has encountered a more primitive one. Our trying to find aliens, some believe, is like the Aztecs seeking out the Conquistadors. If the cosmic phone rings, said Professor Simon Conway Morris, don’t answer. It’s too late, of course. We’ve been a detectable civilisation for decades as television signals leak out into space.


In The War of The Worlds, the invading aliens were finally wiped out by terrestrial bacteria. If we encounter extraterrestrial life, even if it’s just microbes, might we share the same fate? Some delegates thought this was a real risk and said it was vital that strict controls should be put in place to deal with any potentially biological material brought back from space missions. There’s the related ethical issue, even on uninhabited worlds, of whether terrestrial microbes from an unsterilized spacecraft might contaminate other planets. What right do we have to do this?

Don’t Panic!

If we discover alien life, many people think there will be mass panic. If we faced an alien invasion, clearly that would be true. But delegates suggested that a mere announcement would have little effect. Opinion polls already show that large numbers of people believe in alien life, with many believing we’re already being visited. Add to this the fact that sci-fi movies have embedded the idea of aliens firmly in people’s minds and there isn’t a problem. After all, in 1996, NASA announced they’d found a Martian meteorite with evidence of life. President Clinton made an announcement, David Bowie’s song Life on Mars got a lot of airplay, but people got on with their lives.


It’s often stated that discovery of other civilisations would undermine and shatter world religions. Delegates weren’t so sure. Professor Ted Peters, a theologian, briefed the meeting on some survey results that suggested that rather than undermining people’s religious beliefs – whatever their faith – it would strengthen them, by making God’s creation seem even bigger and more wonderful. Not everyone agreed. Paul Davies thought Christians, in particular, would have a problem, given their central belief that Jesus died to save us. If we discover other civilisations, it would raise the awkward question, why just us?

Who Speaks for Planet Earth?

Who would take the lead in dealing with all of this? As one delegate put it, if an alien spacecraft docks with the International Space Station, do we call the Defence Department or the State Department? One proposal was that the United Nations take the lead. There is an intriguing precedent. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, currently on its way to the stars, contained a message from the Secretary General of the United Nations. In part, this read “I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship”.


The conference wasn’t billed as being about UFOs. The term hardly cropped up at all in the formal presentations, but was discussed a little more openly in the breaks, over coffee and biscuits. But in many respects this was the ‘elephant in the room’. After all, as ufologists often point out, why search for life ‘out there’ if it’s already ‘down here’? The irony of putting on an event like this when UFO sightings are at record levels was not lost on attendees. In one discussion period someone pointed out how unscientific it was for the MoD to cut its UFO project when there were many cases where there was good evidence that something strange had been seen, such as sightings witnessed by pilots and tracked on radar. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, Lord Rees responded, looking a little uncomfortable and moving the discussion on.

Conspiracy Theories

When people interested in UFOs found out about the Royal Society event they were shocked and intrigued. But their mood soon turned to suspicion and anger. Conspiracy theories started almost immediately and the event is being widely discussed on various websites, blogs and forums. The feeling in the UFO community is that this proves the powers that be know that we’re being visited. They think this meeting was preparing the way for official confirmation of an alien presence.


Sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once said “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”. I agree. The question of whether there’s other life in the Universe is probably the biggest and most profound question we can ask. We may soon get an answer.

In a field where there are so many uncertainties, only one thing is certain. The day we make first contact will change our world forever.

A slightly edited version of this article was published in The Sun on 28th January 2010.