Scientists prepare for alien conference

13:19, January 27, 2010      

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Scientists are gathering this week to discuss the search for extraterrestrial life. The meeting at the Royal Society, which will include representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency and the UN Office for Outer space Affairs marks the 5th anniversary of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program.

The conference hopes to put forward plans on how to deal with any possible encounter and to further attempts at discovering life outside the confines of Earth. But rather than looking through telescopes, sending messages or even space probes, some scientists have suggested the search for alien life should be conducted on Earth.

Professor Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona University will tell a meeting at the Royal Society that the best way of proving that extra-terrestrial life exists elsewhere in the universe is to use evidence from earth.

Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society will also lead one of the sessions. Professor Davies said, "We need to give up the notion that ET is sending us some sort of customized message and take a new approach."

He suggests that the search could focus on deserts, volcanic vents, salt-saturated lakes and the dry valleys of Antarctica, places where ordinary life struggles to survive, in order to find "weird" microbes that belong to a "shadow biosphere".

Felissa Wolfe-Simon, from the U.S. Geological Survey, is currently looking at the possibility that arsenic, found in contaminated places such as the Mono Lake in California, might support forms of life in the same way as other life forms use phosphorous.

Some remain skeptical however. Professor Colin Pillinger, who led the Beagle 2 Mars landing mission said, "I prefer to deal in scientific fact. This is wildly science fiction. You'd be off your trolley to go searching for arsenic-based life." Professor Pillinger argues that Mars is the most likely place to find alien life.

The conference will also discuss how humans might respond to the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Albert Harrison, from the University of California, said, "It is easy to imagine scenarios resulting in widespread psychological disintegration and social chaos. but historical prototypes, reactions to false alarms and survey results suggest that the predominant response to the discovery of a microwave transmission from light years away is likely to be equanimity, perhaps even delight."

Nonetheless at least one British astroner has warned extraterrestrials might be hostile and that governments and even the UN should be involved. Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, said, "Part of me is with the enthusiasts and I would like us to try to make proactive contact with a wiser, more peaceful civilization."

But he warned, "We might like to assume that if there is intelligent life out there it is wise and benevolent, but of course we have no evidence for this." Speaking to the Sunday Times, Kukula said, "Given the consequences of contact may not be what we initially hoped for, then we need governments and the UN to get involved in any discussions."

This week a two-day conference is being held at the Royal Society in London, titled, 'The detection of extraterrestrial life and the consequences for science and society.' There is also an astrobiology conference in Texas in April at which new methods of detecting aliens will be discussed.


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