Human Universe: Are We Alone?

“A single story is but one square of blueberries growing in one plot, on one farm, on the fertile face of the whole world.”

Catherynne M. Valente

Recently, on one of those Internet rabbit-hole procrastination trips that seem to take up too much of my online time, I stumbled on this rather interesting article on the Fermi Paradox and its various implications philosophical and scientific. (‘Cause that’s what I do now, apparently.) I was hoping the newest instalment of Professor Brian Cox’s series Human Universe would be kind of like that: intelligent but not technical, clear but not patronising, and, you know, actually informative.

Sadly, it was none of these things. And this is why I don’t watch science documentaries more often.

Are We Alone? is trying to be a coherent analysis of whether life on other planets is likely or even possible. Given that the sum total of human knowledge upon this subject amounts to a pile of fairly unscientific guesswork and circumstantial evidence and one unexplained seventy-two-second radio pulse (since we only know of one place where life has arisen, and we haven’t been to any of the exoplanets, we can hardly even begin to draw conclusions as to what a civilisation might look like from space), the authorities on both sides generally come across as either Dawkinsian cynics or delusional hopefuls. This isn’t even a “form your own opinion” show in the manner of Panorama or Newsnight. There simply isn’t enough information either way.

So the episode essentially pans out as an opportunity for Brian to go to far-flung corners of the earth (on the licence fee-payers’ money, I might add) and look moody. He goes to Peru and co-opts a group of miserable-looking schoolchildren into creating a kind of living Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (a chart which shows all the different kinds of stars in order of size and colour). He swims with aquatic pigs off a tropical island somewhere because…reasons. He stands on the beach at Easter Island and muses on the transience of life and the rise and fall of civilization. All of which is very charming and off-beat, I’m sure, but not actually terrifically interesting.

Which means that the main interest of the episode comes not from its actual subject matter, but from a number of tangents and sidenotes we encounter on the way past. The testing of the dolphin’s comprehension of the abstract concept “more”, for instance, is interesting. And quite cute. And the fact that we actually put a frickin’ star map of Earth on board the Voyager probes for aliens to read was a nicely diverting piece of stupidity. (I mean it. An actual star map. Why not just put up a sign saying “Come and invade us, aliens”?)

Of course, Brian comes up with his own conclusions, based on very little actual data and a whole lot of assumptions about what alien civilisation might look like. (Who’s to say the evidence isn’t streaming past us all the time, without our even noticing it?) And it’s possible that Are We Alone? might serve as a fairly good primer, as it were, to the various issues around the topic at the moment. But if you know anything at all about science, you’re probably better off reading the Fermi Paradox article, linked above, which has the added bonus of only taking fifteen minutes of your precious time instead of an hour. Enjoy.

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