The last few months have been challenging for all of us, in one form or another, regardless of personal circumstances. Many of us have faced loneliness, illness, bereavement, as well as a range of other challenges. Prisoners have particularly been hit hard, with the cessation of family visits as well as, an extremely restrictive regime. As a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Criminology team have created a range of different activities which can be undertaken in cell and which have hopefully helped to pass the long hours. Similarly, colleagues within Geography have created a number of different quizzes which have tested both staff and prisoners. As part of this initiative, Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of UoN kindly offered to run a writing competition focused on science. The winning entry can be read below
There is a near 100% certainty that humans will indeed meet space aliens – and if not within our generation, then most likely within the lives of our children or grandchildren.
However, whilst generations built up on visions of Star Wars and Star Trek might envisage us clasping hands with humanesque visitors from outer space, Babel fish in their ears, the first and perhaps only encounter ever likely to happen is that of a scientist peering at the screen of an electron microscope, to study the truly spectacular and epoch-making vision of an alien self-replicating molecule, or single-celled proto organism, retrieved from a volcanic rent on volcanic vent on Io [moon of Jupiter], Mars or another near neighbour.
The mathematician von Neumann’s concept of the ‘von Neumann probe’, or self-replicating space vehicle capable of travelling interstellar distances, to replicate itself on other planets, from where it would then head off to further star systems, populating the entire Milky Way in less than a million years, does neatly encapsulate the question: If there is intelligent alien life out there, why haven’t we seen it? The only answer to which must be, to the extent it does exist, it must be a long, long way away, in remote galaxies, perhaps too distant to ever be reached by man, as the universe expands more rapidly than we could ever travel.
Initial results from the studies of now thousands of exo-planets have also failed to give chemical indications of oxygen, or other synthesised chemicals likely to indicate life in detectable quantities on our near neighbouring planets.
However, on the smaller scale, if scientists such as Langland are correct in their view that the evolutionary adaptation of self-replicating molecules, leading to early life forms, can be explained by the laws of thermodynamics, prior to any Darwinian pressures on replication, mutation and inheritance traits, life in its most basic forms is likely to be a common phenomenon. Rather than needing a primeval chemical soup struck by lightening to foster the creation of RNA-like molecules, any simple source of energy such as volcanic spark could, over time give rise to simple life forms. Indeed, this is seen here on earth, where a bewildering variety of non-oxygen based simple life forms exist in the plumes of deepwater volcanic rents.
Such life forms may be simple, and their environmental conditions not far extensive enough or long-lived enough for complex life to form, or spread from the immediate vicinity. Even here on earth, life may have existed for two billion years or more before that fateful day when two became one, and complex cellular life came into being.
Sometimes in the near future, life will no doubt be discovered elsewhere than just on earth – with all the implications that will doubtless bring to the monotheistic religions placing God and Man at the centre of creation. But one thing is certain, our first encounter with alien life will be through a microscope, not a spaceship.