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My letter to

Hi there,

I watch your programmes from time to time as (let’s say) an interested non-believer.  I’m an asrophysicist orginally, educated at the universities of Leicester and Keele, and I’ve spent many years working in the space industry around Europe before joining the rail industry back here in the UK in 2009.  I just wanted to add something to the debate I’ve just seen in one of your programmes related to science’s acceptance of life beyond Earth and the specific topic of life on Mars.

For a long time now, science has accepted that extraerrestrial life is a real possibility, if not technically probable.  The likes of Frank Drake in the ’60s and Carl Sagan in the ’70s, big names in mainstream astrophysics, had been big advocates of it and provided the main impetus to such initiatives as SETI.  And with the almost exponential increase in our discovery of planets around other stars, and in particular planets potentially capable of harbouring life (whether advanced or primitive), so mainsream science’s belief in the extistence of extraterrestrial life has been further bolstered.  You would be hard-pushed to find a sciencist, especially in the fields of astrophysics/astronomy, physics or biology, who would have strong doubts about it.  To us, the existence of extraterrestrial life is far more likely than its non-existence.

Regarding life on Mars, there is considerable belief in science that we will, one day, find evidence of life on Mars, either fossilised or still active.  This belief has always been there, although naturally there are some scientists who may doubt whether we will find such evidence.  However, I take issue with Gary Heseline in the programme I’ve just seen.  Finding evidence of life on Mars isn’t necessarily indicative of life outside the solar system.  Many in mainstream science, especially those in the field of astrobiology, consider that life on Earth and any life on Mars will have had a common source.  A lot of the debris from impacts on Mars in the early solar system has found its way to Earth in the form of meteorites and it’s a distinct possibility that organic material from Mars was brought to Earth in this way.  In addition, there is strong scientific evidence that meteorites from elsewhere in the solar system carry amino acids essential to the formation of organic materials and the building blocks of life.  Some serious scientists now think that these key ingredients were brought here in this manner rather than actually formed here.  Some work suggests that the process of rapid heating through impacts can cause the formation of more complex molecules and even lead to the creation of basic proteins.  The upshot of this is that life on Mars IS life on Earth, and this would have little to say about life around other stars, other than to say that if amino acids can form in our solar neighbourhood they could form around other stars.

What us scientists ARE sceptical of, however, is that we’re currently being visited by extraterrestrials.  The vast majority of what people see or experience is explainable as the mundane.  Of the remaining reports, the evidence currently available is either of poor quality or is entirely anecdotal, but most of us (good!) scientists are open-minded enough to dismiss only what we can disprove.  This is largely why I try to keep abreast of the UFO subject whilst not being a believer in it.

Perhaps you could consider getting the views of a scientist in future programmes?  Watching that last programme was frustrating for me because the views of science were being expressed by people who were neither scientists nor had much faith in scienists, which doesn’t seem very balanced.  And some additional science-accepted information (such as what I’ve been discussing above) might be interesting for your viewers!

OK.  I feel a little less frustrated now!  🙂  Thanks for reading.

With best regards,
Neil Jenkins

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Are there neighbours over the cosmic fence?

Just found out about this through the astrophysics grapevine.  It’s a scientific paper that’s been accepted for publication in the serious journal Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A) in the coming weeks.  Here’s a link to the paper itself:

As usual, it has a fairly innocuous title.  However, if news gets out to the (mostly) nutters in the UFO and related communities they’ll go mad for it.

The authors of the paper have spent quite some time doing a thorough survey of low-mass M (i.e. red) dwarf stars for signs of planets, using the HARPS set up at the European Southern Observatory.  We’ve known for a long time that such dwarf stars are by far the most common in our Galaxy, and in our solar neighbourhood.  What they find is that, in addition, these stars have a very high planet-hit.  Furthermore, around 40% of these dwarf stars have Earth-like (i.e. rocky, roughly Earth-sized) planets orbiting their parent star in the habitable zone.  As there are an estimated 160 billion M-dwarves in our Galaxy, extrapolating these statistics means that these stars must be harbouring around 60-70 billion habitable planets – just in our own Galaxy.  And looking closer to home, within 30 light years of our solar system there are roughly 250 M-dwarves, meaning that, according to these findings, there are about 100 habitable planets within 30 light years of us.

And any advanced creatures/beings who happen to have developed on such a planet in orbit about a red dwarf star will likely have developed large eyes for gathering lots of light at the red/IR end of the spectrum – just the type of appearance the UFO nuts speak of.  Makes yer think, dunnit!

One balancing factor is that the habitable zones of these stars will be much closer to the parent dwarf star, and anyway such stars tend to be a bit more unstable, so whether the conditions on such a planet would be ideal for life is another debate.

I don’t think we’re being “visited” due to the lack of decent evidence, but I’ve always objected to those so-called scientists who claim that if life exists elsewhere it would be too far away from us to come over for a visit.  For a long time now I’ve been of the Michio Kaku viewpoint that if an alien civilisation was even 1000 years in advance of us (a drop in the evolutionary ocean) we wouldn’t have a CLUE what they were capable of.  (Just go and wave your iPad at King Arthur and tell me how he reacts!)  And in that recent New Scientist there’s an article about how some researchers have found that creating, maintaining and even traversing wormholes might be more possible than we think if the universe ticks according to M-theory (i.e. string theory) rather than according to old Einstein alone.  But after this recent ESO/HARPS work, it seems we potentially have a veritable population of habitable planets in our very cosmic backyard.

Maybe we’d better pop the kettle on after all!

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