Paul Davies
Cosmologist & Astrobiologist, Arizona State University

A Message From Aliens in Our DNA?

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OK, Paul Davies admits it’s a “crazy idea.” But if we want to improve our search for ET, it’s the kind of idea we might need.

Paul Davies

Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist, and bestselling author. He is Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, both at Arizona State University. Previously he held academic appointments at the Universities of Cambridge, London and Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, before moving to Australia in 1990, initially as Professor of Mathematical Physics at The University of Adelaide. Later he helped found the Australian Centre for Astrobiology in Sydney.

Davies’s research focuses on the “big questions” of existence, ranging from the origin of the universe to the origin of life, and include the nature of time, the search for life in the universe, and foundational questions in quantum mechanics. He helped create the theory of quantum fields in curved spacetime, with which he provided explanations for how black holes can radiate energy, and what caused the ripples in the cosmic afterglow of the Big Bang. In astrobiology, he was a forerunner of the theory that life on Earth may have come from Mars. He is currently championing the theory that Earth may host a shadow biosphere of alternative life forms.

Davies has lectured on scientific topics at institutions as diverse as The World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the Commission of the European Union, Google, Windsor Castle, The Vatican and Westminster Abbey, as well as mainstream academic establishments such as The Royal Society, The Smithsonian Institution, and the New York Academy of Sciences. Davies devised and presented a series of 45 minute BBC Radio 3 science documentaries and a one-hour television documentary about his work in astrobiology, entitled "The Cradle of Life." Among his bestselling books are "The Mind of God," "How to Build a Time Machine," and "The Goldilocks Enigma." His latest book, "The Eerie Silence," was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2010.

Question: What future technologies might enhance the search for extraterrestrials?

Paul Davies:  I think we need to get away from the idea of leaving this to a small and heroic band of radio astronomers and try and spread the burden across the entire scientific community.  I think all the sciences can contribute, and I’ll give you some examples.  One of the things that is baffling about ET, and this is an idea that goes back to Enrico Fermi at the end of the Second World War is, why haven’t the alien civilizations spread across the galaxy and colonized it or at the very least visited? “Where is everybody?” is the way Fermi put it, and so he took that as evidence that there is nobody out there, the fact that Earth has not been visited or colonized, that the aliens haven’t come here a long time ago is evidence that they’re not out there either, but I think one can put a spin on this particular story and say, well how do we know that the aliens didn’t come and it doesn’t have to be flesh and blood aliens literally stepping out of a spacecraft.  It could be their machines or their probes or robots or something of that sort that they could well have come a very long time ago, and in this game you’ve got to think not in thousands or even millions of years, but hundreds of millions or billions of years, so it's that sort of timescale we have to think on, and the question is, would any trace remain of alien activity, say in our solar system, after—let's pluck a figure out of midair—100 million years? If you came back in another 100 million years from now would any trace of human activity remain?  The answer is not very much, but there are some things that we could look for.  If ET did pass through the solar system obviously didn’t stop for 100 million years what would we find?  Well there are some things like nuclear waste.  If you dumped nuclear waste that will certainly survive for that length of time.  We could go look for that.  Any sort of large scale mining or quarrying activities would leave scars although they might be buried beneath rock strata would still be discernible to a geologist doing a survey.  We could look for that too. 

And then there is one other idea that is crazy, but it’s dear to my heart and this comes back to the message in the bottle concept, so up to now SETI has been involved in looking for messages that are being deliberately beamed at us and as I’ve explained that’s pretty unlikely, but there is another type of messaging of which the beacon is an example.  It’s a one way message.  When you put a message in a bottle and throw it into the sea you don’t think to yourself "Well, I expect a reply."  It’s you don’t know if anybody is ever going to find it and certainly don’t know who is going to find it, so it’s just sort of left to its own devices.  Well in the same way we might imagine that an alien civilization might have put a message in a bottle for anyone who might find it and that anyone could be us, could be human beings, so where is the bottle and where is the message?  I’m open to suggestions.  One idea I’ve had is that maybe the bottles are living cells, terrestrial organisms and that the message is encoded in DNA.  Viruses are continually infecting organisms on Earth and uploading their DNA into the genomes of those organisms, so there is a well understood pathway for getting information into DNA.  We’re littered with it.  Our own genomes have got huge amounts of this junk that has climbed onboard from viruses over evolutionary history, so if viruses can to it ET can do it and it seems to me that we could in addition to scouring the skies for radio waves with a message encoded we could scour terrestrial genomes, which are being sequenced anyway, to see if there is a message from ET encoded in it.  You know, it could be some striking string of nucleotide bases, the famous four letter alphabet that is the language of life, the A’s, G’s, C’s and T’s in the DNA.  It might just spell out some sort of message that would attract our attention.  Now of course this is a crazy idea.  I’m not actually suggesting that there really is a message from ET in genomes.  What I’m saying is that is the type of thinking we need.  Maybe it is no more crazy than expecting it to be etched into radio waves coming from the sky.

Recorded April 15, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen