Greetings, Aliens. We Come in Math!

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.
  • Transcript


Question: If you were the first human to communicate with an alien civilization, what would you say?

Paul Davies:  Well first of all we have to understand that they’re unlikely to speak English unless they’ve been studying us for a long time and that it’s hard enough to communicate properly between different people on this planet, all part of the same species, the cultural gulfs of misunderstandings are of course notorious.  We’re now dealing with a completely separate species.  Then you have to think what on Earth have we got in common, so I feel that our communication will be… we will want to let ET know our finest achievements, the things we’re most proud of and if you just go out on the street and ask people well what do you think are our finest achievements, chances are that you’ll be told a Beethoven symphony or a Picasso painting or something like that and I have no quarrel with that, but the problem is that our appreciation of works of art and music are very much tied to our cognitive system and an alien whose brain is wired differently probably wouldn’t have any understanding of it and certainly wouldn’t have any understanding of politics or sport or anything of that sort, so there would be no point in sending those things.  Now there is one thing we’re all agreed that we must share and that is mathematics.  Mathematics is universal.  It’s discovered by human beings, but the rules of mathematics are the same throughout the universe and the laws of the universe.  Our mathematical relationships or the underlying laws of physics we can cast in mathematical form, so if they are communicating with us if they have technology they will understand the laws of physics and the nature of mathematics.  These are things that we can share, so it seems to me that our communication will begin in terms of mathematics and physics. 

So me, I’m a mathematical physicist, so you might say well you would say that wouldn’t you, but I really do think that this is the common currency of the cosmos and so we will want to communicate about our understanding of mathematical physics, so we could tell them things that we have discovered in the realm of mathematical physics, but there is stuff that I would like to know.   There are some famous problems like how to bring gravitation and quantum physics together, the long-sought-after theory of quantum gravity.  That’s one thing that I would like to know.  It may be hard to understand the answer that comes back.  There is something that is perhaps a little easier.  There is a quantity in the theory of quantum electrodynamics called the fine-structure constant.  I’m getting technical here.  It’s a particular quantity.  It’s a fundamental constant of nature.  It has a value of about 1 over 137.  Nobody knows why that number is as it is.  It’s a pure number.  It doesn’t matter what units you use and it’s long been an interest of mine as to how that number has arisen in nature, why that particular number and none other, so I would like ET to give me the explanation for that.  Of course the answer might be we don’t know either.  It’s not clear that ET will be all-knowing.

Recorded April 15, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen