A Message From Aliens in Our DNA?

Question: What future technologies might \r\nenhance the search\r\nfor extraterrestrials?


Paul\r\nDavies:  I think we need to\r\nget away from the idea of leaving this to a small and heroic band of \r\nradio\r\nastronomers and try and spread the burden across the entire scientific\r\ncommunity.  I think all the\r\nsciences can contribute, and I’ll give you some examples. \r\n One of the things that is baffling\r\nabout ET, and this is an idea that goes back to Enrico Fermi at the end \r\nof the\r\nSecond World War is, why haven’t the alien civilizations spread across \r\nthe\r\ngalaxy and colonized it or at the very least visited? “Where is \r\neverybody?” is\r\nthe way Fermi put it, and so he took that as evidence that there is \r\nnobody out\r\nthere, the fact that Earth has not been visited or colonized, that the \r\naliens\r\nhaven’t come here a long time ago is evidence that they’re not out there\r\neither, but I think one can put a spin on this particular story and say,\r\n well\r\nhow do we know that the aliens didn’t come and it doesn’t have to be \r\nflesh and\r\nblood aliens literally stepping out of a spacecraft.  It\r\n could be their machines or their probes or robots or\r\nsomething of that sort that they could well have come a very long time \r\nago, and\r\nin this game you’ve got to think not in thousands or even millions of \r\nyears, but hundreds of millions or billions of years, so \r\nit's that sort of timescale we have to think on, and the question is, \r\nwould any trace remain of alien activity, say in our solar system, \r\nafter—let's pluck a figure out of midair—100 million years? If \r\nyou came back in another 100 million\r\nyears from now would any trace of human activity remain? \r\n The answer is not very much, but there\r\nare some things that we could look for. \r\nIf ET did pass through the solar system obviously didn’t stop for\r\n 100\r\nmillion years what would we find? \r\nWell there are some things like nuclear waste.  If\r\n you dumped nuclear waste that will certainly survive for\r\nthat length of time.  We could go\r\nlook for that.  Any sort of large\r\nscale mining or quarrying activities would leave scars although they \r\nmight be\r\nburied beneath rock strata would still be discernible to a geologist \r\ndoing a\r\nsurvey.  We could look for that\r\ntoo. 


And then there is one other idea that is crazy, but\r\n it’s\r\ndear to my heart and this comes back to the message in the bottle \r\nconcept, so\r\nup to now SETI has been involved in looking for messages that are being\r\ndeliberately beamed at us and as I’ve explained that’s pretty unlikely, \r\nbut\r\nthere is another type of messaging of which the beacon is an example.  It’s a one way message.  When \r\nyou put a message in a bottle and\r\nthrow it into the sea you don’t think to yourself "Well, I expect a \r\nreply."  It’s you don’t know if anybody is ever\r\ngoing to find it and certainly don’t know who is going to find it, so \r\nit’s just\r\nsort of left to its own devices. \r\nWell in the same way we might imagine that an alien civilization \r\nmight\r\nhave put a message in a bottle for anyone who might find it and that \r\nanyone\r\ncould be us, could be human beings, so where is the bottle and where is \r\nthe\r\nmessage?  I’m open to\r\nsuggestions.  One idea I’ve had is\r\nthat maybe the bottles are living cells, terrestrial organisms and that \r\nthe\r\nmessage is encoded in DNA.  Viruses\r\nare continually infecting organisms on Earth and uploading their DNA \r\ninto the\r\ngenomes of those organisms, so there is a well understood pathway for \r\ngetting\r\ninformation into DNA.  We’re\r\nlittered with it.  Our own genomes\r\nhave got huge amounts of this junk that has climbed onboard from viruses\r\n over\r\nevolutionary history, so if viruses can to it ET can do it and it seems \r\nto me\r\nthat we could in addition to scouring the skies for radio waves with a \r\nmessage\r\nencoded we could scour terrestrial genomes, which are being sequenced \r\nanyway, to\r\nsee if there is a message from ET encoded in it.  You\r\n know, it could be some striking string of nucleotide\r\nbases, the famous four letter alphabet that is the language of life, the\r\n A’s,\r\nG’s, C’s and T’s in the DNA.  It\r\nmight just spell out some sort of message that would attract our\r\nattention.  Now of course this is a\r\ncrazy idea.  I’m not actually\r\nsuggesting that there really is a message from ET in genomes.  What I’m saying is that is the type of\r\nthinking we need.  Maybe it is no\r\nmore crazy than expecting it to be etched into radio waves coming from \r\nthe sky.

Recorded April 15, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

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