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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[…]

If humans contacted aliens, the astrobiologist would be the man in charge of sending the first message. So what would he say?

Question: If you were the first human to rncommunicate with anrnalien civilization, what would you say?

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PaulrnDavies:  Well first of allrnwe have to understand that they’re unlikely to speak English unless rnthey’vernbeen studying us for a long time and that it’s hard enough to rncommunicaternproperly between different people on this planet, all part of the same rnspecies,rnthe cultural gulfs of misunderstandings are of course notorious.  We’re now dealing with a completelyrnseparate species.  Then you have tornthink what on Earth have we got in common, so I feel that our rncommunicationrnwill be… we will want to let ET know our finest achievements, the thingsrn we’rernmost proud of and if you just go out on the street and ask people well rnwhat dornyou think are our finest achievements, chances are that you’ll be told arnBeethoven symphony or a Picasso painting or something like that and I rnhave nornquarrel with that, but the problem is that our appreciation of works of rnart andrnmusic are very much tied to our cognitive system and an alien whose rnbrain isrnwired differently probably wouldn’t have any understanding of it and rncertainlyrnwouldn’t have any understanding of politics or sport or anything of thatrn sort,rnso there would be no point in sending those things.  Nowrn there is one thing we’re all agreed that we must sharernand that is mathematics. rnMathematics is universal. rnIt’s discovered by human beings, but the rules of mathematics arern thernsame throughout the universe and the laws of the universe. rn Our mathematical relationships or thernunderlying laws of physics we can cast in mathematical form, so if they rnarerncommunicating with us if they have technology they will understand the rnlaws ofrnphysics and the nature of mathematics. rnThese are things that we can share, so it seems to me that ourrncommunication will begin in terms of mathematics and physics. 

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So me, I’m a mathematical physicist, so you might rnsay wellrnyou would say that wouldn’t you, but I really do think that this is the rncommonrncurrency of the cosmos and so we will want to communicate about ourrnunderstanding of mathematical physics, so we could tell them things thatrn wernhave discovered in the realm of mathematical physics, but there is stuffrn that Irnwould like to know.   Therernare some famous problems like how to bring gravitation and quantum rnphysicsrntogether, the long-sought-after theory of quantum gravity. rn That’s one thing that I would like tornknow.  It may be hard to understandrnthe answer that comes back.  Therernis something that is perhaps a little easier.  Therern is a quantity in the theory of quantum electrodynamicsrncalled the fine-structure constant. rnI’m getting technical here. rnIt’s a particular quantity. rnIt’s a fundamental constant of nature.  It rnhas a value of about 1 over 137.  Nobody knows whyrn that number is as itrnis.  It’s a pure number.  Itrn doesn’t matter what units you usernand it’s long been an interest of mine as to how that number has arisen rninrnnature, why that particular number and none other, so I would like ET torn givernme the explanation for that.  Ofrncourse the answer might be we don’t know either.  It’srn not clear that ET will be all-knowing.

Recorded April 15, 2010
rnInterviewed by Austin Allen