Signs of life in galaxies far, far away

John Elliott
John Elliott
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Dr John Elliott is one of the country’s leading figures in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Chris Bond talks to the Yorkshire scientist.

WITH the Mars Rover continuing to make new discoveries and space tourism now a real possibility in our lifetime, albeit for those with big enough wallets, our fascination with the universe appears to have been rekindled.

For a long time the reality of space exploration has failed to live up to the science fiction, but thanks to increasingly powerful telescopes and the discovery of more and more new planets we’re getting a tantalising glimpse of what may be out there. At the heart of all this is the question of whether or not there is life on other planets. It’s one that Dr John Elliott, a reader in Intelligence Engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University, has been trying to find an answer to for more than a decade.

With his cowboy boots and long hair cascading over his shoulders, Dr Elliott might look like a guitarist in a hard rock band, but he’s actually one of the leading figures in the country in the search for alien life. As well as being a member of Seti (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), he’s co-founder of a new network of academics spearheading the search for alien life and earlier this year he was called “one of the five most important people in the hunt for life on other planets” by All About Space magazine.

Dr Elliott, who has been a member of Seti since 1999, says attitudes towards his field have changed among the scientific community in recent years. “There were pockets who always took us seriously but we’ve had to battle against preconceptions, we’re seen as being on the mad fringes and part of the UFO community when we’re not,” he says.

Rather than being some kind of pseudo-science, he believes the search for extra-terrestrial life is one of the most challenging. “It’s the hardest science of all because how do you deal with the unknown? During the Second World War, Bletchley Park had to decipher German code but they already knew it was German, so you had a start. But how do you know if you’ve found it if you don’t know what the source is in the first place?”

But having been looked down on by certain parts of the science world, now the search for alien life attracts astro-biologists and radio astronomers from across the country, while the new UK Seti Research Network (UKSRN) has the English Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, as its patron. Not only that, but Jodrell Bank and the Royal Society both support the Seti programme. “When you start saying this is a search for life, not just intelligent life, you have a wider spectrum of academic investigation.”

The aim of the network is to spread the word about the work they’re doing and to lobby for more funding to aid their research. Dr Elliott, whose work draws on everything from linguistics to physics, is convinced that alien life exists. “It’s the laws of probability, given how many stars there are, that there has to be some form of life out there.”

He says the search for alien life is more about listening for signals than looking for little green men in flying saucers. “We’re listening for sounds out there in the universe using radio astronomy, evidence of a technological beacon or a message.”

A few years ago he was one of just a handful of people involved in this field in the UK, but now Britain has become a major player in the search for life on other planets.

The expansion of scientific disciplines and ever improving technology has led to bigger and more powerful telescopes and now we’re seeing hundreds of planets being identified each year. “With all the new technology we can detect whether those planets could sustain life, and this will only get better and we’ll find more. Only the other week several more stars and planets were detected for the first time, and even though they’re many tens of light years away we’re finding them on an ongoing basis.”

Any intelligent life form we might encounter is likely to be more advanced than we are. “If we’re hearing them from vast distances away then they will have got past that stage we’re only just going into.”

But if we do encounter aliens they aren’t going to communicate with us in Martian English, which means we’re more likely to hear something. “The reasons why other life forms wouldn’t come here is the distances are huge, the nearest star is four-and-a-half light years away, so even at the speed of light it’s going to take four-and-a-half years. But we can’t travel at the speed of light, it’s not Star Trek.”

Dr Elliott, who lives in York, says there are several main strategies used at the moment, the main one being to look more closely at our own solar system and planets it contains. “We know they have atmospheres and we know some have oxygen and water, similar components to what we have. So if we go beneath the ice we might find something in these oceans and lakes for a start and hopefully in the near future we’ll be able to send a probe in,” he says.

“If we find other forms of life outside our own evolutionary tree then that’s just proved the concept. If it’s happened once then it will have happened everywhere, because life is easy to start.”

However, given the fact that we’re on the lookout for alien life, doesn’t the fact we haven’t found anything suggest we might actually be alone? “You have to see or hear us in the first place. Our emissions disappear after about fifty light years at best, which is nothing really. If you go to the Atacama Desert in South America there are huge areas that have no life, so even though we think of our own planet as being teeming with life and activity you could be looking at a vast area within it and not see anything.”

It’s a long process and we’ve only just started the journey. “We can only listen to part of our own galaxy with any efficiency and it could be that in the far reaches of the universe different civilizations are chatting away to each other. It’s like standing in a giant warehouse, there’s no light and you’re almost blind, and it can be happening in the far corner of the room. But the better the technology we get, the more we’ll be able to see and hear of that room.”

At the moment, though, it is still a bit like looking for a needle in an enormous haystack. “Our best telescopes are like looking at the sky through a straw. We’re slowly getting better technology so that we see bigger areas of the sky at once and if we had hundreds of telescopes linked together we could start to look at the whole sky 24 hours a day, but it costs time and money.”

As part of his research, Dr Elliott has analysed more than 60 languages looking at shared human speech structures. “If we did detect something tomorrow I would have a pretty good chance of coming up with an answer as to whether or not it was a form of communication. I’d also be able to work out the intelligence of the author because the way you put information together gets more complex the better the brain you’ve got.”

Given our growing knowledge and sophisticated technology, how long will it be before we do find proof that there is life out there, and how likely is it to happen in our lifetime? “It could be lifetimes away or it could happen tomorrow,” he says.

“Radio astronomy has only really been going a hundred years and while computers have developed at quite a pace we’re really just starting out.”

So why does the possibility of extra-terrestrial life still fascinate people?

“I think it’s part of who we are. Ever since man first walked out of his cave he’s wanted to know what’s beyond the next hill.”

For Dr Elliott, the chances of us being alone are very improbable. “The problem with this search for life is you need the capability to observe more and more vast distances, but we are getting there slowly, we’re finding more planets,” he says.

“If we were the most advanced civilisation out there then I could cope with that. But if we were on our own we’d be at the centre of things not on the unfashionable arm of the galaxy stuck on a corner out of the way, it just doesn’t stack up. All the ingredients are there to suggest that we’re not alone.”