Humans might be ‘the only intelligent life in our galaxy,’ says Professor Brian Cox

·4-min read
Professor Brian Cox leaves BBC Broadcasting House in London, after appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday Morning. Picture date: Sunday May 22, 2022. (Photo by James Manning/PA Images via Getty Images)
Professor Brian Cox leaves BBC Broadcasting House in London. (James Manning/PA Images via Getty Images)

The reason mankind has never made contact with aliens might be a depressing one – we might be the only intelligent life forms in our galaxy.

Professor Brian Cox has suggested that microbial life might be relatively common – and even found in our own solar system – but that intelligent life might be "extremely rare".

The reason, he said, is that it has taken billions of years to evolve our civilisation, so civilisations similar to ours might be extremely rare.

The physicist told BBC One's Sunday Morning: "If you forced me to guess, I would say there may be microbes all over the place, that’s why we’re looking for life on Mars.

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"In terms of intelligence, one thing to think about, the origin of life on Earth, it looks like we have good evidence life was present 3.8 billion years ago and the first civilisation to appear on Earth was about now, give or take.

"So it took the best part of four billion years to go from the origin of life on Earth to a civilisation.

"That’s a third of the age of the universe, and that is a long time, so that may indicate that microbes may be common, but things like us may be extremely rare."

Cox added that our political leaders might benefit from thinking about how rare intelligent life might well be.

He said: "I mean the idea that we might be the only civilisation, for thousands or even millions of light years, one of the things it’s very useful at is giving us a perspective, which is a wider perspective and actually I don’t think many of us think

"Many of our political leaders maybe don’t really think in terms of, 'Is it possible that this is the only, let’s say, the only island of meaning in a galaxy of 400 billion suns?' That matters.

"I don’t think that’s some kind of whimsical idea. It might focus the mind."

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Other experts have previously suggested that the timescales involved in detecting signals from extraterrestrial civilisation mean that the first aliens we encounter are likely to be machines – and possibly machines so advanced that they will seem like Gods to us.

The reason? It’s all about probability, and how long it takes alien civilisations to evolve from developing radio communications to becoming immortal cyborgs.

Seth Shostak, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, said: "Consider the fact that any signal we pick up has to come from a civilisation at least as advanced as we are.

"Now, let’s say, conservatively, the average civilisation will use radio for 10,000 years. From a purely probabilistic point of view, the chance of encountering a society far older than ourselves is quite high."

Astronomer royal Sir Martin Rees has said that what we encounter might be so advanced – and so far beyond human comprehension – that we will never decode its messages.

Sir Martin said: "This suggests that if we were to detect ET, it would be far more likely to be inorganic. We would be most unlikely to 'catch' alien intelligence in the brief sliver of time when it was still in organic form."

He added: "Searches for extraterrestrial intelligence typically seek some electromagnetic transmission that is manifestly artificial. But even if the search succeeded (and few of us would bet more than 1% on this), it would still in my view be unlikely that the 'signal' would be a decodable message.

"It would more likely represent a byproduct (or even a malfunction) of some super-complex machine far beyond our comprehension that could trace its lineage back to alien organic beings (which might still exist on their home planet, or might long ago have died out).

"The only type of intelligence whose messages we could decode would be the (perhaps small) subset that used a technology attuned to our own parochial concepts."

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