The Eerie Silence - Davies and Life on Mars

On a cold and misty morning in April 1960, a young astronomer named Frank Drake quietly took control of the 26-metre dish at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Few people understood that this moment was a turning point in science. Slowly and methodically Drake steered the giant instrument towards a sun-like star known as Tau Ceti, eleven light years away, tuned in to 1,420 MHz, and settled down to wait.

I made it to page 39 of The Eerie Silence before I ran into trouble.

You'll recall, Paul Davies' book was one I bought in hopes of becoming smarter or, at least, of more use to my learners. Mr. Davies is a physicist of some standing with SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). His book promised to be something of an overview of SETI to date, a reflection on the assumptions underwriting the search and a look to the future.

The book started off with some history - I'm a sucker for science history - but then the author came to the 1977 Viking mission to Mars, which he describes as "the only successful mission by any space agency to look for extraterrestrial life."

I wasn't sure what he meant by successful, though I thought perhaps he meant "successfully completed"; i.e., didn't blow up or just disappear into dark space. (Some space missions have.)

Before we go much further, I'd invite you to listen to evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin explain why he thinks the Viking mission and it's LR experiment was not successful, and was bound to fail.

Ok. There are two ideas in here. One is that the experiment was poorly designed, and it would have missed identifying even some Earth-based life forms, never mind whatever weirdness might be on Mars. The other is that the positive result from the LR experiment was from a simple chemical reaction, as shown when it was repeated later in a lab on Earth, and it was not a sign of life.

Back to Mr. Davies. What does he say?

On the face of it, the LR experiment had found life. But that was not NASA's spin.

Hello? Spin? You know, if he said "NASA's interpretation" or "NASA's perception" or "NASA's conclusion" or even "a result NASA felt comfortable with" I could have rolled along with him.

But that word spin has a particular meaning. It is used by people who think the other guy isn't acting in good faith; who think somebody's conspiring against the facts. In other words, Mr. Davies thinks NASA did find life on Mars - I guess that's what he means by "successful" - and thinks NASA is covering it up.

"From a less-qualified writer," says Dan Falk in a review for the Globe & Mail, "some of these bold assertions would seem a tad presumptuous, but for the most part I found myself willing to go along for the ride."

To his credit, Davies is careful to distinguish established science from speculation, and speculation from opinion, at every turn. The Eerie Silence is honest yet provocative, and enormously entertaining.

Really? At every turn? Did Mr. Falk and I read the same book?

Now, I really like the science and history of Mars. I'm no scientist myself: I can spot Mars in the heavens, and that's about it. But I read a lot about it, fiction and nonfiction, and have pondered it a bit. Maybe I'm just not ready for notions that don't fit my own received ideas?

I decided to plunge on.

Sadly, the very next chapter was about the logical arguments for the existence of intelligent life on other planets.

Ok, I need to stop again and explain the background. There's a very old argument out there that says one of something is plausible, and a bunch of something is plausible, but only two or three of something is unlikely. In other words, something might be unique or not unique. But it's unlikely to be severely limited.

As far as life out there goes, the argument says it may be that Earth is unique in being the home of intelligent life. But, if just one other planet can be found with intelligent life, that means earth is not unique. So, if two, why not three, or ten, or a million? You see? It is inconceivable (not really, scientists say "unlikely" - but see below) that life would have begun on two planets, but no where else.

Now, from Chapter Three: A Shadow Biosphere, here's Davies:

Unless there is something very peculiar about our planet, it is inconceivable that life would have begun twice on one Earth-like planet [he means Earth], but hardly ever on all the rest.
Do you see how's he's kind of but not quite making the famous "either on one planet or on a lot, but not on only two or three" argument?

He's saying "if more than once on Earth, then on lots of other planets too" which is not the classic argument. And when he carries on to say that anything else is "inconceivable" well....

I don't think it is inconceivable - especially given how many people do conceive of it. Maybe there is "something very peculiar about our planet" which causes it to produce life multiple times. Maybe. I dunno. Neither does he.

"Davies never lets his enthusiasm run away with him" writes David Papineau in a Guardian review.

His attitude is that of a rational physicist, and he is careful to mark the difference between established theory and exploratory guesswork. In an area more given to fabulation than fact, this level-headedness is positively refreshing.

Are Papineau and I reading the same book? (And what's "fabulation" mean?)

Well, I skipped most of the rest of that chapter. Sadly, the next chapter jumps right into making claims about intelligence and brain size, and quoting Gould - who, in Mismeasure of Man debunked all that nonsense! - and making a hash of something else I do understand a little bit. Then, at last, in Chapter Five, Davies returns to radio technology and listening for signals from space.

But now he wants to talk about neutrinos, which I only kind of understand... and by this point I'm mad suspicious of everything he says. And I'm not half way through the book.

Leslie Mullins, in a review, tells me he is going to conclude "our messages should be based on mathematics, preferably containing equations that describe our knowledge of the laws of the universe." And that only after "should we share more Earth-centric information."

But, gosh. I don't know what could be more Earth-centric anthropocentric than a base ten number system. What if aliens don't have ten digits? What if they have seven, and so use a base seven system?

Even the dot / dash of a binary or base two system is pretty culture specific. We humans think in terms of yes or no, on or off. That's why binary works for us. Maybe aliens think this, that, or a little of both. Maybe, being less, er, black or white, they use a base three system.

Carl Sagan's pale blue dot often stirs me to tears, and so I feel horrible saying this. But what's the point in sending a message containing the atomic weight of hydrogen multiplied by pi if it's in a language aliens can't understand? Sure, hydrogen is common across the universe (as far as we can figure) but the gammer and syntax our mathematics ain't.


It was such a nice title: The Eerie Silence. And look at the cover - how could I resist?

I was going to read it slowly, a chapter at a time. At night, I thought, with the curtains open so I could see the stars. I was going to read and shiver with excitement and learn lots and lots.

Now it looks like I'll never get smart. :(


Author's Note: You're asking, why is this about literacy or adult learning?

It's not. There's a little truth in what I said about wanting to learn physics (and history). But this was also, for me, professional learning about creating online content.

To put this post together, I found and pulled the audio off a Lewontin video, and attached a part of it to a stream of what I sincerely hope are images of the Viking mission, and then made my own video. I uploaded the video - several times, because there were problems - to Youtube and embedded it in the post.

I've done multimedia posts before, of course, but not where I've mashed together third-party content in quite the same way. And all from my own kitchen-table command centre.


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