Are there aliens? (Unedited TV pilot)

by Matthew Cobb

Here are some links to a TV pilot I have made along with five scientific colleagues/friends – David Kirby (biologist and historian), Alastair Reynolds (astronomer and SF writer), Danielle George (radio engineer), Aravind Vijayaraghavan (nanotechnologist) and Sheena Cruickshank (immunologist) (all of us except Alastair are from the University of Manchester). The programmes were made by my pal Mark Gorton, who came up with this rather cool way of recording us…

The subject of discussion is: Are there aliens?

Our 60-minute chat – which is the kind of discussion that you’d have in the pub, or round the dinner table, pooling our scientific knowledge, and above all our ignorance – has been split into four videos, each of about 15 minutes. If you have time, we’d be very interested in your comments, both on the form and the content.

You’ll see that in this raw footage, which has just been posted to YouTube, it’s basically just us chatting, so you could listen to it like it was a radio programme if you are busy – do the ironing while listening! Each of the four videos covers a different aspect of the issue.


  1. ChrisH
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Have just watched this as Alastair Reynolds tw**ted it and I’m a big fan of his work.

    Good conversation. Have you had a look at the comments on the 1st video yet?

  2. John Harshman
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Despite the attempts of several participants to distinguish them, the title question is almost immediately conflated with “Are there alien civilizations?”, and I think that’s because that, rather than the title question, is what everyone is really interested in. Perhaps that should have been the title question, with the question of life at all merely being a step on the way.

  3. Kevin
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Mathew has the best voice.

    “Where are they?” Is still pretty much the best argument in town. We are alone, at least in this galaxy. We might find some alternative to cats, but nothing that can carry on a conversation.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Intelligent life that broadcasts like we do could lie many tens of light years away, and we would not detect them b/c of the inverse square law. Still, intelligent life in our time frame will be very very rare.

      • Kevin
        Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Given the stability of our own galaxy, it is likely that more than one civilization has already appeared in our galaxy, possibly long ago, possibly making large foot prints. We see nothing.

        Alien life is certainly plausible, unlike angels, but there is still no direct evidence for it.

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted February 25, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          I think more than one intelligent civilization in our galaxy is very possible. But the crux is to detect it. I think unless they are pretty close, broadcasts from intelligent life even rather near to us would be undetectable bc of the inverse square law. The only way around that is if they sent a very strong, directed signal right at us for a very sustained period of time. We might be able to detect that, but only if we were listening in that interval.

          • Posted February 26, 2016 at 6:57 am | Permalink

            I don’t think it is a given that there have been many civilizations in our galaxy in the past. The first generations of stars and their planets (if any) didn’t have enough heavy elements to lead plausibly to life. After a couple of generations of stars, then it still would take about four billion years of evolution to get civilization-building life forms, if our earth is any indication. Since we are looking backwards in time when we look out, most of the stars we can observe could not show signs of life.

            Likewise, any civilization more than eighty light-years away from us would not detect our own electromagnetic fingerprints.

    • Scientifik
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      The main problem with our search for alien life is that we have been looking for it in all the wrong places…

      For decades, scientists with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, have used radio telescopes to search for signals from intelligent life on planets around distant stars. But SETI researchers are looking mostly toward the center of the Milky Way, where the stars are more abundant, Piran says. That’s precisely where gamma ray bursts may make intelligent life impossible, he says: “We are saying maybe you should look in the exact opposite direction.”

      • Kevin
        Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Searching for ETI feels useful, but does nothing to diminish Fermi’s paradox. Unless we are missing something, the evidence should be overwhelming for ETI.

        Every candidacy for ETI I can conceive of that would hide its existence has some features that are human (rational, critical thinking). For me, this feels arrogant.

        It could be the signals are right there in front of us…neutrinos/gravity waves/WIMPS/dark energy…we just have not figured out how to talk back. Again, this feels too human.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted February 25, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          I think Fermi’s paradox is bogus as an indicator of advanced civilizations, that the premise – that they will advance out into the galaxy over time – isn’t true, because we burn through our resources over tribal disputes (defense spending) and to accommodate our animal desires (having children)so can never get it together to colonize the galaxy.

          • Kevin
            Posted February 25, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

            Filters +Fermi’s Paradox. Without Filters, the Paradox falls short. The question for us: Are we in front of all of ours or do they lie ahead of us?

    • eric
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      The older I get the more skeptical I get of the assumption that an alien ‘civilization’ would share any interests or values with us, even such things like ‘we’re interested in exploring’ or ‘we’re interested in communicating’. Just look around all the species on Earth that don’t give two flops about communicating with other species. In fact there’s only a few species even on Earth who seem interested in communicating with us, and we had to domesticate them before that happened. I read books like Domesticated and the author makes a fair point in claiming that the key factor that makes human civilization so different from other animals is the amount and type of our sociability, not our problem-solving intelligence. And these are the animals biologically related to us!

      I haven’t heard the ‘cast yet and I hope too, but it seems to me that while the Drake equation tried to be comprehensive, there’s still a lot of hidden and probably very bad assumptions involved in the civilization likelihood/lifetime factors. Just as we drastically overestimated the “lifetime” of a signaling civilization because we didn’t think about things like cable making broadcast obsolete, I think we drastically overestimate the odds of a smart, sentient species forming a civilization that has values similar enough to ours that they would even care about contact or exploration.

  4. Posted February 25, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Matthew, or anyone else. I have a question about this happening only once. I understand we only have evidence of it happening once, but it seems to me once it happened, and our ancestors were the dominant microorganisms, if it happened again that new microorganism wouldn’t have had a chance. They would have been destroyed before gaining any sort of foothold. It could have happened every couple of hundred million years, still rare, but leaving no trace we’ve yet been able to find. Sure that’s just speculation, but that’s true of much of this discussion.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Using our singular case of life and intelligent life: it could be that life evolves very readily if there are conditions that allow it. The main evidence is that life evolved here as soon as it could.
      As for intelligent life, well, planets that allow large and complex life will likely be very rare. One reason why it did so here is b/c of our large moon which stabilizes procession of the earths’ tilt. Without our moon we would have far more extreme seasons + some more big meteor impacts.

    • Scientifik
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      “Matthew, or anyone else. I have a question about this happening only once. I understand we only have evidence of it happening once […]”

      Before 1992, i.e the year in which the first two exoplanets were discovered, we didn’t have any evidence of planets existing beyond our solar system, and one could similarly argue back then that planets perhaps formed only once in our “special” solar system. But as the discoveries of 1992 onward were to prove, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. We now have the evidence of thousands of exoplanets…

      • John Harshman
        Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        Well, there was a little bit of evidence, i.e. the break is angular momentum of stars between F2 (if I remember) and stars farther down the main sequence. This was commonly interpreted as showing that most of the angular momentum of the system had been taken up by planets.

    • Kevin
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Rarity is not as important as tracibility. In principle, it only takes one dominant species to conquer an entire galaxy. But the fact that there are no traces (so far) is likely to suggest odds against propagating beyond one’s planet, let alone solar system.

    • eric
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Just adding to what Mark said, conditions on Earth today are nothing like the conditions on Earth after it formed and cooled. So even if the formation of life from those conditions could probabilistically happen quite often, it wouldn’t be happening now because the planet today has a radically different geosphere and atmosphere. No oxygen in the early atmosphere being a big example.

      But yes you are right, on top of that is the problem that any new life would likely get eaten by currently existing microorganisms pretty quickly.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      That’s my thought, too. I think the non-survival of other examples of cells joining into symbiosis isn’t the same as that kind of thing only happening once.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      This is what I’ve always thought, too – that different, or even the same, types of life would have been outcompeted, and lost forever, if they arose after some pretty early stage in “this life.”

  5. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    It is generally true that a number of factors had to come together and this chance occurrence allowed life to start or allowed additional unlikely things to take place to get us where we are now. We also have a fair idea of just how large the Universe is, maybe we don’t but we can comprehend the distances and other hard to get issues like speed of light.

    The math folks can probably come up with the possibilities but what kind of life might be somewhere out there is some real speculation. I don’t remember which person on this panel mentioned it, but I believe it would be most likely that any visitor to come upon us would be machinery, robots and whatever you call it. Not the actual life itself unless it was a form of life without end.

    Further exploration that we do should mostly be of the same type because human travel out there is too hard and too limited.

    They must be meeting in a large empty hangar?

  6. Frank Bath
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    “Where are they?” For many years now I’ve believed ‘they walk among us’. How better to hide? I’ve had my suspicions about many people, acquaintances and strangers. How else to account for their eccentric, if not downright antisocial, behaviour? Our aliens haven’t got their act quite right, yet. Well, some of them. 🙂

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Can I be the first to say, “Donald Trump”?


      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted February 26, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        I think we need a term equivalent to “Godwin” for the first person to mention the Donald in a thread 🙂

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted February 26, 2016 at 4:06 pm | Permalink


    • Richard
      Posted February 26, 2016 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      There was an episode of ‘British Isles: A Natural History’ in which the presenter, Alan Titchmarsh, was given the appearance of a Neanderthal by the BBC’s make-up department (large prosthetic nose, heavy brow-ridges, coarse hair, etc.) and then secretly filmed as he walked through the streets of London – and apart from a few odd glances from passers-by he went completely unnoticed!

      So there could be *anything* amongst us… 🙂

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    As for what I think of the broadcast: I really like it and very much appreciate the mix of well thought out arguments laced with a bit of humor here and there.
    I listened to the first one, and so much ground was covered that I am stretched to imagine what could be covered in the other 3.

  8. Posted February 25, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed the conversation and the general look of the video. If I were to make a suggestion as to production values, that would be to tweak the lighting. I like the Charlie Rose-style, negative space look of the video, but I personally wouldn’t shoot it quite that dark and Matthew’s face was not evenly lit. Small adjustments, but lighting tweaks like that can go a very long way in terms of adding polish to a production.
    Additionally, cable TV would suggest that if aliens are to be the subject of the program, then the on camera talent must have an extremely silly, gravity-defying harido.
    (If you don’t get the joke, run “Ancient Aliens host” on any image search engine, then point, then laugh.)

  9. John Harshman
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    So I commented and it didn’t show up. If it shows up later, my apologies for the duplicate ideas.

    I think it’s clear from the discussion in the show and the discussion here that the opening question was poorly stated. What people care about is not whether there’s extraterrestrial life but whether there’s extraterrestrial intelligent life with a technological civilization. Already, in the first few minutes of the show, some of the participants are conflating the questions despite the attempts by other participants to keep them separate.

  10. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Early in the 2nd video, you say that the odds of producing anything like the eukaryotic cell (which is reasonably a critical step for later evolution of complex multicellular life), is itself unlikely b/c it only happened once and depended on endosymbiosis.
    I can’t help but think that I read somewhere that there are cases of other prokaryotes containing prokaryote endosymbionts. If so, I would still allow that it seems pretty rare. Maybe I am hallucinating that, but it seems a real memory to me.
    But once there were eukaryotes, endosymbiosis within them happened several times, with the origin of chloroplasts, and then other endosymbionts appearing in various eukaryote lines here and there.

    • John Harshman
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Why limit this to prokaryotes? Do we know that the photo-eukaryote was a prokaryote (i.e. that it lacked a nuclear membrane)? It seems to me that the best current model for the organism that gained mitochondria would be something rather like a eukaryote. If so, then there are plenty of cases of eukaryotes gaining cellular endosymbionts, 5 times or so for chloroplasts alone. Also plenty of intracellular pathogens, which strikes me as a more sensible route to endosymbiosis than failure to digest your food.

      • John Harshman
        Posted February 25, 2016 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        I blame auto-correct. Photo-eukaryote = proto-eukaryote.

  11. jojodancingbear
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I loved this.

  12. Zado
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    As someone commented above, the title is a little misleading. You guys spent much more time discussing the Fermi Paradox than abiogenesis (since you all seemed in agreement that abiogenesis was relatively common throughout the universe).

    Two interesting factors that I never hear brought up in discussions like this:

    1. Can life only evolve in third or fourth-generation solar systems like ours? In other words, does it take a few stars’ lifetimes of fusion in order to make nebulae sufficiently dense in organic elements to bare life? If that’s the case, life may have been comparatively rare during the first 10 billion or so years of the universe; our planet may be one of the earliest ones to have it.

    2. While there are certainly many exoplanets that are of similar size to the Earth and in their star’s “Goldilocks zone”, this doesn’t necessarily make them Earth like. Our gigantic moon is rather anomalous; the laws of gravitation make it difficult for planets close to their stars to have moons, especially ones as big as ours (which is why Mercury and Venus don’t have moons, and Mars has two tiny ones).

    This is important because our moon stabilizes the axial tilt of our planet. Without it, the Earth would “wobble” much more and would have had a much more variable climate over the course of its history–likely with a dampening effect on the evolution of life. Our planet may be rather unique in having this benefit (if it even matters in regards to life; it may not).

    • John Harshman
      Posted February 25, 2016 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      It would be interesting to know if there are detectable differences between the planets of metal-rich stars like ours and metal-poor stars (using the astronomers’ definition of “metal” as “anything except H and He”). I wonder if we have a big enough sample yet.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted March 6, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      This is pretty much the Rare Earth theory in a nutshell. But how do you settle on factors and test it, without skewing your likelihood for life to the value you want?

      1, The Milky Way has some very old planets. Or at least their stars are, but it is unlikely to differ. I don’t know the current record holder, but there is a 13 billion year old planet system. Likewise the current oldest galaxy is ~ 13.4 billion years old.

      Simulations confirm that planets can appear early, because the early universe was ~1000 times as non-homogeneous. Of course it means planets were 1/1000 times as rare, but a first inventory says Earth analogs are ~ 8 billion years old. [ ; ]

      Coincidentally from that inventory, same as our universe is ~ 2-3 sigma rare (large scale variation in the CMB), our planet is up to 2 sigma rare too. Not enough to be significant, but not what you expect either. The Copernican principle is correct but has a modifier: we are neither unique nor typical. We are pond spawn in an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable pond.

      2. The Moon does not stabilize climate much, it recently turned out the simulations done in the 90’s had erroneous software. Mars has twice the tilt we have and will keep that in periods up to 0.5 billion years, enough time for land animals such as us on Earth.

      Quite the opposite, same as Jupiter does more damage than shields, our moon is too large. It will tidal lock Earth ~6 billion years from now, at which time our axis will tilt every which way on small time scales. Had we lived with a more long lived sun that would have been a problem, but now plant life will be gone before the Moon makes a number on us.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted March 6, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        Oops. Earth analogs are on average ~ 8 billion years old.

        And I meant to say that we are pond scum spawned in an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable pond.

  13. rickflick
    Posted February 25, 2016 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating conversation. Such speculation is always fun. I learned a few interesting new bits of info. I think the topic is more or less exhausted though. If there is a follow up I’m not sure what else could be said about alien life.

  14. Chris G
    Posted February 26, 2016 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Hello all.
    Really enjoyed these round-table discussions, look forward to more.
    Coincidently, I recently sent the following thoughts to Jerry, in an email with the subject-heading: Should we expect alien intelligent life to be religious?
    I think it’s an interesting ‘thought experiment’, a perspective which may aid understanding of our religious-belief and why it’s been such an enduring aspect of human-life/history.
    Would be interested to hear the thoughts of others; maybe something to address in a future episode of the round-table discussions too?
    Thanks, Chris.
    Lewes, Sussex, UK.

    Whilst clearing my kitchen and washing up earlier today, I found myself pondering whether alien intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would likely be religious (if not in its current times, then earlier in its history) and wondered if you’ve addressed this before. Interested to hear your thoughts, and what other readers have to say on the topic.
    What assumptions, if any, can we make about the evolutionary-process of life on other planets, particularly ‘what it takes’ to allow ‘intelligence’ to emerge? Can we assume that a species capable of developing technology that would allow them to explore beyond their planet, roam the universe, and potentially make contact with life on earth, would have had to evolve some kind of ‘brain’? And would this necessarily have to be a brain that can think and reason so flexibly that it could not preclude false-belief (maybe consciousness is most likely too, or optional)? Would language (spoken and written) be considered a pre-requisite for this level of intelligence, required to allow social/group co-operation needed? And therefore can we make any assumptions about these reasoning, social, potentially delusional, speaking brains being ‘vulnerable’ to religious thinking i.e. prone to see agency in natural forces and phenomena they couldn’t initially explain otherwise?
    As a comparison, I started to consider what distinguishes humans from other earthly creatures that specifically predisposes us to religious thinking i.e. what evolutionary changes would it take for chimps or orang-utans to create religions and start going to church?
    Of course, alien intelligent life may be at a much more ‘advanced’ level of intelligence than us – we just have to imagine what humanity may be like in 100 years given the speed of technological and social change in recent decades (presuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves or suffered some other extinction event), even more so in 1000 years.
    So it might be the case, as I mentioned above, that visiting alien intelligent life has already rid itself of religions way back in its very own dark-ages, and maybe can teach us a thing or two about how to live without it.

  15. Kevin
    Posted February 26, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I saw the whole thing last night and Aravind Vijayaraghavan struck me as not having thought out some of his answers.

    First, plasma can include a huge number of information capable states: ions and Rydberg states. All of these can lead to some kind of organized system that we call life.

    Second, I will grant that a single neutron is unlikely to produce life: they are not bound states (not electrically) and they have very small lifetimes ~900s. However, the capacity of neutron stars to form superconducting, squid like, or many body interactions for assessing their environment is possible. He should know better; purportedly being in the condensed matter area.

    I think the physics side was poorly represented, but the life side (particularly Mathew) as well thought out.

  16. jeffery
    Posted February 26, 2016 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m reminded of the old “Twilight Zone” episode where reports of a flying saucer come into a little neighborhood cafe one night. The frightened customers engage in wondering if one among them is an alien. I forget the majority of what happened, but it ends up with everyone running away except for one customer, who reveals that he has three arms, is from Mars, and they are taking over the Earth, whereupon the guy behind the counter pushes up his serving cap to reveal a third eye and says, “We Venusians beat you to it.”

  17. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 6, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    [Posted after yet another hospital stay – same traffic accident – delayed this all too long.]

    That worked fine! As some of the panelists I rolled my eyes at times, but that goes with a creative discussion. I appreciate Matthew’s no-nonsense approach to everything from close alien observation to E.O. Wilson’s evolutionary convergence.

    The sound was a bit heavy on breathing, but I could filter that out after a while.

    Being late I don’t think I will make much general comment on the content.

    My strident opinion on the Hart-Liddell argument (commonly and erroneously called “Fermi’s paradox”) should have made itself heard by now, The problem of estimating false negatives, or after that rejecting Fermi’s own answer to his question, the technology and economy of interstellar expeditions, are severe hurdles to H-L’s argument.

    And with a physics background I find Monod’s random argument – not for evolving unique traits such as language capability but for emergence – problematic too. In dynamic system theory, if a phase space is reentrant, say that we have conditions for emergence under some time, we can weight the volume for “success” against the one for “failure” even on a single system (planet).

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] And they still wonder! Are There Aliens? […]

%d bloggers like this: