#Do you think we’ll ever discover intelligent life?
We are discovering new planets all the time, but the chances of finding life-forms which can understand quantum mechanics are close to nil.
#I don’t understand quantum mechanics.
That’s OK, scientists can help with that. But as far as other planets go, there are no scientists, as far as we can ascertain. We’d be lucky to find microbes.
#Would microbes be a substitute for scientists?
No I’m afraid not. If we did find microbes, well, that would be something remarkable in itself. But they wouldn’t be able to communicate.
#They wouldn’t be able to talk.
That’s right. Intelligence needs to be expressed. If it can’t talk, it’s not intelligent.
#What about small words?
Microbes can’t manage any words.
#What if they were speaking in a foreign language, one which we didn’t know about?
My point is that microbes can’t talk.
#Do you think that’s because the particular planet on which they dwell is too boring? Or they might be shy?
That’s an interesting point. Most planets we have studied are inhospitable. There are no parks or clean waterways, and most of the food-sources would be poisonous, being contaminated with radioactive chemicals.
#So they might be unhealthy and not have the energy to talk? Should we be sending food-packages to them?
The distances involved are unimaginably vast. Even sending food to Mars is incredibly difficult.
#Are Martians suffering malnutrition?
There are no Martians, contrary to popular belief. That’s why we are searching further afield. But, as I said, there is no communication, no mutual understanding possible.
#Until we find scientists?
#Because if there were scientists, the food-sources would be free of contamination, and the microbes would be healthy enough to communicate?
As long as the scientists were smart enough. But we mustn’t get too excited about food-sources. Even food on Earth can get contaminated.
#Surely that would be illegal. What could possibly contaminate our food?
#That’s incredible. What can we do about that?
Radioactive chemicals seem effective. Some research is being done using genetic engineering.
#To create an antidote to microbes?
That’s a simplistic description, but it’s adequate for our discussion. Yes, we’re planning to make people immune to contaminated food.
#And the microbes?
They can’t talk.
#So is it likely we’ll find any intelligent life on Earth?
I think if there was intelligence right here, scientists would have discovered it by now.
#And out there?
There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the Earth is the centre of the entire known universe.
#So that would in turn suggest that if intelligence was anywhere ...
That’s right, it would be right in front of us. But the really great thing about science, and in particular the research I am directly involved with, is that we can predict this.
#Uncovering a law of Nature?
We need to be clear about this. The laws of Science are precise and irrefutable. Nature is not very good at crunching numbers, and in most cases Nature does not achieve the level of accuracy that we work with, and expect, every day in the lab. So when we think of the “laws” of Nature, we really mean “guidelines” or “suggestions”. Nature might have “suggestions” of gravity, for example, but scientists make it a “law”.
#So your research makes a law about the lack of intelligence?
Well, the equation which models intelligence and the communication of information is a very long one, but essentially one part cancels the other, and we are left with zero. It’s a very elegant equation.
#How do you cancel the parts?
It can be done with a red pen.
#Can you give us an example?
This is a scientific law, so we can only produce examples in a sealed vessel for a few nanoseconds.
#What if the vessel was opened, couldn’t we just look inside?
Once the seal is broken, the conditions for this law are invalidated, and radioactive chemicals would leech into the waterways.
#Surely that would be worthwhile, to prove the law?
The law has been proven over and over again. In any case it would be careless to have radioactive chemicals leeching out.
That’s a strong word. Besides, even if “contamination” did occur, the effect is directly counterbalanced by other, much more positive factors.
Exactly. But contamination does not occur because we never open the vessel.
#Can the examples produced in this way ever last longer than a few nanoseconds?
At the scale we are talking about, that’s a very long time.
#So at that scale, there is definitely no intelligence?
There is no flow of information.
#And no talking?
#Surely there is some way to make an empty, sealed vessel more intelligent.
Well after the few nanoseconds is up—and this is a very long time for scientists—the vessel reverts to being relatively intelligent once more.
#Can it talk?
Research is continung in that direction, but I suspect that ...
#It’s too boring in there?
#Would genetic engineering help?
Empty, sealed vessels can’t be altered genetically.
#But surely our hearing organs could be genetically modified, until we could detect intelligence emanating from empty, sealed vessels.
That’s an interesting proposition. Usually in cases like this, though, we revert to using large amounts of energy. When science has nearly proven all there is to prove, a large explosion is a great way to get a bit closer to the goal.
#The goal would be knowing everything?
Exactly. It’s our moral obligation.
#Is moral obligation a driving force in scientific work?
Only where explosions and omniscience are concerned. For anything less awe-inspiring, childish curiosity is usually sufficient.
#What do you think of the phrase “We don’t know what we don’t know”?
That’s what we call a ‘tautology’. The nett information in such a phrase is close to nil.
#But the meaning ...?
Sorry, you’ve lost me there.
#That what we don’t know yet, is unknown to us.
That’s not how science works. Usually in cases like this, we represent the unknown as the letter X. And in most cases, it will cancel out.