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As mentioned in yesterday’s news briefs, The Telegraph has an interesting story on Britain’s Astronomer Royal regarding alien life. The article is apparently quoting from an interview in Prospect (teaser here, though sadly not including the quote in question), in which Lord Rees – who is also currently President of the Royal Society – offered some surprising (and refreshing) views about the topic:

They could be staring us in the face and we just don’t recognise them. The problem is that we’re looking for something very much like us, assuming that they at least have something like the same mathematics and technology. I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive. Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there as aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.

Hopefully this signals a real change in thinking on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). While there’s a growing recognition within SETI circles of how limited and anthropocentric the search has been, they still stop a long way short of the sentiments of Lord Rees, one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.

Obviously there’s a reason for limiting hypothesising on the matter, as a lot of time could be wasted on some seriously ‘out there’ ideas. Science works well most often because it is inherently conservative, building on knowledge in an incremental manner. But there’s also a time for unfettered speculation (as long as it is remembered to be just that!), and Lord Rees’ comments should, at the very least, allow for a bit more consideration of ‘serious’ ufology. Not necessarily assuming that what is seen are ‘nuts and bolts’ spacecraft either, which again is probably just anthropocentric overlay – but rather more in line with what Lord Rees is saying: that we may not even be able to comprehend the object/intelligence that is manifesting in these cases, or how it will or should behave.

Another line of ‘out of the box’ thinking should be, in my opinion, considering whether altered states of consciousness allow us to communicate with other, alien intelligences. This isn’t an original idea, so I’ll just quote Terence McKenna on the matter – and, happily, the quote opens with an important insight into SETI-as-we-know-it:

To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant. And yet, this has been chosen as the avenue by which it is assumed contact is likely to occur. Meanwhile, there are people all over the world – psychics, shamans, mystics, schizophrenics – whose heads are filled with information, but it has been ruled a priori irrelevant, incoherent, or mad. Only that which is validated through consensus via certain sanctioned instrumentalities will be accepted as a signal. The problem is that we are so inundated by these signals – these other dimensions – that there is a great deal of noise in the circuit.

Unfettered speculation, remember – and I have no problems in recognizing that this is getting a long way ‘out of the box’. But it would at least make for good sci-fi…and I’m allowed to say these sorts of things because I’m just a good-for-nothing anti-science grubby intent on blowing out the candle of rationality (apparently), whereas an orthodox scientist would be run out of town with flaming torches. Unless you’re Lord Rees…

Just to bring a bit of orthodoxy back to the topic, readers will probably be interested in perusing the list of lectures (downloadable as mp3s) from the recent Royal Society discussion meeting, “The Detection of Extra-terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society“. Also, if you have the bandwidth to spare, definitely check out the videocast of Professor Paul Davies’ lecture, “The Eerie Silence”, which he presented at the end of the discussion meeting – it’s an excellent exploration of the history and concepts of SETI.

Previously on TDG: