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We are not alone

Updated: 2012-09-18 14:26
By Simon Parry ( China Daily HK Edition)

Space exploration has become a national priority for China ­— and a Hong Kong scientist appointed to an international body searching for alien life says he is confident many of us will live to see the first evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

It was at the opening of the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Beijing that it dawned upon Professor Sun Kwok, the University of Hong Kong's dean of science, just how seriously China takes the quest for space exploration.

To the surprise and delight of Kwok and his colleagues, the assembly at the end of August was opened by the country's Vice-President Xi Jinping who made it clear China was determined to be not only a world leader but a pioneer in intergalactic affairs too.

We are not alone

UFO sighted over Hong Kong by members of the Hong Kong UFO Club. (Photos by Red Door News, Hong Kong)

"Vice-President Xi gave a very good speech," said Kwok. "It seems he has a substantial plan on how China will move forward in the field of astronomy. I have no doubt China will make substantial financial investments both in the space program and putting facilities in Antarctica.

"China is moving full steam ahead. China wants to be a major partner in the world scene of astronomy and the simple fact that Vice-President Xi was at the assembly is a great indication that this is a matter of national priority."

It was an address that clearly fired the enthusiasm of the scientists. "He indicated in his speech that China considers this (field) to be important and has every intention to invest more to participate more," said Kwok.

"Personally, I am interested in international collaboration. I want China to participate more because in the past it has been a primarily American and European affair."

With global interest in space exploration currently at its highest level in years as the NASA rover Curiosity beams extraordinary images from the surface of Mars, there have been few better times to be involved in the field of astronomy.

There have been few more opportune times, either, to be involved in the search for alien life, Kwok believes — and at the Beijing assembly, he was elected vice-president of the International Astronomical Union's bio-astronomy Commission 51 for the next three years.

The commission is a dedicated body of scientists searching for evidence of extra-terrestrial life and Kwok — believed to be its first Chinese member — is convinced it is a search that will be rewarded within the lifetimes of many people alive today.

"My guess is that we will find evidence of life outside our planet within 50 years — but it might be as soon as 20 years," he said.

"When I say life I don't mean aliens, or ET walking around. Most likely what we are looking for now are micro-organisms — bacteria. We have very strong indications that there is a good chance we will find extra-terrestrial micro-organisms very soon."

Kwok's estimates are based on recent findings about the "very extreme environments" that bacteria have been found in on our own planet. "We find them in Antarctica. We find them in the hot (volcanic springs) in Chile, we find them under deep water thermal vents, under very hot and very unfavorable conditions," he said.

"They seem to be everywhere, and if you look at Mars, from what we have learnt from the past rovers, the condition of Mars is very similar to these harsh conditions on earth. In terms of environment, there is no reason why we cannot find micro-organisms on Mars.

"I think there is a lot of activity on Mars and that is a good place to look. There are other kinds of missions being planned and other places like Titan and Europa that are interesting. The conditions are very favorable there — they have atmosphere, they have oceans — and all of these things offer possibilities of finding life."

Kwok's work is in the field of bio-astronomy, or astrobiology — a relatively new scientific field that involves the study of the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe. Commission 51 is at its cutting edge.

Discoveries in recent years had made the field "a very hot topic" and significantly raised scientific expectations of discovering life outside our planet, Kwok said.

"We are excited for several reasons," he said. "I myself have been working on organic compounds in space for the last 10 or 15 years and we have been finding very complex organic substances being made by stars in the solar system. These are considered to be the building blocks of life. So if nature is able to manufacture very complex organic substances, life may be very common.

"The second thing is there has also been a lot of activity in the past 10 years in the search for so-called extra-solar planets. In our solar system we have eight planets. But there are 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy and each of them is most likely to have planets.

"In the past we assumed they would have planets but we never had any evidence for it. But in the last 15 years we have found over 700 extra-solar planets — planets around other stars.

"A European mission which went to Titan (the largest moon of Saturn) and landed on the surface found a lot of organics there. They found an interesting surface geology and an environment which seems to be very favourable to the presence of life. All of these things make this commission an extremely exciting and timely one."

Whether the current missions in space discover evidence of existing life or past life, long ago extinguished, remains to be seen. Kwok believes either discovery would have an enormous impact.

"In the case of Mars, we really don't know what to expect," he said. "We could find evidence of past life — for example in fossils. We could find existing life — life which is still on-going. Both are possible.

"There is the possibility that life existed say a few billion years ago on Mars but is now extinguished. I wouldn't rule out that possibility.

"On earth, human beings have only been around for 100,000 years but bacteria have been around for three billion years. They have been around much, much longer and there are a lot more bacteria than mammals or birds. They are the dominant species.

"We are not looking for ET or aliens in the popular sense. We are looking for life in the basic forms like bacteria but even that is extremely important to us because we have only one example of biology as of now.

"If we find life elsewhere, even a lowly bacteria it would give us a totally new look on the working of biology. It would no longer be restricted to one example — you would have other examples of how biochemistry could be at work."

While he is careful to dismiss the idea that anyone should expect to find or detect an ET-style alien in the search for other life forms, Kwok's answer to the question of whether intelligent life might exist somewhere else in the universe is surprisingly unequivocal.

"Oh yes, yes," he replies. "I think a lot of scientists also hold the opinion that there is intelligent life out there. That is only based on the very simple observation that we are one planet around the sun, the sun is a star and there are 100 billion other stars in the Milky Way galaxy and in the universe there are 100 billion other galaxies.

"There are a huge number of stellar systems out there and we now know that each stellar system has planets. So it is extremely hard to believe out of these hundreds and hundreds of billions of stars, there is no other place that has evolved life in the way we did.

"In my work, we are finding complex organics everywhere. If these organics have to do with the origin of life, that means they are very common. Life could be common elsewhere."

He added: "I have to caution that although this is what we believe and what we speculate we have absolutely no evidence that there is any intelligent life. None has been detected so far."

If intelligent life does exist beyond our planet, Kwok believes it may prove to be more advanced than our own. "We are a relatively young (solar) system," he said. "The Milky Way galaxy is about 10 billion years old and the earth has been around for 4.5 billion years and so-called civilisation has only been around a few thousand years.

"If you have another system which is just say one billion years older than us, their technology might be totally incredible. They would be so far advanced compared to us that we can't even imagine what they are capable of.

"Look back a couple of hundred years: Let's say you go back to 200 years ago in Western Europe. If you showed them a DVD, they would have no idea what it was.

"If your civilisation is 10,000 or 1 million years ahead of us, you can't even imagine the difference. They could all be out there but we have no idea or have awareness of their presence."

No one should be surprised that we have not made contact with intelligent life forms outside our planet so far. "We are trying to contact ET by radio," he said. "Radio is a very primitive technology. To us it may be advanced. We have developed radio for about 100 years now.

"But if there are other civilisations, they may have technology which is totally unthinkable. It is not for us to speculate. As a scientist I want to be practical. We deal with things we can deal with. Exploring the solar system finding other primitive signs of life is practical and achievable."

The discovery of any alien life, however basic or advanced, would have immense implications not only for science but for the whole of mankind, Kwok believes.

Citing the Renaissance astronomer Copernicus who first concluded that the earth moved around the Sun rather than vice-versa, Kwok said: "We used to think we were the center of the universe. Then 500 years ago Copernicus told us that we are just a little planet, no different to Venus, Mars and Jupiter.

"It had a huge, huge impact on society. We were no longer God's favorite creation. The whole of society was turned upside down by Copernicus. I think the discovery of extra-terrestrial life may have similar sociological consequences. It will tell us that we are not alone and we are not unique."

Stars in their eyes

For a growing number of believers in Hong Kong, alien life isn't out there silently waiting to be found: It's already found us and it's hovering above us, watching our every step.

As space exploration becomes an increasingly hot topic, the Hong Kong UFO Club has seen its membership grow from around 150 a decade ago to some 2,500 today, including its Facebook followers.

"Lots of people see UFOs in Hong Kong," said Thomas Tsui, one of the group's organisers. "We have many cases where people see flying saucers but they get no picture. They just relate to us what they see."

Even in an age of smart phones, it seems alien technology is still confounding existing human technology in terms of collecting evidence. "There is too much ambient light in urban Hong Kong and it is hard to use an iPhone to capture a UFO sighting," Tsui said.

Some members have captured striking images and video, however, and a selection of the best pictures and movie sequences were shown to a packed meeting of followers earlier this month.

"I have seen UFOs many times, always in Hong Kong," said Tsui, who said the countryside areas of the New Territories, such as Sai Kung Country Park, were the best areas to see UFOs flying overhead. "They are always out there," he said.

Tsui believes the government is aware of the existence of UFOs but keeps them a secret. "They believe it's not a good idea for the public to know about aliens," he reasoned. "They think it will be too much for them."

Moon Fong, the club's president, said Hong Kong would host its first fully scientific conference on UFO research in November with 1,500 delegates from around the world attending.

She said the Internet and Hollywood's enduring fascination with the theme of aliens had helped interest in UFOs to grow in Hong Kong. "There is an ocean of information about them out there now," Fong said.

As for the search for alien life by scientists, UFO club members are somewhat ambivalent at the prospect of a breakthrough. "Scientists always need evidence, but we don't need evidence," said Tsui dismissively. "We already believe what we believe."