ARE we alone in the Universe? Are we a visited planet? Is God an alien? Mark Tallentire goes in search of extraterrestrial intelligence.
DAVID Wilkinson is a 50-year-old, married, Methodist minister, living in sleepy Carrville, Durham City.
An unlikely candidate then, you might say, for an alien hunter.
But there’s more to Rev Prof Wilkinson than a clerical collar.
As well as being a Christian theologian and principal of Durham University’s St John’s College, he’s a renowned astrophysicist and long-term enthusiast of UFOs and little green men.
“Whenever I give a talk about cosmology, whether it’s from a perspective of just science or what that means for religious faith, one question I can guarantee will be asked,” he says, from his college office, still filled with boxes following a summer relocation.
“Do I believe in life elsewhere in the Universe? And the implication is: what would that mean for our current models of science and religious faith?”
It’s a topic he’s been addressing in books, articles and talks for more than a decade. But he finally turned to writing this book last year at, it turns out, a hugely exciting time for the field.
Until 1995, the only planets we knew of were those orbiting the Sun.
Now, we have spotted more than 900 others, known as “extra-solar planets”. And more are being identified all the time – Prof Wilkinson even has an app on his mobile phone which alerts him to every new discovery.
“If every star has planets around it, and we’re beginning to think most do,” he says, “And there are 100 billion stars in 100 billion galaxies, surely there must be another Earth-like planet out there and surely there must be other life.”
For an academic who will, over the course of our interview, use the phrase “open mind” in reference to himself on at least three occasions, it’s a pretty bold statement.
For Prof Wilkinson, it’s a matter of probability – and the existence of extra-solar planets increases the chances substantially.
But if aliens exist, you might say, why aren’t they here?
Good question. In the jargon, it’s known as the Fermi paradox – named after post-war Italian physicist Enrico Fermi.
Prof Wilkinson accepts it’s a strong argument.
But this is where the entirely baffling size of the Universe comes into play.
Even a message from the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, would take several million years to reach us, meaning intelligent life there would have had to existed that long ago to send it.
It’s also possible, some say, that life exists elsewhere but in very simple form – bacteria, for example.
“It’s a long way from an amoeba to an accountant,” Prof Wilkinson quips.
Mark Tallentire - Durham Times