Brian Cox says humans are ‘configurations of atoms’
The debate whether intelligent life – separate to humans – exists has raged for years. People draw on multiple sources and logic to conclude that somewhere at some point a developed civilisation must have been present. They point to historically significant and often unexplained phenomena: Ancient cave art that depicts otherworldly beings; tales of foreign lifeforms falling from the sky.
And while scientists tend to rule-out these sometimes wild speculations, many use statistics and probability to argue that there is more of a chance of alien life than there is of nothing.
The 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi devised the ‘Fermi Paradox’ to argue this – the contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilisations and various high estimates for their probability.
Others say humans are simply phenomena, a chance and rare atomic formula.
Physicist Professor Brian Cox holds this view, having previously told Joe Rogan on his ‘PowerfulJRE’ podcast in 2019 that he believed humans were the only intelligent life in the galaxy.
Brian Cox: The scientist said humans are the only intelligent life-form in the galaxy
Milky Way: Cox thinks intelligent life is sparsely spread out across the galaxies
Asked whether he believed there to be extraterrestrial life like us, he said: “I tend to restrict myself to the galaxy, as I do think it’s possible that at the moment that there is just one civilisation in the Milky Way, and that’s us.
“And I think that’s important, and this goes back to astronomy and cosmology being the framework for within which you have to think, if you’re looking for meaning or how we should behave even.
“Imagine that we’re the only place where there is intelligence in this galaxy – how should we behave?
“Notwithstanding we’re tiny and fragile things and insignificant physically, should we consider ourselves extremely valuable in that respect?
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“There’s nowhere else where ‘meaning’ exists in the Milky Way.
“It’s one of those things scientists don’t talk about very much, what is self evidently true is that meaning exists here because it means something to us.
“But I think it is a local and temporary phenomenon, I think it emerges from a configuration of atoms, which is what we are, we’re nothing more than that – we’re a very rare configuration of atoms.
“So that means we are the only island of meaning in the galaxy.”
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Galaxies: There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe
He went on to say he was “sure there are other civilisations out there in the universe” – there are, after all, two trillion galaxies that we know of.
The question for many, including Prof Cox, is how often intelligent life comes into being, and how widely spaced out it is.
He said: “I think they’re very widely spaced, and I think there are one or two per galaxy as an average.”
The argument, it has been noted, essentially rules out the possibility of a God or any spiritual inclination, because the thought of a God or spirit larger than a human is, as Prof Cox put it, “you – you are that thing” because humans are the ‘meaning’.
And while Prof Cox said this means everything humans do is down to them and proves you have to “make the most of everything”, he previously left open the argument for the existence of a God.
Fermi paradox: The paradox proposes that aliens might well already know we exist
It came as he talked about working within the “framework” of science.
Prof Cox said: “What we should say is that science, we don’t know all the answers, so we don’t know where the laws of nature came from, and we don’t know why the universe began in the way that it did, if indeed it had a beginning.
“We don’t know why the Big Bang was very highly ordered which ultimately shows that the only difference between the past and the future – the so-called arrow of time – is that in the past the universe was really ordered, and it’s getting more disordered.
“And that necessary state of order at the start of the universe, which is really the reason we exist – because the universe began in a particular form – we don’t know why that was.
Phenomenon: An image of two distant galaxies gravitationally interacting
“We’ll probably find out at some point and it’ll probably have something to do with the laws of nature.”
He continued: “But I’m always careful, science can sometimes sound arrogant, it can sound like it’s the discipline of saying to people, ‘Well you’re not right., but it’s not that, it’s actually saying, ‘This is what we’ve found out.’
“I like to say it provides a framework in which, if you want to philosophise or you want to do theology – you want to ask these deep questions about why we’re here – you have to operate in that framework because it’s an observational framework.”
Prof Cox and his colleagues have popularised science, making many of physics’ often incomprehensible ideas into easily digestible programmes, books and podcasts.
He recently spoke on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show about STEM subjects becoming popular due to Covid-19, and how parents might help their children excel in these fields.