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.
Hence, his new book: Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
“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.
“We’ve been searching for evidence of any other life for more than 50 years and ET, I’m afraid, hasn’t phone home at all,” he says.
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.
“I want to keep an open mind.”
But if aliens did exist, what would that mean for Christian beliefs?
There are two questions there, Prof Wilkinson says: whether the existence of aliens would undercut the Christian belief that humans are special and if aliens existed, what would that mean for Jesus?
On the former, Prof Wilkinson is “very relaxed”.
“It was the Greeks who said humans were the centre of the Universe,” he explains.
“Christianity adopted that. But we don’t have to be at the centre of the Universe to be special – we can be special because of the gift of relationship (with God).”
On the latter, while some 20th Century theologians argued the forgiveness Christians see in Jesus is available to people of all planets, opening up the intriguing concept of Christians as “cosmic missionaries”, others have said aliens might have their own “Jesus figure”.
“Maybe the only way we’ll know what God has done is if the little green men and women arrive and we have some kind of conversation,” Prof Wilkinson says.
“I’m prepared to hold an open mind.”
All of that assumes, of course, that aliens haven’t (yet) visited Earth – a claim some would challenge.
UFO sightings and theories are “too often dismissed”, Prof Wilkinson says, and he wants to “take the evidence seriously”, whether it be of communication, visitation or even abduction.
Many claims are hoaxes or honest mistakes, he continues, but not all can be so easily explained away.
“In the evidence I’ve looked at I find no definitive weight of evidence that says we are a visited planet. But I don’t want to dismiss the accounts,” he says.
Keeping an open mind, you might say.
But writing the book has affected Prof Wilkinson’s views in two ways: making him a more passionate supporter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and more appreciative of the “richness of history” of interaction between science and religion.
“It’s more subtle and fruitful than just conflict,” he says.
“A lot of early speculation about other life came from Christians.
“They said: ‘God could have created life elsewhere and we’ll only know by looking for it’.
“Often we find a God who’s more surprising and extravagant than we ever imagined.
“I hope (by reading the book) people of religious faith will see the search for extraterrestrial intelligence isn’t a threat but is something they can be very supportive of.”
Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is out now, published by Oxford University Press, priced £25.