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Are we alone in the Universe?

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Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? If not, does that mean that we humans are utterly alone in creation? Recent technological developments make the discovery of life on other planets almost expected within the coming decades. But most of the inhabited planets we hope to discover may well be populated by no more than alien bacteria. Will that make us feel any less alone? What we really hope to find are aliens with whom we can communicate and hold a conversation. When we ask ,“Are we alone?”, what we really mean is, “Do we have anyone to talk to in the universe?” Our gnawing concern about being isolated in the universe ironically mirrors the situation we face on our own planet. We are proud of the status of human beings as the most intelligent of animals, and indeed the only species with language. But that very uniqueness isolates us from all the other intelligent animals on the planet. Sure, we can communicate with our pet dogs and cats, but we can’t hold a conversation with them. Why not? What is the nature of the barrier between us and dolphins or chimpanzees? Some would say that if we aren’t capable of understanding dolphins and whales, we have no chance of understanding any alien civilisation we encounter. Perhaps we are doomed to galactic isolation, no matter how many alien civilisations exist. However, I believe that we can be more optimistic than that. As we reach out to the stars to seek out new life and new civilisations, now is the time to consider: for what are we actually searching?

Dr Arik Kershenbaum is a zoologist, Director of Studies, and Fellow at Girton College, University of Cambridge, and an expert on animal vocal communication, which he has researched for the past 14 years. He received his PhD at the University of Haifa in Israel, and holds a Higher Doctorate from the University of Cambridge. His first popular science book, The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy was a Times/Sunday Times Book of the Year, and received accolades from among others, Richard Dawkins and Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. Dr Kershenbaum travels the world researching the nature of information in the communication of wolves, dolphins, primates, and other species, looking for indications of the similarities – and differences – with human speech. The evolution of different forms of animal communication is the subject of his second popular science book: How Animals Talk, which will be published in 2023.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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