Stars, planets and the vast scale of the galaxy, all part of a brainbusting conundrum that has confounded civilisations down the generations, leaving mere human minds to boggle under the concept that, somewhere out there, one of those twinkling little stars is home to someone else.
As for Hollywood movies, they whisk us to imaginary worlds of little green men with light sabres and a disturbing habit of shooting first then asking later to be taken to our leader – in perfect if slightly robotic English – or to curious worlds with multi- coloured moons and purple oceans.
Could any of that possibly, in our wildest dreams, ever be real?
Actually, yes, says Dr Duncan Forgan, straight-faced, deadly serious and not even wearing a replica Star Trek uniform or a giant fancy dress Chewbacca head. It could be true and, indeed, it probably is.
Well, perhaps not the bits about the light sabres and green men. Or the multi-coloured moons and the purple oceans – I made all that up. Besides, that’s the fine detail to be established once and for all sometime later.
Right now it’s enough to know that, on those starry nights when we choose to raise our eyes heavenwards, peering through the haar and the city’s light pollution to ponder the prospect of intelligent life on other planets, there’s probably someone else looking down at us wondering exactly the same thing.
“The idea that we’re alone as biological organisms, well, for me, that’s kind of unlikely,” says Dr Forgan, a sort of Han Solo with a university degree and Edinburgh’s real-life “alien hunter”.
“There are estimated to be 100 billion planets in the galaxy,” he continues, ignoring the references to Space: 1999 and the odd Vulcan salute. “That only one could have even simple biological life seems to be unlikely. If that was the case, then it would be a shattering result.”
Far more likely, he believes, is that alien life forms are really out there. Indeed, according to one raft of research he published after intense study from his lair at the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill, there could be between a mere 361 up to a jaw-dropping 38,000 alien civilisations in our galaxy alone.
And if even one of them has a Death Star, enough unleaded to fuel it plus a dislike of folks who walk upright, watch mind-numbing reality television shows, tweet about what they had for breakfast and overindulge in McDonalds, then we’ve had it.
Of course, Dr Forgan has heard all those smarty-pants jibes before – about ET and Klingons on the starboard bow, death rays, phasers, teleporting and Captain Kirk’s acting ability. Still just 27 years old, he learned a while ago that, when he goes to a party and someone asks what he does for a living, it’s probably less hassle to simply respond, “I’m a PhD research fellow in an academic position”, than to admit, “Well, as a matter of fact, I hunt for aliens”.
And yet that’s pretty much a large element of what he does. Even if the proper term for it all is that he “carries out theoretical calculations for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, he’s basically the chap peering skywards, armed with an astonishing array of scientific data to help deduce where life forms may be, and what their home might be like.
Of course, if you want aliens, the best place to find them is on the silver screen, and now Dr Forgan has ventured there too. Not a cameo appearance in Avatar, but in a short film made by Edinburgh College of Art students aimed at explaining his “out of this world” research, with the hope of inspiring us all to become amateur alien hunters.
Into Deep Space was screened for the first time at the recent International Science Festival before going on tour at venues across Scotland. It focuses on Dr Forgan’s work with theoretical calculations and computer simulations, plus the latest data on exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – looks at how it all combines with the work of St Andrews University observational astronomer Grant Miller and pulls it all together to show how Scotland is leading the way in figuring out where and how life might appear.
The hope is the film will nurture interest in astronomy and fuel an increase in the number of “citizen scientists” – such as those already inspired by, for example, Professor Brian Cox’s television series Secrets of the Solar System – joining the hunt for new planets from the comfort of their own PC, gazing at images beamed from outer space, which could reveal extraordinary data about what might be out there.
There certainly seems to be plenty of interest – more than 600,000 people have joined the busy Zooniverse website to take part in various scientific studies. Once online, they can hunt for evidence of exoplanets and seek out exploding stars, or explore the surface of the moon.
“I think we’re in a new phase where people don’t look down their noses at people who do what I do,” says Dr Forgan, who adds that the giant steps made in recent years have seen fascinating information beamed back to Earth from space.
“Now there’s an opportunity to do proper science, we are getting data from other planets and can remove some of the uncertainties. And people want to be involved.” He has nurtured a dream of outer space since growing up in Perth and hearing exciting news of the first confirmed exoplanet to be found orbiting a distant star. To his ten-year-old mind, already thrilled by Star Wars and Star Trek, the idea that planets with names such as 51 Pegasi could spin happily in systems other than our own opened up the huge possibility that we may not be alone.
“My dad bought me a copy of the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey,” he recalls. “I took it on holiday and read it cover to cover. I was completely hooked. The more I learned about it all, the further enthused I became to the point where I felt I had to learn more, to understand more. I was fortunate enough to get the grades. I needed to do a degree in the subject and to keep going.”
Today, he’s embroiled in a real life “Star Wars” battle with fellow astronomers across the globe, racing to be the first with the next big discovery. Eureka moments, he concedes, are few and far between – “they are more ‘hmm, that’s interesting’ than ‘Eureka!’,” he points out – yet discoveries can and do occur. Such as earlier this month when colleagues at Edinburgh University announced that their studies deep beneath a massive crater site in America had revealed organisms thriving. It raised the theory that the chances of finding life on Mars could be improved by analysing, in particular, its craters made by asteroids.
That was followed by a mosaic of fascinating new images from the Hubble space telescope, pieced together to show a “breeding ground for stars” in the Tarantula Nebula 170,000 light years away. The images showed an area that is home to half a million stars, 100 times bigger than our Sun, a kind of page three pin-up for anyone with a keen interest in hunting for alien life forms.
Of course, the idea that they’re out there is one thing. As Dr Forgan explains, actually getting to know them is quite another. “I’m hoping we might get some signal,” he says. “But it’s more likely that we’ll detect a biological presence on a planet than get a message from extra-terrestrial intelligence.
“The likelihood of intelligent life appearing in the galaxy at the right time and right location, then assuming a message was sent and us being able to receive and understand it as an artificial signal. . . the odds of that happening are very long.
“A great deal of luck would have to be involved for two of these to be there at the same time, to have the communication abilities and the right stage of technological development to be able to say ‘this is a message from another star system’ and set up a dialogue. Then there would be the frustration of the time lag, years and years between messages.”
It would make having a conversation rather like a lengthy game of verbal ping pong, a slow- motion chat that might start in your teens with a tentative ‘Hi’ and only get to the ‘how are you?’ bit by the time you’ve hit middle age.
Death from old age would probably occur well before hitting the “do you have green skin and carry a light sabre” element of the questioning which, let’s face it, is what most of us want to know.
And so, until Dr Forgan can tell us different, it seems we’ll just have to rely on Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr Who for any close encounters of the alien kind for at least a little bit longer.
• Into Deep Space, which features details of Dr Forgan’s work, and a second astronomy film, Close Distance, recording comparisons between an amateur “citizen science” stargazer and a professional astronomer, will go on tour later this month. For details of where to see them, go to www.roe.ac.uk/vc/content/wywhexoplanets . Follow the Royal Observatory on Twitter @RoyalObs and Dr Duncan Forgan @dh4gan.
LAST April, two walkers claimed to have found the rotting body of a dead alien in Siberia.
The corpse was 2ft long and bore a remarkable resemblance to movie character ET. It was also strikingly similar to images of an “alien” which emerged in relation to the 1947 Roswell incident, when an unidentified object crashed to ground in New Mexico.
The crash led to speculation that a UFO had landed and its occupants were being held captive, and spawned a whole generation of conspiracy theorists convinced the US government had covered up the landing.
Closer to home, mystery still surrounds what actually happened to Livingston man Robert Taylor in 1979. He was walking up Dechmont Law when he claimed to see a 20ft-diameter, spherical object hovering off the ground.
He described how he was attacked by two smaller spheres and left unconscious for at least 20 minutes, leading to speculation that he had been abducted by aliens.
He never changed his story, right up to his death, aged 88, in 2007.