Over the festive season I’ve greatly enjoyed reading The Humans, by Matt Haig (Canongate, 2013). It’s very amusing. It has a farcical premise. An extra-terrestrial being from a distant civilisation visits planet earth when it becomes apparent that a Cambridge professor of mathematics has got the answer to one of the great unsolved mysteries of number theory; he has proved the Riemann Hypothesis. Homo sapiens is deemed to be a species so unstable as to be unworthy of such knowledge, but fortunately the professor has not yet gone public. The alien’s remit is to eliminate the professor, assume his identity, and then eliminate his immediate family and any associates who might have been told of the proof. The trouble is, the cosmic visitor commits the cardinal error of any anthropologist beguiled by the object of his study. He goes native.
This notion of visitation by beings from another world seems to be endlessly fascinating to us. Famously, Orson Welles made a radio broadcast of his (near) namesake H G Wells’ War of the Worlds that was so realistic that it’s said the population of the United States thought the world had truly been invaded, and there was widespread panic. More recently, in films like Close Encounters of the third Kind, and ET, the aliens are depicted as benign intelligences trying to mentor us and dissuade us from our violent and ultimately suicidal path. My favourite is a cult film from 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which Michael Rennie plays an alien. In addition to an evidently shared fascination with extra-terrestrials, Orson Welles and Michael Rennie had something else in common. They both depicted Harry Lime on screen, Welles in Carol Reed’s film of Graeme Greene’s The Third Man, and Michael Rennie in a TV spin-off that retained little resemblance to the original, aside from the theme tune on the zither, and the brooding atmosphere of a post-war European cityscape with cobbled plazas and abandoned newsstands. The sharp tap of hurried footsteps and a shadow on a shuttered façade, disappearing into an alley. And the twang of the zither…
Tya tya tya tya tyaah – tya tyaaaah….
…the tempo rather quicker, edgier, than you’d remembered. There you were, on the Prater, high above post-war Vienna, with its heavily militarised occupied zones. Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. These two always seemed to be meeting like this, in film, and re-enacting the same painful masque depicting the disintegration through disillusion of a human relationship. Welles’ character was brilliant, charming, charismatic, flawed, Cotton’s unremarkable, industrious, plodding, reliable, faithful. He would gradually and excruciatingly come to the realisation that his friend and hero was not all he’d been cracked up to be. It was like being privy to the death throes of a love affair. In a way that’s what it was. That terrible hang-dog expression of Cotton’s.
Michael Rennie played Lime as a kind of latter day Robin Hood who would never have dreamt of watering down penicillin for personal gain. In the TV spin-off, Lime had a man, a butler after the English style named Brad who, while being intensely loyal to Mr Lime, could barely conceal his distaste each time his master went off with another woman half his age. There was something repugnant to him about the spectacle of a very mature Michael Rennie getting off with another teenager. It wasn’t just the age difference. There was something alien about Michael Rennie. These beautiful young women were allowing themselves to be embraced by the member of another genus; they were falling into the ambit of the antennae and mouthparts of a stick insect from Pluto.
Thus his casting as an alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still was inspired because he definitely had an other-worldly quality. He assumed human form to come to earth to tell us homines sapientes that we were making a terrible mess of our obscure corner of the universe and, unless we all pulled our socks up, we were going to disappear into some cosmic incinerator and good riddance. On this occasion Brad was played by a robot made out of an assemblage of tube balloons. Unlike his master he had not mastered English and had to be addressed in his own tongue.
“Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”
Or words to that effect. You could tell Rennie was an alien because he wore a tunic resembling the short white coat of an orthodontist. Rennie was an interstellar dental hygienist, come to berate us for the level of our decay.
Like the Riemann Hypothesis, the question of whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is a great unanswered conundrum of our time. In The Humans, Matt Haig’s alien is ironically a little dismissive of the notion. At least he points to some deficiencies in the Drake equation. In 1961 Dr Frank Drake produced a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of civilisations in the Milky Way.
N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L
Each variable is a fraction of the element in the equation that precedes it. Hence, rate of formation of stars; of those stars the fraction that have planets; number of planets per star capable of supporting life; of those, the fraction that go on to develop life; of those, the fraction developing intelligent civilisation; of those, the fraction that develop communication; and of those, the window of time during which they communicate.
It crosses my mind that Frank Drake sounds awfully like Francis Drake. Perhaps Dr Drake was preparing to repel an invading interstellar Armada. Is the Drake equation a spoof? To be fair to Dr Drake, you can see that it is not really an argument in support of the hypothesis that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the galaxy. Instead, that is axiomatic and taken as read. So, assuming the conditions in which life can evolve exist elsewhere, how often will it happen? It’s an intriguing question, but equally intriguing to me, perhaps even more so, is the hypothesis that we are alone in the galaxy, and indeed in the universe. There is after all some reason for suspecting this might be so. Our search for signs of intelligent life thus far has drawn a blank. Marconi was sending radio signals across the ocean before the end of the nineteenth century. The transmitters have been broadcasting and the antennae have been listening out for quite some time. We are a noisy planet. In contrast, it’s pretty quiet out there. Still, the universe might be teeming with life but the distances are too vast to detect it. The signals we get from the edge of the observable universe are fifteen billion years old.
But is there any point in making a contention that cannot be proved or disproved? Bertrand Russell made this philosophical point by positing that a teapot is in orbit between Earth and Mars. It’s just too small for our instruments to detect it. Just because we haven’t found it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In fact, even if we haven’t found the teapot after aeons, we can never prove it’s not there.
What would be the implication of being all alone in the universe? We might find ourselves back in a pre-Copernican age, back at the centre of things. The universe looks much the same whichever direction you look. We have as much right to be at the hub as anybody else. Still, I suppose we’d better keep looking out. Perhaps we’ll pick up an intelligent and meaningful signal. What might it be? It could be the proof that the Riemann hypothesis is sound. That would be cool.
Maybe this year.