600 PEOPLE / Third Angel

Imagine the world with a population of only 600 individuals. It might seem a quaint notion now that there are 7 billion of us occupying Earth, but 180,000 years ago, it really happened: humans nearly went extinct.

The tenacity of intelligent life on our planet, and its scarcity on others, are ideas that frame 600 People, a show about whether we are alone in the universe. Alex Kelly, our entertaining lecturer, reminds us about the Voyager 1 probe, a spacecraft sent out into the cosmos with a message of peace and friendship. In four decades and 12 billion miles of travel, it hasn’t found anyone to talk to. 

So is there anyone out there? Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist, once reasoned that aliens should already have visited us, given the number of heavenly bodies whirling around the night sky. More recently, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee have argued that complex life requires such an improbable combination of circumstances that Earths like ours may be very rare indeed. 

Kelly suggests we may have sent Voyager out simply to convince ourselves there could be someone waiting for us to call. Beliefs and fables, he says, helped us through our faltering stone-age days – so maybe alien life is a modern myth we need for survival.  

To answer our ongoing questions about life, the universe and everything, high-tech unmanned craft like ESA’s Rosetta probe are one approach. But what if we could invent a new species more suited to exploring space than us?

Crispr is a new genome editing technique based on a naturally-occurring process our cells use as a defence mechanism. It has short-term potential for improving crops, and longer-term promise for curing disease. But, muses Kelly, it could also offer a way for us to adapt the human body for the rigours of space. Then we could send out a crewed mission as far as we wanted – it just wouldn’t be homo sapiens going to meet our alien friends. (RM)

 600 People ran at the Northern Stage at Summerhall until August 27th - https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/600-people 

Listen to the messages sent on the Voyager spacecraft: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/sounds.html

NASA adds to the number of known planets, now around 3000: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/05/10/nine-more-planets-which-could-hold-alien-life-found-by-nasa/

The Rosetta space mission ends after helping test the idea that material from comets could have played a key role in the appearance of life on Earth: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/10/rosetta-space-probe-mission-farewell-collision-course-comet-67p-philae 

Ward and Brownlee’s book that popularised the Rare Earth Hypothesis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_Earth_(book)

Crispr gene-editing technology: http://gizmodo.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-crispr-the-new-tool-1702114381

Tim Urban’s accessible talkthrough of the Fermi Paradox: http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html