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TIPPING POINT… LOOKING FOR ALIENS

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IN SEARCH OF CIVILISATION

by Nigel Summerley

What is a sure sign of civilisation? Might it be the rule of law? The creation of beautiful buildings? The composition of great music?

Or might it be the production of vast quantities of garbage?

That appears to be the view from the University of Warwick, where astronomer Dr Don Pollacco, head of a consortium of scientists involved in the £1bn European space telescope project, is based.

Dr Pollaco probably didn’t intend his words to be interpreted in this way… but when talking about the prospects of the telescope (being launched in 2024) discovering an alien civilisation, he suggested that signs of pollution in a planet’s atmosphere would be a momentous find.

“There are certain things you would not expect to occur naturally, and pollution is the obvious one,” he said. “I’m talking about various kinds of metals that would not occur in that state in that atmosphere. You would have to interpret that as a sign of some kind of civilisation.”

Those are our italics – not his. And although perhaps a different meaning was intended, these words do seem quite shocking: in essence, pollution of a planet’s atmosphere equals “civilisation”.

Real civilisation, one hopes, would not cause pollution, or at least would find solutions to dealing with pollution. Real civilisation would work in harmony with the planet and maintain and sustain a balance in all things.

That might sound like an unattainable ideal. But can we call ourselves – or anyone else – civilised until we get a lot closer to achieving it?

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