Conversations with Richard Fidler - ABC Radio | 16 February 2006
Many of us, as kids, dream about becoming an astronaut and meeting aliens; Paul Davies and Wilson da Silva are a hair's breadth away from achieving those dreams.
Wilson da Silva initially indulged his love of space by working as a science journalist for many years. He launched the highly acclaimed Cosmos magazine last year (billed as a magazine of "ideas, science society and the future"), when Richard Branson announced he was setting up a private space shuttle service - Virgin Galactic - for tourists who'd like an authentic taste of zero gravity.
Wilson will be one of the first passengers on these commercial flights into space. It's been a dream he's had since he was a child. "I can remember, when I was a child, having read all this science fiction... dreaming of being in a space suit and exploring outer worlds."
He believes the new Virgin space plans is completely revolutionary. "[It's] a solution that does not involve heat shields, unlike the Russians and Americans, who use titanium. [It's] a completely aerodynamic solution... it actually turns into a shuttlecock and gently floats down to earth... Billions of dollars of investment by both the Americans and the Russians have never solved this," he says.
Despite this sophisticated design, Wilson does have some concerns about his berth on a space flight. "Looking at the number of people who've been into space, there's about a three percent 'no coming back' rate, which is unacceptably high if you're flying planes - but [it's] better than going to Everest!"
Paul Davies holds the position of Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University. Excitingly, he's also just been recently appointed to chair the Post-Detection Committee for SETI: the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (yes, that was the organisation featured in the film Contact).
Paul has also always been fascinated by 'outer space': "It's a cross between a dream and a nightmare that I'm in space," he says. "There's usually something going a bit wrong - a hole in the spacecraft and the air's leaking out, but sometimes I'm on the moon, and it's not barren. There are trees and things. I've had this all my life. I've always been totally fascinated and totally scared by space."
Paul has been looking at how aliens would potentially try to make contact with us on Earth. "Would they be using radio?" he asked. "They would regard that as a very primitive technology, but if we wanted to contact a last tribe in Papua New Guinea, we wouldn't be sending them anything sophisticated... We would... adapt our technology to what is appropriate to them.
"[Actually] travelling from star system to star system in the flesh is a very inefficient way of communicating with your neighbours," Paul continues. "It's much cheaper to send photons either in the form of light signals, or laser signals... They may be using some technique that we haven't even dreamed of and it may be difficult for us to detect that they're there."
Chances are, if aliens do make contact, Paul will be one of the first people to know about it. "If ET phone up on my watch, I'll be the second person to know... This will be an awesome responsibility because not only the fate of mankind, the fate of the planet, but the fate of the entire galaxy may rest on my decisions."