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Tulane professor offers ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence

New Orleans bureau

Photo For: Tulane professor offers ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence
Advocate staff photo by Patrick Dennis
Physics professor Frank Tipler, in his office at Tulane University in New Orleans, explains his views on the question of extraterrestrial intelligence.
NEW ORLEANS -- Tulane University's Frank Tipler has a message for those still searching the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence -- STOP!

It's not that the mathematical physics professor has found evidence of such intelligence in the universe. He says there's nothing to find.

"We're it," the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate said emphatically. "We're alone."

Tipler's claim takes into account the age of the Milky Way -- the galaxy containing our sun -- and how long it would take a civilization capable of interstellar travel to explore and colonize it.

The Milky Way is roughly 10 billion years old, he says, but the time needed to explore the galaxy is much less than that.

"If they existed, where are they?" Tipler asked. "If they existed, they'd be here."

(For a look at recent research on the existence of planets in other solar systems, see the cover story in today's Parade magazine.)

Critics of Tipler's anti-ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) stance counter that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

"We have evidence -- they aren't here," Tipler said. "How long do you look?"

Listening for intelligent radio signals from outer space -- a practice Hollywood brought to the big screen in the 1997 movie "Contact," which was based on the 1985 novel by the late astronomer Carl Sagan -- has produced no results, he points out.

Some scientists contend that extraterrestrials could be here without ever letting on, that evidence of such life could be written across the sky and we simply can't recognize it.

Not likely, Tipler says, because if the solar system had been visited the signs would be unmistakable -- all the available resources would have been turned into structures.

Even if humans are not everywhere on Earth, he says, the effects of their activities are seen everywhere on Earth.

The way Tipler sees it, the inescapable conclusion is that, if an intelligent race had arisen anywhere in creation, it would have arrived in the solar system by now.

"If these beings want to contact us, it's unavoidable," he said. "Conclusion -- they don't exist."

In addition to being a staunch opponent of the theory that Earth does not hold a monopoly on intelligent life, Tipler -- to the chagrin of fans of the Star Trek television series and the motion picture "Back to the Future" -- says time travel is not possible, at least to the extent science fiction portrays it.

"You can't violate the laws of physics," he said. "You can't jump to the moon."

But Tipler didn't always feel that way. In 1974 he had a paper published in a mainstream science journal about what would be needed to build a time machine to go backward in time. Two years later, he changed his mind.

"I concluded making a time machine was impossible," he said. "I decided time travel was not possible."

Which brings us back to the present, where things begin to get complicated in Tipler's world.

"There is a way of time travel, but not in the natural sense," he said. "Rather than actually going back in time, I think they'll make a virtual reality copy of all past states of time."

The human body and its surroundings will be able to be mapped in a computer, making a virtual copy of yourself and your environment, Tipler said. He calls that human downloads.

If all that sounds far-fetched, have no fear. This form of time travel would be possible only "in the ultimate far future," he says.

"In the far future, it will be all human downloads," Tipler said. "Our descendants will create this.

"Human downloads have such a natural advantage over present-day humans in the environment of space that it is exceedingly unlikely non-downloaded humans will ever engage in interstellar travel," he added. "The stars are to be the inheritance of our downloaded descendants, of the children of our minds rather than our bodies."

It is inevitable that this will happen, Tipler argues, because the sun is going to "wipe this planet out in the next 5 billion years."

"The alternative is death," he said. "The motivation is we want to survive."

Tipler says our downloaded descendants will have the computer capacity to "resurrect us." Those descendants will be able to perfectly simulate us and the entire visible universe, he says.

"This technology is predicted by the laws of physics," Tipler said. "I'm confident in the laws of physics."

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