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When E.T. comes calling

Tom Feilden | 11:32 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

The Monster Of Peladon from Dr Who You could be forgiven for thinking that a two-day conference entitled Is There Anybody Out There? and featuring debates on how to handle First Contact, and what aliens might look like, would be attended by some pretty strange individuals - probably wearing a good deal of silver latex and blue make up.

But you'd be wrong. The two-day conference that kicks off in London today has been organised by the Royal Society and features some of the leading international figures from the fields of astronomy, astrophysics and biology.

The discovery of hundreds (the current total stands at 424) of planets orbiting far off stars has brought the prospect of finding life elsewhere in the universe tantalisingly close.

According to Dr Alan Boss, author of The Crowded Universe, there are almost certainly billions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone.

He bases that calculation on mathematical modelling of the processes of planetary formation - something astronomers are confident they understand well - and then by multiplying the result by the number of sun-like stars. It's quite a leap, but even if he's way off, with hundreds of billions of stars to choose from the chances are still high.

"Most solar type stars are going to have something earth-like orbiting around them, and a good fraction of those planets are going to be habitable. That is orbiting at a distance from their star where liquid water can exist at or near the surface."

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Whether there will be life on earth-like planets is, of course, still an open question. But it's incredible how quickly the debate has moved on from "if" there's life elsewhere in the universe to how we should deal with its discovery.

The professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at Cambridge, Simon Conway Morris, believes we should err on the side of caution. Alien life could be disconcertingly like life on earth, and that could be a problem because we don't have a great record when it comes to exploiting new territory.

Far more likely is the discovery that life exists in a more basic form - some sort of primitive bio-chemical goo. But even that will have a profound impact on the way we think about our place in the grand scheme of things, according to John Zarnecki - who has helped to organise today's event.

"We need to start thinking about the implications for society, for religion" he says, "If, or when, we find evidence of extra terrestrial intelligence".

Whatever form alien life takes, the geneticist Sean B. Carroll believes it will have Charles Darwin's fingerprints all over it.

"If life is a replicating form of whatever it may be, then there's going to be competition among individuals for resources. That competition is going to be won by the fittest in each generation. Darwinian principles will apply."

Some things it seems, death, taxes, evolution by natural selection, are simply universal.

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