They exchanged a few pleasantries, and then Sara asked, “So, what is it that you want to learn about physics?”
“Maybe it’s physics or maybe it’s astronomy, but I know you study both,” Alex said. “Sara, do you think there are people like us on other planets?” he asked.
“Like us?” Sara said quizzically. “I don’t know that they would be like us, but certainly I think there is a strong probability that there is other intelligent life in the universe,” she added.
“Why wouldn’t they be like us?”
“Perhaps a better question is ‘why would they be like us’?” Sara said. “Their environment would be different, their chronology would be different — their planet could be much older or much younger than Earth. There are a lot of factors that would cause them to evolve very differently than we have.”
“I see,” Alex responded. “There probably are intelligent beings out there, but they are probably different from us?”
“Yes,” Sara said.
“OK,” Alex said. “Now suppose those intelligent beings were a thousand light-years away. Would they be able to communicate with us?”
“Well, we might be able to detect each other’s communications signals, but it would just be gibberish,” Sara responded. “For one thing, we would have a language problem. Even if you think in terms of machine languages, it would still be very different probably. Then, there is the problem of time. If our communications signals traveled at the speed of light, it would take a thousand years for them to reach the other planet. Even if we could ask them questions in a language they understood, we would have to wait two thousand years for the answers. Not a very effective way to communicate.”
“I see,” Alex said. Clearly, this was a problem for Jack Goodman’s story. There was no way that Apollo and his brother on Uor could know about the climate-change debate happening currently on Earth. Moreover, there would be no way to communicate instructions to Jack Goodman. “There could never be a real time conversation, then?” Alex asked.
“Not based on any technology that we have today. That’s not to say that other planets might not be more advanced though,” Sara said. “The conventional wisdom in physics today is that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. There have been some strange findings at CERN — the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland — but nothing that’s been confirmed.”
Sara paused for a moment and cocked her head slightly as if a new thought had occurred to her. “There is a concept called quantum entanglement. The theory is that certain electrons are somehow connected, and that they vibrate in unison, even if separated by many light years. If you could construct communications devices from these particles by some means, they would communicate in real time, even if separated by a large distance. In that situation, the speed of light would not be a factor.”
“That sounds pretty far out,” Alex said.
“It is far out based on the knowledge that we have today,” Sara said. “Einstein even called it spooky. However, our understanding is changing all the time. Look at what’s happened in just the last century or so. It wasn’t that long ago that we couldn’t conceive of heavier-than-air machines that fly, GPS devices, or so many other things. Just image what we might discover in the next hundred years. Then imagine the next thousand years and the next ten thousand years. The possibilities for science are virtually unlimited.”
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