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Alien neighbours

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My entire working life has been spent in the financial services sector. It has been a rewarding career and, importantly, it’s paid the bills. But if I had my time over again and I was smart enough (which I am not!), I sometimes think that I would have enjoyed being an astronomer.

The Universe has always fascinated me. Its sheer size and expanse is absolutely mind-blowing. Given the vastness of time and space, I doubt that we will ever truly grasp the fullness of the cosmos. We just don’t know what’s out there, but that has not stopped us from exploring new frontiers.

To this end, scientists recently discovered seven Earth-like planets that could potentially harbour life. The cluster of planets orbits a dwarf star not too far away in cosmic terms. It’s called TRAPPIST-1 and it’s about 40 light-years or 235 trillion miles from Earth.

A next-generation telescope to be built in Western Australia will help scientists determine if there is life on these seven Earth-sized planets located in our galaxy. Since mid-2015, Australian astronomers have been part of the hunt for ET from “the dish” - the famed Parkes radio telescope in NSW.

We humans have come a long way since we believed that the Earth was flat, that the Sun revolved around our tiny planet and that the Greek God, Zeus, controlled lightning and thunder. But our knowledge of the cosmos is still relatively primitive - the endless sea of space remains cloaked in mystery.

However, we are not totally in the dark. We know that our Sun is one of up to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, our little corner of the Universe. The Milky Way, in turn, is one of 170 billion galaxies in the observable Universe and each galaxy, in turn again, is brimming with at least 100 billion stars.

There are more stars in the night sky than grains of sand on the Earth’s beaches and deserts. Each star has on average at least one planet in orbit, so there are trillions of planets in the cosmos. Yet despite the age and enormity of the Universe, we know of only one planet - Earth - that has life.

We have not discovered a single trace of alien life, notwithstanding the high probability of its existence. This contradiction is known as the Fermi paradox. The paradox contrasts the almost certain occurrence of extraterrestrial life with the lack of evidence for such civilizations.

The Fermi paradox is a conflict between an argument of scale and probability and a lack of proof. It is named after physicist, Enrico Fermi, who first proposed the concept in 1950. Fermi essentially asked: If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Galaxy, why do we see no evidence for it?

In 1961, Radio Astronomer, Frank Drake, attempted to answer this question with a mathematical formula. That formula (N=R* fp ne fl fi fc L) has since become known as the Drake Equation and it attempts to estimate how many advanced civilizations might exist in our Milky Way galaxy.

But the multiple variables in the equation are based on probabilities that many scientists believe are impossible to accurately measure. As many have discovered, trying to calculate the probability that extraterrestrial life exists in the Universe is actually quite complicated.

The possibility of life outside our own planet has been the subject of intense speculation and debate since the ancient Greeks. Scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute have stepped up their efforts in recent years to “find ET”.

One day scientists may well find an answer to the question that has captivated our minds for centuries: Are we alone in the cosmos? Meantime, astronomers can but wonder whether we are truly the lonely planet and if anyone is looking back at us. Just in case they are, here’s my cosmic address

Sydney, NSW, Australia
Planet Earth
The Solar System
Orion Spiral Arm
Milky Way Galaxy
Local Group
Virgo Cluster
Virgo Supercluster
Observable Universe

Astronomy certainly makes the life of a credit union CEO sound boring!


Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas