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“I am convinced there is life on a distant planet”

The astronomer Willy Benz is the first Swiss to lead a space mission. At the end of 2018, the CHEOPS satellite will be launched into the Earth’s orbit where it should characterise distant planets – and help to search for life in space. The following interview was part of the series “Wissenschaft persönlich” on 20 June 2017 in the Stadtbibliothek Winterthur. In the one-hour talkshow, scientists talk about their research and their lives. A video of the entire conversation can be found at:

The astronomer Willy Benz (left) in conversation with Beat Glogger. (Photo: Heinz Diener)

Beat Glogger interviewed Willy Benz

Mr. Benz, you are going to search for Earth-like planets next year. Why?
Willy Benz: Because the question of whether or not we are alone in the Universe is one of the most important questions mankind can ask.

Why is this important for us?
Knowledge is important. It was curiosity that brought mankind out of the caves. Whenever someone invents something it sparks curiosity and others follow suit. There is always someone who asks how something works. At some point, it was understood that the Earth is a sphere that revolves around the sun and that there are other planets. The question must therefore arise if there is life on other planets. Whether or not we are alone is a fundamental question.

You think that there is life somewhere out there, don’t you?
I am convinced of this.

How can you be so sure?
The probability is very high. Outside of our solar system more than 4,000 planets have already been discovered and characterised. It is very likely that some of these planets have conditions that allow for life as we know it.

How many such planets are there?
We only know about those planets closest to us. Assuming that our galaxy corresponds to the distance Bern-Winterthur, then up to now, we have only looked around Winterthur within a radius of 400 meters – and Earth-like planets have already been found within this area. In our galaxy, there are 100 billion stars. And there are 100 billion other galaxies around us. These dimensions are incredible. Why should there only be life on Earth?

Maybe because it was an extraordinary coincidence. Others say it is because a divine will is behind it.
This is also a possibility.

What is more plausible for you? Coincidence or God?
I am a scientist. The question of the origin of life has nothing to do with God.

But you are not an atheist.
No, I was raised Catholic. But one has to separate science and religion. One cannot prove the existence of God with science, and one cannot explain the origin of life with religion. Science asks how nature works whereas religion asks why it exists.

Don’t you ever ask yourself why?
Of course, one cannot avoid the question of the meaning of life. But I do not mix the two. For me, God is not a force that created the universe and life.

What do you say to someone who believes that the Earth was formed 6000 years ago?
I say that this is faith and not knowledge. We can prove when dinosaurs lived, when the planets formed and life originated. When the Bible speaks of the beginning, one cannot take it literally. Science can calculate time zero, which was the Big Bang.

What was before?
We do not know.

Was it God after all?
No, at some point we will be able to explain how it happened. Religion would then be responsible for coming up with the reason why it happened.

Are we looking for the right evidence? Life on other planets could look quite different than we imagine.
That is possible. But you can only look for something that you already have an idea about. We know what traces of life as we know it on a planet look like – so we look for them. When I look for something, but do not know what it looks like then I do not know if I’ve found it. If life on other planets is not carbon-based, we probably will not recognize it.

Why does science assume that there is not only extraterrestrial life, but even intelligence?
This is because intelligence is a logical consequence of evolution. At some point somebody built a tool, thereby gaining a clear advantage for survival. So, if life on another planet is very likely, then so is the probability of intelligence. Although this sounds logical, it is important to confirm this with observations or measurements.

Some politicians insist that research should show economic benefits in order to receive funding. The search for intelligent aliens probably does not fall into this category.
Of course it does.  In order to gain this knowledge, we are building new instruments and developing new technology. These have value. For example, the Internet was originally designed to allow physicists to better share their data. Today, it is of global economic importance. Or the weather app on the smartphone, GPS, everything we use today, was once a gadget used by researchers.

Suppose that there is only life on Earth. Would this life not be much more wonderful and valuable?
Absolutely. But this would also be the case if we discover that life exists elsewhere. For this will be very far away. We will hardly be able to exchange information or even travel there. Life on Earth is valuable, whether we are alone in the universe or not.

Categories: External Newsletter

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