From this unique location in central Portugal we can observe the planets, almost touch lunar craters or gaze into the deeper recesses of space taking an imaginary cosmic sojourn through distant nebulae towards some far-away galaxies. This special corner of Portugal provides breath-taking views of countless stars that sparkle in one of the clearest night skies in the world.
The Alentejo offers plenty of alternative activities if you're not into star-gazing. If gastronomy trumps astronomy, a huge variety of taste sensations await. Here, close to the Spanish border, there's often a fusion of regional culinary delights to be discovered with dishes from Andalusia, Alentejo and sometimes even the Algarve all wrapped up into one epicurean feast.
No matter what was on the menu, during a recent visit, I enjoyed chilled-out sunsets whilst sipping unique cocktails or a few ice cold beers. I even partook in the surreal pastime of blind wine-tasting - by starlight. Glass in hand, I imagined that this fabulous region might have found favour with the late Dr Carl Sagan. Not only was he a legendary astronomer but he was also a great historian and a renowned visionary. He made astronomy accessible by putting ideas into context. The TV Series 'Cosmos' was an absolute revelation for many would-be astronomers.
It's difficult not to be influenced by such a great mind as Dr Sagan's. Even before I'd read any of his work, my own feelings leaned towards the notion that the universe is fundamentally hostile to terrestrial life. However, Sagan pointed out that we only have "complex life" on Earth as a benchmark by which to test any theories regarding the universe's ability to host life. Most of what lies beyond the sanctuary of our 'blue dot' is likely to prove lethal to complex terrestrial life which has, over millions of years, evolved to live only on Earth. By the same token, the terrestrial environment would likely prove hostile to extraterrestrials; a scenario brilliantly depicted by H G Wells' in War of the Worlds.
Perhaps simple microbial life is commonplace even in our own solar system? But the evolution of complex life would need certain conditions to prevail, all largely reliant on chance. This is why I've always believed that the presence of 'complex life' in the universe might be rare. But, the universe is beyond immense. So, what's the definition of rare in that context?
Then there's the question of how complex life might be deemed intelligent? What qualifies as 'intelligent' and who'd be the judge? Maybe possessing a survival instinct is all that's needed to be deemed intelligent? At the end of the day what good is the appreciation of art, culture, music, literature and so forth to the majority of life-forms on earth - let alone to aliens? Aliens would likely have about as much appreciation of the works of William Shakespeare, Picasso or Mozart as would a Common Mayfly? Survival trumps all. Realistically, intellectual sophistication only matters within certain segments of society. Yet, the appreciation of art or culture seems to be a benchmark by which intellect is broadly measured. Intellectual sophistication in and of itself would appear superfluous beyond the realms of the bourgeoisie? Many of the world's richest and most prominent industrialists rarely regarded themselves as academics or being particularly sophisticated. These people thrive because they're particularly adept at survival.
Not a bright move
I wonder if any extraterrestrial observers would regard humanity as being all that intelligent? Let's face it, we haven't collectively used our abilities for the greater good. As a species we've recklessly devoured finite resources and plundered the only life-sustaining planet that we know. By so-doing, we've polluted and degraded our living environment. Not such a bright move.
The present human population stands at over 7.7 billion. Supporting such a massive population means that there's dwindling capacity to support the rich tapestry of life that's so far been fundamental to the ongoing health of fragile ecosystems. It sometimes looks like human activity could be the catalyst for the next mass extinction event. We all know what's happening, yet seem unwilling to stop it and save our own skins. Is this the hallmark of intelligence? Possessing intelligence and all it affords is all well and good but if we fail to apply it positively, it's surely worthless or even detrimental?
Amidst the essential ingredients for life to emerge on Earth have been plate tectonics, oxygen, the presence of a large moon, a magnetic field, a gas giant like Jupiter which has deflected huge asteroids from impacting the Earth. Animal life took hundreds of millions of years to evolve, unlike bacteria, which were the first forms of life to appear. Bacteria are extremely hardy whereas animal life is fragile, easily succumbing to sudden and severe changes in the environment. Therefore animal life is far more prone to extinction.
Human evolution and our success as a species has almost certainly occurred due to the frailties of other animal life forms that once roamed the Earth. The existence and resilience of microbial life has acted like a 'life' insurance policy. Basically, if a bunch of complex life forms cock it all up or are somehow wiped out by unforeseen natural cataclysmic events, microbes survive. Eventually microbes might evolve into brand new complex forms which may eventually have a stab at domination. What's a few hundred million years between earthlings?
One thing we've concluded is that the universe is immense. Even if other habitable planets do exist, they're probably going to be few and far between. Too far away from each other for any intelligent inhabitants to be able to communicate. So unimaginably vast are the distances between individual stars, let alone galaxies, that by the time any signals pass between them there's a good chance that those worlds would be totally unrecognisable from the ones that originally sent messages. Attempting to contact other civilisations is therefore likely to be a fruitless exercise.
Would extraterrestrials trust humanity anyway? Most animal life on Earth has developed an instinctive fear of humans. Virtually all the environmental degradation and consequent extinctions have been down to human activity. Although we don't deliberately aim to harm our environment, our success as a species has made unsustainable demands on global resources. Aliens can therefore be eternally grateful that we've not "boldly gone to where no man has gone before".
So? Are we alone in the universe? My own conclusion would be probably not. We're never likely to get to know the answer unless we find The Clangers really do live on the moon. The question would then be, who knitted them?
Let me warn you that blind wine tasting by starlight might prove to be an immensely enjoyable experience but when combined with the finer points of astronomy, we could end up hatching a whole lot more questions than answers. I rather suspect, nice as it was, I shouldn't have drank that last glass!