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Of Aliens and Woodpeckers

19 Nov 2019
Nubian Woodpecker Rwd

It’s generally agreed that the universe is made up of a limited collection of stuff – from quarks to carbon, helium to lead. So though alien life would be different, it wouldn’t be out of the ballpark. So where is it?

The first radio broadcast was made by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895, which means for 124 years we have been broadcasting our presence in the universe. Radio waves travel at the speed of light (299 792 km/sec) so we’re already being heard way beyond our galaxy. 

Surely in all that space there must be some beings that invented radio recevers and could broadcast back? Apparently no. Why?

In his book The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee, Jared Diamond says that to explain it we need to consider woodpeckers. Beneath the bark of most trees are tasty grubs and other insects that many birds would desire to eat. 

The woodpecker is the only bird able to reach them. There are many species of woodpecker but most do the same thing: bore holes in trees and slurp up the goodies with a very long tongue.

The puzzle, of course, is why they don’t knock themselves senseless. They peck at 1 000 times the force of gravity, which is like a human hitting a brick wall head first at 25km/h with each peck. And they do it around 12 000 times a day. The kinetic energy is so great they heat up.
Much science has gone into how they manage. It has to do with a specialised beak and skull, a tongue system that acts as a brain seatbelt and pecking straight. But that’s not where I’m heading. We’re talking about aliens, remember?

Many species of bird would benefit from the ability to peck tree holes and have had milions of years in which to adapt. None but the woodpecker has succeeded. Convergence of conditions is not universal and not all opportunities are seized.

Diamond’s point is that even though you have fertile preconditions and time enough to develop a specific life form, it doesn’t mean it will happen. Only one among the billions of species that existed on earth developed radio transmission – and only one other pecked trees.
If radio development had such a vanishingly low probability on earth, we have no reason to believe it to have occurred on the trillions of planets now being alerted by Marconi’s magical invention.

About the Author: 


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

  • Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
  • Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
  • Voices of liberation
  • The Brotherhoods,
  • Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
  • Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
  • Natural Selections,
  • African Journeys,
  • Just add dust,
  • Loveletters to Africa,
  • Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
  • The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
  • Wild as it Gets,

He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.