Mark Andrews: The truth is out there – and just eight years away

Here's some positive news for those who think modern technology isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Handout photo of the Cadbury s Smash  For Mash get Smash  commercial which won the Ad of the Century award from Campaign, the UK s advertising trade magazine, Monday December 20, 1999.  PA photo: See PA story MEDIA Ads.  *BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE**
Handout photo of the Cadbury s Smash For Mash get Smash commercial which won the Ad of the Century award from Campaign, the UK s advertising trade magazine, Monday December 20, 1999. PA photo: See PA story MEDIA Ads. *BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE**

Scientists reckon that by 2030 a new brain-powered telescope, the largest known to man, will be able to pick up radio signals originating from alien civilisations.

And if you think of a telescope as being a tube of metal filled with a few glass lenses, it is time to think again. By the time the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is complete in three years' time, a total of 197 satellite dishes and 130,000 antennae will have been installed across South Africa and Australia. Patrick Moore, eat your heart out.

This remarkable feat of technology will is a co-operation between 14 nations, with Britain very much at the forefront. The project's headquarters is at Jodrell Bank, near Manchester. It is British scientists who are producing the prototype electronic "brain" that will power the telescope. And the UK Government – that's you and I – will be the biggest contributor to the project, pledging to chip in at least 15 per cent of the £1.7 billion cost.

And this aspect does leave me in two minds. On the one hand, £1.7 billion – and you can probably double that, it is a publicly funded project after all – does sound an awful lot of money for eavesdropping on some little green men. And what sort of "signals" will we pick up? "Earth people boil their own potatoes rather than use Cadbury's Smash"? Or perhaps they will be more like the clangers, and we will just hear a lot of whistling noises.

On the other hand, I can't help but look back on all the fun I had as a kid making my own crystal sets. I would spend hours trailing cables up the window, fiddling with diodes and potentiometers just for the dubious privilege of hearing the muffled sounds of Radio Luxembourg through a crackly earpiece. Not that I ever had any interest in Radio Luxembourg, which was old hat even then, but the thrill of being able to make my own device that cold pick up sounds being transmitted from another country was mesmerising.

And it is the overgrown kid in me which thinks that, on the whole, the SKA is probably a good thing.

One of the things I love about this part of the world is the way it led the world in industrial technology, from Dud Dudley smelting iron with coke in 1622, his great-great nephew Abraham Darby opening the Coalbrookdale furnace in 1709, through to his grandson Abraham Darby III building the Iron Bridge in 1781. Thomas Newcomen built the first modern steam engine at Dudley in 1712, a concept perfected by James Watt and Matthew Boulton at Handsworth in 1775. And that's before we get to the genius of Thomas Telford and James Brindley, who revolutionised the world's transport networks, or Foster and Rastrick who pioneered the rail industry from a shed in Stourbridge. For the best part of three centuries, the world looked at the English Midlands in amazement and awe, astonished by the way lives were being transformed from a handful of towns at the heart of a small island.

And to that backdrop, I can't help but feel that today's technology seems just a little underwhelming. Smartphones are just a development of what Alexander Graham Bell invented in 1876

On the other hand, the SKA promises to "challenge Einstein’s seminal theory of relativity to the limits, look at how the very first stars and galaxies formed just after the big bang, help scientists understand the mysterious force known as dark energy, and understand the vast magnetic fields which permeate the cosmos." To be honest, I don't really know what much of that means, but you've got to admit it sounds more exciting than glassy-eyed kids staring at Chinese-made mobile phones and MP3 players, doesn't it?

If the Square Kilometre Array can make our jaws drop once more, and bring back the 'wow' factor to British innovation, then it is something we should all celebrate.

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