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Serious Science: is there alien life in the universe? Part 2

Wednesday, 7 May 2008 — by

Is there alien life out there in the universe, or are we alone? That is perhaps the most profound question we can ask. After all, even loneliness can be a shared experience…

In the first installment, I looked at how powerful a force life is here on Earth and explored the prospects of life existing elsewhere in the universe.

In this second installment, I’ll be looking at the prospect of other intelligent life in the universe, our place in the grand scheme of things, and how we as a species may well be at a crossroads in our destiny…

Life in the universe

As we learn more about our universe, we learn more about our place and of our role in this growing and ever-evolving symphony of planets, stars and galaxies, hurtling outwards into the near limitless void of space.

Intelligent life beyond our own

Even if we had the faculties to answer the question of whether there is alien life out there, we’d first need to qualify that question; at what point in time would we prefer to begin our search?

To simplify that question, right now, I am alone in my room. However, at some earlier point, there were other people in this room as well as adjacent rooms, previous to our family living here.

The only signs of their being here is a crudely daubed name on one of the outside walls. Right now, our crudely constructed radio messages and transmissions are pulsing out into the surrounding galaxy.

Might we expect to see similar evidence, in our house, or in our neighbourhood we call the Milky Way? We would expect so, but the speed at which radio waves travel and the distances of space they must permeate mean that detecting such transmissions is an onerous task.

So because the universe is so immensely vast in size & age, if life does exist, vast civilizations much greater than our own may have risen, flourished and vanished in the aeons before life arose here on Earth. Or, other civilizations might well be flourishing right now, but be too distant for us to detect our mutual existence.

Also, for those civilizations contemporaneous to our own, the distances between our worlds may be too immense to cross, even if we did know of each other. But might there be a way to traverse these vast expanses of space by more efficient means?

“Every year, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics awards prizes for the best papers presented at its annual conference. Last year’s winner in the nuclear and future flight category went to a paper calling for experimental tests of an astonishing new type of engine.

According to the paper, this hyperdrive motor would propel a craft through another dimension at enormous speeds. It could leave Earth at lunchtime and get to the moon in time for dinner.”

This body of work was provided by a German theoretical physicist by the name of Burkhard Heim in 1957. If such thinking was possible back then and taken so seriously today, might this be a solution to the space travel of tomorrow?

We now know that rocket-propelled vessels are limited and essentially useless for traveling any distance further than the confines of our own solar system.

Even the experimental ion propulsion systems being used in a number of probes right now offer limited range and speed. What we need is a means of propulsion that is capable of moving a vessel at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light — that being 186,000 miles per second. However, that’s the stuff of another topic, some other time.

Life in a petri dish — the symmetries of scale

Agent Smith from The MatrixWe are not as smart as we like to think we are. In fact, as a species, we’re barely smarter than any species of virus.

Place bacteria into a petri dish and soon you’ll see the resultant offspring consume all of the resources available to them, after which those bacterial colonies eventually, and quite literally, choke on their own shit.

I’m reminded of a scene the from the movie, The Matrix. In this scene, the computer-generated Agent Smith program has the enigmatic hacker / freedom fighter Morpheus held captive, where he begins with the retelling of his thoughts on the human race and how he believes we’re comparable to a virus:

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed.

The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure.”

The analogy is a cuttingly accurate characterization of how we humans break the equilibrium. We are like a virus and this revelation is no surprise to me. In fact, this fictional observation is very much in line with my own thoughts, what I call similarities across scales of size and proportion:

“The virus has no idea that the demise of the host is an inevitable byproduct of its thirst for existence and survival.

The virus merely wishes to spread beyond the host and to infect further hosts by making use of the resources of the first.

On a small scale, the virus desires to leave the confines of the small world in which it exists, to make that perilous voyage through that of most dangerous and treacherous mediums before hopefully arriving on hospitable and fertile territory conducive to its survival.

Thus, the human species endeavors to spread throughout space and to colonize other planets, making efficient use of the resources available to us.”

However, while we’re close to causing irreparable damage to our environment with our pollution and waste, we’re not the first organism to damage the environment:

“… which creature polluted its own environment to such an extent that it caused a massive change in the whole of the global climate? A creature that destroyed almost all of its contemporaries by poisoning them with its effluence. A creature that ruined the oceans, leaving them almost barren of life.

Why a strain of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria some two and a half billion years ago, of course!”

Further to this, our act of polluting the world we live in may well be an entirely natural process:

“My theory was a simple enough concept: all creatures are polluters, just on different scales. Our particular brand of pollution is on a far bigger scale than the dog, but the problem is just the same.”

But is it also a natural process that we learn to manage our environment?

We mirror on the largest scale the efforts of our most distant relatives on possibly the smallest scale of all life — at the microscopic.

Life as a race

Let us now assume life is indeed everywhere, spread across the vast emptiness of space, hidden in those far-off galaxies, observed through powerful telescopes.

If we accept that life is inevitable and that the processes of life are broadly the same from the bacteria right up to humans, then what if life is a race?

Let’s say that there are billions of planets bearing life, most of which are simple single-cell life forms, no more complex or ambitious than the bacteria here on Earth.

Of the remainder, 100 million planets play host to more complex life, similar to the flora & fauna of the prehistoric Earth.

Of this remaining number, 1 million planets are populated by creatures developmentally comparable to early humans, well versed in animal husbandry, agriculture and exhibiting recognizably sociable lives, customs and practices.

Of this remaining number, 100,000 planets are similar to our own, with advanced life beginning the fumbling and faltering process of harnessing the full potential of their world, while casting scrutinizing eyes on worlds beyond. These species are, like us, at a way point in their evolution; they must resolve to learn the ways of the custodian.

Those races that fail to see their new role on their world will ultimately exhaust and deplete its natural resources before they can reach out to colonize other worlds. Their civilization descends into ever more desperate wars. In the end, they destroy themselves.

Of this remaining number, 10,000 planets are at the centre of a vast empire, spanning great swathes of their host galaxy. Soon after they reconciled their racial differences and divorced themselves from their primitive religions, their sociocultural development was placed in lockstep with their scientific advancements. Their rate of knowledge acquisition begins to accelerate massively.

These races now harness the power of entire stars. And rather than their populations growing, they instead shrink to more manageable numbers, with each citizen serving a distinct purpose. Spread across their vast empires, their genetically augmented species total less than the population of present day Earth; 6 billion or so.

Of this remaining number, and after an almost inconceivably long period of time, only 1 civilization remains. And their home planet? Gone. Vapourized hundreds of millions of years earlier, when its parent star died in a spectacular explosion.

This remaining civilization is at the very furthest edge of time in this present iteration of our universe, some 13.2 billion years from now. They have fathomed all things and their knowledge is almost without bounds. Yet they are once more truly alone.

They survey the skies. Detecting long ago that the galaxies had slowed, the fading red shift of the light spectrum meant that what remained of these massive celestial aggregations of matter we once called galaxies had halted. They await the blue shift, when all remaining matter begins its inexorable return to that one point in space — the singularity.

Such is the age of the universe, the very atomic structure begins to weaken and dissolve. The once star-strewn sky is blacker than ever and the galaxies are but seething whirlpools of decaying primordial froth. Spinning vortices of dead or dying stars pouring into the yawning jaws of colossal black holes.

Now, those that survive turn their attentions to strategies that would allow them to escape the very death of the universe itself.

an image of a galaxy

Are we alone?

Right now, we could be amongst those 100,000 planets. We already know that we’re at a crossroads in our evolution and the road we take now is a route we cannot return from. To choose is to remove all other possible options from our path.

Unlike my father, I am confident we will mature as a species and do away with those things that bind us to our ignorant and wasteful past. We will because we have to if we wish to survive.

Where the virus and the bacteria swell, multiply and then either harm or destroy their host, we are different in one simple but vitally important way — we are aware of the damage we’re inflicting on our world.

There are some 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Of the observable universe, there over 100 billion galaxies. Even if we assume that each star has on average but 3 planets in orbit, this is still a monumentally huge number planets.

Are we to believe that out of this number, followed by a dizzying succession of zeros, there is but one planet that bears life? Those odds are unimaginably long to the point of being ridiculous.

The first radio waves produced over 90 years ago have since propagated forward and washed over the nearest star to us beyond our own, Proxima Centauri in the constellation Centaurus, situated 4.24 light years away.

If there are others more advanced than us, maybe they are aware of our presence. However, might they also be aware that we are at a crossroads? Might they look upon our species as an ignorant virus, attempting to flee its ailing host?

That might explain some of the silence in our neighbouring galaxy. In our presence, they choose to communicate via other means, to avoid their words being heard by ears here on Earth.

As always, to learn is to endeavor. If our species is to move beyond this fixed point in our evolution, we will travel the length & breadth of our galaxy if that is what’s required to find signs of life, irrespective of size or assumed intellect…

Recommended reading

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Comment and be known

Sizz → Tuesday, 17 June 2008 @ 17:36 BDT

Very impressive reading! Thank you for that. There has been talk lately of a “Great Filter” through which emerging civilizations must pass, to survive, and not many do. It may well be that this Great filter has been pinpointed here in this article.

Here, in my humble opinion, and in the words of this profound article, respected author, is the Great Filter:

…Of this remaining number, 100,000 planets are similar to our own, with advanced life beginning the fumbling and faltering process of harnessing the full potential of their world, while casting scrutinizing eyes on worlds beyond. These species are, like us, at a way point in their evolution; they must resolve to learn the ways of the custodian.

Those races that fail to see their new role on their world will ultimately exhaust and deplete its natural resources before they can reach out to colonize other worlds. Their civilization descends into ever more desperate wars. In the end, they destroy themselves…


Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 18 June 2008 @ 8:53 BDT

Sizz, thanks!

These two articles (as are most of my Serious Science articles) a culmination of my thinking over many years.

We are now quite clearly not in equilibrium with the rest of the planet. I doubt we can ever change that. So instead, by acting as a custodian, we can at least limit and then manage what impact we do have…

Sorry Comments are close. Quite possibly for a good reason. Share your thoughts on some of my other posts or contact me directly.

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