Are We Alone?
This essay explores the question, Are we alone
in the universe? Is there life in other parts of the universe? If we are the only
life in this vast universe, that is astounding. If we are not, that is equally
astounding. You might think the only sane approach with the lack of evidence is to be
agnostic. I argue that we should presume there is life elsewhere until we find evidence
Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case,
the thought is staggering.
~ Richard Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller
(1895-07-12 1983-07-01 age:87)
Man has a collective ego that makes him want to believe he is terribly
special and unique. He lied to himself for centuries that the earth was the center of the
universe. He puffed himself claiming he was made in God’s image.
Galileo Galilei, Darwin and the VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array radio telescope)
successively humbled him and pointed out he was nothing special. I expect this trend to
continue. The earth is just as average run of the mill planet in the backwater of an
average galaxy, of no special cosmic significance. We love it dearly, but that is only
because we live here.
The Grand Assumption
Though we have only put foot on the moon, we confidently
assert that the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe. The rest of the
universe is made of the same elements as matter here on earth. We came to this conclusion
by careful study of spectral light from the stars. Physics is the same everywhere.
Biology is just a branch of physics/chemistry that studies carbon, so we should expect
the same biology in places in the universe with similar conditions to earth.
The Fish Analogy
Let’s say you went to New Zealand and studied a mountain
lake and discovered lo, it had fish. What would be your natural assumption be about other
similar lakes? Most people would, as a working assumption, presume they too had fish. Yet
most humans do the opposite when it comes to extra-terrestrial life. They claim
"This is an holy lake blessed by God. It is impossible any other lakes could have
fish in them. Only crazy people believe in fish they haven’t seen."
A scientist says, "We have only studied one lake so far. It has fish. The odds of
this being the only lake with fish is thus quite remote since there is nothing special
about this lake."
Life Is Easy
For many years, we believed that creating life was exceedingly
difficult. It was something only a God could do. Now, any undergraduate geneticist can
create simple organisms like an HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus)
virus or a polio virus using gene sequencing. We have discovered organic molecules are
common in space. We discovered that the basic amino acid building blocks automatically
form from the action of lightning on a mixture of gases similar to the early
earth’s atmosphere. We discovered that life appeared almost the instant the earth
cooled. It looks like either life was seeded from space like dandelions, or arose
spontaneously. The chemistry of carbon naturally gives rise to life with little prodding.
If it happened so easily on earth, it surely would happen pretty well anywhere
Where Are the Little Green Men?
Keep in mind that earth has had life for hundreds
of millions of years and only in the last blink of an eye did it evolve little white men.
Only in the last few decades did it house ones capable of advertising their presence to
the universe by broadcasting I Love Lucy reruns.
I believe life is abundant in the universe, but technological life like ours is
We most likely will not be here in 100 years. We will either
nuke ourselves back to the stone age, kill ourselves with biological warfare, destroy our
ecosystem with global warming, or simply be unable to sustain the complex technology that
supports our huge populations. We are like monkeys experimenting in a fireworks factory.
We are smart enough to get into trouble, but not smart enough to use restraint to avoid
killing ourselves. We evolved our intelligence too quickly.
I presume this is a universal problem. Most intelligent species kill themselves off
within 100 years or so after attaining the ability to
communicate across the cosmos. It takes millions of years to evolve another stab at it.
At any one time, then, there are not many intelligent species out there.
What kinds of technological species would manage to hang in there for a
million years or so? They would have evolved their intelligence slowly. They would be
extremely cautious and conservative. They would know to keep well hidden to avoid being
attacked by predatory species. Any sane animal keeps a low profile in a hostile or
Humans are like sacrificial goats bleating to the universe. Come and get me! We are so
we have absolutely no idea what dangers may lurk out there.
Won’t Anyone Talk To Us?
Advanced technology in the wrong hands will only
harm. A wise extraterrestrial civilisation would carefully encode any messages it
broadcast so that a primitive race like ours could not read them and misuse them. To us
they would just look like static.
Are We Being Observed?
Since it takes too long to physically travel interstellar
distances, I would imagine, if we were being monitored, it would be from a great
distance, or via miniaturised electronics disguised as various natural objects, perhaps
as small as grains of sand.
The extraterrestrials would look upon us the way we study the habits of some
endangered monkey. For them, the evolution of a technological species might be a rare
event and something worthy of study, without interference. They would know our odds are
remote of us surviving more than another century, but we would be interesting just the
same, partly for the sheer entertainment value. Man has got to be one of the strangest
creatures. Perhaps we appear on the Milky Way’s Funniest Home Videos or Wild
Though everyone should remain agnostic until we have at least
investigated the earth-like planets of a few other stars, I think the working assumption
should be that the rest of the universe works by the same physical and biological laws as
here. Since there are billions of earth-like planets, there have to be billions of
planets supporting life. Intelligent technological life on earth in historic terms has
been extremely rare. I suspect it is similarly rare in the rest of the cosmos. However,
all it would take would be for one technological species with a million year head start
on us, to basically have all the inhabited planets in our galaxy sewn up. We well may be
living on a nature reserve called Planet Earth, kidding ourselves we alone.