Yesterday I picked up this incredible book titled “First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” edited by Ben Bova and Byron Preiss. Okay, it’s a bit dated at 1990, but still worth a read, with articles by Isaac Asimov, Frank Drake, Arthur C Clarke and many others. It asks such probing questions as – what is intelligence? What is life? Why the heck haven’t we been contacted yet? Where is everybody?
Come to think of it, where is everybody? Of course, ancient texts are full of curious stories that resemble close encounters of the alien kind.
The Prophet Ezekiel saw four living beings glowing brightly, descending from the centre of a cloud. Each apparently had four wings and four faces, and a tall wheel rimmed with eyes. Say what?
The early Sumerians had the amphibious Oannes, a fish-like being who “gave them an insight into letters and sciences and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge.” (Berossus)
Others see spacemen in the 10,000-year old rock drawings of Val Camonica, Italy, or the structure of chemical formulae in the Ural pictograms of Russia.
Ancient astronaut theories abound in our literature. Writers such as Erich von Däniken, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, Zecharia Sitchin, Robert K. G. Temple, David Icke, and Peter Kolosimo have put forward numerous theories that we were visited by aliens in our ancient past, or even that we are descended from such aliens. Astrophysicist Thomas Gold, for instance, suggested a ‘garbage theory’ for the origin of life – life on Earth might have spread from a pile of waste accidentally dumped on our lovely planet by clumsy aliens. God, in other words, is an extraterrestrial.
Now, there is no real scientific proof for any of this. You can interpret myths, religious texts and ancient cave art any way you like. The fact is, sadly, that there is no evidence of life in the universe apart from our green and blue planet. No alien signals have been detected by the valiant SETI Institute. No hidden lasers lurk in secret tombs. The Roswell UFO incident was not about a UFO but about a weather balloon (or maybe not. Who knows?)
So are we alone in the universe?
Of course we aren’t. We can’t possibly be. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And the universe is too vast, the definition of ‘life’ too broad. The question is not framed correctly. Let us ask instead, is there intelligent life out there that has developed space-faring technology? It doesn’t matter if they’re really ‘out there’, if a gazillion light years separate us from them.
Frank Drake’s famous 1961 equation defines N, the number of transmitting civilizations in our galaxy, as the product of seven factors:
N=R* fp ne fl fi ft L
R* = the birth rate of stars in our galaxy, number per year
fp = the fraction of stars with planet
ne = the number of planets per solar system that are suitable for life
fl = the fraction of such planets that actually spawn life
fi = the fraction of planets with life that evolve intelligent life
ft = the fraction of planets with intelligent life that produce technologically capable life
L = the average lifetime (in years) of a technological society
If you’re a pessimist, you might decide that N = 1, i.e. we are the only technologically capable species in the galaxy. Carl Sagan, that wonderful optimist, said N could be a million. Frank Drake himself put it at a more modest 10,000.
Of course, Drake’s equation needs three new factors to guess at probability of contact with an alien civilization:
V – the velocity with which an interstellar culture grows into space
Lz: The life time of a zone of colonization
A: Approach / Avoidance factor – how likely is it that a) we would notice them and b) they would approach us?
And this brings me back to the question of why we haven’t been contacted yet. What explains the Great Silence? Listed below are a few favorite explanations:
1. We are actually alone. Intelligent life is much rarer than we think, and we are the first, the ‘Elder’ race.
2. Advanced species communicate in ways that we cannot detect, or live in dimensions we cannot conceive of.
3. We are perceived as too dangerous, the Earth too unattractive, to risk contact
4. We’re in an undesirable neighbourhood, the spiral arm of the Milky Way, exposed to cosmic debris and other dangerous events that aliens would rather avoid.
5. Most intelligent life in the universe has developed in ‘water worlds’ – beings with no hands to develop tools or use fire.
6. We’ve been contacted already – we just don’t know it.
What do you like to believe?
About the ‘Silence’ and why we haven’t been contacted yet, I would go for Point 1 – I believe we are the first – the Elders.
A safe and boring assumption and therefore I will not make it.
Fantastic post!! I love it. Plus I need to grab a copy of the book. I personally think there has to be something out there besides us. What a waste of space if we’re the only ones here.
With the tiny flicker of time we’ve been around it’s impossible to say nothing came before Humans. And with the incredibly vast and growing number of other galaxies that we share the universe with it’s utterly ridiculous to believe there isn’t another intelligent species around. As you said, if another species is a bazillion light years away, we’ll probably never meet or speak with them. Although, the way technology is zooming along, it might not take too long to fly great distances in a short time. NASA is currently looking into the very real warp drive (yes the one from Star Trek). I don’t remember the name of the scientist who invented the formulaic equations or the guy who is revising and continuing the research, but they’re getting very close. Exciting times!
Love the post, Rati!
Thanks Joseph. You’re thinking of Alcubierre’s Warp Drive? In 2012 NASA constructed an interferometer that can detect the spatial distortions produced by the expanding and contracting spacetime of the Alcubierre metric. Name of the guy is Harold White. Exciting times indeed!
Yes! That’s them. I probably should have just looked it up, hehe. It’s very exciting stuff! From what I’ve read they just need to get the spacial distortion bubble to stabilize (for protection of those inside). Very cool. Again, I love the post.
We’re actually #4 on the Top Ten Intergalactic Must See Tourist Destinations. Trouble is the rest of the universe runs on a very different time scale than us, so we get an influx of tourists every ten thousand years or so.
Excellent reasoning! That means we’re due for another influx soon. Can’t wait!
Perhaps the Hubble Space Telescope, or its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will one day send back an unexpected image. The photo will show an unknown space telescope as it is taking a picture of the Hubble. Thus, this far-flung alien race will learn of our existence at the same time we learn of theirs. Cosmic kizmit! I really enjoyed your post. Your assertion that we aren’t alone in the universe, we’re just phrasing the question wrong is excellent. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I love that!
That would be really cool – like looking into a keyhole to find another eye there. Great story idea! Thanks Linda.
I like your work with numbers–especially since it jives with mine (but I’d still like them nonetheless), One thing though–it matters little to me whether we ever make contact. Knowing we are not alone is more than sufficient.