Alone in the Universe

The Drake equation is the estimate for the number of technological civilizations that may exist in our galaxy. Astronomer Frank Drake came up with a list of specific factors that everyone agrees are essential to the development of intelligent life. The Wiki entry is pretty good and worth reading if you have interest in these things. If you want something a little more casual, has a nice article on it. The Drake equation is pretty much all the alien hunters have at the moment, given that we have zero evidence of life beyond this planet.

The reason for that is a mystery. In fact, it has a cool name as well. It is called the Fermi Paradox. There are billions of stars in the galaxy. The math says there should be millions with planets similar to earth and capable of life. That’s the paradox. The math says there should be lots of earth like planets teaming with life that has evolved for a lot longer than life on earth. Yet, as far as we know, we are alone in the universe, but we keep looking.

This story the other day is interesting.

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory have discovered three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. The new results will be published in the journal Nature on 2 May 2016.

A team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon, of the Institut d’Astrophysique et Géophysique at the University of Liège in Belgium, have used the Belgian TRAPPIST telescope [1] to observe the star 2MASS J23062928-0502285, now also known as TRAPPIST-1. They found that this dim and cool star faded slightly at regular intervals, indicating that several objects were passing between the star and the Earth [2]. Detailed analysis showed that three planets with similar sizes to the Earth were present.

A light year is roughly 5.9 trillion miles so these planets are roughly 240 trillion miles from earth. To put that into some perspective, let’s pretend there is intelligent life on one of these planets. They decide to let us know they are there by using a light signal of some sort to send Morse Code. By the time we received the signal and decoded it, most of the people who sent it would be dead. By the time they got our reply, they would all be dead and most the people on our end would be dead.

Traveling to these planets would be impossible for humans. The fastest space vehicle we have is the upcoming Solar Orbiter that NASA plans to launch in 2018. It will travel at 450,000 miles an hour. If that were configured to haul humans, it would arrive in the vicinity of these planets around the year 62,899. Our astronauts would not even be dust at that point.  Even assuming we can build a vehicle to reach something close to light speed, we’re still looking at having geezers showing up to the alien planet.

The other side of this is that the alien planet could have a species that has solved these technological problems. They have the ability to reach speeds in excess of light and the ability to survive in deep space for extended periods. The challenges of interstellar space travel are many orders of magnitude more difficult than anything we understand. That would most likely mean they are vastly more advanced than humans in every way.

The size of the technological gap between us and them would be something similar to modern humans and australopithecines . Our technology is amazing to us, just as sharp sticks were amazing to Australopithecus. To the people able to conquer interstellar travel, our technology would be the equivalent to the sharp stick. They will do things we cannot imagine doing, much less understand doing.

One of those things, most likely, will be the ability to conceal themselves from us. Interstellar travel will require manipulation of matter on a grand scale. Long before they figured out the Warp drive, they will have figured out how to hide from our level of technology. We’re getting pretty good at hiding from radar and the visible spectrum. Our alien visitors will certainly have expanded this ability into most of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Of course, the ability to control matter at the scales required of Warp drives means they would have the ability to control living matter as well. We like to think we’re complicated and by the standards of earth, we are complicated. By alien standards, we are single cell creatures in a water bath. They would be able to manipulate us just as easily as we control ants and roaches. For all we know, earth is just a really big terrarium anyway.

Then you have the evolutionary issues. Humans today are nothing like the humans of 200,000 years ago. Imagine what we will be like in 200,000 years. Intelligent life in a million years could very well be microscopic organisms living in silica. What if Hawking is more right than he knows and the future of intelligent life is at the smallest of small scale? That means our alien visitors could very well be a dust storm or the single facet of a snowflake.

The point here is that we are alone in the universe, as far we know and as far as we will ever know. By the time we can know otherwise, we will not be us. By the time the aliens can show up and set us straight, they will be so far advanced compared to us we will not be able to detect them anyway. For all any of us can know, we’re just a science experiment for some distant race of life. Earth is a terrarium sitting on a kid’s desk. Regardless, we are alone in this universe and we always will be alone.

39 thoughts on “Alone in the Universe

  1. Scientist are now saying 50% of the mass of the universe is dark. Maybe they’re hiding. From what is the question.

  2. I believe the “universe” is holographic and recommend the late David Bohm’s “Wholeness and the Implicate Order” to anyone interested in the assumption. I’m also a nearly unconditionally convinced Zen practitioner and for anyone with an interest in how that relates to the holographic universe, reading “The Zen Teachings of Huang Po” is sufficient.

  3. We’ll find out when NAFAL interstellar travel is invented. Any day now. Also the ansible. Just around the corner.

  4. Some believe the reason the cosmos are so quiet is because the noisy chick gets eaten. Any cosmic civilization will eventually become a danger to others around it. Thus any artificial radio communications are either a potential danger or a trap to lure somebody into revealing their position.

    Once you know the position of the ‘enemy’ you can simply destroy their planet with a big enough rock. We know how and we’ve barely left our planet.

    • Well, if most information just is perceived as background radiation, and stray neutrinos, then perhaps radiological mutation is just getting shit together. I do not know why organic life would not be a small fish in a really big sea.

  5. Earth is such a tiny, miniscule part of the Universe. How can anyone not want to know about the rest of everything?

  6. I’ve come to the conclusion the universe may be the nursery for many, many sentient beings, but that whoever made the universe didn’t really want them to meet in time and space.

  7. Yes, we are functionally alone so all this back and forth is an exercise in futility. The real issue for me is our space program (and the lack of it).

    We would have already have had an American presence on Mars if it weren’t for all the social programs (“Great Society”, 46 million on food stamps),  Wilson and  FDR setting the stage for Statism (not to mention Communism), trillions spent on wars lost by Democrats beginning with Korea (actually Yalta. Thanks for that Harry Hopkins and FDR) and all the other pernicious bullshit the statist Left has foisted upon us.

    We put men on the moon in 1969 after the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 with computational power in the Apollo capsule less than what we have in a Casio watch today. Even with the dramatically scaled-back Mars Rover missions those two little beasts are still churning out photos and other data including mining results (imagine that: mining on Mars…). For God’s sake, we even went to Pluto.

    Today we can’t get to the ISS without hitching rides with the friggin’ Russians thanks to these woefully misplaced priorities. Just think of all the damn jobs and economic insulin the space program alone would have injected into our economy (not to mention the civic pride all over our great country). We would long ago have established a permanent colony on the Moon as a jump-off point to the Red Planet (and scared the shit out of our enemies to boot).

    The “Long March” by the Frankfort School, like Sherman driving through Atlanta, has eviscerated the heart and soul of our great land. It’s long past time we take some of that surrendered ground back from these parasites. Screw the SETI freaks and the Hussein-odered NASA outreach to the Dirt Worshippers and affirmative action hires.

    Let’s clean house at NASA, order them to take a look back at it’s proud history and hire some people to do just that.

    If congress won’t do it with Trump as POTUS, well than, there’s always executive orders. After all, Chocolate Jesus has already blazed that trail with a flame-thrower. Trump would just be following a proud Democrat tradition.   

    • The space program WAS a socialist program. By the time it hit middle age it was already moribund, and all it did well was to prevent the entry of private enterprise into space. Then old age sank it to lower lows until The One hisself put it out of it’s misery. Curious how we wind up cheering for the wrong side because the enemy has crossed the fence and confused the boundaries.

      • james wilson – I think you’re right. War socialism was the space program’s foundation when it was a race with a deadly rival. Absent that, it has slowly decayed. Collective salvation is an illusion.

  8. Another great read. I find the desperate search for other life and other planets most passionate in folks that are anti-religion and/or Christianity. They are agnostic or athiest, seems, but are determined to find other life, as that validates their view of humans on Earth, the special-ness of Earth, and humans. Much like internationalists within the US are bound and determined to make sure no one thinks the US is a very special country as formed , and must be shown to be not so special and even unfairly prosperous. I could be wrong, but that’s how I see it.

    My favorite quote about the heavens and stars, etc, was… that God put them there, for us to look at , and feel the enormity of it all… but… there’s nothing else out there. We’re a one-off thing. And that’s a good thing. Not a bad thing.

  9. If Einstein rules, the speed of light is an interstellar stop sign. But if he was only as right as, say, Issac Newton, we may be a hot venue on the interstellar tourist map right now. Surely this place is more interesting than a zoo. Until the day comes that somebody explains spooky action at a distance, nobody even knows what’s impossible.

  10. Aliens are flying above our head as we speak. Unfortunately, due to a galactic design flaw, their spacecraft look like clouds.

    Of course, they don’t want to let us know they exist in any event because, you know, that immigrant thing.

  11. “around the year 62,899. Our astronauts would not even be dust at that point.”

    That brought home for me the genius of nature.
    Nested, encoded information endures, even in transitory vessels such as ourselves.

    Big fan of Steven Baxter SF scenarios of the sturdy primate form extending 10, 30, 500 million years in the future.  
    I remember an old story wherein the alien progenitors had stored star tech in beetle DNA, beetles haven’t changed in an absurdly long time.

    Also agree with Bruce Sterling that the best way to colonize space would be rock-hopping the rubble of the Oort cloud, where it intersects with Alpha Centauri’s Oort cloud. Given geological time scales, we could spread widely across some millions of years.
    For a delicious story in that vein, see the terrible fate of far future pirates in “Guest Law”, Asimov’s SF magazine 1994? Earth is long forgotten, centripetal gravity at the rate of 62 feet per second per second is a formula from the ancient mysteries.

    One frightening thought: the life cycle of ant colonies, a twenty year cycle of colonization ending in genocide, has persisted for 200 million years. Can the worst of human social instincts ever change?

    Hey! What happened to HBDChick on the blogroll!

    • Plus, I dream of a time when all that remains of Earth’s lost history is found in an ancient derelict: copies of two hero stories, “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the Destroyer”.

  12. Perhaps other intelligent species aren’t broadcasting their presence for the same reason that deer and rabbits don’t roar or howl at the moon – there are predators.

    • I think that is called the ‘Hunters of the Dawn’ theory. As civilizations rise and begin to emit RF noise, xenophobic alien races immediately dispatch a planet killer; a comet, a black hole, or democrats…

  13. Even assuming we can build a vehicle to reach something close to light speed, we’re still looking at having geezers showing up to the alien planet…..

    Not so as the closer you travel to the speed of light the more time slows down so the astronauts on the spaceship would still be young but their twin siblings on Earth would be geezers.

    I grew up in the 1970s and remember predictions that we would have a manned base on Mars by 2014….

  14. >> Then you have the evolutionary issues. Humans today are nothing like the humans of 200,000 years ago. Imagine what we will be like in 200,000 years.

    All evidence indicates that humans are finished evolving, at least in any sort of meaningfully positive way. Existing technology has all but conquered the environment, eliminating they type of competitive adaptation pressures which caused the species to evolve. Population growth is now dysgenic rather than eugenic and average IQs are falling. Most humans of the future are quite likely to be dumber than most humans of the present, hence Idiocracy.

    Competitive adaptation of the human species may resume if we lose the race between bacteria and antibiotics or in response to a viral epidemic. HIV would have wiped out much of the population of Africa had the West not intervened. The population of Africa was approximately 475 million in 1980; it is 1.2 billion today and will double in the next 10-15 years. I am not a young man and I fully expect to see Western Europe become majority African in my lifetime.

    • “Population growth is now dysgenic rather than eugenic and average IQs are falling”
      Dysgenic versus eugenic population growth may be the only thing that can keep humans alive as a species for a million years. On the other hand, Hinduism claims humans have existed for millions of years already.

    • Anyone who believes that “All evidence indicates that humans are finished evolving, at least in any sort of meaningfully positive way” just hasn’t visited a Walmart lately…..

      Oh….wait….you said “evolved” and “positive”…..

      Never mind!

  15. Well, I always thought “it’s probably aliens that did this” but figured that was jut me. Now, I know I’m not alone in thinking this. Thanks, Zman, I feel much better now. Tim

        • Arthur C. Clark, the author of the short story that was developed into 2001 A Space Odyssey.
          For the benefit of the legion of young high school students like my nephew who never read science fiction or think about things that they don’t like to thing about.

    • Ol’ Art was partially right. To be more accurate, it should read, “any developed technology is magic.”

      The first atlatl which killed a deer from 30 yards was “magic” to a Neanderthal. So does one consider a notched stick to be “sufficiently developed technology?”

    • random observer 2011
      New commenter here. Thanks for the link to your site- I’m just starting to work through your recent stuff. Some I haven’t really gotten but “Dancing with the Devil” and “The Last White Male” are quite provocative. Good use of the ‘really short’ story form. Spare, but generates strong mental imagery.

      On the subject of the moment, I did read “That way lies madness”. Would you care to elaborate on your point? I didn’t quite click with it but this is a subject of interest for me. The immensity of the universe is one of those things that seems to awe or frighten humans, or only occasionally both. Arguably, endlessness is actually more awesome/frightening than mere finite immensity, but given how immense even a finite universe must be, I wonder how much it matters.

      For what its worth, your presentation of the question briefly made me imagine having a cosmological dialogue with Lovecraft. That’s meant as high praise.

      • I first started thinking about the futility of looking for an answer in the cosmos when I saw 2001, A Space Odyssey, circa 1972. My point in That Way Lies Madness was the same as ( in my view) was made in the movie and the novel: you will go mad if you search for meaning as a separate thing unto itself, God, if you will, as a big powerful thing at the edge of the universe. I am still groping at this, but my heart tells me the search for God in an interior one. The very idea of infinity must of necessity drive us to look inward. We go insane if we try to grasp the ungraspable.

        I find it not easy to accept such high praise as your comparison to Lovecraft, except of course to say thank you. Your mention of dialogue is very interesting to me, as I believe dialogue is the heart of the matter, so to speak, in all good fiction. I have a project in mind of writing a short novel all in dialogue. There’s something about how we talk to each other that gets my heart racing.

        PS Keep reading Zman. You will not be disappointed.

        • The search for meaning, for G_d, IS the purpose. Its not about arriving somewhere, its about the journey – to nowhere. If you do ‘arrive’ you likely find you are back at your beginning yet you know the place for the first time. Sentient life – to me this is self evident – is a mechanism whereby the cosmos has a sense of self experience. Yet, G_d does not exist. Impossible. He is eternal. Only things have existence. Its all an illusion, people. “Born, I cannot die. Dead, I cannot be born.” We little ants are the means to overcome that limitation of the infinite.

        • Thanks for this reply.

          I’m working my way through our host’s archives. Not disappointed yet. Depressed, occasionally.

          Your elaboration was clarifying for me. I would tend to agree, though I’m not sure the inner exploration will necessarily be more fruitful in the end, nor less maddening as we find meaning ungraspable therein as well. Either way, you gave me a further point worth thinking about- I have never really thought of the desire for space exploration as, or at least not entirely as, the quest for meaning or the search for God. For wealth and power, for species long-term survival, or at its best for knowledge, sure. ‘Meaning’ I never really thought of as more than a supporting element of it, to the degree that some level of meaning can be a consequence of gaining knowledge. In retrospect, that seems an almost-autistic level gap in my approach to the issue.

          I wonder if it is a marker of my being a member of the Star Trek generation rather than the 2001 generation, and/or, being of too materialist a mindset. Space exploration has struck me as a quest for secular knowledge first, limited by the weakness of our technology and physical capacity perhaps forever or perhaps only for the time being, but on some level already reduced to a material problem even if big leaps remain on hold indefinitely. It is not that I cannot quite understand the idea of a spiritual quest, rather that I didn’t see space as being that, or only that.

          That also gives me another way to think about a separate question. I have yet to read CS Lewis’ space trilogy. I remember once reading that a large part of his point was that the quest for knowledge of space, or at least the quest to get man out into it, was an inherently demonic pursuit. Presumably in the sense of being a marker of our discontent with Eden. I admit to still struggling with the implications of that worldview.

          At any rate, still also working through your fiction archives. Still being struck by their brevity and imagery. Thanks for your ongoing work.

  16. How have humans changed from 200k years ago? Physically they are pretty much the same (lighter bones and teeth now) but something catalyzed our cognitive abilities about 10k years ago. That is the key to the big riddle, I think.

    • I was mostly thinking about cognitive skills, but we have changed physically. Think about it. In a short time, we developed variation in eye and hair color. The epicanthic fold is what? 50K years ago?

      A million more years of evolution and we will look very different and have vastly different cognitive abilities. Or, we could die out entirely. That may be the reality of the universe.

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