This Long, Awkward Silence

(October 23rd, 2011)

Remember that ultra-generic question we used to toss around as kids, “Do you believe in aliens?” Have you ever really stopped to wonder what this simple question is implying? On the physical surface there is no reason not to “believe in aliens.” The existence of aliens would not violate any known physical laws, as opposed to the existence of the subject of another similar ultra-generic question, say, of ghosts. Of course, I’m sure the question as most people pose it is not only suggesting the existence of extraterrestrial life in any form, but of intelligent extraterrestrials. I have come to the realization over the years that the meaning, based on the form of the question itself, of whether or not one “believes” in the existence of “aliens” comes up rather short when all things are considered—because there are actual observations that could be made, statistics to consider, and models to analyze, none of which intrinsically contradict the idea. In fact it is, arguably, rather logical to assume at least the possibility that such a case is, indeed, the case, and always has been—and always will be. So far this long, awkward silence returning all of our efforts has yet to provide us with any hard evidence. But some extraterrestrial civilization out there somewhere in the cosmos, going about its existence, entirely unknown to us (so far), does not defy anything fundamental, whereas the existence of ghosts would definitely raise some serious questions.

Of course, I understand that the same thing could be said of the existence of ghosts… an actual observation could very well be made at some point, and their reality could very well be proven physically. But when, as of this moment (and as far as I know), there is absolutely no shred of evidence to suggest that such a thing could be real without interfering with the demonstrable physical laws which make such intricate, beautiful sense of the world (emphasis on the word “evidence,” because no number of eyewitness accounts, no matter how powerful or convincing, necessarily means anything), then it really dwindles the amount of effort worth putting forth to entertain the notion (never to zero of course). I don’t mean to get in depth into this argument, but just on the surface of the idea I find it wildly difficult to imagine just a few of the factors involved in the considerations of the existence of ghosts—perhaps most of all, aside from what seems to be an all-too-convenient lack of demonstrable evidence, is the problem of how rare the “sightings” are, when one considers how many people have ever lived and how many such “souls” should be roaming around practically every square inch of the planet if the idea held any meaning. Most alleged cases of hauntings seem to stem from some troubled spirit that lingers on because of some “unfinished business” or some other physical tie to a certain location. And most of these hauntings seem to infect old buildings, which makes “sense” because of the simple age of the place, and the number of people who lived there throughout its history, and perhaps because of individual cases of particularly brutal situations during the time span of the “tortured soul’s” life.

But the very same argument raises questions because vast numbers of people presumably lived over practically every inhabited square inch of the planet throughout all of its history, and unless ghosts are naturally confined to the physical walls of the very same buildings they were living within, and only become “trapped” within them IF they died within such walls, then I don’t see a reason why there aren’t the very same troubled spirits wandering among every single person’s yard, or driveway, or just along the streets and fields everywhere. Unless ghosts did not start becoming spiritually attached to locations until the start of humanity’s building construction, and just happen to disappear if the building is demolished, and/or naturally disappear after some bizarre length of time, then they should be all over the place. I’m sure that many “troubled souls” have died on the very physical spot where my house resides, somewhere close to where I am actually sitting right now, but this particular building doesn’t (as far as I know) have a troubled history of its own, and so apparently this is why it’s not haunted. Or maybe it’s just not haunted simply because I think the idea is bogus. But that’s another problem… ghosts should not only exist while the people who are around to potentially witness their orneriness “believe” in them. If they truly exist they should make their mark regardless of location, or the presence of a building’s structure, or the belief of the people who are around (unless one would argue that the spirits can somehow sense whether or not a person is prone to believe in such things, and only suggest their own presence when this is the case). There are clearly very many logical issues associated with this idea, and this is all the space that I will devote to the argument in this particular writing.

Very similar arguments could be made of the practically countless alleged UFO sightings from all over the world. Just like other “supernatural” events, UFOs should not only present themselves to believers, or to people who are conveniently in the middle of nowhere or in some other way have no means to provide demonstrable evidence in the wake of the event. Unless the aliens are carefully choosing who to appear to, and have all of the necessary skills to make sure that no credible evidence is ever able to be provided, then there should be plenty of legitimate cases. This also assumes the government isn’t actually interfering with any such potentially legitimate case, and working to cover them up from the rest of the world that way. But this seems just as incredible as the overly-convenient lack of proof from the former explanation. People seem to be not only so eager to proclaim our government’s lack of organization and ability to work together and overall effectiveness, but simultaneously seem just as willing to believe that they could so completely cover up all demonstrable evidence of any number of extraterrestrial visitations (not to mention any other governments which would have to be in on it). I for one do not see how both of these realities could be. It could, of course, actually be the correct explanation, but… wow.

Clearly the belief—more specifically, the demonstration which would finally confirm such a belief—in the existence of aliens hinges pretty much entirely on the advancements of technology which will enable us to at last be able to detect their existence. Either that or such an alien presence would have to make their existence known to us. But again, this is not fundamentally the same as saying that some other “paranormal” entity needs only to be detected or make its presence known to us, because (again) an alien intelligence making its presence known to us would not question our understanding of the physical laws of the Universe, but only perhaps would question our understanding of the statistics we’ve applied to this event’s likelihood. We’re not asking for our basic understanding of the Universe to be shaken here, but only for a confirmation that would finally put the endless arguments to rest. We would go from thinking well it’s very, very, very unlikely that any extraterrestrial civilization is going to demonstrate their existence for us to witness to well an extraterrestrial civilization just demonstrated their existence for us to witness. And in the wake of such a monumental discovery nothing held sacred to our cherished understanding of the physical Universe needs to be drastically altered. (Well, unless they used a wormhole to get to us—that would question quite a few things, but would hopefully answer just as many!)

You can find life teeming in practically any place you might care to look, just about absolutely anywhere on this planet. Life is flourishing in the deepest depths of the oceans, in the highest reaches of the atmosphere, in puddles of radioactive waste, in volcanoes, in isolated conditions buried under perpetual ice, in harsh laboratory conditions, in practically all of the places we humans would hardly ever dream of exploring and who knows how many other places. Life has conquered just about every single niche that this lone planet has to offer, and yet we still have not uncovered any substantial evidence that life has ever existed anywhere else in the Universe. To me this idea is one of the most provoking of all in the considerations of life existing elsewhere, that you could go out into your own backyard with a spoon and scoop up a small sample of soil and find millions of organisms thriving within. But we can’t do the same thing anywhere else without getting ourselves out there. Robotic probes are a reasonable, respectable second, but with so much data exchange and mechanical processes occurring over so many thousands upon thousands of miles, efficiency and reliability suffer.

There are some dangerous areas within this idea, though. Of course the tiny microscopic organisms you would observe thriving within a spoonful of backyard soil are a huge long shot from the sorts of highly intelligent extraterrestrial beings which we most hope to discover (not that simple organisms would not be a monumental discovery in its own right), but the principle behind the idea is no less incredible—that life seems to be abundant where the conditions for life are favorable. But we also happen to live on the only known world where conditions for life (as we know them) are abundantly favorable. Mars, for example, is a vague possibility, but its atmosphere is so negligible and it’s so cold except for some fleeting periods, under certain conditions, where local temperatures can actually reach room temperature. Saturn’s moon Titan, and quite a few other moons of the gas giants are potential locations where liquid water might be sloshing around underneath icy exteriors, but we have yet to actually confirm any of them. And so the wild abundance of life on Earth is not necessarily enough of an argument for the necessary existence of life elsewhere, because we do not yet know that such conditions are even remotely likely anywhere else. Fleetingly warm temperatures are not enough, apparently, from what we can tell at this moment.

There are certain conditions which are pretty much universally accepted as being necessary to the development of life in any complexity, which include (to point out just a few major ones) the existence of liquid water, reasonable temperatures, substantial atmosphere and sufficient makeup of it, plenty of organic chemicals as building blocks and nutrients, and radiation protection. Many of these issues seem to require the presence of a given planet in its host star’s habitable zone, which is the range in which the planet would not be too close to or too far from the star to prohibit these conditions to exist. The range is rather small given the extreme distances that planets seem likely to exist in. In our own solar system, for example, both Mars and Venus are at the “edges” of the sun’s hypothetical habitable zone, although as I understand things Mars is somewhat better situated (without even considering the ridiculously harsh conditions unique to Venus). Even so, it seems to be too far away and other variables such as planetary mass, magnetic fields and geological activity also factor into the considerations and Mars has very little atmosphere, a negligible magnetic field, and little if any geological activity.

Clearly, the conditions for life to thrive (as we know them) are rather severe if the other bodies of our own solar system are any indication. The big emphasis, though, is on “as we know them” because there is, understandably, a lot to debate and ponder on how life might thrive under entirely different circumstances. And so the argument is wildly complicated and thus so is the search for potentially thriving environments.

There is an equation, developed by Frank Drake in the ‘60s, which attempts to address, logically, the likelihood of any number of extraterrestrial civilizations which presently exist. Although understandably very controversial, the equation undoubtedly stirs many interesting arguments for various possibilities and is important even if for these thoughtful reasons alone. The famous equation is:

 N = R* x fp x ne x fe x fi x fc x L

Where “N” represents the number of extraterrestrial civilizations capable of communicating, “R*” represents the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy, “fp” represents the fraction of these stars that have developed planets, “ne” represents the average number of such planets that can potentially support life, “fl” represents the fraction of such planets that actually do develop life, “fi” represents the fraction of such planets that actually develop intelligent life (civilizations), “fc” represents the fraction of such civilizations that develop detectable signs of their existence into space, and “L” represents the length of time that such civilizations release such detectable signals (in other words, how long until they either destroy themselves or simply stop broadcasting signals). It is most definitely worth noting that all of these, except perhaps the very first variable, are entirely hypothetical. At this point it’s all guesswork. And this is why the thought-provoking nature of this idea remains the most relevant quality of all.

According to the “Drake Equation” Wikipedia article as of this writing, the most current estimates (for whatever that’s worth) are that “R*” (the rate of star formation of our galaxy per year) has a value of 7, “fp” (the fraction of such stars that have developed planets) is .5, “ne” (the average number of such planets that can potentially support life) is 2, “fl” (the fraction of such planets that actually do develop life) is .33, “fi” (the fraction of such planets that actually develop intelligent life) is .01, “fc” (the fraction of such civilizations that develop detectable signs of their existence into space) is .01, and “L” (the length of time that such civilizations release detectable signals) is 10,000 years. Based on all of these assumptions, the value of “N” (the number of extraterrestrial civilizations capable of communicating) is 2.31, which suggests that, at this point in time (or any other when these variables are still relevant), there are 2 civilizations capable of communicating their existence out into the cosmos.

Because of its controversy, there is very much debate over how reasonable these particular variables actually are, especially when considering such factors as how often life might re-arise on a planet before finally establishing “intelligence,” and how many planets might be influenced by an outside intelligence (such as seeding, a hypothesis which is not entirely overlooked for our own beginnings, or perhaps a case in which a developing civilization is visited and warned about the dangers of making itself known to all others). Such theories add quite a bit of complication to such an all-encompassing equation, but the general idea (successively calculating the rate of star formation, the rate of planetary formation, the rate of development of simple life, the rate of development of intelligent life, and the rate of the fall of intelligent life) still stands strong as a foundation for trying to predict such likelihoods. There are any numbers of other assumptions which could be made which would throw out just about any reasonably-attempted guess at most of these variables.

And so, any person attempting to assign a set of reasonable values to these parameters could potentially get anywhere within a wildly enormous range of conclusions, anywhere from (not limited to) the pessimistic view of only 0.000065 communicable civilizations to the optimistic view of 20,000 communicable civilizations. The worst case scenarios seem to suggest that we are, almost without a doubt, the ONLY intelligent beings in the Universe, while the more optimistic scenarios seem to suggest that we  are likely just one of many, many thousands (or more!) of such intelligent civilizations. You can input your own assumptions into each of these variables and, hopefully, have some interesting thought processes into why this result may or may not be the likely case when all things are considered.

Such complications lead my thoughts (as I hope they lead yours, as well) toward another very wide-encompassing argument, popularly known as the “Fermi Paradox” which is the apparent contradiction between the high probability for, and the lack of evidence of, extraterrestrial civilizations. As is made clear by the (more optimistic) various possible inputs for the Drake Equation, many combinations suggest that there should be a great many, if not only a few, other intelligent civilizations out there in the Universe. Yet we have absolutely no evidence for a single one, and so this “paradox” (more of a contradiction) seems to need explaining, for which there are many, many proposed explanations to explain this long, awkward silence that we have become so accustomed to and so apprehensive of. There are many arguments centered on this "Fermi Paradox" idea, which I hope my sharing might help to refine any reader’s own thoughts on the variables of the Drake equation just as they have my own. Some of these arguments I'd considered long and hard even before first encountering it but now have considered much longer and harder, along with plenty of fascinating and thoughtful new arguments, which include the following:

--No other civilizations have arisen.

This is obviously the most wide-ranging and optimism-halting assumption of all… because if no other civilizations have ever risen, and we are the only ones who have ever pondered our own existence and the vastness of the cosmos we are part of, then of course we are going to come up short in all of our searches, forever. There really isn’t much else to say about this argument, because it is so all-powerful and, by definition, we won’t ever actually truly know this to be the case. We will forever search, and forever come up disappointingly empty. Personally, I do not “believe” this to be the case, although observable evidence does not yet rule it out. It is simply me believing. Belief is so valuable in such a case, where hard evidence seems always just out of reach, because perseverance in our search could very well spell the difference between eventual contact and the halting of all such efforts altogether—which at times does not seem so far from happening with all the budget cuts and program cancellations. But such a belief should never get in the way if we ever do come across evidence that we truly are the only ones (if that’s even possible). Believing is only reasonable amidst such abundant uncertainty, which might very well always be the case… but there are other possibilities which could explain why this long, awkward silence is the case even if we really never find anything.

--Few, if any, other civilizations currently exist.

This theory at least allows for the possible existence of other intelligent civilizations, although it assumes that they are so few and far between that none of them will likely ever become aware of any of the others because of the vast distances and time delays between them. Perhaps there is, at this very moment, another intelligent civilization five thousand light years away—it will take five thousand years for any possible signals to reach us. Even if, against all odds, they were at a comparable technological level with us five thousand years ago, any signals they might have emanated out into space at the time would just now be reaching us and even then we would only recognize them if they were unique enough to be recognized amidst all of the background noises of various naturally-occurring signals coming at us from all over the sky. Even in this most optimistic case—even if we did pick up such a signal, and were able to verify its celestial origin, and were overjoyed that they seem to be technologically similar to us, we would have to accept that it’s a five thousand year-old signal and very, very likely no longer represents the status of the civilization it originated from. A lot will happen in five thousand years—they might not even exist anymore, or they might be totally unrecognizable from the signal they sent out so long ago. Such a case is very likely only reasonable for contact if the civilization was close enough to us (say, a couple dozen light years at most) to still be relevant at the time of acquisition, or if they just simply hadn’t developed further and were still comparatively technological from that point in time (which does not seems likely in the slightest). But, still, any detection at all would prove the point that a civilization did exist, at the very least. Perhaps that simple knowledge is all we can reasonably hope for…

--It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.

This is perhaps the most depressing of all of the theories suggesting why we have had no observational evidence of, or contact with, an extraterrestrial civilization. Admittedly,  much of the concern over this idea stems from the Cold War days, when it was very much a legitimate fear that a couple world powers would overindulge their paranoia and set off a chain reaction of nuclear detonations which would, very likely, result in the self-extinguishing of our species. And so it’s only one small leap forward to consider the idea that other civilizations might have run into similar troubles, since by our own experience (the only case we have to evaluate) it seems that technological development goes hand-in-hand with the development of ever-more destructive weaponry, and so any such developed civilization is likely to have dealt with similar issues amongst themselves. I sincerely hope that this needs not always be the case, but of course with only one example to learn from there isn’t really any demonstrable reason to believe that any other species would necessarily act differently. But I certainly hope that another might have developed just slightly differently enough to have either never developed such savage weaponry or, at least, never have come to even the slightest provocation of even considering utilizing it. I like to hope that we humans are past this phase ourselves, and the sum of our nuclear arsenals will forever remain nothing more than deterrence from actual usage. If this is likely the same case everywhere, then so be it. Overcoming such a global trial should definitely help to instill a sense of oneness, of the vast benefits that species-wide cooperation should aspire to. At least it should help to develop the appreciations of life, and cooperation, and perhaps is just a typical stepping stone in a civilization’s evolution among itself, and in the end fosters so much more devotion to goodwill and acceptance while never actually bringing about the widespread destruction that we ourselves have feared for so long. In such a case, the fact that a civilization still survives long after its own such Cold War age will hopefully suggest that they have come to peaceful terms with themselves and are that much more ready to spread their influence out into the wild unknown where it could perhaps meet up with other such burgeoning intelligences and achieve the truly cooperative beauty that only our greatest science fiction writers have dreamed of.

--It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy others.

This theory is somewhat similar to the previous one, although suggests the disturbing possibility that another intelligent civilization would use its technological prowess not only to develop powerful weaponry, but to use such weaponry to eliminate other “competing” civilizations (probably only after moving past the self-destructive phase touched on above). I hope that this theory can be discounted on the grounds that it’s either not relevant or, if it ever turns out to be relevant, we won’t be (or wouldn’t have been) around much longer to consider its implications. Personally I don’t like the idea of advanced, space-faring civilizations taking a liking to wiping out each other. I think they would be much more appreciative to what each other has to offer, intellectually and resource-wise, and in working together to achieve higher goals than each could aspire to individually. But this is, of course, hopeful thinking—I have no demonstrable reason to proclaim this to be true. I just like to think that civilizations which are in all likelihood vastly more advanced than we are would not concern themselves with destructive tendencies. Depressingly, the nature of civilizations to wipe each other out is not so far-flung from the nature of our own race while establishing new terrains even on our own planet, and it goes without saying that any space-faring civilization has technological powers we can still only dream of. So let’s just hope and pray that this particular argument does not actually hold any actual reality, because otherwise the wonders of the Universe are not places which are in our best interests to investigate.

--Human beings were created alone.

This is, clearly, primarily a religious point of view, for which it should not be discounted entirely—because, all things considered equal, demonstrable evidence has yet (if ever) to suggest that we were not created as “special” beings. But I like to stress, even in line with (admittedly not particularly literal) biblical considerations, we could have been created, here in our solar system with all of our uniqueness, apart from any number of other extraterrestrial beings who may even have “special conditions” themselves in which they are showered with praise and admiration of their own but have, perhaps like us, no physical means to ever communicate with another due to mere distances and/or any of these other theories. (I realize that this argument contradicts the initial premise of having been “created alone” but I’m considering “alone” as meaning that we will forever remain ignorant of any number of other created beings.) If we will never become aware of any others, what’s the difference?

But even so there is that possibility that we were created entirely alone in this vast Universe and as Carl Sagan liked to say, “Isn’t that an awful waste of space?”

But of course, turned around, the same idea could be said as something like “Isn’t that a wonderfully beautiful use of space?” Look at all of the wild imaginations and daydreams and inspirations that are brought about simply from looking up into the sky and being curious. There is a place in my heart that appreciates that all of this wonder could possibly be ours, and only ours, to appreciate. If there is a person alive who is not at least occasionally, when their eyes and their curious minds are allowed to wander, completely awestruck by the considerations of the beauty and vastness and potentials of the Universe all around us, then I would be genuinely surprised to say the least. But I really do hope, with all of the might that I wish the sheer force of my will could possibly hope to extend, that such wonder is much more widespread and able to be shared between unimaginably different civilizations—both individually and cooperatively

--It is the nature of intelligent life to remain silent.

What if there are intelligent civilizations all over the place out there in the vast reaches of the Universe, but they just don’t broadcast their existence in any powerful way? Such a consideration is so wide-reaching in its implications because it could mean that any numbers of extraterrestrial civilizations are out there and yet we might very well never, ever be made aware of their presence. There is a potentially infinite number of reasons for such behavior, but the most reasonable to me seem to be that such communication is all but fruitless considering the ridiculous distances and time frames involved in such attempts at communication; the expensive nature of continuously trying to make such broadcasts, both in resources and time; the possibility that any given civilization knows of some danger it would bring on itself by such a broadcast (such as another civilization receiving it and invading) or just chooses to remain silent by this mere possibility alone; or perhaps because they simply don’t trust any potential recipients to return their efforts in kind. Another civilization may be reluctant for one or any combination of these reasons, and more, and so the simple lack of evidence is therefore called into question—as Carl Sagan liked to popularize, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Never, ever receiving a communication is not necessarily proof, indeed not even powerful evidence, that there are no intelligent civilizations out there to communicate. It may simply just mean that they are not communicating.

--They choose not to interact with us.

But perhaps our efforts so far have not proved fruitless, and our presence is indeed known to at least one other intelligent civilization (or maybe not by our own efforts, but by observations of our planet’s atmosphere, or by some other unknown method). It could very well be that these civilizations, however many there might be, are willingly choosing not to interact with us, for any number of reasons—the ones that most readily come to mind are the possibilities that they have somehow observed our lifestyles, and have deemed us unworthy of relations perhaps either because of “childishness” or outright “barbarism” on our part, or maybe because we happen to be in a period of development in which it is best not to intervene in any way, maybe either by “common sense” or by some galactic code of conduct. Perhaps we have not yet proven that we are “mature” enough not only to handle the implications of extraterrestrial communications but to handle the responsibilities of some sort of “friendship” or “collaboration” that might be desired of us. This does not seem like much of a stretch of the imagination, given the current state of the world (not to sound like the generic pessimist proclaiming that we are doing everything wrong—I do like to think that we, as a species, have many admirable traits which would actually help to impress another civilization if they were indeed observing our nature).

I can’t say I really blame them for being apprehensive, if such is the case, but I hope that, if it is, they might soon see enough “good” in us to at least realize that a simple communication, or even some helpful assistance, could be of great use to us. I believe we still yet have every reason and every chance to aspire to any level of greatness that any of these supposed extraterrestrial civilizations could respect and seek (or accept) friendly relations with. But then again I do not know their mind, and I am of course only arguing the best attempt at a logically emotion-fueled consideration of why no contact has so far been made. No single person can ever hope to speak for the entire human race, and if the actions of powers anywhere around the globe are painting us in a ghastly light then there really isn’t much hope other than the furthering collective efforts of the people who actually can make the global improvements that might deem us worthy of contact. If I could I would rise up and lead humanity out of its unnecessary internal struggles toward such a bright future, not just because it might increase our favor in the eyes of some potential extraterrestrial contact, but because it would provide us with unimaginable benefits amongst ourselves regardless.

--Communication is impossible, for technical reasons and/or due to problems of scale.

Even assuming that there is a generous collection of intelligent civilizations out there going about their entirely alien existences, the average space between them would still be astronomical—the average distance between 1,000 civilizations inside our galaxy would be 10,000 light years. In some respects, 1,000 civilizations seem so incredibly few considering the unimaginable vastness of just our own galaxy and all of the stars, and in turn all of the potential planets. But then again 1,000 civilizations like us (or quite possibly much more advanced) also seems incredibly many considering all of the arguments centered around the remarkably rare conditions for which such highly evolved life is apparently required to come about. And 10,000 years (the time it would require for speed-of-light transmissions to reach across such a distance) is a long, long time when one really considers how far we have come in the same amount of time—10,000 years ago we had nothing even remotely close to any technology that could broadcast our existence. Indeed, we have only had such technology for roughly (very roughly) 100 years. And already we are moving away from the technologies that readily broadcast their signals into space—presumably the first transmissions which would be possible for an extraterrestrial civilization to detect would be some television broadcasts in the 1930s or so, and of course all other such signals in the following years, but today most television signals are sent through cables at the surface and much, much less so through broadcast technology.

Unless yet-to-be technologies are discovered and implemented soon, much of the evidence of our existence due to freely broadcast transmissions are no longer relevant. And if we assume that another technologically advanced civilization follows anything close to our own habits, theirs will not last so long either. Of course, this argument does not include any deliberately broadcast signals, such as those that are sent out by the METI program, and so there is always some glimmer of hope. But considering all of the opposition to such an apparently expensive and time-consuming operation, such a program might not be around much longer in any wide-reaching capacity. Unless we expect such an extraterrestrial civilization to continue actively and aggressively attempting to make contact, even where we ourselves have halted much of the same attempts, then any such broadcasts are arguably very likely to be as short-lived as our own might soon turn out to have been. And 100 years, on any cosmic time frame, is not very long at all…

--It is too expensive to spread physically throughout the galaxy.

In all honesty, this one here seems to be the most realistic of all in my own mind. We have only been to the moon (as astronauts), aside from Earth orbit, and that was WILDLY expensive. Even today, with so much more knowledge and experience, the same program would still be ridiculously expensive (perhaps even more so, as I imagine the technologies and safety requirements involved would be much more aggressive). Even the best traditional chemical rockets take years upon years to get just to the outer solar system—to date, the fastest spacecraft (Earth-relative) we’ve ever sent out into space, the New Horizons mission on its way to Pluto, is going to take nine years to reach its destination, and that’s actually only a fraction of the true extent of our solar system (the Oort Cloud, the supposed “true” boundary of our solar system, is assumed to extend as far as a full light-year from the Sun). This craft, New Horizons, was left with an Earth-relative velocity of roughly 36,000 miles per hour (oh, how I wish we Americans would adopt the Metric System), although it has since slowed slightly to its current velocity of 35,000 miles per hour. This (unmanned) mission cost an estimated 650 million dollars over the life of its (as-yet-unfinished) journey, all things considered. Although not to trivialize the mission in any way (I have enormous respect for it), this is, again, an unmanned mission sent to study one faraway object (and, of course, other objects in its vicinity, such as a few moons).

It goes without saying that, with current technology and economics, any long-reaching mission (manned or not) is expensive pretty much beyond all hope of reason. Arguably, we could send such a probe, with a similar velocity, toward a faraway star that has potentially high hopes of being populated, but even accepting all costs and difficulties associated with such a few such prospects it would take years and years to even arrive there. Even New Horizons would take well over 70,000 years to reach even the nearest star (or star system), Alpha Centauri. And we don’t even have good reason to believe that this destination is even a decent choice in finding extraterrestrials.

It seems painfully obvious that unless some fundamental breakthrough in space-faring technology is discovered there will never be a realistic way to reach even our closest interstellar neighborhoods, but of course we could go ahead and send a New Horizons-like probe towards Alpha Centauri and hope for a return on our investments roughly 150,000 years from now. So it follows that some extraterrestrial civilization out there would have to have developed some ridiculously efficient method of interstellar travel to be able to come anywhere near us; either that or the idea of civilizations spreading progressively throughout the galaxy, over generation after generation, gradually increasing the area of their influence, would have to be taking place in order for them to come anywhere close to another. And maybe this really has been happening over eons. Maybe our current methods at communication attempts just aren’t effective enough to pick up any signals from such civilizations, for any of the above reasons. Maybe they’ve expanded all the way to Alpha Centauri already. Maybe they’ve been closely monitoring us for eons. Maybe they even have probes of their own carefully hidden within the asteroid belt, or in the shadows of the moon’s craters, where we’re never likely going to notice them. Maybe they’ll be upon us soon.

Or maybe there aren’t any out there.

Whatever the case, I for one will never stop imagining, letting my curious mind wander and dreaming of the day when another civilization is brought into contact with us and unimaginable secrets of life, the Universe, and everything are readily shared with us, happily provided so that we can emerge out of these tragic depths of greed and poverty and self-destruction and truly set out to make use of the vastness of the Universe as we have every reason to desire and acquire. So our resources are dwindling… every resource here on this planet is undoubtedly found on others (probably very near to us!). So there is conflict between and within all of these arbitrary boundaries we’ve established all over our planet… branching out into space, utilizing the collective efforts of (practically) all powers in order to do so, is pretty much the most significant, meaningful cooperation I can imagine. I deeply believe that such accomplishments would do so much to help unify us. And if we actually do encounter intelligence out there, or even simple microscopic life, then our existence, relevant to us, full of so many ethical and national boundaries and conflicts of interests though it might be, will be demonstrably that much more powerful. It will mean that much more to be human, to be part of a single collection of similar beings, no matter how different any two of us appear to be. In the face of a new discovery of extraterrestrial life, the two most demonstrably different people on the planet will in relation appear to be practically no different at all. If that possibility doesn’t stir the most deeply-cherished feelings of belonging and collective-worth in a person, then I don’t think they truly understand the implications… or they just literally don’t care in the slightest. But I’d prefer not to even consider the latter as a possibility, unless I’m just completely wrong about human nature… in which case I guess I’d prefer to just continue being completely wrong.

It just seems like such an awfully large amount of space for one single intelligent race to develop into. But of course such a belief doesn’t necessarily prove anything… this very well could be the case for any combination of the reasons I’ve touched on. But I really do hope that we, as our own race, unified whether or not any of us believe that to be the case in light of all of these complicated circumstances, keep on searching. This long, awkward silence will either continue forever, in which case we will become more and more sensitive to our apparently-unique position of intelligence in the Universe, or we will discover something, and whether or not we ever actually make physical contact, we will know, at long last, that we are not alone, and humanity thus has every reason to appreciate all of our traits which might prove to be unique to us still, even when existence itself is no longer.

And if contact is at long last made with another civilization and this long, awkward silence is finally broken, then who knows, maybe we could even teach them a thing or two about life, the Universe, and everything.

Posted by Eli Stanley | at 11:06 PM


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