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Saturday, December 31, 2011
Outer Space ... Politics ...

On this final day of 2011, I wanted to share some things I read recently on the topic of whether there are life-forms in the universe beyond planet earth (i.e., “extraterrestrial life”), and if so, whether there is intelligent, sentient life akin to what we homo sapiens believe that we experience. And finally, what might this mean for our life together here on earth, i.e. on whether we (and any other possible civilization in the Universe) are truly intelligent and sentient, or just a disaster waiting to happen.

As to the first question, the astrophysicists seem quite confident that there are other living things out there. Continued studies regarding the adaptability of microbes to extreme conditions on earth indicate that there could even be some kind of bacteria or fungus fairly close by, on a moon of Saturn or Jupiter, or perhaps even on Mars, buried somewhere under the red soil. Given the recent success of the Kepler “exoplanet observer” satellite in finding far-away planets that are relatively earth-like in size, composition and distance from their own sun, it’s a good bet that there’s plenty of slime mold out there.

The question gets a bit more tricky when you ask whether there are intelligent, self-conscious life forms which communicate and organize themselves into social structures, out on these exoplanets. Various scientists have taken a shot at estimating the odds of there being intelligent civilizations somewhere out there. The famous Drake Equation derived by Dr. Francis Drake indicates that there should be about 10,000 planets in the Milky Way Galaxy having intelligent life, and over 6 billion in the observable Universe. However, many people have been disappointed in the inability thus far of the SETI project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) to pick up any signals from space that seem organized enough to indicate some intentional form of communication. The SETI people have been scanning the heavens since the early 1960s, and still haven’t come up with anything much.

But then again, the sky is a very big place and SETI has been run on a shoestring budget, so you can understand their calls for patience. With the accelerating discoveries of potentially habitable planets from the Kepler satellite and better ground-based telescopes, however, the SETI program should now be getting clues as to where to point their antennas. In 10 years, if say 1,000 earth-like exoplanets are discovered within a few hundred light years of our sun (most found to date lie within 500 light years), and if no signals can be heard from any of them, a lot of people might lose faith in the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence.

In fact, many people are already losing faith. Earlier in the year, a paper published by astrophysicist David Spiegel at Princeton University and physicist Edwin Turner at the University of Tokyo argued that the Drake Equation (and the input factors usually used with it) could be too optimistic, and that the evolution of human civilization on earth depended on a lot of rare flukes in the history of our solar system and planet, flukes that would be an extremely long shot to occur in the necessary fashion somewhere else. Also this year, a book was published by science writer John Gribbin entitled “Alone in the Universe”, detailing the many fluke factors that made the earth hospitable to the long evolutionary process needed for intelligent life to emerge. Gribbin also reminds us that our little bubble of habitability in the cosmos is indeed a frail one, and can be burst quite quickly by events that have occurred in the past – e.g., a huge comet crashes into the earth, or the climate suddenly goes into a “phase shift” and the earth becomes entirely encrusted with thick ice. (That doesn’t seem likely with global warming, but the earth’s atmosphere is a complex system subject to unpredictable responses and sudden re-arrangements.)

Then there was a recent column by conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer pondering the “alone in the universe” topic, whereby Krauthhammer cited experts (including Carl Sagan) who agree that we probably will not come into contact with extraterrestrial civilization because intelligent civilizations have a fatal flaw. I.e., they kill themselves off, through war and environmental degradation. They are short-term phenomenon, flashes in the cosmic pan.

Hmm, not a very optimistic thought to end the year on. But then again, Krauthammer is rock-ribbed conservative, and optimists usually don’t become conservatives. I.e., Krauthammer was probably born a pessimist. He is an intelligent one, though, and he does end his article with a valid and almost hopeful point, i.e. that being an increasingly interdependent social species, humankind’s ultimate fate is in the hands of our politics. And throughout recorded history, our politics, especially on the highest level (national and international), have not been very inspiring. But Krauthammer obviously hasn’t given all hope up yet, he still thinks it worthwhile to warn the public that we need to get our act together or face extinction.

Well, the Milky Way is about 100,000 light years across, with a surface area of roughly 8 billion square light years; if there are 10,000 civilizations as per Drake, then on average there should be one civilized planet every 800,000 square light years. But the interior of the Milky Way is probably not hospitable to life, given the huge black hole in there and the high star density, causing lots of heavy radiation events. So, the average space is maybe 500,000 square light years per civilized planet, given that the habitable area of the universe is 2/3 or less of the whole. If our scanners are good out to about 565 light years, we should be covering enough space so that there are an average of two civilized planets in that zone – us and one other (if the Drake Equation holds up). If we can push out to 1000 light years, then the number goes up to 6. Hopefully at least one of the other 5 got started a bit earlier than we did here on earth, i.e. started playing with electromagnet waves while we were still in the Middle Ages or shortly thereafter.

And hopefully they are still in business. If only SETI could find another “WOW signal”, one that really means something this time, it could bolster our faith that Krauthammer is wrong and that human intelligence will finally do the right thing, i.e. find peace in our time. People might even start trusting government again! As Krauthammer says, “politics is the driver of history “. If our politics are driven by an ultimate distrust and pessimism, as conservatives like Krauthammer feed us, that pessimism will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (It seems well on its way, given the Tea Party and the improving prospects for a GOP President and Congress by early 2013.) Barack Obama ultimately failed to sell his “yes we can” philosophy to our nation. Let’s hope that a SETI press release will soon inform us that another civilization comprised of sentient beings is thriving somewhere out there in the blue; and perhaps yes, yes we can too.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:20 pm      

  1. Jim, I have mixed feelings about the whole business of finding “intelligent life on other planets”—maybe even most especially the SETI project.

    For one thing it seems to me that these scientists are not interested in any intelligent life in another form anywhere it might be found—even here on our planet. That is, I guess I wonder why intelligent life in some other form might not be equally, if not more intriguing, than the kind of intelligent life we ourselves have. And then I wonder why specifically that intelligent life has to be on another planet. These are just questions I ask myself when this subject comes up.

    For instance, I think there is a lot of intelligent life on *this* planet that could be studied. Well, perhaps it’s already being studied (the work being done studying whales and elephants and their intelligent life, for instance); and the scientists don’t want to duplicate the work. Yet, I never actually get that impression from the scientists who talk about “life on other planets”. There must be some piece I’m missing in the idea.

    Another question I find myself asking is, why must the intelligent life on *other* planets be somehow threatening to life here. OK, I can see bacteria and viruses from other planets causing serious health problems on our planet. But SETI is not really interested in that kind of life. It’s interested in *intelligent* life.

    It does seem to me that much of what the scientists talk about when they discuss intelligent life on other planets is more of a tabula rasa type of thing, where those involved project on to the presumed intelligent life something of their own tho’ts, personalities, etc. So some people become scared while others are intrigued. I also wonder: How do scientists want to *study* that intelligent life? Do they want to use them as a “science project” (so to say)? Or do they want to become friends with them and get to know them—that type of thing? I’m never sure just exactly what the scientists want to *do* with that study of possible intelligent life outside of our planet.

    Then too I wonder: What if intelligent life on other planets is much further advanced than we are? What if they have already solved the problem of crossing the light year barrier (as I tend to call it)? My father said to me one time: Sure, a lot of the UFOs are easily explained away. But what about those that are *not* easily explained away? What about those who have been seen, reported, and identified by trained observers in the field of (in *my* words) flying around in space, that is, pilots, astronauts, etc.? It’s not easy to simply dismiss as crack pot ideas the reports of such individuals.

    I’m not saying I’m right in all this; I’m just saying all these questions pop into my head at the very mention of intelligent life on other planets. Furthermore, I don’t have any answers for these questions, but I think about them and wonder what the answers might be. I find myself thinking that if intelligent life on other planets is akin to our kind of intelligence; then it probably has all the faults and problems we have, together with good aspects. I’d tend to think that, as on our planet some people are good and some are truly *not* good; then likely, an intelligent life on another planet is like ours. Some of them are probably good and some of them probably are not very good. One would have to get to know them before one would be able to tell which is which—somewhat like it is here on our planet.

    Then too, I am not sure I understand a couple of last points you made: The connection you made between SETI finding a signal from an intelligence on another planet and people trusting government again on this planet . . . . I’m not sure I get that connection.

    And lastly, as to the Tea Party: I found myself the other day wonder just where the Tea Party had gone. I have been thinking that one doesn’t hear much about it any more. I could very well be wrong, but it seems to me that the Tea Party has become the GOP in Congress who is bound and determined that Obama will get nothing he wants, proposes, or suggests as a solution to any of the problems of the country. Somehow it seems to me that the Tea Party has found that the problems it wanted to solve were not that easily solved, and so those who called themselves the Tea Party have quietly dropped the title. They may still be “against” whatever it is Obama wants; but I don’t hear much about the Tea Party, nor its platitudes, any more. Or perhaps it’s that I just am not reading the right things, listening to the correct TV and radio stations, or just plain paying enough attention to them.

    So while I certainly respect your learned understanding of equations and numbers in regard to this topic, my tho’ts tend to run in a totally different direction.

    Comment by Mary S. — January 1, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

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