Alone in the Universe

The universe is much emptier than we once thought it was. Not too long ago, in the era of Einstein and Picasso, it was possible for reputable astronomer to speculate about the canals of Mars (could they possibly be remnants of an ancient civilization?). The science fiction of the mid-twentieth century often postulated a very densely populated solar system: Venus with its steaming jungles, Mars with its red-rose dusty cities half as old as time (with perhaps some hidden survivors encamped like Bedouins among the ruins), perhaps even monstrous intelligent whales swimming in the oceans of Jupiter.

One by one, these speculations were transformed into fantasy. The more we learned about our solar system, the more desolate it became.

And not just the solar system. Given the size and age of the universe, scientists like Frank Drake and Carl Sagan entertained the possibility that the universe was teaming with life with millions of inhabited planets. Inspired by these hopes, the search for intelligent life in space (SETI as the enthusiasts call it) has been going on for several decades now. Perhaps it hasn’t been as wide-ranging as it could be but our ears are cocked to the stars and we are trying to pick up any faint signals of intelligence. So far, only silence.

Increasingly, we have to ask the question raised by physicist Enrico Fermi: “Where is everybody?” There are any number of answers: perhaps the extra- terrestrials just don’t want to talk to us. Perhaps it’s the nature of intelligent species to destroy themselves at the very point at which they can send messages into space. Perhaps the distances are too large to make communication possible (if that were so, then in effect it is the same as if there are no extra-terrestrials at all).

But consider this: It’s entirely possible that earth is the only planet in the universe that is filled with abundant life and self-conscience species. We could be a very tiny and fertile oasis in an unimaginably large desert.

The possibility that we’re all alone in the universe has real implications. If there are no ETs then the survival of earth becomes a matter of more than self-interest. Taking care of the earth becomes a cosmic responsibility. If we muff it here, then it’s game over for life.

3 thoughts on “Alone in the Universe

  1. True.
    But then, who would care?
    But I am just enough of a romantic to believe that the attributes of consciousness mean something.
    I experience hunger. There is such a think as food.
    I experience lust. There is such a thing as sex.
    I experience longing for significance and meaning. . .
    Well, what might that portend?
    And dare I find out?

  2. Thanks, Jeet – compelling stuff. Of course other forms of life on earth might do very well in the absence of human beings. I’d like to read Alan Weisman’s book on this (but haven’t yet):

  3. On the other hand, the chemistry of life is demonstrably not particularly rare or special at all, and we’ve known this for some time. Moreover, I would suggest that the plausibility of a life-strewn universe is on the upswing at the moment: the more we discover about bizarre organisms living tucked away in the odder and more inhospitable corners of our own planet, the more evidence we find that water (even liquid water!) may well exist in many places we’ve previously assumed it couldn’t…well, then, the more it looks like our previous ideas about life’s rarity may have to be revised. The discoveries of Viking, that depressed the imagination by overturning the romance of “rose-red cities”, have with our lately increasing knowledge themselves been overturned (even if Mariner’s findings don’t seem likely to be contradicted any time soon, or ever), and in a time when astronomers can responsibly imagine a warm internal ocean for Europa, SETI’s failure seems less suggestive of ultimate solitude every day.

    I would say things are looking up, in fact. One million-year-old dead prokyarote on Mars — just one! — and the uniqueness of Earthly life will have been comprehensively disproved. That seems far more likely today, than it did in Viking’s time. And if life turns out to be rather common stuff after all, especially if roughly-Earthlike extrasolar planets turn out to exist in any kind of profusion…well, the dice-roll you need to throw for life on other worlds starts moving away from boxcars and snake-eyes, and starts heading more towards lucky seven.

    Thankfully, the problem of whether extraterrestrial life exists is becoming more tractable, these days. We may even be able to look forward to making some educated guesses about it sometime soon.

    It’s a very exciting time.

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