Because We’re Special

the-martian-matt-damonScientists are now finding evidence that there are a lot of apparently habitable planets out there, in a temperate zone in relation to their suns, where water is likely to form.

So why in the world (pun intended) aren’t we hearing or seeing signs of alien life when we point our radio telescopes at other star systems?  Our ability to search for evidence of life elsewhere has developed to the point where the lack of any contact has to be considered in any scientific theory about how life develops — and scientists are, in fact, doing just that.

The new theories posit that the world — our world — in fact played a key role.  They envision a “Gaian Bottleneck”: a kind of choke point that most alien life doesn’t survive.  While early, microbial life forms may have developed on those wet, rocky planets scientists are identifying just about everywhere, more complex life forms require planets with weather systems and atmospheric that are relatively stable.  The Gaian Bottleneck posits that such stability is lacking on many planets, and that changes in temperature or atmosphere killed off the alien life when it was in its fragile, early stages and unable to defend itself through evolution.  Thus, both Venus and Mars may have had early life forms, but the developmental arc of those planets — toward a high-pressure hot house on Venus, and a frigid, barren desert on Mars — killed them off.

Earth, though, somehow threaded the needle.  So, we’re special.

Of course, Earth’s example means some planets make it past any Gaian Bottleneck, so there may be advanced life out there — just not as much as you might think.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

No Alien Answer — Yet

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has made huge strides in recent years.

Using new techniques, scientists have identified many apparently habitable planets, thereby suggesting that the first ingredient of extraterrestrial intelligence — a planet where a sophisticated alien race might develop — is much more common than people once thought.  Studies have shown that life has developed and thrived in the most inhospitable climates on Earth, from superhot underseas vents to the coldest ice caves at our poles.  And now, astronomers are targeting specific stars with radio frequency searches designed to hear any radio wave activity.

The astronomers examined Gliese 581, a red dwarf 20 light years away that is orbited by six planets, including two jumbo-sized Earth-like planets.  If Gliese 581 were aiming a similar array at Earth, it would hear countless radio broadcasts from 20 years ago — lots of the music of Nirvana, and reports on the upcoming Bush-Clinton presidential election, no doubt.  But from Gliese 581, the astronomers heard . . . nothing.  If there is life on the planets in the Gliese 581 system, it either hasn’t progressed to the point of using radio technology or uses some other form of communication we haven’t discovered.

The fact that we haven’t heard an answer yet doesn’t mean life isn’t out there somewhere.  The technique used on Gliese 581 was targeted at a small dot in a universe that has countless such dots.  The astronomers could experience years of radio silence from their targets, but the world would change immediately if the radio astronomers heard alien communications from just one target — as was the case in Maria Doria Russell’s excellent novel The Sparrow.

We don’t know if we’re unique, and whether Earth is the only planet in the vast universe where intelligent creatures capable of extraterrestrial communications have developed.  Being something of a skeptic, I’m not willing to accept that proposition.  Time, and some more efforts to listen in on alien radio, will tell.

Staying In The Foxhole

Scientist Stephen Hawking is convinced that there is alien life elsewhere in the universe — mathematically, it just seems likely — but strongly recommends that we not look for them.  He envisions a situation where a nomadic race of aliens might raid the Earth for our natural resources or a “Columbus discovers the New World” scenario where the friendly welcoming natives get wiped out by disease or violence.  Hawking therefore adopts the “pessimistic” view of extraterrestial contact where marauding aliens who find us would be perfectly happy to wipe us out.  (The “optimistic” view, epitomized by Star Trek, posits that any aliens intelligent enough to cross interstellar space are intelligent enough not to be bloodthirsty mass murderers.)

In law school we called the Hawking approach “foxholing.”  If you hadn’t read the case and weren’t prepared you tried to stay out of the professor’s line of sight and hoped he wouldn’t call on you.  If the technique worked, you made it to the next class without undue embarrassment — but I always thought the better approach was to be prepared in the first place.