Very special or very, very lucky

The universe is big. Bigger than you think. Actually much bigger than you can think. Depending on you talk to, there are somewhere in the region of 200 to 500 sextillion (that’s an extra 21 zeroes right there) planets in the universe’s estimated 500 billion galaxies. That’s a lot.

So the odds are, that somewhere out there are other planets that are both habitable and populated with life. Recently NASA chief Ellan Stofan predicted that we’d find signs of alien life in the next 25 years.

“It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when,” said Jeffery Newmark, NASA’s interim director of heliophysics.

Except so far the results have been precisely…nothing. Recently 100,000 galaxies (selected from 100 million) were scoured for life and nothing was found, although 50 galaxies will get closer scrutiny.

This was not how it was supposed to be. Scientists have long been convinced that life must exist somewhere else. That conviction right now is what we call ‘faith.’

Reflecting on this Mark Bauerlein at First Things quotes an astronomer from Georgia State University, Rachel Kuzio De Naray, discussing life on other planets:

The universe is very large, and for only our planet to be the only one that has life—that would be kind of special, and there’s nothing special about where we are. Our particular sun is not any different from most stars out there. It’s just an average star . . . Our galaxy is not particularly special. There are many, many galaxies just like ours . . . To think that our one little earth around this one little star just in this one little place of this one little galaxy in the whole universe is the only one to have life, that would make us special. So I don’t think we’re that special.

This raises the question, where are all the aliens? Jason T. Wright, who is an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Centre for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University says,

These galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilisations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognise them.

Now is a good time to get acquainted with the Fermi Paradox which is helpfully explained here in this short video.

So what to make of this? Well as Bauerlein says,

Until we have evidence of intelligence elsewhere, then this one little planet in this average galaxy has a unique constituent. Until the evidence of another such being shows up, assertions of our un-special nature aren’t scientific. They are speculative—or ideological.

The deafening silence despite the vast odds, brings us to some more incredibly huge numbers. The ones required to sustain life on this planet. This is the fine-tuned universe argument. In the video below (15 minutes) brilliant physicist Leonard Susskind explains the numbers involved for there to be life here. It’s staggering. At 6 minutes in Susskind offers 4 options for explaining the universe:

  1. God.
  2. Accident
  3. We don’t know, but one day someone will figure it out
  4. There are multiple universes.

Susskind and his interviewer laugh at the idea of God, yet having discounted options 2 & 3, the theory of God is back down to 50/50 and as yet there is no more evidence for the multiverse than there is for God. So we are either very special or very, very lucky.

Photo by kozumel

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