It seems the question, is there other intelligent life (or any kind of life for that matter) in the universe continues to be a bothersome one for some of Earth’s brightest minds.
Let me make this easy. We are alone. Completely and utterly alone.
Even if we weren’t the chances of ever encountering anything in your lifetime or the lifetime of your great-great-great-great-great-grandchild is so infinitesimally small, that you might as well be. Estimates (or if we’re honest complete guesses and pulling numbers out of, ahem, space) say there must be billions of planets with life on them in our incredibly old and incredibly vast universe. Recently a planet that has been quickly dubbed Earth 2.0 was recently discovered with the only downside being that it is so far away we’ll never know one way or another. If you could travel at the speed of light (and you can’t) it would take 16 months to get there, or for our furthest flung adventurer New Horizons which recently flew by Pluto a further 28
months million years. Unless, of course, we have one of these spaceships.
The chances of life on earth being destroyed by a meteor is far, far greater *. Let that sink in for a minute, the next time you want to encounter something from outer space.
That this question is considered so important despite the facts, struck me when I first wrote about this back in April. For those who need a refresher our lack of contact with other life bugs people. It’s called the Fermi paradox and even the potential answers are pretty discouraging (or here if you’d rather read your explanation than watch it) if the idea of being alone is existentially troubling for you.
Yet this hasn’t stopped people getting all worked up over it. Tech-investor Yuri Milner is investing $100 million to find evidence of life on another planet on the grounds that ‘it is really critical to probe the universe to see if others are out there.’
Although critical to who and why is less clear.
It’s not really a science question as much as it is an existential one. Even Breakthrough Listen, the organisation receiving Milner’s millions admits that when it’s opening line in an open letter is ‘who are we?’ and finish with the comment that discovering life elsewhere would help us ‘know more deeply who we are’.
I love exploration, I love science fiction but I think that’s what it is – fiction. But I do wonder about the deep desire to find something else. After all, life in the universe for the atheist is quite brutal. You are lucky to be alive, you will soon be dead, there is nothing else, you will soon be forgotten. Hardly words of comfort to Stephen Fry’s child dying of brutal cancer yet in his framework of understanding undeniably true.
Having rejected the idea that what is ‘out there’ is our creator, we’ve gone in search of our galactic neighbour only to increasingly realise that we have none. There is no escape and nowhere to escape to. It seems to me that instead of seeking the answer to the question ‘who are we?’ and the related ‘why are we here?’ from the one place where we know life exists (here), we instead search for answers in the one place that has so far yielded absolutely nothing.
Scientists can it seems,without any evidence, believe in other dimensions but not heaven, an eternal universe but not an eternal God, the end of the world but not the final judgement, in other intelligent life but not intelligent design and that the meaning of life is to be found in the stars instead of the one who made them.
* It’s always a delight to link to a site that has such a great name like Killer Asteroids