A quote from Ray Bradbury some time ago stuck in my cranium like a computer hard link. It pops up periodically urging my neurons toward thought. He said, in essence, of our rambunctious species, “we are so unlikely”. Whoa, a hush comes over the mind like cloud cover. This is not the kind of thing one hears often from the scientifically literate. In fact, the statement was so unlikely that again, it seared into my memory corpuscles like a bad song. How unlikely we are no one knows. Our best scientists are trying hard to find out but so far the cosmos remains uninterested and as cold and silent as a Sphinx.
The universe is largely inhospitable, it’s as if the big bang was a crapshoot, imagine Dr. Frankenstein in his lair, he finally succeeds in creating his quantum tunnel and all his magnets are lined up and then boom, inflation occurs – the big bang explodes and off goes his universe. What he didn’t anticipate is that it would create its own dimension and be forever untouchable by him, its creator. The only evidence of its success is some brief antimatter sparks bouncing about his laboratory. As the Doctor goes off scratching his head, our universe begins its evolution. It turns out to be a real fuster cluck of a universe and one in which we (it’s unlikely spawn) find ourselves trapped. Its main features are its extraordinary wastefulness and utter pointlessness. Thanks a lot Dr. Frankenstein.
Life is relatively rare. Take our own solar system for instance, say we have nine planets and let’s throw in 70 moons as a nice round figure. We won’t even count asteroids, so with that generalized number, we arrive at life in our unusual solar system at one in 80. I realize we are currently probing moons and may yet discover microbial life but as of my writing, it hasn’t happened. I do believe we have good evidence for water outside the earth so that ups the ante – but again we don’t yet know for sure. When we look into the universe we see many stars which are too hot or too cold or too young or too old and planets which are mostly gas giants or super burned-up charcoals or freezing rocks. We know of a few in what we call the habitable zone. The fecundity of the earth may fool us into believing such is the tendency of the universe but a study of the heavens yields a swift negation of that idea. There are a helluva lot of fusions, explosions, gases, metals and dust storms – most of which seem to be meaningless side shows. It’s a universe of dichotomies and incongruities, one of violent, searing and combustible detonations while also harboring cold, isolated, rock hard projectiles; the only consistency is its cruel indifference.
Now I know from probability and statistics that there should be tons of life out there and perhaps there is, but again, as of this writing, our observations yield little. And remember, we’re talking any life, probably mostly microbes, not intelligent or technological life. It would be interesting to see someone due some rational analysis and try to come up with a speculative number of technological cultures in the universe or even a corner of the universe or perhaps a galaxy. Where’s Leonard Euler when you need him? I’d bet the planet to Klingon ratio to be so small it would require an infinite limiting derivative. Well, why us? Maybe in the Frankenstein crapshoot we just happen to be one of the few places where all the ducks lined up in a row. Stranger things have happened, or have they?
I don’t believe home sapiens to be that much (if any) more intelligent than apes, dolphins, crows etc. After all, civilization is a recent discovery; we hunted and gathered and roved around like animals for millennia just like the rest. Other earth creatures have similar brain to body mass ratios as ourselves. We like to think we’re super special but we got here the same way everything else did. The differences seem more quantitative than qualitative and many of our ancestral lines have ended up as dust in the wind.
Yet, despite this, we have two characteristics that may be rare and have allowed for technological expansion. I’m talking about dexterous hands and upright walking of course. If we weren’t tree dwellers we wouldn’t have evolved the hooks we call hands that have allowed us to make things. No trees, no primates, no human beings; our hands are a random result of natural selection, nothing more. In order to have the time to allow these hands, combined with a growing brain, to make things, a lot of luck must accompany ingenuity. On our planet, ice ages, asteroid collisions, plant extinctions etc. come and go and surviving them is obviously essential to get to the next level. Who knows what disasters on other planets have curtailed the potential technological development of other promising species. I think scientists have asserted with some confidence that home sapiens has escaped the jaws of destruction more than once in the last few hundred thousand years. We are clever but also very lucky.
Dolphins may be our intellectual equals but by the nature of the sea and their inability to get outside themselves (with limbs), it’s virtually impossible for them to build anything of significance. If the universe were teeming with dolphins, in other words, we would never hear from them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. Nature has locked them out of an advancing technological paradigm because they’re shaped like sleek, gray jalapenos. It seems hands are the clincher, and not just hands, but hands with an opposable thumb. Ape hands don’t quite get the thumb angle right and those few degrees are significant. Are hands and upright walking essential for intergalactic communication? Is land based existence required? Both seem likely requirements. This is not something I’ve heard discussed but I’d sure like to hear from some of our scientific speculators out there. Where’s the new Isaac Asimov? H.G. Wells? I won’t hold my breath. Nevertheless, how many creatures are thus constrained?
It would be interesting to know what the average percentage of water to land would be in the habitable zone of planets. I realize we can never know such a thing but maybe we can make a reasonable guess based on some geological algorithm. Whatever the case, I believe the earth is about 70% water and my intuition tells me (whatever that’s worth) that most habitable worlds are probably largely covered by water. We do know that life is most likely to develop in a watery morass and so if we add up all the unlikely conditions; viable star, viable planet, viable zone, reasonable gravity, the spark of life, advanced life, life outside water, creatures with freed up limbs, industrial life etc. – what might the percentage be now – for not just intelligent but an adventurous technological life? – For this answer, it seems we must again consult Newton and his infinitesimals.
We hear of the teeming universe and the billions and billions of stars as we remember those words pouring from the enthusiastic mouth of our revered Carl Sagan and many (dazzled by the numbers) assume life, intelligent life and technologically-searching-life must be everywhere, the distances simply making communication quite difficult. This could indeed be true and perhaps is even statistically likely but then again, what if it isn’t. Is it so bad to be alone?
I’m not sure it matters much whether we ever find an advanced civilization or not. It sure would change things, of that I’m confident. But if we don’t soon kill ourselves or get smashed by an asteroid or charcoaled by solar winds or otherwise expunged and somehow advance to what Kardashev calls a stage two civilization, maybe then our chances of a meet and greet rise significantly. If we meet up physically, as Stephen Hawking has warned, an advanced civilization may treat us as we do sardines, hmm, a nice snack. But instead, we expect some sort of electromagnetic message, and if we ever detect one, we might have the first intergalactic telephone conversation. Of course, even if we’re lucky and they are very close, a four or five year lull in the chat would be swift. I’m afraid, unfortunately, that this rate would bore even the most taciturn among us.
Maybe we are special. Not in the sense that the religious purport, that everything is created for us by something outside nature in its own image (homely) who watches indifferently as we suffer and die and then, oh yes then, we get to meet in the theme park in the sky (thank you Hitchens) where we frolic in bliss for all eternity. No thank you. I’d rather befriend Jack and the Beanstalk.
Nonetheless, we might be alone or at least quite rare and this shouldn’t necessarily be a downer, in fact, we should rejoice at how lucky we are. After all, a creature not sitting on Neptune can’t be sitting there contemplating why he indeed came about on Neptune. It only seems weird because we’re here to ask the question. It’s akin to the anthropomorphic theory of the universe. Why are things just right to make the universe possible? Why is the earth just right to make life inevitable? Well, although it seems profound, it may be nothing more than Dr. Frankenstein’s luck in his one in a billion crapshoot.