Is Humanity Alone in the Universe? How We Deal With Galactic Loneliness

The report of a rare signal received by a Russian satellite may not have brought us any closer to the day when we communicate with intelligent beings from another planet, but it definitely reminds us how little we know about our galaxy and its neighbors

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Space entrepreneur Elon Musk this week at the International Astronomical Congress in Guadalajara, as he presented his plan for colonizing Mars.
Space entrepreneur Elon Musk this week at the International Astronomical Congress in Guadalajara, as he presented his plan for colonizing Mars. Credit: Susana Gonzalez, Bloomberg
Uri Aviv
Uri Aviv

“Where is everybody?” Italian physicist Enrico Fermi asked his friends during lunch.

Los Alamos National Laboratory cafeteria, headquarters of the American nuclear project. The year was 1950, and on their way to lunch a few fellow scientists had been discussing the latest reports of UFO sightings. Fermi was one of them. During the conversation he grew silent. His friends moved on, but a few moments later he asked the question that has been known ever since as the “Fermi paradox,” and which has in turn become one of the more fascinating meeting points between science and science fiction: “If there is indeed intelligent life in the universe, then where is it?” Or, in short – “So where is everybody?”

Usually, it is science-fiction authors who hypothesize about interstellar cultures and galactic federations, imagining scenarios of communication with friendly extra-terrestrials or, heaven forbid, an invasion of hostile aliens. But Fermi’s question has over the years brought physicists, chemists, biologists, historians and philosophers into the discussion as well.

Enrico Fermi.
Enrico Fermi.Credit: U.S. National Archives.

The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence and communication with them was subsequently dealt with in science fiction many times, for instance, in “Contact,” Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel – later adapted to film by Robert Zemeckis – about a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project researcher who picks up a powerful and significant transmission from outer space. Recently, reality has been sprinkled with cinematic stardust, in the form of reports of a real signal received by a Russian radio telescope in May 2015. The report about the signal came from the same international project mentioned in “Contact,” SETI, which reported that a “strong signal” had been received from the star HD164595, 94 light-years distant from us.

The meaning of the signal was unclear. Additional tests indicated that its source is most probably not extra-terrestrial in origin, but the initial announcement did succeed in lighting up the imaginations of many, with quite a few of the media stories referencing “Contact” and accompanying the report with a picture of Jodie Foster, who played the role of Eleanor Arroway, the astrophysicist who discovers the signal from outer space and is eventually sent to the stars. (In “Contact,” the star in question is Vega, a mere 25 light-years away, our galactic backyard.)

Science fiction engages in big questions: What distinguishes between man and machine, beast or God? How would a just society look like? What is life, what is death? And, of course, are we alone? The aliens in science fiction are by and large tools for metaphorical debate, the object of which is scrutinizing our own social structures and values.

The “alien discussion” in science fiction often has little to do with actual aliens, but much to do with us, even when we ask questions such as: Would aliens have sex or gender? On their evolutionary journey, did they establish religions? Nation-states? Do they hold life sacred? Or maybe intelligence? Or the Sabbath? How do they divide their resources? Do they also have political schemes and maneuvers that prevent their trains from running on time? How and why have they survived and how have they gotten to where they are?

Even if their heads are cone-shaped or their bodies insect-like, most aliens are anthropomorphized, or are at least clearly represented as living beings, and they function in a manner similar to social groups and/or possess human-like traits, which makes it possible for their creators to conduct discussions on volatile issues and taboo topics.

Earth is not the first planet in the universe, our sun is not the first sun, and our solar system is not the first one to have been created. There should be not only life out there, but life that is much older than ours.

In the film “Contact,” we know nothing about the aliens themselves, other than the fact that they are significantly more technologically advanced than human beings. They communicate with us in two ways. The first is through mathematics, which Sagan and his colleagues claim is the common language essential for understanding the universe, and an essential prerequisite for technology; with the help of mathematics, the aliens guide humanity to build a colossal machine that will launch a human being for an encounter with them. The second means of communication is private, intimate and emotional. The aliens reveal themselves to us by means of a direct encounter with a single individual, an encounter carried out by metaphorical means. They deconstruct the psyche of Arroway – the woman who has been chosen to meet them; one assumes they do this by means of advanced technology as well. They appear before her in a dream-like conversation she conducts with her father, who died while she was a child.

The communication with them, communication between humankind and unknown aliens, is presented here as a conversation between a young girl and her father, a conversation charged with nostalgia and emotion – characteristics they have selected meticulously – in order to transmit the message that they’ve chosen to send to all of humanity.

A cosmic sneeze

It’s difficult to fathom how communication with a totally alien entity takes place at all, and many science-fiction creatives have gone on from that issue to another, the blurry line between a potentially one-sided conversation with an alien culture, and prayer. Not for naught does religion find its way into these themes and discussions, and draw in the protagonists. If in “Contact” the religious debate is political, in Stanislaw Lem’s novel “Solaris” (adapted to film twice, once by Andrei Tarkovsky, then by Steven Soderbergh), it is personal. The research team dispatched to investigate Solaris, a distant planet, understands that the alien essence on the planet, or perhaps the planet itself, raises up their beloved dead from their memories. Is Solaris an intelligent entity that is trying to make contact with them? How should they respond to it, and with the intimacy of the phenomenon, how responsible are they for it? What will happen if this occurrence is expanded upon once they return to Earth? Should they keep this communication, and the knowledge that comes with it, to themselves?

George Clooney and Natascha McElhone in Steven Soderbergh's 2002 film 'Solaris.'
George Clooney and Natascha McElhone in Steven Soderbergh's 2002 film 'Solaris.'Credit: AP

Science fiction, being the commercial art form that it is, is somewhat limited in its ability to further expand and hypothesize, but when scientists and philosophers enter the story, they are free to pursue these speculative debates with their own tools. How do they approach Fermi’s question?

First, we have to recognize the galactic reality and the literally astronomical numbers involved. Earth revolves around the sun, which is one of about 100 billion suns in a colossal structure called a galaxy. Ours is the Milky Way galaxy; it is estimated that in the visible universe there are some 100 billion galaxies. Not every sun in the universe is like ours, but many are. Not every sun has a solar system like ours that’s developed around it, but we continuously discover more solar systems like ours. If our corner of the universe is not unique, it is reasonable to assume that somewhere, sometime, life similar to our own developed.

This is where the dimension of time comes into play. Earth is not the first planet in the universe, our sun is not the first sun, and our solar system is not the first one to have been created. Some stars are billions of years older, there are much older solar systems and planets, and based on that logic, there should be not only life out there, but life that is much older than ours – billions of years older.

We currently have the engineering capability to build space ships and probes with the capacity to move at a fraction of the speed of light. If we imagine being able to reach a speed 10 percent that of the speed of light, it would be possible to travel from one corner of the galaxy to the other in a mere one million years. This is the same period of time that separates between us, Homo sapiens, and the extinct Homo erectus, but in cosmological terms, a blink of an eye. This is where we head back into the realms of what seems like science fiction.

In this Oct. 9, 2007 file photo, radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array are seen in Hat Creek, Calif.
In this Oct. 9, 2007 file photo, radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array are seen in Hat Creek, Calif.Credit: Ben Margot, AP

A sufficiently advanced civilization would be capable of dispatching research probes and complex robotic machines – as opposed to “manned” vehicles – to tour the galaxy around it. Imagine that every such robot would arrive at a planet, land on it, stay there for hundreds or thousands of years, make use of its resources, and then build other complex robotic machines that could in turn be launched from there to other planets. Within tens of millions of years, a sufficiently advanced civilization would be able to investigate, populate, invade and conquer an entire galaxy. That’s half the time that separates us and the last of the dinosaurs, little more than a sneeze in cosmic terms.

So where is everybody? Why haven’t we seen concrete evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life yet, and why are these life forms taking such a long time in contacting us?

No news is good news

The possibility that we are not alone leads to some extraordinary hypotheses, even among the most serious scholars. One option was raised by the American physicist Michio Kaku. Let’s say that a highway is built alongside an anthill. “Would the ants be able to understand what a 10-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?” It is possible that the technological sophistication required for interplanetary existence and movement is so advanced for us, that we are unable to fathom it with the means at our disposal, that we are unable to differentiate between it and natural phenomena, and that it is happening all around us all the time. Another possibility is that our region of the universe is controlled by an invasive and conquering species, similar to the human race on Earth, and that we have to hope that they will not make their way to our neck of the woods.

In the search for extraterrestrial life, no news is good news. It promises a potentially great future for humanity

Another theory, called the “zoo hypothesis,” is that we are not adequately developed to be contacted yet, and that numerous civilizations around us are essentially biding their time out there, watching us and waiting for us to grow up, overcome our local conflicts, form a global government, and reach a certain level of technological maturity. Along with all of these possibilities is the more familiar one, especially in popular culture: that aliens have indeed already made contact with us, and this knowledge is being kept secret by the governments of Earth.

The possibility that we are nevertheless alone leads to the understanding that life is an extremely rare occurrence in the universe. Which begs the question: Why? Economist Robin Hanson, a researcher at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, has raised “The Great Filter” hypothesis. He argues that it is possible that certain events in the development of intelligent life as we know it are so rare that they constitute an obstacle of immense dimensions, and thereby filter out to an extreme degree the possibility of life in the universe, and therefore also intergalactic civilization. Hanson cites events that we know are unique in our own biological evolution, and notes that the periods of time needed for them to take place were on an astronomical scale, such as the creation of replicating molecules composed of simple organic material (in simpler terms, the creation of life in its most basic form), or the transition from simple prokaryotic cells to more complex eukaryotic cells. Researchers at the institute express much concern that humanity is nearing or is in the midst of another Great Filter event, one of our own making, through technological means.

This is why the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute, says that he breathes a sigh of relief every time that signs of life on another planet in the solar system are not discovered. “In the search for extraterrestrial life, no news is good news. It promises a potentially great future for humanity,” he says. Bostrum argues that what the Fermi paradox tells us is that the more we discover life in its nascent stages, the more we understand it is a widespread cosmic phenomenon, the more likely it is to assume that the Great Filter event lies not in our distant past, but still awaits us in our future, and that we are still destined to cope with it.

Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom.
Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom.Credit: The Future of Humanity Institute

Back to science-fiction phantasms that now seem startlingly down-to-earth. The question of the existence of life beyond Earth is an extremely important one, as is our readiness for an answer, whatever it may be. Science fiction is a primary and serious realm where this conversation is taking place. If we are part of a galactic community, we must deal with that possibility and have to consider how we can enrich and improve the community to which we will belong, at some point in the future. When we encounter silicon-based creatures, will we behave in a carbon-centric manner? When we encounter intelligent research probes, will we reject them on the basis of their having “artificial” intelligence, and instead demand to speak with their manufacturer? What is our heritage and how will we contribute from it to the general good; how will we be exemplary to the cosmos, and a light unto the universe? Of course, if we are alone, if we are the first ones, then we have a two-fold responsibility – to define both who we are and what this universe of ours is.

This past Tuesday, September 26, the 67th International Astronautical Congress opened in Guadalajara, Mexico. On the second day of the conference, the Permanent Committee on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence convened to discuss, among other things, the signal received by the Russian space telescope. That same day, September 27, space entrepreneur Elon Musk presented to the world his extraordinary plan for Mars colonization.

In the words of Eleanor Arroway, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

The writer is a creative producer and artistic director, co-founder of the Utopia association for science, imagination and future visions, and director of its science-fiction festival and conference.