(the first of a series of articles on this subject)
From the time man first realized the immensity of our universe, scientists have been wondering why we have not yet found any evidence of intelligent life somewhere out there.
As our telescopes and related technology have improved, the mystery has deepened—because the odds against our being alone keep growing. The current estimate of total star population in our universe is about 70 sextillion (7 followed by 22 zeroes!), and the current estimate of earth-like planets per star is about 20%. The probability of there NOT being intelligent life out there seems to be near zero. But where are they?
Efforts to detect the existence of alien intelligence have been focussed on radio transmissions. Our planet has been broadcasting radio signals (radio, TV, communications) for the last 100 years. Think of the signals as expanding circles, like ripples on a pond when a rock is thrown into it. The ripples are expanding at the speed of light. So far they have reached suns and planets within 100 light years of the solar system. A tiny portion of our galaxy, and an infinitesimally small micro dot in the universe… So far no aliens have indicated that they have heard our noise pollution.
But our universe has existed for 13.7 billion years, and it is probable that the potential for intelligent life has existed for at least 8 billion years. So, if there are sound ripples (i.e. radio waves) coming from ancient intelligent life, why have none been detected yet?
Many scientists say we just haven’t listened for long enough. “Listening” requires a focussed, extremely high gain, radio telescope. Until recently, only a tiny portion of the sky could be monitored per “listening day”. That is changing, however, and now relatively large sections of the sky are under scrutiny. If the silence continues for another decade, it will be reasonable for observers to conclude that there is, indeed, a strange shortage of detectable intelligent life.
Scientists and science writers have already begun speculating as to what could explain the shortage. The consensus is that it is to do with “intelligence windows”. Our window of opportunity is the time that we have been capable of detecting extraterrestrial life—which is only about 100 years. This is a tiny sliver of the time in relation to the 8 billion years that intelligent life could have existed. So any alien detecting our existence would have to be very lucky over the next few billion years to detect us… Realistically a future intelligent alien species would have to listen continuously for a very long time to stand a chance of learning of our existence. What are the chances that an intelligent species will endure for millions, if not billions of years?
Real intelligence gives a species the ability to survive catastrophes (asteroid impacts, supernovae, etc.) that would eliminate less intelligent life. For example the dinosaurs, whose reign of dominance exceeded 200 million years, were snuffed out by an asteroid impact. If intelligence produces a species capable of inter-stellar travel, theoretically it could live forever. But now we have to put intelligence under the microscope.
What kind of intelligence are we talking about? Is it the ability to invent and manufacture IPhones? Is it the ability to create a global economy that is dependent on an insatiable appetite for energy and other finite resources? Is it the ability to create lethal weapons capable of destroying all life on our planet? Is it the ability to create a runaway greenhouse effect that could produce a second Venus in our solar system?
No. We are going to have to achieve an altogether different—and better—version of intelligence if we are to have any chance of surviving to hear or be heard by any other intelligent life forms. In fact the difference between the truly intelligent, better version of us is so great that it amounts to a successor species—“future man”.
Now this is where we get a choice. We can either dismissively say to ourselves “that just isn’t going to happen”—and, by so doing, make it an inevitability (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Or, we can explore the possibility that it could happen—and actively work to make it happen.
If it is to happen it has to happen soon. The direction we are heading is going to see the end of us within a century or two. Again the sceptics might say “that is what evolution is all about, survival of the fittest”—and, “if we don’t have what it takes we should just accept nature’s verdict and make way for a more deserving species”…
But I am an optimist. I believe that we have, within us, the capacity to transform ourselves into what we must become if we are to have a future of consequence. In a word it is spirituality. And we discovered it in our very earliest days as Homo Sapiens.
The earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens existence in communities (over 50,000 years ago) show signs of a belief in a “higher power”. Just as fundamental, there is evidence that early man was “spiritual” in a more general respect, loving art and music etc. No other creature has discovered a spiritual dimension to its existence…
I believe that this is our one and only hope.
Now when I say spiritual, I don’t mean “religious”. Spirituality and religion are not the same thing. Religion, in fact, could literally be the death of us (think of religious extremism and the very real threat that it represents to our future)
Spirituality is so much more than religion. Spirituality means compassion. Spirituality means empathy with all of humanity (in fact all of life). Spirituality means believing that the existence of our universe has purpose—and that our existence has purpose (a purpose that will be realized by a concerted self-improvement effort). Spirituality means acceptance of a responsibility for the future…
That is the BIG intelligence test… Can we rediscover “pure” spirituality and have it unite us as a truly intelligent species. Only if we pass this test, will we have any chance of becoming a member of the universe’s community of truly intelligent species…
What do you think? Submit your comments…