The search for extraterrestrial life

Are we alone in the universe?

Graphic by Bram Keast

NEW WESTMINISTER, B.C. – For hundreds of years, humans have asked “Are we alone in the universe?” This question has been particularly prominent in the last century as we begin to learn much more about space and the origins of the human race. We are coming to realize the sheer size of the universe and the possibility of other Earth-like planets, leading to speculation that it’s only a matter of time before extraterrestrial life is found.

The Fermi Paradox asks the question, “given that we have good reasons to estimate highly the probability of extraterrestrial life, why haven’t we found any evidence of it?” There are billions of stars just in the Milky Way galaxy, and billions of stars older than our own sun. The probabilities suggest that at least some of them – even a very small fraction would still be thousands of suns – have planets revolving around them that are hospitable to life, and are therefore Earth-like in nature.

Some of those planets may develop life forms, and if evolution takes its course, intelligent life capable of forming civilizations may exist. The amount of time these civilizations are thought to have had on a cosmic scale (i.e., up to millions of years longer than Earth has) suggests that the aliens would be capable of interstellar travel. If these space-faring beings exist, where are they? There has been no solid evidence of other beings in the universe, no visits to Earth, no galactic phone calls initiating first contact.

The lack of any detection so far of other intelligent life does not mean it doesn’t exist. The Milky Way is only one of an estimated hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. Each one contains a range of several thousands to several trillion stars within, many with orbiting planetary systems. With such a diverse field to choose from, many believe intelligent life exists somewhere out there. The question is not so much if we’ll make contact with another civilization, but when.

First contact – a theme explored in many science fiction works – brings up a wide range of questions and issues. What’s the other civilization like? How advanced are they compared to humanity? Are their intentions toward humanity good-natured, or hostile and dangerous? The sheer diplomatic crisis and confusion caused on Earth by contact with aliens alone would change the world in major ways. They will most likely be more advanced in intelligence and technology than humans, which creates many issues in itself. That’s not even getting into the religious and philosophical implications caused by knowledge of their existence.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) no longer exists only in science fiction. In the last 100 years, many scientific SETI initiatives have been started in an attempt to find whoever else is out there. These are mostly centred on manipulating and monitoring radio waves in an attempt to find energy sources, and therefore signs of life, in the universe. Recently, the Breakthrough Initiatives, a $100 million deal sealed by prominent physicist Stephen Hawking, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, and others was announced. This program is a 10-year plan funding major radio telescopes to detect signals from potential civilizations.

According to Hawking, “in an infinite universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.”

The program also includes plans to design and approve messages sent by Earth into the far reaches of space where others may one day read them. This brings up its own dilemmas. What should we say in a communication beamed to the far reaches of space and potentially read by an extraterrestrial civilization? Are the benefits of doing so greater than the risks?

The possibilities about intelligent extraterrestrial life’s nature are almost as manifold as the potential places that may exist. The universe is billions of years old. It’s entirely possible that vast interstellar civilizations existed and disappeared in that time frame.

The size of the universe also suggests intelligent life may simply be too far away from us to detect through current technology. It may surpass our lifetimes, or even a millennium, before we discover anything. There’s even a possibility, albeit slim, that there is nothing out there, and humans are truly the most intelligent beings in the universe. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is said to have put it, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

The existential and ethical debates on the existence and meaning of intelligent life forms elsewhere will continue until we have a definitive answer. We may not know in the next 100 years. We may never know. Certainly, our search for the truth will inspire philosophy, emotion, and science fiction for years to come. We can only hope that humans like the answer when it does come. It may be uniting or dividing.

Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests, “our image of evil space aliens surely derives from a fear that they will treat us just as we treat one another.” True intelligent life could be anywhere in the universe – but perhaps it isn’t anywhere on our own planet.

For now, all we can do is to speculate, research, fund SETI initiatives, and keep watching the skies.


– National University Wire