Many circumstances have changed of late. India has entered, today, her 64th year of independence; the Hubble telescope discovered the beautiful Necklace Nebula; Jay Leno came up with a video metaphor for the US economy; a friend of mine returned to his blog after months of exile; and astronomers discovered an alien world blacker than coal, a Jupiter-sized exoplanet that radiates less than 1% sunlight incident on it (and I still maintain that TrES-2B can be used as a blackbody for an astronomical-scale experiment if we can find sufficient funding!)
Speaking of exoplanets, it occurs to me that the one debate that has never bothered to cool down has been that of the existence of aliens. This is exactly why I decided to examine where we now stand on this issue. But, before we go ahead, I must warn you that my opinions are rather biased for I take sides with the believers. If one sentence were to sum up my views on Alien life in outer space, I reckon it would be the famous statement from Carl Sagan’s (brilliant) novel, Contact:
“Do you think aliens exist out there in space?”
“I suppose if they don’t, it would be an awful waste of space.”
How alien life sprang
Considering that the requirements for aliens to live are pretty similar to those of humans (or organisms on earth, if you will) it would also necessarily mean that Aliens would not look different from us. As Hawking aptly puts it, they may already be among us.
I see an implication in this. For one, they definitely look like us. Also, they have to be scientifically advanced or they would not have been able to travel down here without our noticing it. Biologically, their skeletal structures can tell us how advanced they are based on how different/advanced their skulls (for instance) are. But then we would have to point them out with certainty first!
While we are on the topic of biological views, it is interesting to note that as recently as three decades ago, the scales had tipped in favour of the non-believers. In 1970, French biologist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod declared, rather outrageously, that “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance,” because the reigning belief was that life resulted from—as an article I recall, first published in Scientific American, put it—‘a chemical fluke so imporbable that it is unlikely to ever happen again.’
Christian de Duve, the Belgian biologist, countered this view in 1995 stating that life was a cosmic imperative almost bound to arise on any earth-like planet. This was good news for astrobiologists as it finally proves they were not a waste of tax-payers’ money. Recently, NYU’s Robert Shapiro dubbed this as biological determinism and said that the existence of life was well written into the laws of nature.
The Fermi Paradox
In a casual discussion regarding aliens with his colleagues, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi is said to have suddenly exclaimed, out of the blue, the words ‘Where are they?’ This seemingly unimportant sentence went to become one of the most famous paradoxes in all of physics. We are trying to answer these to this day and Fermi’s speedy estimation based upon the then-known latest statistical data of the universe and its objects continues to elude us. It is perhaps the one largest obstacle to believers.
I will not dwell upon the maths involved, but, in a nutshell, the idea is that a fairly accurate estimation of the number of planets in existence and other similar factors within the known universe clearly point out to the fact that aliens—if they did exist—should have visited us a long time ago and repeatedly ever since. And if they are indeed doing so, where are they?
The Drake Equation
Drake substituted the data as follows, from his 1961 estimates:
N = 10 × 0.5 × 2 × 1 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10,000 = 10 civilizations in our galaxy
However, based on the present lower estimates:
N = 6 × 0.5 × 2 × 0.33 × 1×10-7 × 0.01 × 420 = 8.316×10^-7 = 0.0000008 civilizations in our galaxy
The basic ideas therefore are simply this: back in 1961, our probability estimate was 0.08 and now (with more accurate estimates) it comes down dramatically to 0.0000008. And yet, why do we believe in alien existence?
The Anthropic Principle
In support of Fermi’s idea, it is important to note how, in spite of our above observations, in our galaxy there has to exist (by definition) at least one civilisation of intelligent life.
Fermi worked on the assumption that there exists only one civilisation in the galaxy capable of intersidereal travel at speeds incomparable to that of light. That said, if this civilisation was interested in galactic conquest (for that is how the human mind works—or at least that is how Fermi pictured it) then, given that the geometrically progressing number of ships to travel in, made up for the low speed of travelling, it would take no more than 10 million years for them to colonise the entire galaxy—a small number considering that our universe is 13 billion years old!
Some of you might still be wondering why I still support the believers. While there appears to be a mountain of an observation opposing the idea, there is one fatal flaw.
If everything the non-believers say is still true, then it would necessarily mean that the civilisation of extraterrestrials in question is far more technologically advanced than us.
As some scientists point out, at the present rate of wireless information transport system we are developing on Earth, it would be a matter of a few years before the Earth went silent. To expand on this prophesy, our present satellite communication systems have the habit of adding to the cosmic background radiations (in a way, creating a lot of noise,) while they are in the process of transferring data.
This means that the Earth and in turn the civilisation on it would be detectable by extraterrestrials when they map the almost uncanny expulsion of such electromagnetic radiation/waves. Given that, in a few years, new technology would replace the present ones to create an almost noiseless system for said purpose, it would make Earth stand out less. If our planet would be discovered, it would be through the same means that we employ in our Kepler satellite. That is to say, there would be absolutely no way to determine the existence of a civilisation on earth unless we sent out a beam of EM waves on purpose; or they actually took the trouble of coming down here to observe us with their own two (or more) eyes.
Having previously seen that the galactic-conquering civilisation is, by natural requirement, technologically more advanced, it would mean that they have passed this stage and therefore cannot be detected by any means we have now. In other words, to detect a civilisation, we ought to have technology advanced enough to gather their spatial footprints. And, since we are not more advanced, there would be no way of determining if anybody is out there. This leaves open the possibility that there could, indeed, be somebody there else (as I said previously) it would be an awful waste of space!
An absurdity to conclude with
A strange-looking website recently quizzed and categorised me as a mid-level nerd (whatever that means) but, having the term nerd in the equation would easily explain my fascination for everything from outerspace and fantasy: Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The Big Bang Theory, LOTR, superheroes, comics, action figures and the list can go on! It would perhaps not surprise you when I say I have yet another seemingly absurd belief to which I have found no worthy counter-argument (yet!) And, parenthetically, it is an amusing situation to picture.
What if we, on earth, are the galactic-conquering civilisation we spoke of earlier? What is we, perhaps, are the ones who were brought to earth to settle in place of its original, scientifically-backward inhabitants (like the neanderthals?) What if the reason we haven’t been visited by anybody is because everybody else has already been conquered? (As I said, there is sufficient time to conquer a few galactic clusters—and 13 billion is only the age of the visible universe, and not the absolute value!) What if—and I may be trespassing onto Sci-Fi lands here—we are the guinea pigs of our own civilisation, let to start from scratch, allowed to see a fictionalised human history and evolution, and eventually bound to be captured only to be replaced by more game? After all, we see what we want to see.
Silly as it may seem, you will find no logical, scientifically approving opposition for any of the questions I posed in the previous paragraph. And, while we will get an answer in the future, it would serve as a compelling plot to a Sci-Fi book if I ever decide to write one.
In the meanwhile, you might want to take up sides with the believers or non-believers. One question I would humbly request you to ask yourself in the process is, are you arrogant enough to believe that the entire universe was created for just one civilisation, living on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.
Or you can just watch Discovery’s latest take on this topic, Curiosity, read the currently trending Twitter topic, which, for reasons beyond me, happens to be #AlienInvasion; and then comment below on what you think. Do Aliens exist?