“There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. That they may have been the architects of the Great Pyramids, or the lost civilisations of Lemuria, or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens.”
So say we all.
Or do we?
It is in our soul to look outwards for meaning, for clarity of purpose in existence, and to answer the question of are we alone in the universe. From this desire of knowledge, people have looked to God, Gods, or for life out there in the vastness of space. Mythology and religion have talked of the gods coming to earth and giving us the answers. But this article is not about religion, legends or lore, but what I am going to talk about is why, sorry to say, the numbers say there will never be a Starfleet, Galactic Empire, or Galaxy Quest’s NESA.
Jeez, John. What a buzzkill. I mean this is a scifi website.
Let’s look at this logically. There is life out there, or there isn’t. Life in the universe is a dream we all desire. After all, who wants to be alone in the universe?
One train of thought that Sci-Fi authors like to plant their flag on is the Fermi Paradox which says:
There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are similar to the Sun, and many of these stars are billions of years older than the Solar system. Hence there is a high probability, some of these stars have Earth-like planets, and if the Earth is typical, some may have already developed intelligent life. Some of these civilisations may have developed interstellar travel. The paradox being is why then have we not encountered any?
Most sci-fi authors, of which I am one, prefer to leave the last question unanswered. It threatens occupational extinction.
The problem is that Fermi’s paradox is based upon “the Earth being typical”.
The Mathematical Improbability of our Own Existence
In 1960, Scientist Frank Drake posted a baseline formula of requirements for the probability of life to begin anywhere. This formula is known as the Drake Equation.
The Drake equation is:
Caleb Scharf, an astrophysicist at Columbia University and his co-author Lee Cronin , made a statement to Space.com formulating a new equation, based on the original.
“The value Pa, which is the probability that life will assemble out of those particular building blocks over a given time, is murkier — and much more interesting. If the value of Pa is very low, it’s extremely unlikely that life will form even when the ingredients are there — potentially explaining why humans haven’t yet happened to create life in the lab, even if scientists have used the right ingredients. But a planet-wide “lab” would increase the odds that life-creating events will occur. We might have to wait 100 million years for it to fall into place just in a test tube, whereas on a planet scale, you’ve got a trillion test tubes — probably even more than that. It’s conceivable that using this equation, playing these games, is hinting at a possible explanation for why we haven’t seen life miraculously appearing in our laboratories, that … there’s some subtle thing that has to happen that really doesn’t happen often.”— Caleb Scharf
We must also understand that the number of stars in the Milky Way is on the order of 250 billion ± 150 billion, and 100 billion planets, of which only 40 billion Earth-sized planets, and of those 11 billion are circling earth-sized planets, and on those planets one then must factor in the Sharff/Cronin equation on the possibility of life evolving on that planet. When one does, the probability becomes more and more finite.
Life from Lifelessness
Evolution teaches for life to originate, and that for a living organism to formulate spontaneously, it must be both simple enough to spawn, yet complicated enough to survive.
Not only that, it must be encoded in it’s DNA to reproduce and adapt to new environments without dying out. It must then evolve and diversify into multiple organisms over millions, if not billions, of years. Some say we arose by probability, while some say God. And, let’s be honest; nobody knows for sure what happened, as either posit requires faith in the highly miraculous thing called abiogenesis.
Nevertheless, here we are.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Existing.
The Milky Way is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000km in size, about 100,000 light-years or about 30 kiloparsecs. It’s far easier to quote Douglas Adams when he said,
“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
So in all of that vastness of space, the argument for Panspermia [the concept that microbial life is everywhere in the universe and can spread between planets] could potentially occur is, in fact, preposterous. The reason being is that it posits that life is everywhere in the galaxy, which seems unlikely. Despite Star Trek trying to answer that question with the exitance of a seeding race which they called The Preservers, any such life sowers origin would still have had to face the long chance of their existence occurring.
One may, and somewhere out there may say that this is a straw man argument – and that I’m setting this posit up to fail, but I really don’t think I am because I’m not saying it doesn’t exist elsewhere, I’m saying that it was highly improbable for us to evolve to the state where we are now. It’s further unlikely were other species to evolve to the same level of technology, that they would build radios and point them in the right direction, with the right frequency and amplitude to reach us, and then for us to be able to communicate back to them in time for their race to receive it.
As such, for us to say that the near-mathematically impossibility of us evolving to our present state happens so frequently that it has occurred elsewhere, following the identical, or near-identical path to produce a lifeform that we could communicate with, work with, or simply coexist without our bacteria killing each other is pretty much zero. All we have to do is look back to the ugly history of Smallpox blankets.
To add to that list of improbabilities, that society would have to have avoided the predilection that Humans have, to have not killed each other off.
I could go on about them having to discover flight, chemical rocketry or light speed travel – which even we haven’t cracked, but I believe my point is pretty clear.
But I do want to offer one other possibility.
Maybe We Are The First.
We always look to the stars and say there must be older smarter civilisations out there. Maybe they’re species which could give us the wisdom to unite in peace, to cure diseases, grant us immortality.
Stop to consider that we are the universes Adam and Eve. That perhaps it is we who were created first, and that if we don’t find the answers that we seek in ourselves that will never be in a place to colonise our solar system, and then the beyond.
So if we wish to search out for intelligent, peaceful life in space, we must become the people that other starfarers would want to engage with, not avoid or fear. We must look at those on our planet as brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. We must make sure that the long trail of probabilities that brought us here is warranted and to prevent hundreds, thousands, or millions of years later when a foreign planetary traveller’s lands here that they find a garden of Eden and not a graveyard of the damned.
What are the odds of that happening?
Just a thought.
John R. White is a USAF veteran, and has served as Art Director for the Honor Flight Network, and Honor Flight Northwest Ohio. He is most well known as the Author of ‘The Tales of the Airship Neverland’ steampunk series, and the author and designer of the ‘Airship Neverland’ Roleplaying game.