We drove through the back country of New Mexico yesterday soaking up some of the most beautiful mountain majesty I’ve seen in quite some time.
Our first stop was the VLA in the middle of an open plain between a set of mountains. The Very Large Array, which you might remember from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster, has 27 moveable satellites shaped in a Y-pattern and used for capturing long frequency radio waves. It’s not part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, but is used for collecting data on the formation of sun-like stars, understanding how the ejection of matter from some early stars can help form galaxies, and maybe most importantly, viewing the distant, early universe 12 billion light-years from earth.
With a recent improvement project on it’s 30th anniversary last year, it’s helping astronomers get a clearer picture of where we all came from. There’s a theory that was proposed in 1964 by a soviet astronomer about 3 types of civilizations. Named after him, the Kardashev Scale describes a Class I civilization that has harnessed the energy of its own planet, a Class II that of its own sun, and a Class III that of its own galaxy. To put this into perspective, it’s estimated the human race is about 100-200 years away from achieving Class I status.
This is equally as exciting as it is scary because the implications of harnessing that much energy means we’re that much closer to destroying ourselves. If we don’t find a way to come together as a singular civilization, I fear we’ll never be able to cross that first major threshold. This also brings up something I’ve long felt about the potential for intelligent life outside our own solar system. If it does exist, which I’m mathematically certain it simply has to (more on that below), then that means they’ve found a way to not only travel vast distances in a short amount of time, but that they’ve reach this same precipice of self-annihilation and overcome it.
As Jodie Foster describes in Contact, the one question she would ask if ever meeting an advanced civilization would be “How?”. “How did you manage to not kill yourselves?” I think the way it will probably happen is, like most things in nature, organically. If we all start sleeping together and having babies with each other, then color no longer matters, and maybe neither does religion, because eventually we all look the same and become one giant family tree. We end Class 0 exactly as we started, all the same.
Now, that’s a rather rose-colored theory, but I’m hopeful.
So to answer the question of whether alien life would arrive here with hostility and the need for our resources, I say nay. If they can harness the energy of their own planet and likely that of their own star, travel light years across galaxies to find us in some no-name galaxy, in a boring little solar system just to mine for oil, well that just sounds about as probable as us traveling to mars to find some rocks to build with. It just doesn’t make much logical sense. Rather, knowing how humans are built, and extrapolating that to other life, I would venture that they’re social animals, and want nothing more than to grow their galactic social network, maybe break some bread, and give us the business about doing the Kessel run in under 3 parsecs.
Now, back to this mathematics of extraterrestrial life discussion. There’s this equation created by one of the guys who founded SETI back in 1960, called the Drake Equation, and it’s used to estimate the probability that intelligent life exists. The equation multiplies the following together to arrive at an estimate:
- Rate of star creation in our galaxy
- Fraction of those stars that have planets
- Average number of planets that can support life
- Fraction of those that actually develop life
- Fraction of those that go on to develop intelligent life
- Fraction of those that release evidence of their existence into space
- Expected lifetime of a civilization that can communicate across interstellar space
The problem with this equation is that it’s hard to get accurate values for each of these probabilities. So, as you can imagine, there’s a wide range of possible answers the equation spits out, from being completely alone to hundreds of millions of civilizations.
The big paradox that all astronomers are left with, however, is why have we not detected other civilizations? Well, if I was going to leave something for an advanced race to contact me, it would be just advanced enough that a younger civilization would only be able to detect it when they’re “ready”, whether that means technologically, philosophically, or both.
Imagine something as simple as a gate at the edge of our solar system. All we have to do is have something containing life pass by the gate’s detector for it to unlock that very special door. Then, all we’d have to do is walk through it. Think of it like a game. Curiosity is the only weapon humans have against fear. And so a peaceful civilization would use that incentive mechanism for us to keep searching and once we’ve found something, keep us going even further.
As with most things in life, the answer is never the answer, but in the journey you take to get there.
I have been absolutely fascinated with space and physics since I was a young boy. I was this close to accepting admission to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs when I was in high school (I even did a campus visit) because I wanted to become an Aeronautical Engineer and fly into space.
Yes, when I grew up, I wanted to be a space man.
I ended up taking a more theoretical mathematics route, but I never lost my insatiable hunger for knowledge about our universe nor my desire to some day travel into space. My dream is to one day fly into space, and I wish that for every “man” because I think it would help us realize how small and petty our everyday problems are when laid against the backdrop of space exploration and the search to find out if we are truly alone in this cold, vast universe. I don’t believe we are. And I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to evolve technologically and philosophically to find out for certain.