Are we alone in the universe?

One of the ‘Closer to Truth’ programs got me to thinking about a favorite topic: E.T. In the next couple posts I’ll share a few thoughts on that.

Are we unique?

What we’ve learned about the universe over the last few centuries seems to repeatedly “demote” humankind from our unique-and-center-of-everything spot. Only 20 years ago, extrasolar planets were pure speculation–reasonable, but not proven. Today that’s proven and replaced by “are there extrasolar Earth-like planets?”  ‘Yes’ seems the most reasonable, but not proven, answer. I doubt that state will last much longer and I’m confident the answer will be positive (Update 1Oct: It didn’t and it is!) But even after Earth-like planets are found, the really interesting questions remain: do they have life and is that life intelligent (in ways we’d recognize)?

So are they out there?

Photo of the Very Large Array of radio telescopes

NRAO Very Large Array, New Mexico, USA

The line from the movie ‘Contact’ reflects my thought here:

Young Ellie:    Dad, do you think there’s people on other planets?

Ted Arroway: I don’t know, Sparks. But I guess I’d say if it is just us… seems like an awful waste of space.

At the moment we don’t know, but in the last few decades the evidence seems to be making it more and more plausible–no proof, but no “show stoppers” either. On the other hand, our brief, limited attempts to find them have turned up nothing.

But either way is mind-boggling!

Something truly fascinating and fundamental happens if you can answer that question, no matter what the answer is.

  • If there’s no other life in the universe or nothing intelligent then, incredibly, humankind is unique after all. But that’s going to be impossible to conclusively prove. No matter how long or how far we look, we’ll never see it all or for all time, so absolutely proving we’re alone can’t happen. Still, if we search a reasonable fraction of our galaxy and environs finding nothing, then effectively, we’re alone and unique. What a mind-boggling thought.
  • Just as mind-boggling would be proof “they” are out there. If we’re not alone, then humans get demoted out of yet another “we’re unique” category. How far we’re demoted depends on how common intelligent life turns out to be, but that first step down is a really BIG one.

Nothing we’ve learned over the last few centuries indicates that there’s anything unique about our spot in the cosmos, just the opposite, it seems pretty ordinary.  There’s even a small, but real chance the proof of extraterrestrial life could come within my lifetime. So, at least for argument’s sake, let’s make the leap and say we’re not unique as intelligent life.

The moment we find that’s true, the impact and implications of that knowledge are staggering. The “Closer to Truth” program explored those implications in one area: religion and that’s my topic for the next post.

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About Dick Knisely

Science-guy, engineer, father, grandfather, husband -- yeah, I'm all of those things. I author this blog to share things I care about and you might care about, too. I hope you do and that you'll join in to share things you care about.
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