The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


by Steve Gajadhar

Anyone else noticed the increase in all things sci-fi lately? The Western world is chock full of all things alien: UFOs, alien abductions, and paranoid theories of alien-government collusion a la the X-files. Besides most of us being partially wacko, this speaks about something intrinsic in all of us, a sort of a priori need for beings from above. Be they angel or alien, humans like the idea of celestial beings, perhaps even need them to justify and judge our terrestrial scurrying.

The scientific community seems to need aliens as well. In the 1960s Frank Drake and Carl Sagan first made a scientific case for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the famous Drake equation.

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which me might hope to able to communicate;
R∗ is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

The equation tries to allow for a mathematical estimate of the number of intelligent species in the universe at any given time. Sagan and Drake were mostly ignored, and their probing of the fringes of science was left for those on the fringes of science to enjoy. By the 90s, as our understanding of the nature of the universe grew, so too did mainstream science’s acceptance of the idea of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

I believe in the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds. The sheer scale of the universe insists upon it. Each galaxy has a conservative estimate of one hundred BILLION stars in it – some are like our sun, some aren’t; some have planets, some don’t – and there are BILLIONS of galaxies in the visible universe. Certainly life exists or existed elsewhere, it simply has to. We are not a 1 in a 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 fluke. I also believe that we will never meet or discover any intelligent life forms other than those already present on earth, at least not in any near future human generation. So I guess you could say I don’t believe in our version of aliens. While we’re at it, let’s throw out all that abduction mumbo jumbo and conspiracy nuttery. It makes for good sci-fi and great TV, but it should not be a serious part of our day to day lives. Does it seem reasonable that a highly advanced civilization capable of traversing the immense distances of interstellar space would somehow find us, come here, and then never once say, “hey earthlings, howz it?” I know if I had come all that way I might want to do a little more than abduct some people, mutilate a couple cows, and do a late night fly-by of Phoenix.

So intelligent life exists, but I postulate that we will never know for sure. Two things help me reach this conclusion, distance and time. The universe is big. Really big. Like really, really big. Like so big no one knows for sure. The detectable universe – the parts whose light have reached the Earth and are therefore visible to us – is something like 45 billion light years across. And then there are the bits we can’t see and don’t even know how to detect. So ya, it’s big. The star nearest to us is Proxima Centauri, a mere 4.2 light years away. Seems close when compared with 45 billion, doesn’t it? Well it’s not, and the challenges inherent in near light speed travel (1,079,252,848.8 kph is the speed of light, we can muster 39,665 kph) might put it permanently beyond us. In a couple hundred years we might be able to craft generation ships, load them up with families willing to undertake the few hundred year journey to Centauri. We better make sure something is there before we go.

Time is finite, the great equalizer. In addition to the vast distances within our own galaxy, we can’t forget time. The universe is something like 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is somewhere around 4.5 billion years old, and life on earth started about 3.7 billion years ago. Modern humans are 32,000 years old, and modern localized space faring humans are not even 50 years old. Let’s say we continue to develop and manage not to destroy ourselves with stupidity (not guaranteed by any means) for another 1000 years. For us to find or be found by other intelligent forms, we not only have to be relatively near them, we need to exist at the same time as they do. The probability of this has nearly as many zeroes behind it as my last number. In the interests of blog size, I’m going to skip von Neumann probes, the Fermi paradox and other theories that offer similar conclusions to mine. I suggest googling them if you’re interested.

So why are so many people - atheists and religious people, lay people and scientists – fascinated by beings from the heavens? I don’t know. Maybe I am too. Perhaps we need imaginary beings (for they might as well be imaginary if we never see them, never know they are there) to ground us, to normalize us. Human beings are exploratory by nature. We see it, we want to go there. We explore and we strive. We strive to fill up the unknown with ourselves or our ideas. If we can’t go there, or are afraid to go there, we invent something that can and does. The sea monsters of the old world. The Wendigo of Native Americans. The angels and demons of religion. The aliens of secular Western culture. We fill up the unknown with our imagination until we can fill up the unknown with ourselves, then we populate the next unknown with a new set of imaginary beings.

Aliens are out there somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, asking important philosophical questions about the underpinnings of the universe and wondering if they are the only species able to contemplate the wonder that surrounds them. E.T. is phoning home, but it’s hard to believe there will ever be anyone on the other end to pick up. I hope we both keep trying to make the connection.


Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Your point that they need to exist at this same time as us is something I hadn't thought about before. Their own imaginations would also have to be in sync with ours as well, I suppose. Are they wondering about us? Have they already seen us? It's too easy to assume we know everything that has happened on Earth, that our planet's history is well documented, accurate, and thorough.

Your wonderful statement below brings to my mind the beauty of faith and religion.

We fill up the unknown with our imagination until we can fill up the unknown with ourselves, then we populate the next unknown with a new set of imaginary beings.

Tue Nov 27, 02:07:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Yep. The whole time thing was the clincher for me as well.

Glad you liked it!

Tue Nov 27, 03:43:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Chumplet said...

Scientists think something is impossible until they learn something new. Then it suddenly becomes possible.

During the Big Blackout a few years ago, I marvelled at the Billions and Billions of Stars (I hear Carl Sagan's voice now) and I was certain that someone was looking at our star.

Tue Nov 27, 07:08:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Why am I not surprised I didn't know about the "famous" Drake equation? You must be one of those ambidextrous writers who relate to math AND words.

Really interesting stuff, Steve, and you make some good points. Like Jen, I never considered the possibility that "intelligent life" on various planets (surely we can't be classified as that) might not exist at the same time.

I don't like the idea that we might never know for sure. I plan to go somewhere after this life where all questions are answered, including whatever happened to a particular ring I lost.

Wed Nov 28, 01:51:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

As was once expressed on "Seinfeld", "You gotta love the Drake!" :-)

You know, I've sometimes thought that the aliens/UFOs might just be US visiting US from the future. Should there come a time we could travel BACK in time, wouldn't we use that ability to see what WE were doing, even if nobody else is interested?

I've also wondered if perhaps we're an experiment in a petrie dish to some other lifeform - and maybe they just keep checking in periodically to see how we're doing.

Wed Nov 28, 09:00:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

I, too, hadn't thought about the time factor. Humans are so self-centred we forget when people are in another timezone, never mind a different galaxy-time. But I also think humans limit their imaginations. I'm reminded of the 'discovery' of the Incan Quipu. Scientists for years couldn't figure out what it was. It just didn't occur to them, and then they (still) couldn't fathom, that peoples before us could have a complex mathematical system comparable to our modern day computers. Sometimes I think our collective intelligence is moving backwards.

Wed Nov 28, 01:14:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks for giving this a read, and sharing so many great thoughts.

That's what I like to do, stimulate conversation!

Thu Nov 29, 02:47:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice reading Steve thanks.
As we look outward we also tend to look inward. we long for our imaginary friends because we as a species are social, we want to belong. When i gaze out at the stars, part of me knows that other beings out there are enjoying or also acknowledging them also. I simply think that all that beauty cannot be for our eyes only, this is the sole reason beyond mathematics,science or religion for me to think that we are not alone. Making contact or visitation is impossible like you pointed out, but we are not alone or " all that would be a terrible waste of space" ( quoted loosely from the movie "Contact")


Tue Sep 09, 02:43:00 pm GMT-4  

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