This is not going to be a rant about how tosh humanity is, although we are pretty tosh.
This is going to be a relatively thoughtful meditation on the universe, how big and vast it is, and the easiest ways to achieve a goal, which often doesn’t involve a journey of a thousand miles.
Everyone knows what the Drake Equation is, and everyone’s heard of the Fermi Paradox. If you haven’t, go look it up, I’ll wait here.
Boiled down to the basics, the Equation suggests that the Universe should be brimming with intelligent life. The Fermi Paradox asks the question, if that’s the case, where is it?
There may well be life elsewhere in the Universe, possibly in great profusion. There may well be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, lots of it. We don’t know for sure. So far, we’ve got a sample size of one, in both categories. But the sheer profusion of stars with planets suggests that regardless of whether it’s likely or not, it’s not impossible.
I think though, that we overlook the vastness. Sure, there are a hundred billion stars, give or take, in this galaxy alone, and there are millions and billions of galaxies. Count those numbers up and you can go a little crazy.
So why haven’t we been visited? Where are they? The UFO folks will say that they’re here. The Ancient Astronaut folks will say that they came and went.
But most likely, no. They aren’t here, they weren’t here, and odds are they’re not going to be showing up, for the simple reason that they don’t actually need to make the trip.
The distances are incredible. Right now, our nearest neighboring star is four and a half light years away — an unimaginable distance. Our fastest vehicles would take literally tens of thousands of years to get there. Our most feasible science fiction scheme to get there would literally take centuries, and involve the expenditure of more energy and resources than all of human history combined.
We don’t have the technology or the energy to travel to another star on any basis, and while we have expectations and ambitions, there’s no guarantee that the technology and energy to do so are ever going to be achievable, by us or anyone else. It may simply be unachievable. Period. End of story.
To posit that alien civilizations are able to travel from star to star or reach earth, is essentially believing in magic. Sorry.
We also underestimate how vast the abyss of time is. The Universe, last time I checked is 14.5 billion years old. Our sun is a mere 4.5 billion years old.
Life on Earth has existed maybe 4 billion years, but most of that 4 billion, it was just unicellular organisms not doing that much. That may well describe most of the life in the universe.
Complex multicellular life doesn’t show up until roughly 500 million years ago. So basically, 1/8th of the history of life, and 1/9th of the history of the solar system.
It takes another hundred million years, 400 million years ago, for life to get up onto land.
Another hundred million years to get to critters like the dinosaurs, the mammal like reptiles, the bigger amphibians, the ambitious bugs to reach any level of size complexity and significance that maybe they could start getting smart? 300 million years ago.
Sixty-five million years for mammals.
Five million years to get to sophisticated primates.
Two million years, give or take to get to tool and fire using hominids.
Agriculture and the first human civilizations round out to maybe 10,000 years ago. Or basically, one two-hundredth of the span of time that hominids were around. One thirty-thousandth of the time that complicated sophisticated life was bopping on land. One fifty-thousandth of the time that any kind of multi-cellular life was kicking around. Literally one eight-hundred-thousandth of the span of life on Earth.
By the way, that little slice of 10,000 years, 99% of that time involved living in mud and stone huts, hitting our neighbors with rocks, and complaining about flees.
We’ve actually had a global civilization for roughly 500 years — defined as at least a few cultures able to send members travelling around the planet and loosely aware of all the major civilizations.
We’ve had a technological civilization for maybe 200 years.
A high tech civilization, and that’s ranging from radio and biplanes to us, for about a hundred years.
So basically a tiny fraction of one hundredth of human civilization, itself one two hundredth of the hominid line, in turn one thirty-thousandth of complex life on land.
It’s mind boggling.
What this suggests is literally millions of technological species like our own, at levels at or better than our own could have come into existence and gone extinct millions of years before we showed up. Millions more may be waiting to be born.
Of the vast number of possible intelligent civilizations that could exist in the reasonable time frame of the universe — say 12 or 13 billion years, only the tiniest sliver might exist in the same time frame as our century, or at least, exist in a time frame that we could detect from Earth, or that they could eventually detect us.
That tiny sliver is likely so incredibly widely distributed through an incredibly vast universe, that we’ll likely never detect them, and they’ll never detect us.
Sorry to rain on your parade. We’re probably not being visited right now. There were probably no ancient astronauts. No Black Knight satellite in orbit. No alien pyramids on Mars. No watchful probes out in the Asteroid belt or Oort cloud. It’s just us being lonely.
But suppose there were Aliens? Wouldn’t some of them actually be curious about other life? Possibly. Curious enough to search? Sure.
Wouldn’t some come looking? Why?
Here’s the thing. Let’s posit an alien technological civilization. Let’s even posit that it reaches well beyond our level, to the upper levels of achievable science and technology as we understand and can predict it. No magic wormholes, no fantasy warp drives, no Bussard ramjets. Just the outer limits of physics and technology.
Such a civilization might well be able to build probes that could spend the centuries or thousands of years needed to get to the next star. An incredible investment of time and energy and technology.
Would it actually need to do that?
Take a look at our own civilization, rinky dink as it is. We launched our first space based telescope only thirty years ago, which gave us our first unfiltered look at the Universe. Before that we were staring out the bottom of a coke bottle, a thick layer of atmosphere. The James Webb space telescope, the biggest one yet was launched in the last few years. We’re seeing amazing things, we’re peering back behind the curtains almost to the big bang.
We only started developing the techniques and surveillance to find our first exo-planet in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve begun to find them at exponential rates, as we get better and better at it.
We’re literally at the beginning of this stuff, and we’re already looking at techniques to detect if some of these exoplanets have water.
Extrapolate that with real science and technology a few decades or centuries. We’ll be able to put up telescopes twice as big as James Webb, ten times the size. A hundred times the size. We could put up literally hundreds or thousands of Super-James Webbs across millions of kilometers, out past the orbit of Saturn, away from the light pollution of the sun, their data connected and integrated by quantum computers, so that for all practical purposes, we are looking at the universe with integrated light and radio telescopes millions of kilometers in diameter, with computing and analysis systems thousands of times more subtle than our best work right now.
Right now, we’re detecting exoplanets, we’re measuring their mass, orbit, composition, we’re on the edge of detecting water, with the equivalent of stone tools compared to what is realistically feasible in decades and centuries.
So what could we detect with that feasible future technology? We’ll be able to map every extra-solar system to a literally fine degree, tracking every large rock. We’ll be able to detail the atmospheric composition of alien worlds, measure water content. We’ll be able to detect the chemical signatures of biological activity and life. If there’s a civilization out there within spying distance, we’ll be able to spot it and even have a good read on what level it’s at.
And we will be able to do it at a thousandth, perhaps a millionth of the cost of a single interstellar probe. The probe will go to one star, our hypothetical super-surveillance grid could survey thousands, possibly millions of star systems in the time it takes the probe to get where it’s going.
So seriously, what would we do?
We’d do the cheapest, easiest thing that promises the biggest reward and return on investment.
What would an alien civilization with those abilities do?
Probably the same, because if they got that far, then they’re probably not stupid and understand things like cost effectiveness.
Unless they invent technology which amounts to impossible magic based on our knowledge, the most likely outcome is that the advanced civilizations of the Universe are Peeping Toms. Surveiling the Universe from the comfort of home, perhaps watching us right now.
If they are watching us right now, from ten thousand light years away, they may just be noticing some infinitesimal shifts in the atmosphere or night light output, which suggests that someone here might be getting up to something. It may be a few more thousand years before they’re reasonably sure that some shenanigans are going around on Earth. And maybe in ten or eleven thousand years, assuming we last and they last, they might send us a message, halfway hoping that both sides will be around ten thousand years after that.
But even if they detect us, they’re probably not going to bother showing up in person. No real point in it. And they certainly won’t bother even trying until we hang around for a few thousand or tens of thousands of years and prove our staying power. Otherwise the trip might not even be worthwhile.
I think that they, and we, would be in it for the long haul. That’s actually kind of encouraging.