Saturday, March 31, 2007

In A Blink of An Eye: A Lonely World

The question of whether there is extraterrestrial intelligence equal to or greater than Earth's humanity has fascinated me for decades. I am not alone with wonder. There is a whole industry of science fiction books and movies that have captivated the curious since the days of H.G. Wells, not to mention active government and private efforts to find ETI. I must admit to being skeptical and hopeful at the same time. I love a great conspiracy as much as the next guy but when it comes to UFOs, aliens and X-Files I would need to see it with my own eyes before being thoroughly convinced. This may sound odd coming from someone who believes in God. The difference I think lies in the spirit that I KNOW exists in me - this is where my very real connection to God is.

While all this (and that) is ripe for argument I think it is misguided to declare unequivocally that God and or ET does not exist. Allowing that God exists outside/apart from our physical space/time continuum we move on to ET by assuming he shares our physical universe.

In 1961 astronomer Frank Drake developed what became known as the Drake Equation as a way to focus on the factors which determine how many intelligent, communicating civilizations there are in our galaxy. The Drake Equation is: N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL

fp is the probability that star system will have planets

ne is the number of habitable planets in a star system that has planets

fl is the probability that life evolves on a habitable planet

fi is the probability that intelligent self-aware life evolves on a habitable planet

fc is the probability that intelligent life will attempt interstellar communication within 5 billion years of evolving on a habitable planet.

fL is fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live

This formula is as good a place as any to begin. As time and our technology continues to progress the figures used to populate this equation will continue to change. In '61 we had no evidence that planets even existed around any star but our own. Today we have indirectly observed hundreds of planets. So at least that part of the equation can be substantiated as having some semblance of validity. The question of time is the wild card.

Question: For each civilization that does communicate, for what fraction of the planet's life does the civilization survive? How long will we survive?

If modern man (homo sapiens) is anywhere from 40,000 to 250,000 years old it constitutes a mere blink of an eye in Earth's geologic time. Next, consider how fast mankind became technological. Taking the advent of the steam engine as the first high tech wonder that changed everything we are looking at less than two hundred years from the dawn of the age of machines to this computer/Internet I am working on right now. In between we have put an man on the moon and have learned control the atom at the nuclear level - for better or worse. That's pretty remarkable, and pretty quick. The sum of human knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. Machine knowledge or AI is just in its infancy. Imagine what the next 200 years will bring...

Since it is believed that the Earth is around 5 billion years old and the universe as far as we can perceive it is 13 to 14 billion years old then why would it be inconceivable that hundreds if not thousands of space faring races would have risen - and fallen. We are just one planet in a galaxy of billions of stars and the Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies, the numbers are mind boggling.

That being said it is hard to imagine that humanity will go on forever, especially if we never leave this planet and colonize others. If humanity ever does develop the technology to visit other star systems in this galaxy I would be surprised if "we" don't come across extinct technological civilizations in the same way we still come across primitive earthly civilizations. By the same token someday ET will come across ours.

The other thing to consider, leaving science fiction behind, is that perhaps traveling faster than the speed of light is impossible and that the great distances between stars and galaxies will forever make it impossible for planet bound intelligences from ever finding each other. Carl Sagan spoke to this very real possibility, and he may have been been right. Are we a lonely planet?