Are We Alone in the Universe?

With the recent release of video footage taken by US Navy pilots of Unidentified Flying Objects—UFOs—the question of are we alone in the Universe comes to mind. The UFOs are not incontrovertible evidence alone. The unidentified part is still the key, but their aerial performance begs an explanation.

At one time, people who argued against an Earth-centric solar system faced torture, imprisonment, and being burned at the stake. Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest for his contention Copernicus was right and the earth revolved around the sun.

Eppur si muove (and yet it moves.)

At least they let him live. Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher, was not so fortunate. He faced the Inquisition, was convicted of heresy, and they did burn him at the stake.

The evidence mounted, science persevered, and the heliocentric solar system is now unchallenged. We now know we orbit a rather insignificant star in a less dense area of the Milky Way—our galaxy—as one small system among billions of others. Many of which have planets.

To put it in perspective.

There are at least 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe. Assuming the Universe is isotropic, the distance to the edge of the observable Universe is roughly the same in every direction.

2×1012   galaxies doesn’t paint a clear picture. But this does,
2,000,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable Universe.

While each galaxy is different—some bigger, some smaller, some older, some younger—they average about 1×1012 stars. The latest estimate of the number of stars—something that continues to grow with each improvement of our ability to observe the Universe—is 2×1024.

2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe. Now we’re getting to some serious numbers.

If only a small percentage of these stars host planets and a small percentage of these planets can sustain life, that’s still a whole bunch of potential ETs in the Universe.

On 9 January 1992, radio astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail announced the discovery of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. This discovery was the first definitive detection of exoplanets.

Since then, we’ve identified five thousand one hundred and eight ( 5108) exoplanets. Some, about thirty, are in the Goldilocks Zone. Not too warm, not cool, and thus potential locations for developing life.

A brilliant scientist, Frank Drake, once devised an equation to evaluate the potential for life in the Universe. This was back in the early 1960s when the picture of the universe was much smaller.

Each element represents variables—number of stars, number with planets, number of habitable planets, etc.—you can dig deeper into this on your own. But the most interesting element is L.

L is the average lifetime of an intelligent civilization. They are several factors, but the most telling is whether the intelligent civilization can survive the development of weapons capable of its own destruction.

We reached that threshold shortly after World War II with the advent of Thermonuclear weapons. There are at least 14,500 in existence on this planet. Whether we survive to travel the stars is yet to be seen.
(Here’s a neat link if you’d like to plug in the numbers and see what you come up with.

There’s another aspect of the Universe posing a problem for interstellar or intergalactic travel.

The speed of light is a limit one cannot exceed, at least as best we can tell at the moment. There is always the imagination of Star Trek and Star Wars (although the very name is ominous for survival.) Yet the possibility of finding a way around this limit is there.

There is another issue. One discovered by Edwin Hubble, the name sake of the telescope that has provided much of the astounding images of galaxies. It seems the Universe is expanding, and the expansion is speeding up. Everything is moving away in all directions.

Expanding faster and faster away from every other object.

Eventually, the galaxies and stars will become so far apart, the light will no longer reach us, and the Universe will wink out. The good news is the sun will be a red giant long before then, and we will no longer inhabit a planet capable of sustaining life.

We won’t be around for the final lights out, but someone might be.

Is there intelligent life in the Universe?

No one can definitively answer that at the moment. A better question might be why would they come here? In such a vast Universe, why look in such a sparsely populated part of this galaxy? Why not explore the dense center with a much more target-rich environment? And if they are here, why not say hi?

Perhaps humans, with their propensity for killing each other in increasingly efficient ways over myths, misconceptions, and material possessions is an argument against the premise.

Maybe ET knows there are few signs of intelligence worth contacting here. I mean just look at…


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  1. Pingback: We Are Not So Different from the Past | The Writing of Joe Broadmeadow

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