Are we alone in the universe?

A small peek into life elsewhere.

The Gasbags on Jupiter, as envisaged by Sagan et al. as giant floating lifeforms [1], Source: https://twitter.com/COSMOSonTV/status/1242254806460198914/photo/1

GGreek mythology speaks of a story on the Origins of Life. In the story, life follows the birth of the Titans — six men and six female. The last of these Titans to be born was Cronus, who had Uranus’ (his father) genitals severed and thrown into the sea. Out from the sea came Aphrodite, who later marries his brother Cronus. Out of the fear that a fate similar to his father would doom upon him, Cronus ate Aphrodite’s children. Aphrodite, disgusted by Cronus, hid one child — Zeus — and secretly nourished the baby. Zeus later challenged his father to war, won the war, and made his primary residence the supreme Mount Olympus. Zeus, feared his father’s this fate would come about to himself, ate his wife Metis, who was already pregnant. The child — Athena — burst from Zeus’ head, and would later breathe life to the pile of mud that Prometheus sculpted out to become a man [2].

Popol Vuh — the ancient Mayan holy book — speaks of a different story. First, there were only the makers of sea — called Plumed Serpent, and sky — called Heart of Sky. Together, they formed rivers and mountains — the habitats. Then, they planned the animals for the habitats, and how they would live. These animals were told to hail, praise and worship their makers, but the animals couldn’t talk. Thus, the animals were doomed to be eaten by other animals. The Heart of Sky, then, called the higher powers to make a creature that could talk — a person. The elders, thereafter, made wooden people who came into life without any memory of a their designer [3].

There are numerous ancient myths related to the fundamental question of our origins. In Popol Vuh, animals were made after unsuccessful attempts to create people. In the Greek myths, war between the Gods made people. Although these stories are now regarded as poetry, they, along with several others, emphasizes the fact that people were curious of their beginnings and weaved stories to acknowledge their origins. Most of them — certainly the two stories I’ve mentioned above — had a common factor: a Grand Creator.

Life on Earth

To look at life at a grander scale, we must first look at life here on Earth. In one of my previous articles, I spoke of the origins of life in the universe. Life arose on Earth starting its journey from the stars. We now know a lot about our origins — the development from small organic molecules to complex creatures such as we. We’ve developed tools and techniques to look into our birth and analyze compositions of it. Our civilization has grown immensely.

For life to grow, as discussed in “Our Universe we live in”, there are several conditions to be fulfilled. On Earth, the greenhouse effect mediated the temperature and the correct atmosphere made complex life forms possible. Once these conditions were fulfilled, evolution made the small organic creatures into complex life forms. Positive adaptations bred true. Natural selection, is a barbaric undergoing; it gradually kills the creatures who won’t adapt. The adaptable genes in the gene pool promotes their own survival without thinking about the rest in the group; this is called the “Selfish Gene” theory, evident in Dawkin’s popular book [4]. It is quite surprising how individual traits such as altruism arise from selfish genes (Dawkin’s “you scratch my back, and I’ll ride on yours” situation i.e. reciprocal altruism — the title of Chapter 10 in The Selfish Gene).

“Mice kept in isolation tend to develop unpleasant sores on those parts of their heads that they cannot reach. In one study, mice kept in groups did not suffer in this way, because they licked each other’s heads.” [4]

Evolution proceeds largely due to mutation and selection. Mutations can occur either in the replication procedure of a cell, or by environmental impacts such as UV rays and the like. High levels of radioactive mutations and other mutations caused by environmental aspects cause cancerous impacts, by which exposed to large quantities can wipe out an entire civilization. Very low levels of these mutations might not produce variability, leaving a very dull and mundane life here on Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter). DNA, which stores hereditary information are changed through mutation and adaptation as evolution progresses on for the betterment of survival.

Looking around, we can see the immense variability that have befallen due to evolution. Trees, animals, and us all share the same genetic codes that write the music of life. As the same notes are permuted into different combinations to create a harmony in music, evolution permutes these genetic codes to create different kinds of life: some will perish and the lucky will persist.

However, we must note that not all the creatures born found its fate flourished. Darwin, in The Origin of Species, wrote:

“Most individuals are born than can possibly survive. The slightest advantage in one being, … over those with which it comes into competition, or better adaptation in however slight a degree to the surrounding physical conditions, will turn the balance.”

The fact that you and me are different from one another displays the massive variability that can exist even among the same species. Not all these varieties are naturally selected, though. For example, the immense variety of dogs are largely artificial. These phenotypic changes occurred due to the breeding of multiple dog species from domestication. It’s a human-imposed selection, and thus we call it artificial selection. Through both natural and artificial selection, we and the world around us came about.

Our limitations

We know a lot about life on “our” world. We are now to speculate life on other worlds. We were Homo Sapiens for 200,000 years. It’s a very long time, and it’s not surprising that we know so much about us. In mathematics, for instance, the principle of extrapolation uses the readily available data to extrapolate measurements of other systems. We have no other way to rationally extrapolate life in other worlds, therefore, other than using what we have seen here on Earth.

But there’s a problem, and this problem is difficult to comprehend and solve due to the limitations of our brains.

The problem is the massive number of combinations that cells can combine to make a functioning life form. As Darwin explained, a large number of species born died due to lesser chances of survival. We do not know (apart from fossil records, but fossil records are very small in amount in contrast to the number of species that ever lived) much about the creatures of yore that died. Other worlds have different compositions than ours, and different forms of life can flourish there. The same life forms can evolve, as here on Earth, if the other worlds permit the similar environmental features that the Earth provides us. The variability which creates the beautiful harmony in our world is the very same factor that makes it nearly impossible to speculate, for certainty, how life would be in other worlds (but it’s not impossible).

We are limited by a “one lonely theme in the music of life” [5].

Our Speculations

That doesn’t mean we cannot speculate. But speculations should be carefully rationalized. They should not extrapolate into metaphysical Great Creators. The Watchmaker Analogy (a watch implies a watchmaker) is an easy and mundane way of explaining the theme of life. Our speculations must be in-par with what we’ve devised using probabilistic, yet real, methods. The Drake Equation, is one such speculation.

The Drake Equation, Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation

The equation above is a story, if you read it the correct way. It starts with the formation of stars, planets and goes into the formation of civilizations and advanced civilizations which communicate with one another. Reading an equation is a skill.

The resulting number of civilizations which the humans could communicate, is within the range of 20 to 50,000,000. This range is calculated by plugging in the minimum values for the inputs and maximum values for the inputs. The range is vast. It’s incomprehensible. But it doesn’t mean we cannot extract some conclusions from it.

For all we know from our current observations, N is equal to 1. We are the only communicating civilization that exist today. But there is an essential flaw — a miss — in this equation. There is a cosmic limit in the universe: the speed of light. The universe we see from our telescopes — we see it as a universe it once was. “Telescopes are time machines” [5]. Travel, and communication, therefore, are also constrained by this cosmic speed limit. Even though there may be civilizations that can communicate with one another, if there’s no other civilization within their range, they won’t be able to reach them. Clifford Walters and others used this concept to remedy the Drake’s equation, introducing a new parameter C, as follows.

Remedied Drake Equation: Source: Walters, C., Hoover, R. A., & Kotra, R. K. (1980). Interstellar colonization: a new parameter for the Drake equation?. Icarus, 41(2), 193–197.

In this equation, it can be seen that if fₓ > 0, the number of communicating civilizations would be determined by the number of host systems within the travel radius.

Now, we can see our rational speculations give us hope that life elsewhere is a possibility. To take the argument of the “Russel’s teapot” into account: if I say that there’s a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars, you won’t be able to disprove it solely because you can’t see it. Likewise, the equation returns a number which is greater than one, you can’t disprove the fact that other worlds have life because you can’t see them. But unlike the most common absurdity where the teapot argument is used — God’s existence — this instance is a more plausible situation.

What would they be like?

Precisely because we haven’t yet uncovered an Earth-like planet, we won’t dive into speculating human-like lifeforms elsewhere. But it doesn’t mean other life forms fail to flourish in different conditions. For instance, Carl Sagan and E.E. Salpeter envisioned balloon-like creatures in Jupiter’s gaseous environment [1]. This speculation is based on the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and it’s incredibly hot core. The inhabitants, therefore should not fall into the core and become fried. Therefore, the convection currents should carry them away from the core. Thus we can deduce that these creatures move using air — expelling heavier gas and keeping only the lighter gases inside — and thus a balloon-like creature emerges out from detail. They called them “floaters

“Salpeter and I imagined floaters kilometers across, enormously larger than the greatest whale that ever was, beings the size of cities” [5]

These creatures would also need to eat, reproduce and lay waste. They would eat other forms of floaters for the riches of lighter gas and some organic molecules, and reproduce hoping that none of their offspring would fall down to the hot abyss below. Natural selection then takes play, where a balance is struck between the hunting and reproduction. They may also evolve to survive differing environmental hazards. The adapting groups survive, others perish. Meanwhile, they evolve, develop thinking abilities. They can also domesticate creatures according to their needs, forming sort of an artificial selection at play. The vicious cycle of life, begins.

All this, is speculation. No creature has been found in Jupiter in either of observation missions like Galileo (1993–2003) or any other flyby mission.

But they are educated speculations.

Why do we bother?

On the Journal of British Interplanetary Society Vol 52 in 1999 edition, there’s an article titled “Searching for Good Science — The Cancellation of NASA’s SETI Program”. Here’s a brief excerpt from it:

On Columbus Day, 1992, NASA formally initiated a radio astronomy program called SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Less than a year later, Congress abruptly canceled the program. Why? While there was and still is a debate over the likelihood of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life, virtually all informed parties agreed that the SETI program constituted worthwhile, valid science. Yet, fervor over the federal budget deficit, lack of support from other scientists and aerospace contractors and a significant history of unfounded associations with nonscientific elements combined with bad timing in fall 1993 to make the program an easy target to eliminate. Thus SETI was a relative anomaly in terms of a small, scientifically valid program that was canceled for political expediency.

SETI program comprised of a facility with large antenna arrays which listened to the tunes of the universe. A part of this organization is now backed and running by not-for-profit organizations, and scanning for life elsewhere.

So far, we have failed to receive any signal from any communicating civilizations. There can be a multitude of reasons. There may not be any civilization to listen to, but given the range of possibilities that the Drake equation returns, it’s a little misleading conclusion. There can be life forms still evolving but not yet formed communication methods i.e. life forms which are not as developed as we. These reasons do not bother us. We simply need to let them progress. We shouldn’t interfere.

Another case that might be is that there can be civilizations that are not interested in communicating with us. We’re a vulnerable set of species here on Earth doing harm to one another, and they simply might not care about us. They might pursue other more advanced forms of civilizations. Another, is that they might still be on their way — on the journey. Or, they might already be here, unbeknownst to us visiting us where we don’t look, or where/when we can’t see. These possibilities trouble us. Unlike the possibilities which we need to let time do its work, these circumstances makes us unease. Science fiction illustrate advanced civilizations visiting our planet and taking over us. They have a point. The fact that these civilizations were able to visit us traversing the vast arena of space says something about those civilizations.

When Homo Sapiens migrated to other lands, it was similar of a case. Far more advanced creatures came face-to-face with Neanderthals and other more primitive forms of humans. We have no certain theory of what happened next. Some say that they interbred, and others say that there was an extinction of the primitive humans by the Sapiens. But we find Neanderthal genes in 2% of the modern-day human DNA, meaning we have Eurasian characteristics embedded deep within us. And it means an interbreeding had actually happened.

Likewise, we’ll never know what would happen if we come in contact with another more advanced civilization. But there are always possibilities that Science Fiction teaches us. Like us, advanced civilizations may hear our radio transmissions — our radio programs. Radio was invented a century ago, and civilizations living within a 200 light-year (diameter) bubble can hear our early radio transmissions.

Radio bubble around the Earth, Source: https://medium.com/science-and-philosophy/hello-from-earth-the-story-behind-an-interstellar-message-1a8486ab9b1b

So, are there life anywhere else?

We don’t know. Science is a humble pursuit. It admits whenever we don’t know something for certainty. But art lets us speculate. Art combined with science makes a great enterprise: Science Fiction. Science Fiction made by rational and proven scientific facts are possibilities for the future. We’ve speculated using art and science, but we don’t know for certain. It’s a terrible outcome of our limits, but we’re progressing day-by-day overcoming challenges.

In one of the interviews conducted by Quanda, Brian Cox is asked on whether he thinks that life exists elsewhere. He replies:

“Arthur C. Clark says of two possibilities. Either we’re alone, or we’re not. And both of these possibilities terrify me and that’s something that’s important for us to know. We may be the only civilization in the Milky Way.”

To clarify his statement: if we’re alone, that means help is not coming from elsewhere. We need to look out for ourselves and protect this vulnerable civilization that we’ve built. If we’re not alone, then another Sapien-Neanderthal situation — but at a more grand and advanced scale — can be recreated one day. We never know the eventuality of this congregation, but the possibilities of each outcome can be foreseen.

Nevertheless, until we hear from another harmony of life except ours, we must take care of ours — this lonely tune which has been playing for millions of years. Meanwhile, we can ponder on the question that ever baffled us, the same question which this article is titled:

“Is this faint and reedy tune the only voice for thousands of light-years? Or is there a kind of cosmic fugue, with themes and counterpoints, dissonances and harmonies, a billion different voices playing the music of the Galaxy?” [5]

References

[1] Sagan, Carl, and Edwin E. Salpeter. “Particles, environments, and possible ecologies in the Jovian atmosphere.” The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 32 (1976): 737–755.

[2] Greek origins: 2020. [online] Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/big-history-project/what-is-big-history/origin-stories/a/origin-story-greek [Accessed 8 November 2020].

[3] Khan Academy. 2020. Origin Story: Maya (Article) | Khan Academy. [online] Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/big-history-project/what-is-big-history/origin-stories/a/origin-story-mayan [Accessed 8 November 2020].

[4] Dawkins, R., 2006. The Selfish Gene. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.216, 217.]

[5] Sagan, C. (1985). Cosmos: Carl Sagan. NY, NY: Ballantine Books.

Software Engineer, CSE Graduate @ University of Moratuwa