For centuries ever since man has first looked up at the night sky and wondered what other things existed beyond Earth he has continued to explore the heavens in search for answers. Over a few hundred years the quest for truth has yield substantial amounts of data. It is true that ancient astronomers did nothing more than just attribute mythical and religious meaning to different celestial phenomena. Stars have been given their respective names—a group of them are even linked to gods and mythical figures as constellations, and were used as a timetable for various human activities like navigation and agriculture.
However, the improvements in modern astronomy have changed the rules of the game from mere nomenclature to a more profound exploration of space and the myriad possibilities that it brings. The quest for knowing other life outside the planet has never been more exciting and providential as it had been before. Slowly we are beginning to realize that the chances that there are advanced life-forms out there waiting to be discovered are significantly high to support the claim that we are not alone. To say that the entire universe is a big place is to make the biggest scientific understatement.
Science has revealed that the universe is so big that there are no mathematical figures to approximate its size. In order to define the known borders of space there is a need to express terms in a special unit called a Light: Or the distance that light travels in one year. Recently, the Hubble Space telescope has pegged the perimeter and edges of the universe to a width of millions and millions of light years (O’Brien, “Long Live Hubble”). Such distance alone beggars description. Within that given space, there are billions of individual galaxies each with roughly 400 million stars in the system on average.
There could be less but there could also be a dozen times more. At any rate, there are an estimated millions of stars with planetary systems like our own. Roughly a fraction of a percent of that number may have planets that host organic elements of life both simple and complex. Some of the complex life-forms may evolve into intelligent life capable of developing competent scientific knowledge and even perhaps communicate with their neighbors using advanced radio technology just like we had been doing at the turn of the last century. Planet Earth appears to be the only planet in the Solar System viable for life.
Most planets have noxious environments and harsh atmospheres. Our closest planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, are either too cold or too hot (Sagan, “Heaven and Hell”, 76-79). The primordial soup which made life on Earth possible will freeze or dry up anywhere else in the Solar System. Indeed, religion waxes poetic that our world is an astounding and thought-provoking miracle of life. However, evolutionary scientists would say that we are just fortunate that the environment, at one point of our planet’s history, has been conducive to the formation of life and the same has not been interrupted by any outside cause (Dawkins 19).
Some planets in other stars may theoretically be as lucky to be able to give rise to life, and theoretically intelligent beings too (21). But just like Mars, Venus and other planets in the Solar System, the chances of life are rare. Even with Earth alone, the statistics reflect how fragile the occurrence of life began millions of years ago. Unless there are kinds of biological species that can withstand even extreme environments and thus would continue to develop despite harsh conditions, then Earth life might just all there is in the universe.
Thanks to recent discoveries, however, scientists are inclined to believe that a certain kind of bacterium can live in the highest or lowest temperatures, impervious to both heat and cold, makes it possible that life may still develop or artificially introduced in Mars and Venus or elsewhere regardless of hostile environments (Sagan 9). If that is the case, the chances of life may be higher than previously expected. While scientists are busy in attempting to find life out there, the rest of the world is perpetually fascinated with the idea of the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Science fiction and Hollywood movies are in the forefront of providing us with hypothetical images and scenarios of aliens visiting our planet. Alien invasion is one of the most titillating themes that fire up our imagination. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Steven Spielberg’s Independence Day bespeak both our universal desire to feel that we are not alone and the irrational fear that beings more intelligent than us would destroy the planet. The realm of the unknown viz. extraterrestrial life has never been simultaneously awe-inspiring and scary.
In addition, fiction writers and film-makers present extraterrestrial beings as creatures that appear, behave and live entirely different from humans. Similarly, if we are to accept the premise that conditions for life in other planets were vastly peculiar, then it is fair to expect that the aliens would probably have tentacles, communicate through ESP, possess superhuman powers, spit venomous saliva, eat through metal or have human like bodies but with pasty white skin and large, black oval eyes.
Although they seem to be portrayed differently, the literature on aliens share the common feature that they are antagonistic creatures out to invade and kill all humans Scientists theorize that if other life-forms were capable of making interstellar travel they must have evolved as a species and as a civilization to eschew violence. Otherwise, if such aliens were warmongers as movies and science fiction stories would suggest, then they would have obliterated themselves way before they have developed complex means of space travel.
In fact, alien tourists, if there have been some, would have more reasons to fear us than we would have to fear them. Carl Sagan writes that it is more likely “that the mere fact that they have survived for so long is because they have learned to live with themselves and others” (258). Similarly, he adds that perhaps our fears reflect our own backward thinking as a civilization, “an expression of our guilty conscience about our past history: The ravages against civilizations only slightly backward than we” (259).
In other words, the conquests done by Western civilization against their contemporaries time and again are so imbedded in our history that we expect advanced life-forms to have the same colonizing tendencies. The fascination for extraterrestrial life grows with such gusto that several years after alien hype has reached feverish pitch, numerous sights Unidentified Flying Objects all over the world have been reported. Likewise, people claim to have been abducted and subjected to strange experiments by our curious alien visitors.
The encounters are few and far between but each of them fuels our imagination. Thus far, none of the sightings have been confirmed to be true although we desperately believe that one or two are real (Cook, “UFO’s: the Secret Evidence”). As several critics of alleged alien encounters rightly observes, the relation between alien encounters and weird and wacky people who report them only proves the fact that these reports are a hoax. Meanwhile, humanity has yet to mature as a civilization before we even begin to welcome other intelligent species.
Accordingly, science fiction writers posit the theory of the Fermi paradox stating the reason why aliens have not paid us a visit is because they, “the advanced alien community has cordoned off the earth in a galactic nursery, until the time that we have reached an adequate stage, ready for contact” (Tee, “Extraterrestrial Life”). Yet scientists and writers remain optimistic about the existence of intelligent life-form. The famous Drake equation translates the possibility of extraterrestrial life into a mathematical formula where N is the number of advanced civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy.
It is the product of values assigned with respect to the number of stars in the galaxy, the fraction of which that have planetary systems, a percent of which are suitable for substantial biological formation, the probability that life arises, the variable pertaining to its evolution, intelligence and further multiplied to the reasonable time that intelligent life is able to survive taking into account the possibility of self-eradication due to wars, environmental changes and the like (Ford, “What is the Drake Equation?
”). The value of N could be any number more than one what with the number of stars and galaxies in the universe. Even if the estimate hovers on an insignificant value of 1 or 3, the prospect, that one or more planetary systems have intelligent life and such have survived and evolved into complex societies, is truly astonishing. The statistical computation of the probability that Extraterrestrial beings exist leaves little to the imagination.
Scientists are convinced that life exists in other planets that they have established extravagant methods of getting in touch with them. One of the most ambitious projects of making contact to outer beings to date is the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. The name of the project sums up what it sets out to do—to search the heavens for signs of intelligent life. It sends radio signals and broadcasts them to specified points in space, such as candidate stars and planets. 50 years of sending the messages, a reply has yet to be received.
Of course, this does not disprove the claim of alien life, what with the distance that the radio signals have to travel to and fro the recipient, but rather, this only inspires other scientists to develop quicker and more effective means of communication (Shostak, “Finding Them, Finding Us”). In addition, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been continuously sending golden discs into outer-space, ever since it sent the first men into the moon, containing details about human civilization and how far it has progressed (Sagan 264-265).
To this day, the discs hurl into the infinite void with the hope of one day crash-landing into a planet with beings capable of deciphering the code. We have long been fixated on our earthly problems and conflicts, and took pride with all our achievements, but the moment that contact is made, the event would change how we look at ourselves and how we appreciate our place in the universal magnitude of things. If before we could not care much about how badly we treat our close neighbors in the planet, we might fare better as an intelligent species by the mere thought that we are not alone.
As such, we have to find ways to learn how to live peacefully and progress scientifically if only to survive long enough to meet our interstellar neighbors. Nevertheless, the question whether or not there is extraterrestrial life remains to be answered conclusively, whether we are alone or not: Either conclusion is mind-boggling.
Cook, Nick. UFO’s: The Secret Evidence. 18 Mar. 2006. BBC Online Documentaries. 1 May 2008 <http://video. google. com/videosearch? q=ufo+bbc&sitesearch=>. Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. London: Oxford University Press, 1990. Ford, Steve. “What is the Drake Equation?
” Aug. 1995. The SETI League. 1 May 2008 < http://www. setileague. org/general/drake. htm>. O’Brien, Miles. “Long Live Hubble”. 31 Oct. 2006. CNN International. 1 May 2008 < http://edition. cnn. com/2006/TECH/space/10/31/hubble. obrien/index. html>. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980. Shostak, Seth. “Finding Them, Finding Us”. 28 Feb. 2008. SETI Institute. 1 May 2008 <http://www. seti. org/news/features/finding-them-finding-us. php>. Tee, Brian. “Extraterrestrial Life”. The Ten Big Questions. 1 May 2008 < http://www. 123infinity. com/extraterrestrial_life. html>.
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