Thoughts > Exploring Space for Intelligent Life
In the beginning of our own history of looking for life on other worlds, on August 21st, 1924, Mars entered an opposition closer to Earth than any time in a century before or since. In the United States, a “National Radio Silence Day” was promoted during a 36-hour period from August 21st to the 23rd, with all radios quiet for five minutes on the hour, every hour. At the United States Naval Observatory, a radio receiver was lifted 3 kilometers up in a dirigible using a “radio-camera”. People were ready with pen in hand to write down any communications coming from Martians that might be coming through.
We’ve come a long way since then in technology and are able to listen much better and much further than ever before. But who or what it is we’re looking for has always remained the same, aliens, specifically intelligent aliens. We’ve become intelligent enough to think “I think therefore I am”, and when we look for life on other worlds, we look for creatures that are living on their worlds. We’re intelligent creatures, and so we deduce there must be other creatures like us, so let’s look for that. That’s what we consider life. We know they probably won’t look like humans, but if they know math, we might be able to hear them.
To explore this particular possibility of “Intelligent Life” on other worlds we’ll need to free ourselves from some constrictions, the first being what we define as intelligence or life itself.
Nature has always revealed a world to us with order in it’s chaos. Each of us is unique like every flower or snowflake, but there are many of the same species or type of flowers. It’s our ability to notice patterns like this that allow us to hunt for other patterns of intelligence while listening to the stars.
But when it comes to the pattern of nature choosing to add intelligence to any of it’s creatures, she hasn’t paid it much mind. Of all the creatures the earth has produced within the last 5 billion years, only one has been given intelligence, us. If intelligence is such a great thing, why hasn’t nature seen fit to give it to any of the other creatures that came before? Long before modern Homo Sapian arose just 200,000 years ago, nature’s had the ability to instill a animal with a large brain for hundreds of of millions of years but didn’t. You’d think intelligence is valuable, but statistically, something we take for granted like eyes win hands down since nature has really thought that a great idea and therefore replicated it in a hundred different ways on nearly every species alive. But intelligence? Let’s look at the data.
Primates represent only 230 of the 6,000 mammal species, which are a minor part of the tree of life on earth, and of the 236 to be specific, only 1 got a big enough brain to think “I think therefore I am”. The data suggests that instead of appearing as a natural order of evolution, intelligence may be more like a hiccup, or error along any minor evolutionary line. Not only short lived, nature may take it away if it’s found harmful to the system. So what if intelligence wasn’t really supposed to happen, or at least open ourselves to the possibility that intelligence isn’t a natural part of evolution, and happens instead from a great many separate things coming together randomly in such a way as to have created intelligence?
For the purpose of talking about this other possible intelligent life on other planets, I’d like to ask we take two steps away from ourselves. The first step is to entertain the possibility that just maybe, intelligence as we understand it doesn’t evolve naturally, and happens so rarely as a fluke in fact, and may be so short lived, that intelligence on other worlds as we know it may not exist at all. And if such such a rare combination of events should occur to create a creature who might think like us, they won’t be around long enough to find out.
If you can come this far, and you’re able to entertain this new understanding of what intelligence may be or not be, let’s step away from the earth altogether, and look at the earth from say the moon, I’d like to bring your attention to some behavior you may recognize.
Like flies surrounding a flame, our earth and the other planets huddle around the sun drawing heat, movement, energy, and stability, Like a boat tied to a pier, it just feels more like home or a village than wandering aimlessly about in space. Orbiting our sun, our family of planets and moons are nourished by the sun, and it could be considered the parent and us planets the children.
If we ignore life as we define it, and instead apply life to mean active geology on any celestial body, in our solar system alone, there’s plenty of life within the planets and their moons. Volcanoes of sulfur, or atmospheres denser than earth, winds faster than the speed of sound, our solar system is teeming with life if we think of life as geologic instead of requiring biology to qualify.
People have referred to the planets and geology as living, though we’ve tended to do it with the understanding that they weren’t really alive like our cats or dogs. It’s always been more like reverence of a god, or we’ve treated planets as characters, but characters having human-like qualities.
When we think of living things, we think of animal life, creatures, bugs, and plants. Even microbes are life to us because it’s clearly more than just rock. Geology is the study of rock, and rock isn’t alive. It might be moving here and there, but rock is material, and things like our atmosphere are just a mixture of gases, and these are elements behaving as elements do, without intelligence. Life is made from these elements, but life as we understand it involves parents and birth. Then there’s the struggle of life, eating or being eaten, plants animals, bugs, and microbes all cohabiting together making up our web of life on earth and our understanding of what being alive means.
But when it comes to looking for intelligent life on other worlds, what if we’re looking in all the wrong places, not in space, but in time and scale.
If the earth were a living creature with a life span of say 80 years of which it’s lived half it’s life, 1 second to the earth is 3 years to you and I. If the earth and celestial bodies were intelligent, you and I couldn’t see it with our time scale since generations of people might live and die during a single thought of a creature living so long.
Let’s go back to the moon looking at the earth, I’d like you to speed up time now. Instead of 1 second taking 1 second, now it takes 3 years. In one minute of standing on the moon, we’ll orbit the earth 3,200 times. That’s one minute to the earth.
What if the planets and the sun are alive but not as anything we’d understand, and they’ve been communicating with each other for billions of years and the only reason we can’t hear it is because-
A: To a planet size creature, we might be considered like a red blood cell and what we think “intelligence” is not what the larger Universe considers intelligence at all.
B: Due to the time scale difference of people’s life cycle and a planet’s, communication physically aren’t possible.
C: As rare as bacteria suddenly spawning intelligence, we may be the oddity in a galaxy where only planets talk to each other, certainly not the cells making it up!
If you’ve been able to travel this rabbit hole so far, now comes the really juicy part, two really. The first is that if this possibility were scientifically observed, that celestial bodies communicate with each other in any fashion at all, it would transform our understanding of the Universe fundamentally. Because if that happened, it would prove we’re as likely as our own stomach bacteria talking to us, an extremely rare fluke of nature and precious indeed. The second thing that could come out of that could be the first attempt to communicate with our own planet in a real scientific fashion, which frankly makes Star Wars look like the 1902 film “Trip to the moon”. Fact can often be stranger than fiction.
Life and intelligence as we know it, may be a far cry from what the rest of the Universe considers life or intelligent. One pattern that’s remained consistent throughout the history of science is that human beings become less and less god like every time we discover a little more about our Universe and ourselves, which perhaps is one way our Universe raises it’s children with wisdom and humility, one step at a time, and really really slowly.