Updated: Jan 7
It’s been said the first evidence of humankind that an alien life-form will receive is an episode of the 1950s sitcom, I love Lucy. If that’s the case, then I think it’s the greatest contribution humankind has ever made to the universe. Of course, the chance of it ever actually being received and understood is unlikely, to say the least, but that’s not the point. We’ve done our bit.
A question that has been asked since time immemorial is, are we alone? Are there more of us somewhere else? Are there thinking and communicating complex life-forms we haven’t yet found? And if so, where might they be, and why haven’t we yet heard their version of I Love Lucy?
To answer the question of what’s out there, people have made up stories for thousands of years, and tried looking for hundreds. I like stories, that’s why I write fiction. But I won’t be talking about stories now. This essay is about us looking for actual life beyond our world.
But first, let’s get one thing straight. Searching for extra-terrestrial life, or at least any life capable of communicating in a way that we may recognise as communication, is a waste of effort. We will never see or hear it. It’s simply not possible. And I believe there is one fundamental reason for this; it’s because our solar system is too young.
Indeed, the universe as a whole is too young.
There simply has not been enough time for complexity to reach a point where it emits self-awareness beyond its own realm, out into the universe, and then for other forms of complexity to have the time to recognise those signals for what they are.
Hang on! you say. We’re told the universe is billions of years old, there’s been plenty of time. I’m afraid to say it’s not even close to enough time, and I hope this essay will go some way to explain why I believe that’s the case.
Before I start, though, if you’ve already read this somewhere else, I’m glad to hear it. Actually, it would be comforting to know this position has been discussed many times before. It would go some way to validating my views. Or if you’ve already formed a similar opinion yourself, I’m pleased to know you and I are on common ground. Many people don’t agree though, and they hope to find this other life. There are a great many people searching right now as you read this.
Okay, so let’s go through the reasons. I’ll start with the easiest one, distance.
We know that our solar system is incomprehensibly large. Our minds are designed to work with the senses we are given, and these operate on a scale that supports our existence. We can’t see microbes on our skin because we don’t need to. Likewise, we can’t see rocks on the moon. Our senses are made to cope with what matters to us and what we can control. This is a severe limitation, hence the use of machines to look, listen, and measure beyond our senses. The distances are too great otherwise.
We also know that because of these ridiculous distances between objects in the cosmos, it takes a long time to get from one place to the next. Hence why we use light years as a unit of distance measure. It’s also why astronomers say they are always looking back in time. Every time you look up at the stars, you are looking back in time because the light you see has taken a while to get here. More often than not, you are seeing ancient light.
If we consider humans have only been around for, let’s say two million years, and of that two million we’ve only been able to measure past our own noses for the last four hundred years, that leaves us with a window of 0.00000008% of the time between the Earth forming and the creation of a life-form (us) that can measure beyond its own world’s sky. Then take that figure and dilute it further by the distance to the next planet that also has life on it that can look past its own sky, assuming the two have an equal degree of evolutionary and technological development, we’re now down to a number so small it becomes abstract.
In other words, by the time we hear them, or they hear us, one or both parties won’t exist. So, there won’t be any Q&A time. Which kind of takes the fun out of it.
The second problem is complexity.
As objects become more complex, they develop emergent properties. We recognise this in philosophy, religion, and science. If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of emergent properties, let me provide an example. You could study all the properties of hydrogen, and all of those of oxygen, but you would never predict that when combined at a ratio of two to one, that the product (water) would expand when frozen (ice). Emergent properties that arise from complexity cannot generally be predicted. An emergent property of humans is our ability to think abstractly. I’m happy to be corrected, but I’m not sure we know of any other life-forms that can do this.
Which means that in order to recognise complex systems, you need other complex systems. You may speak to a dog and the dog has some understanding of your words, or emotions, based on your sound, movements, and smell. Your dog will even react, or at least you hope so. Don’t try it with a cat. You’ll get nothing.
But the understanding between you and your dog is limited. Do the same test with a starfish and you’re unlikely to get the reaction you did with your pet. That’s not to say a starfish is not an extremely complex entity. It just doesn’t have the same emergent properties as the dog. The same gap exists between us and the dog. If we were on equal levels of complexity, we wouldn’t have the need for animal behaviouralists to explain what dogs are thinking. All people would understand dog and vice versa. Therefore, we have an issue here, and that’s the level of complexity between two communicating entities.
Or to put it crudely, if we can’t perfectly communicate with any other life-forms on Earth, how can we expect to do so with life beyond Earth. Ironically, it’s this complexity that permits us to communicate between ourselves that also restricts our ability to do so with anything else. The first deliberate message sent by people into space, the Arecibo message in 1974, needs a computer to interpret it. You and I can’t read the binary symbols. Therefore, it’s vanishingly unlikely that anything out there who is fortunate enough to pick up the radio message will actually be able to understand it.
The last point I’d like you to consider is the mass of complex life.
We admire the natural world with its remarkable complexity and diversity, while recognising it’s constrained by rules and limitations. As far as we know, there is no life inside the earth, and nothing high in the atmosphere. Or, if there is, it’s extremely simple. The mass of earth’s life is contained within a veneer, inside the condensation on the icing on the cake. Now, if there’s lots of something, it’s easier to notice. It’s very hard to see life from a distance not only because of the distance but also because there is an extremely small amount of it. Even if we were to discover an entire planet of water, the rules governing particles would prevent life from existing anywhere but on the surface. We’ve found life twenty kilometres under the surface of the oceans, but there is little hope we would find life 6,000km below. The water particles would not behave like water. That emergent property issue raises its irritating head again.
Which means, at least for our Earth, the mass of life is actually a minute part of the whole. And the amount of complex life, that life which can search for something beyond our earthly limits, is staggeringly small. One species out of seven million. My point being that our signature is tiny, and would be very difficult to see, as so would others be.
So, if we combine the age of the universe with the vast distance between objects, with the complexity needed to communicate from one heavenly body to another, where does this leave us?
Nowhere really. We’ll always be alone.
Therefore, we simply carry on as we are because nothing changes. Life on our earth continues as it has, and if through our behaviour we create a Venus like atmosphere, then life may be brought to an early halt. However, if we control ourselves, then life will continue to change for a bit longer and humans may, for a while yet, remain at the top of the complexity pecking order. But not for long. And certainly not long when measured against the clock the universe runs by. In this first roll of the dice, the complexity will no doubt reach an upper limit, then either stop or come apart. Whenever that happens, remains to be seen. But it won’t be seen by us.
That’s because there’s a time limit for the continued increase in complexity on Earth. Eventually, our sun will expand to become a red dwarf and, in so doing, will engulf Earth. When it does, all evidence of our complexity will return to its fundamental atoms. The signs of our existence, and any other life here, and anything we have made, will go. The only proof of us ever having been will be the echoes we sent into the abyss. Of which the first was an American sitcom.
It will come as no surprise this brings me to a philosophical point. Which is the natural state when we’ve exhausted the science. What is the purpose of life if it’s finite? I think to answer that we need to return to the age of the solar system and the universe. It’s still too early to tell what that purpose might be.
However, if the purpose for life is so the universe can become self-aware, then maybe we’ve reached an early milestone. Humans are complex enough to be self-aware, and we are made of the matter of the universe. Therefore, at least in a tiny tucked-away-in-the-corner kind of way, this little pocket now knows of itself. And given that 13 billion years have passed, there is a chance that other pockets of the universe are also self-aware. Yet, as I hope I have pointed out, we will never know. And they will never know of us. At least not for a long time, and long past when we, and they, are no more.
If we accept this as possible, indeed probable, then maybe the purpose for life is to share that self-awareness with other parts that are also cognisant. If all forms of understanding were to radiate into the void what they know, then perhaps billions or trillions of years into the future, a span too far for us to fathom, this knowledge may be caught and blended into a complete understanding. When the universe is ten, or a hundred, or a thousand times older than it is, another life-form may scoop up all this understanding and aggregate it into a pure self-awareness, a point where there is nothing more to know. A time where the matter of the universe completely understands itself and with that understanding, it can direct itself. Because with self-awareness comes control.
So next time you gaze into the heavens, and your attention flicks between planets, stars, and galaxies, spare a thought for other forms of awareness that may be doing the same. Sometime our knowledge may meet. I Love Lucy was a good start, but we really need to up the ante. I think we should send out everything we have. The aim should not be for us to learn about others but for others, sometime far into the future, to learn from us when we’ve gone.