Or maybe they're keeping quiet for a reason

Bill Whittle asks the question that is at the forefront of every space nerd's mind:



I don't argue at all with Mr. Whittle's excellent summary of all of the many, many reasons why we are so fortunate to be here on Earth. Whether you believe in God or not, the reality is that the probability of our existence, let alone our ascension to intelligence and dominance over all of Earth, is femtoscopically small. We appear to be living in a Universe literally designed for our existence- again, I don't care whether you believe in a Creator or not, the facts are what they are. Our Universe, our galaxy, our Solar system, and our planet all appear to have just the right conditions to create, support, and sustain life- including hapless meatsacks like you and me.

No, what interests me about Mr. Whittle's presentation is that there is an alternative, and darker, explanation as to why our immediate cosmic neighbourhood is so damn quiet.

The question, "just where the Hell is everybody?!", is summarised rather well in a concept called Fermi's Paradox. The legendary physicist was essentially asking why, if civilisations of intelligent beings are driven to explore and expand and understand the Universe, has no one yet stumbled across anything like another intelligent race?

Several different attempts to answer this paradox have been proposed over the years. Mr. Whittle references a rather interesting bit of pseudoscience known as the Drake Equation. It is probably the most famous attempt to answer that paradox, but it leaves quite a lot to be desired.

The basic idea of said equation is to calculate the total number of planets in any given area of space that are capable of sustaining intelligent life. He goes over the equation rather quickly, so here is a breakdown of the equation for those with limited attention spans (like me).

To quote directly from a reputable source:
The Drake equation states that: 
 
where:
N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate and:
R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
If this equation looks completely arbitrary to you... that's because it is.

While it is actually a fairly intelligent first-pass attempt to figure out how many planets exist that are capable of bearing and sustaining intelligent life, it simply isn't an actual, scientific equation in any way.

Consider the last four variables. How, exactly, is one supposed to estimate how many planets actually do develop life over time, if good old Earth is the ONLY one that we know of that has done so? Moreover, how the hell is one even supposed to approximate or estimate that value?

Similarly, how is one supposed to figure out the fraction of planets that eventually develop intelligent life? WE are the only intelligent lifeforms that we know of hereabouts- and calling ourselves "intelligent" is something of a stretch in a great many cases. (Like, say, the People of Wal-Mart. Or progressives, of any era.)

You could go on in this vein for some time. The reality is that the Drake Equation requires far too much handwavium ever to be taken seriously.

As always, the simplest, most elegant answers are the best. One such answer was given by a sci-fi author named Greg Bear, in a pair of books called The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars. These two books argue that, if there are any sufficiently intelligent civilisations out there, they have evolved into one of two possible groups: preservers, and destroyers. The destroyers seek out other intelligent races and civilisations with the explicit goal of conquest and/or annihilation. The preservers, on the other hand, attempt to keep the destroyers in check.

Caught in the middle between these two forces are immature civilisations that either are destroyed, or learn very damn fast to keep their traps shut in order to avoid discovery and destruction.

Now, I know that those two books are just science fiction. (They are very good science fiction, make no mistake- probably the best books that Mr. Bear has written.) But they describe a scenario that is far more plausible than anything that you can get to via the Drake Equation and all of its mummery.

Make no mistake, our existence is probably a trillion-to-one chance occurrence. You could call us merely the lucky ones in a Universe so vast and so complex that we can only very dimly begin to comprehend its working. You could also argue, as many would, that our existence is the will of a loving and just Creator. I don't argue with either interpretation- indeed I think that the two overlap much more closely than either atheists or creationists would like to admit.

But the answer to the question, "where is everybody?" may well be answered by the statement, "they all learned very fast to STFU- because Bad Things Happen to those who won't keep quiet".

Comments

  1. Actually, it's not JUST the moon. The fact is, we also have both the enormous vacuum cleaner of Jupiter, and two MORE emergency backup system cleaners in the form of Neptune and Venus that absorb extinction-level debris on an almost DAILY basis.

    It's not just that we are a rare occurence, quite possibly utterly unique in the Galaxy... the chance is so small that we may be the only intelligent life in THOUSANDS of galaxies of the same size as ours.

    We may indeed be truly unique in the universe... that is why it behooves us to explore and expand throughout the universe, to ensure that intelligent life persists in some way or form.

    We may indeed wind up being the 'progenitor race'. The first, or the one that uplifts or creates the rest. Our potential is utterly limitless, and if god DOES play dice, he HAS to be cheating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Our potential is utterly limitless, and if god DOES play dice, he HAS to be cheating.

      Except for libprogs. Their potential is limited because they evolved to shed their brains, spines, balls, and guts.

      Delete
    2. BTW, took your advice, bought forge of god and anvil of stars, never was a big Greg bear fan before.

      Europa disappeared... creeeepy.

      Delete
    3. Dude, that was seriously depressing.

      Delete
    4. They are kind of downers as sci-fi books go, I know. There are some fascinating concepts discussed in between all the death and carnage and mayhem, etc.- like the usage of matter and anti-matter "bullets" to destroy the Earth...

      Delete

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