BY Godswill Vesta UTONG
Whether you’re a science buff (like me), a sci-fi aficionado, an avid moviegoer or just one who loves stories, you must admit that humans are particularly fascinated by an idea: the arrival of space visitors.
That cow (and it is quite the cash cow) has been milked by movie makers, sci-fi writers, game developers, tech geeks, bloggers, ET fans etc, ad nauseam. Our theater screens are graced with absurd (and sometimes comical) depictions of extraterrestrial beings, some with sinister plans to colonize Earth and harvest its human population, others, out to make us laugh, cry or fall in love. But there’s one group of people that is, perhaps, more fascinated with the concept of extraterrestrial visitors (and which, most probably predates the other groups—mentioned above—also fascinated with the idea): Conspiracy theorists.
We have heard stories of strange sightings. Of weird UFOs, or abductions and weird, otherworldly messages/patterns on cornfields in America. Of tiny beings with humongous oval heads, giant eyes and cute, but deadly ray guns, probing humans and cattle in their spaceship. Of various governments’ secrecy—nay, complicity—in matters of alien visitation and abduction. Of Roswell and Area 51. We’ve heard so many, some so gripping we are wont to believe them.
This article is not concerned with addressing these CT concerns. Chapter 4 of Carl Sagan’s brilliant book, The Demon Haunted World, addresses most of the concerns (and rumors) of ET enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists. This article, however tries to analyze the prospect of ever being visited by ambassadors of another civilization, another world, another time.
ENTER DRAKE AND FERMI.
The title of this article is a play on Enrico Fermi’s famous quip (where is everybody?) after encountering a version of what is now called Drake’s Equation on the abundance of extraterrestrial life in the galaxy and by extension, the universe. What later became known as the Fermi’s paradox (an apparent contradiction between high probability estimates and available evidence).
In 1961, Dr. Frank Drake wrote a probabilistic equation calculating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that exist in the Milky Way Galaxy, using variables like, the rate of star formation in the galaxy, the number of planets around each star, the number of planets capable of life, the number of life-bearing planets with intelligent civilization and the amount of time taken by life-bearing planets to develop intelligent species, amongst others. The equation itself was meant to stimulate conversation and not a measure for accurately quantifying the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy. This is true, mostly because there were so many parameters it did not consider.
In any case, the Fermi paradox is simply saying, if there are so many extraterrestrial civilizations then why hasn’t any made contact with earth? Why are there no artifacts on earth or the solar system, from extraterrestrial civilizations? Where is everybody?!
CHAUVINISM ON AN INCONSEQUENTIAL MOTE.
The question, like most questions that greet evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, archeologists and other scientists, is one that springs from a not-so-oft-acknowledged well of homocentric chauvinism. We ask these questions like we expect nature to do things just to please us. “where are the transitional fossils?”, “why can’t we see animals evolving?”, “why are there still monkeys?”, “why haven’t we seen aliens?”, “why are there conflicting radioactive dating results for rocks?”. These questions, while valid in their own sense, betray a worrying level of hubris on the part of humans.
So, why haven‘t aliens visited earth?
First, let’s consider our solar system. Image 1 comes to mind when we think about our solar system. You know, nice planets going around a genial little yellow star and all.
Well here’s the shocker: 99.8% of the solar system’s entire mass is the sun. Did you get that? The sun alone is 99.8% of the solar system’s mass. Of the 0.2%of mass left, about 75% of that is the mass of Jupiter! You’re surprised are you not? (Check this link to see just how much space there is in the Solar System. http://joshworth.com/dev/pixelspace/pixelspace_solarsystem.html)
I happened to stumble upon a conversation on ‘Quora’ on the prospects of extraterrestrials visiting our solar system. A commenter mentioned (and I agree with him) that if ever extraterrestrials were to visit our solar system, the only reason they would do so is for our sun—a lonely, nondescript mid-aged yellow star, orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy. It would make sense to think that extraterrestrial civilizations would give the earth a little more than a side glance as their spaceships (or whatever their mode of transportation is) zoom past us on their way to our sun.
O BEAUTIFUL KARDASHEV
In 1964, a soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed a hypothetical scale to be used in measuring the level of a civilization’s technological advancement, based on its energy consumption (or more succinctly put, it’s energy tapping capacity) for communication. Basically, Kardashev classified civilizations into three types:
Type I Civilization: only able to tap energy from its planet and and most importantly, to use and store energy from its neighborhood star.
Type II Civilization: able to, not only tap, but harness the total energy of its parent star.
Type III Civilization: able to harness and control energy on a scale similar to its entire host galaxy.
Different variations (mostly extensions) of the scale have been drawn up (most notably Sagan’s Kardashev Scale that consider intermediate values as opposed to the three static values from the original scale) but that’s beside the point.Where is humanity placed on the scale? With rapid advances in solar technology, with whole towns powered by the sun, surely we should’ve registered ourselves in the scale of things.
We’re not even a Type I Civilization yet. A recent survey (2015) of global energy consumption placed humanity at around 0.72 on the Kardashev scale. Ours is a civilization still heavily dependent on fossil fuels to power our spaceships. The furthest our manned ships have gone is the moon. Michael Garrett’s 2015 study of galactic mid-infrared emissions made the conclusion: “Kardashev Type-III civilizations are either very rare or do not exist in the local Universe.” It is estimated that humanity would become a TYPE II Civilization in a hundred years and TYPE III in a thousand.
The fear of course, is that a civilization with access to so much energy would end up destroying itself before learning to leave its planet. There’s the fear of thermonuclear warfare ending our civilization before the turn of the century. It would make sense to think that any extraterrestrial civilization visiting our solar system has survived long enough to quell its thirst for energy. It therefore makes sense to assume that TYPE I civilizations would not have the requisite energy for deep/hyper space travel and thus might never visit our solar system while TYPE III Civilizations are so rare and technologically advanced that if they ever visited our solar system, they’d be as interested in us as we are in technological advancement of microbial organisms.
EXPLORATION OF THE GALAXY.
We have relied so much on electromagnetic waves for the exploration of our universe. Perhaps the first attempt by humans to send a message to aliens was with the ‘Arecibo Message.’ But before then, we had been beaming electromagnetic waves that bounced off the earth’s surface and into space as far back as the early 20th century.
Now why haven’t we made contact with extraterrestrials? Why has there been no messages to decipher from another planet (like in sci-fi movies)?
Imagine visiting your dying grandfather and just before he passes away, he calls you to his room and whispers in your ear that somewhere in the neighboring state he had buried a bag of gold for you to find. Shortly after, he dies. He does not tell you where exactly the bag is buried. Where do you start looking for it from?
It’s kind of the same problem astronomers face (and I’d expect extraterrestrials would also face that problem). We have no idea in what direction to beam our messages. That’s because we have very little idea what stars have planets with civilizations capable of deciphering electromagnetic messages. So we beam our messages towards the hearts of stars and galaxies in hopes that it would be intercepted by an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization.
Now here‘s the thing
Humans have been broadcasting radio waves into deep space for about 100 years now. Assuming we ignore the earth’s ionosphere and its ability to reflect or absorb low frequency radiowaves (only VHFs and above can escape the ionosphere. VHFs were first broadcast in the 1940s, almost 80 years ago) and the inverse square law (which states that a specified physical quantity or intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that physical quantity. Basically implying that radiowaves would diminish in strength over time as they move away from their source), our radiowaves have only succeeded in traveling 100 light-years away from Earth and creating a bubble with a radius of 100 light-years. By comparison, our galaxy, The Milky Way is about 100,000 light-years across and the observable universe, about 93 billion light-years across. What this means is that it would take 100,000 years for our radiowaves to travel the length of the Milky and 93,000,000,000 years to travel to the horizons of the observable universe.
You can now get a somber and sobering picture of the scale of time and distance needed to search for extraterrestrial life. Let’s assume a hypothetical extraterrestrial civilization started beaming radiowaves towards our sun from the other side of the galaxy around the same time we did, It would take another 99,900 years before we ever receive their “Hello” from the other side.
To reach for the stars, we first had to reach for the surface of the ocean.
Scientific consensus puts the life of the Earth at about 4.3billion years old. The first forms of life appeared about 200million years later. However the first forms of life on land appeared around 600million years ago (the figures vary.) The first earth based animal to leave its planet happened about 70 years ago. A famous scientist once remarked that it is a mistake of history and probability that we can aim for the stars.
It seemed that, like ‘schrodinger’s cat thought experiment,’ once evolution reached a certain point, there could be only one outcome. It’s course was pretty much set. For instance, one could surmise that as soon as the first bipeds appeared on earth, fire was going to be tamed eventually and space travel would become a certainty. But reaching that point to begin with is subject to staggering probability.
There are an estimated 8.7million species of animals on Earth today. The human species is just one of this. Just one of almost 9 million species of animals! But take away the human species—wipe off every human from the surface of the earth—today and you would’ve succeeded in wiping off 100% of the species that have ever explored space and traveled within a few million kilometers of the space around Earth. More so, you would’ve wiped off 100% of the species on Earth that will ever be capable of exploring space in the next 200 years (perhaps a thousand years. Perhaps five thousand). Take some time to think about that.
Now imagine all the worlds out there with intelligent civilizations in its oceans. Imagine all the civilizations on estranged worlds that have not discovered fire and have not invented the wheel. Imagine all the species of extraterrestrials just now leaving their oceans. Imagine all the civilizations who worship their skies and fear to cross it (literally and figuratively). Imagine all the civilizations that could give two fucks whether there are others like them somewhere in the galaxy, somewhere in the universe.
You begin to get a grim picture that explains why we probably will die alone and lonely in this backyard that is the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.