Finding extraterrestrial life: Are we ready enough?
Since the advent of our collective consciousness, we have been quenching our curiosities through explorations of our surroundings.
According to humans, the most intelligent creature on the planet is- human. You agree with this statement if you are presumably aware of the monumental achievements humans have bagged within their short time span of existence on earth at the cosmic scale. Humans have been hanging around on the earth for just the last few seconds on the cosmic calendar. To understand this, just imagine the time elapsed from the big bang to the present as one calendar year, with the big bang marking January 1st while the current time is the 31st of December at midnight.
On this scale, all the recorded human achievements and industrial and technological advancements have shown up for the past 12-14 seconds. We are just a blip on this cosmic year, yet, we have been intelligent enough to have a pretty good understanding of the laws and the rules that run this cosmos along with the driving forces behind it. For most of our existence, we had been wanderers, hunters, and gathers, relying on our environment for our safety and survival. It has been for just a few thousand years since we devised tools and methods to survive and thrive by exploiting our planet’s resources. This could have been possible because of our intelligence, driven partly by the creed for survival and partly by our curiosity.
Since the advent of our collective consciousness, we have been quenching our curiosities through explorations of our surroundings. From domesticating fire to fantasizing about life on other planets, we have been trying our best to satisfy the intelligent being within us. Space explorations have become a new area of interest for a class of intelligent people worldwide. There has been a plethora of questions that these people have been attempting to search answer for to. Some of them have and will pave the way for successful applications of space exploration, while some of them have been and are merely meant for the satisfaction of our intellectual ego.
Nevertheless, many of these questions are more significant than others and have an excellent reputation in the club of cosmic mysteries. One such big mystery is the possibility of intelligent life outside the Earth. But, before we hunt for life in the cosmos, we must have an introspection within our planet. Before we step outside our world in search of life, let’s first examine how much we know of life as it is on Earth.
Prof. Stephen Hawking, in an interview, once said that he would be more worried than excited if an alien civilization were able to find us and would visit us. There is a mere chance of them trying to enslave us for their benefit.
Life on the Earth probably germinated around 25th September on the cosmic calendar. The nature of life that originated on Earth was based on the chemical elements and their inter-relations with each other. These elements were original, manufactured in the core of the supermassive star that prevailed before our sun was born from its remnants when it exploded at the time of its death in a fierce explosive event called a supernova. The considerable amount of heavy elements like carbon, oxygen, iron, nickel, etc., got scattered with the star’s debris, star’s debris which later condensed to give birth to the balls that we call ‘Planets’.
These planets revolve around the next generation of stars, called our ‘Sun.’ Our planet earth is among the newly formed balls (planets) that form the family of the Sun, which is the next generation of that supermassive star. When life on earth originated, the raw material required to create life was already present in the form of the same heavy elements that create our planet and were once manufactured in the core of a supermassive star. Life on Earth is made of the same elements that compose the life of a star. So, technically, we are all made up of ‘Star dust’.
Now that we know that life on earth is based on its chemical composition, by analyzing the chemical composition of all the life forms that ever were present on earth, we can state that life on earth is based on the element carbon. Carbon is a very extraordinary element that sports the property of making long chains of stable chemical bonds with itself and with all other elements found on the periodic table. This property of carbon is called Catenation. This extraordinary element is the backbone of the diversity of life forms on our planet.
Life forms on earth may seem very different in nature, color, shape, and size. There may be drastic differences in how they eat, reproduce, catch their prey, avoid predators, communicate or perform their daily activities. However, one factor common in all life forms on earth is that all these life forms are based on the element Carbon. Now, the only life form that we know is based on Carbon. But are we sure that, if there is some other life form present outside our planet, it would also be based on Carbon?
The answer to this can be a straight- No. We can never be sure about the possibility of carbon or some other element being the rudimentary base of life in the cosmos. Who knows, there can be a life form based on silicon, magnesium, or even hydrogen, the most abandoned element in the cosmos. Do we understand the role of chemical elements in the formation and sustenance of life? Or do we know the possible number of elements that can serve as the bases of life formation? So, before we find an evidence-based answer to this, we cannot move ahead with the hunting of life any further.
It has been for just a few thousand years since we devised tools and methods to survive and thrive by exploiting our planet’s resources.
Now, let’s discuss the possibility of finding ‘Intelligent Life’ out in the cosmos. As for the earth, we end the debate by stating that humans are arguably the most intelligent form of life. And there have been reasons and evidence in support of this statement. I mean, just look at the monumental achievements we have embossed on the face of this planet. The Pyramids of Egypt, the use of computers and machines, the understanding of natural phenomena and their predictions, etc., testify to the fact that humans are the prime representation of ‘intelligent life on earth as we know it. Now, there is one question that we must ask before we begin searching for intelligent life.
Do we understand ‘Intelligence’ in the first place? Intelligence, as we define it on earth, is the ability to exploit our surrounding resources effectively and progressively for our existence and to be able to evade potential hazards that may pose a threat to us. Now, one can argue that even beavers can exploit their surrounding natural resources and avoid predators, so do we categorize them as the same intelligent life as us?
Maybe yes, but the counter-argument can be put in this way- since the beavers or any other relevant species is not able to forge new things out of the natural resources and spare time to develop the advanced understanding of the natural world only to exploit the resources, in many ways imaginable, we cannot categorize them as intelligent as humans.
Now, this idea of intelligence can be self-defying for us. Let’s think of an alien who locates our planet and makes a maiden visit to us. Suppose he manages to peek through a snake while in the action of hunting its prey down. Upon his return to his world, his report to his senders can be like this- I saw life form on this planet. It had non-limbs but could move to places, yet can detect its prey through infrared technology and kills its prey by injecting venomous chemicals.
This report is of some extraordinary display of intelligence present on earth. Through this example, we can be sure of the fact that we cannot define intelligence in a generic term implementable to the whole universe. There are some cases where we find a rock on Mars that grows in size yearly, and we discard it as a non-living thing.
There is another point that needs to be discussed before we raise our excitement toward witnessing intelligent life. Statistically, the possibility of finding intelligent life can be very low in the vast cosmos, contrary to the fact that the cosmos is filled with billions and billions of galaxies, stars, and exoplanets (planets outside our solar system). This idea is well-known as the ‘Fermi Paradox’. Suppose we look back at the history of life on earth.
For billions of years, it has been dominated by the single-celled life forms. The existence of complex life can be traced back around a billion years. If we zoom into the history of the existence of intelligent life, we might find it dating back to just a few million years. So, this indicates that even if we succeed at finding a form of life elsewhere in the cosmos, there are chances that the planet is yet to host intelligent beings. We might wait and return back in the distant future to be able to communicate with them. At present, we have, according to the facts of science, developed tools to communicate with our counterparts if and when they show up.
Now let’s presume we succeed at finding an alien civilization outside our planet and even establish communication with them. We are unsure whether that rendezvous would result in our favor or turn out to be our ultimate mistake! Renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark said whether we are alone in the universe or not, and both scenarios are worth freaking out about.
We are free to debate the question of the possibility of life for hours and might return to the same question again. We might be the leading representation of life on earth with the potential to be the leader for the whole universe sometime in the future. Still, we cannot ignore the fact that something in contrast to this has an equal possibility of occurrence. After all, the only model we know of representing intelligent life is ours.
Now, this sounds scary to me. Prof. Stephen Hawking, in an interview, once said that he would be more worried than excited if an alien civilization were able to find us and would visit us. There is a mere chance of them trying to enslave us for their benefit. Now you may ask what makes him think such a skeptic like that! Then, read the human history of colonization. Our history is full of evidence that we, as human beings with better intelligence, have tried to enslave inferior human beings. Same can be done to us if we encounter some superior intellectual life form from outside our planet.
So, now we have the last but most important question to answer. After this much analysis, should we keep our search for extraterrestrial life anymore? I would say –Yes. Despite many unanswered questions, we must satisfy our curiosity to know everything. This is what we live for. These explorations define our ingenuity and caliber to mark our names in the history of life at the forefront of life forms as there ever.
Also, read: Black Hole In The Backyard
Sandeep Poddar is the convener of Ignited Minds Science Club affiliated with VIGYAN PRASAR. He is a Science Communicator and develops and presents scientific content for Yuvaaz Podcast.
He can catch at; http://www.ignitedminds777.wordpress.com/