Ourselves, All Alone

Problems when you find you’re not alone after all. This edition published by Macdonald Futura Publishers Ltd 1980

The question of whether we are alone in the universe has been a constant challenge.  Back in the 1960s, probably through to around the early 1970s, one was definitely regarded as weird for suggesting that there was anyone else “out there”.  That was pure science fiction, and nothing more.

But times changed.  The idea of a universe “teeming with life” became the norm, and the oddballs were those who thought that we might actually be the only intelligent species, or indeed the only life-form at all, in the cosmos.  There was still ample room for doubt, though – we all prefer to see evidence before concluding that something is true – and so far SETI hasn’t produced any in this area – rather than basing a conclusion on what “ought to be” or, dare we say it, mere wishful thinking.

The British Interplanetary Society’s Fermi Paradox Symposium in November 2017 gave us a range of different arguments on the subject, though the overall conclusion seemed to be that life is probably exceedingly rare in the universe – possibly even so rare that we’re the only example.  Arguing that there are so many billions upon billions of exoplanets in existence that there “must” be life on some of them isn’t really persuasive when balanced against the extremely unlikely event of self-replicating molecules forming in the first place.  The chances of life forming seem vanishingly remote.

In his lecture We Seem to be Alone – Why?, confirming his earlier assessment in On the Improbability of Intelligent Extraterrestrials (JBIS, May 1982), Alan Bond argued that the circumstances in which life on Earth initially came into existence, and then developed into intelligent life, were somewhat exceptional, bearing in mind that life-forms on this planet seem to have evolved very rapidly.  There could even be no more than a 50/50 chance that there is another intelligent species in our Galaxy.

Indeed, in Many Planets, Not Much Life (Scientific American, September 2016), Paul Davies, director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, concluded that “it may well be that fewer than one in a trillion trillion planets ever spawns life.”  And that means that we could well be the only one.  Professor Davies points out that we might yet find evidence that biology is “the product of some kind of directional self-organization that favours the living state over others” in this universe, but again (so far) there’s nothing to support that either.

I’m sure we would all be genuinely pleased if real evidence of extraterrestrial life was found – no cynicism whatsoever intended.  Until that happy day, though, the only conclusion is that we’re alone.  Which brings us to Arthur C Clarke’s well-known comment: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”  One of them must be true.

And if we are alone, we face a future of exploring a cosmos where one star system after another may be largely the same, time after time, and no-one else to share it with.  And no-one to help us.  But that shouldn’t be a problem.  It’s the sort of situation in which the human race finds itself at the start of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye, where it has expanded through the Galaxy without any contact with intelligent extraterrestrials.  Societies rise and fall, but humanity seems well able to cope with the ups and downs of an advanced interstellar civilization.

In such a Galaxy-wide community, the universe will be what we make of it.  Nothing to be afraid of there, and the strong advantage of such a widespread empire is that humanity, as a whole, is secure.  If something nasty should happen to any one planet, its overall survival is assured.  It also means that it is in a good position to deal with an intelligent alien race when it does eventually encounter it and, as in Niven and Pournelle’s story, that race may have a not entirely friendly agenda of its own.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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