Why are we waiting for scientists to tell us that life exists outside Earth in order to believe that it does?
As if simple mathematical probabilities are not enough.
The probability that Earth is and has been the only suitable environment for life in the Universe is statistically smaller than that your gender will just up and switch itself tomorrow. Literally. It is smaller than the probability that you exist in multiple realities at the same time; and smaller than the probability that the future has already happened. If simple humility and imagination aren’t enough to accept the real possibility that extra-terrestrial life and lifeforms exist (and/or have existed and/or will exist), then how about just some pure math:
That isn’t the solar system. It’s – wait for the technical term – a bajillion solar systems with 100 billion galaxies and as many stars as there are grains of sand on this planet times three. (26 Pictures that will make you re-evaluate your entire existence from BuzzFeed has some great images that help to bring the incomprehensible numbers somewhere closer to home.) Seems a bit foolhardy to presume we could have an ultimate, catch-all image of everything that exists, but there it is: the Universe, a.k.a. the entirety of the cosmos and all existence.
Now, take all the grains of sand on Earth and multiple that by a factor of 3. Then consider how special one single grain would have to be to be able to claim that there is not one other grain like it. Like it – not the same, but like it. Think about. What a remarkable single grain of sand. Super Chosen, right? Now multiply that by some average number of satellites (planets, moons, etc.) per star, and you’re nearing how special humans claim to be when we act like the existence of aliens would be a miracle. Ummm, okay – but we’re a miracle. Life on Earth is a miracle. So maybe, but not in any way that’s problematic. How about we not up the ante by insisting that Earth (and humans) are the only instance of intelligent life in all universe(s) in all space-time? Do we really have to be that special? Do we have to be Chosen – or can we finally just have enough self-esteem and integrity to be okay with being on par with other forms of life?
I don’t think we need to wait for an extra-terrestrial encounter where at least one party is a scientist’s robot to accept what is obvious and true: we are not that special. (Don’t get me wrong, being a living, conscious being in a Universe which is in large part comprised of unimaginably vast expanses of ’empty’ space is special. It’s super special. And a privilege we should really consider doing something with, deliberately and creatively. But being special, even super duper whooper special, doesn’t mean that nothing else can be special, even that special, too.) Nor do we need to wait for soil samples or radio waves to make the paradigm shift: to go from assuming that all earnest talk of extra-terrestrial life belongs to science fiction, fantasy or mental breakdown; to assuming that non-Earthly life is actually and definitely happening out there somewhere. A photo would be majestic but do we really need one to accept that this, or something like this, is, has been, or will be, somewhere out there in the unfathomable expanse above?
Especially since we already have these:
It seems more like a simple straightening than a real stretch to go from an image like this one taken from the surface of the moon:
to imagining that this, or something like this, is more fact than fiction:
Needed or not, the truth is that the evidences are coming. They are coming. As the TED videos below show, some have arrived and some are arriving as we speak. My question to you is: What are you going to do when they tell you that there is life on other planets?
Seriously, think about it. What are you going to do when they tell you that alien life, and alien lifeforms, exist? Tell me your heart won’t skip a beat. You know it will. Of course it will. Extra-terrestrial life changes everything.
Okay, maybe not everything – you’ll probably still go to work the next day, come home to the same place, buy things with money. – And yet, it could change everything: what would work look and feel like the next day? What would the conversations you’d be having be like? Your children, partner or home might not change but the way you see them and yourself might. You’d still use money and need to use it, at least for a long while, but you might also imagine an alien looking at your bills and catch your first real glimpse of understanding that a thing can have meaning and significance solely because of collective agreement.
Proof of extra-terrestrial life could simply deliver a new subject to quickly turn into a new object for our narcissism and impulse to relate through control, decimation and domination. Or it could effect a real schism in our anthropocentric reverie and an opening to life in all of its largess. In all of us unfathomable cosmic-ness. It could and should reorient the orbit of the Heavens just as Copernicus’ revolution did: neither the Earth, nor the human patriarchy, are the center of the universe. They just aren’t. It’s okay. But they aren’t. And given the way things are going on this super-special grain of sand, especially since super-duper-special humans extricated themselves from the food-chain, it’s probably for the best that we aren’t the pinnacle of creation.
What scares me most about alien (a.k.a. extra-terrestrial, a.k.a. non-Earthly) life is not that it could be human-hostile, but that the admission of it by humans could change next to nothing when it could also change close to everything. From how you personally feel about your life to what we, collectively, do with ours. Please don’t let it change nothing. Don’t let them let it change nothing. It should be business-as-usual shattering news, Earth-shattering even. No human-hostile spin necessary.
We are climbing out of an age where I would be committed for believing that aliens exist and, even more, for behaving and living like they exist; but the day it is taken for granted is – cue princess Jasmine wide-eyed and clutching her breast – a whole new world. Humility and math are enough for me to take it for granted. Literally, to assume that Earth is not the only celestial body in the universe, apparently not the only one in the solar system (see James Green’s talk below), on which there exists or has existed or will exist intelligent life. Also that Earth is not the only living celestial body in the universe.
What happens to your world, to your mind, brain and life, when you take these as facts not fiction? The day is coming. You may be alive for it, you may not. But the fact is you don’t have to wait the photo, the sound bite, or the molecular formula. Please don’t make yourself: it seems so unnecessary and way too awesome to wait. The universe – and reality – we actually live in is insanely magical, don’t deprive yourself of knowing it. Life is so much more boring, and awkward, and – most importantly – off, without it.
Speaking of Magic and Miracles …
The latest essay in my philosophy for the people series, On Being Confused. Or Conversations Between Me, Me, and You., is coming out soon!
On Magic and Miracles. Or Walking Through a Land of Wonders, Unwondering. will be available next month. Click here to view other titles in the series.
ET-life related TED Talks for those interested
Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov brings the news that our galaxy is rich in Earth-like planets – to the order of 100 million. Around the 16th minute he does a really helpful visual with his tie that demonstrates how infinitesimal life on Earth is when compared to the rest of the universe in spatial terms: ‘Unimaginably small,’ he says, ‘you can’t imagine it,’ being, as it is, equivalent to a single atom of his tie. But compare them temporally, and life on Earth’s age, in relation to that of the universe, is a third of the tie – a pretty significant chunk. Life on Earth, Sasselov points out, may be insignificant in size, but not in time. This gives rise to what appears intractably paradoxical but is nonetheless true: you can be genuinely insignificant and significant; special and totally common; a blip in eternity and something that changes eternity forever. In fact you’re all of these things. We all are.
NASA’s director of planetary science, James Green, presents some of the latest finds in the search for extra-terrestrial life in our solar system. Water – check; organic matter – check; energy – yup; time – well, yes … . Green estimates we’ll get our encounter within the next 10 years. And he contends: if we find it once it’s everywhere.
Jill Tarter 2009 TED prize winner explains why extra-terrestrial intelligence is not only possible – but statistically probable. She also points out that the vast distances between Earth and its cosmic companions mean that what we detect, should we succeed in detecting something, will be ancient. (Because of the speed it takes light to travel an image from the nearest star beyond our sun would be 4.2 years old; from the edge of our galaxy, 75,000 years old; and 2.5 million years old from the galaxy nearest ours. Just to put that in context, humans weren’t yet standing on two legs 2.5 million years ago.) She also describes the existence of non-Earthly life as a real opportunity to break the spell of humanity’s current solipsistic, anthropocentric ‘naturalism’.