Random Acts of the Universe

I had a thought the other day that sort of blew my mind somewhat. When I talk to people about whether or not they believe in aliens they tend to fall into 3 categories. The first camp says “absolutely not, we are the only living things in the universe”. The next says “Yes! And they routinely visit!”. The last says “I think it’s possible that something is out there somewhere but I think the chances of anyone finding us is so small that it doesn’t really matter if they exist or not”.

I tend to fall into the third group. Given what I know about the size of the universe (as humans perceive it) and what I know about probability I will confidently say that there is some non-zero chance that there is life of some sort elsewhere in the universe. The second half of group three’s argument is essentially based on the fact that there is a lot of space in space. The probability of two races finding each other by pure random chance in something as large as the universe are so close to zero that you could safely believe that we would never make contact with extra-terrestrials and the whole discussion is moot.

But what if it’s not driven by pure random chance? Since taking a recent position as a satellite designer I have been introduced to just how many people in the world are actively looking for “habitable” planets around other stars. Scientists claim to actually have discovered almost 200 planets so far and there are several missions either recently launched or currently in design which expect to find dozens of planets that may be capable of holding life. For the sake of argument, lets assume that those scientists are really smart guys and know what they are talking about. So, if they tell me that a planet 1 parsec away has an atmosphere capable of sustaining life, I will believe them.

Given what I know about technology and how fast it tends to advance, I think I can safely assume that as time goes by we will be able to see any discovered planets with increasingly better resolution. Also, our ability to measure a planets mass, chemical makeup, and atmosphere content will only get better with time.

Now lets fast-forward in time to the day we have the technology to build a ship capable of inter-stellar travel. Where do you suppose we would go? I can only imagine that the first destination on the list would be the planet that we have rated as the most likely to contain some form of life on it. That would eliminate all the random chance from the equation. We would have detected what we think might be life and then set out on a mission to go check it out. If we didn’t find anything we could keep bouncing around to the next place we think there might be life… and so on.

Granted, this would not happen any time in the near future… but the universe is a very old place. What if something else out there detected us a few (hundred?) thousand years ago and are already on there way… or have already been here?

4 thoughts on “Random Acts of the Universe”

  1. First off, I did not realize the parsec was so complex a unit of measurement. I officially cut Lucas some slack. When he looked it up, he probably saw both “parallax of one arc second” (“A second is unit of time!”) and 3.26 light years (“A year is also a unit of time!”). I certainly don’t remember learning it in Astronomy (high school or college).

    One other factor – and I could be completely off on this – is that as time goes on, we can see more space (further), and see the closer stuff more clearly. How much of visible space will be analyzed before we choose the planet to visit? I guess if we pick some achievable distance, and analyze every planet within that distance, missing nothing, we have eliminated chance. Otherwise, we could conceivably find something much better and closer as the mission progresses. So we’d constantly be sending them new headings 🙂

  2. Great post. I tend to fall into camp 2.5. That is to say, “yes and maybe they have visited a few times”
    If anyone takes the position that SOMEDAY humans will have the capability of traveling to another planet, then it’s pretty foolish to believe that we will be the FIRST creatures to do so. That’s just my take anyway. Regardless of which camp you fall into, it’s just opinion until proven.
    I grew up on Carl Sagan, so I understand a little about size and dimensions. Here’s my viewpoint;
    The Universe is so unimaginably large only because we can’t travel from one end to the other(yet).
    To put that into perspective: My drive to work takes a mere 20 minutes. So to me, work is very close! Now what if you took away my car? That distance is now unbelievably huge. It would be, quite frankly, the longest distance I have ever walked in a single shot. And in a cold harsh environment. Forget it. I won’t even try it. Give me my car back please.

    One thing I wish I would get to see, is if an alien came down and somehow was able to communicate…. I would love to ask it: “Do you believe in God?”

    I think the answer, regardless of what it will be, will change the world.

  3. Whoa, back up a sentence. “If an alien came down….” Stop right there. That one event would change the world, if not destroy it. Humanity is pretty xenophobic, so this one event would unite the world into a ‘Us vs. Them’ scenario or plunge us into an interplanetary war that would destroy us. Either way, it’s not pretty. I think the aliens know this and have stayed away from us for now.

    What would the aliens look like?? Intelligence needs only a couple of things: storage and processing. A cloud of gas could store data coherently if the chemistry was right. So could a block of stone. Should we add communication to the list ?? We have lots of alien species (dolphins, monkeys, bugs) around us already, but they are not advanced enough to build ships and travel the stars.

    And the aliens may have developed a culture that enforces isolation and does not seek contact with others. Lots of ‘what ifs’ to surmount before contact can take place…..

  4. I don’t agree that any one event would suddenly combine all of Earth’s governments/religions/races into one melting pot automatically. “OK Israel just give up some land to Palestine and forget all past grievances the both of you. We got bigger fish to fry.” or “Come on out Osama. We need Al-Qaida’s recources. Don’t worry about 9-11. We don’t care anymore.” Not going to happen. People who are suicidal in their beliefs will not have a change or heart. I could actually see some SIDING with the aliens just to wipe America off the map. Either way, my point is there are many shades of gray to consider in an all but black-and-white issue.
    Why are you assuming all alien contact MUST be a doomsday scenario anyway?
    I don’t remember putting a “submit or die” message on the Voyager’s golden record. Why must they?

    An isolation culture would be pretty tough to fathom. I mean, we have that in many cultures right here. Many countries in Asia follow isolationism by law to retain heritage. So to assume an isolation culture is the alien’s GLOBAL culture… THAT is a big ‘what if’.

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