Real News: The Washington Post Style Section today (February 5, 2019) contains an interesting feature about the chairman of Harvard’s astronomy department, Avi Loeb, who is an advocate of “cosmic modesty.” This is simply the idea that it is extreme arrogance to think that life on this small, lonely, blue planet, which is located at the edge of a run-of-the-mill galaxy of over 200 billion stars, is the only life in the universe. Estimates are there over 200 billion galaxies—some estimates are as high as two trillion–and maybe our universe is only one in a multiverse containing perhaps an infinite number of universes.
Loeb and others have been following the path of a strange object in space called “Oumaumua,” (Hawaiian term meaning “scout”), which was first observed in 2017. Loeb believes this could be our first glimpse of a celestial object that has come from another civilization somewhere else in the universe, perhaps “debris from advanced technological equipment.” The scientific community has for the most part pooh-poohed this idea as outlandish though no one has come up with a compelling explanation of what it might be.
Outlandish that there is no other life—or certainly no advanced or intelligent life—anywhere in the universe? Please. Consider the facts: there is no evidence that the basic laws of science that we observe here are different in other parts of the universe. We now know that virtually all stars that we have been able to obtain information on have planets circling them. Some of these planets are in the “Goldilocks Zone” –rocky bodies circling a star about the same size as our sun, about the same distance as we are from our sun, and about the same age as our planet. Even if the likelihood of meeting this criteria is only a tiny fraction of a percent, the actual number of such candidates for advanced life in the universe could number in the trillions.
And yet many believe that we are it. There is nothing else anywhere like us. There is no life and certainly no advanced or intelligent life anywhere else in the universe.
In one sense the argument is irrelevant because of the great distances between the stars and the galaxies. The closest star to us is about 4.3 light years away. It would take us 81,000 years to get there using the fastest speeds available to us today. Even if there is life out there somewhere, we will never have a chance to prove it or encounter it.
But in another sense it is a profound question, which has both scientific and religious implications. If there is no life anywhere else, why? What are all these celestial bodies doing anyway? Why are they there and why isn’t there life on planets that fall into the Goldilocks Zone? Many who have argued against life elsewhere do so because of religious reasons, but few religions talk about the “God of Earth.” They talk about “the God of Creation,” or “the God of the Universe.”
Okay, what exactly did God have in mind when he created this vast universe with life on only one planet? Sounds like a lot of trouble to me for not very much in return. And if there is life elsewhere in the universe, what is that all about? Are there other beings like us? And what does this tell us about God and about our faith? Will we ever know?
I confess that for most of my life I have been a believer that life on this planet is not the only life there is or that we humans are the only “intelligent life” that there is. (Though some may argue with the term “intelligent.”) It really all started when I was eight and my 10-year old neighbor, George Singleton, witnessed a flying saucer land in his back yard. He even showed me the burned grass where the craft landed. In later years George recanted, confessing that he really did not witness the event after all, but that did not keep me from doing the arithmetic: All these trillions of celestial bodies out there—many not all that different from us—it just does not compute that we humans are it when it comes to advanced life.
Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, was obsessed with the notion of intelligent life elsewhere and hoped to live long enough to at least get some hint that he was right. He noted that not only was distance a factor in preventing us from verifying what he believed to be true, but there was another factor. That was that as life on other planets evolved like life has evolved on this planet, he thought that it was quite probable that “advanced civilizations” would do themselves in. I recall his stating that if we ever did discover an advanced civilization elsewhere in the universe, the first question he would ask would be, how did you do it. How did you avoid destroying yourselves and your planet?
Which brings us precisely to the present day. We humans are on the verge of doing ourselves in. We are destroying our planet at an alarming rate. We have the weapons at our disposal to eliminate human life on this planet in the blink of an eye should we end up in a world-wide nuclear war. What are the chances of our making it into the 22ndCentury given that technology has so far outpaced our ability as humans to deal with conflict and competition for scarce resources? These are the questions that I ask myself as I ponder whether “Oumaumua” is the glimpse that Sagan was looking for. We certainly will not know the answer in my lifetime, but we humans had better figure out how to get beyond the survival challenges we now face or we could end up as a mere blip in the history of a small, blue planet that centuries from now could be absent the advanced life we cherish today and in Sagan’s thinking, yet another example of a planet that had a chance but blew it.