Where is everybody?

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact, it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did
Rocket Man, Elton John

Hence the enigma: an origin of life on Earth appears highly improbable; an origin elsewhere is highly conjectural. —Martin A Line, “The enigma of the origin of life and its timing,” Microbiology, 148, pp. 21-27 (2002)

parkes-radio-telescopeThe Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was born in early 1960, deep in the woods of West Virginia at the Green Bank radio astronomy observatory. Its father was Frank Drake, a little-known researcher who suggested that it ought to be possible to find other civilizations by listening for the electromagnetic chatter produced by technology.

It was at Green Bank that Frank Drake unveiled what became known as the Drake Equation to a small conference of enthusiastic astronomers. (It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, Granta, 2003.)

The Drake Equation is designed to estimate the number of civilizations that might be out there making electronic noise. After much debate, the Green Bank conference arrived at a number: between 1,000 and 100,000,000. That estimate lit a fire to SETI.

Bigger and better radio telescopes were built. Search strategies were refined. Carl Sagan penned Contact!, and research money flowed like a river.

What happened next was quite unexpected. Everywhere they pointed their antennas, SETI researchers heard the same thing: silence.

It’s said that the great physicist Enrico Fermi was eating lunch one day at Los Alamos when he exclaimed: “Where is everybody?!” The question captured what became known as the ‘Fermi Paradox:’ If the universe is so full of life, why is it so quiet?

The embarrassing lack of radio emissions was bad news for SETI, which eventually lost its funding. As more and more pessimistic values were cranked into the once-hopeful Drake Equation, some began to wonder if Earth was unique.

How could that be?

According to evolutionary theory, life as we know it began with the spontaneous organization of elemental chemicals into amino acids, a process called abiogenesis. Abiogenesis should be going on everywhere in the universe, and because our galaxy is young, most of the life forms in other parts of the universe should be more mature than ours.

Is it possible that among the billions of planets and solar systems in the universe, evolution has created a species with the abilities of homo sapiens just once?

In his paper for the journal Microbiology, Martin Line reviews what is known about the formation of life. Abiogenesis started a process that ultimately yielded a genetically rich community of bacteria known as the “last common community” (LCC). From this community, the theory goes, the genetic tree branched and formed all that we know today. According to Line, we descended from the LCC about 3.8 billion years ago.

Biologists suggest that it took at least as long to get from abiogenesis to the LCC in the first place. In other words, from the start of abiogenesis through the LCC to modern times took 7.6 billion years (3.8 billion times 2).

Unfortunately, the earth is only about 4.5 billion years old. Here is how Line puts it:

In view of the complexity of the LCC relative to that resulting from all subsequent evolution, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at least as great a time span preceded the LCC as that which followed it. If so, we must search beyond Earth for the cradle of life. —Microbiology, 148:21-27 (2002), “The enigma of the origin of life and its timing”, Martin A Line

“We must search beyond the Earth for the cradle of life.”

In fact, we must search beyond our own solar system. If the numbers are right, those first molecules of life could not have come from the neighborhood, because it isn’t much older than Earth.

Which brings us back to SETI. If the theory of abiogensis has any truth to it at all, the seeds of life on Earth must have traveled from some distant part of our galaxy.

These organisms would have had a daunting journey. Ejected in some massive explosion, hurled through the intense cold of space while exposed to hostile radiation, captured by our solar system and Earth’s gravity, super-heated as they plunged into Earth’s atmosphere. What a miracle, to survive such an ordeal. What serendipity, to land on this nurturing, life-friendly planet.

Is this the story that explains the rise of life on planet Earth?

If so, life is far more ancient than our own solar system. Other intelligent life forms must be out there, somewhere. Why haven’t they contacted us?

It’s a puzzle. Our universe is 13.8 billions years old. Are we to believe that just once in that long history has Darwinian evolution succeeded in creating a species like homo sapiens, a species with the curiosity and technical prowess to search for life among the stars?

Can we really be alone? And if not, where is everybody?

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Comments

  1. This is interesting, Charlie. I like the way you’ve invited readers to draw their own conclusions.

    Mark

  2. I’m really liking the fact that you’ve put such a factful insight to your topics in general. Reading up on this, even those who doubt the truth of God have to wonder if their own truths about what they believe to have created life and our universe is actually substantial.

  3. Great post. Don’t they know everyone is at the beach down here?

  4. Even with the conjectures of scientists, the fact of the matter is that men will take vast leaps of faith in whatever hypothesis comes forward as long as it does not involve a submission to the living God who has revealed Himself in the Scriptures. I find it incredibly hard to understand one’s aversion to the existence of God until I remember that we all have a basic problem called sin. Though we must seek to answer honest enquiry, let us never forget that mankind’s preeminint problem is not lack of evidence but a refusal to submit to God and His’ revelation of Himself.

  5. We should remember that science is dynamic. There may be no evidence for something today, but there may be very compelling evidence for it the next day. Not that long ago, the existence of DNA as hereditary material was not known. Likewise, before the first fossils of dinosaurs were dug up, there was no evidence for the existence of dinosaurs. Get it? Every day, lots more data comes in and new thoeries are formed while others are disproven. The bulk sum of scientific knowledge is not static and ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF ABSENCE! One can hardly claim that humans have explored all the space in the universe and found no life, which is what is required to be able to say that earth is the only place where life exists. In other words “I pointed my antenna at Alpha Centauri and got no signal” is not proof that we are alone in the universe. While it may seem sound (to us) that every advanced civilization would have passed through a phase where they used radiofrequency to communicate, there is no way to guage the llikelihood of this assumption. It could very well be plainly false.

  6. One can hardly claim that humans have explored all the space in the universe and found no life, which is what is required to be able to say that earth is the only place where life exists.

    Actually, the scientists who think about these things don’t believe it is necessary for us to explore the universe. If there are advanced civilizations out there, they should long ago have made contact with us. Space travel is cheap. Robotic probes could be manufactured and sent off in all directions in search of life.

    It is odd that we have not heard radio signals, but in the view of many researchers, it is inexplicable that we have not been contacted ourselves… and the implication is that there is no life out there that has the capability to make contact.

  7. Yet another example of how older techniques were finding the wrong thing and newer techniques succeed in actually detecting what we are trying to find. A few months ago, you could have said “Yes, but all the extrasolar planets we’ve found are gas giants that can’t support life.” Now you can’t. Like I said, science marches on and we get new data every day.

    Link here

    Now, what were you saying about radio signals again?

  8. Good article, but I never said there weren’t plenty of planets in the universe that might be capable of supporting life. This article merely confirms that fact. It hasn’t found any evidence of life.

    Which still begs the question, where is that life if it really exists? In an ancient and Darwinian universe, other life forms, intelligent life forms, should be easily detected, should be numerous, and should even have contacted us by now — if they exist at all. The deafening silence suggests that they simply do not exist. This is the conclusion being drawn (reluctantly) by astronomers, despite the fact that biologists hold out hope (despite the total lack of evidence to support those hopes) that intelligent life has spontaneously appeared on other worlds.

    If the theory of Darwinian evolution holds here on Earth, it holds everywhere in the universe. If homo sapiens evolved here on Earth, there is every reason to believe that similar species with similar intellectual capabilities evolved on millions of other planets. They would have mastered the same physical laws that we have, and made use of those laws to create technologies similar to ours. They would be interested in exploration and technological development for the same reasons we are: to improve and guarantee the survival of our species.

    The lack of any evidence for such civilizations suggests that something is wrong with our presuppositions. The silence of the universe makes no sense if abiogenesis and evolution are universal principles.

  9. First of all, I think you missed my point. My analogy was that looking for planets the “old” way resulted in finding gas giants. At that point, you could have thrown up your arms and said “Oh look, the only other extrasolar planets are gas giants that can’t support life. Guess earth is pretty special. Guess that means god exists…” But it turns out if you change the technique that you are using to look for extrasolar planets then BOOM, you find rocky planets like earth. It’s not that they didn’t exists before, it’s that the METHOD of finding them was flawed, or shall we say biased to finding gas giants. So if we keep looking for radiofrequency (RF) signals and not finding ones, you might conclude “guess we’re alone…” But what if there were another way to look for a signature of intelligent life? What if we then switched from looking for RF to using another technique? We might actually find life, is what.

    I’m open to the idea that we are the only intelligent life in the universe, or the most intelligent life forms currently in existence. There could be an ocean planet out there filled with dolphins (and the rest of the food chain required to sustain them) who aren’t broadcasting RF. The assumption that ANY form of intelligent life would CERTAINLY use RF is suspect, in my humble opinion. It is a very human-centric notion.

    Remember when all we could do was gaze up at the sky and conclude that earth is the center of the solar system and the sun revolves around it? That’s a lesson in perspective, I think.

  10. How does this “doctrine” fare I wonder for an Afro-American? What does evolution say about sociological development? And is it a contributor to racism?

  11. Think about something for me…think of all of the things that have happened to Earth since it’s creation…

    We are not the only form of intelligent life to exist on Earth. We have reason to belive that raptors were the intelligent species of life on earth before that big rock hit the Earth.

    Many people belive that they had a system of communication and they hunted in groups. However, they had been aroung for ages and didn’t progress anywhere…no tools, no artificial shelters, no civilization. After the meteor hit, mammals became the dominant kind of animal. Do Mammals evolve faster than reptiles? I think that there is something out there that says something about that.

    Anyways, if there are other forms of life out there… would that planets that contain them have gone throught the same events as our own Earth has? Would they make the transition from reptile to mammal? Of course this is all based on the assumption that mammals evolve faster than reptiles.

    Also, the Earth is positioned at an ideal position from the sun to be life-friendly. Would other planets be so lucky as to be positioned so?

    Also, the earth was made out of a mix of gases that contributed to the eventual molecular construction of amino acids which are the building blocks of life. These gases also made up the protective layer of the atmosphere. Would other planets have that same mix?

    Also, our sun is the right size, and right temprature, dosn’t give off unbearable amounts of radiation (which the ozone layer couldn’t have taken care of before we weakened it).

    Also, Earth is exactly the right size to hold onto it’s atmosphere and not have it be too pressurized. Would other planets have the same mass as Earth?

    As you see, there are soo many diffrent things that could be wrong with a planet to make it unfriendly to life that one has to wonder.

    Did Earth develop uniquely? All of the factors came togeather perfectly to create a perfect haven for life. Intelligent life at that.

    Scientists predict that only a handful out of billions of planets are fortunate to be positioned in relation to their sun so ideally. What is the probability that those few have the right composition to promote the genisis of amoni acids?

    How many fewer would be the right size?

    And how many can boast going through the same events that Earth did…

    And then still fulfill all of the other unknown requirement for life?

    The answer i got was dissapointing…

    Are we alone?

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