The Search For Intelligent Life

I have always had a pretty firm belief that not only does life exist elsewhere in the universe, but that somewhere there are sentient life forms.  I have to admit, though, that I’m getting a little impatient waiting for unimpeachable evidence.  Recently, my belief was somewhat buoyed when NASA scientists reported that they had found evidence that indicated that primitive life may have existed on Mars billions of years ago.  The evidence they presented was based on analysis of microscopic fossilized remains within a rock.  Unfortunately, the biggest leap of scientific faith in this revelation was that the rock, found on Earth, originated on Mars.  It sort of reminds me of the “Far Side” cartoon that illustrates the theory that dinosaur remains are really just the “chicken” bones cast off by groups of giant aliens who stopped by Earth for a picnic.

Many scientists have claimed for years that the universe has no shortage of life form friendly planets (a.k.a. ‘M’ class planets to Star Trekkers).  This, plus the improbable odds that Earth is the only one of these places where life has flourished, form the basis for many people’s belief in extra-terrestrial life.  In a long-time quest to find support for this belief, scientists with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project have been scanning the heavens with huge radio telescopes for traces of signals that appear to be purposely generated by some intelligent life form.  It is rumored that a first contact claim was recently filed by a SETI scientist, but that it was dismissed by the rest of the scientific community because the received signal sounded vaguely like country music.

Perhaps venting his own frustration, Enrico Fermi once asked a simple question that has since come to be known as Fermi’s Paradox : “If life is common in the universe, why haven’t they shown up on Earth yet?”  In response, many scientists have postulated theories to address the paradox and  three of them are summarized here.  The first I call the “We’re number one!  We’re number one!” theory.  The second I call the “E.T. phone home” theory.  The third I call the “Noah’s Ark” theory.  Now it’s time for you to make the call.

  1. We are the first or one of the first intelligent life forms to evolve anywhere in the galaxy. In support of this theory, it is estimated that as many as 50 billion species have come and gone since life started on the Earth, yet only the humans have acquired technology.  If dolphins are so smart, how come they didn’t invent the Thigh Master?
  2. Space travel is difficult, expensive, and time consuming so we are more likely to receive radio contact than a direct visit. This theory was offered by, big surprise, a SETI scientist.  A corollary to this theory might be that the aliens got lost and the most male-like alien is too macho to stop and ask for directions.
  3. Earth is considered by other intelligent life forms to be a nature preserve and they have chosen not to interfere with our development. Perhaps wars, plagues, and natural disasters are their ways of “thinning the herd”.  Then again, maybe we are more like a farm than a nature preserve.

All of this theorizing aside, perhaps the most intriguing question is the one that typically remains unasked: “Why are we searching so hard for other intelligent life forms?”.  Not only are we searching hard for extra-terrestrial life, we even seem to personify the behavior of terrestrial animals such as apes and dolphins.  The answer to this question most certainly varies from person to person.

For many people it may be a conscious or unconscious search for God.  In that light, manned expeditions may be the modern equivalent of the building of the tower of Babel.  Consider that in the vast majority of stories about aliens, they are generally portrayed as having far superior physical, mental, and/or technological capabilities.  Fortunately, we Earthlings almost always figure out how to defeat the “bad” aliens.  Even on “Star Trek”, where we occasionally get to see beings less advanced than us, the crew still encounters beings like “Q” who are so advanced as to appear god-like.

Another possible explanation, and one that could even include the search for God, is that there is some sort of genetic loneliness that drives us in our quest.  Cavemen probably had better things to worry about at the time, but maybe the yearning has been there all along.  Perhaps, then, our more recent scientific enlightenment and self-realization simply brought it to the surface of our collective consciousness.  Maybe we, as a species, feel like we are trapped on a desert island (nature preserve?).  Are space probes then the equivalent of a note in a bottle that we cast out to drift on a vast sea of stars, hoping against all odds that “someone” will find it and rescue us?

As a final thought, consider the interesting contrast put forth in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series.  Asimov portrays Earth as the mother planet, humans as the only sentient life forms, and “aliens” as descendants of ancient human colonies.  Maybe Asimov is right.  Maybe in all of our searching we will only find ourselves.  Is that “New Age” thinking or what?