by S. Prasad Ganti
The 50th anniversary celebration of AAAP was a unique experience for me. I enjoyed first the talk by Freeman Dyson on small science by amateurs followed by an interesting group discussion on whether there is anyone out there in the Universe. Fermi was quoted as asking, “Where are the aliens?” Dr. Richard Gott replied that they might be on their home planets like we are! This made me think and pull out my earlier notes of my thoughts on this topic.
Sure, as per Drake’s equation, there is a likelihood of life elsewhere in this Universe, which has billions of galaxies; each galaxy with billions of stars; and each stars with several planets and moons. Add to this parallel universes and higher dimensions as predicted by the string theory. Our universe might be just one of the many floating in higher dimensions. Despite such good possibilities of life elsewhere, it is not easy to find because of our hubris that we are intelligent, of the assumptions we make and they may be farther away from us. To assume that every life is carbon based and looks and behaves like us may not be the right assumption to make.
Detecting aliens might be like detecting oil. Oil was always there on earth for millions of years. Only recently did we develop technologies to detect and exploit oil. The natives of Papua New Guinea were always there. We did not find them until Europeans landed on their island in the 1930s. With aliens it is lot more complicated than finding oil or natives. The timelines of various civilizations may not coincide. Like stars form and die, evolution and civilizations may also follow this cyclical path. Different civilizations may be evolving in different parts of the universe at different times, and some others may be perishing at this instant. Only recently did our species acquire technology, which lets us explore beyond the confines of our earth.
Life might have existed millions of years ago in our neighborhood and might exist millions of years henceforth. Neither the planets nor the stars last forever. It is possible that life becomes extinct in some parts of the universe and takes birth in some other parts of the universe. Life may not be in the same shape or size, or at the same level of advancement at the same time all over. For example, on earth life was under the oceans in the microbial form of Cyanobacteria for three billion years, which oxygenated the planet and made life possible on the surface.
In spite of our recent technology, still we are not capable of looking farther and recent. The farther we look into space, the farther we are looking back into time. We cannot look at recent events from afar because we are limited by the speed of light. As per Einstein’s theory of relativity, nothing in the Universe can travel faster than the speed of light. In the future, we might find short cuts across the universe.
Besides, human species may not represent the pinnacle of intelligent life forms. Evolution on earth is still happening. In a million years, which is not a major timeline from evolution’s perspective, there could be higher forms of life than us. We might still be work in progress.
Our tools of detection may be primitive. Our signals sent out may not be detectable by aliens. What is data for us may be gibberish for them. After all, compressed data looks like noise. Data interpretation to a large extent depends on how it was codified. The string of 1s and 0s on a DVD are useless unless there is an algorithm to interpret them.
All reported alien encounters so far and the presumption of presence of aliens amongst us has no substantiation. If history is any indication, it does not serve to be too pessimistic about finding alien life. The Kepler satellite is discovering more and more habitable planets in our own galaxy. We might encounter aliens some day. Till then, they will be science fiction.