What is up there? Ever since the dawn of humanity, the night sky has been a source of intense curiosity. Our ancestors worshipped the stars, connecting with their gods and goddesses. The same stars challenged the egocentric view of the dark ages, replacing it with the remarkable idea that we are not the center of the universe, or the galaxy, or even the solar system. We revolve around a giant ball of fire in a small speck of a cosmic map larger than the human mind could ever grasp. How small we really are is difficult to understand; our lives feel so big. Each of us lives at the center of his own moment in space and time, with his own personality, worldview, and ideas about our universe. What happens when we let go of the idea that our lives our “big” and ask, “What is out there in the cosmic map,” or “Who is out there?”
Are we alone? Do you look at the stars and think that we are the only forms of life? Yes, the cosmos may be distant and large, but Earth is special. Special enough that the fact that we are alone is adequate. Earth rests in our star’s “goldilocks zone,” where liquid water can exist at a moderate temperature and complex life can evolve. “Green beings coming from other planets, UFO’s? Do yourself a favor and keep your sci-fi fantasies to yourself…” That’s what people used to think. Aliens belonged in Hollywood, not in the realm of science. In our day, exciting discoveries have been made that point to the opposite: the data given to us by modern technological advances suggest that we are not alone. Planets are much more abundant than we once thought. Scientists are announcing new “Earth-like” planets that could harbor life; maybe even intelligent, complex life forms like ourselves.
Let that sit for a second. Just imagine if tomorrow, you wake up and turn on the TV, or the radio. You hear a frantic announcement that Earth has just received a signal from a star system a thousand light years away. It is being played for millions of people to hear. How would our perspectives change? It would send a chill down the spine of human civilization. We, on this blue dot, our home, are not the only ones. We are not alone. Would we reach for the stars with a greater urge than ever? Would we respond to the message with haste, or back away in fear?
We have sent many messages to beings in the stars. Ever since the radio was invented in 1901, Earth has been a ball of fuzzy noise. In 1974, the first message directed to alien beings, The Arecibo Message, formed of binary code, was sent to the star cluster M13. The target star is 25,000 light years from Earth. In 26,974 (if we even get that far) the star cluster will receive our message. And then, 25,000 years later, in 51,974, we may receive one back. The size of the cosmic map proves to be a huge (pun intended) problem. Not only is the cosmic map large, but it is also growing, due to the expansion of space in the universe. Distances between galaxies are getting larger, so physically travelling to another galaxy is impractical. We either need to wait for a wormhole to pop up somewhere close to Earth or invent warp drive. Right?
An Italian physicist named Enrico Fermi, who created the world’s first nuclear reactor, looked at contact with alien life from a different perspective. He asked why we have not met any of the green beings yet. Why is the size of the cosmic map a hindrance? If it is so big, then there should also be a large amount of life. An abundance, in fact. The real question remains, “Are we alone?” but this time, it is, “Why are we alone?”
Yes, there is math behind this theory that there should be more life out there. There are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Each with one-hundred to one-thousand billion stars. There are trillions of “Earth like” planets in the universe. Focusing on the milky way alone, there are so many stars and so many planets in uncountable numbers, with a large portion of them being Earth-like. Earth may not be special, on a galactic scale. So where is everyone? That is the Fermi Paradox: If the universe is so big, with so many planets, why have we not come across an abundance of life?