Are We Alone in the Universe?

“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not, both are equally terrifying.” Those words, first committed to paper by Arthur C. Clarke, continue to ring true the sensation that we humans feel when we ponder the nature of our existence in the cosmos. Surely out there, somewhere in the pitch of space, exists other intelligent life? If not, then our solitude is so potent enough that could fill distant nebulas with our collective dread.

The existence of life outside of the planet has been a belief that has persisted throughout the ages, and has currently come to rest as a most-beloved cornerstone of pop-culture – but what are the chances that we are sharing our Milky Way with some yet-undiscovered neighbors? While there have been countless anecdotal claims that posit the consistent presence of aliens on our planet – without mentioning the frequent stories of abductions, little grey men, and all of that super-hot and kinky probing.

Recently, a story broke that has reignited the discussion over the probability of intelligent life somewhere else in this wide universe. The story in question revolves around the standard fare that is to be found within a tale concerning any form of visitors: mysterious flying objects, clandestine involvement on behalf of the government, and even the recovery of alloys that apparently defy all known categorizations. But is there any empirical merit to the speculations that continue to excite our imaginations?

There have been many propositions from the scientific community over the years regarding the probability of other intelligent civilizations existing somewhere out there – and all the numbers point toward a universe that is teeming with life – or at least once was. A study conducted by the University of Rochester in New York sought to take the Drake Equation up one notch and determine what the probability of life evolving to intelligent civilizations was; and boy did they get some interesting results.

Spearheaded by Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the university, the study concluded that the possibility humans being the first intelligent civilization in the cosmos is 10 billion trillion to one. In other words, the deck is stacked very high in favor of others who have come before. Frank himself believes that his team’s modified Drake Equation has done much to alleviate the pessimism that surrounds the scientific community over the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, saying:

“Think of it this way: Before our result, you’d be considered a pessimist if you imagined the probability of evolving a civilization on a habitable planet was, say, one in a trillion. But even that guess — one chance in a trillion — implies that what has happened here on Earth with humanity has in fact happened about 10 billion other times over cosmic history.” – Adam Frank

If his team’s calculations are correct, then our entire view of what existence in the cosmos means is in store for some incredibly interesting ideas. This view would mean that alien life is undoubtedly out there, but may have perished long before life on earth was nothing more than primordial soup. We cannot disregard the facts: we, as a civilization, have only been capable of sending and receiving radio signals for about a century – if there are alien civilizations bouncing signals of communication around, we could very well be playing a massive game of catch-up.

Speculating over the existence of life on other planets is fine and dandy, but would first contact look like? If humanity were to uncover that it is not alone in the universe, what would such a discovery do to our state of being? Down one line of thinking, our civilization would undergo a massive revolution in thought that would fundamentally change how we saw ourselves.

The existence of non-human intelligent life could threaten the existence of many long-established religious, spiritual, and cultural beliefs. Our belief frameworks have proved to be incredibly resilient over the generations – morphing and adjusting themselves in light of the ever-expanding probes of science and inquiry, but the intrusion of conscious beings from elsewhere is a test that will shake the foundations of faith.

That’s all assuming the first contact doesn’t turn violent. Every major change in human thought has often been accompanied by a violent tide that swept over the engaged populations. The cataclysmic shift that would accompany the arrival or interaction with conscious and intelligent beings that are not human would be the single greatest event in human history – and the sweeping, violent changes would wash over our civilization overnight.

To speculate on such matters is always an excellent source of brainfood, but realistically speaking, we’re not due for any form of alien contact anytime soon – or ever. While alien life may have indeed existed on distant planets light years away, there is an equally probably possibility that all civilizations annihilate themselves before they ever reach a point of colonizing other planets and expanding outwards. Equally viable, in this grand thought experiment, is the possibility that sufficiently advanced civilizations would find a way to transcend their corporeal forms altogether.

“But what’s the point of thinking about all of this?” We hear you say. Fair enough, hypothesizing over massively unknown potential events does feel as if it should be relegated to boundaries of science fiction – but consider this: we now live in an era where new discoveries are made daily and at an ever-increasing rate of speed. Technologies continue to improve and progress, and we are uncovering new ways of perceiving our world with each successive year.

With those new perspectives comes a demand for all of us to be open to a changing and evolving worldview – to adopt a practice of being that allows us to transition effortlessly to whatever the future may hold, rather than digging our heels in and burying our heads in the sand. Do aliens exist? Probably. Does it matter that they do? Not until we meet them. For while our grand musings of what life could be like on other planets is worth very little when we have still not done all that we can to improve the quality of life for our fellow humans on this planet.

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