With China landing on the far side of the Moon with their Chang’e 4 lander (aptly named for their moon goddess) as well as their future exploration plans, and the New Horizons spectacular views of Ultima Thule (which is Latin for “beyond the known world”), space is back into the human vernacular stream. As Carl Sagan would say, our small blue dot is touching the cosmic ocean.
There are those among us who will question why we should venture into space. They surmise we have no place among the stars and should be content with our stationary position in the Milky Way.
Perhaps, if we examine the history of the human race from its myths and legends as well as documented archaeological finds, we would find there are always individuals and groups who grew weary of sitting around coastal fires or etching cave drawings to wonder what was beyond the panoramic vistas, the lush valleys, mauve mountains or flint-lit cave fires. They became wanderers or nomads searching for El Dorado or Atlantis or Shangri La or even Mount Olympus.
Daring to go on a mountain of god or gods, these individuals unequivocally declared there were no limits to exploration on the planet traversing the cosmos. There have always been those individuals who were not content with earthly exploration but cast their gaze upward to the midnight heavens and wondered what is out there in the dark.
On other planets where life exists, be it carbon-based or not, perhaps the same exploration is happening. They too wonder at the starry night sky whether there are others like themselves or somewhat different.
Their myths and legends may be similar to ours or totally opposite. Their origins may be similar, or they emerged on a different scale of life.
It is hubris to assume life out there among the stars must be like us humans—totally carbon-based. I may add a limited understanding of the complexity of cosmic life to our hubris.
In the classic episode Balance of Terror, of Star Trek The Original Series, Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy makes a statement about the uniqueness of life in the cosmos:
“In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million earth-type planets…and in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this one. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named Kirk.”
Carl Sagan wrote a similar statement in Cosmos:
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
Unfortunately, human history has not demonstrated the view that all human life is precious and unique. The mass destruction of human life over the eons can be traced back to the origin story of Cain and Abel where Cain killed his brother Abel—the first murder outside the Gates of Paradise.
Ever since that first murder, countless lives, countless individuals, have perished because life was not viewed as precious. In 2019 the rampage of murder continues in every part of this orb hanging in the infinite majesty of space.
What of the worlds out there in the vastness of the cosmos? Do they view all life as precious and unique?
At the moment we do not know their views on any subject important to human inquiries. Perhaps, in the cosmic perspective, our inquiries are not germane to their existence or belief system.
In 1961, astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Donald Drake created an equation to determine how many off-worlds civilizations were capable of communication. The formula is beautifully depicted in the following picture from the SETI Institute:
It is a tragic mistake to view other worlds teeming with life both new and ancient as alien. If we ever venture to those worlds in the future, we are the aliens visiting their planet.
Based on human history what will we bring to them? Our sovereignty as well as our sojourn on this world is only temporary in comparison to cosmic time. Will we attempt, in our inglorious human fashion, to dominate the worlds out there, especially if the inhabitants are not as “civilized” as we profess to be?
Unless a course correction is made in our behavior toward each other and the biosphere of our world, the future is as certain as the sable landscape of Ultima Thule—four and half billion miles from Earth. Our progenitors would be amazed at our progress as well as our stupidity.
Taking time to reassess our place in the cosmos might be essential to our survival. This is especially true when we make first contact with other life forms superior to us.
“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” Carl Sagan
G. D. Williams © 2019
China’s Space Program
Frank Donald Drake
Dr. Drake is the former Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, and previously served as Chairman of SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees. He was Professor, Astronomy and Astrophysics (1984 – 1996), Professor Emeritus (1996 – present), and Dean, Natural Sciences (1984 – 88), UC Santa Cruz, and a member of National Academy of Sciences.
From 1989 to 1992, he served as Chairman, Board of Physics and Astronomy, National Research Council. He was President of Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1988 – 90), Director of National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (1970 – 81) and Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University (1964 – 84).
Drake holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Engineering Physics, Cornell University
The Drake Equation is used to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in the cosmos, or more simply put, the odds of finding intelligent life in the universe.
First proposed by radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, the equation calculates the number of communicating civilizations by multiplying several variables. It’s usually written, according to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), as:
N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L
N = The number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space