Billions and billions, that’s what Carl Sagan was quoted as saying when he was asked how many stars there might be in the universe. He didn’t actually say billions and billions, but Johnny Carson latched onto that sound byte and it became one of his most iconic comedic expressions.
A more accurate estimate puts the number at somewhere near 1012 stars in our galaxy and perhaps 1012 galaxies in the universe, or 9×1021 stars in the known universe, which is approximately 9 sextillion (that’s 9 x 10 with 21 zeros after it). Suffice it to say that there are many more than billions and billions, but one can hardly blame anyone for thinking in those terms.
Those numbers are all but inconceivable; the human mind can scarcely comprehend what a billion of anything is, let alone a sextillion. It becomes somewhat easier to understand when we pull back to the Milky Way Galaxy (our own galaxy for the less informed), where cosmologists estimate the manageable number of approximately 400 billion stars, but things get a tad more complicated when we start counting planets. Not every star has a planetary system in orbit around it, and some (or most) stars have multiple planets, much like our own solar system. So there is no practical way to measure the abundance of planets in our galaxy, other than to make educated guesses. Some scientists estimate the number to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400-500 billion planets, and as technological capabilities expand the estimate comes closer to at least one planet per star.
Now ponder if you will the likelihood that life has found a way to pop into existence on any of those planets (other than Earth). It’s a mind-boggling notion for sure.
As I’ve written before, the Drake Equation – postulated by the inimitable Frank Drake in preparation for a symposium on detecting extraterrestrial life at the Greenbank Observatory in West Virginia in 1961 – is the preeminent tool in use for estimating the likely number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.
The equation (N= R* x fp x ne x fe x fi x fc x L) uses plugged-in variables such as the rate at which stars form, the rate at which planets form and the likelihood that life will develop on said planets, to formulate an estimate for how many intelligent civilizations will or have developed. Criticism of the Drake Equation points out that the values plugged into it are at best educated guesses and that the adjustment of individual values has a drastic impact on the outcome of the equation.
The original value for N, as derived from the original variables, was less than 1, meaning life is most likely quite rare. But over the years our best guesses for the variables in question have improved and depending on how you view the progress of each area of study the value for N can be greater than 1…much greater. Some have suggested that the magic number is as high as 10,000, while others say it’s merely 10.
This disagreement provides for some heated debate, and is the basis for what follows.
Over the years, since June 1947 and before, people have been reporting sightings of UFO’s and while the extraterrestrial hypothesis isn’t the only proposed explanation for these sightings, many people speculate that ET is in fact visiting our little planet from the great beyond. Questioned in all this speculation is the reason for their visit(s), and the answer may just depend on the values one might plug into the Drake Equation.
The leading and most common sense explanations for the presence of extraterrestrials on Earth are: the search for resources, colonisation, investigation and socialization. These explanations range from viewing Earth as a super-market for passing aliens, to an alien anthropological expedition site, and one might be persuaded to see this question along the following categories:
Category 1 – Malevolent:
While it’s easy to see alien contact as something Orwellian, to be feared and set on fire, the reasons for their coming may be entirely selfish and inconsiderate (from our perspective at least). If their mission is to pillage and burn our planet in the search for resources, or to sweep us aside and colonise our spinning blue ball, this can be viewed as malevolent in nature, but a more pragmatic view might suggest that it’s merely indifference, to our plight and even to our existence. Whatever the underlying basis for their visit, those reasons that we might include in the malevolent category are certainly not in our best interests. They ultimately result in our collective demise and/or enslavement.
Category 2 – Benevolent:
Much more agreeable to our population, these possibilities offer us opportunities for technological, social and scientific advancement. While the notion of meeting an alien may leave one feeling somewhat xenophobic, it can hardly be said that a helping hand from above is bad thing, but why would they want to assist us? Whether for reasons of scientific curiosity or pure exploration, or to welcome humanity into a galactic collective of cooperating civilizations (my favourite), we could be sure that our future is in good hands.
It’s anybody’s guess which of these two categories is more likely, but it may be possible to reason our way to a conclusion or two, and it seems to relate to the number of civilizations that exist in our galaxy (or universe as the case may be).
If our estimates are low, meaning that life, intelligent life, is more abundant than we think, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that any alien force that makes it to Earth has encountered and dealt with a number of other civilizations before stumbling across our doorstep? If this is the case, isn’t it more likely that such a force has had to learn to coexist with those other civilizations? Thus making the likelihood that there exists a compendium of alien life that wishes to welcome us into their folds a real possibility. Does this line of reasoning suggest that with more life in the universe comes more chance that said life is benevolent?
In contrast, if our estimates are high, meaning that life is relatively rare in the galaxy, does this mean that such alien life would bear an inherent irreverence or indifference for other life, a selfishness that values material resources over socialisation? Does this, in turn, suggest that with less life in the universe comes more chance that such life is malevolent?
If looking at our own history and progress is any indication, with more life comes a mix of both benevolence and malevolence. More so a selfish and ingrained indifference to the well being of other life forms, including our own, interspersed with compassion and genuine empathy for our fellow creatures. As a species we are indifferent, even malicious, but individually we show a great capacity for munificence. And it is entirely possible, even likely, that any alien life that may visit Earth will be as conflicted as we are, if not a tad more enlightened.
What do you think about the likelihood that extraterrestrial life is either malevolent or benevolent? Is there middle ground or should we expect the prophecies of Hollywood to come true? Voice your opinion in the comment section below