It is like life to explore and occupy every niche it can. Whether it was for survival or just general curiosity, our nomadic ancestors did not settle, they were constantly on the move to find healthier land, better environments and maybe new people. Even now, when we have superficially ‘explored’ all of the earth, we look to the stars for more. Humans were, are and always will be social creatures; we seek cooperation with each other and other species to progress. That’s why, ever since humans were granted the gift of intelligence, we have looked up at the sky, beyond the safety of our earth, moon, and sun, and beyond the beautiful planets that form our solar system and thought of our lonely self; are we alone?
So what gives us so much hope? Why do we harbour such a radical thought of extraterrestrial life? What fuels the optimistic astronomers to find the proverbial needle in the haystack? We simply refuse to give up. Just look at the technological advancements we have made to this day. There must have been points in our history when we so wrongfully assumed that candles would be our only light source or that pen and paper would be our only form of communication. How irrational must they have thought Thomas Edison was with his idea of the light bulb, or how strange Alexander Graham Bell was for selling the dream of the telephone? These were people with beliefs far out of the box, but they held onto them, they worked hard and they proved everyone wrong.
That being said, with all the facts and statistics we have about the possibility of extraterrestrial life in today’s world, it’s more radical to assume that there isn’t life out there somewhere.
Let’s talk numbers. Our star, the sun, has 8 beautiful planets orbiting it; one of which we know harbours life. In our galaxy alone, there are approximately 250 billion stars. Beyond that, there are more than 100 billion galaxies; each with roughly 100 billion to 1 thousand billion stars! Not every star will have planets but that doesn’t make the number of planets any less staggering; there could be trillions and trillions of planets like the ones we have in our solar system.
To make these insane numbers easier and more comprehensible, let’s focus on the Milky Way (the unorthodox name for our home galaxy). Estimates suggest that there could be 400 billion stars here, almost 10,000 stars for each grain of sand on earth! Out of these 400 billion, 20 billion are sun-like stars (roughly the same size as our sun). Assumptions are that 1/5th of these stars have planets in their habitable zone (A ‘Goldilocks zone’ that’s ideal for life in temperature terms based on distance from the sun). Now, if only 0.1% of those 4 billion planets are inhabited, that would leave us with 1 million planets with life just in the Milky Way. Mind-blowing right?
But these are just estimated numbers. How many planets have we actually found? Well, NASA has confirmed to have found 4,108 exoplanets and they are still sifting through 5,000 other potential candidates that may or may not be planets. Exoplanet or ‘extra-solar planet’ is the name given to any planet that is discovered outside of our solar system.
These planets could be anything from gas giants like Jupiter to rocky terrestrials like earth but the ones that we should be most excited about are the super-earth and the earth-like planets. These are planets incredibly similar in regards to their distance from their star (habitable zone) or in their size compared to our home planet, and these Earth-like exoplanets have the greatest possibility of harbouring life; there could be well over 40 billion in our galaxy.
Among the ones we have discovered, Kepler-452b is the most renowned, often called Earth 2.0 or even Earth’s cousin. This exoplanet is 1.5 times the size of the earth and orbits its sun in 385 earth days. It was discovered through the transit method – a method that uses a specific telescope which detects the slight dimming of a star if a planet is passing over it, this can take months to process but it provides plenty of information regarding the star as well as its planets.
The reason for Kepler-452b’s spotlight is its possibility of having liquid water, dry land and maybe even an atmosphere however, the problem is its distance; it is 1,400 light-years from earth. To put that into perspective, if we were to attempt to visit this planet with the current speed of our fastest spacecraft which clocks in at around 37,000mph, it would take over 26 million years for us to reach it. Even if we were to achieve the speed of light (186,282 miles per second), it would still take 1,400 years and this is where the scientific term ‘light year’ comes from; space is measured based on how long it takes for light to travel through it and light is used because it achieves the fastest speed known to man. Because of this vast distance, the information we have regarding Kepler-452b is still very limited; so limited in fact, that people even doubt its existence. One thing is certain, at our current state, it is impossible to even explore our solar system, hence why scientists are focusing on making technological advancements that would allow us to take more detailed pictures of planets which in turn would provide us with more information on spotlight planets like this one.
The Fermi Paradox
Regardless, there still lies the great probability for the possibility of life beyond earth. It should be mathematically impossible for us to be alone. So why then, if the scales are clearly in our favour, have we not made ‘first contact’? Where exactly are all the aliens?
This readers, is the Fermi Paradox, a paradox that so far has no immediate conclusion.
So, what exactly is the Fermi Paradox? In the simplest and most basic terms, it’s a question. As the story goes, Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, was having lunch with his colleagues and they were discussing this very topic of possibilities of extraterrestrial life when all of sudden, Fermi exclaimed, ‘So where are they?!’
What Fermi meant by this exclamation was that we have an astounding amount of evidence; numbers and statistics that clearly prove that extraterrestrial life should exist beyond earth but so far we have absolutely no hard proof of its existence.
The apparent contradiction between this lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilisations and the ridiculously high estimates for their probability is exactly why Fermi frustratingly posed his question.
As I mentioned before, there seems to be, as of yet, no immediate answer to this question. However, scientists have been coming up with many different ideas to try and elucidate the paradox. These examples are more on the rational side; some of these theories, however, can meander off onto some very eccentric ideas such as us living in simulations created by highly intelligent alien life forms, aliens already living amongst us or maybe even us being the aliens! But I digress.
The fact of the matter is that life beyond earth does indeed exist but we just can’t seem to find it. The reason for this doesn’t lie in our failing capabilities of searching rather, the intended time of our meeting lies in the hands of our Creator. In The Holy Qur’an it is written:
وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَثَّ فِيهِمَا مِنْ دَابَّةٍ وَهُوَ عَلَى جَمْعِهِمْ إِذَا يَشَاءُ قَدِيرٌ
“And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of whatever living creatures (da’abbah) He has spread forth in both and He has the power to gather them together when He will so please”The Holy Qur’an (42:30)
Let’s take a look at what actual science i.e. astrophysicists think is the reason for not having made contact with other-worldly life:
Space is too vast
So vast in fact that if we were to send a transmission to our closest neighbouring star, it would take 4 years to reach it. Some stars are thousands of years away. So if aliens have already found us, it could be years before their message reaches us.
Survival of the fittest
Maybe aliens monitor planets harbouring life and as soon as they see that that life on the planet is a threat, they eliminate it leaving nothing but a barren planet for us to find.
Looking in the wrong place
We are always looking for planets that we think will harbour life according to what we know. Maybe aliens have adapted to their harsh environments and live on planets we presume to be uninhabitable. If this is the case then there are way too many planets to explore hence why for now, to narrow down the ridiculous numbers, astronomers are focusing on planets we assume are habitable.
The great filter
There could be a certain point in every planet’s timeline where the life on it cannot overcome a certain difficulty and therefore perishes. Maybe there were many planets with life but all succumbed to this ‘filter’. The question now is whether this ‘filter’ is ahead of us or have we already overcome it. Examples of this ‘great filter’ could be any catastrophic event such as overwhelming climate change, an all-out nuclear war that destroys humanity or maybe, it was supposed to be the great asteroid that killed the dinosaurs but life survived it.
Life is extremely rare
Maybe we overestimate the possibility of life. Maybe the earth is the 1 in a billion that managed to overcome the difficulty of harbouring life. This would mean that there are alien planets but they are incredibly rare.
Our wires are crossed
We are constantly sending our messages in a specific and restricted range of frequencies that we think other life forms would use and maybe aliens are doing the same. The issue here is that ‘they’ may have completely different technology to us and hence, they can’t receive our transmissions and we can’t receive theirs.
Progression of Life
So, we’ve talked about the possibility of alien life backed up with the insane amount of evidence provided through numbers. We’ve also talked about the reasons for not having made any contact with it. But let’s imagine that one day, NASA announces that they have found alien life. Bacteria on Mars, bizarre fish on Europa (Jupiter’s moon) or maybe even alien ruins on Titan. Wouldn’t that be great news? Well actually, it wouldn’t. As I said at the start of this article, it is in the nature of life to try and occupy every niche it can for its survival. Does this mean it would be dangerous for alien life to exist? Well, to understand this, we first have to take a look at the stages of the development of life; the incomplete list written by Robert Hanson outlines it in 9 steps:
- The right star system
- Reproductive molecules
- Simple (prokaryotic) single-cell life
- Complex (eukaryotic) single-cell life
- Sexual reproduction
- Multi-cell life
- Tool-using animals with intelligence
- A civilization advancing towards expanding its colony
- Colonisation explosion
What this means is that, if there was a powerful life form elsewhere in our galaxy and it had begun long before the arrival of humans, it may have set out on a path to galactic domination, hence, our planet would only be a means to an end and they would not hesitate to obliterate the humans off the face of the earth to obtain its resources; something they may have been doing to other planets along the way. We will elaborate on this point further when we talk about the ‘kardashev scale’ but let us first take a look at stage 8 (The current stage of Human Life)
Humans are on the verge of beginning stage 9; to begin leaving the earth and start attempting to colonise our neighbouring planets so we can spread out our occupation as is the nature of life. Technology that would potentially allow us to colonise Mars in the near future is in development.
The sad truth is, we are slowly destroying the earth and eventually, it will become redundant; its finite resources will come to an end and the earth will struggle to thrive under the struggling state that we humans will leave it in.
We will then try to leave all our climatic problems behind in search of a new home as parasites often do. Nevertheless, one thing should be understood; this will not be possible. Humans can not and will not be able to completely ditch earth in a drastic attempt to start afresh. Yes, it may be possible that we visit and temporarily colonise other planets such as mars and thus spread out our reach but we will never be able to sever all ties with Earth. We will always be reliant on it.
What better way is there to make this point equivocal than to clarify it with the Words of the Creator? In The Holy Qur’an, Allah states:
وَلَكُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ مُسْتَقَرٌّ وَمَتَاعٌ إِلَى حِينٍ
قَالَ فِيهَا تَحْيَوْنَ وَفِيهَا تَمُوتُونَ وَمِنْهَا تُخْرَجُونَ
’And for you there is an abode on the earth and a provision for a time” He said “therein you shall live, and therein shall you die, and therein shall you be brought forth’The Holy Qur’an (7:25-26)
Progression of Life
It may appear to us that we are an incredibly advanced species and growing exceedingly by the day because we have nothing to compare to so far. But on the theoretical cosmic stage, we are very underdeveloped. To measure the strength of a life form in terms of technology, a Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev invented the Kardashev scale. The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring a civilisation’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy it can use. This scale can be simplified into 3 categories. TYPE I, TYPE II, TYPE III:
Type I Civilisation
This is a life form that would be able to harness everything its home planet has to offer. It would have exhausted all resources available on its home planet, be able to transfer all wind, sunlight and water into renewable energy sources and would be advanced enough to control the weather, volcanoes and even earthquakes on its home planet.
Type II Civilisation
This is a life form that would have advanced far enough in technology to harness ALL of the energy produced by its star, not merely just converting its sunlight into energy, but rather, it would be able to control the star itself. To tackle the idea of the seemingly impossible, astrophysicists have come up with the concept of the Dyson Sphere; a stellar complex that would tightly surround the star and allow the advanced life form to completely harness its energy. This would provide the advanced life form with a profound amount of energy, allowing it to excel in productivity and thus prosper in the development of new powerful technology that would be inconceivable to us.
Type III Civilisation
A life form on this scale of power would be able to control its whole galaxy and all of the energy produced within it. A lifeform this powerful most likely wouldn’t be completely biological anymore; having mechanical counterparts. Referred to as cyborgs, these master race lifeforms would have no use for us humans and our planet except to colonise it to spread its domain. Scientifically, this would be the highest level achievable for any lifeform and Nikolai Kardashev himself believed that a Type IV civilisation would be ‘too’ advanced and wouldn’t go beyond Type III on his scale. He thought that, surely, this would be the extent of any species’ ability. Most agree with this idea but some optimistic few say that Type IV and V can exist; being able to harness the energy of the entire universe and even beyond.
It’s rather incongruous for us humans to fantasise about such powerful beings when we ourselves haven’t even achieved the necessary power output to label ourselves as a Type I species. That’s right, we modest humans are around 0.73 on the Kardashev scale and scientists assume that we might be able to reach Type I in the next few hundred years.
So now we have understood the different levels of advancement that extraterrestrial lifeforms might have reached so we can now understand why it is such an issue to try and contact aliens. Simply put, we are an incredibly weak and essentially new lifeform. If the entire timeline of the universe so far was condensed into one year, the earliest life on earth would have started around the end of September and the earliest ever humans would have come in at around 10.30 pm on New Year’s Eve. That means other lifeforms may have had an exceedingly long amount of time to advance into more powerful lifeforms; climbing the Kardashev scale much farther than we can imagine. We simply would have no chance against a Type II civilisation let alone a Type III if it chose to raid our planet for resources rather than making peace. We can barely harness the energy of our planet or even explore our neighbouring ones, how would we fare against an advanced civilisation seeking to destroy us? Hence, these are the reasons why many people oppose the idea of attempting ‘first contact’. It’s too early to put earth on the cosmic map. If aliens want to find us, they will. We should stay as discreet as we can about our beautiful planet. Humans are a very, very long way from ever reaching anything even close to a stellar civilisation, but it’s not to say that it cannot be achieved as long as we take care of our home planet and its health. To do so, the first step is to preserve our humble abode, maybe extinguish war, and continue to support scientific advances and discoveries that scientists are making. Maybe soon, we can start colonising other planets in a bid to save our dying home. Or, if we do not attempt to salvage what our hands have wrought, we may have to leave and not look back. Whatever it may be, it won’t be possible without the Decree of the Creator. Allah states:
يَا مَعْشَرَ الْجِنِّ وَالْإِنْسِ إِنِ اسْتَطَعْتُمْ أَنْ تَنْفُذُوا مِنْ أَقْطَارِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ فَانْفُذُوا لَا تَنْفُذُونَ إِلَّا بِسُلْطَانٍ
‘O company of Jinn and men! If you have the power to go beyond the confines of the heavens and the earth, then do go. But you cannot go save with authority.’The Holy Qur’an (55:34)
South of Bangladesh, far off into the Andaman Sea, a very remote island is located; its people, the Sentinelese, are renowned for being the most isolated tribe in the world. They are surrounded by miles and miles of water; living on this sequestered island for well over 55,000 years. Until recent contact, they may have possibly believed that they were the only humans alive, all alone on that secluded rock with nothing but the fishes and the few animals to keep them company. Maybe a few optimistic members had hope that there is life beyond that island but dared not venture out into the watery wilderness. Imagine how their life changed when they first laid their innocent eyes upon a curious human.
He looked just like them but he wore strange clothes made out of unseen materials and colours they had never seen before; or when they first saw an inquisitive helicopter flying overhead, its vibrating sound of spinning blades slicing through the air, panic breaking out amongst the tribe members as they rush to grab their weapons; or when they saw their first aeroplane, what a strange bird they must have thought it to be, its deafening scream dominating the skies.
Try to envision their stupefied reaction, their overwhelming emotions, and the unpredictable atmosphere. Whether it was shock or awe, this must have been a moment in their lives where they questioned their ideals, their place in the world around them, and their very purpose in this life; a moment when everything they thought they knew was flipped on its head.
Readers, the Sentinelese tribe are our analogy. We are the isolated tribe of mankind, living on a seemingly secluded floating rock, the apparent endless ocean of space being the cosmic wilderness that we so daringly explore; we too live in anticipation and hope of our first contact with bizarre new beings from strange new worlds. Would we welcome them with warm smiles and flags of peace or would we haste to defend the ever-growing pride of mankind?