As part of our 30-day build blog series (see yesterday’s column), we’ve spent some time discussing the possibility of discovering alien life and how we might communicate if we did.
Ever since people knew what the objects in the night sky actually were — especially that the stars are other suns with their own planets — we’ve asked the age-old question: “Are we alone in the universe?” Of course, we aren’t just talking about life in general here, but rather intelligent life (whatever we deem “intelligence” to be).
In his book, The Tragedy of the Moon, Isaac Asimov postulated that the tragedy of the Moon is that it orbits the Earth. Based on their observations, primitive peoples perceived both the Sun and the Moon as circling around the Earth, thereby feeding into the idea that the Earth was at the center of all things. In turn, this fed the idea that the Earth (and the rest of the universe) had been created to give humans somewhere to live, which meant that humans were pretty darned important in the scheme of things, by golly.
Asimov also noted that Venus is one of the brightest objects in the sky. In fact, Venus shines so brightly that it is the first “star” to appear in the sky after the Sun sets, and the last to disappear before the Sun rises. Venus appears to us as the morning star when it’s on one side of the sun for part of the time (let’s say half of the year, whilst noting that this is a gross simplification), and as the evening star when it’s on the other side of the sun for the rest of the time. The thing is that primitive people regarded the morning and evening stars as being two completely different objects.
Asimov’s point was that if the Moon had instead found itself orbiting Venus, then it would be visible to the naked eye. Over the course of a month, we would see it gradually move away from one side of Venus, then retrace its path toward Venus, then reappear on the other side of Venus, and so forth. One way to explain this phenomenon would be to suggest that the Moon was orbiting Venus.
Furthermore, the fact that both the morning star and evening star had the same smaller object associated with it would suggest that they were one and the same thing. And the fact that this unique object gradually moved away from one side of the sun, then retraced its path toward the sun, then reappeared on the other side of the sun, and so forth would lead people to think that Venus might be orbiting the sun. And, if so for Venus, why not so for Earth?
Of course, Asimov also notes the triumph of the Moon, which is that it does orbit the Earth where it’s had a huge influence on all sorts of things including the Earth’s axial tilt, the seasons, and the evolution of life, to name but a few.
So, are we alone in the universe? Well, if you read Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique by John Gribbin, you may end up thinking that we are indeed unique in our intelligence.
By comparison, if you read Imagined Life: A Speculative Scientific Journey among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures, and Supergravity Animals by James Trefil and Michael Summers, you might incline to the opinion that we are but one in a crowd.
On the one hand, we have the Drake equation, which is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. On the other hand, we have the Fermi paradox, which refers to the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations and various high estimates for their probability, including some optimistic estimates generated by the Drake equation.
My meandering musings here were induced by my mulling a monograph on Medium — Are We Alone? NASA’s New Telescope Could Find Out In A Few Days by Will Lockett (you may also want to peruse and ponder my own humble offerings on Medium). In this column, Will introduces us to “the ultimate alien hunter that is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).”
I don’t want to detract from what Will has to say, but I will note that this is a jolly interesting article, and I would love to hear your thoughts after you’ve digested it in its entirety.