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There’s Intelligent Life, We’ll Never See It, and It Doesn’t Matter

There are two questions that every human must ask themselves in their lifetime. Where did we come from, and are we alone in the universe?

In many ways, we’re closer to answering those questions than ever. Recently, it was reported that there is as many as 40 billion Earth-like planets — just in our Milky Way galaxy.

USA Today led its story with these words: “We are not alone.”

I like to think I’m smart. I like to think I’m open-minded. But when I read the statistics I can hardly comprehend it. I can barely comprehend the magnitude of 40 billion pennies, let alone 40 billion planets — entire worlds — out there.

The nearest earth-like planet may be just 12 light years from our reach. That’s 72 trillion miles. Now imagine the closest of those 40 billion — our closest chance of an alien-like world filled with wonder — and it’s so far away that from your back yard as you looked up the starry sky, you’d have to travel for nearly 240 consecutive years just to reach that closest planet (assuming travel at 5 percent the speed of light).

And then there’s 40 billion more Earth-like planets beyond that incomprehensible distance.

Like I said, I can barely wrap my brain around it.

And it gets bigger. That’s just in one galaxy.

How many galaxies are out there beyond just the one we live in? Let Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist who specializes in cosmology, answer that question:

One of the bravest things that was ever done with the Hubble Space Telescope was to find a patch of sky with absolutely nothing in it—no bright stars, no nebulae, and no known galaxies—and observe it. Not just for a few minutes, or an hour, or even for a day. But orbit-after-orbit, for a huge amount of time, staring off into the nothingness of empty space, recording image after image of pure darkness.

… the area of the XDF (the Extreme Deep Field they looked at) is just a tiny, tiny fraction of the full Moon.

Size of Hubble XDF compared to the moon

Illustration credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI);
Image by: T. Rector, I. Dell’Antonio/NOAO/AURA/NSF, Digitized Sky Survey (DSS),
STScI/AURA, Palomar/Caltech, and UKSTU/AAO

See that tiny sliver of space the telescope looked at? That tiny sliver of nothingness they decided to stare out at for a decade to see what they’d find. It’s fucking amazing. Let Seigel explain:

What you’re seeing—in practically every point or smear of light—is an individual galaxy. The result gave us the information that a very large number of galaxies exist in a minuscule region of the sky.

Galaxies seen through the Hubble Telescope

Image credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz),
R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team

Every dot of light is an entire distant galaxy within a square space many times smaller than the moon. What that means is there’s “176 billion galaxies, at least, in the Universe” and could be as many as a trillion.

Who knows what each of those dots hold?

But let’s get back to the dot we live in, the Milky Way Galaxy. Upon reading this news, I found a similar thread in some of the comments.

Who cares, some would say. It’s so far away that even if there’s life, even if it was intelligent life, no one will ever get there. We will never meet aliens.

Last week, as I followed the news at NASA and the Mars One Project, I sent out this tweet:

Why? someone replied. It’s just a tweet.

They miss the point. I don’t think they spent enough time lying outside in the dark, looking up at the sky and just thinking what was out there.

It’s amazing how the world has come together so quickly the past decade. Children who are born now will never know what it’s like to not live so isolated, so separate.

They can tweet with someone on the other side of the world. They can open up an app and have a conversation with them. Even if they don’t share language, they can read about each other’s lives and culture and hopes and dreams with just the click of the “translate” button. We’re so accustomed to the technology that they’ll eventually chat with people who are living on Mars and not even bat an eye.

It’s just a tweet, they’ll say. You’re so silly, Grandpa.

But when we look at the stars, we know, truly know, that something is out there. We will never meet. We’ll never see each other, but that isn’t the point.

Just knowing is wonder enough.

7 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on speakzeasy and commented:
    Quite a scientific article, but thoroughly enjoyable!

  2. Thanks for the follow! Excited about your journey, including your plant-based one. I love the shit out of astronomy, though I barely squeaked through Algebra II Trig. My ex works for Space Telescope Science Institute, which, while we were married, only increased my amazement of what’s up there. It’s fascinating and mind-blowing and I want to have dinner and/or sex with Neil deGrasse Tyson and just stare and listen to him. I listened to the fabulously articulate head of the Mars Rover program who gave a talk about that journey. Dinner and/or sex with him, too! Peace.

  3. I liked this post and couldn’t help but comment. You see, time is an amazing entity – we take it granted that times is what it is – just time. Many years ago, I was handed a couple of books by some spiritual chaps who’d spent their entire lives studying other dimensions and spirituality. Of course – when you do study such areas – Science can’t keep up – thus making it more strange, more interesting and therefore opens up possibilities.

    Part of those spiritual books included ancient scriptures from some of the oldest religions known to man. In them, it explained how life lived not just on the earth (like us living creatures and plants, etc) but also inside the earth and outside of the earth. It also explained how time changes from one area of the Universe to another and most striking revelation was than Man will find means to visit other planets and find life there too. What’s strange about these revelations is that these scriptures are somewhere between 1500 to 3000+ years ago.

    So, although I agree, the time that we know today seems impossible but nothing is impossible once another dimension is found.

    • Awesome stuff. I feel I could sit and discuss this for hours, just looking up at the stars.

      • Yes it is interesting, when I sit down with those who study spirituality and different ‘possible’ dimensions hours fly by like minutes.

        After I had written my earlier comment, something popped up in my mind – which I will share here.

        The understanding that life not only exists on the earth but also within and above – you can get a similar understanding by looking at a human body. Our body has living matter within it (only now discovered by technology and science) and also matter than exists above the body, as well as the body itself. That said, like the human body, the planet and galaxy system is pretty much similar, where only by development of technology and science will we get to understand a little more about the world up above.

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