This is not actually what I’ve been working on writing but this podcast episode blew my mind so I just wanted to essentially get all my excitement about it off my chest. And the best way for me to do that and, in general for me to process my thoughts, is through excitedly writing jumbled thoughts in a coffee shop. In other words, this isn’t going to be formal writing at all.
I go through phases where I binge-listen to podcasts and then I’ll switch and binge-listen to music for weeks at a time. About a month ago, I was in the podcast phase. I was subscribing to all these different podcasts and just spent all of my travel time and all of my free time just indulging in all this new information. I listened to daily news podcasts from NPR, the New York Times, and Vox. I listened to comedy podcasts like Whiting Wongs, Yo, Is This Racist?, Why Won’t Your Date Me?, and Small Doses with Amanda Seales. I listened to history podcasts like Slow Burn, Making Obama/Oprah, and How It Began: A History of the Modern World. I loved podcasts like Freakonomics Radio, Dissect, 99% Invisible, and The Wilderness. While many episodes resonated with me, one, in particular, exploded my brain.
It was the episode called Why Haven’t We Found Aliens on The Atlantic’s Crazy/Genius. It goes over exactly what it sounds like.
Why humans haven’t found other intelligent life in the universe yet.
I think we’re all pretty familiar with this topic. It’s all over sci-fi films and people love talking about aliens every time there’s a supposed UFO sighting. It’s never been a huge interest of mine though because I always felt the conversations were never really substantial. They were all pretty much fiction or if I was in conversations with friends, it was all fictional theorizing and not backed by any science whatsoever- just outlandish hopes that aliens, as caricatural as the movies make them out to be, are real.
But this episode made me so excited because it put science and reality into the conversation and made it fresh.
It starts off with an anecdote of a physicist in the 50’s, Enrico Fermi, asking “Where is everybody?” The universe is so old and so big, we can’t be the only intelligent life in the universe. And yet we have no evidence of intelligent life in the entire cosmos. Why? This question is called Fermi’s Paradox.
Crazy/Genius say that in the 70 years since that question, we are incredibly close to answering it.
How many civilizations were there ever?
First, they dive into the probability of intelligent life somewhere in our universe with Adam Frank. We now know that every star we see in the sky has planets orbiting it. Out of those five planets, one of them is in the right location for life to form. As they said, “Earth-like planets are all over the place.” The usual questions astronomers ask is how many alien civilizations are out there right now. But they flip the question. “Instead of asking how many civilizations are there now, let’s ask how many civilizations were there ever.” In other words, what would the probability be for us to be the only civilization to ever occur?
They answer that quickly. It’s one in ten billion trillion. There are five hundred billion billion sun-like stars and one hundred billion billion Earth-like planets. It means it’s essentially impossible that only one, planet Earth, is the only instance where life occurred or is occurring.
If you could gamble on alien intelligence at a casino in Vegas, it’d be the easiest bet at the casino.
Forget about the rest of the universe for a second though. They posed the question, “How do we know intelligent life hasn’t occurred previously on Earth?” If this civilization occurred millions of years ago, what evidence, if any, would even remain over those ten million years?
What all this boiled down to was that the universe most definitely has the capability to have many opportunities for intelligent life to occur. Our own planet has had multiple different species on its planet and could have possibly had had another advanced civilization on it. So, there is little debate that life exists somewhere in the universe just based on pure probability.
This brings us back to the original question. If the probability of life occurring is the easiest bet at the casino, why have we still not found aliens?
Well either they are nowhere, or they are somewhere.
They jump into the “nowhere” ideas. Anders Sandberg, a futurist at Oxford University, talks about The Great Filter. He says that “if intelligent life is scarce, there must be something holding it back.” Perhaps we haven’t found aliens because life could be very rare, intelligence could be very rare, or because intelligent life doesn’t last very long. “The Great Filter is the idea that there is a barrier to evolution” that stops dumb molecules from evolving into intelligent life. They lay out the steps of the creation of humans.
- The spark of life
- Creation of simple cells
- Complex cells
- Sexual reproduction
- Technological intelligence
Sandberg suggests that at least one of these six factors must be keeping the probability of intelligent life low.
They suggest maybe no other life has made it past simple cells other than us and maybe that’s why we can’t find any other civilizations. The sure odds of that seem a bit low though. We can’t be the only ones who got to where we are.
On the flip side though, if The Great Filter, that snuffed out all other civilizations, is steps ahead of us… if maybe there are ten or twenty more steps, then we are likely next. They expand on what The Great Filter could be. It most likely wouldn’t be something like a nuclear war where a more peaceful civilization could simply avoid The Great Filter. It would have to be a phenomenon that gets almost every civilization. It would have to be the inevitable. They throw out climate change as an example and if that is The Great Filter, our end seems to be fast approaching.
To sum, maybe the reason why we can’t find another intelligent life is because we are unique and intelligent life is very rare. Or maybe the reason we can’t find life like ours is because The Great Filter already got to every other civilization. Maybe “we are walking along a path that ends with a cliff and with all probability, we are going to walk off this cliff to our death.”
Either one is a bit depressing. We are either alone in the universe or we are doomed to die like the rest of them.
They get off this depressing idea and onto the track that there is life “somewhere” out there.
This is more promising and, in my eyes, more probable. They talk to Ellen Stofan, the former Chief Scientist of NASA. First, we maybe just haven’t had enough time to find aliens.
NASA is 60 years old. That’s a sliver of time in a 13 and a half billion-year-old universe. If you look two minutes for your car keys and don’t find them, you don’t doubt their existence.
Stofan says she is optimistic that in the next 10-30 years, they will find life somewhere in our solar system. Mars and the moons Europa, Insolidus, and possibly Titan are all strong places where she thinks life could be inhabiting. They all had or have evidence of water, which is the key factor for at least Earth-like life.
Therefore, if our own solar system might have simple life aside from us, there could be at least simple life in every solar system which means life is everywhere.
Why haven’t they found us then or gotten in contact with us? We’ve had only 60 years but what if they’ve had hundreds and do know we exist?
This brings them to the Zoo Hypothesis. They can see us and are observing us but aren’t talking to us. We are simple animals at the zoo. But they go into weirder territory with this.
Suppose, if other alien civilizations are years ahead of us and had the same kind of progression into technological intelligence as we have, maybe they aren’t even in biological form anymore. Hear me (and them) out for a second…
What’s not to say a more advanced civilization hasn’t already completely offloaded all human functions to a computer so that essentially all of human life takes place in virtual reality.
I know this sounds like some futuristic sci-fi movie like Blade Runner and if you told me this theory 6 years ago, I would have laughed and said it had no strain of reality. But in just a very short span of time, technology had seeped into every part of our lives. Humans are already so synced to our technological devices. We have smartphones and laptops. Smart TVs, fitness trackers, smart systems for your home. We are developing self-driving cars, are rapidly moving towards entirely electronic money transactions, and have moved a large number of our social interactions to the web with social media. A company had embedded microchips into their employees’ hands, nanobots (tiny robots) are being injected into the body to fight disease, and scientists can print body parts with 3D printing.
And so maybe we haven’t found these digital aliens yet because they don’t have a biological form anymore. Maybe they have just uploaded themselves into a hard drive and all of our searches for Earth-like life is meaningless because we should be pointing our telescopes at technological forms. If that’s the case and us humans develop the technology to merge our consciousness with a computer in say 1,000 years, that means biological human life only existed for 12,000 years. 12,000/13.5 billion years is 8.88888889e-7 aka barely any time at all. And so just like the car keys analogy, they ask “how do you find a civilization that only exists in the physical universe for only a blink of an eye?”
I know, at this point I get the urge to write it all off as fiction. But I remind myself that the probability of us being the only civilization to ever occur is one in ten billion trillion and we already have these incredible technological advancements as a relatively young civilization. I haven’t done the math but if life like ours could potentially exist in every solar system and galaxy, that means there has to be at least one that is more advanced than us because we are likely not the sole most advanced civilization out there.
Wait a second (or one and a half trillion years)…
With this theory, there’s a bit of a stipulation though. The universe is too hot right now. Background radiation is 3 Kelvin above absolute zero. The prime environment for this computer civilization would be in as cold of a place as possible because computation burns energy and creates heat. For example, when you run a large program or work on your computer for a long period of time, it will get hot. This computer planet would burn huge amounts of energy so it would need as cold of a place as possible so it could compute as much as possible.
This brings them to ask, “why not just put the computer to sleep?” Just like turning off a laptop or TV, maybe these computer civilizations are just in sleep mode until the universe cools down. After all, computers, technology, and virtual life are all eternal.
If this is the case, then these advanced digital alien civilizations are just sleeping and waiting until the universe cools to turn on. This cooling will be in about one and a half trillion years which is forever in mortal human life years but just a night’s sleep for eternal digital life.
Derek Thompson, the host of Crazy/Genius, confessed that when he first heard this, he thought it was absurd. Then he asked, “why wouldn’t civilizations want to live in a digital world?” All the flaws of the human world are due to biological limitations. Depression, health, disease, boredom, loneliness, weather, death. All just brain chemicals or nature-based phenomena’s. It would undeniably be considered advancement to progress to where those can’t affect humans.
And so, if this alien civilization was all digital, they would probably look at our world as some barbaric animalistic world. We die of shootings, disease, and war and many people have food insecurity. We have hurricanes and forest fires frequently and suffer from depression and anxiety. They make a good point that maybe an advanced alien civilization wouldn’t even want to talk to us because we seem too primitive to them.
So maybe we are just the “womb” as Thompson suggests. Animals that live and then die and go through all these biological processes are just forming until they are ready to exit the womb. And outside of the womb is the digital eternal world. In that digital space, civilizations can talk to one another and connect across galaxies and across the universe.
They bring it back to the reality of now though. We’re maybe not going to find some extensive alien civilization in the near future, but we are close to finding simple life in our solar system. Stofan reiterates a point that complex life on this planet almost didn’t happen because of extinctions, asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions. She believes that getting to complex life such as humans is hard and rare. Even just on Earth, only one species out of the millions developed technological intelligence that we know of. And so, apply that to the universe, maybe our kind of intelligence, technological intelligence, really is a rarity.
I hope you can see how my brain kinda exploded from this podcast. I love all this theorizing and examining what we know and where we know were are headed merged with the probabilities of our future. I wouldn’t even say I believe these theories such as the advanced digital civilization because it’s not a found belief that makes this all exciting for me but more the fact that there are good reasons and probability applied to all these theories. If anyone does have any thoughts about any of the above, I’d love to hear them in the comments. Which ones do you think are more probable than others and which ones are you more prone to think could happen?