Are we insignificant?

I really like Brian Cox’s TV series’ on science, (predominantly cosmology), because he demonstrates wondrous facts about the earth, solar system and universe. I have seen how his shows appeal to a wide variety of people and I think it’s great, in this miserable cynical mystical soap-opera ridden and reality-TV infested culture, that the general public are still fascinated by the physical existence around us. 

It is virtually impossible to describe, and literally impossible to imagine, just how vast the universe is. Approximately 15 billion years since we can say “time” in the manner we understand it, started. Our minds and bodies have evolved to see a slight fraction of the EM spectrum, useful for hunting/gathering on ancient plains, and building things to our scale of observation and interaction. The universe below our perceptual range is almost incomprehensible, but the universe beyond it is perhaps more so. One only has to consider the space between stars, and the staggering and ridiculously huge flight times between them to grasp that, in a very real sense, as much as we might ever learn about the universe, this, this life, this planet, this continent, this house, this job, are all we will ever know.

There are two ways of looking at this. The most common one, and the one I used to hold, is to realise just how tiny human beings are in the cosmos; to look at the age of the universe, and how long it will continue before motion (and therefore time) cease to exist; at the tiny slice of the temporal pie we’ve had on earth; at the enormous power the sun radiates every second and how all the manmade energy ever produced in total, multiplied a million times, wouldn’t come close to the fireball we orbit.

None of this is untrue, but the conclusion, the general feeling that many people take from these facts is: how small am I? How insignificant is the human race? Nothing I do matters. I am nothing in the grand scheme of things. But this line of thinking is unwarranted, because the mind makes a faulty presumption, a presumption based on our cultural value judgements and mindset. A presumption that almost all intellectuals, scientists, idealists and politicians make.  A presumption that is so glaringly false, but only once it’s realised. It is the presumption, or idea, that all values must be values in the eyes of some external grand mover, i.e. someone other than us. But since all of us are just individuals, and none of us (we are told) is the arbiter of value, the actual arbiter of value must be no one.

Another way of looking at it is: if the universe were only 50 years old, would that make you feel less insignificant? If the universe ended outside the orbit of Neptune, would that make you feel less tiny? If every planet in the solar system had humanoid life, would you feel differently about your place in the universe? If all the stars in the universe except our sun died overnight, would your feelings for those you love change?

It’s easy to come up with rhetorical spiel to ease a lonely mind. It’s harder to actually believe it. But you should believe it, because there is no “grand scheme of things”. There is no god who gives your life meaning; who sees a phenomenal universe and yet chooses to value your little life; there is something far more relevant in play: you, who in all the mindless universe of matter, energy, waves, dust, rocks, and empty space – who can do what (for all intents and purposes) no other thing could do a few hundred thousand years ago: think. Think, judge, choose, create, love. Only a being capable of valuing can value. The question is not: what value is your life to the universe? The question can only be: what, in this universe, is of value to your life? Ten trillion trillion stars in ten trillion trillion galaxies, or the man or woman you love? The majesty of Saturn’s rings, ethereal dark matter, stupendous space-time defying singularities, or your family, your career, your passions, your goals?

“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” is an oft-quoted line in one science-fiction show. In cosmology it is very true: all of this has happened before, and all will happen again. Stars were created, exploded, and died, long before ours came into being. The death of stars begets new stars, and planets.  And if stars are ten a penny, or a dime a dozen, we couldn’t print enough money for them all. This cycle has continued for billions of years, and it will continue for trillions more. “And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us.*

If a nebula, or ringed-body, or sunrise, or sunset, or night-sky smattered with stars – purposeless conglomerations of matter and energy – are beautiful, how much more so the chosen free conscious acts of humanity? The invention of the wheel, the discovery of electricity, the constitution of the United States, art, poetry, trade, and the source of them all, love?

The next time you find yourself contemplating humanity’s, or your own worth in unnecessarily humble terms, consider: “insignificant” – to whom? “Small” – compared to whom? “Worthless” – to whom? “Nothing we do matters” – matters to whom?

Life is what makes values possible. And for all we know, we’re the only rational life in existence. This means, the only values in existence are mine and yours. So we cannot be “valueless” transient specs of dust in this universe – far from it. In a very real sense of the word; the only meaningful use of the word, we are the most valuable things in existence. So the stars will go on burning long after you’ve died. The difference is: stars will never know any differently.

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Aliens exist, but you shouldn’t care

Do you believe in aliens?

This is a really vague question. If a “believer” asks you, they want you to say “no” so they can follow up with “how can you believe we’re the only life in the universe?!11one”. But of course – that wasn’t what the question was. The question really means “do you believe we are being visited by aliens?”

I maintain that the same logic that makes alien life so overwhelmingly likely is the same logic that makes me thoroughly disbelieve in alien visitors. In short, aliens DO exist – but you shouldn’t give the matter a second thought.

Why do I believe that aliens exist but that we are most definitely not being visited? It’s quite simple and brief to be honest:

Evolution: if you understand it in any reasonable detail, you’ll appreciate that it’s not luck-based at all. Given the right conditions, and time – evolution is bound to happen. Of course, there are no guarantees over what form that life will take.

Probability: It doesn’t matter if earth-type worlds are rare or common in the universe. Earth is certainly unique of all the planets we’ve charted so far and the solar systems we’ve scanned to date. I think it’s fair to presume that earth-type worlds are rare – but however rare you want to make them you have to appreciate the vastness of the universe. It is a statistical certainty that somewhere out there, amidst the quadrillions upon quadrillions of stars, that an earth-type planet orbits a star like our own. (To be honest, quite a variety of star-to-planet distances/compositions would probably be acceptable.)

So vast is the universe it would actually be a statistical impossibility to not have any other life out there! And if you have life, and time, and enough planets – at least one of them should produce intelligent life – perhaps even rational.

But, this is where the alien fun ends. Remember how vast the universe is. In order for us to make contact with alien life, you not only need another species to be alive, be intelligent, develop space-travel, but do so within observable range of the earth.

Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Try to appreciate just how quick that is. It would still take 100,000 years travelling at that speed to cross our galaxy. Beyond that, at the same speed, the next closest galaxy is 2,540,000 years off. In fact, even the closest star to us would take over 4 years to reach at this speed.

Humans have only been sending out EM transmissions into space for a century. The very earliest transmissions which are nowhere near as powerful as those we send now are only 100 light years away. That’s one 1/1000th the diameter of the galaxy. In order for aliens to even be aware of our existence they’d have to be within 100 light years of earth. As we know, it’s an inconceivably-gigantic universe, and the odds of that life out there being within such a ridiculously tiny radius of earth don’t bear thinking about.

But the real killer, and for me the totally unassailable argument against alien contact (let alone visitation) is time: the universe in its current state of existence is about 15 billion years old. The earth is over 4 billion years old. Life has only been on earth for a few million years. Humans have only been on earth for a couple of hundred thousand. We have only been using electricity for just over a century. We’ve been sending out EM waves for a shorter time than that. We only achieved space-flight 50 years ago. We have only been actively looking for other worlds by scanning a tiny fraction of the heavens for a few decades. Now, even if another intelligent space-faring species actively looking for life existed, or will exist – you need them to be at least at our level of technology, give or take 50 years for either of us, and within 100 light years of earth (at a stretch). And, however we communicate with each other, that signal cannot travel faster than light.

To put this in illustrative terms, let’s use what I’ll call the time-overlap thought experiment: pick a number between 1 and 4 billion: that number is how many years back in time you will travel to a random place on earth. Another person does the same. What are the odds that the two of you will now meet up? And even if luck be damned, and incredibly you both picked the same number, and live at the same time on earth – you need to make contact before you die of old age – but let’s say you’re both different ages, both or either of you could be very young or very old. Where do you look? Which direction do you start out in? What do you look for?

It’s the same with aliens. Maybe they existed but died out ages ago? Maybe they are only now discovering the internal combustion engine? Maybe somewhere out there a CO2-laced volcanic world orbits a yellow star that will evolve intelligent life in many eons to come? Or maybe they are just like us typing blogs on their internet right now, but are just too far away. Who knows?

It’s fascinating to consider, but it’s speculation without resolution. Ultimately, the notion of alien visitors (especially given the total lack of proof) should be dismissed out of hand. The existence of alien life, either good or evil, is totally irrelevant to us. So although it’s overwhelmingly likely they are out there, by the same principle it’s overwhelmingly certain we will never ever know about each other.

Planetarium for your PC

I came across a piece of software this morning that is a must, if you like astronomy or planetariums!

It allows you to scan the heavens in 360 degrees, external to earth. It’s also in real time so you can see the earth as it would look in space right now, and where day and night are.

Here’s the link: http://celestia.sourceforge.net/ (opens in new tab)

And here’s a screenshot from my computer of the earth in space at this moment in time, 12.42 pm GMT:

celestia