Are we Mar­tians?

As we pon­der the pos­si­bil­ity of whether aliens have laser guns, we may re­alise that the best bet for evo­lu­tion­ary suc­cess is ... the trusty cock­roach.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INBOX - by ja­son god­frey Ja­son God­frey can be seen host­ing The LINK on Life In­spired (Astro B.yond Ch 728).

THERE were a cou­ple of de­vel­op­ments this week in an­swer­ing the age old ques­tion of: “Are we alone in the universe?” Firstly, Cu­rios­ity – the car-sized ro­botic rover sent to ex­plore Mars back in 2011 by NASA – this week tweeted (!!!) that it found ev­i­dence of an an­cient lake on the red planet. In­cred­i­ble!

And when I say in­cred­i­ble, I mean both the pos­si­ble ex­is­tence of wa­ter on Mars and the fact that Cu­rios­ity has its own Twit­ter ac­count where it ac­tu­ally finds time be­tween analysing soil sam­ples and dat­ing rocks to post self­ies.

Next was a re­port that life from Earth may have been sent via the Chicx­u­lub im­pact – the as­ter­oid largely blamed for the ex­tinc­tion of the di­nosaurs (bad comet, don’t ex­tinct things) – to Mars. Ap­par­ently, Chicx­u­lub hit Earth so hard that it sent “de­bris hurtling into space”. De­bris that Earth or­gan­isms could have hitched a ride on be­fore even­tu­ally smash­ing into Mars.

Three me­ters of rock is enough to shield mi­crobes from the sun’s ra­di­a­tion, though I’d imag­ine trav­el­ling en­cased in rock is the universe’s equiv­a­lent of econ­omy class. And I com­plain about lack of leg room.

But, th­ese ex­am­ples give hope to those who be­lieve in other life in the universe. The prior ex­is­tence of wa­ter shows that even if a planet does not cur­rently have life, life may have ex­isted there at some point, and the Chicx­u­lub De­bris shows how life sur­mounts the vast reaches of space.

Given th­ese and other ex­am­ples, it’s fairly log­i­cal to con­clude that life has ex­isted at some point some­where in the great vast­ness of the universe. But “are we alone in the uni- verse?” is a bit of a time sen­si­tive ques­tion, isn’t it? While it would be mind-blow­ing to learn that life ex­isted on Mars in the past, it would be ab­so­lutely brain-im­plod­ing to have the Cu­rios­ity Rover send back a selfie giv­ing the peace sign with an ac­tual alien.

And that’s the thing about the ques­tion of whether we are alone: it’s not only the search for life, it’s the search for life in the universe that can im­pact us now. Be­cause hu­mans are an im­pa­tient species.

Watch­ing TV, you’ll see any num­ber of bleary-eyed in­di­vid­u­als claim­ing to have seen, been ab­ducted by, and even dated ex­trater­res­tri­als. Fairly du­bi­ous to say the least, this is where I dif­fer in opin­ion. There may have been, and may cur­rently be, other life in the universe, but not nec­es­sar­ily other life in the universe that can im­pact us right now.

The vast­ness of the universe is im­mea­sur­able. As­tronomer Pete Ed­wards says, “there are as many stars in the universe as there are grains of sand on the Earth”; which is to say, there’s a whole lot of stars.

Many of th­ese stars have their own or­bit­ing bod­ies so all you have to do is mul­ti­ply the av­er­age num­ber of plan­ets per star with the amount of sand on earth and you’ll get the num­ber of plan­ets. Yeah, that’s a num­ber with a whole lot of ze­roes on the end. In a universe that big, it is lu­di­crous to think that life – no mat­ter how ob­scure, or how lucky the con­di­tions have to be – didn’t or doesn’t ex­ist.

Now the universe has been around for roughly 13.8 bil­lion years, a du­ra­tion so long that it is largely in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Just to throw more in­com­pre­hen­si­ble num­bers at you, hu­mans have been on Earth for about 200,000 years, which is about 0.00014% of the to­tal time that the universe has been around. That is a re­ally small per­cent­age. We are the mayflies of the cos­mos.

Now con­sider that the “other life” most folks pic­ture find­ing is sen­tient – that is think­ing, emo­tional, ra­tional – and usu­ally car­ry­ing laser weapons, but let’s for­get about that last part. Life doesn’t need to be sen­tient to be suc­cess­ful, look at the trusty cock­roach who has been around for 300 mil­lion years and has a track record of evo­lu­tion­ary suc­cess that hu­mans aren’t even close to match­ing.

Be­ing sen­tient means lit­tle to the evo­lu­tion­ary suc­cess of a species, so how rare is be­ing sen­tient in life­forms? Is be­ing able to think and choose and take self­ies on Twit­ter an evo­lu­tion­ary anom­aly? If it is, that makes find­ing sen­tient life even more dif­fi­cult.

The ques­tion then be­comes: what are our chances of find­ing other sen­tient life in this great ga­lac­tic haystack of time that over­laps ours in terms of not just tech­nol­ogy but sim­ple ex­is­tence?

Tak­ing th­ese three fac­tors – vast­ness of the universe, the ex­panse of time, rar­ity of sen­tient, tech­no­log­i­cally-pro­fi­cient life – I be­lieve that we are, for all in­tents and pur­poses, alone in the universe.

But, don’t de­spair. The same re­search that led to the the­ory that the Chicx­u­lub im­pact could have cat­a­pulted Earth life to Mars also has a the­ory that per­haps a much ear­lier im­pact could have cat­a­pulted life from Mars to seed Earth. In that case, we’re all Mar­tians and we have to go no fur­ther than the mir­ror to meet a true-life alien.

Is this what an alien looks like? no, it’s just a louse...

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