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What If We Are Alone?


Interesting news from Mars: it appears that the red planet’s dusty outer layer is 2 percent water by weight. The BBC talked to a scientist involved with NASA’s Discovery Rover project:

“If you think about a cubic foot of this dirt and you just heat it a little bit – a few hundred degrees – you’ll actually get off about two pints of water – like two water bottles you’d take to the gym,” Dr Leshin explained.

“And this dirt on Mars is interesting because it seems to be about the same everywhere you go. If you are a human explorer, this is really good news because you can quite easily extract water from almost anywhere.”

Mars is mud—or it would be if it warmed up. That makes the other report more interesting: there’s no sign of the methane we would expect if there were life on the red planet. If life didn’t emerge or survive under relatively favorable Martian conditions, then it may be less common in the universe than previously supposed.

An unsettling question thus follows: what if life on Earth is unique and humanity is the only intelligent species out there?

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  • Corlyss

    “what if life on Earth is unique and humanity is the only intelligent species out there?”
    Since the “intelligent” part is so often put in doubt, that would be a pretty depressing idea. I’m holding out hope for String Theory.

    • Kavanna

      Ah, String Theory … a not-a-theory providing no-answers ….

      • Corlyss

        S’pose we’ll know one way or t’other in the next 20 years?

    • lukelea

      Assuming we are an intelligent species, I’m not sure whether an extraordinarily high level of intelligence is such a good thing. Except in small doses.

      I’d prefer more moderate amounts more evenly spread out than what we have now. Maybe someday.

      • Corlyss

        “Assuming we are an intelligent species’
        I only half-jokingly suggest that you’re assuming facts not in evidence. I mean, we might think we represent the pinnacle of intelligence, but if we’re talking about googolplexes of stars with unknown possibilities, then our “intelligence” could be somewhat analogous to that of an amoeba compared to the likelihood that there’s something really intelligent out there in that billions of billions of billions . . . .

        BTW thanks for the link and how did you do that hyperlinking?

  • bpuharic

    The question is, I think, one of the most important, and interesting that can be asked.

    Certainly if there ARE other intelligent civilizations out there, they know about us if they’re within 100 lyrs or so. With our primitive technology we’re almost able to detect signs of INTELLIGENT life on other planets so if they exist they know about us.

    Another interesting question is, if they know we’re here, why haven’t they visited? We sure ‘visit ‘primitive’ cultures here on earth and intelligent beings wouldn’t pass up the chance to observe a very backward civilization just starting on the road to technology…to see what our culture is like, our bizarre beliefs in god, etc.

    A million questions can be asked. It’s kind of claustrophobic to think that, at this time, we have no evidence that the universe is teeming with intelligent life. And it’s sad to think the question probably won’t be answered in our lifetimes.

    • lukelea

      Another interesting question is, if they know we’re here, why haven’t they visited?

      Fermi asked that, bpuharic, so you are in good company. The usual answer given is in the so-called Drake equation.

      • Y.K.

        The Drake equation is nigh useless, since the terms are not even merely unknowable, but are arbitrarily defined and it is easy to come up with scenarios where we should add or remove terms.

        For example, if the existence of life requires certain physical laws – and if the physical laws are different across time/space/universe/ [which happens with some theories] than the equation is insufficient – we would have to multiple by the probability the laws don’t change/change to something right for life/ during the timeframe.

    • Corlyss

      I agree completely.

      Are you a fan of Star Trek Original Series? They had an episode in the 2nd season, Who Mourns for Adonais? The Enterprise comes upon an earth-like planet where the Greek god Apollo has been waiting for eons for the “seeds” the gods spread throughout the universe to return to them. He was the last hold out, the other gods having given up on the return long ago. Maybe like Apollo, they’re waiting for us to contact them. In 1983 Science News published a full page article on the musings of the Princeton quantum physicists. The article was entitled “A Knowing Universe Seeking to Be Known.” The few questions the physicists posed in the article revolved around their realization that there was a “bias to consciousness” in certain scientific phenomenon, like ice that floats, without which life would never have arisen on earth.

      • bpuharic

        Yes I remember that episode very well. And as a chemist, I have to admit to bias for carbon. Would be interesting, if we ever DO discover other intelligent life, to see under what conditions it evolved.

        • Corlyss

          Sometime between the original Cosmos airing and the mid90s, buckyballs burst onto the public’s awareness. And when they figured out that the carbon was the residue of self-immolating red giants, it put science to Sagan’s poetic characterization that “we are made of starstuff.”

  • Tim Godfrey

    I think the time factor is forgotten – even if one assumes that intelligent civilizations rise on multiple planets the chances of them overlapping in time is next to nil. For example, a million years is a blip in the ages of stars and planets but a civilization but a civilization that arose on Alpha Centuri a million years ago would be likely long gone today.

    • Andrew Allison

      Only if self-destruction (whether by war or decay) is what makes us unique.

  • lukelea

    What if it came from intergalactic space?

  • Anthony

    An unsettling question: but man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority; most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d; his glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep – William Shakespeare. Such hubris begets “only” intelligent species…

  • Roy_Lofquist

    Whoa! You mean that the conventional wisdom, held for most of 6000 years, that humans are special and unique might actually be correct?

    Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

    • Corlyss

      Personally I think the religious fervor behind climate hysteria is due in no small part to a very human desire to see us as THE most important thing in the universe, a claim that science as a discipline had undermined when it made hash of the Bible’s apparent historically accurate record of creation. Religion could posit such a unique place for man; science couldn’t be so sanguine when it saw man as only an assembly of elements in a certain order. AGW allowed the humanists and atheists to think man was again the center of the universe without the discrediting shame of embracing anything as trite, passé, and false as *cough* religion.

      • bpuharic

        Of course to those of us who ARE scientists, AGW is a fact, as is evolution

        Religion not so much.

        • Corlyss

          You’re a chemist, right? Not a climatologist?

          • bpuharic

            Lots of chemists ARE climatologists. Greenhouse GASES are CHEMISTRY

  • Blaton Hardey

    If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
    Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
    If that’s all there is

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