Is Anyone Out There?

Earlier this year, NASA announced the discovery of the “first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star” called TRAPPIST-1. Three out of the seven planets appear to be located within the “habitable zone,” meaning that human life could potentially be supported. In an official NASA press release, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said:

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. . . . Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

The press release was followed by a slew of news articles with headlines like:

Headlines like the above may seem to better belong in tabloids, but indeed, scientists are deeply invested in speculating about other life in our universe. The SETI Institute is one of those communities doing serious research on the potential of extra-terrestrial life, funded by organizations like NASA and NSF. Historically, there are also two famous gentlemen who formulated important ideas regarding this question.

The first is Enrico Fermi, the physics genius, who in 1950 during his lunch break came to a realization that is now known as the Fermi Paradox. According to SETI:

 “Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within ten million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire. Ten million years may sound long, but in fact it’s quite short compared with the age of the Galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years. Colonization of the Milky Way should be a quick exercise.”

This is a simplified version of the idea, but if you are intrigued, this is a great video to learn more:

The second gentleman, an astronomer by the name of Frank Drake, developed an equation in 1961 in order to estimate the number of intelligent and transmitting civilizations in our universe. The equation is, of course, now known as the Drake Equation, and it was highlighted in a recent episode of the Syfy show The Expanse. You can find the equation and its symbolic interpretation here.


Drake Equation in The Expanse S2 E11.

Has the equation been used successfully? Well, we only have access to the data required for part of the equation; the rest currently relies on speculations, so no, it has yet to predict how many alien life forms might exist.

Whether we will actually find extraterrestrial life is yet to be determined, but answering the question “Are we alone?” remains a pressing concern for many in today’s society, and it is not simply a priority of science as Zurbuchen puts it. Films like Alien and the recently released Life feed on our deep fears of the unknown and of the extraterrestrial Other. Denis Villeneuve, in his 2016 film Arrival, directly confronts these assumptions, juxtaposing the arrival of massive and intimidating squid-like beings on Earth with the knee-jerk reaction of global governments who misinterpret the beings’ intentions as malicious.


Arrival (2016)

This fear and awe of aliens is certainly encouraged by popular media, but it stems from deeper human tendencies to mistrust that which is unfamiliar—that which does not look like us, and that which does not operate within our own ideologies and paradigms. For example, European explorers of the Age of Discovery exhibited these tendencies in their encounters with the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Asia. From a religious perspective, the presence of other life also raises sometimes troubling questions about the construction of the universe and one’s own place in it: how does the presence of other intelligent species in the world alter one’s theology?

However, if we as humanity are ever to encounter other intelligent life, we cannot initiate such an encounter in fear. The history of colonialism has shown us the tragic costs of such an approach. Time is yet on our side. As we continue to develop the technologies that might bring us in reach of new life, we must use that time to prepare ourselves to meet new strangers—cautiously, of course, but also with intentionality and respect.

What could that look like? For a start, we might consider replacing the language of “alien” that has been saddled with so many negative associations in media. Then we should turn our attention to such media, like movies, television, and video games, and begin to critically engage their depictions of extra-terrestrial life. The media constructions of non-human intelligent life we see on a regular basis will shape and inform what we begin to expect, so we should be asking ourselves: what kind of depictions do we wish to see?

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