"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Search For Intelligent Life In The Universe

As the old Jewish tagline goes, “Why not look for intelligent life in the universe.  We could use some here.”

For centuries we have been fascinated with the idea of life on other planets. Whole industries have grown up and thrived on the possibility that we are not alone. Science fiction is big business both in books and films. Everywhere you turn, something alien, grisly, and truly scary is out to get us. Ray Bradbury was a moderate by comparison

‘If it bleeds, it leads’ has always been a good principle for TV news, and movies are no different.  Rather than focus on positive themes, like Frank Paul’s Life on Jupiter, above; Hollywood would rather give us Independence Day or The War of the Worlds.  Although none of us would really like to see continent-size death ships hovering over Los Angeles, or blaster rays destroying the Empire State Building, we do love to see death and destruction on the screen. After all, what kind of interest would there be in the peaceful colonization of a planet?

Even if there were such a movie, it would have to focus on human barbarity, enslavement of native populations, and indigenous heroism to have any viewers.  District 9 was one of these movies, and it turned the tables on alien domination.  In the film, South Africans enslave a race of aliens (their N-word is ‘prawns’), keep them in townships, and brutalize them.  The hero, of course, is an alien.

Star Wars gave us a more ‘progressive’ multi-cultural view of aliens.  We are all just a bunch of life forms working hard and out for a good time:

Stanley Kubrick took a more mystical approach to science fiction in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There were no real aliens in his vision – just a powerful, universal intelligence which every so often provided clues to its existence.  Humans finally discovered the monolith and set out to discover the source of strange transmissions from Jupiter.

Paul Davies, writing in the New York Times (11.18.13) has written about the news from astronomical community that not are we only not alone,a but that the neighborhood is relatively crowded:
THE recent announcement by a team of astronomers that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy has further fueled the speculation, popular even among many distinguished scientists, that the universe is teeming with life.
The astronomer Geoffrey W. Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, an experienced planet hunter and co-author of the study that generated the finding, said that it “represents one great leap toward the possibility of life, including intelligent life, in the universe.”
Ever since watching 2001 I have always wondered about our search for ‘life on other planets’.  Given the infinitude of the universe and its timeless age, why focus on the notion that alien ‘life’ must in some way resemble our own.  If 13.8 billion years isn’t enough time to develop a Kubrick-style intelligence, aliens had plenty of time before the Big Bang to do so. Who said there was ‘nothing’ out there prior to the great explosion that set dirt and gravel into motion?

Kubrick, of course, produced his movie in 1968; and for all those who can remember The Sixties, acid-trippers made him a lot of money.  They sat in the front row night after night. Millions more packed the upper decks and watched the film even more times than Pink Flamingos. 2001 had a hippy philosophy that was perfect for an age that was rejecting traditional religion and turning to crystals and meditation.   There is something out there greater than ourselves, said Kubrick; something, benevolent, intelligent, and caring.  It has given us guideposts on our journey to realization.  Sound familiar?

2001 was indeed a religious movie where ‘Universal Intelligence’ was substituted for ‘God’. 
It is just as likely that super-intelligences which had no social concerns whatsoever evolved over the eons.  Following the rules of natural selection, they were interested only in survival, and a gazillion years ago they fought each other for spatial turf.  Now, they and their energies pass through the universe without even an itch as the pass through Milky Ways, planetary orbits, or asteroid clusters let alone Earth.  Not only are we of no interest or concern to them, their entire perceptual framework does not even include trolling for humans.

So, there may be a planet out there with some weird viruses thrashing around in an evolutionary broth; some primeval ooze out of which some creature will stick his nose; but the real story is elsewhere – far from humanized critters and anthropomorphic aliens and in the realm of intelligence per se.

Putting the gooky-looking sci-fi aliens aside for a moment, we can’t help wondering, “Are we alone?” and worrying about what we will find.  If we do find intelligent life, all the more reason to believe in God, say believers.  His universe is even more miraculous than we had ever imagined. However, if we do discover a planet where life has emerged, we may have to reconsider our ‘Image of God’ metaphor; for given probability, chance, and good or bad luck, the chances of us finding a Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson are pretty slim.

Non-believers will greet the discovery of life with an oh-hum ‘I told you so’. Given an infinity of time and an infinity of space, they say, what do you expect?
Davies concludes by saying:
[Finding life] would also address a deep philosophical question. Although the pathway from microbes to complex thinking beings like humans may still be a very difficult one, at least we know the mechanism whereby it happens — Darwinian evolution. If microbial life is widespread in the cosmos, we can expect that, at least here and there, sentient beings will evolve. We would then be much closer to answering that age-old puzzle of existence: Are we alone in the universe?
The focus on ‘microbial life’ is surprisingly naïve.  Once again, given the infinity of time and space, and the unknowable and inconceivably vast number of random possibilities out there, why would anyone assume that the only life is a microbial-based one?

In the meantime, I love sci-fi movies in part because they are so hokey.  I liked Jodie Foster in Contact. It had a 2001 feel to it – a universal intelligence with an interest in contacting us - but oh, that rotating contraption!

A nice sci-fi twist is the ‘aliens-meet-racism’ idea – i.e. aliens helped primitive people to develop their societies because they were too stupid to do it on their own.  These tribes had no contact with highly-evolved white people, so they must have had some extraterrestrial help:

Alien was the best of them all. It was a conventionally twisted anthropomorphic image of an alien – big head, salivating jaws, and implacably destructive tendencies; but who can top the bloody alien baby popping out of John Hurt’s stomach?

I have enough on my plate to worry about aliens or life on other planets. I am a firm believer in the accidental, probabilistic nature of the universe and all within it. There may be life elsewhere, but it has no meaning other than its existence.  No lessons, no spiritual enlightenment, no metaphysical insights.

There is a popular marketing theory which posits that searching for something is far more satisfying that actually possessing it.  Applied to marketing, we all love to shop for cool clothes, but once they are hanging in the closet, they lose their allure and value.  The psychological equivalent to the depreciation of a new car.

The search for life on other planets is the same thing.  We love to imagine all the possibilities of alien life forms.  We shudder at the creepiest, and are scared of the most powerful.  If we ever found out that aliens had bank accounts and worried about garbage pickup, we would be very disappointed indeed. 

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