The orbiting, planet-hunting Kepler Telescope continues to find ever more planetary systems in our galaxy, and California’s Allen Telescope Array is again listening for signals from distant alien species. There really are likely to be small rocky, water-bearing and life-supporting planets somewhat like our Earth, orbiting their stars, scattered throughout our galaxy, and therefore throughout the universe.
Light travels about 16 trillion miles per year. The closest star to us, Alpha Centauri is four light-years away, and we are 50,000 light-years from the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which in turn is 150,000 light-years in diameter.
We’ll never travel to other stars and their planetary systems, so exchanging signals with other intelligent species much like ourselves over these immense distances is all we can hope for. Of course the conversations would be slow, considering that nothing exceeds the speed of light, not even Italian neutrinos.
Such a faint hope, then. Perhaps some of these planets, many light-years away, support life forms more complicated than bacteria. Among these, perhaps some species have evolved complex cooperative behavior, and have what we think of as intelligence.
What would they look like? How would they communicate with each other? Would they be aware of themselves? Of their communities? Of their planet? Of the rest of the universe? Would they try to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy? Why would they? The questions are endless, and we may never get answers.
Sharing planet Earth with us are some intelligent, cooperative hunting mammals that have brains and anatomies sort of like ours. Wolves, chimps and dolphins come to mind. If we are going to succeed in communicating with any other species, we should start here.
Killer Whales – Orca - are the largest of the dolphins, and are as good an example as any to think about. We have tagged them, tracked them, mapped their DNA, counted them, figured out some of their life histories and their relationships with each other, observed and recorded their hunting behavior and their migrations, and recorded and analysed the sounds they make.
But we have utterly failed to communicate anything important with them. What sort of language do they have? Do they have a language? We think they have sub-cultures that vary among families or pods. How do these emerge, how are they taught and communicated?
Orcas cruise the oceans of the planet, they are clearly intelligent by any definition, but they don’t build things. They are not going to emit signals out into space in an attempt to contact other imagined species on other extremely distant worlds.
Though exciting to contemplate, the odds of our receiving emitted signals from alien species on planets orbiting other stars must also be perilously close to zero.
There is no reason to think that intelligent species on other planets, if they exist, will be anything like us, let alone have any of our addiction to building things. And though the Universe may be filled with life – perhaps mostly bacterial in complexity, perhaps not – we are too far away from any other planetary systems to ever visit them.
To think we are somehow going to communicate with other species on other planets is also beyond unlikely. We can’t even do it with species we co-exist with here.
Even if the Universe is teeming with life, the distance are so great that we really are on our own. This makes it ever more critical that we conserve, protect, and recover what we can of our own ecosystems. We should celebrate the extraordinary complexity and beauty of the other intelligent species we share this planet with – elephants, chimps, wolves, ravens, sperm whales, dolphins, and all the rest.
Meaningful communication with another species would be so amazing.
These are harsh years on this planet, but why not dream?