A Question I Want Answering in My Lifetime

My interest in a long-standing personal fascination has been once again piqued by the recent news of the discovery of (another) so called ‘goldilocks’ planet some twenty light years from Earth[1]. The ramifications of such a discovery, for me, span a number of inter-related fields – philosophical, religious, and anthropological – with a volley of questions demanding to be, if not answered, then at least tackled.  

Perhaps the most important question mankind should be striving to answer is “are we alone?” by this I am not invoking the presence of (one of many) God(s), because the existence of God is, at best, a philosophical construct – a starting point (or ultimate ending point) for hypothetical argument. As a scientific, empirical, answerable question it is moribund (if ever it has been anything else). No one will conclusively prove or disprove the existence of God (much less one particular religion’s God). Thus, from a scientific perspective, attempting to engage with this question is as fruitless an exercise as trying to prove whether, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it actually makes a sound.

The question I would like answering, and I believe humankind need answering is this: “is there life (intelligent or otherwise) on planets other than our own?” this question is fundamental to all humanity’s future endeavours. We have only just begun, in the last couple of decades, to be able to even detect planets orbiting distant suns, so are still some distance (physically as well as metaphorically) from ascertaining any answers to this question. However, there can be no doubt that this question, for so long a component of science fiction narratives, has begun to shift itself into the realm of science proper; an actual answer to this question may not be so far away. There are also several sub-questions that will be answered along the way to this ultimate goal that are equally interesting.

Firstly; is the amount of planets orbiting our sun regular or irregular, taking into account the average ratio of planets to suns in our galaxy? It could be the case that most stars have no planets orbiting them at all. Similarly it could be that most suns (a ‘star’ becomes a ‘sun’ if it has planets orbiting it) have many more planets orbiting it. Optimistically speaking, because of the relatively large number of distant planets ‘discovered’, the answer may be closer to the latter of these two scenarios (though the constitution of these planets may be more commonly akin to the gas giants in our own solar system).

Secondly, and expanding upon the above; what are the ratios of starts to suns, suns to planets and planets to life[2]-supporting planets? Taking our own solar system as a case study, we have respective ratios of 1:1, 1:8 (excluding Pluto, which I am loath to do for some reason) and 8:1. But are these ratios regular or massively uncommon. Current discoveries point to the first of the ratios being fairly representational, the second and third are still up in the air (no pun intended). However, I don’t think (and I confess to not really knowing enough about this) that there is anything to suggest that our solar system is anything but average. Therefore – potentially – if one assumes there are 100 billion (a frankly stupefying number), that all are suns to, on average, eight planets of differing constitutions, and that of these planets, one may support life, then there could be 100 billion planets with life upon them. I know that this sounds almost impossibly optimistic, and it probably is – although is there anything other than human hubris to suggest that life is exceptionally rare and ‘sacred’? even if the odds are much shorter (or longer, however odds work!) than proposed above – say life is present on a planet in one-in-one-million solar systems – that would still be one million planets with life… in our galaxy alone!

The reason why I find this question so crucial to answer is neither really scientific curiosity, nor from my love of science fiction. The answer may be of fundamental importance from a humanistic stance.

Humans have evolved with a certain innate desire to define themselves as opposed to an ‘other’. This creates a reverse self definition almost; “I am not all these other things”. The reasons for this evolutionary trait are obvious. By defining one’s self (which can extend out to one’s tribe, community, nation etc) as opposed to an other, it is easier to create cohesion between said group. There is a togetherness – not always (or necessarily) against an enemy (although this has helped) and as such the group can pull (or can be encouraged to feel like pulling) in the same direction, even sacrifice immediate self-gratification for the overall ‘good’ of the group.

However, the problems humanity face now – global economic collapses, a staggeringly unequal distribution of wealth and resources, natural disasters effecting millions at a time, religious and ideological wars, climate change, the ever present threat – the ultimate sword of Damocles – nuclear war. All these problems require humanity to work as one collective tribe. Globalisation – in particular the power of the internet – has done much to help facilitate a feeling of a ‘global village’; communications across the world now take seconds. But there will always be the need to define one’s ‘self’, and this, I fear, will always require an ‘other’. In this case, many of our more pressing problems may go unresolved (or not adequately resolved) as nations (or continents even) endeavour to ‘look after their own’ to the detriment of humanity as a whole.

Were we to encounter life on another planet, we would be offered an opportunity to displace the myriad ‘others’ from humans to this celestial ‘other’; ‘the ultimate other’. I believe that only then would it truly be possible to begin to think with the correct scope of vision required; to be able to think past nations to worlds – to define ourselves, however far-fetched this sounds, as ‘Earthians’. One reading of human history is as a series of broadening definitions of the ‘self’; from the individual to the family, to the tribe, to the village, to the city, to the kingdom, to the nation, to the continent. The final, inevitable step then, one which we have failed to take yet (have we fully to take the step from nation to continent?), is to see ourselves as a world, and this can only fully happen if we have ‘another’ world to serve as ‘our other’.

This may sound a little defensive, and I abhor the idea, so prevalent in films on the subject of man’s first contact with extra-terrestrial life, that hostility will be our knee-jerk reaction to any alien life. However, judging by humanity’s first reactions when encountering ‘others’ (the Spanish conquistadores in Latin America, Europeans in Africa etcetera), the exemplars don’t look promising (and that was encounters between members of the same species). I hope we would be noble enough not to fight, to use the ‘other’ in such a negative way. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that it is unavoidable that this ‘ultimate other’ will be constructed and that human nature at such an ingrained level is unavoidable.

But what if no life exists in out vast galaxy? More realistically, what if we are incapable of reaching it (or it us) over the incomprehensible oceans of space? In that case, humanity may be forever destined to dichotomise itself in its search for an other. To take what I believe to be a prescient model from the world of science fiction, I turn to Isaac Asimov’s (who else?) superlative ‘Foundation’ series. A recurrent theme is the idea of multiple worlds inhabited by diasporic communities of humans. Their ‘origin’ or ‘original home’ forgotten, these groups spread out over multiple planets, never think of themselves as nations or cities, only ever as planets and as such each planet works as a singular ‘self’, defined in opposition to other worlds. This may be how humanity will begin to look past parochial ‘otherness’ and begin to form coherent solutions to planet-wide problems. However, we will always need our other; our nature demands it.


[1] Story can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11444022

[2] By which I mean life in terms that humans could comprehend – let’s steer away from the more esoteric and fantastical definitions of extra-terrestrial life for now!

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