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It's A Great Big Universe, And We're All Really Puny...

A lot of people have been giving Dennis Kucinich a hard time over the words of Shirley McLaine, and her pronouncement that he had seen a UFO at her home -- and it had a profound effect on him.

I think it's time to clear the air on a few things, and put forth my own opinions on a few matters.

First up, I believe in UFOs.

Secondly, I saw one once.

Thirdly, I do believe in life on other planets.

Now, let me elaborate.

First up, UFOs means -- literally -- "Unidentified Flying Objects." I believe that people have seen objects flying around that they can not identify.

Secondly, I saw one once. In retrospect, what I saw was most likely a combination of an oddly-shaped cloud, high winds moving said cloud, a rising sun playing odd tricks of lighting said cloud, and an overly-active imagination of a child. (I think I was seven or so.) But I can still see to this day a reddish-orange cigar-shaped object (or, at least, that was the shape it seemed to have from the side) moving across the sky down near the horizon right around sunrise.

(A quick aside: anyone notice how quickly reports of UFOs and alien abductions since camcorders and digital cameras became so incredibly prevalent? It seems as soon as the Grays or Little Green Men realized that they could be documented so readily, they skedaddled to go bother some other planet.)

Thirdly, I believe in life on other planets.

The universe is huge. As Douglas Adams put it in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, "Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."

For those of a scientific, rational bent, I point you to The Drake Equation, as made famous by Carl Sagan. Considering the sheer number of stars in the heavens (250 billion in our own galaxy, 70 sextillion (that's 70 with 21 zeroes after it) in the visible universe, and god only knows how many beyond that), the odds that only one of those planets has intelligent life are not only literally astronomically small, but represent an arrogance beyond comprehension.

For those who are more theologically inclined, I ask you this: why would God (or whatever supreme being) create such a huge celestial stage, and then only put life -- His greatest act of creation -- on one tiny little mudball? If He was simply trying to instill in us a sense of awe and our own insignificance, He really went in for overkill. The only remotely plausible reason I can conceive of is to give us something to keep our most curious minds occupied and distracted, so they can't get into real mischief.

So, from both sides, a plausible argument can be made that there is life beyond the Earth. And simply by playing the odds and remembering the literally unimaginable scale of the Universe, the chances that the life will develop intelligence and progress to the point where they can communicate and travel beyond the worlds of their birth, it almost becomes mandatory to think so.

As I said before, to presume differently requires a level of arrogance and selfishness that would be beyond that of even the most vainglorious movie star, musician, or politician. Indeed, I don't think that even Geraldo Rivera or Donald Trump couldn't pull it off. We simply can NOT be the only speck of life and civilization amid the incomprehensible magnitude of the cosmos.

But that same magnitude is why I do not believe we have been visited by aliens.

Our sun is -- let's be honest here -- rather mundane and average. It's a yellow dwarf, and according to current studies, it's about four and a half billion years old. That puts it almost halfway through its current phase of life, and in about five billion years it'll grow into a red giant and cook the Earth -- if not sooner.

Yellow dwarfs are fairly common stars, and simply not that exciting. There simply isn't that much about them -- apart from our own's having generated life around itself -- that draws a great deal of scientific interest. Further, since they're small and relatively weak, they simply aren't as detectable as bigger, brighter, and hotter stars.

Toss in that we live in a pretty boring neighborhood of a very unassuming and unexciting galaxy, and the chances that we will draw the attention of some alien civilization are exceedingly slight.

So, they won't find us on their own. Can we help? Have we been helping them?

Well, we've been announcing our presence for some time. We've been sending out radio signals for a bit over a century, and television signals for a bit over seventy years. So, we've been shouting "here we are!" for that long.

Well, "shouting" might be overstating it. On the cosmological scale, we've barely been whispering. And since radio and television signals travel at the speed of light, that means that only those places within a hundred or so light years (closer, for the television signals) might have picked up the signals.

Physics has also not been kind to us. Despite the wildest ambitions of our greatest fantasists, the speed of light still remains a barrier to true travel between stars. Indeed, the concept of getting vehicles to travel at even a significant fraction of that velocity poses tremendous challenges. With the next-nearest star being 4.22 light-years away, that means that even if we could travel at one-tenth the speed of light (.1 c), it would still take about half a lifetime for the trip. And Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, an old, tiny (it's about one and a half times the size of Jupiter), petulant runt that -- relatively speaking -- is on its last legs. Going there would be similar to going to the North Pole -- purely for the bragging rights.

Then again, it was once the widely-held scientific consensus that vehicles could never travel faster than 60 miles an hour without suffocating the passengers, and that belief ended up on the ash-heap.

One of my favorite quotes is from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the legendary Russian (and, later, Soviet) rocket scientist: ""The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever."

The universe is unimaginably huge, and our world is inconceivably small. Further, it has an expiration date. Even if every other single potential catastrophe is avoided somehow, in five billion years the Sun will expand into a red giant and sear the Earth right down to the bedrock.

All of humanity's eggs (literally) are in one very fragile basket.

Hey, this crib's getting boring. There's a heck of a big universe out there, just waiting for us. Let's go take a look.


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Comments (40)

I think the reason people m... (Below threshold)

I think the reason people make fun over what McClain said is that she implied he felt it was more than just 'something unidentifiable in the sky'. Many people, when they see something they can't explain, adopt the automatic assumption that there is intelligence behind it.

My first thought upon hearing what she said was, "Man, sometimes your friends can be your worst enemies." I knew people would seize on that, but I didn't jump on the bandwagon. There was too much else to criticize Kucinich for without relying on that one.

I saw something I couldn't explain once too, but I didn't assume we were being visited. I wasn't the only one who saw it. After talking about it we came up with a pretty plausible explanation for what it was. (Although, one person was pretty stubborn refusing to believe it was natural phenomenon.)

"All of humanity's eggs (literally) are in one very fragile basket."

That quote brought this one to mind right away: "The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!" - Larry Niven

I was having dinner with Sa... (Below threshold)

I was having dinner with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. They told me that the Fairy God Mother say a UFO and it was martians.

Sorry. Couldn't help it. Good post JT, but anytime I see articles of this kind, I wonder where the debate is and if there is one, why? ww

Just thought I'd share with... (Below threshold)

Just thought I'd share with you a compelling reason why life "out there" might NOT exist, in spite of how big the universe is.

Consider earth. In two billion years, it went from rock to teeming with life. BUT, most of that evolution actually occurred within about 300 million years, with life prior to that being basically stagnant. Nonetheless let's have...

Given #1: Life can progress of stray molecule to sentience in two million years.

Now, consider humans. In our history, we began a rapid progression technologically about, let's just round it to 30,000 years ago. So let's have...

Given #2: Intelligent life can go from discovering fire to space travel in 30,000 years.

Now, let's consider what the scientists tell us. These people are often knuckelheads (dark matter? All so we don't have to fix broken equations? C'mon) but let's take at face value their "age of the universe" and round it down so that...

Given #3: The universe is 13 billion years old.

And now, let's have a supposition. Let's suppose that in the next five thousand years, man will colonize the solar system, and in the next 30,000 years, man will colonize planets, so that (rounding up)...

Given #4: A sentient species can go from discovering fire to colonizing a large chunk of their local galactic neighborhood in 100,000 years.

So, with all these givens, there is enough time and space in the universe for, let's be scientific, bajillions of species to evolve, go forth, and completely conquer space.

They should be everywhere. We should see the traces of civilizations literally ALL over the place. Even if you assume that 99.99999% of sentient species would wipe themselves out or otherwise die off, there should still be endless civilizations that started evolution 10 billion years ago, 8 billion years ago, 5 billion years ago.

Just picture where we might be in 100,000 years... then picture how in a billion years, humankind would be scattered all over the galaxy, walling off stars, making gigantic artifacts.

Where are they?

Footnote: This assumes that the coal sack, the missing mass, exploding galaxies, and other galactic WTFs are not actually dyson spheres, tame black holes, or other supertech marvels. It also assumes that humans on earth are not a lost colony of a larger human species that is, in fact, literally everywhere.

Do the bacteria living on a... (Below threshold)

Do the bacteria living on a Petri dish realize it when they are thrown into the trash heap?

Who is to say that Earth is not in the galactic trash heap?

Proof that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, is the fact they DON'T visit us.

Lost in the 'green' discuss... (Below threshold)

Lost in the 'green' discussion is the fact that no matter how much plastic we recycle, no matter how many hydrogen cars we buy, no matter how high the gas-guzzler taxes are on those evil SUVs, no matter how many children the government insures...

...one day, this place will be uninhabitable, and if we do not have an executable plan to leave before that happens, we will cease to exist.

As a grade-schooler, learning about the moon landing, it never occurred to me that 30 years later we would have gotten almost no further.

The Drake equation is fun, ... (Below threshold)

The Drake equation is fun, but since we don't know how to fill in the variables with meaningful numbers, it can only be used for speculation at this point.

However large and awesome y... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

However large and awesome you think the universe is - God is bigger and more awesome. He SPOKE the universe into existence. I have no problem believing that Earth contains the only life in the universe. The conditions that allow life here are very exacting. Of course, life could take other forms beyond our comprehension, but I'll believe it when I see it. I am not talking about some crawly little organism either. I mean developed, intelligent beings. Show me.

P.S. The universe is not to... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

P.S. The universe is not to show us how insignificant we are, but how great God is. When theologians throw around words like omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent - and one considers the awesomeness of the universe - you begin to get an inkling what they mean.

Also, I was pondering your ... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

Also, I was pondering your use of the word "overkill." Do you really think so? If so, man is not getting the message, relative to his insignificance. Have you noticed the arrogance of "science" lately? Men are asserting that they know virtually everything there is to know about the universe from how it was created to how it will all end and everything in between. The pride and hubris of it all is utterly astounding.

Considering the sh... (Below threshold)
Considering the sheer number of stars in the heavens (250 billion in our own galaxy, 70 sextillion (that's 70 with 21 zeroes after it) in the visible universe, and god only knows how many beyond that), the odds that only one of those planets has intelligent life are not only literally astronomically small, but represent an arrogance beyond comprehension.

I've never been much impressed with this argument. It's nothing more than a sophisticated version of "just gotta be." Is there life on other planets? Look how big the universe is! There just gotta be!

Not necessarily.

Consider the number 224,036,583-1. Now, you would think that, given this number's immense size, there would have to be a number that you could divide it by and get no remainder. After all, it's so huge, there would have to be such a number. I mean, what are the odds against it? Just gotta be!

But, you would be wrong. As it turns out, 224,036,583-1 is a prime number. In fact, it's the largest prime number ever found. So despite how enormous it is, there is in fact no smaller number that evenly divides it. Not one. The "just gotta be" line of reasoning fails.

That's why I think Drake's equation is based on a fallacious argument.

Argh. Apparently, the supe... (Below threshold)

Argh. Apparently, the superscripting HTML tag doesn't work here, even though you can see it work ok in in the preview screen. The number I was using as an example should be 2**24,036,583-1 where 24,036,583 is the exponent.

Raptisoft: Lot of given... (Below threshold)

Raptisoft: Lot of givens there. You're not taking into consideration the context here; the 'size' of the Universe and the possibility that there are few, if any, civilizations so much more advanced than ours that distance is not an issue.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is other intelligent life out there. The odds are just too great to ignore or brush off with 'givens' like this:

"Given #4: A sentient species can go from discovering fire to colonizing a large chunk of their local galactic neighborhood in 100,000 years."

First, a "local galactic neighborhood" is hardly "completely conquering space" and hardly a convincing reason against other life. Given the sheer size of space that is just a pin prick.

That no one has contacted us is not a testament to the fact that they don't exist. It's possible that there are intelligent species in our "local galactic neighborhood" that are progressing at the same rate we are and are faced with the same barriers we are.

With all this I'm just talking about intelligent life biologically capable of any space travel at all. To say there is no life at all is just way to much to assume.

OregonMuse: Do you believe... (Below threshold)

OregonMuse: Do you believe in God?

At this point I have two ne... (Below threshold)

At this point I have two negative votes for my first comment. I really like to know why someone felt it was bad or wrong.

Oyster: yes, very much so. ... (Below threshold)

Oyster: yes, very much so. Why do you ask?

Puny? Al Gore says we have... (Below threshold)
Eric Forhan:

Puny? Al Gore says we have teh powah to destroy a whole planet!

Best. Post. Evah.... (Below threshold)

Best. Post. Evah.

Oyster, you only have one n... (Below threshold)
Senor Cardgage:

Oyster, you only have one negative vote, not two. From a total of three votes, it takes two positive votes and one negative to return a value of +1.

Maybe Shirley stopped by and dinged you for misspelling MacLaine.

Oyster:Still, there ... (Below threshold)

Still, there must has been, in 10 billion years of history, a race evolved enough in our galaxy alone, to create a galactic empire. Just saying "local neighborhoods aren't big enough" doesn't work with the immense amounts of time here. I mean, in a billion years, even if we never discover faster than light travel, would could colonize this galaxy a thousand times over.

And it's not just that nobody has contacted us-- where are the gigantic artifacts that such a civilization would create (at least one science fiction writer has written a story where red drawfs are actually dyson spheres).

Not only that, but even if all those civilizations spend only a few decades using radio for communication, the whole galaxy should be awash with the waves, all arriving at different times. I suppose it's BARELY possible that we're just in a radio hiatus, but not very likely, considering the numbers involved.

And if there's life anywhere, it will evolve intelligence. Every species on earth develops "space travel" independently-- microbes leaving the local mass is space travel to them. Amphibians going up onto land is space travel to them. You won't get very many planets that evolve life but never space travel. Again, this just comes down to numbers... you can't say the universe has billions of planets with life, and only ours gets into space. And if you don't say that, then it HAS to be that long ago someone-- someone whose species started evolving even two million years before ours-- colonized huge chunks of sky, and we should be detecting them.

OregonMuse, please don't ta... (Below threshold)

OregonMuse, please don't take this as being rude because it is not my intent, but "There's just gotta be," right?

Drake's equation isn't a proof either way, while it's demonstrably proven that your number cannot be divided evenly. Once something is proven, odds are out the window. Until then, all possibilities are still on the table. The odds of other life being out there are incalculable because we can only guess how many galaxies and solar systems are out there. Drake's equation is probably an extremely conservative guess and it would be foolish to ignore it.

For the record, I too believe in "God". Just not in a conventional sense. I'd describe it if I could. I just don't have the words.

Senor Cardgage: I misread ... (Below threshold)

Senor Cardgage: I misread it. Thought it said -1. Had my mind out in space :)

Sorry Shirley!

There are other reasons to ... (Below threshold)
Son Of The Godfather:

There are other reasons to consider why advanced alien intelligences have, to our knowledge, not landed on the White House lawn...

1.) Physical limitations of space travel. It may be that no matter how advanced a species becomes, it is a physical impossibility to say "howdy" to our nearest (intelligent) neighbors.

2.) We are out in the burbs, and no one has bothered with us yet. We are like your Aunt Millicent who you know you should visit, but there's a good football game on.

3.) Any significant alien intelligence results in an inevitable "technological singularity", an event where the intelligent species develops a superior (relative to them) artificial intelligence that is capable of self-replication and evolution. That evolution takes place in computer-time, and may slingshot the species to an ultimate fate of either destruction, or even a doorway out of this plane of existence (so no aliens to visit us).

4.) We are being visited and observed by stealthy aliens already, but only catch glimpses of them randomly when they get lazy. Perhaps they are out-of-phase with our reality, and can be standing right next to you all the time. They don't interfere because we are a giant, blue-marbled petri dish.

5.) Relating to #3: If an intelligent society reaches a point of technological singularity, an offshoot could be that they wish to run powerful simulation experiments in a quest for knowledge that never ceases. We are that simulation. Red pill, or blue?

Raptisoft: We may yet find... (Below threshold)

Raptisoft: We may yet find that we cannot physically travel great distances. Wormholes are a great theory, but physically practical? We don't know. We know little.

If we are considering the size of space we must also consider time. Even the age of the Universe is constantly adjusted. Radio waves? Could radio waves have already passed us by? Will we yet encounter them? I don't know. They have a long way to travel and they're not that fast. Frequencies and strengths vary.

You're implying that if there is life out there then it must exist at least elsewhere in our own galaxy. That we would have encountered something. We don't even know what we're looking for at this point. We're limited in our knowledge and ability. I'm saying that we may be the only ones in a hundred or thousands of nearby galaxies, but that the odds are infinitely great that there is someone out there somewhere. That's all.

I have considered all the things you bring up and I'm still a believer - because of the things that have 'yet' to be considered.

Raptisoft, one thing that t... (Below threshold)

Raptisoft, one thing that tends to get overlooked is the confluence of time and space when it comes to observing distant objects. Say we're studying the star Arcturus, just to pick an example. Arcturus is one of our closer neighbors, just 36.7 light years away, meaning what we are seeing is how it looked 36.7 years ago. The farther the star, the longer back in time we're gazing.

Hell, it's noticeable on a local level. When we observe the sun, we see how it looked seven minutes ago.

Dang, I MEANT to include that in the main body...


Drake's equation i... (Below threshold)
Drake's equation isn't a proof either way

It generally gets proffered as a reason for belief (in intelligent life elsewhere). My only point was to demonstrate that it offers considereably less than advertised.

Personally, I don't care one way or another how this question gets answered. i am thoroughly agnostic on the subject. It's just that there is no hard evidence that there is intelligent life elsewhere, and when I bring up this fact in any of the bull sessions I've been in, the believers usually bring up Drake's equation. That's really all they have.

Drake's equation is probably an extremely conservative guess and it would be foolish to ignore it.

Again, this is the "just gotta be" argument. Which only works if we know for a fact that we're not living in a universe that's the equivalent of a very large prime number.

Oyster;Given that ... (Below threshold)
Aog Author Profile Page:


Given that a species can go from non-sentience to colonizing the entire galaxy in just 10 or 20 Myears, the odds that another civilization is anywhere close to us in development in this galaxy that's 10,000 M years old is small.

As for physical travel being impossible between stars, all we're lacking right now is extended lifetimes. If we lived 10,000 years instead of 100, no one would doubt the possibility of interstellar travel. It's also very easy for artificial intelligences, so if you believe that's possible you have to accept the near inevitability of interstellar travel / colonization.

What I meant by saying, "Dr... (Below threshold)

What I meant by saying, "Drake's equation is probably an extremely conservative guess and it would be foolish to ignore it," was in reference to the possible number of planets out there. Not the percentage of them likely to contain life. Just want to make that clearer.

Nevertheless, I'll stick with my "there's just gotta be!" :)

If life has evolved on this... (Below threshold)

If life has evolved on this planet and was not created? where all the tweeners? still evolving missing links?
I know the Democratic candidates could qualify as knuckledragging neanderthals.. but cmon..

Wow. I'm impressed by your ... (Below threshold)

Wow. I'm impressed by your use of a quote from an Animaniacs song.

Should I be offended about being compared size-wise to Mickey Rooney?

Apparently I am wrong. Ther... (Below threshold)

Apparently I am wrong. There are a number of people who want to debate this issue. My bad. ww

Remember everyone, the whit... (Below threshold)

Remember everyone, the white mice are running the show and the answer is 42.

And if the dolphins disappe... (Below threshold)

And if the dolphins disappear, it's time to worry.

somebody removed my ... (Below threshold)
the struggler:

somebody removed my bigfoot post from #2
bigfoot discrimination

I knew bigfoot,and you sir,are no bigfoot

here's the problem with the... (Below threshold)

here's the problem with the ufo thang: they have the profound intelligence and technological wizardry to (presumably) pull off faster-than-lightspeed-travel; avoid our radars; do 90-degree ultra-high-speed aerial turns, etc etc. right?

but these highly advanced folks - who obviously don't wish to be seen, otherwise they'd just hover over central park at high noon - still slip up on occasion and allow hillbillies and dennis kucinich to view them. huh? are they technological supermen or not??

OR ..... they have the incredible tech to fly zillions of miles to study us, but THEN, just as they get here, they ... run out of gas? have to crash land at roswell? get shot down by piston-engined, propeller-driven WW2 era airplanes?

that does not compute.

Jay...and others..an UFO do... (Below threshold)
nogo war:

Jay...and others..an UFO does not mean some Roswell thing. It simply means we saw lights or aircraft in the night/day sky that are different. I remember seeing a B-1 long before "Jane's" ...

I do not believe in spacecraft from somewhere else.
I do believe that prototypes of future U.S. aircraft fly around.....

Congratulations, nogo. It t... (Below threshold)

Congratulations, nogo. It took you almost 15 hours, but you managed to sum up one tiny aspect of my piece and agree with it -- but managed to preserve your trademark snide, condescending tone when you deigned to inform us of what I had already said, adding only the experimental aircraft angle.

Have you EVER written a comment in complete, coherent sentence? Good god, man, sign up for Adult Ed or something.


Jay, UFO's might still be r... (Below threshold)
Mike G in Corvallis:

Jay, UFO's might still be real (i.e., craft piloted by intelligent creatures) but not from space. I can think of at least four other possibilities, all stolen from science fiction:

* They might be from alternate Earths, crewed by people or creatures whose histories diverged from purs hundreds to millions of years ago. (The vehicles in H. Beam Piper's "Paratime" stories were saucer-shaped, by the way.

* They might be travelers from a "shadowmatter" universe coexistent with ours. (See "Twistor" by Cramer or "In the Shadow" by Anderson.)

* They might be time travelers from the distant future, trying to observe us without disturbing history.

* They might be time travelers who have visited the past -- the late Cretaceous, let's say -- and have returned to find that they changed the course of history so radically that their civilization or their species no longer exists.

I don't believe that any of these explanations is true. I'm just sayin' that's all.

BTW, were you thinking of the line from e. e. cummings? -- listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go

I've been thinking on alien... (Below threshold)

I've been thinking on aliens for the last few days.

Earth has a finite amount of fossil fuels. When they're exhausted, we'd either be ready to collapse back to pre-industrial levels until the Sun goes boom, or we'll have used that precious, precious time to have harnessed better sources of energy at a similar scale.

Now ask yourself, if there is intelligent life on other planets, what are the odds they used their 200 years or so of fossil fuels (assuming they have them) to bootstrap themselves to spacefaring status?

Food for thought.

Mike G, I KNEW I was liftin... (Below threshold)

Mike G, I KNEW I was lifting that line from someone, but couldn't remember enough of it to track it down. Thanks.


Shirely McClian must have c... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

Shirely McClian must have came from area 51






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