SETI – Are We Alone?


Nobody talks about Fontenelle these days, but his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds is a wonderful book. He was a vastly popular author, he lived for a century (1657-1757) and was a best seller for… centuries – how many authors can say that! His Conversations were written in 1686, and provide a popularized discussion of cosmic issues, e.g., man’s place in the universe; the Copernican System; the possibility of life on other planets. One of the arguments he advances through these dialogs is that there probably is life on other planets – it stands to reason with the universe being so large.

Almost as remarkable in this work as the assertion of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life is the fact that the dialog is between a learned gentleman and a woman, a woman who holds her own in the conversation! This was certainly not the usual style of such works, and they don’t even flirt (except, of course, at the most elevated intellectual level.) As for ET, it was simply one more piece of evidence for the essential unimportance of humanity and the earth from the cosmic point of view. We are just beings on a speck of dirt, probably one among millions of such agglomerations of life, so it is nonsense to think we are the center of the universe, ruled over by God or not. Fontenelle even deals with the problem of what we would now call existential angst:

“But,” she replied, “here’s a universe so large that I’m lost, I no longer know where I am, I’m nothing. What, is everything to be divided into vortices…Each star will be the center of a vortex, perhaps as large as ours.? All this immense space which holds our sun and our planets will be merely a small piece of the universe? As many spaces as there are fixed stars? This confounds me — troubles me — terrifies me.”

“And as for me,” I answered, “this puts me at my ease.”

Well, in his day, this assertion of the existence of ET was a radical thrust against the old way of thinking, with the God-Earth-Man at the center of everything, but today, it has become a notion that strikes me as faintly ridiculous and religious. We have the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a program of scientists that links together computers all over the world to search for patterns in the radiowave radiation that reaches the earth. Perhaps, in all of this, there is a detectable structure that would indicate that some intelligent life, somewhere, is producing the signals.

I beg to differ. The great biologist, Ernst Mayr, in his superb book What Evolution Is dispatches this point of view rather neatly.

  • The conditions for life to arise on a planet are rather special, and not met by most bodies in space.
  • Still, there are billions of stars, so it’s likely that some of them have planet systems that contain a planet or two with the right conditions, atmosphere, distance from the central star, etc. to support life.
  • So, we can conclude that it is quite probable that life does exist elsewhere in the universe, however, after the simplest life did appear on earth, there was nothing by prokaryotes for one billion years. “Highly intelligent life originated about 300,000 years ago, in only a single one of the more than 1 billion species that had arisen on Earth. These are indeed long odds.” [emphasis added]
  • Even if such life has arisen somewhere else in the universe, we must consider the chance that we will be able to communicate with it as virtually zero.

I might add that the chances of it being near enough to Earth to make it practical to communicate are also virtually zero. You can fantasize all you like about how these ET might have developed a way around space and time, but the chances are still virtually zero.

12 Responses to SETI – Are We Alone?

  1. dianarn says:

    When thinking about whether or not life exists on other planets, learning a bit about what some old religions believe is helpful. The Sumerian mythology is a good start, since they’re the first known civilization. The Dogon tribe, though is very interesting.

    The Dogon tribe in Africa say their gods came from the Sirius star system and that it was a binary star system, which was finally proved in 1970, when they photographed a small dwarf star. They had knowledge of its elliptical orbit, of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s 4 major moons (none of which can be seen by the naked eye), etc. They say their knowledge was given to them by the “Nommos,” fish people from Sirius.

    Now how did some naked bush people without any technology figure this stuff out on their own?

    Look at us now. We have nukes, cloning, and space travel. My pastor in church once told me that the people before the flood had the technology of the diesel engine. They have found sheets of glass underneath the Sahara Desert. Sheets like that are formed only when atomic bombs are detonated on top of the sand.

    Would it be so far-fetched to think that maybe there are other creatures in this universe that are more or less advanced than we are?

    I think it would be highly egotistical to believe that we are the only ones worthy enough to be created by God.

  2. びっくり says:

    Regardless of the odds, as long as people think there is any chance, they will feel a compelling need to search.

  3. Ray says:

    It would really take me by surprise, if there was no other life out there.

    Still, ‘we’ are never alone.

  4. lichanos says:

    It would take me by surprise if there was not other life out there too. It would really floor me if it were intelligent, quite a different thing!

    Unpronounceable (by me):
    Yes, true. That’s how people are.


    You say: “Would it be so far-fetched to think that maybe there are other creatures in this universe that are more or less advanced than we are?”

    I say, did you read my post? The answer is yes, it would be far-fetched.

    As for ego, I think it is because we think we and our minds are so important that we cannot imagine that we are the only ones. In fact, intelligence is wonderful to us, but otherwise of no import.

  5. John Monte says:

    Maybe some of them even have blogs of their own. 🙂

  6. ericpalmieri says:

    A very interesting topic and I think you handle it very well. Very well written.

    I believe in life elsewhere. I believe that our world is being visiting. I definitely believe it. For me, there is just too much evidence to support it.

    However, you are right to point out that the conditions for life are very special and rare in our universe. A very small percentage of a planet’s lifespan could support life. Look at Earth.

    Earth has been around SO long yet life has only been around for a short while, and by the way things are going down here, it could end very soon!

    Great writing,

    -Eric Palmieri

  7. Ray says:

    Maybe intelligence is not quite what you think in the eye of much further developed life.

    I just think we should never forget who and what we are.
    Small, very small pieces compared to everything. Even so, we’re still a part of the totality and thus as important as everything else.

  8. Man of Roma says:

    This post is very stimulating and well written. I agree that it is very likely life exists out there, the universe being so huge. And it’s of course worth trying to get in contact with any possible alien life. You have already illustrated how tiny (zero …) chances are we can get to them. This sense of loneliness is romantic but is also despairing. And the problem, as I said in my blog, could be even worse. What kind of life could be out there? The difficulty could be both the type of intelligence and the possibility of communication. The former and the latter are not necessarily connected. With a very complex intelligence there could be no channels of communication available. This already happens here on earth. There are sophisticated animals (wales and dolphins, for example) whose senses we will never have and whose channels could be totally blocked for us. What do we know of the deep songs of the whales?

    I will paste, in case some of your readers are interested, this beautiful quote from Henry Beston, the American naturalist (The Outermost House). If what he says makes sense, it would further reduce the chances of outer space communication: we cannot even communicate here at our home!

    “We patronize them for their incompleteness [i.e. other species on earth], for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

    [quote taken from * Café Philos * ]

  9. lichanos says:

    Don’t despair! The solution is just to huddle together with our “fellow prisoners” for warmth and security.

  10. Man of Roma says:

    Ok, I won’t despair. Yes, solidarity, warmth and togetherness, man with man and man with animal (easier with mammals; birds and plants; spiders I wouldn’t be so crazy about, but I respect them lol.)

  11. lichanos says:

    Don’t forget the reptiles…

  12. Man of Roma says:

    Ah ah, but not as disgusting as spiders … 😉

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