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.

Will You Answer What Congress Won't? The Top 20 Questions pt 17
Weekend Caption Contest™ Winners