Intelligent Life

The obvious critical aspect of “intelligent” life is the definition of intelligence

I have long been interested in what summarily can be referred to as cosmology — but actually represents some eighteen categories of study related to the universe in one way or another. Its appeal is at numerous levels, and includes a great deal of pragmatism because I find that understanding the universe puts what passes for human belief into true perspective. From religious dogma to questions about the meaning of life to narcissistic hubris regarding our existence on a small planet in a corner of a vast universe — it realigns our perceptions of scale and reality. Or at least it should.

One of the things we wonder about is the existence of life — to be specific , intelligent life — on other planets. Given the existence of billions of stars, such as our sun, it hardly seems likely that we are “alone” in a universe that is 93 billion light years across. Exoplanets (must orbit a star, be in a Goldilocks zone and have a likelihood of water) are possible locations for such life. Precisely what that life might look like has been explored by popular culture thoroughly, although such depictions are without any academic basis and thus are completely conjectural.

The obvious critical aspect of “intelligent” life is the definition of intelligence. While I certainly agree that humans can be quite intelligent, monitoring the daily news for human behavior calls into question how widely shared intelligence might be. That is, we assume intellect to be fundamentally benign, but the list of variations of humans doing bad things to other humans reasonably raises doubts regarding this. The evolution of intellect, socialization and psychological awareness should have resulted in far better behavior than appears common in the twenty-first century.

Efforts to determine the existence of life beyond our solar system — located in a corner of the Milky Way — have resulted in nothing. We have also made other efforts to make our presence known to whatever may live elsewhere, which may not be a particularly intelligent endeavor. Steven Hawking has noted that any society capable of coming to find us could easily be dangerous to us…worse than we are to ourselves…relatively speaking. Realistically, the odds of intelligent life ever coming in contact with other intelligent life is essentially nil.

Consider that the observable universe is about 46 billion light years in any direction (keeping in mind that a light year is 97 billion miles). The nearest star system to our solar system, Alpha-Proxima Centauri, is some 4.2 light years from us. Even if the highest technology spacecraft could be built for an astronomical (no pun intended) amount, it would take an estimated 75,000 years to get there. I find a 10-hour flight to Europe tedious. And, of course, it would require something like a thousand generations to be born, reproduce and die on that craft so that humans would be alive to see their destination.

[Note that a NASA news release proposing a laser-driven research craft of 100 kg (220 lb) that could reach Mars in three days changes none of this. Even it was eventually developed, it would not provide any of the logistical requirements for manned flight within our solar system or beyond.]

Anyone who thinks humans will eventually colonize another location somewhere in space when things really go wrong on earth isn’t applying much intelligence. The other planets in our solar system are not inhabitable as is, and even with some incredibly expensive technology to make it possible, how many of the billions of inhabitants on earth could or even would go there. It would be a logistics nightmare at best. So our planet is all we have, and we aren’t doing much to ensure its sustainability until the sun begins to evaporate the oceans in approximately a billion years…or sooner.

Intelligent life is up to us. The dumbest people on the planet are those who deny climate change and global warming. It doesn’t matter why they deny it — be it for monetary reasons and/or meaningless ideological ones. And countries that delusionally insist that they have their turn at economic growth without regard to the effect on climate change — because others have had the same opportunity — are pretending it won’t matter if they wait a decade or three before taking critical steps to reduce their carbon footprint. There is no intelligence for not wanting to believe because that’s reason enough, or shifting responsibility elsewhere.

What many seem oblivious to is that inertia in the universe and in planetary weather systems creates inevitability that can’t simply be mitigated, stopped or reversed. The essential message in this is that we — all of us sharing this planet — need to apply intelligence over emotion if we truly want to have any hope of even slowing down the changes that are becoming increasingly evident at increasing rates. New estimates on rising sea levels should be sufficient, but the effects on pollinators (and thus our food) and ecosystems should remove any lack of urgency. Climate scientists are not the problem, nor is science itself.

Read the history of astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics and you are also reading the history of science — a human endeavor that, despite the quirks and idiosyncrasies of human behavior, could reasonably be regarded as one of the most impressive achievements of our species. These disciplines and related ones put everything we know about life on earth in perspective at a level that is profound. Those who engage in any war against science are purposely unintelligent and willfully ignorant…the complete opposite of those who work to build on what we know about the planet we live on and the universe it is in. Pragmatism at its best.