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Rated: E · Essay · Scientific · #2036367
It's a Matter of Numbers.
A Matter of Numbers

Speculations as to the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is, for this writer, an irresistible call for ultimately inconsequential chatter. Sort of like "pumping iron" for the brain. Makes one healthy, but to what end? In any event, it is notable that ours is perhaps one of the last (if not the last) generations for whom this particular quandary will remain so unanswered or so unanswerable. With much confidence that many people share at least a passing interest in this subject, and more than a few are obsessed with it, the following little essay should prove a mildly diverting read.

One reason the topic is especially thought-provoking lies in the minimal, if any, technical expertise required to participate. A small amount of information plus a lot of common sense reasoning can be, as illustrated later, all that is necessary to compete with the best, most educated thinkers around.

To date, not one piece of "hard" evidence has found its way into the public (or scientific) arena of open evaluation and discussion. Something incontrovertible that supports the notion of our having been visited by intelligent beings from elsewhere. Or that these advanced aliens drive around in souped-up intergalactic hot-rods. To date as well, all efforts by the scientific community (the SETI program) to detect radio signals that originate from another world or galaxy, have failed to log a single "contact". Granted this search/research operation is incomplete, the results thus far indicate a less-than-promising prospect for success.

Something with which everyone seems to agree pertains to the term, intelligence, as used to define intelligent life and to distinguish it from non-intelligent forms. The cosmos is likely swarming with rudimentary living organisms, even with more advanced, sophisticated and marvelously adapted species not altogether dissimilar from whales or birds. The true mystery, however, is concerned with the presence or absence of conscious, sentient minds who, via memory, imagination, and technology, care about their past, try to change and improve their present, and make plans for an ever better future.

Thus far, only humans are known to think in these ways, and they do so only on Earth. Only humans make an art and science of speech and language. Only humans develop and perpetuate culture, wax philosophical, or speculate about life on other planets. This does not establish anything, of course, one way or the other, but it does provide a starting point.

Many ask why, among all the vast numbers of creatures who inhabit the Earth, are humans the only ones to have developed advanced faculties? The answer may simply be that indeed only humans developed in such a specific way. To our detriment, we tend to think in terms of qualities, as if brains capable of heightened abilities were directly linked to, and associated with, very human notions of superiority and dominance. In actuality, nothing is further from the truth.

Humans probably represent nature’s most sophisticated renegades, creatures spawned by the unintended consequences of Darwinian natural selection. Animals whose particular attributes only appear to separate them from their fellow planetary beings. Organisms who, in reality, falsely manifest characteristics that, strictly by comparison, seem dominant over all other species. Such attributes are neither better nor worse, more complex or less, than those possessed by any other creatures. Only humans attempt to make such judgmental, qualitative distinctions, and probably only humans savor such valueless wastes of their limited time. On the flip side, however, only humans may possess the ability to rise above all their limitations and transform themselves (and their fellow creatures) in endlessly positive and productive ways.

During a TV show that aired on PBS, a group of scientists, all prominent and published physicists and the like, sat around discussing the possibility of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe. The camp quickly broke into two impassioned sides that were in direct and total opposition, one from the other.

Three of the scientists staunchly held that intelligent life is an abundant resource spread throughout a fertile, buzzing cosmos. Of the trio, one was a geologist, two were theoretical physicists. The remaining pair, on the contrary side of the issue, one a biologist, the other also a theoretical physicist, insisted that humankind is either utterly alone, or that so few civilizations exist or survive as to make the topic an exercise in futility.

A viewer could reasonably assume that, had a larger number of learned individuals been involved in the discussion, the percentages of pro and con would have remained relatively close. Roughly about a 45/55 split with a strong edge in favor of lots of so-called intelligent, industrious life forms bustling all about. Awaiting only our detection of them. Or vice versa.

Where this review grows interesting lies in the rationale used by both teams to justify their differing positions. The actual, albeit limited information (facts) that each provided to bolster their assertions and to simultaneously refute the arguments of the opposition, were exactly the same. Both sides quoted the same numbers, the same statistics, the same observations, yet arrived at absolutely opposite conclusions.

The scientists all agreed that the number 10 (ten) to the 22nd (twenty-second) power approximated the total population of stars to be considered. Put another way, this sum represents a 10 (ten) with 22 (twenty-two) zeroes after it. And this is how that appears: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Included within this unimaginable figure is an unknown quantity of systems. Stars exist alone or are both singular and multiple members of star systems. Such orderly arrangements can involve either stars by themselves or include much smaller, colder objects known as planets. It is probably safe to postulate that many of these kinds of systems, in all forms, plus a bunch of "loners" are out there somewhere -- everywhere. Since few societies may live on or inside stars, we can assume that planets represent the chief focus of attention.

So where exactly was the disagreement? How could this huge, incomprehensible number be used to argue and support two widely divergent opinions?

Before proceeding with a separate, more personal conclusion, the smarter-than-I guys proposed the following: The three who expressed confidence that intelligent aliens are flourishing, believed that the estimated number of stars (which includes all the galaxies) is so large as to make the existence of intelligent, extraterrestrial life an absolute certainty. The opposition contends with equal passion that, because of the utter absence of any hard evidence such as radio signals or direct visitations, the same big numbers prove how entities with thinking brains must be extremely rare.

According to the former, pro-intelligence view, we ought to be literally bombarded by nosy alien neighbors. Provided, of course, brainy E.T.’s were an expected, prolific outcome based solely on huge numbers of stars and in turn, high numbers of planets. But to put things in more colloquial fashion, because nobody's a-knockin', the cosmos ain't a-rockin'. At least not with poets, philosophers, physicists, WDC writers, or radio astronomers.

A casual observer is thus free to pick their personal intellectual poison. Either a large enough quantity of something proves that anything is possible, even likely. Or in the absence of anything happening, whereby nothing is, that same amount demonstrates how nothing extraordinary is likely to ever happen. Certainly not beyond extremely rare instances.

For those cheering on the side of life in any form, the chances appear to be extremely favorable. Given enough commotion, enough jostling within a primordial soup, a lightning bolt here, a spark there -- life is inevitably spawned. But on the matter of real sentience, of more humanlike awareness, the prospect seems dim and grows more bleak by the decade.

Unfortunately for those of us who might otherwise root for the Martians, it is not, in the end, a numbers game at all. Not in the same simplistic way large numbers are thought to favor the proponents of clever little (or big) aliens. In the manner presented, mathematical odds are as much the enemy as an ally. And it is in this context that confusion arises and shows how identical figures can be interpreted very differently to support very different conclusions.

In opposition to there being an abundance of alien civilizations, the evolutionary biologists, in this humble observer’s opinion, have it right. Sentience is a matter of physiology, not math. The biological, genetic evidence appears to thwart all optimism born of an overwhelming quantity of stars and galaxies. Even these high population figures pale by comparison with the statistical probabilities of genetic variation. Only one of the many reasons for this is because (in terms of pure numbers) the negative arithmetic (genetics) far outweighs the positive geometrics (sheer weight of numbers) quoted by pro-intelligence enthusiasts.

The total number of stars is miniscule compared to the genetic combinations possible on only a single world. Especially those factors that do not embrace intelligence any more or any less, than they do an octopus with nine tentacles. Intelligence is an incidental by-product rather than a pre-determined result. Of all the species on Earth, including microbes, only one somehow grew intelligent enough. Biologists now tell us that, based only on the numbers, even this single incidence should not have happened. Sheer quirks-of-fate, as a force of nature, are perhaps as valid as any scientific principle, theorem, or established law.

Had the Earth not possessed a moon, or was orbited by more than one, a less-than-intellectually brilliant fish or cockroach might reign supreme over a much different world. Had not a number of other events, equal to that same large number of stars, transpired in specifically indeterminate, random sequences, schoolyards filled with inquisitive human children would not exist today.

Quantum and Chaos theory hold that events are rarely random, but result from little understood patternizations. None the less, most changes occur in wholly unpredictable ways. Particularly as concerns evolutionary concepts such as Natural Selection. In addition, certain cosmological activities, catastrophic to life processes, are known to occur within galaxies. So-called "gama-ray-bursts" -- jets of deadly radiation that spew from dying stars -- serve as only one example of a sterilizing extinction event capable of halting an otherwise on-going progression of lifeforms evolving on a given planet. A particular circumstance whose rarity or frequency is largely unknown, but whose effects are devastating and grim with respect to anyone caught in the unpredictable paths of such interstellar "death rays".

The road to human intelligence was not a direct route. Imagine a small seedling falling from the highest branch of a tree, then coming to rest on the ground below. Suppose the day is windy. Then consider the odds of the seed landing atop a specific patch of dirt designated beforehand, the result of which would be analogous to human evolution. Suppose similar trees grew on many different worlds. Then calculate the chances that on more than one of these, a similar seed plops on an identically corresponding spot of ground. And in so doing, results in human or humanlike brains. Again by analogy, human intelligence is not likely to evolve more than once.

The world's best known physicist, Stephen Hawking, recently acknowledged that the very real possibility of destroying ourselves continues to exist, and will remain a threat for a long time to come. Among any number of civilized, technically advanced worlds, a percentage will likely destroy themselves one way or another, at one time or another. So much for some of the worlds where the seedling fell in exactly the right place But where even non-human sentience succumbed to other common, more favorable, more desirable traits.

A large asteroid or comet will eventually threaten the Earth and unless the ability exists to stop it, will eradicate most if not all life on the planet. In like fashion, so much for many more worlds where the seed landed in just the right spot. The problem, now, is that we have exhausted our numerical resource of worlds where extreme intelligence had sprouted. So few existed to begin with that they are all but gone. All but one. All but the one.

Next time you see that light hovering in a nighttime sky, give some credence to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it is something less spectacular than a jazzy, plasma-powered, every-option-included, Saturnian ring-saucer, special edition. Or maybe it is. When possibilities are endless, probabilities still rank high.
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