While many of us have been waiting our entire lives to encounter extraterrestrials, that’s just a drop in a bucket from a geological perspective. Unless you’re one of those who believes that aliens built the pyramids, dinosaurs were from space, or some such thing, we’ve been waiting to say hi our galactic neighbors for eons. According to one expert, we still have a while to wait until we meet aliens, but maybe not as long as you think.
Talking to BoingBoing, Seth Shostak, the chief astronomer for the SETI Institute, made a rather declarative statement. He thinks that we will have some contact with extraterrestrial life with in the next 25 years. Though he’s quick to point out that we haven’t found any life in outer space, “dead of alive,” from armor plated killing machines down to microbes, but that doesn’t shake his resolve.
He reasons that “Space is big, space is really big.” Current estimates put the number of potentially life-sustaining worlds at approximately one percent. Though that doesn’t sound like a particularly impressive number at first, when you take into account the sheer number of planets out there—there are ten thousand billion billion stars out there apparently, most of which have planets—the odds don’t seem as astronomical. He also takes into consideration the extreme age of some of these systems, which would give societies time and space to evolve.
Shostak also notes that the hypothesis that there is life out there—and not just life, but intelligent life that can, as he says, hold up its side of the conversation—can only be proven, not disproven. You can definitively see life, touch it, fight it, whatever you like, but there is no way prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it’s not out there. There are all manner of ways that you could miss seeing alien life. The only way to know for sure is through exploration. He likens the search to old-timey sailors discussing the possibility of new continents lurking out there. You have one way to know for sure, put down your beer, get on your boat, and go find Antarctica.
Taking a moment to ponder what the aliens we’ll encounter will be like, supposing that what we meet will most likely be technological in nature, rather than a “soft, squishy” Hollywood alien. As he says, we invent our successors. By 2020 our computers will have more power than a human brain, and, assuming that other civilizations follow a similar evolutionary trajectory, we will encounter artificially intelligent machines.
There is a ton of technical scientific data in this talk, but Shostak presents it in a damn entertaining manner. He takes dense concepts and data, but makes them fun, like that college professor who is not only extremely knowledgeable on a topic, but is able to impart this information in a way that you can understand and absorb it. That’s a sign of a good teacher right there.