The Significance Of Our Insignificance-Part 3
Now, there are a lot of possible reasons why we have found no evidence of intelligent life. The reality is that it is probably a combination of all the various stated and researchable reasons-radio signals haven’t had the time to travel; life exists elsewhere, but simply has not evolved intelligently ; intelligent civilizations have destroyed themselves or discovered that their pursuit of knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere is a low priority, or nonsensical. All of these reasons are plausible, and may at some point in the future, prove true. We also have to consider that the reason why we have not detected signs of intelligent life is simply due to scale. In fact, the most logical reason we haven’t detected life is scale. To use the sandbox analogy, we are expecting to find intelligent life orbiting a grain of sand adjacent to our own grain of sand, in our particular sandbox. The odds of that happening are….well, astronomical. Again, our comprehension, our understanding, our intelligence is simply out of scale with the totality of reality. In the vast all-encompassing ocean of everything, we are but one insignificant thread of existence among countless others. That is a humbling realization, and human nature tries to put observations, realizations and phenomena into comprehendible packets appropriate to our scale. Therein lies the problem. The scale of the reality within which we exist, is not compatible with our abilities to perceive it.
To the vast majority of people, the universe is simply planets and stars that they can see in the night sky and galaxies that are far away. Their understanding of the universe is pedestrian in nature as they go about living the hectic day to day hustle and bustle of their existence. The understanding and comprehension of the scale of the universe is an incredibly difficult task, and it eludes most of those who experience it in such a pedestrian nature. Ask yourself, “what is a million?” We all answer intuitively “a lot”, but we can’t visualize that quantity. Most people can only visualize quantities that they have experience visualizing. When asked to visualize 100,000 people, most people can comprehend that number because of their experience at a live sporting event held in a large stadium, for example. Some people can extrude that visualization to 100,000 people in 2 or 3 stadiums. Past that, it becomes an abstract number representing a large quantity. With that in mind, consider the sandbox analogy used previously. Each sandbox is a single galaxy containing billions (a number in itself that cannot be visualized) of stars that in all likelihood, have probably 6-10 planets (the specks of dust in the analogy) orbiting it. To simplify the analogy, let’s eliminate the planets (the specks of dust) and consider the quantity of intelligent life in a single galaxy (each sandbox). For visualization sake, let’s assume that just 1 sandbox out of 1 million sandboxes has intelligent life. To help with this visualization, think of 1 second out of every 11 ½ days. The result of this assumption is that there is intelligent life in1out of 1million galaxies, with the total number of galaxies (assume 1 billion from the analogy) containing intelligent life being one thousand (1 billion divided by 1,000,000). Now, take those 1,000 sandboxes and disperse them evenly around the globe, and you would have a 1,000 circles with their centers being located 14,000 miles from each other. At the center of each of those circles is a sandbox representing a galaxy within which intelligent life exists. What does this mean? It means that if you are in a sandbox with moist enough sand to form a sandcastle, the next closest sandbox with just enough moisture is 14,000 miles away. If you decided to walk to the next sandbox capable of constructing a sandbox, it would take you 1.65 years of continuous walking. Along the way, you would pass about 700 other sandboxes in which you could not build a sandcastle. Again, remember that each sandbox represents a galaxy containing billons of stars with orbiting planets, and we have said that 1 out of 1million galaxies contain intelligent life. The analogy works on two separate levels: first, it gives you an idea of the scale of the universe and the vastness through which galaxies dilute the universe, and secondly, just how spread out the galaxies could be that contain intelligent life. Raise or lower the original assumption of 1 in a million, which I believe to a conservative estimate, and you either decrease or increase the number of galaxies containing intelligence. Keep in mind we are talking galaxies with intelligent life, not stars with planets that have intelligent life. Could there be one intelligent species in each galaxy, which contains billions of stars with almost complete certainty that some of those stars have planets a similar distance from their host sun and similar enough planetary conditions and environment to harbor life? Simple probability says yes. One last thing: if you look more closely at the sandbox analogy, it says “….billions (with an s) of other sandboxes each representing other galaxies, each containing billions of stars.” In the thought exercise, I assumed one billion galaxies, because I didn’t know how to interpret billions. That means at least two billion, but is it three, 4 or 50 billion? Finally, according to Nasa, regarding the latest estimate for the number of galaxies……..
“One of the most fundamental questions in astronomy is that of just how many galaxies the universe contains. The landmark Hubble Deep Field, taken in the mid-1990s, gave the first real insight into the universe's galaxy population. Subsequent sensitive observations such as Hubble's Ultra Deep Field revealed a myriad of faint galaxies. This led to an estimate that the observable universe contained about 200 billion galaxies. The new research shows that this estimate is at least 10 times too low.”
So, to be clear that would be 200 billion x 10……I think that’s in the range of 2 trillion galaxies (I assumed 1 billion for visualization purposes) in the observable universe, which blows out of the water the assumptions made in the little thought experiment we just did. It is thoroughly inconceivable that we are a single unique intelligent species within the vast cosmos as we know it. More importantly, as I think I tried to show, just because there is life, perhaps abundant life within our universe, it doesn’t mean that those intelligent lifeforms have to be close enough to detect the signature of life. These observations are coming from a single human of a species who hasn’t even traveled beyond our moon.
Furthermore and at some point this question has to enter the discussion: In such a vast realm, isn’t it a little arrogant to think that the human definition of life, of intelligence, of existence….has to apply to the entirety of the physical realm? One could make the analogy that’s like an infinitesimally small insect stating that physical reality has to fall within the parameters of its experience. Our observational capabilities and inferences made from those capabilities, is rapidly approaching the point where the scale of the physical realm is simply incomprehensible-and trying to interpret those observations and inferences is beyond the scale of our experiential understanding.
At the beginning of this article, I asked you to keep in mind that that in the vast fabric of our universe, humanity has, never stepped on another planet. If we were trying to measure the footprint of humanity relative to the overall size and scale of the universe, you might think it would be the distance that man has traveled from planet earth. That distance is from the earth to the moon which is 238,900 miles and it took about three days to get there. If we could travel at the speed of light (approximately 6 trillion miles in a year) from the earth to the moon, it would take us about 1.25 seconds to get there. To travel across the milky way galaxy edge to edge at the speed of light, it would take 100,000 light years. Upon arrival at the distant edge of the galaxy, the date would February 9, 102,018. Again, It is an almost incomprehensible distance and time that is for all intents and purpose, beyond our scale of understanding. Consider this: Light is taking a trip across the galaxy, and after 6 trillion miles, it has to take a break and get a hotel, get refreshed, grab a meal, and refuel before the next 6 trillion miles. It would have to stop 100,000 times before it arrived at its destination on the other side of just the single galaxy within which we exist. Should light decide that trip wasn’t long enough, and decided to go on a trip from one edge of the universe to the other, it would have to stop 93,000,000 billion times traveling 6 trillion miles each time. One last point is that this is only our observable universe-the unobservable universe, while it really is unknown and subjective to measurement methodology, could be about 6 sextillion times as large as the observable universe. Lastly, there are currently many plausible theories out there regarding the existence of other universes, and if any of them overcome the verifiable hurdles which they currently face, then our universe may be only one of many that are all similarly sized. When considering that humanity has only traveled 238,900 miles from earth, it gives a truly overwhelming impression of just how insignificant we truly are in the overall scale of the cosmos.
Perhaps a better measure of that insignificance is the measure of our footprint via our communication. Radio waves travel at the speed of light. Thus, our first communications via radio have been traveling for about 100 years, and at the speed of light have radiated out from earth to a distance from earth of about 200 light years. Sounds like a huge distance right? That 200 light year distance includes other stars (the nearest star is about 4.6 light years away) as well as their orbiting planets. Take a look at the image below, which is an image of a galaxy similar in size to the Milky Way. It is an image of another galaxy similar in size because we simply cannot take a galaxial selfie since we don’t have the technical means to do so(imagine taking a selfie holding the phone 1/16” from your face).The image represents the extent of human radio broadcasts and shows the distance covered by 200 light years of travel. To be clear, 200 light years is not the enlarged box…., but rather it is the highlighted blue point within the enlarged box.
The image represents the furthest extent of our galaxial footprint, within a universe containing perhaps a trillion or more galaxies. We may never be able to overcome the distances and sheer overwhelming scale of the universe to witness and comprehend our existence within it. Given the insignificance of the human footprint in one galaxy among billions, perhaps trillions, I think we need to ask ourselves-what is the significance of our insignificance?
I am one person out of 7.6 billion people that are alive at this very instant on planet earth. Out of those 7.6 billion people, not one person has my exact eye and hair color; not one person thinks exactly like I do or have the thoughts that I have; not one person has the same experiences that I have or have contributed the children that I have to that population. Not one other person on the face of the globe has in their possession an authentic U.S. 1dollar bill with the serial number J 21132796 D. My existence is singular among 7.6 billion other singularities. More specifically, that existence is singular among all the people that have ever lived-a number somewhere over 100 billion. My very existence, while I might wax poetically about the value of a single life, is physically insignificant to more than 99.99% of the earth’s population currently alive. And yet….
Here I am, pondering the universe with its unfathomable size and humanities' infinitesimal contribution to it. These thoughts now exist, and through their existence prove that although singular, I am singular among 7.6 other singularities-each of which is creating and contributing to the fabric of our human existence. While my contribution to the footprint of humanity is immeasurable small, it does exist, it does have a value, and that value is a non-zero number. Similarly, however vast and infinite our universe appears to be, and however insignificant our footprint within it seems to be-there is indeed a footprint. That footprint, the singular mark and reality of humanities' identity does exist. And although it may appear insignificant, consider this: The reality within which we exist has been defined, described, observed and recorded….by an insignificant life form residing in an insignificant galaxy among an uncountable collection of insignificant galaxies. Is our reality the singular reality, or is it one singular reality among many? That is the significance of our insignificance.