In my recent column How It Was: You used to be able to see the stars at night, I told how – on the way back from our Boy Scouts meetings when we were about 10 years old (circa 1967) – my best friend, Jeremy Goodman, and I would each buy a bag of chips (French Fries) from the Fish-and-Chip shop at the bottom of his road. (FYI I think a bag of chips used to cost us a sixpenny piece – and these were “old pennies” before the country went to a decimal currency in 1971.)
Our favorite time of the year was the fall when there was a chill in the air. Jeremy and I would take our bags of chips, walk up the road to his house, and – using various finger- and toe-holds and well placed vines – climb onto the flat roof of his garage. Then we would laze on our backs munching on our chips while we looked at the stars and talked about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
The point is that we knew that there are billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy (the estimate keeps increasing, but let’s assume that there are several hundred billion stars). We also knew that there are billions of galaxies in the universe (again, the estimate keeps on going up, but it’s now known that there are hundreds of billions, and perhaps trillions, of galaxies in the observable universe).
We also fully believed in the possibility of alien life in general and – more specifically – intelligent alien life. In fact, I actually remember our wondering if there were the alien equivalents of Boy Scouts and – if so – if two of them were lying on their backs (or whatever), eating their chips (or whatever), pointing their tentacles (or whatever) in our general direction, and asking much the same questions; that is, we conceived them as wondering if alien life – which would be us as far as they were concerned – existed and so on and so forth.
As I’ve grown older and been exposed to much more detailed information than existed in those days, I’ve come to understand that life is almost certainly rampant throughout the universe. We know that the basic building blocks of life, in the form of relatively complex molecules and amino acids and suchlike, have been found in meteorites and detected in gas clouds in space. And books like Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray (Click Here to see my review) explain how the first cells could have formed on Earth, how the eye could have evolved, and… more mind-bogglingly wonderful things than I can possibly discuss here (I would class this book as one of the “all-time great reads”).
Thus, until recently, based on the fact that there are so many galaxies and stars, and that life seems to be poised to breakout given even the slightest encouragement, if you had asked me about the possibility of intelligent life in general – and intelligent life leading to a technological civilization with which we could possibly establish communication (assuming we were close enough spatially and temporally) – I would have said that I was a total believer.
And then I read Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique by John Gribbin. I have to tell you that this is a “bit of a downer”, because Gribbin makes a very compelling case for the fact that we may well be alone (as an intelligent technological race) in the universe.
The blurb on the back cover summarizes this book nicely and reads as follows:
Are there other planets in the galaxy that can sustain life? Almost certainly so. Are any of them likely to be populated by intelligent beings? According to John Gribbin, one of today’s most popular science writers, definitely not. In this fascinating and intriguing new book, Gribbin argues that the very existence of intelligent life anywhere in the cosmos is, from an astrophysicist’s point of view, almost a miracle. So why is there intelligent life on Earth and (seemingly) nowhere else? What happened to make this planet special? Taking us back billions of years to a time before Earth even existed; Gribben lets you experience the series of extraordinary cosmic events that were responsible for our unique form of life within the Milky Way galaxy.
Chapter-by-chapter, Gribbin walks us through topics like What’s so special about our place in the Milky Way? What’s so special about the Sun? What’s so special about the solar system? What’s so special about the Earth? What’s so special about the Cambrian Explosion?
and What’s so special about us?
Over the years, I’ve read all sorts of books that explore different facets of Life, the Universe, and Everything
, but this book (a) taught me all sorts of things I didn’t know and (b) tied all sorts of things together to give me a completely different perspective.
Apart from anything else, I have long been aware that our continued presence in the universe is tenuous at best. There are all sorts of possible extinction level events that could take us out of the picture, such as a giant asteroid striking the Earth or our creating an artificial self-aware intelligence that subsequently decides that we [humans] are either a threat or simply surplus to its requirements and decides to help us exit stage left (Click Here
to see my review of Robopocalypse
by Daniel H. Wilson).
The thing is that, although I think we as a race are precious and have a lot to offer, before reading Alone in the Universe
I tended to be somewhat sanguine about things and to take the view that if anything did happen to wipe us out, at least there would be other intelligent species out there to carry on the good fight. But now that I have read Alone in the Universe
, I’m really not so sure. It may well be that we are It
, which makes it all the more important that we take better care of ourselves and the Earth (I, for one, am going to start exercising again as soon as I post this column).
The bottom line is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It taught me lots of nuggets of knowledge and tidbits of trivia and made me look at things from a completely different angle; it’s given me a whole lot of things to think about (and to worry about); and I would heartily recommend it.
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