Unfolding the Map
We are moving right along through Montana, and we stop in this post to consider whether we are alone in the universe. Are we looking for something outside of us to help us understand who and what we are? What are the prospects for civilization and humanity in general? Lots of questions, few answers on the banks of the Milk River. To see where we are pondering, go to the map!
"East of where the muddy Milk River begins rubbing its back against the highway, I stopped again, climbed a fence, and walked out to a pair of rusty boulders that an ice sheet dropped in its northward retreat. Stones like these the Indians carved into billboards, scorecards, boundary markers, prayer books. I hoped for a message from the first people, but the stones sat as featureless as the land."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6
Somewhere along the Milk River, Montana
In an attempt to keep up-to-date in politics so that I can teach my political science courses, I often read opinion columns by writers with whom I disagree. One person that I tend to have many disagreements with is the columnist Charles Krauthammer. Yet a column that he wrote recently that ended with the observation that everything is political and everything depends on our politics, has had me thinking. The quote from Blue Highways that I'm focusing on in this quote seems to remarkably fit with my thoughts.
Krauthammer's column asks two questions. First, are we alone in the universe? Second, why might we be alone in the universe. With modern technology allowing us to see farther and more clearly into the universe than we've ever been able to see, so much so that we have discovered new worlds revolving around distant stars, and some of them have been within the so-called "habitable zone" of solar systems, we still have not seen any sign of life. This goes for our own solar system, though we are still hoping that we might dig something up on Mars, and for everywhere out there that we look. We have trained "ears" to the skies in the form of radio telescopes, hoping that there might be a blip in the cosmic radiation, some type of pattern in the white noise, that would lead us to conclude that the pattern isn't the normality of randomness but is in fact the product of distant minds. So far, nothing. Our own radio and television signals have had enough time now to reach the nearest stars, though the inverse square law would make them almost indistinguishable. It would be nice if we began receiving the equivalent of alien television shows but so far, that hasn't happened and nobody has responded to ours though their response would probably take a long time to get here if subject to our known physics. (Both Star Trek and a very humorous movie called Galaxy Quest explored the possibilities when alien civilizations who have received our radio and television transmissions model their civilizations or their understanding of us on shows they watch. Imagine what they'll do when they see our reality shows! Is a Jersey Shore planet still a possibility?)
The Drake Equation, named after the astronomer Frank Drake who developed it, calculates the potential number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy. Many of the factors that make up the equation are guesses, so by playing with the numbers and making guesses you can find that the number of civilizations could vary anywhere from 0 to in the tens of thousands. Time is factored into the equation, so the overall figure based on the numbers input for factors shows the number of possible communicating civilizations at any point in time. According to current estimates for the factors, there should be an average of 2.31 communicating civilizations in our galaxy at this point, plus a couple hundred intelligent civilizations that are not communicating. The astronomer Carl Sagan, who was keenly interested in what the Drake Equation could tell us about our own civilization's chances for survival, felt that the number of communicating civilizations was actually quite high. However, we haven't discovered any. This is known as the Fermi Paradox, as the size and age of the universe, as Enrico Fermi put it, should make the probability that we would have discovered other advanced civilizations quite high. Sagan argued that the problem is that rate at which advanced civilizations destroy themselves is probably quite high, and that this would explain the seeming silence. In that way, he used the Drake Equation as a caution to humanity.
We also know that our planet has seen a number of civilizations rise and fall. None has lasted very long in the larger sense of the time of human existence. Many consider the 3,000 years of Ancient Egypt to be the longest-lasting civilization in human history, but if you consider humans have been in existence physically for about 200,000 years, and behaviorally for 50,000 years, then our civilizations have not been very successful enterprises. Yet we know they have been there. Past civilizations and the passage of peoples have left records, both non-written and written, that point to their existence. LHM writes that he was hoping to see some of these signposts inscribed into the boulders he inspects, but doesn't find any. However, in almost every area of the globe, signs of previous civilizations are plentiful. One can walk in the open-air museum of Rome to see the signs of its past glory. One can visit the ruins of Chaco Canyon, climb the steps of Machu Picchu, ascend the pyramids of Egypt, visit the lonely temples of Angkor Wat, traverse the top of the Great Wall of China, stand amidst the stone sentinels of Stonehenge, and even view Aboriginal rock art down under. We know they were here on earth because of what they left, and we can even point to reasons why they are gone.
We don't have any signs of any extraterrestrial civilizations, and if all we have to go on is what we know, then we have really three choices. First, in the vast expanse of the universe, we may be completely and utterly alone. That would make life on earth a miraculous accident in what is otherwise a lifeless reality. Second, we just haven't discovered other civilizations that, like us, are also wondering if there are others in the universe. That would mean that, if we are patient, we might eventually discover them. Third, as Sagan suggests, there have been civilizations capable of making contact but they have fallen and we are just the latest to attempt to create something stable that will survive and sustain us.
I don't know which possibility I prefer. What I know is that when I think of whither and how far our current, 21st century civilization can go and what heights we can reach, I know there are many variables - availability of resources and resource use, human ability to heed warning signs, our own inventive skills and other things. I also know the cards are stacked against us and that we are just the latest in a long line of civilizations that have come and gone. What makes us any different than those that have preceded us? I guess we'll find out.
If you want to know more about the Milk River
Next up: Wolf Point, Montana