Extraterrestrial Millennium

Ojjhas Sinha


2015 marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the theory that quite literally warped our understanding of reality. We’re a young world and we’re living in a very interesting epoch of time. The communicating age of planet Earth is less than a century old. It was only astronomical recently, in 1936 (the year of the Berlin Olympics), when we began [radio] transmitting beyond our atmosphere– making our presence observable. The epoch  of galactic intelligence is just beginning, and we are turning our calendar to the year 80. 

This is the millennium we will visibly interact with extraterrestrial intelligence; I have no doubt.

The Berliner Funkturm radio tower, used for the telecommunication of the 1936 Olympics.

Rarely do we talk of the millennia through human history– progress is marked by the centuries enclosing the ages [Bronze age, Industrial age, and now the Space age ].

The ultimate question though, “where are they?” (Fermi’s paradox on ET intelligence) takes the ultimate patience.

It took civilization a few millennia to realize the Earth is a common sphere orbiting another hot sphere. Patience is a virtue.

Let us fast-forward the tape. Can we actually hear ETs right now? Today, there are optimistic views of our spiral galaxy booming with extraterrestrial intelligences, and pessimistic views that we are the first, and that Earth is ‘rare.’ We believe the proper questions have been posed though. This idea of extraterrestrial intelligence is quite real and can be quantified with some rough, back of the envelope probabilities. To make these numbers less coarse, we have humanity’s genius — science & technology — which can empirically confirm the probabilities we predicted. This is when conjecture meets reality.

The true nature of this extraterrestrial reality may be discovered more rapidly, thanks to 100 million dollars awarded in July 2015 to fund the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which has had its eyes on the alien prize since the early 1960s, when radio work was just beginning in the wonderous forest of Green Bank, West Virginia. Francis Drake, Stephen Hawking, and other brilliant minds are teaming together to catch extraterrestrial civilization photons once and for all.

Credit: NRAO. “The Howard E. Tatel Radio Telescope, built in 1958, was the first major radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, WV. It is also known as 85-1, the first of three 85-foot telescopes of similar design built at NRAO. Built by the Blaw-Knox Corp. of Pittsburgh, Pa., it began regular observations in February 1959 and did much of the pioneering radio astronomy at NRAO. In 1964 when the NRAO decided to build an interferometer, the Tatel Telescope became the fixed element in the NRAO 3-element interferometer system. For more information on this telescope, please visit the Tatel Telescope webpage.”

We are at a point in physics and astronomy where we are truly beginning to understand what these simple estimates for the number of communicating galactic civilizations mean, and their uncertainties. Thus, the design of a clever experiment to execute the first contact of extraterrestrial intelligence is within our reach. 

One clever approach is what started SETI–something so seemingly impossible was simplified to a probability. As Laplace pointed out,“probability is just common sense reduced to calculation.” So here is Drake’s common sense in seven terms, where N_{life} is the number of communicating intelligence civilizations in our galaxy at this very moment. 

N_{life} = N_{*} * f_{planet} * n_{habitable}* f_{life} * f_{intelligence} * f_{communicate} *\tau

As you can see, the number of communicating intelligent civilizations in our galaxy right now, is more than just a coin-flip, it’s a card game.

Voila, those are the seven cards you are dealt. This handy applet of the 1961 Drake Equation (not #YungMoney) lets you enter your own educated estimates on each of the ‘conditions for intelligence life’ parameters.

Well, where the hell is everybody ??

Let’s admit though, your above estimate is not dynamical. On top of the ET life staying in one spot, they could blast off to another world as the final destruction parameter \tau closes in. There are a range of possibilities. Let’s think about time for a second though:  the geological age of planet Earth is 4.6 billion years, with life arising 3.5 billion years ago, and the cherry on top is our technological age –barely even a century. Terribly nascent. As we mentioned in the beginning, the 1936 Berlin olympics may have been our 1st ‘whatup’ to space, with its high frequency telecast scattering out of Earth’s ionosphere. Those ‘Berlin photons’ carrying information of an intelligent civilization orbiting around a calm G4 dwarf have only traveled 79 light-years. It is reasonable to think that Earth’s switch hasn’t simply been “on” for long enough. 

Even more powerful than the ‘Berlin photons’ though, and perhaps a better indication of our 1st interstellar jabber, was the Arecibo message (Fig.1) in 1974. Many of us have lived longer than the entire communicating human race. Life is just beginning.

Good morning, America. Bonjour, le monde. Namaste

Figure 1: The 1974 Arecibo Message, beamed to a distant star cluster from the world’s largest radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The message was encrypted in binary, and once decoded forms the image above.

Time to buck up.

We should commend ourselves for progressing tremendously from our first interstellar outcries in the 1960s, I mean look at the Dark Knight then:

and now …

There is no doubt we are moving fast. We went from a monolith at Jupiter (2001: A Space Odyssey) to a rigorously defined rapidly spinning supermassive blackhole which projected 5-D spacetime for the unsuspecting voyager (Interstellar). In < 50 yrs.  In movies about space travel, Hollywood has often finished our storylines by having futuristic intelligences help us out (e.g., by shedding photons on what is inside wormholes). These futuristic intelligences must exist.

Life not emerging anywhere but on one lonely blue planet among 10^22 stars in the Universe would really make 0 sense. This Universe, and especially this epoch, holds the conditions for life. Imagine if hydrogen fusion couldn’t occur in stars, because of a slight imbalance in the charges of electrons and protons? There would be no life without a stellar energy source.
The Universes next door may not be so habitable, building on recent ideas on the Anthropic Principle and multiverses.

As you may have gleaned from the Drake applet, we have a decent handle on the first couple parameters of the Drake equation, herafter Drake parameters. Star formation theorists estimate a stellar birth rate of about 1 solar mass/yr [1]. The 2013 American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting announced a very monumental exoplanet statistic: Kepler spacecraft observations indicate that nearly every Sun-like star has a planet and ~1/6 planets are Earth-sized [2]. This implies ~17 billion Earth-sized planets in our galaxy right now ! What about habitable exomoons ? A very plausible scenario for another time…

The fraction of habitable planets that could bear life, and then have enough local entropy to trigger intelligent evolution is much less certain (currently being worked on!).

Regular, microbial life, should be everywhere. Even in our own star-system. Right under our nose. C’mon.

Suddenly, there is water EVERYWHERE .

It is not a surprise anymore. With organics (CHON), a liquid medium, and a bit of energy it is easy to create the building blocks of life.
Though evolution is less certain, a recent *physics theory of life* seeks to redefine Darwinian evolution thermodynamically with entropy. As the great German physicist Erwin Schrodinger once said ‘Life is a local violation of entropy.” This exciting idea, that entropy is the critical ingredient, could change the way we understand how the building blocks of life (which are found quite often in interstellar space), yield the intelligent life we are seeking to ping.

All of these so-called Drake parameters should be delved into so that we can progress as broadly and deeply as possible. Lookback for a more detailed flow of each parameter.

These parameters represent not only scientists’ work in progress, but all of humanity’s. We have the ability to speed-up this process (#gaspedal) and we could die in tranquility knowing that ET did phone home.

The extraterrestrial millennium could be accelerated to the extraterrestrial century if we play our cards right.


  1. http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/physics/83-the-universe/stars-and-star-clusters/star-formation-and-molecular-clouds/400-how-many-stars-are-born-and-die-each-day-beginner
  2. https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2013-01

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