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The search for intelligent life

A new study offers more questions than answers – and that’s a good thing

Have you heard the latest reports about the Fermi paradox?

No? Well, that’s not surprising. What is surprising is that the media didn’t bury the story completely.

What was the story that news outlets ran with so little fanfare? Just this: latest revelation from science suggesting that human beings are likely the only intelligent life in the universe.

The tepid news coverage is a far cry from the excitement that surrounded ALH84001, a meteorite thought to be a fragment of the planet Mars, which dominated headlines across the country in August 1996 – twelve years after its discovery. For nearly a week, National Public Radio led with the story over and over. Tension in the Balkans, scandal in the White House, raging bulls on Wall Street, and the presidential election all blurred to soft focus behind reports about a potato-size rock that fell out of the sky.

Why all the fuss? Because this particular meteorite possessed exceptional properties: carbonate globules, magnetite crystals, and tube-shaped microfossils that some scientists interpreted as evidence of bacterial life from another planet. NPR’s excitement was irrepressible.

Until, overnight, the story disappeared. The entire scientific community, it seemed, had concluded that the strange markings on the meteorite were, after all, just strange markings. All at once, NPR was as silent as space.


Over the last few years, we’ve been regaled with breaking news that astronomers have discovered earth-like planets in other solar systems with possibly earth-like atmospheres and conditions that might possibly give rise to earth-like life forms. In these cases, the folks at NPR have had no reason to curb their enthusiasm. After all, it may be decades – if not centuries – before the hypotheses are either confirmed or denied.

But now we hear (albeit in a whisper) that scientists are not so sure.

In 1950, Enrico Fermi posed his famous question: if intelligent life came into existence independently on earth, it’s reasonable to assume that the same thing happened on many other planets. If so, why haven’t we be contacted by extraterrestrials? Where are all the aliens?

In a paper released last week, Anders Sandberg and his colleagues at Oxford University applied various mathematical equations to Fermi’s Paradox. Ultimately, they concluded, the odds of other intelligent life sharing our galaxy may be as low as 0.4%.

To be fair, that’s just in our galaxy. The probability that other intelligent life exists somewhere in the entire observable universe is still modest, but less disheartening – anywhere between 15% and 61%.


This is bad news for those who adhere to the model (which has surprising mainstream support) that aliens kickstarted the evolutionary process here on earth by seeding the galaxy with genetic material. But even this contingent need not give up hope, since the absence of evidence is not evidence. As Socrates said: You don’t know what you don’t know.

In any case, there may be other explanations why no aliens have come knocking at our terrestrial door.

It could be that those aliens just aren’t interested, that they don’t share our curiosity in what lies beyond the stars and have no interest in going where no man has gone before. An opposing view suggests that we are part of a galactic or intergalactic biology project – a cosmic zoo – and that ultra-advanced aliens are continuously observing us from afar, like lab technicians studying single-celled organisms through a microscope.

The most sobering theory is that advanced civilizations reach a certain point of development and then self-destruct. Not so far-fetched, considering the precarious state of human society today. On the other hand, this would seem at odds with the evolutionary axiom that superior species develop to ensure their own survival, not kill themselves off.


When it comes to the media, however, we find a palpable obsession with stories implying that life on earth is part of a cosmic accident, rather than the result of intelligent design. A random universe permits us to make our own rules and define our own morality. That’s good news for proponents of hedonism and moral relativism.

Conversely, the singularity of life on earth lends weight to the belief that we are part of a master plan. If so, it’s arguable that we are obligated to seek the purpose of our existence and discipline ourselves to live up to what that purpose demands.

Of course, it may be that such conjecture is futile. After all, the sages of the Talmud warn: Do not strive to understand what is above, what is below, what came before, or what will come after.

However, the sages did not mean to discourage us from asking questions or seeking to know the nature of our universe. Rather, they teach that the beginning of wisdom is humility, and that we dare not presume to know the answers to all our questions until knowledge and reason lead us to irrefutable conclusions.

Published in Jewish World Review

Photo Credit: Max Pixel

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