Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Math of Life in the Universe; and Happy Birthday to Me

Okay, first of all, I was born something like 12:23 AM on March 10th, 1957, so I declare a free pass for tonight in my getting this blog entry in. It's my birthday, and I'll write if I want to.

Now, on to the Weekend Assignment:

Weekend Assignment #102: Do you honestly think there is life out there in the universe? And if so, what kind of life do you think it is?

Extra Credit: Name your favorite (fictional) alien creature.

Yes, of course. By the numbers, there pretty much has to be life elsewhere in the Universe - but that doesn't mean we'll ever actually meet anyone.

This comes down to a couple of factors, in a concept I first ran across in some non-fiction book about Star Trek many years ago. Was it the Whitfield, or the Gerrold? I don't remember, but the logic of it goes something like this:

1. The Universe, as Douglas Adams famously observed, is an unsettlingly big place. I have a particular Adams quote about this hovering just beyond the edge of my conscious mind, but trust me, he said something really good about it. More famously, he wrote the following, which is quoted all over the Internet, and rightly so:

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space. Listen...


By the way, in looking for my quote among the many copies of this other quote, I came across a fun parody of Wikipedia. Take a look at its Space page. Neat, huh?

2. In such a big Universe, there's bound to be a lot of worlds. Even though Space is mostly empty, its immense size guarantees that you can still fit Carl Sagan's "billions and billions" of stars in there without making much of a dent in it. I can't be bothered to look up any real numbers, but I figure there's got to be about a quilliard* stars in the galaxy, and there are lots of galaxies. We know that at least some of those stars have planets. We even know for a fact now that at least some of them are what Star Trek called "Class M" planets - planets with the oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, water, temperatures, etc. needed to support life as we know it. A few such places have already been found by astronomers - and the odds are excellent that there are billions more, most of them beyond the reach of our current telescopes.

If just one planet in a thousand can support carbon-based life, and only one planet in a thousand that can support life actually goes ahead and does so, that still makes for lots and lots of planets with life on them. And as evolution takes place on all those planets with life, certain traits are likely to be advantageous on more than a few of them. One of these traits is intelligence. And if you believe, as I do, that one of the reasons God started all this stuff in the first place was to eventually have someone to interact with, it seems likely that that same general evolutionary path will crop up all over. Even without God in the equation, the result is probably the same. I don't mean that every planet will have six-foot tall people with two legs, two eyes and hair on top, but there may well be "people," regardless of what they actually look like. As Adams put it, "The things are also people."

NASA link
Adams has this to say about the math of people in the Universe:

It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in it. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

On the other hand, some astronomers are now saying that space itself is finite**, although they all agree that it is, in fact, vastly, mindbogglingly big. (Really. They quote that a lot online.)

Therefore, there are a lot of people (and "also people") out there. However, the Universe being the unsettlingly big place it is, you're not likely to meet any of the "also people." Ray Bradbury's Martians and Doctor Who's Ice Warriors aren't going to turn up on the Mars of our version of reality, no matter what may be found by way of water, ice, and ancient microbes. And anything outside our solar system is too far away to get to conveniently, unless we find a useful loophole in the laws of physics as we know them.

186,000 miles per second. It's not just a good idea - it's the law.
- button sold at science fiction conventions

(Hubble image PR99-30B 9/16/99)

Science fiction writers get around this with wormholes and warp drives and hyperspace, tesseracts and Infinite Improbability Drives, Stargates and transmats and other fun stuff. But alas, so far there's little evidence we'll be able to make wormholes do what we want, or build FTL or space-warping devices in Real Life anytime soon.

And any "also people" who might want to "say a big hello to other intelligent life forms" (that's Adams again) run into the same inconvenience. Earth is just too far away to hitchhike to from Damogran, if there is a Damogran. And why would they bother, anyway?

Therefore - any "also people" you might meet are almost certainly the products of a deranged imagination.


My answer on the extra credit is the "also people," those fascinating aliens who are close enough to humans to be intelligent and semi-comprehensible, but different enough to be disconcertingly alien and interesting. My favorite of these is probably a particular Gallifreyan, the one with the Type 40 time capsule. I'm also very fond of a couple of guys from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse***.

Runner-up, a non-humanoid intelligent species: McCaffrey's bioengineered dragons.


* "A quilliard is a whole page full of noughts with a one at the beginning." - Ford Prefect, the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (tv series)
**at least, according to Woody Allen
***Ford Prefect, formerly known as Ix, and Zaphod Beeblebrox the Nothingth. But only the book, radio, LP, audiotape and tv versions, not the film ones. The Gallifreyan is, of course, the Doctor.


Carly said...

Very Good entry :) Great pics from Hubble.

Have a very Happy Birthday :)

Always, Carly

Shelly said...

Happy Birthday!

Paul said...

Great entry. I love how when you start mixing Adams with real science, it becomes obvious just how right he was about almost everything.

DesLily said...

Happy Birthday! (I hope you don't have to cook tonite!)

It would be arrogant to think we are the only thinking beings in the Universe.

Georganna Hancock said...

A Belated and/or Ontime Happy Birthday!

bea said...

Happy Birthday, youngster! You just missed sharing the day with my husband, whose birthday was on the 9th. I agree with you, probably other life in other star systems, too far away to even matter to us. I suppose that's why i love science fiction... we can think of all the possibilities, and create worlds that might exist, and even create believable arguments and technologies for the reality of it. BTW, McAffrey's dragons are the best dragon stories I have ever read... after reading of Pern and Flar and Lessa, no other dragon saga has captured my fantasy heart like hers.

Chris said...

I love Adam's "increasingly inaccurately named trilogy". That is my idea of humor.

Oddly enough, the only hardcopy that I have is "Mostly Harmless". I have loaned away and lost the other three on paperback.

My Blog

Laura said...

great post!
Happy belated birthday to you!
Mine was the 8th.
I hope that yours was a happy one and this year a great one!

Robin Wilton said...

Many happy returns. I wonder if this was the other quote hovering on the fringes of recall: "... if life is to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion" (The Book, on Trintragula's invention of the Total Perspective Vortex... basically in order to annoy his wife).