Are we alone?


Professor Brian CoxA few articles last week have tried to parse the comments of Dr. Brian Cox about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.  In an episode of BBC’s Human Universe, he said:

“There is only one advanced technological civilisation in this galaxy and there has only ever been one—and that’s us.  We are unique.  It’s a dizzying thought.  There are billions of planets out there, surely there must have been a second genesis?  But we must be careful because the story of life on this planet shows that the transition from single-celled life to complex life may not have been inevitable.”

Later, Cox tweeted:

Tweet from Dr. Brian Cox: NO WE ARE NOT!!!

What’s the story?  Cox has been trying to make clear the fact that life, while exceedingly rare, is likely to have occurred elsewhere in the cosmos.  He also contends that it is much less likely that one of those places has developed an advanced civilization like our own.  But he insists that, in the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos, there probably are other civilizations (just, he thinks, not in this particular galaxy—so, maybe the next one over).

It may be that BBC has been slightly misinterpreting his remarks in promotion of the program, however unintentionally.  But it’s actually hard to say, because Cox, like many other science media personalities, is a bit of a showman; and maybe this supposed controversy was planned all along.  (Look: It got noticed by the trades and the web; mission accomplished.)

Here’s my two yen: Given that we’re on a planet with (by one estimate) 8.7 MILLION distinct species—and of those, only ONE offshoot of ONE species has developed a refined tool-making civilization, languages with abstract elements and advanced knowledge and ability to use science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the implication is clear that such advanced development is exceedingly rare.

But not impossible.

But since the many elements that made our civilization possible on Earth could have been duplicated on another planet—but we don’t know if it actually has—the only thing we can do is continue to look for any other signs of extraterrestrial life and development, with the intent to replace those abstract odds with hard numbers.

I do suspect, however, that humanity will never know whether it is, in fact, alone in the cosmos.  By the time the last human descendant dies off, who knows how many millions or billions of years from now, we may have only managed to closely study the barest fraction of the volume of everything out there, which may even include parallel universes that we’ll never be able to access, or even observe.  There is just too much of it out there to search, no matter how long-lived we turn out to be.

How much of our one galaxy has been studied so far

But as this is one of those endeavors that will certainly reap other benefits for our species’ knowledge and survival, it’s worth the pursuit.  As many people, who like to travel about to see the world, are wont to say:

It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.



2 thoughts on “Are we alone?

  1. I’d be interested in your drake equation parameters.
    I agree, I think the limiting factor (why we haven’t encountered intelligent extraterrestrial life yet) is the jump to a tool-making, math doing species. It’s the only part of the equation that took four billion years on Earth.


  2. Well, since you asked, I’ve always felt the Drake equation was missing one important parameter: The amount of (fo) time overlap between the existence of any two or more civilizations; that is, whether two civilizations exist at the same time in history to allow them to observe and-or communicate with each other (because if one civilization falls, then a million years pass before the next one appears, their overlap is zero, which zeroes out the rest of the equation).

    Many of the novels of Jack McDevitt take this lack of overlap into account: He writes of discoveries of alien cultures once thrived, now long dead and gone, and our efforts to learn about them through archeology. This seems a more likely future than flying about and meeting alien species here and there, and suggests that someday, when we are dead and gone, some alien race may show up here in a billion years and discover our long-dead race.


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