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Opinion

Extraterrestrial life isn’t all that crazy

Who's to say that we are the only intelligent beings in the vast universe?

Some people believe in The Secret. Others believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. I believe in aliens. Those who express a belief in extraterrestrial intelligence are often cast aside as nut jobs, while religious zealots are deemed culturally acceptable. Given the vastness of our universe and the recent discovery of an infinite multiverse, the prospect of alien life should be taken seriously and accepted into mainstream cultural discourse.

There are 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The observable universe is the only section of the cosmos that we can see because it is illuminated by light emanating from the Big Bang. Within our own galaxy, there are 400 billion stars. The number of stars in the universe is currently impossible to measure, but if we take the number of stars in our own galaxy and multiply by it 170 billion, we get a rough estimate of 10 to the 24th power. The probability that we are the only conscious beings in a universe this large is slim to none.

The argument of many skeptics is that the planetary conditions necessary to sustain life are rare. Recent science debunks this assumption. In our galaxy alone, there are an estimated 2 billion Earth-like planets. At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers used NASA’s Kepler probe to take an inventory of possible Earth-like planets within the Milky Way. They used a two-part criteria: the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface, and an orbit situated within a habitable zone for life.

However, the mere existence of Earth-like planets is not enough to silence skeptics. The common question is, if there is such a high probability that an intelligent alien species exists, why haven’t they attempted to communicate with us? There are many logical explanations for a lack of communication. The closest planet that can sustain any sort of life, not necessarily intelligent, is 12 light-years away. At our current stage of technological development, we can neither travel to a planet 12 light-years away nor attempt speedy communication. It doesn’t follow that we expect another intelligent species to be able to do the same. Despite these limitations, scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute argue that advances in computer technology will allow us to scour the universe more effectively and find extraterrestrial life within the next 20 years.

It is unreasonable to expect another species to be able to communicate on our terms. The Drake Equation is an attempt to estimate the number of species in our galaxy with which radio communication might be possible. The equation takes into account factors such as the rate of star formation in our galaxy and the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop civilizations. Though this equation is helpful in starting a discussion, it probes the wrong question. Our species’ hubris is made further evident when we assume an intelligent species would naturally adopt radio technology as its primary means of communication.

Even the way we imagine aliens betrays our anthropocentric conception of the universe. Aliens are portrayed in popular culture as green anthropomorphic creatures. We must stop limiting our imaginations to the dimensions we perceive with our human brains. Perhaps, an intelligent species is so advanced that it transcends space and time altogether. As any person of faith will tell you, your inability to see something with your own two eyes doesn’t make it unreal. The difference here is that we can use the tools of science to move beyond our human faculties and know the previously unknowable.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.