Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the March, 2015 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi observed that Earth and our Solar System seem to be a fairly typical example of what the universe is like, everywhere. And, given the age of the universe, he felt that there should be millions, maybe even billions, of sentient civilizations, many of whom would likely be more advanced than us, technologically. So he asked the obvious question: "where is everybody? Why haven't we been contacted, or at the very least, why don't we detect evidence of their communications?"
Ah - two important words: "their communications." Now, consider the history of communications technology. In the relatively short history of humans, we've gone from tom tom drums to smoke signals to Pony Express to telegraph to telephones, etc. on to radio astronomy. Our ability to even begin the search for extraterrestrial signals is very recent. What makes us think that these "more advanced civilizations" would be using the communications technology that we just recently discovered? In fact, in my humble opinion, it is very likely that they will have developed far more efficient methods - methods that might compensate for the incredible time delays we find in the speed of light limitations. Not to mention the dilution factor that occurs with distance.
We set about looking for life elsewhere in the universe by checking for signs that we ourselves would generate. That's a huge assumption. Why wouldn't other sentient life forms leave totally different spoors? And while we wait for our own advanced methods. why don't we brain storm what those signals might be like instead of writing off (as too many do) the work of a group like The SETI League?
So what's the point, and what does this have to do with Goldilocks? Well, there's another answer to the question of life in the universe that many philosophical cosmologists offer. It's called the anthropic principle. This idea deals with the incredible balance of factors required of our universe, our solar system, our planet and the particles that make up everything to allow for the existence of life. If just one factor, like the strength of the strong nuclear force in the atom, or Planck's Constant, was just slightly different, we wouldn't exist. Not surprisingly this idea quickly attracted the nickname "Goldilocks Principle" because it suggested that everything in the universe had to be just right for us to be here.
[Caveat lector] But why do we assume the anthropic principle couldn't work in other environments that are inhospitable to life as we know it (LAWKI) - but perfect for some other sentient entities that represent life as we don't know it?
Some scientists are now taking seriously the idea that the universe itself is sentient. I feel it's possible that the universe, if sentient, could be experimenting—and that our "perfect balance" of factors is just one possible laboratory of life.
OK, tying this back into the main theme, what spoors might these entities leave for us that would convince us of their existence? Consider the volume of particles in a star—and the dynamics that occur there. Why wouldn't it be possible for the forces and energy to arrange those particles in a way that might result in sentience? When you think about it, doesn't that seem even more likely than life on Earth considering the relative paucity of factor here?
In the immortal words of Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, "I think the Anthropic Cosmological Principle brings us to an idea perhaps as old as humanity itself: that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tiny particle whirling in the endless depths of the universe. Instead we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe... "
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this page last updated 7 March 2015
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