The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Alone At Last

Have you ever watched one of those UFO "documentaries" that appear now and again on various cable channels? Usually I just click the remote and move on to something else, but the other day I actually spent perhaps ten minutes watching the end of one of these programs. The narrator, whose deep, sonorous radio voice sounded very serious indeed, seemed convinced that aliens from other worlds were visiting earth on an almost daily basis. Why, the evidence is simply overwhelming. How else can we explain all those blurry photos of flying saucers and strange lights in the sky? How can we possibly dismiss the hundreds of personal testimonies of so many seemingly normal people who have experienced close encounters with intelligent extraterrestrials? How else can we explain Area 51 in Nevada? And, of course, the almost incomprehensible vastness of the universe argues that there must be millions of planets right here in our own galaxy capable of supporting life. At least that's what some people think.

I, however, have always been an ET heretic. Aliens are wonderful grist for the science-fiction mill, and make great movie heroes and villains, but do they really exist? Personally, I don't think so. That's right, I believe we earthlings are all alone in the universe. As I said, this is scientific heresy.

Based on the Hubble telescope's deep space exploration, some astronomers estimate that our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains perhaps 300 billion stars and that there are probably 500 billion galaxies in the universe. How many stars, then, are in our universe? Assuming your pocket calculator can handle so many zeroes, you would end up with a very large number indeed:

150,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

...which I believe is 150 sextillion. I might be wrong here, since it's easy to lose track of some of those "...illions" when you get to the really big numbers. But, really, does it make a heck of a lot of difference if we're off by a few zeroes one way or the other? The number is still mind-boggling and if anything is likely an underestimate since astronomers seem always to be discovering more and more in our fascinating universe.

Hubble Telescope - Deep Space - Galaxies
Now, estimating the number of stars in the universe doesn't generate a lot of controversy. I would guess that most astronomers consider such estimates as moving targets, and one educated guess is likely as good as another. Things can get a little interesting, though, when scientists start talking about extraterrestrial life. Most who study such things seem to believe there must be lots of planets capable of supporting life. Such planets must have solid (rocky) surfaces, water, and an atmosphere. Exobiologists -- they're the very smart people who devote themselves to the study of extraterrestrial life even though they have yet to find anything to study -- make a lot of assumptions about such planets. The most remarkable assumption is that life will definitely arise on any planet with those basic requirements. Without any real evidence to support their position, they claim that the creation (a word they wouldn't use) of life is inevitable. It's so inevitable that Frank Drake, a scientist of the SETI Institute estimates our galaxy contains at least 10,000 advanced civilizations that are searching for us just as we are searching for them. (SETI, by the way, stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.) All of this optimism is based on nothing more than a single data point: earth. And despite all our knowledge, we really don't understand how life came into being on our own planet -- lots of guesses, but no real knowledge.

So far, the ongoing, active search for extraterrestrial life has yielded absolutely nothing. We've heard no Martian hip-hop, viewed no soap operas from Alpha Centuri, caught no news reports from Andromeda. What if we actually are unique? What if earth is the only place in our entire universe where life exists? I may well be wrong; there may be all kinds of intelligent aliens driving around the universe in their warp-drive spaceships. But so far...nothing.

Actually, I think most of these scientists and their fellow travelers are petrified of dealing with the ramifications of earthly uniqueness. If we are alone in the universe, then life isn't quite so "natural"; it doesn't just happen. And this, of course, would bring God back into the picture. What if "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...Then God said: Let there be Light and there was" the Big Bang. A scary thought indeed.
When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place -- "What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor." - Psalm 8:4-6

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