Book Review: Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique (Part 1)

Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique by John Gribbin

From the dust cover:

John Gribbin is one of today’s greatest writers of popular science and the author of bestselling books, including In Search of the Multiverse, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, and Science: A History. He trained as an astrophysicist at Cambridge University and is now Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex.

Regarding life in the universe, I some years back concluded on my own that life is not some rarity, but a natural state of matter, pretty much inevitable given certain minimal planetary conditions. I based the conclusion on an odd idea I have about entropy – that life “hitchhikes” on the flow of energy from greater to lesser concentrations, and in the process ratchets up the speed of that flow, accelerates entropy, which is something the universe “likes” very much. So there’s a natural condition that pushes things toward … life-iness.

Regarding intelligent life, I wanted to believe in flying saucer visitors when I was a teenager, but gradually concluded that there was no such thing, just based on the physics of light speed and the distances involved. Nothing like us is going to travel that far, that long, just for curiosity’s sake.

But I still thought intelligent life was out there. It just seemed too … convenient, I guess is the word, that WE had it, even at our low level. (And yes, I don’t think humans are very bright. In fact, I think we’re – collectively – probably one-half to one-tenth as bright as we need to be to survive.)

Long a fan of science fiction and a lover of the Star Trek (but not the Star Wars) Universe, I’ve sort of taken it for granted that there’s other intelligent life in the galaxy and universe. Somewhere out there.

In my adult life, I don’t think I’ve ever really considered the idea that there might not be. That we might be the only ones in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Interestingly, it’s a very Christian idea, isn’t it? That God created us, and only us, and that the Universe revolves around us? Maybe that’s why I rejected the idea without thinking very much about it.

To someone like me, the thought that we’re alone is disturbing as hell – something like what I felt (still feel) after my Dad died.

One of my post-Dad realizations was that I have to be a grownup now. Because THE grownup in my life, was no longer there to back me up, to allow me to be a big kid for a few more years. You’d think I would have figured that out by now, at the age of almost-60. But surprise, there in the back of my mind had always been this comfortable feeling that I could skate through life making jokes and chuckling at everything, finding amiable delight in whatever happened, never taking any of it too seriously.

Because I had this older guy on my team who had a grip on the taking-it-seriously angle, I never had to worry much about it. Of course Dad was a big kid too, but I figured with all his life experience, he was a big kid because he knew it was okay.

In the midst of reading this book, I discovered I had something of the same thing in my head about intelligence in the galaxy. Sure, we Earth people are idiots, and are likely to kill ourselves in just a few years. But somewhere out there are older, wiser civilizations, there to carry the banner for Intelligence.

I remember going to a lecture by physicist/author/UFO researcher (!) Stanton Freeman quite some years back, and he argued that, given the age at which intelligent life arose out here on our galactic arm, and given that there are stars nearer the core which are more than 3 billion years older than ours, there might well be civilizations 3 billion years or more advanced than us. Which would mean, he suggested, unimaginable, no-limits technology.

Gotta tell yuh, I loved the idea. Even if we human fuckups never made it off the block, if we destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war or burned the planet out with our infestive population, there would still be a community of galactic wisdom. Even if we never get to join it, the Club of Mind in the Milky Way would go on.

But then along came this book.

[ Continued in Part 2 ]

  • Alverant

    I would think that the sheer number of stars with planets out there would make intelligent ETs a near certainty. We may never encounter them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Sure they might have destroyed themselves or went extinct due to a comet impact (or something) or ascended to a higher point of being (whatever it is), but we should still be looking for them.

  • grumpyoldfart

    I have always amused myself with two contradictory ideas.
    -

    (1)I plug some numbers into the Drake equation and conclude that the Universe is teeming with intelligent life.

    (2)I consider the number of “accidental” events that led to intelligent life on Earth (the changing atmosphere, the collisions with asteroids, etc) and conclude that the appearance of intelligent life on any planet is highly unlikely – and we may well be alone in the Universe.
    -

    And both ideas give me goose bumps. I can flip flop from one to the other and somehow that only adds to the excitement.

    • Pieter-Jan van der Veld

      The Drake equation is interesting stuff for speculation. We know more or less how many stars there are and we are getting an idea about planet formation, but after this we are lost and open for speculation. Ass you said, just plunge in some number and you can get any conclusion; from a universe teeming with intelligent life to a universe were life is extremely rare. The only thing is, it is very unlikely that the outcome will be one exactly. That leaves open three possibilities.
      The outcome is less than one, thus either we have been very luckily that we are here (this seems to be Gribbin´s conclusion), or there is something as the multiverse. In that case there may be thousands – millions – trillions or universes with fiscal laws that could sustain intelligent life but that are still lifeless. If the Drake equation is less than one we are alone in this universe, but intelligent life may exist in other universes.
      The outcome is a low number. In that case we are maybe the only technological advanced civilization in this galaxy and it´s neighborhood. Other civilizations can have existed but have destroyed themselves. We are not alone but the present technological civilization are to distant from each outer to make contact.
      This galaxy, like the rest of the Universe, is teeming with intelligent life and technological advanced societies. But then, where are they. This is the Fermi paradox.
      I personally put my bet´s on number two.

  • aziraphale

    Gribbin is a good writer, but you can’t always rely on his science. In 1974 he co-wrote “The Jupiter Effect”, which argued that a planetary alignment would trigger a major earthquake on the San Andreas fault in 1982.

    I’m not convinced that the route to intelligent life is all that improbable. The chance factors are not independent. If the Earth had been slightly nearer the Sun, the “snowball Earth” danger would have been removed and life might have developed earlier and faster. Similarly if the particular asteroid that finished off the dinosaurs had missed, there would have been another within a few tens of millions of years.

  • http://cornelioid.wordpress.com/ Cory Brunson

    Thanks. This is something i’ve been dodging for a while. Partly because there’s such a lack of consensus on the issue among experts, suggesting that whatever i come to “learn” will actually just be a decision. But one possibility means that the universe has invested its seeds of self-awareness in us alone, making us responsible not just for ourselves but for awareness at all.

    I’m thinking of the burdens of responsibility in each case as two weights on a see-saw: a couple of trinkets in the case that we’re not alone, and this hulking safe full of universal knowledge in the other case. With more likelihood that we’re not alone, the length of the see-saw on the side with the trinkets gets longer, so the safe doesn’t seem to weigh quite as much. But it would take a see-saw like an Archimedean lever — at least a full-on consensus of exert opinion — to balance that safe with the trinkets. I don’t guess we have that, do we?

    I’m looking forward to the review.

  • busterggi

    I hope there’s intelligent life out there because if humanity is the best & brightest the universe has to offer we may as well sit back & wait for heat-death.

  • machintelligence

    I have the feeling that if we are to encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, it will have evolved away from “moist robots” (thanks Dilbert, by way of Dan Dennett) to machine intelligences. Interstellar space is no friendly place for organic based life. More sturdy semiconductor based life forms, which could shut down for the long boring periods of travel imposed by the speed of light seem much more practical. The problem of contamination of other solar systems would also be minimized. It is a trip I would enjoy taking, but I fear I was born a century (or a millennium) too early.

  • lcaution

    There are billions maybe trillions of galaxies with billions of stars in a universe that is 13 billion years old. To think this is the only planet that had or has intelligent life, let alone life of any kind, requires a degree of hubris I cannot even pretend to grasp. Nor do I understand the need so many feel to prove that we are unique in the universe. But then I am an atheist not a Christian.

    Every time I read one of these calculations “proving ” how rare the earth is, I start making lists of problems but two stand out. First, we have a sample of one, one planet on which life developed – not much of a basis for declaring we know how life must develop. Second : once it was obvious that the earth was the center of the universe.

    • Techs

      We have already peered at some 1500+ solar systems and found nothing remotely like our system. Nothing indicates we are even remotely likely. Add to that comets, asteroids, novas and super novas and what ever else a hostile universe throws around I don’t see much chance for intelligent life to spread.
      I see life as being fairly common but the elements needed to rise to something equal to us seems incredibly low. On the other hand I can see if one does survive long enough to leave home that they would cover much of the galaxy.

  • Crudely Wrott

    Within the last fraction of a percent of human existence the measurable size of the universe has increased by many, many orders of magnitude. During that same period of time the measurable size of our imagination (if I may invoke such a metric) has increased marginally and that only in a very few individual minds.

    Scientific discoveries, their impact on philosophies that are not widespread and high quality fiction have most definitely made some small improvement on how some fraction of humanity perceives the ever growing spaces around us. However, most of humanity thinks and lives much as it has always done; day to day, hand to mouth and birth to death of the individual.

    Any civilization that is millions or even billions of years our senior has the benefit of many times the experience that we now enjoy. How they might perceive, how they might think and survive, work and play or plan and grow must surely be beyond human understanding. At best only evocative of our highest imaginings.

    I do have a secret smile though. Weekly, it seems, the number of actual planets orbiting actual stars grows. Our eyes are getting keener by the day, our algorithms more subtle. We know that most all of the organic chemistry necessary for life here can be found cast thickly in nebulae and clouds of interstellar gas. We will soon be able to confirm their presence within the atmospheres of extra-solar planets.These discoveries provide a slowly increasing certainty that the advent and duration of life on this little planet is not such an unlikely thing in the wider universe.

    As to the meeting of civilizations separated by stellar or galactic distances, well, the same hurdles that we face in going to them are faced by any others that might dream of coming here.

    It could be that we are among the first civilizations to be on the verge of communicating or traveling across the heart breaking distances.
    It could as well be that many others have considered and accomplished such things before us. Less probable, I think, is that we are the first. Approaching preposterous is the notion that we are the only ones.

    We have only the first clues to the answers to such questions but we are able to actually find reasonable evidence with which to guide our inquiries. This in itself is a very good thing, I think. Having such an ability gives a deeper imperative to our existence and provides good reason to focus a part of our resource and ingenuity of very long range endeavors.

    In spite of some terrible aspects of our specie’s existence and the hopeless lives of so many of us here and now, I have a guarded, sometimes giddy, optimism for the future. There is surely much more misery ahead for us, even times of great loss and disaster but I just have this notion that someday we will know ever so much more. There is a reasonable chance that one day we will find out who else is out there and how we compare to them.

    To borrow a phrase from a well known space adventure movie, I think that something is going to happen, “something wonderful”.

  • jamessweet

    I’ll wait for the review before commenting in detail, but I think it’s highly unlikely that there is no other intelligent life in the universe. In the galaxy, I might believe it, although even then I’d bet against.

    However, I do think it’s rare enough that the odds of us making contact, ever, are pretty slim, especially out here in the boonies of our galactic spiral. An intelligent civilization living in a more star-dense region might stand a better chance — but then again maybe not, as I’ve heard it argued that the increase in ionizing radiation in such regions makes life improbable at best. I make no strong judgments on that point.

    As to humans being dumb/foolish/warlike/short-sighted etc., who knows? It’s entirely possible that both a) the universe is teeming with intelligent life*, and b) most of it is even more boorish and violent and self-defeating than we are. With a data size of one, our null assumption ought to be that we are typical in this regard, but it’s no more plausible to assume that other civilizations are “older and wiser” than it is to assume the others are “younger and stupider”. (The age thing is a little tricky, since we have only been a civilization for an eyeblink… but it may be that as soon as one species on a planet evolves to fill the “cognitive niche”, the ecosystem implodes in a few tens of millennia. I don’t find it at all implausible.)

    * Note: Even if the universe is teeming with intelligent life, that would not change my skepticism about ever making contact. Space is just waaaaay too huge.

    • raymoscow

      Yes, it’s an awfully big universe, big enough for a very large number of worlds virtually identical to Earth — but so far apart that the chances of one intelligent species ever interacting with another might be very, very small.

  • Randomfactor

    Similarly if the particular asteroid that finished off the dinosaurs had missed, there would have been another within a few tens of millions of years.

    Except that there wasn’t.

  • left0ver1under

    Never mind the distances involved, think about when.

    Humans have existed less than 500,000 years. Civilization is only six thousand years old. And the radio age – the first signals send out by humans – is barely a century old. There are no known or suspected planets within 50 light years to have noticed us or visited until today.

    The universe is 13 billion years old, while we have been aware of other possibilities for only a few hundred years. If another planet had intelligent life, who says it occured at the same time, or even at the distance required for their radio signals to travel here for us to listen to? Our civilization isn’t likely to last another 5000 years at the rate we’re going, so how likely is life on another planet going to last long enough or at the right time for us to notice?

    And just as likely, who says we’re not the first planet with intelligent life? That other planets will be hearing from us in a few million years? We very likely are alone, or will never hear from other planets, ever, even if they exist.

  • StevoR
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  • Bill

    Can I just say, I hope we’re not the best the universe can produce. We’re just not all that remarkable.

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  • Jay Conner

    Why assume that DNA replication, as on our planet, is the only self-replicating molecule possible ?
    Seems pretty clunky, sort of a blundering solution to the problem of life.

    Maybe Life elsewhere is crystalline ?

  • viji

    This thought has been emanating in me for a long time and really i feel a super power more advanced than us is there and how to know or reach about it is the question for which answer to be find out and i feel physics combined with mind power and spiritual guidance can lead to atleast explore the super power. i want to do research in that but i dont know how to go about it


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