Friday, April 20, 2012

Time, the Universe, and Space Aliens

Friday is when the Lemming writes a post about 'whatever.' This time, the topic is space aliens, the universe, and all that. Not to be confused with the book with a different title.

Before getting started on opinion polls, assumptions, and Elvis, the Lemming had better make one thing very clear. In the Lemming's considered opinion, space aliens exist; or, they don't.

The Lemming also thinks that, at this point, either possibility might be true. Either way, "it's a sobering thought."

Do You Believe in Space Aliens?

Never mind space aliens for the moment. Let's look at what "believe in" can mean.

Do you "believe in" Poughkeepsie, New York? If you believe that the county seat of Dutchess County is real: you 'believe in' Poughkeepsie. In a way.

The Lemming believes that Poughkeepsie exists: mostly because there's a great deal of evidence supporting the idea that the city of 32,000 or so is real.

That's not the sort of 'belief' that most folks mean when they say that they 'believe in' space aliens.

Back when sightings of space aliens and Elvis were staple fare in American tabloids, quite a few folks 'believed in' space aliens.' And many folks may have been sincerely convinced that they saw Elvis.

What About Atlantis?

Satellite image of the islands of Santorini. This location is one of many sites purported to have been the location of Atlantis. WikipediaBut sincerity isn't the same as evidence. Apart from fuzzy photos and blurred video, there's precious little evidence that people from another planet have been on Earth. It'd be easier, in the Lemming's opinion, to build a plausible case for the existence of Atlantis.

Does the Lemming 'believe in' Atlantis?

Yes: Plato's story might be 'based on actual events,' the way Coleridge's Xanadu is based on Kublai Khan's summer capital.

No: Plato's story might be a roaring great story that's echoed down the ages, and no more real than a history of Coruscant.

The key phrase in both opinions is "might be." The difference is how much plausibility the Lemming demands.

For what it's worth, the Lemming thinks that Plato's story might be a creative retelling of what folks remembered from the 'real' Atlantis.

It's possible that Plato's Atlantis is a (very) fictionalized version of something that happened during the Bronze Age. Θήρα, or Santorini, is a cluster of islands now. About three dozen centuries back, give or take, it was one, larger, island.

Then it exploded.

That was a very bad day for folks living in the area, and might be why the Minoan civilization went out of business so abruptly. Maybe - just maybe - that's what inspired Plato to write about "earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night" that destroyed a great civilization.

Or, not.

Space Aliens and the 2012 Election

Here's what got the Lemming thinking about space aliens:

"Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith"
Bill Keller, Magazine, The New York Times (August 25, 2011)

"If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows? But I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?..."
That "one out of three" link takes you to an interesting article:

"Poll probes Americans' belief in UFOs, life on other planets"
scrippsnews.com (July 15, 2008)

"Most Americans say it is very likely or somewhat likely that humans are not alone in the universe and that intelligent life exists on other planets.

"Only a third of adults, however, believe it's either very likely or somewhat likely that intelligent aliens from space have visited our planet, according to a survey of 1,003 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. ..."

Depending on how the poll questions were worded, the Lemming might be in the "third of adults" that thinks it's "very likely or somewhat likely" that someone from another planet has landed on Earth. But that doesn't mean that the Lemming thinks space aliens have been mutilating cattle, buzzing cars, and performing interstellar pregnancy tests in wholesale lots over the last half-century.

Space Aliens and the Universe

The Lemming doesn't know whether or not there's life anywhere in this universe, except for what's on Earth. But the Lemming does know that cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers have good reason to estimate the age of the universe at about 13,730,000,000 years: and that Earth has been around for roughly 4,000,000,000 years.

That's a lot of zeroes.

The Lemming relates a little better to pictures, maybe you do too. On the timeline below this paragraph, a pixel in the left column represents 10,000,000 years; a pixel in the right column represents 1,000,000 years.



That's a lot of time. Then there's the physical scale of the universe. There are about 300,000,000,000 stars just in this galaxy, give or take a hundred billion: and a whole lot more galaxies besides this one.

All that space and time is part of why the Lemming thinks humanity may 'not be alone.'

Then again, maybe Earth is the only place in all the universe that harbors life.

A Million Years? Blink, and You'll Miss It

Over the last 1,000,000 years, humans have gone from scorching fingers on campfires to plugging leaks in reactors. That's 1/13,030 of the age of the universe, and 1/4,000 the age of Earth.

A million years on that timeline is half the thickness of the gray line at the top on the right side; 1/20th the thickness of the gray line on the left side.

'A long time' depends on your perspective. Waiting for a red light to turn green, a minute is a long time for the Lemming. Compared to the age of the universe, a million years is in the 'blink and you'll miss it' category.

'What If'

If there is life somewhere else in the universe, if it's 'close on a cosmic scale, and if that life includes someone with the sort of itchy curiosity some of us have - - - That's a lot of "ifs."

Adding two more: if those folks got started just a little sooner than we did, say 1/13,030th of the age of the universe; and if they'd decided to go to other worlds; they'd have been traveling in space for 1,000,000 years.

Remember the scale of the universe, though. Folks who got a 1,000,000 year head start on humanity would still be 'roughly contemporary' on a cosmic timescale.

From Theoretical Physics to Working Spaceships

Over the last 100 years, we've gone from having some interesting math that said interplanetary travel might be possible, to robot explorers mapping the outer Solar system.

Today, we've got off-the-shelf hardware that could get to nearby stars a million years. Much less, actually:

"...The Voyager spacecraft left the solar system at 37,000 miles per hour. At that speed, it would take Voyager 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri...."
("A Look at the Scaling," NASA)

Not that Voyager is going to Alpha Centauri: it's headed in another direction, and the ship's radio wouldn't still be working in the year 82012, anyway.

Propulsion technologies that could substantially reduce travel time to other stars are in development. Others are still strictly theoretical: Alcubierre's equations may or may not lead to a practical 'warp drive.'

Give humanity another million years, though, and it's the Lemming's guess that someone will have sent probes to other stars. And, more than likely, made the trip in person.

Possible, but Probable?

Like the Lemming said, under "'What If',"

It's possible, in the Lemming's opinion, that someone else did what humanity is doing now, kept developing new technologies: and might have visited Earth: at some point in the last 4,000,000,000 years. But in the last 40? With nobody noticing? That, in the Lemming's opinion, is very unlikely. Right now, there doesn't seem to be reliable evidence either for or against the idea that travelers found Earth.

But the Lemming thinks it's possible that someone else is out there. It's even possible that someone visited Earth. Maybe recently: like in the last 1,000,000 years. More likely, humanity missed the visitors by roughly 10,000,000 years. Or 100,000,000. Or more. Assuming that someone did stop by, of course.

Known Universe, via National Geographic Channel, used w/o permissionWhat are the odds that humanity has company in the universe: folks more-or-less like the featherless bipeds of Earth? Where 'more-or-less like' includes chaps like the imagined alien over there, from "Alien Contact."

That's a good question: and until there's a lot more data available, there doesn't seem to be a definite answer.

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