Is `Oumuamua, the strange interstellar object discovered passing through our solar system last year, an operational alien device? Conventional wisdom holds this is an asteroid on a unique trajectory, but speculation it is an alien probe aimed at us deliberately has come from some highly respected astronomers (1). `Oumuamua is small and moved fast, leaving scientists unable to photograph or discern much about it during its brief flyby, so it will remain an intriguing mystery.
A wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Avi Loeb about his decidedly distinctive deductions yielded some extremely interesting ideas (1). One of them is his suggestion that, based on human stewardship of planet Earth, the presumed civilization that launched `Oumuamua is, as Dr. Loeb put it, “dead.” Based on the speed this presumptive alien probe whizzed by us and the possibility it may now be only an artifact of a vanished society, we should not anticipate any further clarification from the manufacturers.
N = 1
How many civilizations capable of interstellar communication could be in our galaxy? A tough question, for the moment we know only of our own existence. The Drake Equation (2) attempts to estimate broad parameters, but probably Professor Paul Davies has summarized the situation most succinctly; a Universe hypothesized to be crammed with planets and life is strangely silent (3). Have our assumptions been too optimistic?
One possibility is that the silence reflects the rarity of intelligent civilizations active at the specific – and brief – moment of time we happen to have been seeking them. Humans are newcomers, maybe we just missed out as a consequence of bad timing. The Drake Equation includes a term (L) to generally account for the fact that although the Universe is impressively old in human terms, civilizations may be comparatively transient.
N = R* • fp • Ne • fl • fi •fc • L
Our sun is stable and long-lived, but it also has an innate lifespan which will constrain the time period our civilization will be safe on Earth. The Universe can be violent, perhaps some civilizations have been terminated by virtue of being too close to supernovae or have suffered other catastrophes such as meteor strikes.
N = 0, It Only Takes One
Drawing again from the human experience, it seems possible that advanced civilizations are at some risk of technology-assisted suicide. Our longstanding worry a nuclear conflict between hostile polities might effectively extinguish humankind has also been extrapolated to other worlds within the pessimistic ‘L’ term of the Drake Equation. Could it be that our silent Universe signals the fact that civilizations are often aggressive and self-destructive?
Maybe this is projecting too much of ourselves into the science, meaning we must allow that some intelligent species have been able to dodge nuclear self-annihilation. However, there may be more than one way to destroy a civilization. Will our new-found capacity to re-jigger genetics lead to a better world or unanticipated misfortune? Might our capacity to dominate the resources of our home planet lead to unsustainable overpopulation and lethal environmental degradation? Maybe our fate is foretold in the stars. It is sobering to think a silent Universe might reveal we are following the same perilous path that many journeyed before us.
Humankind is taking our living planet into a new era of mass extinction whose ultimate outcome is uncertain (4). Driven by multiple, concurrent factors such as climate change, pesticide use and development, biodiversity is fading into bio-impoverishment as both charismatic butterfly species (5, 6) and other insects essential for ecosystem function (6) begin to vanish. Has Earth reached the tipping point of ecological collapse? If we have, it may not be long before N =1 shifts to N = 0.
Perhaps someone, somewhere in a habitable zone will spot one of our space probes passing by or intercept the Arecibo message beamed into space in 1974. Scattered hardware and disseminated electromagnetic signals could be the sum total of dispersed evidence human civilization existed briefly in our galaxy. So, bye, bye butterflies and your ecologically vital insect kin, collateral damage of the suicidal Anthropocene. Our callous and ignorant unconcern for the living co-inhabitants of the Earth coupled with a spooky lack of evidence intelligent beings inhabit other worlds suggest that we, too, might march to oblivion soon. The future of life on Earth is not necessarily us.
(1) Isaac Chotiner. Have Aliens Found Us? A Harvard Astronomer on the Mysterious Interstellar Object `Oumuamua. The New Yorker, 16 January 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-new-yorker-interview/have-aliens-found-us-a-harvard-astronomer-on-the-mysterious-interstellar-object-oumuamua
(2) SETI Institute. The Drake Equation. https://www.seti.org/drake-equation-index
(3) Paul Davies. The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
(4) Edward O. Wilson. The Future of Life. Vintage Books.
(5) Laura M. Holston. With 86% Drop, California’s Monarch Butterfly Population Hits Record Low. The New York Times, 9 January 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/science/monarch-butterfly-california.html
(6) Damian Carrington. Insect Collapse: ‘We Are Destroying Our Life Support Systems.’ The Guardian, 15 January 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/15/insect-collapse-we-are-destroying-our-life-support-systems?CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco