Our knowledge of what is out there is dim and full of guesses. We are trying to find friends in the blackness. What will these friends look like? Will they, in fact, be friendly? Will the meeting be like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or, instead, Alien. No one, certainly not I, can say for sure.
What I can express for certain are my hopes, my dreams, and my speculations on the nature of intelligent life. My thoughts on this subject immediately fall into several categories: Does other intelligent life exist at all, and how am I defining intelligence? What are our chances of meeting our neighbors, how soon will this meeting occur, and what will become of it?
When I look up at night, I wonder how many stars I see. I wonder which specks of light are stars and which of them are galaxies. Among the vast numbers of stars in our galaxy alone, what are the chances that life exists? Many numbers race through my mind. Are the chances one in ten? ...one in a thousand? ...one in a billion? Even against such enormous odds, compared to the far greater number of stars in our galaxy, the chances are still good that life does indeed exist somewhere out there.
However, the chances against the development of intelligent life must be more daunting. Not only must such development contend with the usual obstacles hindering life, such as short-lived or dim stars, but also hazards created by intelligence itself. In fact, intelligent life may be doomed to a temporary existence; it may be that all intelligent life forms are destined to wipe out themselves through internal struggles. Indeed, our own race is on the threshold of either reform or oblivion. Perhaps our end is even already decided. The only thing certain is that we have not yet detected other intelligent life forms. No spacecraft have landed on our doorstep and said, "Hi.", nor have we received radio greetings (or even a postcard). By the best observations of our current technology, we are still alone.
Our technology, however, is changing rapidly. In two generations, we have gone from being planted firmly on the Earth to having a solid foot-hold on the moon. Two generations from now, we may be able to detect intelligent neighbors amidst the background noise and radiation of space as our technology keeps pace with our minds and our imaginations. Unfortunately, this means that anything that can be said of other intelligent life forms is mere speculation at this time; the only hopeful item is my first point - there is still a strong possiblity of the existence of life. So long as there is a chance that life can exist, there is a chance that some of that life is intelligent.
Assuming alien life exists in some form, I must set some reasonable boundaries within which I can classify a life form as intelligent. The manner in which intelligence is defined is very important. For a life form to be labeled intelligent, it must first be recognized as a life form. The method for achieving this is beyond the scope of this discussion, but it will be assumed that this recognition is in fact possible. Second, some form of communication must exist between the members of the life form's species. Hopefully, this would also imply that communication would also be possible between our species and that of the life form. I do not, however, consider communication between our two species necessary to the definition of intelligence. Such an addition to the definition would be pointlessly biased. There is no evidence to suggest that humanity as a species is the norm, nor even close to the standard, average life form. Therefore, a life form should not be deemed non-intelligent merely because it cannot communicate with us.
As discussed above, communication is a prime requirement for intelligence. If two intelligent species can communicate, a relationship between them may develop. Without communication, though, the two are merely curiosities to one another, something perhaps to note academically, but for all intents and purposes, the only possible interaction between the two is for each to study the other. Thus, since communication is so very important, the possible issues that might hinder communication should be examined.
First, the physical size of a life form is important. If the life form is so large that we are comparatively the size of a microbe, we may not even be able to get their attention, let alone communicate with them. This is double-edged. If they are microbe-sized to us, will we even notice them?
Second, once contact is established, what I call the "time scale" of a species becomes paramount. By "time scale", I mean the rate at which the members of a species think and move, as well as the average lifespan of the species. There are numerous technical reasons supporting the possibility that time scale is related to the average temperature of the natural environment of a species. Thus, if things were twice as hot on Earth, we might have evolved into a short-lived species that lives life at a faster rate (perhaps even moving and thinking faster) than we do now. It should then be obvious that if an alien life form were to have a drastically different time scale from ours, it might mean incompatibility. If they were too fast for us, their whole race could dwindle to extinction before we manage to share our knowledge. If they were too slow, we could be advancing faster than we could communicate.
It is vital that the physical scale and the time scale of two species who wish to communicate be of similar orders. If I am correct in believing that these scales are related to the temperature of the medium in which the life form evolved, then a new restriction is placed upon an intelligent life form's origin - it must come from a medium which has a temperature relatively similar to ours.
The evolution of a compatible intelligence seems low in probability. However, the number of chances for such evolution is staggering. I am convinced that intelligent life exists and I have narrowed my contemplative sights to search only for forms considered compatible. We might, of course, stumble upon the remnants of short-lived life forms or other incompatible possibilities from which we could still learn. However, the important scenarios are the ones where we discover a life form on similar scales with which we can communicate. With my sights set as such, I immediately want to know when we will discover them.
There are three equally plausible scenarios. The alien life form may already be aware of us and is purposely waiting to show itself. It is also possible that intelligent life forms may still be bound to their home worlds and may not be able to reach us nor even notice us. Finally, the alien life form may not be looking, in which case, we must reach them.
In the first case, should an alien form be aware of us and be hiding, then they are certainly more advanced than we are. They must have the ability to monitor us without being detected. They must have a reason for waiting. They may be forbidden to interfere and are simply studying us. Perhaps they are waiting until we are ready before they embrace us. It is possible that they are waiting to see what we do with our own internal problems before they invite us across some threshold into the rest of the galaxy. Just as I place restrictions on what I consider compatible intelligent life forms, some other life form may be watching us deciding whether we are intelligent. Their decision could be based upon criteria similar to that upon which I based my decision.
The Human Race can certainly communicate between its own members. Our time scale and size must be compatible with the life form watching us or they wouldn't be watching. The waiting life form may have added one test which I did not - the life form must be internally stable. In other words, if a life form cannot handle its own petty internal problems, then it is not ready to face the rest of the galaxy.
Regardless of their motives for remaining hidden, it is unlikely that we will be able to detect them. They have stayed undetected this long, they should be able to remain hidden. Thus, intentionally waiting life forms are possible; however, they have no effect upon us until such time as they initiate contact.
The second case, in which the alien life form is not capable of reaching us, is even more intriguing. An alien life form with similar technology might just be entering the Space Age much as we have. If they are just turning their ears toward the stars, they may not have sifted through all the garbage and discovered the handful of signs we have left to mark our presence.
We have sent a few probes beyond our solar system and the odds of them crossing the path of anything of interest are slim to none. It is a bit like searching the Grand Canyon at night with a candle -- completely hopeless, but, since it is the only chance, we must take an educated guess and try anyway.
The most obvious sign we have left, and are still leaving, is the electromagnetic radiation we emit from Earth. Radio, television, and radar signals from ground and satellite-based transmitters bathe our planet. Some of these signals have even been intentionally pointed outward toward prospective neighbors.
It is likely that if some other life form is watching the stars as we are, they will notice the everyday noise we make. Perhaps they will notice us and wonder if we have noticed them. Once one life form notices another, a race to see who can initiate contact first will develop. Both struggling races will be full of questions and curiosity.
The third scenario for our first contact is that of the discovery of a race which is not watching. Suppose there is some life form which is content to deal only with its internal affairs, satisfied to roam its local solar system and keep track of its own members.
With such an introverted life form, we would have to physically approach them before we could be sure they had noticed us. The radiation we emit on a daily basis could easily be lost among the background radiation or just not reach them at all. It could simply be falling on deaf ears. We might manage to travel to them and say "Hello", only to discover that they don't wish to talk to us. However, it is more likely that we will greet them and they will be eager to communicate. We may have to take the first steps to get noticed.
If I continue my string of assumptions to include the last scenario, I can summarize to this point with the following: An intelligent alien life form of compatible scales has been discovered. We have initiated contact either by traveling to them or sending them a message. They are interested in communicating (their intentions to be discussed momentarily) and we have begun to exchange information with them.
This would certainly be the biggest step for mankind in its entire evolution. This contact would open up a previously undiscovered resource of knowledge and experience. This contact would change everything.
At this point I would like to point out that I cannot rule our the possibility of some alien life form storming in and using us for slave labor or for food. Anything, of course, is possible. I think it is unlikely that some life form set on destroying other life forms would discover us just as we are stepping into space. A life form bent on destruction should have noticed us by now, and we would already be food for thought. So I will further my assumptions with this one: Our contact is at least not hostile and wants to share information towards our mutual benefit.
Will their motives for initiating contact be similar to ours? Our interest in an alien life form would be (hopefully) to learn. We would want to know the answers to our problems. How can we cure cancer? How can we travel faster? How can we eliminate disease? How can we more effectively feed our world?
The very nature of these questions shows that we may not be ready for our first contact with other life forms. Again the idea of being ready to face other life forms comes up. Perhaps these internal problems on which we are stuck are, in fact, some sort of galactic intelligence test. Other life forms may be waiting to see how we react, and how we solve, or don't solve, our own personal problems. We may have already, been discovered, catalogued by some alien life form, and marked as "not yet ready." Someday, when we have solved our internal problems and are ready to turn to the stars as on united race, some alien life form will initiate contact or answer our calls.
If it is true that a life form such as ourselves must solve its internal problems before stepping into the great wide open, then that would imply that we should have even more in common with our neighbors. If they had to clear hurdles similar to the hurdles we face now, we should have similar interests in the end.
Our motives for searching space for neighbors would be similar. If we were no longer in need of food, shelter, and health solutions, we would be searching for answers to the remaining questions. We would be searching for knowledge. Curiosity would rule mankind as a whole. With no internal problems upon which to focus or ingenuity, we would turn our efforts outward and probe the stars looking for new problems, new ideas, and new friends. Perhaps other life forms would be doing the same. They, too, might be spreading their messengers and their learners across the galaxy out of simple curiosity and their desire to know what is out there.
What I have written is similar, in a sense, to a theory. I began, in good faith, with a few tiny shreds of evidence, and have composed a theory which is not contradicted by the evidence at hand. The theory is favorable, in my opinion, I like what it says. It does make some predictions. Buried in there is the idea that we are close to solving our problems and are close to discovering our first neighbors.
It predicts that the contact will be friendly and motivated by curiosity. Our first contact will undoubtedly change things, and I believe it will change them for the better. (I may be wrong and several television shows and movies spring to mind.) I certainly do not want to lie awake dreaming of monsters coming to invade our planet. I prefer to believe that somewhere out her another life form dreams of meeting us someday and exchanging a simple greeting to signal the dawning of a new age for both life forms.
To answer my very first question: We are not alone.