“We’re already observing alien civilizations.” That’s from the NBC promo for a new show called “The Enemy Within.” Even if that’s not true — I’m not sure it is — the odds are overwhelming that one or more others out there have the ability to produce energy and traverse space. Besides, there’s this: Not one planet on Earth is bigger than Earth and yet all the mass in the solar system — including all the trash we’ve produced and thrown away and left behind — is just 24 million tons.
That doesn’t even include all the water and air that’s blown into space, where it would enrich any life forms that manage to build a home. This is a stunning demonstration of science’s capacity to demonstrate how simple and far-reaching basic laws of nature are, and how reality draws on its underlying physics and genetics. In some cases, this requires further spectacular physical demonstrations. Today, we face not only an alien far-out world, but also an “immortal worm” that — as far as we know — will live forever, no matter the climate of its home planet.
Perhaps the longest shot is to believe that our entire universe is similar to our own. We’re just so much bigger than anywhere else in the galaxy and we’re billions of times heavier than anything else, even if there are many more stars, billions of times more planets. Scientists like to talk about aliens as “commonplace.” The Enlightenment scoffed at this kind of biology: Scratch our skin off, they said, they’d get fried, so they wouldn’t exist. Except they do.
We use their genetics to predict what our body will look like and act like in the future. Yet they hold nearly all the cards. The bigger and more dangerous the universe, the more alien they would seem. But what if it’s different? What if they’re aliens not from another part of the universe, but from the same part of our universe as us, not enemies, but partners — or even liberators? Maybe. Alien life would be far more abundant than could possibly be human — one human made a billion copies of himself, and each copy is made of complex, delicate DNA. Perhaps these complex genomes make them strangely resistant to our planet’s warming.
This seems like an appealing proposition: Offer the outsider’s red, yellow and blue Earth a good deal, and they will respond, expanding the global ecological sphere from which we’ve withdrawn into comfortable isolation. That’s certainly how Darwin sees it. But what if this idea is just plain wrong? What if life could be so strange that it simply doesn’t feel familiar — or indeed, that it isn’t! That’s how John Holford saw it. He was the Wernher von Braun of the 20th century, a hyphenated German who came to the United States as a refugee and drew insights about human life from fields as varied as chemistry and linguistics. In 1913, in his Nobel Prize-winning work on chance observations, he warned: “The accuracy of scientific findings often corresponds to success of experiments, but according to science this is accidental.
We assume an accurate outcome because experience dictates it.” As it happens, he didn’t use the term “aliens.” In fact, he was almost certainly talking about something that was already here. If I had to choose between predicting how much potential alien life there is or how much it would be like our own, I’d pick the former, and settle for that. In some ways, our neighbors are more like us.
We have an inventive, high-tech, mobile, aggressive, endlessly creative species. They have and are building sturdy, rigid, idiosyncratic human beings and don’t seem to mind if we poke through their walls. Maybe these individual, human beings are far more radically different from their neighbors as well. It’s awfully risky to put that (way beyond being coincidental) into words, so let’s just repeat: We’re already observing alien civilizations.
This article first appeared in the New York Times Magazine.