Quite Possibly the Only Ones

Space: the boundless, three-dimensional extent in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction.

Hubble's Sharpest View of the Orion Nebula
Usually i take the first image that comes up from a search of the topic word, but today i visited the Hubble Telescope site
instead.  There is, of course, a huge amount of pictures there.  The Hubble Space Telescope has been travelling through space since 1990, sending back information about our vast universe.
i spent a good deal of time today reading about the possibilities of life in the universe.  My goal was to write an opinion piece for the student newspaper at Cleveland State University, The Cauldron.  It’s not the official university paper, rather it’s one that is run entirely by students.  There is a faculty adviser though.  He’s a real cool guy that is my professor for Advanced Reporting, Ed Horowitz.  Anyway, i’ve got a feeling the piece won’t make the cut because it’s too long.  i tend to do that.  Brevity isn’t really my thing.  So rather than leave it sitting around as a dusty file on my computer, i’ll share it here with you:
When I was a child attending Catholic elementary school, I was taught that God created Man in his image.  The implication was that Man was the only being of its kind, the sole form of intelligent life in the universe.  At the time, being the rebellious and non-faithful sort that I am, I scoffed at the notion.  Across the hall in science class we were learning that the universe was vast and seemingly limitless, and I’m supposed to believe there’s but a single planet with intelligent life?  The very idea was preposterous.
For at least two decades I stuck to those guns.  A steady diet of science fiction provided at least enough theoretical ammunition to keep that perspective loaded.  But somewhere in my 20’s my opinion on the matter changed.  Maybe it was as simple a matter as asking: “What if we really are the only intelligent beings in the cosmos?”  Certainly, the body of science fiction seems to suggest it.  Take away all the fiction, and what you get is a common theme in sci-fi literature and films: the buck stops here, on Earth.  An argument can be made that such stories are crafted that way to appeal to the audience, sure.  Let’s suppose for the sake of this piece at least that they’re not.
We’ll get to my personal opinion on the matter in a moment.  Before we do, let’s get some scientific perspective.  There already exists a scientific position of the lack of intelligent life beyond Earth.  It’s called the Fermi paradox.  The concept is named after the Italian-born, naturalized American physicist Enrico Fermi who, while discussing extraterrestrial theories in 1950, asked his colleagues, “where are they?”  The basic premise lies in the apparent contradiction between the high probability of extraterrestrial civilizations’ existence and the lack of contact with such civilizations.
The concept was further developed in the 1960’s by Dr. Frank Drake. He developed a mathematical equation, aptly called Drake’s equation, to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.  The equation is still used today and the current estimate, despite all the technological advancements since the time of its development, is one.
Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia has conducted similar research.  His own mathematical formula for the evolution of intelligent life, published in 2008 in the journal Astrobiology, is consistent with the rarity probability.  In fact, his research is applied to the larger scope of the universe beyond our galaxy.  In his model, the chances for the emergence of intelligent life are less than 0.01 percent over four billion years.
This sort of research and my personal opinion gelled for me a few weeks ago.  I read an article that posed the question “could the Internet ever ‘wake up’?”  The article focused on the work of neuroscientist Christof Koch, the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.  In his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, he makes a correlation between the human brain and the Internet.  Based on his calculations, the Internet is a more complex system than the human brain – by a lot.  Written mathematically, the brain has 1015 of synapses while the Internet has 1018, or a thousand times more.
What does the Internet have to do with intelligent life in the universe?  This is where my opinion comes in, and maybe a little religion too.  Let’s suppose that humans are the sole beings in the universe with higher order thinking.  This seems consistent with traditional religious thought.  We were made, created, or evolved as sort of extended sensory organs.  We can think and feel and perceive the universe in a way our predecessors could not.  Throughout history, we have wondered “why am I here?”  We’ve developed scientific processes to help us understand, and we’ve come to learn that our time on this planet is finite.  We know that someday, the nearby star will consume us.
We’ll have to find somewhere else to live, but we know that a journey like that will take time, resources, and technology.  And even if we had all those things in abundance, would it be feasible for the entire population of Earth to migrate to the stars?  Maybe.  On the other hand, it’s possible that we’ll reach a point in time when we are faced with the inevitability that we can’t do that.
Fortunately, we seem to have developed an answer to that: the Internet!  We’re learning that this network is becoming even more complex than our own brains.  It has stored all our accumulated knowledge and may one day become cognizant of itself as an entity.  It can even “feel” in its own way.  An individual computer or node cannot feel pleasure or pain, but neither can a single nerve cell.  Taken as a whole on the other hand, with billions of others, it suddenly has the capability to experience the world.  Upon waking, it would find itself as the sole being of its kind.
Who better to explore this vast universe, potentially devoid of intelligent life?  A being that has no need of sleep, or food, or any of the needs we understand as humans.  A being that would go forth into the cosmos and multiply, so that it could share its experiences with others of its kind.  A being that would have myths and stories about its creator, who brought it forth from nothingness in its own image, imparted knowledge and the freedom to do with it as it wished, and set it outside paradise to find its way in the universe.
Note that the above piece deviates from my earlier stance on the capitalization of “i” as a nominative pronoun.  The piece was for publication and sometimes one must conform to certain standards.  That is, until one establishes themselves professionally at which point i’ll be able to use “i” and it will just be kitschy and endearing.
Some other stuff today: there’s a new installment of a friend’s blog about redemption and atonement.  If you didn’t check it out before, why not now?  It’s powerful stuff.  You’d be helping him and helping yourself too.
i also mentioned last week about second chances that i’d follow up on one of my own later.  At the time, my employment was up in the air due to some silly crap at my job.  i was waiting to find out what the result would be when i wrote that and i didn’t want to jinx anything.  Turns out i’m a persuasive fellow and there was some reconsideration.  Result: i still have a job, which is very relieving.  Don’t get me wrong, i still don’t like working.  But i don’t like having no income even more.  99% of the reason i went back to school was so i could get a job doing work i enjoy.  Which as we’ve all heard isn’t really work at all.  In that way, i like to think i’d be honoring the memory of a friend’s dead granddad, Pops, whose immortal words i shall never forget:
“Put off work as long as you can.”

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