Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

We’ve been looking to the stars for alien life ever since we developed the technology. It is presumed that we are attempting to locate other life in the universe, but what if we are looking to ensure that there is none?

Here’s an equation, and it’s a fairly frightening one: N = R*× f× n× f1 × f× fc × L. The Drake equation describes the number of alien civilizations with whom we might be able to communicate in our galaxy. Its terms correspond to numbers such as the fraction of stars that have planets, the fraction of planets that could support life, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. The minimal outcome of this equation, using cautious estimates, is 20. There should be at least 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can communicate with and who can communicate with us. But there aren’t any.

The Drake equation is an example of a broader issue in the scientific community—considering the sheer size of the universe and our knowledge that intelligence life has evolved at least once, there should be evidence for alien life. This is known as the Fermi paradox, after scientist Enrico Fermi, who was the first to investigate the contradiction between the high probability of alien civilizations and their apparent absence. Fermi summed it up nicely when he asked, “Where is everybody?”

But perhaps I asked the wrong question. A better question, albeit a more troubling one, might be “What happened to everybody?” Unlike asking where life exists in the universe, this question has a clearer potential answer: the Great Filter.

Why the universe is empty

There is likely alien life, but none that we can see. Therefore, it could be the case that somewhere along the trajectory of life’s development, there is a massive and common challenge that ends alien life before it becomes intelligent enough and widespread enough for us to see—a great filter.

This filter could take many different shapes. It could be that having a planet in the Goldilocks’ zone—the narrow band around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist—and having that planet contain organic molecules capable of accumulating into life is extremely unlikely. We’ve seen plenty of planets in the Goldilocks zone of various stars (there are thought to be 40 billion in the Milky Way), but maybe the conditions are still not right there for life to exist.

The Great Filter could happen at the very beginning of life. When you were in high school bio, you might have had the refrain drilled into your head “mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.” I most certainly did. However, mitochondria were once distinct bacteria with their own existence. A single-celled organism tried to consume one of these bacteria at some point on Earth, but instead of being digested, the bacterium teamed up with the cell, creating extra energy that enabled the cell to evolve in ways that led to higher forms of life. An event like this may be so rare that it has only happened once in the Milky Way.

Or, the filter could be the development of large brains, as we have. After all, we live on a planet with many organisms, and human intelligence has only occurred once. It may be overwhelmingly likely that living creatures on other planets simply don’t need to evolve the energy-demanding neural structures necessary for intelligence.

What if the filter is ahead of us?

These options assume that the Great Filter has passed us by—that humanity is a lucky species that has overcome a hurdle that practically all other life has been unable to overcome. This might not be the case, however; life might evolve to our level all the time but get wiped out by some unknowable catastrophe. The development of nuclear power is a certain consequence for any advanced society, but it also has the capability to destroy such a country. The current process of climate change is an example of how to use a planet’s resources to construct an advanced civilisation damages the world. Or it may be something completely unknown, a major threat that we cannot see and will not see until it is too late.

The Great Filter’s bleak, counterintuitive conclusion is that discovering alien life, particularly alien life with a degree of technological advancement comparable to our own, would be a bad sign for humanity. If our galaxy is actually empty and dead, we’ve most likely already passed through the Great Filter. The galaxy could be empty because all other life failed some challenge that humanity passed.

If we discover another alien civilization but not a universe teeming with alien civilizations, the implication is that the Great Filter awaits us. The galaxy should be full of life, but it isn’t; one more instance of life would imply that the many other civilizations that should exist were wiped out by some catastrophe that we and our alien counterparts have yet to face.

Fortunately, we haven’t found any life. Although it might be lonely, it means humanity’s chances at long-term survival are a bit higher than otherwise.

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Jim Pearson
Jim Pearson
4 months ago

There’s one very simple reason we haven’t discovered other alien civilizations on par with our intelligence or greater. They’re too fucking far away! Contact impossible.

Max Burkett
Max Burkett
Reply to  Jim Pearson
4 months ago

Interaction is neither possible in the short term nor necessary; local radio traffic would be the source of the existence of an advanced civilization.

Max Burkett
Max Burkett
4 months ago

I haven’t done the arithmetic, but I wonder if some of the planets in the “Goldilocks Zone” mentioned are those of first generation stars, whereas our solar system was born later and has a full set of heavy elements, most or all of which are absent in older stars. No or little iron equals no advanced civilization.

Dana Cole
Dana Cole
4 months ago

It’s possible this theory is correct in the *known* universe, i.e., that there is only one planet that contains life in the several trillion galaxies we know about. But the universe itself is infinite, so the number of planets that contain life is also infinite. To deny that you must at the same time deny the theory of evolution. (IMHO)

Tadeo San Gabriel
Tadeo San Gabriel
4 months ago

I agree with this theory. Might as well think we were mere lucky sentient beings who were able to pass the “great filter” & i also wanted to ask “where is everybody & what happened to them?” Enough with the ambitious space explorations & proposed planetary migration, lets be contented with our own EARTH.

Victor BenAmi
Victor BenAmi
4 months ago

I place myself as the person in the picture, looking at all those stars and galaxies with billions of planets and perhaps millions of them with life, whether like ours or not. Then, maybe we are the only civilization in this universe. A picture like this always makes me wonder how many people on our planet feel as I do, lucky to have lived on this planet even for a tiny, tiny fraction of the universe’s time, and witness the wonders that it created.

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