Science Headline: Might Unicorns be Shorter, More Off-white Than We Thought?

Something like that – as follows:

Amateur astronomer and metaphysician Mark Thomson makes the Procrustean statement: E.T. might be younger than we thought — and not as intelligent. While I applaud the inclusion of the single word ‘might’ which changes the headline from mere nonsense to mere untethered speculation, nonetheless, this topic is science in the same way that reconfiguring the main deflector array to emit an inverse tacheon pulse* is science.

The bed we’re trying to fit was inadvertently made up by Fermi decades ago, when he asked the Drake Equation crowd: well, where is everybody? Since then, SETI fanboys have had two options: 1) the dominant, every-popular ‘”la la la I can’t hear you” response, or 2) some flavor of modifying the Drake parameters to better fit the (lack of) data. Mr. Thomson, a TV personality, former insurance exec and would-be commercial aircraft pilot, takes door #2.

The headline I propose in the title to this post dances around the real issue: are there any unicorns? If so, we can take a poll and ask people (the ubiquitous yet mysterious “we”) how tall and what color they think unicorns are. Then, we can get us some unicorns, a tape measure and, oh, a color wheel, and, you know, answer the question.

If there are unicorns.

Simili modo, we speculate on the age and intelligence of extra-terrestrials, of which we have exactly the same number of specimens to examine as we have unicorns. If there are ETs, then, again, we could poll people (“we” again) and see what they think about the age and intelligence of space aliens, then we could look at our sample, and see if we can tell if we are right or wrong.

If there are ETs.

But there aren’t. At least, they have left zero – as in none, nada, bupkis – evidence of their existence. Very thoughtless of them.

So, we could insist, in the highest and best tradition of science, that we just don’t know anything about the existence of extra-terrestrials, and, further, given the complete and total lack of evidence, we don’t even know enough to speculate on the likelihood of their existence.

But that’s no fun! And some of us, for some reason, are really bothered by the idea that we human beings might be all there is, intelligent-life-wise, in the universe, even though the actual evidence we have suggests, if it suggests anything, that we are alone. So, like cartographers adding monsters along the margins of Terra Incognito, our SETI fanboys populate space with all sorts of beings who, for all sorts of reasons, remain invisible to us. It’s just short of a kind of conspiracy theory, like a Dan Brown novel of Science!

Here, Mr. Thomson speculates:

Trying to pin down exactly when our alien neighbors emerged is a little difficult because evolution is a gradual process.

Um, no, that’s not the difficulty – the difficulty is that no ‘alien neighbors’ emerged AT ALL – as far as we know. This sentence is a total non sequitur.  Evolution provides no difficulties at all, as it is utterly irrelevant in the face of NO EVIDENCE.

Then we get:

It seems that the evolution of stars precluded the formation of rocky planets much before the appearance of Population I stars. If that is the case, and adding a generous margin for error, it looks like the first planets like Earth would have formed no earlier than 8 billion years ago.

If that is true, then it may well be that we are not necessarily the first life, but perhaps among the first intelligent life (as we know it) to evolve.

The paranthetical ‘as we know it’ is a scream – NOW we’re going to start worrying about what we know? About evidence, data, facts? Funny, that didn’t bother us before.

But even just the theory Thomson propounds is preposterous on the face of it: Fermi’s observation was that, using just the technology emerging 50 years ago right here on earth, the entire galaxy could be explored and presumably colonized in about 10 million years. We appear to have evolved from slime mold to Lady Gaga in maybe 2-3 billion years. That would leave something like 5 or 6 billion years for intelligent life to evolve somewhere in our galaxy, develop rockets and slowly explore the galaxy – a thousand times over.

Shortening the time allowed for evolution to produce intelligent life (a pure metaphysical assumption, that) from 13.5 to 8 billion years doesn’t do anything to answer Fermi’s question: even if they are a little late, everybody STILL should be here by now.

Instead, I believe we must flee to the arms of  the much more scientific and rigorous Lex Luther Theorem.

* That’s from ST:TNG in case you’re wondering.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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