Monday, 22 November 2021

The Ends of the Universe

   The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched into space on December 18 of this year. It will enable scientists to see farther into space and back into time than ever before. They may observe the formation of the first galaxies, perhaps back close to the time of the Big Bang, more than 13 billion years ago.

   The excitement of scientists and astronomers who are building the Webb telescope is palpable, for it was first conceived in 1989, months before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. It has been more than thirty years in the planning. There is also great speculation about what they will learn. Just in 2021, astronomers believe they have spotted the first extragalactic exoplanet beyond our own galaxy, some 28 million light-years away near the heart of the Whirlpool Galaxy. Astronomers relied upon X-ray data to make the discovery. But using Webb, exoplanets within our own galaxy may be seen with enough definition to be able to learn if they have atmospheres and perhaps even discover the biosignatures of life.

   If we ever discover life elsewhere in the universe, it is most likely to be in the form of bacteria or other simple cellular systems. But while the odds of finding intelligent life are small. scientists remain excited at the possibility. In the movies, aliens come to Earth in order to attack and conquer us. But experts believe this is an unlikely scenario. Any aliens who manage to travel across the universe to visit us will be far more advanced than we are. It is more likely they will be interested in studying us as primitive life forms. They are not going to want to eat us. They are not going to want to conquer our planet, which would undoubtedly be unlivable for them. What is possible is that they might be able to answer our questions and perhaps tell us how to solve our problems.

   Any intelligent life that travels to Earth would give us evidence that it is possible for humans to survive our own technological infancy. It has long been speculated that all civilizations reach a point where they threaten their own existence, just as we are now facing the threats of global warming, nuclear holocaust and deadly pandemics.

   But of course, we know of no life in the universe other than our own. Given the size of the universe, it is possible that life is common. But it is also possible that it may be very rare. Many, many lucky events have to happen to allow a planet like the Earth to form and allow life to be created. I lean to the notion that with so many trillions of planets that we now believe must exist (we have found thousands so far just in our very early explorations of our own galaxy) that other intelligent life may be common. Some Webb scientists believe, however, that the scarcity of planets like Earth should make us realize that our own thin line of habitable existence is vanishingly rare and that we should value and protect it, for Earth may be all we have.

   I believe there may be other civilizations that have survived their technological infancy. What is it about humans that makes us so destructive? Well, primarily, I believe it is our individuality. That individuality leads to conflicts between each other and among nations. We see this clearly in our own history. As individuals, we want things, new territory foremost among them. This conflict has been our undoing.

   But why can't there be a different form of life out there? One that doesn't rely on competition in order to advance. I believe there could be a form of intelligence that would be collective, as we see in a bee or ant colony here on Earth. Every member of the life form works collectively in order to survive. Why couldn't intelligent life develop in this manner? Imagine if a society of aliens worked collectively, using their intelligence to advance civilization, just as bees all provide their individual effort to promote the hive. This seems quite clearly possible to me. And it might be a way to avoid the deadly competition that our own technology is causing. A collective spirit of life would mean that individuals all work together to a common goal, and this might be a way that other civilizations could survive where ours may not be able to.

   Humans are probably not going to be able to deal with global warming, because we each want a piece of the pie. But an alien species that develops a consciousness that acts collectively might be a way forward that would enable such a species to not only survive but evolve into a higher form of life.

   Imagining another kind of intelligence seems a foreign concept to humans. But some scientists have already speculated about this. They believe that artificial intelligence may be the way forward, indeed, may be the natural course of evolution.

   Only time will tell, of course. Be nice if we are around to experience it.

   

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