The Empty Universe: Why Aliens Are So Hard to Find

“A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The hype about this new movie brings back memories of questions scientists have asked themselves before space travel was ever a notion. Heck, they asked these questions before there was even a group classified as scientists.

The study of celestial bodies and the possibility of extraterrestrial life dates back to the Macedonians in 3500–3000 BC. Needless to say, we’ve made many advancements since then, but our basic questions remain the same: Is there life outside the planet we call Earth? And, if so, is there any hope of reaching such distant species?

In a recent poll by Douglas Main, more than half of respondents think that intelligent alien life exists somewhere in the universe. And Monta Vista students think no differently. MVHS Sophomore Angela Chau agrees that life could be in the universe somewhere, and that the only question is whether or not we can find it.

“The problem is finding such life, assuming it exists,” Chau explained. “If we are able to, that means our technology has advanced to encompass a whole new dimension of space exploration.” She added that such a discovery would not be of immediate use to us, but would instead spark a slower progression of knowledge, as we study the organisms’ features and habitat.

Scientists, however, predict a gloomier outcome. Recent studies from Australian National University have shown that the chances of any organisms surviving long enough on a planet to correctly adapt is very slim, due to the instability of young planets. Astrobiologists from The Australian National University think that both Mars and Venus experienced similar conditions as Earth in its early life, but Earth went through a series of event that allowed life, while Venus turned into a hothouse and Mars into an icebox.

The most obvious explanation is our distance from the Sun, which provides us with the exact temperature needed to survive, as well as to maintain water in a liquid form, says an article written by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Another explanation the article offers is the atmosphere. Early Earth’s atmosphere was nothing like it is now, mainly composed of hydrogen sulfide, methane, and 10 to 200 times as much carbon dioxide as today’s atmosphere.

So how did our atmosphere change enough to get it to the 21% oxygen rate we now enjoy? The answer is cyanobacteria, which used gasses such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide and gave off “free” oxygen. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what other planets lack. Not the bacteria itself, but an organism suited and plentiful enough to balance out its surroundings and create a stable environment. And the organisms only get one shot at it. If they are not adapted well enough for the environment, they die; game over.

This is probably why life outside of our own is hard to find. To have developed perfectly enough to survive the early stages of life requires luck and extreme adaptability, but to have the mutations required to continue surviving and thriving is amazing.

MVHS World Core Literature teacher Hannah Gould speculates that given these dire chances, scientists “would be more likely to find bacteria or some kind of plant”.

“I think that the good thing about finding something is that it would put us in our place and not make us think that we are the most important things in the universe,” Gould speculated. “I think it would kind of be a shame”, she continues when asked about potential colonization of other planets, ”because if it becomes okay for us to just waste an entire planet, what’s going to stop us from doing that later?”

Sophomore Meghana Sai Kiran commented that such a discovery would be both beneficial and harmful to the human race. “I think that, if given a chance to explore, we should definitely take it,” Kiran said. “It would help us to broaden our perspective and perhaps teach us something we thought was impossible.”

No matter which way you lean, there is one thing that remains certain and Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy says it best: “If we don’t look for life out there, we won’t find it.” So we will take our chances. And as to whether or not we’ll find what we are looking for…well, time will tell.