Numinations ó August, 1999

Space, the Final Frontier!

© 1999, by Gary D. Campbell

What kind of a frontier is space? Is there ever a final frontier? Or is that the one we cross just before we get hit by Armageddon? And, which is more likely to come first: Armageddon, the natural extinction of man as a species, or the evolution of man into something else?

We do know quite a bit about space. This we have learned just by watching. Which is fortunate. This is not a frontier thatís easy to cross. Weíve been watching space for thousands of years, first with our naked eyes, then, for the past several hundred years with ever more powerful telescopes. If we spent the equivalent of the Apollo project every ten years, we could probably make a manned landing on one additional object in our solar system at least once every decade. Itís a lot cheaper just to watch, but itís not the same as being there.

Judging by the amount of traffic that visits our solar system (not one confirmed incident, ever), space travel is either very hard, or there arenít many spacefarers in the first place. The best guesses of our best scientists are that life arose on earth soon after the earth was formed. One can only gather so much from a single data point, but if life didnít have a strong tendency to arise when the conditions are right, it would seem that it could have taken much longer than it actually did. That life began so promptly lends credence to the possibility that life is likely to occur, given the right conditions. If so, the question is: how likely are the right conditions? One of the things we have learned by watching is that there is nothing terribly special about our planet, earth. The sun is a pretty average star. We arenít located any special place within our galaxy. The other planets in our solar system donít seem too special. Granted, each one of these objects is unique, but at the same time there is nothing we know of that makes any of them special. So, just by watching, we jump to the tentative conclusion that there ought to be lots of other worlds that can support life. And, of all the worlds with life, some fraction of those worlds actually has intelligent life.

We have been sending radio and TV signals for over fifty years. We have also been listening for quite a few years, trying to pick up the signals that might be coming from elsewhere. It seems a safe assumption, based on this, that there is not another life form, superior in intelligence and technology to us, within ten or twenty light years. At least not one that has heard our signals and has signalled us with a response. Letís say that the best we could hope for, assuming that we want company in the first place, is that the nearest intelligent life is at least ten light years away. Of course, out of all your nearest neighbors how many are good friends? That cuts it down even more. So, if you are gregarious, the question is how hard is it to make a new friend? If you are paranoid, or severely anti-social, the question is how soon should you brace yourself for a knock on your door?

Letís imagine that we survive our ability to self-destruct, and that we master the exploration of our solar system over the next thousand years or so. By then, there are two reasons that we might mount an expedition to another star. One is to explore objects farther out in space. The other is to answer a signal. In the first case we only need to travel a few light years (four to ten). In the second case we will likely have to go twice as far, or farther. The minimum distance is four light years and the maximum speed we will probably be able to achieve is a very small fraction of the speed of light. That means a fairly large multiple of the number of light years. The operative words are: ďlarge multipleÖof years.Ē

Itís nice to delude ourselves otherwise, but there simply isnít a shred of evidence leading us to hope that a journey to another star could be accomplished in less than a lifetime or two. Even the exchange of email with another compatible lifeform is going to allow only one or two responses in a lifetime! Letís assume that the limits of physics and the realm of possiblity are pretty much as we believe them to be. Letís speculate about the really distant future anyway.

In a few hundred (perhaps as many as a few thousand) years a new species, nay, a new ďkingdomĒ will emerge on this earth and begin to compete with man. The earliest forms of this new ďlifeĒ are the computers we know today. Someday, man as a species will become extinct. Whether we ever give rise to a new biological species before that time is an open question. This would occur many hundreds of thousands of years in the future. In any case, the life of this earth will never be ďcrossedĒ or bred with life from another planet, but there is no reason that our machines canít be. My guess is that a galaxy like ours gives rise to intelligent life on the order of a few hundred to a few thousand times, starting a few billion years after it forms into a spiral shape and over the course of its perhaps ten to twenty billion year lifetime. In the span of this twenty billion years, however, I would guess that organic species from different worlds seldom, if ever, have a physical encounter. But, this would not be true for the inorganic lifeforms that they spawn. They would not only have encounters, but they would absorb and cross fertilize each other.

Before a galaxy runs its lifecycle, inorganic life may be pretty much united throughout its extent. These events in our own galaxy will occur billions of years from now. Any trace of ourselves will be retained only in data banks and as copies made for museums. The last human being and the last original human artifact will have been dust for countless millenia. As the life in our galaxy nears maturity, it will, no doubt, attempt intergalactic crossings. These latter day frontiers will only be crossed because of the inhuman lifespans and attention spans eventually attained by the distant descendants of the new lifeforms spawned by ourselves and other organic species. Day-to-day life that far in the future will not only be stranger than we now imagine, it will be vaster and stranger than we are equipped to imagine.

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