The VLA.

VLA stands for Very Large Array. It is an array of radio telescopes in New Mexico. I don’t think it is being used to look for extraterrestrial life, but it could easily record such signals if it should happen pick them up. I’m sitting here listening to this song and meditating about the complexity of civilization, about sociology, and history. And whether our civilization will last long enough to encounter another intelligent species.

I wonder if I might hope to be wrong about the fragility of intelligent life. I wonder if our capacity for destruction and advancements in weapons technology will always outstrip our capacity for empathy and peacemaking. If we might have a self-destruct mechanism built into our kind. The stakes of global conflict have been steadily increasing across history. Maybe one could argue that conflict is natural. That all species engage in conflict for survival. And maybe if we were all still armed with bows and arrows this might be acceptable. But we seem to have crossed a critical threshold…we may not be able to survive our own destructive power without somehow transcending our humanity. Or, at least, the more provincial aspects of our humanity. The problem was put very succinctly(and more credibly) by Martin Luther King:

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament…may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation”

Is it really possible? Could we change, so fundamentally, what we are? If we acknowledge that humans were not created statically – that we have evolved and are evolving, does that evolution operate under such constraints to make these kinds of changes impossible? These are questions for another time. For now let’s hope it is possible, because I want to talk about extraterrestrial life and how quiet it has been listening through our telescopes…

Why is it so quiet, or “Where is everybody?” The question comes up during any serious thinking about the Drake equation. My own interpretation (which is not novel) comes as a response the situation our species is currently in. By  ongoing ecological catastrophes, by the high stakes geopolitical games being played by world leaders, and now the turbulence of revolution spreading globally.

However much we might hope for a “Star Trek” future; a future jetting among the stars and visiting faraway planets, exploring this boundless universe, it seems so out of reach now. So tantalizingly close…yet painfully beyond reach. There is so much out there – enough for us to learn forever, and to explore forever. I can think of no reason, at least in theory, why it should be impossible. The energy of the stars is enough to power our travels for billions of years.

But the longer we go without hearing from other intelligent species, the more improbable that future becomes. More improbable because it implies if intelligent species exist, they are so distant from us – not just in space but in time. Distances in time that cannot be bridged by the lifespans of any intelligent species that appear. Viewed through the eyes of the galaxy and across great timescales, these species pop – then FLASH! – going off like fireworks in the night sky, one after another, but never lasting long enough to coincide.

The silence speaks to us: about the degradation of our vessel the Earth, about the continued strife among our peoples. Coldly, darkly, with the foreboding hum of the background radiation of the cosmos.

Step outside tonight. Look up at the open sky. Reach out to the stars in the darkness, and hope for a break in the silence.