Sunday, February 21, 2016

Where the Strange New Worlds Are

 The search for intelligent life in the universe goes on, sometimes with tantalizing hints, like the possibility of alien megastructures floated and then dismissed some months ago.  But the possibility of anything like the Star Trek universe existing in reality may be based on a particular if understandable limitation in our human thinking.

When Gene Roddenberry proposed creating a Star Trek television series, he was able to quote (or misquote) a scientific calculation of the odds to suggest that even if intelligent life is very very rare,  because of the unfathomable size of the universe, there still should be many, many inhabited worlds harboring alien civilizations.

But while the "many worlds" calculations that said intelligent life should be abundant depends on the immensity of space and the number of worlds in it, those numbers are quite possibly defeated by the immensity of time in which the universe has existed.  Because civilizations exist not only in space but in time.  And there's been a lot of it.  Really a lot.

This video of the singer Peter Mulvey charmingly explains what happens when you factor time into the search for alien civilizations.  It recounts a conversation with an astrophysicist answering the question of why we haven't made first contact.

It doesn't mean alien civilizations don't exist, any more than the earlier calculations meant that they do.  But it does emphasize that the Star Trek universe is primarily a story universe--a place that frees the imagination to explore new ideas and insights that can make a difference in our individual and social lives, and life on Earth.  Yes, we can learn about the contexts of our lives, including the vastness of the universe.  But through Star Trek, we primarily explore ourselves.

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