Why we will never meet other intelligent life in the universe

There are countless sci-fi stories with premises that involve us humans meeting other intelligent alien races. Whether it involves the aliens coming to us (War of the Worlds, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or us going to the aliens (Star Trek, “Alien” franchise), there is always some incredible space travel completed by advanced space crafts that can move mind-bogglingly fast. Well, here is the part where these stories fall through: everything, and I’m talking EVERYTHING in the universe is just so far away that we could never reach it.

Think of this: on the edge of our solar system is Pluto, which is about six billion kilometers away. If we could send a craft at a speed of 61,000 km/hr (this is the approximate speed of the Voyager), It would still take over 11 years to reach Pluto. Now this is an unimaginably small distance in comparison to our entire universe. There is no other intelligent life in our solar system (there could be life, perhaps buried deep in Mars or Europa, but definitely no intelligent life). So, let’s go a step further.

The nearest star to us besides the sun is the aptly named Proxima Centauri. This star is 4.33 light years away from us. At top Voyager speed, it would take seventy-six thousand years to reach this star. Obviously this is an unreasonable amount of time, and we will not be attempting to reach such a distance any time soon. Even if we could travel at the speed of light, it would still take over four years!

So, Proxima Centauri is 76,000 years away from us. But remember, this is the CLOSEST THING to us outside of the solar system. This isn’t even our next door neighbor, this is like the person squished against us in a mosh pit. And it would still take us 76,000 years to reach. And of course, there isn’t any intelligent life anywhere near Proxima Centauri. We would have seen it.

If not near Proxima Centauri, where might life exist? The 89th closest star to our sun is Gliese. Gliese is about 22 light years away. It has a handful of planets orbiting it, one or two of which might be “habitable”. Let’s say one of Gliese’s planets is 20 light years away. How long would it take us to reach this planet (or for aliens from that planet to reach us) at Voyager speed? 353,000 years. That’s twice as long as human beings have even EXISTED. Additionally, Gliese is just the 89th star from the sun. There are something like 10^23 stars in the observable universe, so 353,000 years would be the closest option to reach a habitable Earth-like planet.

Ok. Obviously traveling at Voyager speed, the fastest speed attained by a human craft, is not going to cut it. What if we could travel the speed of light? Well, we would certainly get places much more quickly. We would get to Gliese in 22 years, a reasonable time frame (if your craft could handle light speeds that long). However, it is known that is impossible to travel at light speed. Light and other particles travel at light speed because they have no mass. Therefore, a thing with mass, such as a spacecraft, could never ever attain this speed. Hopefully we could get close, but the nearer you get to light speed the more the laws of physics go out the window, so I’m thinking that would be difficult as well.

What other options would we or aliens have for long distance travel? How about wormholes? Well, I don’t have exact numbers on this since wormholes are theoretical and only super space scientists know anything about them, but I have watched several science shows that say it would take the energy of about a million bajillion suns to make a wormhole with the diameter of like, a millimeter. I’m exaggerating a little, but NOT MUCH.

If an alien race could somehow harness the incredible amount of energy it takes to open a wormhole do you think they’d point it at silly little Earth? Not a chance! They’d go to the nearest big galaxy to harvest all the energy they just spent making the dang hole.

There is one more option for traveling across the universe: teleporting. There are basically two ways teleporting could happen.

  1. You could take all the atoms of the object you want to teleport and move them from point A to point B. This would require, essentially, a wormhole. Since I already explained how wormholes are entirely impractical, I think we could could rule this option out.
  2. You could disassemble the object to be teleported at point A, and recreated it from new atoms at point B. For example, us humans are made up of simple things like carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen. If I wanted to teleport, you could disassemble my atoms here and at the destination, have a copy of me formed from carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen at the new place.

While option 2 sounds a lot more reasonable, it brings up a couple of issues. The first is that in order to teleport, you have to be blasted apart into individual atoms. You have to die! And then a clone of you is created in a new place. Would this new clone have your memories? I don’t know much about how brains work. If memories are physical things encoded in our brain that can be recreated with physical atoms and molecules, then the memories would survive. If memories are not physical, however, they would not survive the trip. Your teleport clone would basically be a newborn baby in terms of mental function. Not even a newborn baby, like a foetus just formed.

Also, how would this teleport clone compare to you in terms of ageing? Your original body would have cells that have aged for as long as you have been alive. Your clone would have brand new everything. Not sure what this would mean in terms of function or health, but it can’t be good. These side effects of teleport option 2 mean that no one would ever do it. I suppose we could teleport inanimate objects, but never living things. Also, this means you would have to have a teleport pod at both the departure and the arrival point. So, even if an intelligent race could manage this type of teleporting, they would have to get a teleport pod to the destination point the old fashioned way, traveling as fast as possible, which I already stated at the beginning of this post is not going to get us anywhere any time within the next 100,000 years.

After thinking about all these facts, it is easy to accept the conclusion that while we may not be alone in the universe, we might as well be. The universe is just too incredibly big to allow for travel to other places. So, as far as I can tell, the alien races of science fiction will always be just that: science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Why we will never meet other intelligent life in the universe”

  1. Nice post chocked full of great facts. I’m totally with you on the futility of physical travel. The moons of Jupitor or perhaps Saturn (if there is a reason) are about as far as we can realistically get.

    I do think there is a point to physical space travel. It’s necessary so that we can develop technologies required to navigate and survive in non-Earthlike environments.

    We will, however be able at some point in the future be able to teleport. Recent advances in quantum mechanics indicate that matter is constantly being created and destroyed at the quantum level. It is possible to create matter out of thin air because it’s happening around us all the time.

    The intructions for contruction of the object or (gulp!) being on the other end then becomes an issue of transmission of information. Quantum nonlocality indicates we are able to transmit information instantly regardless of distance.

    Memory? Definitely physical (and perhaps charge states / electrical activity, but these will be faithfully reconstructed on the other side).

    Worried about a doppelgänger hanging around after you are reconstructed on the other side? Well according to a recent book I read (I believe it was a Brian Greene book) scanning the quantum state destroys the local copy.

    So there you have it. We have a framework for teleportation. It’s just a matter of time before the technology catches up with it.

    Oh, one more thing. The risk. In reality It’s not that much different than hopping in the car for a long trip, or strapping yourself to a rocket, is it?

  2. Both the article and above comment are very well argued and totally agree with them as far as they go.

    What has not been considered here are the ideas of generation ships and cryogenics (i.e. cooling the body to a temperature that stops it from ageing) that would allow us to travel to wherever to be woken up. Both are really one journeys. The best source for both ideas are the light huggers in Alastair Reynolds Revelation series.

    As for me personally – in the Solar System, the next stop will be Callisto (moon around Jupiter) in terms of colonisation because unlike Mars it does not suffer the radiation problem – travelling to the stars, I suspect none of the above methods will be used, but something far beyond our physics-based extrapolations we can perceive at the moment.

  3. rosieoliver your argument of cryogenics, I always thought the same but radiation at the smallest level which our body fights off each day effortlessly would go out of the window as we’d be in cryo-freeze and our natural protection would be shut down ending us. I think technology has to take a giant leap before we should even think about taking to the stars properly.

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