Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Lonely planet


IN these times of lockdown limbo for the catering trade, you’d be forgiven for gazing in exasperation towards the heavens and wondering if they’re also serving only takeaway meals at Milliways or in the Big Bang Burger Bar. 

Milliways is, of course, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, while the Big Bang Burger Bar was built just before the beginning of time so that guests could watch the start of creation in Douglas Adams’s brilliant Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. 

For those of us who love the Adams stories, along with Star Trek and Star Wars, such places are wonderfully funny and imaginative. And, given the vastness of the universe, they may not have been beyond the realms of possibility. 

However, even if you had an Infinite Improbability Drive, you might have a job finding them now in the face of newly-researched mathematical reality. Disappointingly, it seems that instead of the universe bursting with far-off, advanced civilisations, we Earthlings may well be the only intelligent life anywhere in the cosmos.  

According to calculations by researchers at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, we exist here basically because of a fortuitous combination of hugely against-the-odds events, some inexplicable. 

The likelihood of these events happening in the required sequence and timescale in many other places is remote. So the evolution of intelligent life is ‘exceptionally rare’, with human-like civilisations extremely unlikely to exist elsewhere. 

It’s not an unfamiliar topic, of course – and these latest findings just give a fresh take on one of humanity’s most intriguing questions. Over the years, estimates of extraterrestial civilisations have ranged from millions to zero, and back again. But it’s all just sophisticated scientific guesswork. 

The new data is a great shame. It’s always been rather wondrous and exciting to think that somewhere out there in deep space there might be not little green men, or monsters from Alien, but beings like us, even though we may never see them or hear from them. 

If we truly are alone in this unimaginably gigantic universe, what are we to make of it? 

The religious will understandably see it as proof of God, who created us and made a world for us to call home. But why did He bother constructing a whole universe if we humans are its only self-aware, intelligent inhabitants? 

What if the universe came from nothing, without divine intervention, as many scientists contend?  

In that case, after the Big Bang scattered dust and gas all over the show some 14billion years ago, there was obviously so much stuff floating around for star and planet-building that blind chance meant at least one place would achieve the unlikely combination of conditions that led to intelligent life. And luckily for us, that was us. 

Anyhow, enjoy it while you can, because there’s a big downside. Scientists reckon that in about a billion years from now, the Sun’s increasing luminosity will make Earth uninhabitable for complex life. Hopefully the lockdowns will have ended before then. 

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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