Are we alone in the universe? We may be about to find out


Astronomers believe that the strange blobs blocking light from KIC 8463852 could be a Dyson Sphere, a megastructure orfsolar panels used to harvest a star’s energy.

What we’ll find out is still unsure, but wake up and smell the future because we may find out sooner than any of us ever imagined.”

— Riley Wheaton, columnist

the observatoryAre we the only intelligent life in the universe? This is a question that many great thinkers have tried to answer among them Frank Drake, Nikolai Kardashev, Michio Kaku, Johannes Kepler, Stephen Hawking and, most notably, Karsten Runquist in his short film “Not Alone.” This question fascinates us because the answer could be the most important discovery in the history of humankind. If there is other life in the universe does it know we’re here? Should we fear them? Could we communicate with them? Learn from them? Earth’s history is full of over a hundred billion voices and opinions, pieces of art, and experiences too numerous to count, but what if everything we are is only half (or less) of what’s out there?  

Finding a civilization more technologically advanced than we are could well change everything about how we use energy or how we learn or simply how we live. Orson Scott Card wrote about such a meeting in his famous series of books of which the first written was Ender’s Game. What would have happened if Europeans and Mayans had said “who cares if there’s life across the sea?  Life is good here and they’ll never get to us.” Confluence breeds creativity like nothing else.  We owe it to ourselves to find out if such a climactic contact could be possible.

Before I go on I need to be upfront in this column: we haven’t answered this question yet and probably won’t for a very long time. However, we’ll never find out unless we keep asking. How do we know if there’s other intelligent life in the universe right now? In 1961 Dr. Frank Drake (Harvard educated astronomer and founder of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence project (or SETI)) devised a way of calculating the number of communicating alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy today.

In this equation is the output, or the number of communicating alien civilizations existing in the Milky Way today. The equation narrows down the number of stars with habitable planets which actually produce life, and multiplies that by the lifespan of an industrial civilization. You can calculate how many there are for yourself at home or with the help of PBS on their interactive calculator with helpful commentary. I did some research, plugged in some values and found there to be about 2500 intelligent civilizations ever. Try plugging some values in for yourself, and then test them against the values Drake used.


If we were to find one of my 2500 civilizations out in the universe what would it look like? In 1964 the soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev developed a scale for describing the technological development of a civilization based on its energy consumption and ability to harvest the energy of its planet, star, or galaxy. Right now on Earth we’re a type 0 civilization since we can’t even access all the energy of our own planet, but when we figure out how we’ll be a type 1. Type 2s can harvest all the energy of a star using technology like a Dyson Sphere, and type 3 civilizations are galactic in nature like the Empire of Star Wars. Michio Kaku is an expert in the three types of civilizations and he believes that we will reach Type 1 status within 100-200 years.

We’ll never find out unless we keep asking the question. How do we know if there’s other intelligent life in the universe right now?”

— Riley Wheaton, columnist

At this point you may be thinking to yourself “Why did he have to tell us all that? Why do I care?” Well if you’ve been following the news you may have heard about the Kepler telescope’s potentially astonishing discovery made two weeks ago on Oct. 15. It has been watching the star KIC 8462852, which is about 1500 light years away, and  found something really odd. The light from the star has been flickering in a way we can’t explain. The flickers could, under other circumstances, be caused by planetary debris but in that case we’d expect increased infrared radiation thrown off by the collision and we’re not seeing any so that can’t be the answer. It’s vaguely possible that it could be surprisingly various cometary debris but that doesn’t fit well either. According to an article by PBS, we have plenty of explanations to rule out but if we come up empty though, we may have just found the first intelligent civilization in the galaxy besides our own. Additionally, based on the signals we’re getting we may have found a Dyson sphere or some other megastructure surrounding the star that’d put it light years (pardon the pun) ahead of us in technological development.

The Washington Post

The only way to find out what’s out there, for now, is to listen, and this is why the famous scientist and theorist Professor Stephen Hawking along with tech investor Yuri Milner has committed to donating $100 million to the creation of a project they’re calling “Breakthrough Listen”. It’ll be the task of this initiative to collect and break down radio waves from KIC 8462852 and determine whether they may originate with an intelligent civilization. They may very well find that we are in fact the only intelligent life in the relevant universe, but it’s important enough that we should know for sure.

So the next time you watch a Men in Black movie, laugh because it’s funny. However, next time you see a story about the work Breakthrough Listen is doing the least you can do is not dismiss it as crazy, the best you can do is read, and think, and support their work.  Extraterrestrial intelligence is no longer exclusively the province of crackpots, we owe it to those who came before us and those who’ll come after to ask the question.  Professor Hawking put it best at the inception of Breakthrough Listen: “We are life, we are intelligent, we must know.”