We live in a world that is increasingly at ease with the concept of intelligent extraterrestrial life. The evidence for this is all around us, but I’ll cite what Louis Friedman says in his new book Alone But Not Lonely: Exploring for Extraterrestrial Life (University of Arizona Press, 2023). When it polled in the United States on the question in 2020, CBS News found that fully two-thirds of the citizenry believe not only that life exists on other planets, but that it is intelligent. That this number is surging is shown by the fact that in polling 10 years ago, the result was below 50 percent.

Friedman travels enough that I’ll take him at his word that this sentiment is shared globally, although the poll was US-only. I’ll also agree that there is a certain optimism that influences this belief. In my experience, people want a universe filled with civilizations. They do not want to contemplate the loneliness of a cosmos where there is no one else to talk to, much less one where valuable lessons about how a society survives cannot be learned because there are no other beings to teach us. Popular culture takes many angles into ETI ranging from alien invasion to benevolent galactic clubs, but on the whole people seem unafraid of learning who aliens actually are.

Image: Louis Friedman, Co-Founder and Executive Director Emeritus, The Planetary Society. Credit: Caltech.

The silence of the universe in terms of intelligent signals is thus disappointing. That’s certainly my sentiment. I wrote my first article on SETI back in the early 1980s for The Review of International Broadcasting, rather confident that by the end of the 20th Century we would have more than one signal to decipher from another civilization. Today, each new report from our active SETI efforts at various wavelengths and in varying modes creates a sense of wonder that a galaxy as vast as ours has yet to reveal a single extraterrestrial.

It’s interesting to see how Friedman approaches the Drake equation, which calculates the number of civilizations that should be out there by setting values on factors like star and planet formation and the fraction of life-bearing planets where life emerges. I won’t go through the equation in detail here, as we’ve done that many times on Centauri Dreams. It’s sufficient to note that when Friedman addresses Drake, he cites the estimates for each factor in the current scientific literature and also gives a column with his own guess as to what each of these items might be.

Image: This is Table 1 from Friedman’s book. Credit: Louis Friedman / University of Arizona Press.

This gets intriguing. Friedman comes up with 1.08 civilizations in the Milky Way – that would be us. But he also makes the point that if we just take the first four terms in the Drake equation and multiply them by the time that Earth life has been in existence, we get on the order of two billion planets that should have extraterrestrial life. Thus a point of view I find consistent with my own evolving idea on the matter: Life is all over the place, but intelligent life is vanishingly rare.

Along the way Friedman dismisses the ‘cosmic zoo’ hypothesis that we looked at recently as being perhaps the only realistic way to support the idea that intelligent life proliferates in the Milky Way. Ian Crawford and Dirk Schulze-Makuch see a lot wrong with the zoo hypothesis as well, but argue that the idea we are being observed but not interacted with is stronger than any other explanation for what David Brin and others have called ‘the Great Silence.’ I’ll direct you to Milan M. Ćirković’s The Great Silence: Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox for a rich explanation both cultural and scientific of our response to the ‘Where are they?’ question.

Before reading Alone But Not Lonely, my own thinking about extraterrestrial intelligence has increasingly focused on deep time. It’s impossible to run through even a cursory study of Earth’s geological history without realizing how tiny a slice our own species inhabits. The awe induced by these numbers tends to put a chill up the spine. The ‘snowball Earth’ episode seems to have lasted, for example, about 85 million years in its entirety. Even if we break it into two periods (accounting for the most severe conditions and excluding periods of lesser ice penetration), we still get two individual eras of global glaciation, each lasting ten million years.

These are matters that are still in vigorous debate among scientists, of course, so I don’t lean too heavily on the precise numbers. The point is simply to cast something as evidently evanescent as our human culture against the inexorable backdrop of geological time. And to contrast even that with a galaxy that is over 13 billion years old, where processes like these presumably occurred in multitudes of stellar systems. What are the odds that, if intelligence is rare, two civilizations would emerge at the same time and live long enough to become aware of each other? And does the lack of hard evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations not make this point emphatic?

But let me quote Friedman on this:

Let’s return to that huge difference between the time scales associated with the start of life on Earth and its evolution to intelligence. The former number was 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, a “mere” 0.75 to 1 billion years after Earth formed. Is that just a happenstance, or is that typical of planets everywhere? I noted earlier that intelligence (including the creation of technology) has only been around for 1/2,000,000 of that time—just the last couple thousand years. Life has been on Earth for about 85 percent of its existence; intelligence has been on Earth for about 0.0005 percent of that time. Optimists might want to argue that intelligence is only at its beginning, and after a million years or so those numbers will drastically change, perhaps with intelligence occupying a greater portion of Earth’s history. But that is a lot of optimism, especially in the absence of any other evidence about intelligence in the universe.

Friedman argues that the very fact we can envision numerous ways for humanity to end – nuclear war, runaway climate effects, deadly pandemics – points to how likely such an outcome is. It’s a good point, for technology may well contain within its nature the seeds of its own destruction. What scientists like Frank Tipler and Michael Hart began pointing out decades ago is that it only takes one civilization to overcome such factors and populate the galaxy, but that means we should be seeing some evidence of this. SETI continues the search as it should and we fine-tune our methods of detecting objects like Dyson spheres, but shouldn’t we be seeing something by now?

The reason for the ‘but not lonely’ clause in Friedman’s title is that ongoing research is making it clear how vast a canvas we have to analyze for life in all its guises. Thus the image below, which I swipe from the book because it’s a NASA image in the public domain. What I find supremely exciting when looking at an actual image of an exoplanet is that this has been taken by our latest telescope, which is itself in a line of technological evolution leading to completely feasible designs that will one day be able to sample the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets to search for biosignatures.

Image: This image shows the exoplanet HIP 65426 b in different bands of infrared light, as seen from the James Webb Space Telescope: purple shows the NIRCam instrument’s view at 3.00 microns, blue shows the NIRCam instrument’s view at 4.44 microns, yellow shows the MIRI instrument’s view at 11.4 microns, and red shows the MIRI instrument’s view at 15.5 microns. These images look different because of the ways that the different Webb instruments capture light. A set of masks within each instrument, called a coronagraph, blocks out the host star’s light so that the planet can be seen. The small white star in each image marks the location of the host star HIP 65426, which has been subtracted using the coronagraphs and image processing. The bar shapes in the NIRCam images are artifacts of the telescope’s optics, not objects in the scene. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

Bear in mind the author’s background. He is of course a co-founder (with Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray) of The Planetary Society. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1970s, Friedman was not only involved in missions ranging from Voyager to Magellan, but was part of the audacious design of a solar ‘heliogyro’ that was proposed as a solution for reaching Halley’s Comet. That particular sail proved to be what he now calls ‘a bridge too far,’ in that it was enormous (fifteen kilometers in diameter) and well beyond our capabilities in manufacture, packaging and deployment at the time, but the concept led him to a short book on solar sails and has now taken him all the way into the current JPL effort (led by Slava Turyshev) to place a payload at the solar gravitational lens distance from the Sun. Doing this would allow extraordinary magnifications and data return from exoplanets we may or may not one day visit.

Friedman is of the belief that interstellar flight is simply too daunting to be a path forward for human crews, noting instead the power of unmanned payloads, an idea that fits with his current work with Breakthrough Starshot. I won’t go into all the reasons for his pessimism on this – as the book makes clear, he’s well aware of all the concepts that have been floated to make fast interstellar travel possible, but skeptical they can be adapted for humans. Rather than Star Trek, he thinks in terms of robotic exploration. And even there, the idea of a flyby does not satisfy, even if it demonstrates that some kind of interstellar payload can be delivered. What he’s angling for beyond physical payloads is a virtual (VR) model in which AI techniques like tensor holography can be wrapped around data to construct 3D holograms that can be explored immersively even if remotely. Thus the beauty of the SGL mission:

We can get data using Nature’s telescope, the solar gravity lens, to image exoplanets identified from Earth-based and Earth-orbit telescopes as the most promising to harbor life. It also would use modern information technology to create immersive and participatory methods for scientists to explore the data—with the same definition of exploration I used at the beginning of this book: an opportunity for adventure and discovery. The ability to observe multiple interesting exoplanets for long times, with high-resolution imaging and spectroscopy with one hundred billion times magnification, and then immerse oneself in those observations is “real” exploration. VR with real data should allow us to use all our senses to experience the conditions on exoplanets—maybe not instantly, but a lot more quickly than we could ever get to one.

The idea of loneliness being liberating, which Friedman draws from E. O. Wilson, is a statement that a galaxy in which intelligence is rare is also one which is entirely open to our examination, one which in our uniqueness we have an obligation to explore. He lists factors such as interplanetary smallsats and advanced sail technologies as critical for a mission to the solar gravitational lens, not to mention the deconvolution of images that such a mission would require, though he only hints at what I consider the most innovative of the Turyshev team’s proposals, that of creating ‘self-assembling’ payloads through smallsat rendezvous en-route. In any case, all of these are incremental steps forward, each yielding new scientific discoveries from entirely plausible hardware.

Such virtual exploration does not, of course, rule out SETI itself, including the search for other forms of technosignature than radio or optical emissions. Even if intelligence ultimately tends toward machine incarnation, evidence for its existence might well turn up in the work of a mission to the gravitational lens. So I don’t think a SETI optimist will find much to argue with in this book, because its author makes clear how willing he is to continue to learn from the universe even when it challenges his own conceptions.

Or let’s put that another way. Let’s think as Friedman does of a program of exploration that stretches out for centuries, with not one but numerous missions exploring through ever refined technologies the images that the bending of spacetime near the Sun creates. We keep hunting, in other words, for both life and intelligence, for we know that the cosmos seems to have embedded within it the factor of surprise. A statement sometimes attributed to Asimov comes to mind: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…” The history of astronomy is replete with such moments. There will be more.

The book is Friedman, Alone but Not Lonely: Exploring for Extraterrestrial Life, University of Arizona Press, 2023.