Grouper – A I A: Alien Observer
Grouper – A I A: Alien Observer (2011)
Let's all get on the same page here: the universe is freaking weird and awesome and completely mind-blowing. The closest thing to our home planet Earth is the Moon; to get a sense of that congenial distance, jog around the equator 100 times. The Sun, the thing that gets us out of bed every day, is nearly 400 times farther, burning hundreds of millions of tons of hydrogen in thermonuclear fusion every second at around 10,000 degrees fahrenheit – and that's only at its surface (it's likely tens of thousands of times hotter at its core). The light emitted by the Sun is the result of this internal nuclear activity, and it may take a single photon of light thus generated tens of thousands of years to reach the surface of the star and escape. So, if you look up and catch a few rays, those particles took about eight minutes to travel from the Sun to your face, but might've been bouncing around inside it for a hundred thousand years. A few of these photons the Sun emits will strike out towards the next star closest to it – but, traveling at a mere 186,000 miles per second, it will take them over four years to reach it. And then they've only gone about one ten-billionth of the length of the observable universe.
In short, the universe is a bunch of terrific, eye-watering numbers, most of which are not even comprehensible on the scales we're attuned to here in our quaint earthly existence. Among the most incalculable and perplexing of these numbers are those that relate to intelligent extraterrestrial life. One of the more well-known attempts to grasp this concept is the Drake equation, which procedurally boils the chance of contact with an extraterrestrial race down to the concurrence of a handful of increasingly improbable conditions. It's less a formula than a thought experiment, but given that since its proposal in the '60s we've discovered thousands of exoplanets, you'd think our chances might be slightly improved. Or maybe they've gotten worse, now that we see concretely how rare indeed our planet's special life-enabling balance is.
An important proviso of the Drake equation is the consideration of bi-directional communication. On the scales of time and distance relevant to the cosmic quandary at hand, two civilizations must be very close by, or possess sufficient means of communication for an extremely long time, in order to be able to achieve bi-directional communication. Otherwise, one's detection of the other by no means guarantees the latter is still around to receive a reply. There's a sad irony here: the universe might be brimming with intelligent messages being lobbed to and fro, yet still perhaps no one race will ever know for sure whether its signal was received by another. We're all just observers, scanning the starry skies for the blip in the radar, perched just beyond each another's reach. Space is a cold and lonely place, but we may take some comfort hoping that our blips and messages are someday observed and understood by another.