By Matthew Loffhagen
One of the most important questions mankind has ever asked may finally have an answer.
Are we alone in the universe?
Of course, we don’t know the complete answer today, but a planetary scientist has a compelling theory about when and where we might – and why we haven’t made contact yet.
A question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi sums up what has become known as the Fermi Paradox – considering the size and scope of the known universe, and based on humanity’s own desperate loneliness and eager attempts to contact other sentient life forms throughout the galaxy, by this point if there were aliens out there, why haven’t we bumped into them already?
There should be intelligent life in the universe beyond our own planet, and the fact that we haven’t heard from anyone suggests that something odd is going on among the stars. Science tells us that theoretically there should be a lot more communication bouncing around out there.
Planetary scientist Alan Stern of Colorado’s Southwest Research Institute has proposed a new theory for why our nearest neighbors haven’t been returning our calls.
Essentially, he argues that other alien life throughout our own galaxy is simply too cold to listen to our desperate cries for attention.
Stern’s theory works on the assumption that there are more frozen planets out there than we realize – a growing suspicion among astronomers as we spot more planets which, like Saturn’s moon Titan, are mostly wet and watery, wrapped in layers of frozen ice.
These interior Water Ocean Worlds (WOWs), Stern argues, would face a variety of challenges that would limit their progression top-side; not least the challenge of drilling through the icy shell that surrounds their planets, or the inherent difficulties of getting a race of ocean dwellers to comfortably listen for communications from the stars.
According to Stern’s new theory:
“Owing to the depth of typical Type II oceans and the overlaying thermal insulation provided by the planetary lid atop these oceans, these environments are protected from numerous kinds of external risks to life, such as impacts, radiation, surface climate and obliquity cycles, poisonous atmospheres, and nearby deleterious astrophysical events such as novae and supernovae, hazards stellar flares, and even phenomena like the Faint Early Sun. Interior WOWs are naturally cut off from communication by their interior nature below a thick roof of ice or rock and ice, therefore do not easily reveal themselves. In this talk I will examine this new idea in more detail.”
There’s some logic to Stern’s theory – considering the relative scarcity of so-called “Goldilocks” worlds that enjoy the same convenient climate as our own, it makes sense that if life were to develop on other planets, it wouldn’t necessarily look anything like us.
We don’t exactly bother looking too closely at the inhospitable depths of our oceans, so what’s to say that aliens would even care about examining the hostile environment of space?
This is a comforting thought, to a certain extent – especially when you consider other, more common solutions to the Fermi paradox.
Many scientists believe that Earth hasn’t heard anything from our alien neighbors because some Big Bad monster species is waiting, unseen, out of our reach, killing off any species once they reach enough technological sophistication to pose a threat.
If that was the case, though, you’d expect the would-be alien overlords would want to come down and put us out of our misery already. After all, while we may not be capable of far away space flight, our constant chatter must be annoying to anyone who might want to use similar radio frequencies.
Perhaps all alien life is wrapped up in layers of ice. Maybe the only people we could ever make contact with beyond our own solar system are blubbery fish people.
If so, maybe we should reexamine the tale of Superman for more scientific accuracy.
Maybe the Man of Steel should look less like Henry Cavill, and more like a Walrus.