Thursday, August 8, 2013

Be Worried, Not Happy—John Gribbin's The Reason Why

With all respect to Bobby McFerrin, a parody of his excellent work...
Here's a parody I stole;
You might want to sing it whole—
Be worried... ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Not happy... ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Or, more to the point, don't allow your happiness to depend on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life in our Galaxy.

The dependably excellent popular science writer John Gribbin, in his slender but densely written 2011 book The Reason Why: The Miracle of Life on Earth, advises you not to take hope from the Drake Equation or your favorite Star Trek episodes or anything else, but rather to ask, with the late great Enrico Fermi, if there is intelligent life elsewhere than Earth, "Where is everybody?" ... and then answer yourself, "there's no one out there."

Gribbin assembles more than a dozen powerful arguments why our life on Earth depends on conditions specific to Earth, Earth's oddities as a planet, other oddities of the Sun and the Solar System, Earth's history, the hazards afflicting all objects in space, and our specific human makeup, conditions so particular that the likelihood of their existing elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy is effectively zero. Let me quote you Gribbin's conclusion and thus spare you two hundred pages of dense prose in fine print:
... The reasons why we are here form a chain so improbable that the chance of any other technological civilization existing in the Milky Way Galaxy at the present time is vanishingly small. We are alone, and we had better get used to the idea.
So there. Take that, you romanticizing fool!

In fairness, the late great Stephen Jay Gould came to a similar conclusion for different reasons. And Gribbin's arguments are pretty compelling, and encompass a lot of facts about Earth and humankind, including many (especially about Earth) that you may never have thought about, at least not in this context.

Is being alone in the Galaxy a tragedy? I think not. There's plenty of interesting material to last us our civilization's lifetime. Will it be a tragedy if humankind brings an end to its civilization before its likely termination by nature? That's another matter...

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