A Voice In The Crowd: Cosmos

A Voice In The Crowd: Cosmos

By Jim Spelman


By Jim Spelman

In his wondrous work, Cosmos, Dr. Carl Sagan contrived a formula for calculating the number of planets in our own galaxy inhabited by intelligent life. In its long form it is:

The number of stars in the galaxy, times the fraction of stars with planetary systems, times the fraction of planets in those systems suitable to sustain life, times the fraction of those planets upon which life does arise, times the fraction of the latter upon which intelligent life evolves, times the fraction of those upon which technical civilizations develop, times the fraction of a planetary lifetime graced by a technical civilization. The last factor is the rub! Let me try to explain why.

Dr. Sagan goes on to reduce his symbols to numbers and arrives at a conservative estimate that there are about one billion planets in our Milky Way upon which a technical civilization has arisen at least once. (Don’t forget, ours is only one of many billions of galaxies in the universe. Imagine, a billion times billions?)

But what does he mean, “. . . arisen at least once.”? Using the only experience he has, or that any of us have, our life here on earth, Dr. Sagan attempts to estimate what percentage of a planet’s lifetime might be marked by a technical civilization which has had the chance to evolve. So far, says he, “The Earth has harbored a technical civilization characterized by radio astronomy for only a few decades out of a lifetime of a few billion years.” He concludes that, for us, that last factor amounts to a millionth of a percent and that “. . .it is hardly out of the question that we might destroy ourselves tomorrow.”

In a universal concept of time, “tomorrow” could be centuries, or it could be tomorrow. Worse than an instant doomsday created by scores of atomic explosions around the globe, something like a massive stroke or heart attack for one of us, would be a series of never-ending wars gradually eroding the lands and spirits of humankind. Sound familiar?

Has the world ever been completely at peace? The answer has to be, “No”. However, the damage wrought by war has, so far, been reparable. Time and the compassion of those who were once foes has healed many of the wounds of prior conflicts. However, today, the loathing among peoples appears to be deeper and more widespread than before.

What fate does humankind now face? Is it the threat of instant genocide instigated by so-called “rogue nations”, as our government tells us? Or, is it the possibility of continuous bloody hostilities, such as those in the Middle East, eating away at the resources and souls of those involved and inevitably involving the rest of the so-called civilized world?

What direction the savage course of human conduct takes us is anybody’s guess, but it certainly appears possible that Earth may well become a cosmic statistic—a ball of matter circling the sun, devoid of the technical civilization which consumed itself with hate.

Jim Spelman is a local attorney.

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