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Billy Liye Zhang

Section 10-11
Professor Sperling
October 30, 2005

The Rarity of Complex Life in the Universe

“Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the thought

is staggering.” – Buckminster Fuller

As I settle down in the couch, press the power button, and flick through the

channels trying to find something interesting to watch, I stop at something that looks

interesting. Men in Black is on, but I’ve already seen it a few times, so I switch channels.

The X-Files is playing on Fox, but it’s not really my kind of genre so I change the channel

again. Invasion, Smallville, Independence Day, Roswell, E.T., Alien II, all are on the tube,

all flashing images of strange creatures with brightly colored spaceships, multiple

appendages, and a curious penchant for determining the whereabouts of “our leader”. Our

culture is saturated, via mass media, with images and stories of extraterrestrial

intelligence. Any grade-school child, when asked about the existence of extraterrestrial

complex metazoans (a.k.a. aliens), can rattle off a list of ridiculous expressions such as

“green”, “big eyes”, and “plasma particle projection photonic phaser pistol”. Is there any

shred of truth in the popular genre of science fiction? Are there really advanced

civilizations out there, or are we just alone in an infinitely sized universe? Of course there

is little to no concrete evidence for either side, but we are able to make an informed

hypothesis from the evidence that we have discovered. Recently, a hypothesis has
emerged, synthesized with evidence from astronomy, cosmology, geology, biology, and

paleontology. According to the Rare Earth Hypothesis, microbial life may be abundant in

the universe, but complex life forms are likely to be extremely rare; so rare, in fact, that

Earth may be the only planet in the universe that is able to sustain complex life.

From our understanding of how life exists, which may be limited since Earth is

our only model, there are many areas in the universe that cannot accommodate life. The

“surface” of gaseous planets, interiors of stars, planets with poisonous atmospheres, and

empty space are all areas where life cannot exist. The Earth itself is able to attribute its

ability to sustain life to the favorable location that it is placed in the solar system. We are

in a perfect position in the “habitable zone”: the region or distance from the star in a solar

system. If the Earth were slightly nearer or slightly farther from the Sun, extreme events

such as the evaporation of the world’s oceans or a complete freezing of all water on Earth

would be relatively common (Ward and Brownlee, 16). This realization leads to the

conclusion that our solar system’s habitable zone is in fact very narrow and in solar

systems with smaller stars, would not exist at all. Larger stars have much shorter lifetimes

and much higher temperatures, therefore making them unfit to harbor life-filled planets.

Our Sun should be stable for about 10 billion years, but a star that is 50% more massive

than the sun enters its red giant stage after only 2 billion years (Ward and Brownlee, 20).

This would not only drastically reduce the amount of time that evolution has to produce

complex life, but also make evolution impossible. More massive stars emit most of their

light in ultraviolet, which is known to break the bonds of most biological molecules. Of

course, the size of the stars is not the only factor to consider. Another major factor is the

type of galaxy that we live in. In our galaxy, there are 23 known stars within 13 light
years of our sun (Ward and Brownlee, 28). In globular clusters, there may be thousands

of stars in the same amount of area, which poses a problem since the frequency of

supernovae would be relatively high and therefore hazardous to the emergence of life.

Globular clusters are also extremely old, which means that their stars contain a very low

amount of the heavy elements that are necessary to construct habitable planets. Instead,

they are almost completely composed of hydrogen and helium (Gonzalez and Richards,

58). Elliptical galaxies also pose a problem for life because stars in those galaxies have

very random orbits, visiting almost every region. This includes the dangerous inner

regions in which a black hole may be active. Elliptical galaxies also have the same

problem as globular clusters in that they have very little metals and heavy elements that

are required to create Earth-sized planets. In spiral galaxies such as ours, only a tiny

portion would be conducive to life. Most spiral galaxies have a gargantuan black hole in

the center that emits high-energy particle radiation, making any type of life impossible in

that region (Webb, 208). The arms of a spiral galaxy are also off-limits since they contain

hazardous giant molecular clouds (Gonzalez and Richards, 93). Thankfully, the Earth is

situated safely in between the Sagittarius and Perseus arms. With all these factors taken

together, it is suggested that habitable zones in the universe are extremely rare. However,

our understanding of this topic is intrinsically biased. We only have life on Earth and

nothing else to compare it to. It is entirely possible that there are complex life forms in

the universe that are able to thrive in poisonous atmospheres, waterless habitats, and

extremes of temperature. It has been suggested that life can exist without carbon and that

there could be biological molecules based on silicon instead. However, science is based

on evidence, and the only evidence we have is of life existing where water, oxygen, and
relatively stable temperatures exist.

It is clearly seen that Earth is a perfect cradle for life in the universe. But if Earth

was created by random chance, could there be other Earth-like planets in the universe?

Not likely. Earth’s gradual creation and evolution into a habitable planet was a result of a

billion different factors that came together by random chance. The probability of those

factors coming together in the same way somewhere else in the universe is so

infinitesimally small that it might as well be impossible. Earth-like planets could certainly

be made, but each outcome would differ in critical ways (Ward and Brownlee, 37). This

can be seen by the variety of planets in our own solar system. Each is wildly different

from the next, although all came from the same building materials. So what exactly are

these factors that created Earth? Well, one of the most important factors is the creation of

the original elements essential to planets. The sequence of element production in the Big

Bang and in stars provided not only the elements necessary for the formation of Earth but

also for the critical elements of life – iron, magnesium, silicon, oxygen to form the

structure of the Earth; uranium, thorium, and potassium to provide radioactive heat in its

interior; and carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and phosphorus, the biogenic elements

that provide the structure and complex molecular chemistry of life (Ward and Brownlee,

38). In fact, the Earth and our solar system are unusually rich in metals, one of the most

important elements in creating solid, Earth-sized planets. Without metals there would be

neither magnetic fields nor internal heat sources (Ward and Brownlee, 38). Metals are

also key to the development of animal life; they are important organic constituencies of

animals, such as the iron in our blood. Of course, there is also the actual process of

building Earth. Over time, the process of accretion, where solids collide and stick to one
another to form larger and larger bodies (Ward and Brownlee, 45), would generate a

planet. However, it is interesting to note that extremely little of the early Earth was water

and carbon (about 0.1% and 0.05%, respectively). So how did Earth get enough carbon

and water to sustain life? It is theorized that Earth received these valuable materials from

the thousands of carbonaceous meteorites that struck the Earth early in its life cycle.

These bodies contain up to 20% water and up to 4% carbon (Ward and Brownlee, 46), so

it is easy to see how a large concentration of these meteorites would be able to provide

Earth with the materials it needed in order to generate life. Finally, the Earth would not be

able to sustain life if it did not have the atmosphere, oceans, and land. The atmosphere

was first formed by “outgassing” from the interior (Ward and Brownlee, 52), a process

that released elements that were originally carried by meteorites, comets, and planetoids.

The oceans were created by the atmosphere, which was very hot and steamy (excuse the

pun) early in the Earth’s life. As the Earth cooled, the steam condensed and turned into

liquid, forming the oceans of Earth. Land was created by constant volcanic activity that

occurred for billions of years, releasing molten rock that hardened, eventually layering

enough to create the first continents on Earth. Although these are only a few of the factors

that created Earth, it is easy to see how the process would be nearly impossible to

replicate again by random chance.

Of course, in order for there to be relatively advanced galactic civilizations

beyond our solar system, they also have to be able to survive. Approximately 500 million

years ago, a giant asteroid smashed into what is now the Yucatan region of Mexico,

ending the Mesozoic Age and causing the dinosaurs to go belly-up. It is suggested that a

number of these kinds of catastrophic events have occurred in the Earth’s history (Ward
and Brownlee, 160), each one causing the extinction of many species of animals and then

giving rise to new species. However, it can be easily seen how all of complex life on

Earth could have been wiped out; if the asteroid was a little bigger, if the global freeze

was a little colder, if the Earth’s orbit was a little more elliptical. Complex metazoans are

much more susceptible to mass extinctions, which would be a huge barrier to the

advancement of civilizations. There are many ways that mass extinctions can occur. If a

planet’s spin rate changes, there would undoubtedly be major temperature changes that

would decimate any life that is adapted to the original spin rate. Any movement of a

planet out of an orbit would also cause global temperature changes that could cause

extinction as well as possibly the evaporation or freezing of all liquid water on that planet

(Ward and Brownlee, 165). If a large enough comet or asteroid hits a planet, it can

potentially eliminate all life and water on that planet, if not utterly turning the planet into

cosmic oatmeal first. Supernovae explosions, if close enough, have the potential to erode

a planet’s atmosphere to nothing, not to mention the ability to altogether vaporize the

planet if it is close enough to the explosion. Cosmic ray and gamma ray bursts from

merging neutron stars would also have enough energy to kill all land life on the planet,

even if they originated at the center of the galaxy (Ward and Brownlee, 167). Of course,

there is also the emergence of intelligent life itself. Paradoxically, the existence of current

intelligent life is triggering an era of rapid planetary mass extinction, due to the depletion

of the planet’s resources. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how “intelligent” we

are.

Perhaps the single most important key to the evolution and preservation of

complex life on Earth is the natural phenomenon of plate tectonics. In plate tectonics, the
crust of the earth floats on top of a heated upper mantle. The upper mantle acts like

boiling water, producing large moving “cells” of material (Ward and Brownlee, 196).

These convection cells rise and rupture the crust, carrying it along parallel to the mantle.

Plate tectonics is responsible for all of the volcanic activity on Earth, which in turn is

responsible for continental growth, as well as the creation of mountain ranges, which are

formed when continents collide with each other. The rate of continental growth is

extremely important to ecosystems and the life that they harbor. As continents grow, they

affect the global climate, the planet’s albedo, the oceanic current patterns, and the amount

of nutrients reaching the sea (Ward and Brownlee, 203). Plate tectonics not only helps

with the development of continents and mountain ranges, but it also drives the Earth’s

carbon dioxide-rock cycle (Gonzalez and Richards, 183). The carbon dioxide-rock cycle

is essential in keeping the Earth’s temperature and a livable level due to its effects on

greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are important in absorbing

the infrared light that comes from the Sun as well as warming the planet. Plate tectonics

is responsible for moving fragments of the Earth’s crust into the inner mantle, where

carbon dioxide is released and vented into the atmosphere by volcanoes, making plate

tectonics instrumental in the process of regulating the Earth’s surface temperature.

However, the versatility of plate tectonics does not stop here. Plate tectonics is also

responsible for increasing the planet’s biodiversity, which is very important since high

diversity is a counter against the loss of traits by mass extinctions. As continents break

apart or come together, the oceanic or mountainous barriers that form allow old habitats

to be separated and new habitats to be formed. As the number and degree of separation of

habitats increase, speciation occurs, gene flow is reduced, and new species form through
geographic isolation (Ward and Brownlee, 203). As one can see, plate tectonics is a

crucial – if not the central – requirement for maintaining life on a planet. Of all the moons

and planets in our solar system, Earth is the only one where plate tectonics occurs, and

thus the only one where life occurs.

Many centuries ago, the dark patches on the moon were thought to have been

seas, and were thus called maria. Philosophers and ancient scientists theorized that there

was water on the Moon and therefore life. Now we know that although there is no life

actually on the Moon, the Moon does sustain life: ours, to be exact. The existence of a

moon that is inconceivably large in comparison with the planet that it orbits is also one of

the phenomenons that contributes to the ability of complex life to survive on Earth. In

1993, a remarkable discovery revealed that the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth

actually stabilizes the tilt of the Earth’s axis (Gonzalez and Richards, 126). Since the tilt

of the Earth is responsible for our seasons, the stability of our climate is attributed to the

moon. If the Earth did not have such a moon, our tilt would swing over a large range of

degrees, resulting in climate changes and major temperature variations. The moon also

influences the tides, which serve a very important role in maintaining biodiversity and the

global temperature. Tides wash nutrients from the continents to the oceans, which would

otherwise be very nutrient-poor. It is easy to see how this would affect biodiversity, as

well as possibly causing mass extinctions. If the oceans did not have enough nutrients to

sustain life, it is possible that much of the algae life would die out. Since ocean algae

provide much of the planet’s oxygen, a decrease in oxygen would spell disaster for

complex life on Earth. Lunar tides also help to maintain global ocean circulation, which

is a critical factor in sustaining the delicate temperatures of the higher latitudes (Gonzalez
and Richards, 130). Detrimental consequences would also occur if the moon were more

massive than it is. With a larger moon comes more gravitational pull, which would slow

down the rotation of the Earth so much that a day with a larger moon would be the

equivalent of a week with the moon that we have now. This would cause large

temperature differences between day and night, which again would prove to be disastrous

for complex life forms. We are very fortunate to have a moon that is exactly the right

size, distance, and gravity to help accommodate complex life on Earth. No other planet in

the solar system has a moon that is comparable in size (except Pluto and its moon,

Charon). It is quite possible that this moon to planet relationship is also quite rare

throughout the universe.

Even with all this evidence that complex life forms are rare in the universe, why

have scientists, for the past fifty years, insisted that extraterrestrial life exists? The reason

is not purely a scientific one, but also a matter of philosophy. Ever since Copernicus

proved that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, the Earth has been reduced to a

infinitesimal speck in a universe of identical infinitesimal specks. This is called the

Principle of Mediocrity or the Copernican Principle, which says that we should assume

that there is nothing special about our situation, our location in the universe, or the

specific attributes of our solar system, Earth, or humans themselves (Gonzalez and

Richards, 23). Of course, there is truth in this statement. We should not assume that our

solar system, our sun, or the Earth is special in every possible way. For example, doing

science outside our solar system would obviously be impossible if different places in the

galaxy obeyed different laws of physics. However, the problem is not the science behind

the Copernican Principle, but that it has taken a “metaphysically bloated form”. Science
has gone from Copernicus’ time to say that we should assume that we are just as

insignificant metaphysically as we are astronomically. Scientists have been working from

this philosophical viewpoint since Copernicus, and it has been shown throughout history.

Many scientists, even ones as renowned as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, were so

influenced by the Copernican Principle that they beamed messages to the globular cluster

M13, even though they knew that it was highly unlikely that life could survive in a

globular cluster. Scientists simply refuse to believe that life would be rare in a universe

with trillions of stars, solar systems, and planets.

Enrico Fermi once proposed an interesting argument called the Fermi Paradox.

The argument is that if there really are more advanced civilizations in worlds other than

ours, then where are they? Terrestrial life has a natural tendency to expand into all

available space, so if there are truly technologically advanced civilizations that are able to

colonize space, then they would have been able to explore the whole galaxy in a few

million years. In other words, the galaxy should be swarming with life and we should

have detected them by now. Still, we see no evidence that these civilizations exist. In

light of this and recent evidence that has been uncovered in the past decade, a reasonable

conclusion would be that life is not as abundant as once thought. Our solar system’s

location in a suitable galaxy, the rarity of heavy elements in the universe, the consistency

of mass extinction events, the marvel of plate tectonics, and the fortunate existence of a

sizable moon are just a few of the countless factors that make life on Earth special and

possibly unique. Some would say that this is a depressing and pessimistic viewpoint; that

we could be alone in the universe and even if there is life out there, we would never make

contact with them. However, I prefer to view this as an optimistic view. No longer are
humans mediocre, common, and insignificant. No longer are we just a simple planet in a

simple solar system in a simple galaxy. Our place in this universe is a privileged position;

a miracle that we should marvel at.

Bibliography

Gonzalez, Guillermo and Jay Wesley Richards. The Privileged Planet.

Washington, DC.: Regnery, 2004.

Ward, Peter and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth. New York: Copernicus, 2000.

Webb, Stephen. Where is Everybody? New York: Praxis, 2002.