Stephen Webb
6,053,044 views • 13:18

I saw a UFO once. I was eight or nine, playing in the street with a friend who was a couple of years older, and we saw a featureless silver disc hovering over the houses. We watched it for a few seconds, and then it shot away incredibly quickly. Even as a kid, I got angry it was ignoring the laws of physics. We ran inside to tell the grown-ups, and they were skeptical — you'd be skeptical too, right? I got my own back a few years later: one of those grown-ups told me, "Last night I saw a flying saucer. I was coming out of the pub after a few drinks." I stopped him there. I said, "I can explain that sighting."


Psychologists have shown we can't trust our brains to tell the truth. It's easy to fool ourselves. I saw something, but what's more likely — that I saw an alien spacecraft, or that my brain misinterpreted the data my eyes were giving it? Ever since though I've wondered: Why don't we see flying saucers flitting around? At the very least, why don't we see life out there in the cosmos? It's a puzzle, and I've discussed it with dozens of experts from different disciplines over the past three decades. And there's no consensus. Frank Drake began searching for alien signals back in 1960 — so far, nothing. And with each passing year, this nonobservation, this lack of evidence for any alien activity gets more puzzling because we should see them, shouldn't we?

The universe is 13.8 billion years old, give or take. If we represent the age of the universe by one year, then our species came into being about 12 minutes before midnight, 31st December. Western civilization has existed for a few seconds. Extraterrestrial civilizations could have started in the summer months. Imagine a summer civilization developing a level of technology more advanced than ours, but tech based on accepted physics though, I'm not talking wormholes or warp drives — whatever — just an extrapolation of the sort of tech that TED celebrates. That civilization could program self-replicating probes to visit every planetary system in the galaxy. If they launched the first probes just after midnight one August day, then before breakfast same day, they could have colonized the galaxy. Intergalactic colonization isn't much more difficult, it just takes longer. A civilization from any one of millions of galaxies could have colonized our galaxy.

Seems far-fetched? Maybe it is, but wouldn't aliens engage in some recognizable activity — put worldlets around a star to capture free sunlight, collaborate on a Wikipedia Galactica, or just shout out to the universe, "We're here"?

So where is everybody? It's a puzzle because we do expect these civilizations to exist, don't we? After all, there could be a trillion planets in the galaxy — maybe more.

You don't need any special knowledge to consider this question, and I've explored it with lots of people over the years. And I've found they often frame their thinking in terms of the barriers that would need to be cleared if a planet is to host a communicative civilization. And they usually identify four key barriers.

Habitability — that's the first barrier. We need a terrestrial planet in that just right "Goldilocks zone," where water flows as a liquid. They're out there. In 2016, astronomers confirmed there's a planet in the habitable zone of the closest star, Proxima Centauri — so close that Breakthrough Starshot project plans to send probes there. We'd become a starfaring species. But not all worlds are habitable. Some will be too close to a star and they'll fry, some will be too far away and they'll freeze.

Abiogenesis — the creation of life from nonlife — that's the second barrier. The basic building blocks of life aren't unique to Earth: amino acids have been found in comets, complex organic molecules in interstellar dust clouds, water in exoplanetary systems. The ingredients are there, we just don't know how they combine to create life, and presumably there will be worlds on which life doesn't start.

The development of technological civilization is a third barrier. Some say we already share our planet with alien intelligences. A 2011 study showed that elephants can cooperate to solve problems. A 2010 study showed that an octopus in captivity can recognize different humans. 2017 studies show that ravens can plan for future events — wonderful, clever creatures — but they can't contemplate the Breakthrough Starshot project, and if we vanished today, they wouldn't go on to implement Breakthrough Starshot — why should they? Evolution doesn't have space travel as an end goal. There will be worlds where life doesn't give rise to advanced technology.

Communication across space — that's a fourth barrier. Maybe advanced civilizations choose to explore inner space rather than outer space, or engineer at small distances rather than large. Or maybe they just don't want to risk an encounter with a potentially more advanced and hostile neighbor. There'll be worlds where, for whatever reason, civilizations either stay silent or don't spend long trying to communicate.

As for the height of the barriers, your guess is as good as anyone's. In my experience, when people sit down and do the math, they typically conclude there are thousands of civilizations in the galaxy. But then we're back to the puzzle: Where is everybody? By definition, UFOs — including the one I saw — are unidentified. We can't simply infer they're spacecraft. You can still have some fun playing with the idea aliens are here. Some say a summer civilization did colonize the galaxy and seeded Earth with life ... others, that we're living in a cosmic wilderness preserve — a zoo. Yet others — that we're living in a simulation. Programmers just haven't revealed the aliens yet. Most of my colleagues though argue that E.T. is out there, we just need to keep looking, and this makes sense. Space is vast. Identifying a signal is hard, and we haven't been looking that long. Without doubt, we should spend more on the search. It's about understanding our place in the universe. It's too important a question to ignore.

But there's an obvious answer: we're alone. It's just us. There could be a trillion planets in the galaxy. Is it plausible we're the only creatures capable of contemplating this question? Well, yes, because in this context, we don't know whether a trillion is a big number. In 2000, Peter Ward and Don Brownlee proposed the Rare Earth idea. Remember those four barriers that people use to estimate the number of civilizations? Ward and Brownlee said there might be more.

Let's look at one possible barrier. It's a recent suggestion by David Waltham, a geophysicist. This is my very simplified version of Dave's much more sophisticated argument. We are able to be here now because Earth's previous inhabitants enjoyed four billion years of good weather — ups and downs but more or less clement. But long-term climate stability is strange, if only because astronomical influences can push a planet towards freezing or frying. There's a hint our moon has helped, and that's interesting because the prevailing theory is that the moon came into being when Theia, a body the size of Mars, crashed into a newly formed Earth. The outcome of that crash could have been a quite different Earth-Moon system. We ended up with a large moon and that permitted Earth to have both a stable axial tilt and a slow rotation rate. Both factors influence climate and the suggestion is that they've helped moderate climate change. Great for us, right? But Waltham showed that if the moon were just a few miles bigger, things would be different. Earth's spin axis would now wander chaotically. There'd be episodes of rapid climate change — not good for complex life. The moon is just the right size: big but not too big. A "Goldilocks" moon around a "Goldilocks" planet — a barrier perhaps.

You can imagine more barriers. For instance, simple cells came into being billions of years ago ... but perhaps the development of complex life needed a series of unlikely events. Once life on Earth had access to multicellularity and sophisticated genetic structures, and sex, new opportunities opened up: animals became possible. But maybe it's the fate of many planets for life to settle at the level of simple cells.

Purely for the purposes of illustration, let me suggest four more barriers to add to the four that people said blocked the path to communicative civilization. Again, purely for the purposes of illustration, suppose there's a one-in-a-thousand chance of making it across each of the barriers. Of course there might be different ways of navigating the barriers, and some chances will be better than one in a thousand. Equally, there might be more barriers and some chances might be one in a million. Let's just see what happens in this picture.

If the galaxy contains a trillion planets, how many will host a civilization capable of contemplating like us projects such as Breakthrough Starshot? Habitability — right sort of planet around the right sort of star — the trillion becomes a billion. Stability — a climate that stays benign for eons — the billion becomes a million. Life must start — the million becomes a thousand. Complex life forms must arise — the thousand becomes one. Sophisticated tool use must develop — that's one planet in a thousand galaxies. To understand the universe, they'll have to develop the techniques of science and mathematics — that's one planet in a million galaxies. To reach the stars, they'll have to be social creatures, capable of discussing abstract concepts with each other using complex grammar — one planet in a billion galaxies. And they have to avoid disaster — not just self-inflicted but from the skies, too. That planet around Proxima Centauri, last year it got blasted by a flare. One planet in a trillion galaxies, just as in the visible universe.

I think we're alone. Those colleagues of mine who agree we're alone often see a barrier ahead — bioterror, global warming, war. A universe that's silent because technology itself forms the barrier to the development of a truly advanced civilization. Depressing, right?

I'm arguing the exact opposite. I grew up watching "Star Trek" and "Forbidden Planet," and I saw a UFO once, so this idea of cosmic loneliness I certainly find slightly wistful. But for me, the silence of the universe is shouting, "We're the creatures who got lucky." All barriers are behind us. We're the only species that's cleared them — the only species capable of determining its own destiny. And if we learn to appreciate how special our planet is, how important it is to look after our home and to find others, how incredibly fortunate we all are simply to be aware of the universe, humanity might survive for a while. And all those amazing things we dreamed aliens might have done in the past, that could be our future.

Thank you very much.