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Ever since the Renaissance, the sciences have dealt human beings a steady stream of humiliations. The Copernican revolution dismantled the idea that humanity stood at the center of the universe. A cascade of discoveries from the late-18th to the early-20th century showed that humanity was a lot less significant than some had imagined. The revelation of the geological timescale stacked millions and billions of years atop our little cultural narratives, crumbling all of human history to dust. The revelation that we enjoy an evolutionary kinship to fish, bugs, and filth eroded the in-God’s-image stuff. The disclosure of the size of the galaxy—and our position on a randomly located infinitesimal dot in it—was another hit to human specialness. Then came relativity and quantum mechanics, and the realization that the way we see and hear the world bears no relation to the bizarre swarming of its intrinsic nature.

Literature began to taste and probe these discoveries. By the 19th century, some writers had already hit upon the theme—meaninglessness—that would come to dominate the 20th century in a thousand scintillating variations, from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories to Samuel Beckett’s plays. But by the turn of the new millennium, it had become clear that this sense of meaninglessness was no longer up to date.

In 1961, Frank Drake developed an equation with a string of variables to try to determine the frequency of intelligent life. Over the years, some of the variables have been plugged in. Maybe planets are just very rare? They’re not. Perhaps few planets orbit their star in the “Goldilocks zone” where it isn’t too hot or cold? No, it seems that lots do. This may sound like another round of Copernican humiliation: In a galaxy with up to 400 billion stars, many with orbiting planets, surely there’s some other intelligent, technological species. But humans have been scanning the spectra for decades and have found nothing.

Earlier this year, a group at the University of Oxford released a paper arguing that our knowledge of the universe and of math should lead us to assume that intelligent life is most probably an extremely rare event, depending on a series of fortuitous circumstances—like the weirdly large size of our moon, perhaps— that are so unlikely as to almost never happen. Humanity shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t found aliens, because most likely there aren’t any.

Nonsense. To read more, click here.
Category: Science