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“Are we Alone in the Universe?”: The Guide to Humanity’s Place in the Cosmos

“Are we alone in the universe?” is a question humans have posed since time immemorial; these are major theories in SETI trying to answer it.



Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

If you’re reading TGNR you’ve likely asked the questions, “Who are we?” “Why are we here? “Are we alone in the universe?” These are questions humanity has been asking since we developed the ability to pose questions. The first two will be wrangled with until the end of time, but the third realistically becomes more pressing each day.

Let’s face it: if there are alien species, humanity may come to a point where it will have to co-exist with them. If and when that happens, the world as humankind knows it will face numerous changes unlike any before, and we cannot even be sure what those changes will be.

For many that possibility spurs the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. This is a general guide to understanding the big schools of thought in SETI, and what is being done to achieve a better understanding of Earth’s place in the universe.

Are We Alone in the Universe?

Are we alone?Pinit Gallery

Probably not. Even the most guarded of minds can rally behind the idea that there are other intelligent alien civilizations in our universe. Given the universe is some 13 billion years old and NASA/all the international astro-science programs combined have/has not even been able to observe the entirety of the universe, it’s hard to accept that humans are an aberration.

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At face value, it’s almost impossible to accept the idea that in the vastness of time and space that Earth is the only place where an intelligent species evolved. There are two major theories to address this particular dilemma: The Drake Equation and The Fermi Paradox.

The Drake Equation & SETI

Frank Drake is a leading American astrophysicist and astronomer. In 1961 he posed a simple equation to help clarify what may be possible, given human knowledge of the universe, of what the possibilities may be for intelligent life developing elsewhere in the Milky Way. Simply stated:

  • Take the average rate of star formation in our galaxy.
  • Calculate the fraction of those stars that have planets in their orbit.
  • Factor the average number of planets that could potentially support earth-like life.
  • Factor the number of potential candidate life supporting planets that could potentially host an intelligent civilization.
  • Factor the number of planets with an intelligent civilization that could produce recognizable signals of their existence.
  • Lastly, factor the amount of time those civilizations could produce those signals.
Drake equationDr. Molecule

Will Hunting’s blackboard on a Saturday night

While Drake did not create this equation to definitively calculate the number of candidate worlds in the galaxy that do possess intelligent alien life, it does stimulate meaningful debate over the question “are we alone in the universe?” If one considers that the Milky Way is estimated to contain between 200-400 billion stars, Drake’s equation begins to gain traction.

Even the most conservative figures plugged into the Drake Equation generate an enormous number of candidate worlds that may play host to extraterrestrial intelligence, however this model is not without its problems.

If there are so many candidate worlds in the Milky Way alone, why haven’t SETI efforts detected their existence? Why haven’t they said, “Howdy” to the people of Earth? SETI in addressing the question “are we alone in the universe?” has come to term this impasse The Fermi Paradox.

The Fermi Paradox & SETI

Are we alone in the universe? The Fermi paradox frustrating our alien Tindr aspirations. SMBC

Swipe right if your bat’leth skills are tight

Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist who left an incredible legacy, spanning from major early contributions in quantum physics, to developing the first U.S. atomic bombs.

Fermi once mused that if space is so big, possibly containing countless worlds hosting intelligent alien life, where are they? This is a valid question, as the general credible consensus concludes that humanity has never knowingly, openly and directly detected or communicated with intelligent alien life.

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Whether you accept the belief regarding human contact with alien intelligence as fact or not, there is no doubt an intelligent alien race has never clearly and openly made contact with humanity, in so far as humanity has been able to recognize it.

SETI in attempting to answer the question “are we alone in the universe?” presents numerous possibilities to account for the aforementioned close-lipped cosmos. 

So, let’s play Where’s Spock?

The Lone Goldfish SETI Theory: The Most Depressing Answer to “Are we alone in the Universe?”

The Lone Goldfish Theory: Humanity completely alone and adrift in the universe as an intelligent civilizationMirror

“What are you looking at?”

Matter matter everywhere, but humanity is the only intelligent drop to think. According to this theory, humanity is alone a midst the vastness of the cosmos. Despite the infinite complexities of time, space, physics and the bewildering existence of non-alcoholic beer, Earth is the sole player in the intelligent civilization regard.

Earth and humans are the only game in town, themselves posessing the most depressing monopoly on advanced sentience throughout all of time and space. Ergo, it is pointless looking beyond the boundaries of our own atmosphere to locate intelligence elsewhere. Furthermore, according to some major SETI theorists, it is pointless looking within the boundaries of our own atmosphere as well. Zing!

The Lone Goldfish SETI theory is upheld by a great many individuals, but generally few in the myriad scientific fields encompassing the study and exploration of space. However, if it accurately answers the question “are we alone in the universe?”, it would denote the cruelest of jokes on the part of creation. The Lone Goldfish SETI Theory, if true, would redefine the concept of loneliness.

The Insurmountable Distance SETI Theory

The Insurmountable Distance Theory in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Pretty much.

This take on the universe posits that intelligent life is plentiful, and Earth IS part of a larger community. Yet given the restrictions of the speed of light (Relativity’s universal speed limit), and the incredible distances between possible intelligent outposts, humanity cannot easily observe or communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial beings in a timely and real-time fashion.

Even if humanity manages to observe alien life or detect alien communication, it will be from the distant past and those civilizations may no longer exist.

Remember, when you look at the stars it is something of a time machine. We do not see stars as they are now, but how they presented when the light they emit has reached Earth. For example, if a star being observed is 1,000 light years from Earth, we are looking at that star as it was a millennium ago.

In regards to potential extraterrestrial radio signals, they too are restricted by the same speed of light speed limit, and would have been transmitted long ago depending on the distance of their origin relative to Earth.

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Those scientist who support this theory also consider it the possible final frontier for the field of archeology. As archeology is the study of ancient history by analysis of remaining relics and artifacts, Earth would be receiving evidence of cultures and peoples long past.

The Zoo SETI Theory: Star Trek’s Answer to “Are we alone in the Universe?”

The Zoo Theory - SETI's answer to Star Trek's Prime Directive Space Studies Institute

Suggested donation and free admission Tuesdays.

The Zoo Theory is pretty much the Prime Directive for those Star Trek fans in the audience. For those not up on the wagon train to the stars, the Zoo Theory dictates there are intelligent alien civilizations who have managed to explore space in a manner that overcomes the obstacles of time and space as humanity currently understands them.

The Zoo Theory also includes the belief that these aliens know of human civilization, are observing it covertly, while awaiting humanity to meet a certain concrete criteria regarding development before making their formal introduction.

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Zoo Theory in its answer to “are we alone in the universe?” strongly suggests said aliens do not believe humanity is yet ready to be made clearly aware of its place in a complex chorus of players in the universe. Moreover, for the sake of human natural development, it’s own safety – as well as the possible safety of the alien representatives should they be physically present – contact is withheld until such time as the aliens believe humans are ready to take their membership in the intergalactic country club.

Zoo Theory is a very compelling possibility for many reasons, as it has a certain relatable logic to our own human experience. One can see how more advanced civilizations might want to protect their intelligent stellar siblings, allowing them to advance on their own unique path – eliminating any interlocutor’s intergalactic shenanigans. So as to emerge into a bigger and more complicated picture when a species is ready by their own singular progress.

What the alien advancement benchmark may be before initiating first contact is worthy of speculation. Many are quick to conclude that the awaited advancement for a species to qualify for first contact would be purely technological in nature, but there are other reasonable possibilities.

It is worth considering such advancements could be sociological in nature, or even biological. Perhaps it might be a combination of various elements of advancement before first contact is deemed appropriate. In short, the Zoo Theory at least elicits worthwhile debate in standout fashion.

The “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” SETI Theory

The Close Encounters of the Third Kind Theory - the most controversial SETI theoryAmerican Dad, 20th Century Fox Television

Essentially, Roger.

The Close Encounters of the Third Kind Theory espouses that aliens are already on Earth, and furthermore have been covertly interacting with specifically chosen human individuals for centuries. Indeed this theory’s answer to “are we alone in the universe?” is a matter of being among the chosen few to experience alien existence first hand.

The Close Encounters phenomena is not isolated to Western culture in just the last seven decades. Contrary to popular dissenting opinion, alleged alien contact with humans has been recorded for centuries in many disparate cultures everywhere on Earth.

Stephen Spielberg in developing the story for his 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was basing his screenplay on research of legends, shared accounts, and other alleged direct encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence spanning the globe; dating long prior to 20th century popular culture.

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Individuals alleging alien contact in modernity often recount scenarios including direct telepathic communication, forceful abduction against their will, involuntary physiological experimentation, and warnings about pollution as well as the danger of nuclear weapons.

Additionally, many of those reporting their alleged encounter also note that such experiences have occurred periodically throughout their life.

Dr. John E. Mack: Psychology Meets the Alien Abduction Phenomenon

The close encounter phenomenon eventually caught the attention of a professor at Harvard University Medical School, the late psychiatrist John E. Mack. Doctor Mack was a leading figure in adolescent psychology, child psychology and psychology of religion.

Further, Mack was a foremost researcher in the psychology of drug addiction and teenage suicide, prior to his scholarship on the psychological element of the alien abduction phenomenon.

Doctor Mack was originally lead into his landmark study of claimed alien abduction by the late Carl Sagan. According to Mack, a longtime friend of the legendary cosmologist, he was initially intrigued by the alien abduction phenomenon following a conversation with Sagan about alleged alien contact.

Sagan asserted that the only possible scientifically sound scholarship on the matter was its psychological component. 

Doctor Mack over the span of a decade traveled the world interviewing individuals alleging direct alien encounters. For those individuals Mack concluded experienced some kind of genuine traumatic episode – whether or not the specific details of their recollection reflected the reality of their experience – described many as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of the experience they recalled.

Mack’s interviewee research subjects included individuals of all genders, ethnicities, cultures, religions and ages on every inhabited continent. Mack’s research subjects often described their experiences, at least in part, consistent with the aforementioned scenarios claimed by others alleging direct alien encounters.

Mack’s interviewees consistently described the aliens physically as bipedal, short, hairless, with grey complexion, bulbous heads, dark walnut shaped eyes, and emaciated bodies.

Doctor Mack died tragically in 2004, the victim of a fatal auto accident in London. Mack prior to his passing published two notable works on the psychology of alien abduction: Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters (1999), and the Pulitzer Prize winning Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994).

Mack’s contribution to answering the question “are we alone in the universe?” is not an unambiguous endorsement for a single, binary conclusion. Instead it is a remarkably even, meticulously researched, substantive exploration of its psychological implications for those claiming to have encountered alien life first hand.

Mack’s writings leave the reader with the facts as he understood them, as a credible and authoritative source to arrive at their own understanding.  

Overall, The Close Encounter theory is met with well founded skepticism across all related disciplines, and is generally associated by many with fascination in the supernatural and pseudoscience. One must draw their own conclusions.

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The Independence Day SETI Theory: Wishing the Answer to “Are We Alone in the Universe?” was “Yes”

The Independence Day Theory of SETIIndependence Day, 1996. 20th Century Fox Corps.

Now that’s what I call impeachment!

The Independence Day Theory dictates that aliens DO exist, as its answer to the question: “Are we alone in the universe?” However, humanity would wish they were alone a midst the cosmos, as humans would be better off not encountering said aliens at all.

The Independence Day Theory asserts any such aliens would be malevolent, likely resulting in the massacre of humanity, leading to irreversible damage of Earth due to the violent consumption of all the resources the aliens desired.

Over a decade ago the late acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking went on record stating that in all likelihood human contact with aliens would be similar to the early historical encounters during European colonization with native peoples in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The aliens would greatly outclass humanity technologically, subjugating humans – if not eliminating them entirely – while extracting any assets meeting their fancy.

More often than not in the history of the human race, when two foreign cultures meet for the first time, one side of the equation suffers immeasurably. The Independence Day Theory incorporates this pattern to the intergalactic stage, and considers it the likely outcome from contact.

While dissenting opinions of such people as Carl Sagan believe advanced morality may be strongly correlated with advanced civilizations; the Independence Day Theory draws from the experiences and behavioral patterns of the people of Earth.

In short, the Independence Day Theory answers the question “are we alone in the universe?” using the basis of the age old maxim: “only a fool doubts his own experience.”

Sources: TedTalks: Space Trek, Space Studies Institute, NASA, Frank Drake Ph.D, Enrico Fermi Ph.D, Stephen Hawking Ph.D, John E. Mack MD PhD, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Pinit Gallery, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Dr. Molecule, Mirror,

Write to Paul K. DiCostanzo at

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Paul K. DiCostanzo is the Managing Editor for TGNR. He is a noted public speaker, an emerging historian of the Second World War, a vocal advocate for Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis, and highly regarded interviewer. Paul K. DiCostanzo is Co-Host for the A.D. History Podcast. The A.D. History Podcast explores world history of the last 2000 years in an unprecedented fashion; with each episode covering a 10 year period beginning in 1AD, until reaching the present day. Ultimately finding the forgotten, as well as overlooked threads of history, and weaving a tapestry of true world history. Paul is author of the reader submitted Q&A column: WW2 Brain Bucket. The Brain Bucket answers readers submitted questions on all things regarding the Second World War. Paul has served as Managing Editor for TGNR since March 2015. Prior to TGNR, Paul has a background in American National Security and American Foreign Policy.