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“Are We Alone?” Your Guide To Humanity’s Place In The Universe

“Are we alone?” is a question humanity has asked for millenia. Here are the schools of thought in SETI that try and answer that question.



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?” These are questions humanity has been asking since we developed the ability to ask 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 (SETI). This is a general guide to understanding what the big schools of thought are, and what is being done to better understand Earth’s place in the universe.


Are We Alone?

Are we alone?Pinit Gallery

Probably not. Even the most guarded of minds can rally behind the idea that there are other 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

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 life, it does stimulate positive debate. If you consider that the Milky Way is believed to contain somewhere between 200-400 billion stars, Drake’s equation begins to gain traction. Even the most conservative estimates plugged into the Drake Equation generates an enormous number of candidate worlds that may play host to an intelligent civilization, however this model is not without its problems.

If there are so many candidate worlds in the Milky Way alone, why haven’t we detected their existence? Why haven’t they said “hello”?

The Fermi Paradox

Are we alone? Lady KlingonsSMBC

Swipe right if your bat’leth skills are tight

Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist who left an incredible legacy, spanning from quantum physics to developing the first U.S. atomic bombs. He once mused that if space is so big, and if there are countless candidate planets for intelligent life, where are they? This is a valid question as general consensus dictates humanity has never openly and directly detected or communicated with intelligent alien life.


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Whether you accept the belief regarding human contact with aliens 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. So, let’s play Where’s Spock?

The Lone Goldfish Theory

Are we alone? Lone goldfishMirror

“What are you looking at?”

Matter matter everywhere, but humanity is the only intelligent drop to drink. According to this theory, humanity is alone a midst the vastness of the cosmos. Despite the infinite complexities of the universe, Earth is the sole player in the intelligent civilization regard. There is no point in looking beyond the boundaries of the atmosphere because Earth and human beings are the only game in town.

This theory is upheld by a great many individuals, however it would denote a very cruel joke on the part of creation. This theory if true would redefine the concept of loneliness.

The Insurmountable Distance Theory

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 these intelligent outposts, humanity can not observe or communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial beings. 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 what they were 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.

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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 long past.

The Zoo Theory

Space Studies Institute

Suggested donation and free admission Tuesdays.

The Zoo Theory is pretty much the Prime Directive for the Star Trek fans in the audience. For those not up on the wagon train to the stars, the Zoo Theory dictates that there is intelligent alien civilizations who have managed to explore space in a manner that overcomes the obstacles of time and space as humanity understands them. It also suggests that these aliens know of humans, are observing them covertly, and are waiting to make initial contact until humanity meets a certain unknown criteria regarding development.


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This theory suggests that humanity is not yet considered ready to be made clearly aware of their place in a complex chorus of players in the universe. Moreover, for the sake of human natural development (and likely the safety of the alien civilization’s) contact is withheld until such time as the alien’s believe humans are ready to take their membership in the intergalactic country club.

The “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” Theory

American Dad, 20th Century Fox Television

Essentially, Roger.

According to the Close Encounters Of The Third Kind Theory, alien’s are already on Earth, and have covertly been interacting with specifically chosen individuals for centuries. This phenomena has not been isolated to western cultures in just the last 70 years. Despite popular dissenting opinion, alien contact has been alleged and recorded by individuals for centuries in countless cultures everywhere on Earth.

When Stephen Spielberg began developing the story for his 1977 blockbuster Close Encounter’s Of The Third Kind, it was based on research of stories, legends, and supposed encounters that spanned the globe and that dated long before the 20th century. These accounts often included scenarios that included direct telepathic communication, forceful abduction, physiological experimentation, and warnings about pollution as well as nuclear weapons. Additionally most of those who reported their alleged encounter also add that such experiences have occurred periodically throughout their life.

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The close encounter phenomenon eventually caught the attention of a professor at Harvard University, the late psychiatrist John E. Mack. Over the span of a decade Mack interviewed individuals from around the world who had alleged direct alien encounters. For those he believed actually had a genuine traumatic encounter, he described many of those individuals as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress disorder as a direct result of the experience they recalled.


The individuals he interviewed included people of all genders, ethnicity, cultures, and ages on every inhabited continent. With little variation, they described at least in part some of the previously mentioned scenarios. Most interestingly, they tended to describe the supposed alien’s as short, grey, hairless creatures with a bulbous head, dark walnut shaped eyes, and emaciated bodies.

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

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The Independence Day Scenario

Independence Day, 1996. 20th Century Fox Corps.

Now that’s what I call impeachment!

This scenario dictates that aliens DO exist. However, humanity would be better off not encountering them as the encounter would likely result in the massacre of humanity, irreversible damage to Earth, and consumption of all it’s resources.


Nearly a decade ago, acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking went on record saying that in all likelihood human contact with aliens would be similar to the historical encounters in European colonization with native peoples. The aliens would greatly outclass humanity technologically, they would strip the planet of the resources they desire, and subjugate humans if not eliminate them entirely.

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 scenario incorporates this pattern to the intergalactic stage, and considers it the likely outcome from contact.

While dissenting opinions of such people as the late Carl Sagan believe advanced morality may be strongly correlated with advanced civilizations, the Independence Day scenario draws from the experiences of the people of Earth. In short, only a fool doubts his own experience.

Sources: Wikipedia, 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,

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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 is a highly regarded interviewer. Paul is author of the reader submitted Q&A column: WW2 Brain Bucket. The Brain Bucket answers readers 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.

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