You may know about the Drake Equation, which is an attempt to quantify the number of intelligent species that evolve in a galaxy. Depending on how you set the parameters, the answer varies from “lots!” to “almost none.” The first answer leads to Fermi’s Paradox: Okay, if there are lots of aliens… where are they? So far we’ve seen no signs (pardon the reference).
If you read science fiction you may also be familiar with the idea of Ancient Alien Ancestors (AAA) who are now long gone leaving only a legend. Sometimes there are The Ancients (now long absent), the current Elder Races (powerful, not always wise, not always kind), and the Younger Races (which Earthlings invariably belong to).
But what if we are those Ancient Ancestors?
Here’s the thing: The universe — at least the part of it we can see — is extremely young. Our best estimate of the time since the Big Bang is 13.8 billion years. That sounds like a long time, but the universe will last hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of years!
So it’s really early days, yet, and rather an interesting time. We know the universe is expanding. By one-trillion years, the Local Group coalesces and galaxies beyond the Local Group are forever out of sight. By two-trillion galaxies outside the Local Supercluster vanish.
If that one-trillion years were a day, we’d right now be just after 20 minutes past midnight. Literally just starting the first hour of that long day. Even if you think in terms of a mere 300 billion year timeline, we’re still just barely out of the first hour.
So here we are in a brand spankin’ new universe. Maybe we’re the first ones to the party. (Quick! Grab as much of the smoked salmon as you can. It goes fast. Get some shrimp, too.)
I’ve written about the Drake Equation before. Even what you’d think of as extremely small factors result in the “lots!” answers that had Fermi scratching his head. You have to get incredibly small (“Let’s get small!”) before intelligent life starts to seem rare. Make them finally tiny enough and you have a Rare Earth Hypothesis.
If you consider Von Neumann probes, a trick we’re already starting to use at least in terms of sending out robots rather than humans, then it’s all the more surprising we see no signs of intelligent alien life.
But it’s not surprising if we’re first!
What if, in addition to the numeric probability being low, the time involved is also significant. What if it takes, on average, at least 20 or 30 billion years for intelligence to arise even with millions of star systems rising and falling during that time. (Our own solar system is only five-billion years or so and is about halfway through its life.)
It’s possible we beat the odds, not just in being here at all, but in being here so early.
It’s just possible we’re the first ones on the scene! Maybe we’ll get out there over the next million years or so and find planets in the very early stages of life. Maybe we’ll even help it along.
Maybe we’ll be the ones planting Monoliths and leaving behind tantalizing clues for those who come along millions of years after us!