Searching for life on Mars

Exploring questions posed by the Fermi

Pondering the meaning of life is a dangerous, dangerous game. Asking questions like “why are we here?” and “are we alone?” makes some people feel uncomfortable and nervous. These are tough questions that great thinkers throughout history have continuously struggled with. Being uncomfortable thinking about these questions is a natural human reaction, and one I personally love to experience. For me, these questions keep me grounded and put my day to day worries in perspective.

On dark, clear nights, it’s hard not to look up into the sky, gaze at the stars, and wonder, “Are we alone?” I’ve pondered both answers, and both terrify me. Currently, there is not a speck of reputable information that points to intelligent extraterrestrial life, but a lack of evidence proves only that we need to keep looking. Maybe we are alone, hurling through a ceaseless void on a hunk of rock. We might be the first and the last civilization the universe ever knows. Once we are gone, no one will be left to experience the wonder. Maybe we aren’t alone, equally terrifying. A galactic empire could be just beyond our sights. They might already know about and be observing us from afar, waiting for the right moment to say, “hello, neighbor.”

With such a vast universe, it seems inconceivable that we have not found any life at all. The idea that scale and probability favor life despite our lack of contact with other civilizations is known as the Fermi Paradox. With so many opportunities, even if the chances of life are extremely small, the sheer number of habitable planets should even out. So why haven’t we seen an advanced civilization yet?

There are many possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox. One I find fascinating is The Great Filter: the idea that we haven’t encountered intelligent life because there is no intelligent life. The proposition is that there is a “filter” preventing life from reaching advanced stages of civilization. It is possible that we have already passed that filter. Life could actually be very, very hard to create, and our planet is the lucky one. We might actually be the first, and wouldn’t that be cool? The other possibility is that The Great Filter lies ahead of us. Maybe civilizations have reached higher levels of technology, but were then obliterated before ever finding us. Nuclear war, global climate change, and superbugs spring to mind. We might be nearing the end of human civilization, steadily approaching our Great Filter. That’s a little less cool.

Having a bit of an existential crisis? That’s okay. Before I let you go, we need to talk about our purpose in life. Why are we here? Think about it for a moment, because I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know our purpose, and I don’t think anyone ever will. Feeling worse? Sorry about that. But I take comfort in not knowing our purpose. It means I can play this game in whatever way I want to play it. When I make decisions, I ask myself if it will make me happy, now or in the future. If the answer is yes, I go with it; if not, I move on. Some days will be better and some worse. At the end of my life, I’ll ask myself if I had fun and if I was happy. If I can answer yes to both, then nothing else really matters.