Perhaps best known for his unique articulation of the phrase “billions and billions”, in 1974 Carl Sagan postulated that there could be a million civilizations in our Milky Way Galaxy alone! This notion was largely based on something called the “Drake Equation”, and it is at the foundation of common sensibilities giving rise to the cultural icons of Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens and The X-Files.
However, since the 1990’s, and especially after the dawn of the New Millennium, we have seen the emergence of the field called Astrobiology. This is an endeavor that gathers and gleans data from all of the sciences related to this planet and brings that awareness into direct dialogue with what we know about the rest of the Universe, from which all galaxies and planets were called into being. Because of this relatively new convergence in conversation, it is now known beyond any shadow of doubt that the emergence of higher life forms cannot at all be assumed simply when we see that a given star has a few planets revolving around it. Alas, Drake’s Equation has turned out to be far too crude.
Thus we are in a position today, where it is being increasingly confirmed and more widely assumed that while microbial forms of life might abound in the Universe, the existence of complex life, like animals and sentient beings, is exceedingly and inexpressibly rare. Perhaps microscopic, one-celled organisms could be found across “billions and billions” of galaxies, but for advanced life forms to emerge, a whole host of factors have to be brought into very close proximity, within profoundly tight, and unlikely, tolerances.
In other words, in order for people like you and me to be reading this, we need to be in the right and relatively quiet position in a galaxy having all of the required elements necessary for planetary formation.
We need a planet with an eminently and unusually stable sun. We need a moon, just the right size, in just the right location, slowing our rotation so our daily wind speeds won’t average 200mph, keeping us on a stable axis for balanced seasons and tidal variations, shielding us from too many disaster inducing impacts. We need a uniquely protective barrier surrounding our most improbable planet out in space, that keeps us from being burned to a crisp by solar radiation.
Not nearly finished, in order to avoid seasonal mass-extinction, we also need a very large orb, like Jupiter, again properly placed, near enough to act like an asteroid vacuum, yet not close enough to cause fatal orbital eccentricities.
You may ask, “Really now, when was the last time Jupiter was smashed by something that would have spelled instant calamity on Earth? A million years ago?”
Well, actually, it was last month. And the resulting collision left an Earth-sized scar on the Jovian “landscape”. And if the object causing this damage had hit us, while it’s true we would no longer be worried about the deficit, we would also not be worried about anything else, ever again.
Let’s keep going, we need plate-tectonics (unique in our solar system) to act as a thermostat, rendering just the right amount of CO2 so Earth does not come to resemble our nearest and utterly barren neighbors Venus and Mars. We need water, but nary too much nor too little.
Indeed, we must have all of these factors, and others, to remain in close concert for millions and billions of years in order to move from paramecia to Picasso, from simple bacteria to Britney Spears.
Thus, both scientifically and theologically, every second of our lives in this world is a most uncommon gift, fully deserving inclusion into the category called, “The Miraculous!”
Indeed, we are wonderfully and fearfully made, a uniquely special expression of Creation that should never, ever be taken for granted.
Seeing who and what we are, how then should we act?
Astrobiologically speaking, intelligent and faithful life is probably most rare in the Universe. Let us strive as a people most remarkably alive to make sure it is not also unusual here on Earth.