The supreme scale and vast expanse of the Universe is awe inspiring. Contemplation of its grandeur has been described as a type of scientific spiritualism; broadening the mind’s horizons in a vain attempt to grasp our place amongst such awesome magnitude. Containing some 200 billion stars (or 400 billion, depending on whom you ask), our relatively humble home in the Milky Way is but one of billions of other such homes for other countless billions of stars. Likewise, our small blue dot of a planet is but one of possible billions of similar planets spread throughout the Universe.

To think that we are alone in such a vast expanse of space is not only unlikely, but irrational. For eons, human egocentricism has blinkered ideology and spirituality. Our belief systems place humanity upon a pedestal, indicating implicitly that we are alone and incredibly unique. The most salient of which is the ‘Almagest’; Ptolemy’s Earth-centred view of the Universe.

While we may be unique, the tendency of belief systems to invoke meaning in our continued existence leaves no place for humility. The result of this human focussed Universe is one where our race arrogantly fosters its own importance. Consequently, the majority of the populace has little or no concern in cosmic contemplation, nor an appreciation of truly objective thought with the realisation that Earth and our intelligent civilisation does not give sole definition to the cosmos. The Universe will continue to exist as it always have whether we are around or not.

But to do otherwise would spell certain doom for our civilisation, and it is easy to see why humans have placed so much importance upon themselves in the grand scheme of things. The Earth is home to just one intelligent species, namely us. If the Neanderthals had survived, it surely would have been a different story (in terms of the composition of social groups). Groups seem to unite against common foes, therefore a planet with two or more intelligent species would distinguish less within themselves, and more between. Given the situation we find ourselves in as the undisputed lords of this planet, it is no wonder we attach such special significance to ourselves as a species (and to discrediting the idea that we are not alone in the Universe).

It seems as if humanity needs their self-esteem bolstered when faced with the harsh reality that our existence is trivial when compared to the likelihood of other forms of life and the grandeur of the Universe at large. Terror Management Theory is but one psychological hypothesis as to why this may be the case. The main postulate of this theory is that our mortality is the most salient factor throughout life. A tension is created because on the one hand, death is inevitable, and on the other, we are intimately aware of its approach yet desperately try to minimise its effects on our lives. Thus it is proposed that humanity attempts to minimise the terror associated with impending death through cultural and spiritual beliefs (afterlife, the notion of mind/body duality – the soul continues on after death). TMT puts an additional spin on the situation by suggesting cultural world-views, and the tendency for people to protect these values at all costs (reaffirming cultural beliefs by persecuting the views of others reduces the tension produced by death).

While the empirical validity of TMT is questionable (experimental evidence is decidedly lacking), human belief systems do express an arrogance that prevents a more holistic system from emerging. The Ptolemic view dominated scientific inquiry during the middle ages, most likely due to its adoption by the church. Having the Earth as the centre of the Universe coincided nicely with theological beliefs that humanity is the sole creation of god. It may also have improved the ‘scientific’ standing of theology in that it was apparently supported by theory. What the scholars of this period failed to realise was the principle of Occam’s Razor, that being the simpler the theory the better (if it still explains the same observations). The overly complicated Ptolemic system could explain the orbit of planetary bodies, at the expense of simplicity (via the addition of epicycles to explain the anomalous motion of planets).

Modern cosmology has thankfully overthrown such models, however the ideology remains. Perhaps hampered and weighed down by daily activities, people simply do not have the time to consider an existence outside of their own immediate experience. From an evolutionary perspective, an individual would risk death if thought processes were wasted on external contemplation, rather than a selfish and immediate satisfaction of biological needs. Now that society has progressed to a point where time can be spent on intellectual pursuits, it makes sense that outmoded beliefs regarding our standing in the Universe should be rectified.

But just how likely is the possibility of life elsewhere? Science-fiction has long been an inspiration in this regard, its tales of Martian invaders striking terror into generations of children. The first directed empirical venture in this area came about with the SETI conference at Green Bank, West Virginia in 1961. At this conference, not only were the efforts of radio-astronomers to detect foreign signals discussed in detail, but one particular formulation was also put forward. Known as the Drake Equation, it was aimed at quantifying and humanising the very large numbers that are thrown about when discussing intergalactic probabilities.

Basically the equation takes a series of values thought to contribute to the likelihood of intelligent life evolving, multiplying the probabilities together and outputting a single number; the projected number of intelligent civilisations in the galaxy. Of course, the majority of the numbers used are little more than educated guesses. However, even with conservative values, this number is above 1. Promising stuff.

Fortunately, with each astronomical advance these numbers are further refined, giving a (hopefully) more accurate picture of reality. The SETI project may have even found the first extra-terrestrial signal in 1977. Dubbed the ‘Wow!’ signal (based on the researcher’s margin comments on the printout sheet), this burst of activity bore all the hallmarks of artificial origin. Sadly, this result has not been replicated despite numerous attempts.

All hope is not lost. SETI has received a revitalising injection of funds from none other than Microsoft’s Paul Allen, as well as the immensely popular SETI@Home initiative which utilises distributed network technology to sort through the copious amounts of generated data. Opponents to SETI form two main camps; those whom believe it is a waste of funds better spent on more Earthly concerns (a valid point) and those whom perceive SETI as dangerous to our continued existence. The latter point is certainly plausible (albeit unlikely). The counter claim in this instance is that if such a civilisation did exist and was sufficiently advanced to travel intergalactic distances, the last thing on their mind would be the annihilation of our insignificant species.

The notion of Star Trek’s ‘Prime Directive’ seems the most likely situation to have unfolded thus far. Extra-terrestrial civilisations would most likely seek a policy of non-interference with our meager planet, perhaps actively disguising their transmissions in an attempt to hide their activity and prevent ‘cultural contamination’.

Now all we need is for the faster-than-light barrier to be crossed and the Vulcans will welcome us into the galactic society.