Are we all alone? – part 2

This is the second part of a post discussing the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. Read part 1 first, if you haven’t already.

In my previous post I focused mainly on the possibility of finding life on other planets, the biggest issue being the enormous distances involved.

Scientists have estimated that there are some 40 billion planets capable of supporting life in the Milky Way galaxy alone, which seems like a big number until you consider how far away we are from any possibly intelligent neighbours. The closest sun-like star is Alpha Centauri, and even if we figured out how to travel at light speed, it would still take over 4 years to get there.

There is some hope though, with planned unmanned missions like Breakthrough Starshot hoping to launch a fleet of tiny spacecraft and propel them towards Alpha Centauri at 15-20% of light speed. If they can make this happen by the planned launch date of 2036, then somewhere between 2060-2070 we may well be getting our first glimpses of life on another planet.

The Canadarm2 robotic arm grapples the SpaceX Dragon CRS-6 cargo spacecraft before attaching it to the International Space Station. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I believe that the process of abiogenesis — where non-living matter eventually evolves into organic life – has occurred not just on Earth but on millions, perhaps even billions, of other worlds in our galaxy. But what are the chances of intelligent life evolving, surviving any number of catastrophes, and ultimately becoming a space-faring civilisation? The odds of that occurring are arguably much slimmer, and according to astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, we would just be guessing anyway, since we don’t really have any data. All we know is that it’s better than zero, since life evolved on Earth that way.

So where are they?

Since this isn’t meant to be a scientific blog based on what we know for sure, let’s assume that there are other races out there who, like us, are searching for intelligent life, and developed interstellar travel hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

The Fermi paradox, named after the physicist Enrico Fermi, refers to the apparent contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations and the apparent lack of scientifically accepted convincing evidence that they do exist.

Whether or not there is convincing evidence that extraterrestrials are visiting us here on planet Earth, there is a significant fraction of the population who believe that UFO’s (Unidentified Flying Objects) are spacecraft piloted by aliens. Most of these phenomena can be explained, but some remain a mystery even after extensive investigation.

One of the more interesting UFO reports is a video of a 2015 encounter between a US military FA-18 Hornet and an unidentified flying vehicle along the USA east coast, referred to as the ‘Go Fast video’. The pilots tracked the object at 25,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean as it flew away and simultaneously rotated on its axis. No explanation ever emerged.

The ‘Go Fast’ video was one of three pieces of footage released by the US Defense Department’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The first video released, referred to as ‘Gimbal’ (below) shows a number of craft executing manoeuvres that defy physics. A detailed analysis of the footage concludes that it ‘demonstrates flight characteristics unlike anything we know, understand, or can duplicate’.

Abductions

Apart from UFO’s, there are also the more direct encounters reported as ‘abductions’, where people are essentially kidnapped and subjected to all manner of investigative medical procedures at the hands of aliens. One of the best known of these is the alleged 1975 abduction of Travis Walton, a forestry worker in Snowflake, Arizona.

Walton claims that on November 5, 1975, while riding in a truck with six of his co-workers, they all saw a large saucer shaped object hover above the ground only 35 metres away. After leaving the truck to investigate, Walton was knocked unconscious by a beam of light from the craft, and woke up in hospital-like room being observed by short, bald creatures. He then fought with them until being led away to another room and blacked out again as a clear plastic mask was put over his face. He claims he remembers nothing else until he found himself walking along a highway with the saucer departing above him.

Walton wrote a book about his abduction in 1978 called The Walton Experience, which was then adapted into one of my all-time favourite movies – Fire In The Sky.

The best-known alien abductee would have to be the writer Whitley Strieber, who contends that he was abducted from his cabin in upstate New York on the evening of December 26, 1985 by non-human beings. He wrote about this and related experiences in the book Communion: A True Story, first published in 1987, which was then adapted to make the 1989 film Communion.

Strieber published four additional autobiographies detailing his encounters with the ‘Visitors’ over the next 24 years, and many of the details were revealed only after he underwent regression hypnosis.

There’s no doubt in my mind that alien abductions are a real phenomena, and the first widely publicised case was that of Barney and Betty Hill, who claim they were abducted by extraterrestrials in a rural portion of the state of New Hampshire from September 19 to September 20, 1961.

The Hill’s witnessed a 80-100 feet wide pancake shaped aircraft descend near their car as they were driving along an isolated road. Barney got out to take a closer look, and the craft then moved directly above their car. The Hill’s drove away at high speed but subsequently lost consciousness, waking to find they had travelled 35 miles with only vague memories of the road, arriving home 3 hours later than they should have.

After the incident Betty experienced five nights of vivid dreams where the Hill’s were led on to the spacecraft and subjected to various medical examinations by grey aliens. Further details of the encounter were revealed through hypnosis sessions, and although they were each hypnotised separately, Barney and Betty’s recollections are remarkably similar.

Are these abductions evidence that we are being routinely visited by extraterrestrial beings, and the memories of the encounters repressed by some means? I think it’s a distinct possibility, and perhaps in time, as technology advances, we may be able to capture convincing enough evidence to conclude that we are not alone after all.

Are we all alone? – part 1

In 2015 the physicist Stephen Hawking said:

In an infinite Universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.

The idea that there is not just life, but intelligent life, on other planets is one that has fascinated me since reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion when I was a teenager.

Whether you are a believer like I am or not, the enormity of the universe should be enough to make you doubt that we humans are not a singular anomaly. To get a a sense of this scale, let’s begin with a short astronomy lesson:

Our galaxy is big

Planet Earth is the third amongst eight planets in our solar system (sorry Pluto, you are just a dwarf planet now), all orbiting a star we call the Sun, which scientists estimate was formed some 4.6 billion years ago. Our Sun is in turn one of an estimated 250 billion (+-150 billion) in an island of stars known as the Milky Way galaxy.

The Milky Way is known as a barred spiral galaxy, and it’s an enormous structure, approximately 100 million light years wide, with the Sun located around 25,000 light years from the centre. The image below shows where our sun is located.

Our Sun is located the Orion Arm, or Orion Spur, of the Milky Way galaxy. It’s a minor spiral arm, located between two other arms. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Updated in 2010 by R. Hurt.

Now that we know there are around 250 billion stars in our ‘local’ galaxy, the next question is how many of those stars are part of solar systems much like ours, with planets orbiting just the right distance from the sun such that life is possible? Scientists refer to this as the Goldilocks zone, which is a range of orbits around a star where a planetary surface is capable of supporting liquid water.

In 2013, astronomers used data collected from the Kepler space mission to estimate that there are around 11 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the Goldilocks (habitable) zone of Sun-like stars in the Milky Way galaxy, as well as another 30 billion more orbiting red-dwarf stars (which also have habitable zones like Sun-like stars do).

So that’s around 40 billion planets possibly capable of supporting life in our ‘home’ galaxy, but how about further beyond in other galaxies?

The Universe is even bigger

Astronomers estimate there is an astonishing 10 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. This number was formulated by counting the number of galaxies in a particular region, and then multiplying this up to provide an estimate for the whole universe. Another way to look at it is to hold up a grain of sand to the night sky. The small patch of the sky that it covers contains 10,000 galaxies.

We are getting into really big numbers now, but in short, there are an estimated 1 septillion, that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe, and around 7.6% of those are class G stars, all of which are thought to have at least one planet. Astronomers estimate that around one quarter of those planets is thought to be in the habitable zone of the local star. Which leaves us with 19,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 19 sextillion stars similar to ours with at least one planet similar to Earth. Amazing!

How can we meet?

Hopefully at this point we can agree that it’s likely that intelligent life exists in other solar systems, in our galaxy or in others. The next question I’ve been thinking about is how likely are we to make contact?

The biggest roadblock to finding evidence of extraterrestrial life, let alone making first contact, is the enormous distances involved. Astronomers estimate that the closest sun-like star to us with a high probability of having an earth-like planet in it’s habitable zone is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 light years away. That’s 40 trillion kilometres.

Let’s say that we did find an earth-like planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and wanted to send a mission to have a closer look. How long would it take the spacecraft to get there?

The short answer is, a really long time, at least with current technology.

At present the fastest spacecraft so far launched into space are the NASA-Germany Helios probes, which traveled at 250,000 kilometers per hour. At that speed, it would take 18,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri.

The challenge for scientists is to develop the technology so that a spacecraft can travel at a substantial fraction of light speed – at least 10%. At that rate, it would take around 44 years to reach Alpha Centauri, and any data or signals we send back would take an additional 4.37 years.

NASA have plans to launch a mission to Alpha Centauri in 2069, and more recently a project called Breakthrough Starshot announced plans to develop a proof-of-concept fleet of thousands of tiny 1cm sized spacecraft, each with four high-quality cameras and laser communications systems on-board. Using ground-based lasers combined with ‘sails’ on the craft to accelerate them to 15-20% of light speed, they would reach Alpha Centauri in approximately 20 years and beam back high-quality images to Earth. With 100M USD in initial funding already allocated, I think this is the project to watch as they plan to get the first craft launched as soon as 2036.

Hopefully one of these missions will be able to gather conclusive evidence of the existence of extra-terrestrial life in my lifetime, so they’ve got 50 years or so, give or take. Will technology leap forward to allow not just tiny spacecraft to travel at near-light speeds, but actual manned missions? I certainly hope so.

So far I’ve only looked at this from the point of view of us going out there. There is also the subject of them coming here, and maybe that’s something that will happen a lot sooner, or has it already? For more on that, check out part 2.

Being mindful

I began doing mindfulness meditation on a daily basis late last year. The key idea behind this kind of meditation is to simply notice without judgement the thoughts and feelings arising within your body and your mind.

It sounds easy enough, but in practice I have found it challenging to do it even just for ten minutes, and I’m only just now beginning to understand the positive impact that being mindful can have on my daily life.

Dan Harris, the Nightline tv show anchor who is also behind the production of the meditation teaching app 10% Happier, provides this example of what mindfulness is:

We are all getting carried away with the voices in our head every day. We’re checking our phone in the middle of conversations with our children, we’re eating when we’re not hungry, we’re losing our temper or getting annoyed, etc. These are all examples of mindless behaviour.

The antidote to this behaviour is mindfulness, which is the ability to see what is going on inside our minds without getting carried away by it.

Now, imagine you are in traffic, and someone cuts you off. How does that situation usually go for you inside your head? For most of us, it goes something like this:

I’M PISSED!

In the instant that the thought occurs, you reflexively inhabit it, and the next thing you know you are pissed. The key point being that this all happened on automatic, using a firmly entrenched pattern of thoughts that you conditioned yourself to have a long time ago.

With some exercising of your ‘mindfulness muscle’ through the practice of meditation, you can short-circuit this mindless reaction and the situation could well go differently. Dan provides this colourful more self-enlightened internal dialogue:

My heart is thumping, my ears are burning, I’m having a starburst of righteous thought. Wow, I’m getting pissed!

Now that you’ve noticed what is going on, you don’t have to act on the thought and fly into full-blown road rage with your kids sitting in the back seat. You can respond appropriately (or perhaps even not at all), rather than reacting.

Some of you may think that the end goal here is to meditate oneself into being a completely non-reactive person who never gets upset about anything. Nope, that’s not it.

What I’m saying is that by learning to be mindful, you can make an appropriate choice about how to respond in any given situation. There are going to be occasions where it may well be appropriate to raise your voice to get your point across. Likewise there will be times where you can take a pause, and respond in a calm and measured way.

Being mindful is a learned skill, and it takes practice to build the ‘mental muscle’ to be able to use it well. The more you use it, the more benefits you will gain.

Changing direction

This post will mark almost 20,000 words published since I began writing this blog at the beginning of 2019, or about one fifth of the average paperback novel.

So far google analytics tells me that I’ve amassed quite the audience. My impressive visitor stats are as follows:

MonthVisitors
January 201950
February 201986

Ok, so I’m off to a slow start.

My goal when I started was to acquire the habit for writing on a daily basis, and after doing this for almost 3 months, I feel like I’ve achieved that. The daily routine goes something like this.

  1. 4am: Get up, start on a tall glass of diluted apple cider vinegar
  2. Feed our two burmese cats
  3. Meditate for 10 minutes
  4. Write

My initial inspiration for starting this blog came from the prolific writing habits of Seth Godin, who has been writing on his blog daily for decades. In that time he has published almost 7,500 posts consisting of some 3,000,000 words, and still going strong.

Along my writing journey I’ve encountered the enemy of all creative endeavours, resistance, sometimes taken 2 hours to write just a few paragraphs, and sometimes written a post in less than half an hour.

What I have noticed though, is that in the scramble to produce a new post daily, that I’ve not always been entirely happy with the work. I figured that my ability to formulate my thoughts on to the page would improve, and they have, but it’s been a bit hit and miss, and sometimes I wish I’d taken longer to dive into a topic in a longer form post.

On top of that, I’ve started writing my first book (a fiction novel), so I’ve had to re-allocate some of the time I spent writing on the blog so I can work on the novel too.

So from now on I’ve set myself a new daily goal. That is to keep writing 500 words a day on average (between the novel and the blog), and to publish a new post on the blog once I’m happy with the quality, rather than getting something out the door every day. This might mean posting every second or third day, or even weekly.

I have no idea where this writing gig is going to lead, and it’s not like I don’t already have a lot on my plate. I have three young children aged 10, 8 and 1 with another one on the way, a business in the process of resurrection, I cross-fit twice a week, and aim to read at least 20 pages of a book each day, all the while trying to average at least 7 hours of sleep a night.

What I do know is that even though I still feel like I’m floundering every time I sit down to write, that the niggling urge to keep writing is still there, so I’ll keep going.

You can expect a wide range of topics on the blog covering productivity as well as some others I haven’t touched on yet, including the (re)emerging science of psychedelics, ponderances over our existence in the known universe, and musings over the things that science can’t yet prove, but effect the lives of all of us nonetheless.

If you’ve been joining me for the journey so far, thanks for coming along, and I hope to have your company for longer still. I hope also, that what I write here can make a positive difference in your life. And if not, well I’ll have something that my kids can tease me about when I’m really old.

Being judgy

Making judgements or comments about other people or situations is a common human frailty.

As I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation each day, the subject of making judgements has arisen from the teachers I’ve been listening to. It’s easy to condemn oneself for being judgy of other people especially. In making judgements we consider ourselves as superior, more aware, more informed, or the other person somehow inferior to us.

Joseph Goldstein, who has been teaching meditation for over four decades and is the author of One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, said that there are two aspects to freeing ones mind from making judgements or comments about people and situations:

The first is the obvious one, which is to notice when we do it. For example, when we’re making a judgement about the person who is hesitating at the stop sign when we definitely would have moved by now. Or when we’re judging our friend the Dad who works interstate 5 days per week and rarely sees his wife and young children. Or another friend the Mum who has her one year old daughter in day care from 6:30am to 6:30pm each work day so she can work in her high-flying career.

The second aspect is to notice when we condemn ourselves for being judgemental. Which is to say, to notice when we are judging ourselves for being judgy! In being mindful of this, we then have the power to stop feeding the cycle of thought that creates these comments in the first place.

It’s unlikely that we can be completely free of making judgements, but in simply noticing these thoughts arising, and also noticing when we judge ourselves for having them, we can largely liberate ourselves from the suffering associated with being judgemental.

Are you getting enough sleep?

I used to think that a valid option for getting more work done was to get less sleep. Swapping two hours of sleep for two hours of uninterrupted work time early in the morning seemed like a good deal to me.

What you may not realise though is that there is more of a cost to not getting enough sleep than simply being tired. Put simply, you likely will die much earlier.

A recent study across five OECD countries show that individuals who average less than 6 hours sleep per night have a 13% higher mortality risk, and for an individual averaging 6-7 hours of sleep the risk is 7% higher.

In addition, sleep deprivation is linked to lower work productivity and negative effects on our overall health and well-being.

So if getting less sleep means you are likely to die younger, and you are also going to be less productive and have poorer health, isn’t it time to rethink your attitude to getting enough sleep?

Surely it is.

That’s impossible

One of my son’s sometimes trots out this phrase. He sees things in black and white, either true or false, possible or impossible.

Achieving anything in life involves removing the word ‘impossible’ from your everyday speech. You have to reframe the way you look at the problem and ask the question ‘where can I start to fix this?’

At a TED conference in 2018, SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said this about Elon Musk’s sometimes mind-boggling aspirations for the company:

First of all, when Elon says something, you have to pause and not immediately blurt out, “Well, that’s impossible,” or, “There’s no way we’re going to do that. I don’t know how.” So you zip it, and you think about it, and you find ways to get that done.


Once we go from thinking that a problem is impossible to fix, to thinking about how we solve it, there are ways we can be more effective during the problem solving phase as well.

When Albert Einstein was asked how he would spend his time if he was given a problem that his life depended on, and he had only one hour to solve it, he responded with:

  1. Spend 30 minutes analyzing the problem
  2. Spend 20 minutes planning the solution
  3. Spend 10 minutes executing the solution

It’s tempting to jump straight into executing the solution to a problem, but if often leaves out edge cases or bugs that we hadn’t thought of. Taking the time to analyze the problem and plan the solution may seem to be a more time-consuming approach at first, but leads to more robust results.

The hero’s journey

I subscribe to the theory that we all have a hero’s journey waiting to be lived out.

In his book The Artist’s Journey, author Steven Pressfield refers to the hero’s journey as ‘a template that exists from birth in our psyches.’ He proposes that there are two aspects to it which are often overlooked or not taken into account:

  1. This template has within it a pattern and sequence of events but the specific details are up to the individual.
  2. It exerts a powerful and almost irresistible pressure on the individual to live it out in real life.

I think we all feel this pull, this pressure to follow a particular path. We can choose to ignore it, but that urge remains. We can try to silence it with drugs, alcohol or any other number of obsessions to dull or consume our attention, and that may work for a time.

If you are feeling a little lost, then take some time to consider this. Turn off the tv, put your phone down, sit quietly and write a page with all of the ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem, on how you want to spend the rest of your life. Let the ideas and dreams percolate to the top so they can be captured.

Then pick one of those ideas and make a start. Today.

Hubris

Defined as excessive pride or self confidence, author Steven Pressfield wrote this about hubris:

But ambition must never be allowed to rise to the level of hubris. The minute we believe that we are the source of that which comes through us … that’s when the gods start dusting off their thunderbolts.

My own experience of hubris is that it can destroy in a matter of months something that can take 10 years to build.

Four years ago, my business was growing at an astounding rate and we were selling some new and exciting products that no-one else had yet bought to market. Profits were good, supply was good, and demand was ever-increasing.

After struggling for so many years, it was a dream come true, so I dropped my defensive game. I put all of my energy into driving sales, added staff, and bought even more stock. I was recognised nationally as the founder of one of Australia’s fastest growing businesses.

But I wasn’t paying attention to the greater landscape, and (naively) assumed that the good times would just keep on rolling. More than that I wanted to believe that this was what I had worked so hard for, so surely I didn’t have to apply the usual rules which I had used to build my business so far?

When competing products were announced I didn’t change a thing. I kept on buying stock. I didn’t want to miss out on a single sale. When the competing product hit the market, not only was it superior, but the prices began at 30% less than mine. My sales plummeted. Suddenly I had non-cancellable PO’s that I couldn’t afford to buy, stock that wasn’t moving, I was rapidly running out of cash, and had way more staff than I needed.

Rather than cutting my losses at that point, regrouping and downsizing, I did the opposite. I pushed harder. I took on expensive radio advertising. I kept renting an expensive house. I lowered prices to drive volume. I mingled with other high flyers.

It was hubris at it’s finest, and of course none of it worked.

Finally in 2016 I ran out of money and had to lay off 80% of my staff because I could no longer afford to pay them. I cashed in every investment I had saved up over the previous 10 years and borrowed heavily just to stay afloat. I had suppliers threatening to take legal action. Some actually did.

I’m not back to zero yet, but in some ways I’m glad that this happened. I’ve learned how a business can run in much more efficient ways and how to focus on the most important thing that I need to do each day. I’ve learned how to hustle, and then hustle some more.

The moral of the story is that no matter how well things are going, and no matter how successful you become, the basics are always going to apply.

Work with humility. Allow the profits to run, but as soon as the signals point to a downturn, cut your losses. Expect good times, but be prepared to make sacrifices when bad times appear.

Be bold my friends, but stay sharp.

3

Nobody’s perfect

When you make a mistake, or lose your cool, or hurt someone else’s feelings, it doesn’t make you a bad person.

It just means that you are human, and we all make mistakes.

What really matters is that you apologise for doing so.

Clean up the mess.

Mend the fence.

Rebuild trust.