Our candle flickers in the cosmic night

On the evidence of our own species, it seems that intelligent life cannot develop without evolving a capability for destroying itself, or at least for acquiescing in a decline through obsolescence into oblivion. What is additionally remarkable is how rapid the evolution from dust particle to dust particle can be, notwithstanding the brief sparkle of celestial fire that lights the passage in between.

This shelf life of intelligence needs to be borne in mind when running the Drake Equation on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligent civilisations. It is not enough that they defy the odds to kindle themselves into existence. Their chance of connecting with any similar intelligence elsewhere in the universe will be slight if they cannot manage to stick around for somewhat longer than the mere slight smear of time in which Homo sapiens has illuminated its small corner of one little galaxy.

The huge number of intelligent civilisations that might be calculated on the Drake formulation become somewhat more meagre if they appear and disappear on the timeline that our own civilisation seems determined to follow. A truly universal telescope programmed to detect intelligent life might, over the course of all of time, pick up the flickering in and out of existence of so many thousands of smart civilisations like some vast constellation of fireflies, flaring up in their nanoseconds of existence and flashing amidst the vasty depths of the cosmic wilderness. If all civilisations play out like ours – at the time of writing occupying its perch atop Earthly creation for less than .0001% of our planet’s existence – then the chances of any two co-existing, and co-existing in something like the same galactic neighbourhood, must be small.

And when one ET does reach out successfully to us, what are the odds that its message – once filtered through the interstellar Rosetta Stone we have yet to invent – might say anything more meaningful than “Come quickly!”

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