An Astronomer Who Says
“We’re Alone” in Our Galaxy
By Jayadvaita Swami
We inhabitants of earth are quite likely the only civilized beings in our galaxy. So contends a scientific study that recently won front-page attention in the “Science” section of the New York Times. Dr. Michael H. Hart, an astronomer at Trinity University (San Antonio, Texas), assembled data about the conditions under which life apparently arose and evolved on earth. He fed this data into a computer and ran through a series of mathematical calculations: If the earth, he wanted to know, had been closer to or farther from the sun, what would the earth’s atmosphere have been like, and what would have been the chance that life could have arisen and developed?
According to the Times, Dr. Hart’s studies assumed that two basic planetary conditions are necessary for the creation of life and the evolution of an advanced civilization.
“The first condition;’ the Times reported, “is that prevailing temperatures must be moderate, and the second is that they must remain so continuously for at least 3.7 billion years—the time that elapsed on this earth between the origin of life and our present level of evolution:”
Dr. Hart discovered that if the earth had been five percent closer to the sun, a runaway “greenhouse effect” would have taken place, broiling the atmosphere at temperatures close to 900 degrees. And had the earth been even one percent farther away, it would have been a cold, barren desert. In either case, the origin and development of life as we know it would have been impossible.
But what of life on planets orbiting other suns? Dr. Hart ran more variations through the computer and calculated, for stars of varying size and brilliance, the inner and outer boundaries of a “continuously habitable zone” within which a planet would have to orbit—for at least 3 or 4 billion years—to provide an atmosphere suitable for life’s origin and evolution to the advanced living forms we know.
His results show these zones to be surprisingly narrow. And since few if any planets are likely to have orbited continuously within these narrow corridors for the aeons required, Dr. Hart suggests that civilized life on other planets must be exceedingly rare. At least in our galaxy, he suggests, we are indeed quite likely alone.
With scientific acumen, Dr. Hart acknowledges that his calculations may need adjustment or revision. But he has assiduously tried to take into account all known and relevant variables, and he presents his findings with the confidence of a professional who has done his best to cover all the angles. Still, Dr. Hart’s scientific findings are not nearly as well-grounded as they would seem. Despite all the mathematical rigor to which he has subjected his computerized simulations, his theories rest upon certain fundamental postulates that just don’t stand up to a close look.
To be specific: Dr. Hart has built into his theories two broad but utterly unnecessary assumptions.
First, he has assumed (but not demonstrated) that life can, in his words, “spontaneously arise” from a combination of material elements.
Second, he has apparently assumed (but again failed to demonstrate) that the only conditions under which life can “spontaneously arise and evolve” are conditions the same as, or at least closely resembling, the conditions under which this process supposedly took place on earth.
These notions, we submit, are not facts, nor even reasonable assumptions. Rather, they are the researcher’s own biases or beliefs. Indeed, they are part of a modern scientific mythology; they peek out at us from amidst Dr. Hart’s algorithms and equations like curious unicorns and centaurs.
Elsewhere in his writings Dr. Hart has insisted, “Any scientific theory must be based upon evidence:” So let us subject Dr. Hart’s assumptions to his own test. First, what about the assumption that life can “spontaneously arise’ from matter? Is there any justification for such a claim? If we were to propose the opposite—that life arises from life—our evidence would be abundant. We directly perceive that living beings take birth from other living beings. Living trees come from living seeds, living seeds from living trees. Living babies come from living mothers. Since the beginning of history, reliable observers have reported that life comes from life.
But where is the example of a living being that has spontaneously arisen from matter? No such being has yet come forward. Why not?
If Dr. Hart can bring forward even one such spontaneously manifested creature, we will gratefully offer our apologies, and the entire scientific world will undoubtedly offer its highest acclaim. But until that time, we feel obliged to regard Dr. Hart’s first assumption—that life can spontaneously arise from matter—as humbug. Evidence refuses to support it.
What about Dr. Hart’s second assumption—that life could arise and evolve only in an atmosphere the same, or very nearly the same, as that in which it arose and evolved on earth?
Of course, to begin with, if there is no convincing evidence that life did in fact “spontaneously arise” on earth, the rest of the proposition is more or less meaningless. And did life on earth, however it arose, gradually evolve from one-celled forms to civilized human beings? Archaeological, geological, and mathematical evidence—or lack of evidence—makes even this venerable theoretical assumption seem increasingly doubtful.
But beyond all this, why, should we at all assume that life—whether civilized or primitive—could exist only under conditions similar to those on earth? This may be true of life as we know it—but then again there may be forms of life about which we know absolutely nothing. May there not be forms of life that thrive under conditions we ourselves would find unbearable? Why must all forms of life—even all forms of civilized life—be like the life found here on earth?
A scientific theory, Dr. Hart says, must be based upon evidence. But surely scientists have no evidence that living beings can’t live in the universe unless they live like us. We may be able to say how we are living, and we may honestly admit that we have seen no beings elsewhere living otherwise—but that is a statement about the limits of what we have seen, not about the limits of what may or may not exist. To say that what we haven’t seen cannot exist is arbitrary, arrogant, and closed-minded. What we should say, if we are to be honest, is that we don’t know.
And that’s just what an honest scientist does say. “You ask me whether there’s extraterrestrial intelligence,” says an astronomer who asked the Times that he not be identified. “My reply is that maybe there’s something out there and maybe not. Your guess is as good as mine—and don’t let any astronomer tell you otherwise.”
This is where Krsna comes in. While scientists can do little more than guess and speculate about whether or not there’s life on other planets, the devotees of Krsna already know in detail what’s out there.
The Vedic literatures—the writings that form the basis of the Krsna consciousness movement—give explicit information about the prevailing atmospheres on other planets and about the living beings who reside on planets other than our own.
Closer to home, the Vedic literatures give us a clear and reasonable explanation of what the phenomenon we call life actually is.
According to the Bhagavad gita, which presents the fundamental principles of Vedic knowledge, the living being is in essence an infinitesimal but extremely powerful spark of consciousness. By its very nature, that spark of conscious energy is permanent; it has no beginning and no end, although it resides within a body that is temporary. While present within the body, the conscious spark animates the body with intelligent vitality, and after the spark dwells within the body for some time, the laws of nature force it to leave the body, bringing about the phenomenon we call death.
At death the spark of consciousness—the actual living entity—doesn’t actually die, but travels to a newly created body, which it then inhabits and invests with life, until death again takes place. So birth, death, and rebirth follow one another in a continuous cycle.
The living being travels not only from one body to another but from one species to another, although by nature’s laws he forgets, each time he is reborn, what he felt, did, and learned in his previous body.
The Gita is careful to point out that although the bodies in which consciousness lives are repeatedly created and destroyed, the consciousness itself never takes birth or dies. In the Gita’s words, consciousness is “unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying, and primeval.”
In other words, according to the Gita, life doesn’t have to wait three or four billion years, until it can cook into existence in some tepid chemical stew. Nor can life be scorched, frozen, burned, or exploded out of existence. The living spark can live anywhere, under any conditions.
Indeed, the Gita tells us that there are countless numbers of conscious living entities and that they live everywhere, throughout the entire universe.
Even on earth, with its varied environmental extremes, living creatures live virtually everywhere, in bodies properly suited to their surroundings. The jellyfish couldn’t change places with the aardvark or the eagle, nor the penguin with the butterfly, the salamander, or the rainbow trout. Yet each lives comfortably in its natural home. There are living beings on the land, in the sky, in the water, and from Vedic literature we learn that there are also living entities in fire, in bodies suitable for a fiery environment. A human being, when properly suited up, can survive even underwater, amidst fire, or in outer space. So why shouldn’t other living beings be able to live anywhere in the creation, clothed by nature in bodies matched to their environment?
Certainly it is reasonable that they should, and the Vedic literatures tell u that in fact living beings reside everywhere throughout the creation.
Of course, one may not wish to accept the statements of the Vedic literatures as facts. That is one’s prerogative. But it India, at least, self-realized sages of extraordinary erudition and perceptivity have for countless generations accepted the Vedic writings as thoroughly reliable sources of knowledge. Vedic sociological predictions made thousands of years ago have proved true in recent days in precise detail. And the great Indian botanist Sit Jagadis Chandra Bose won scientific acclaim primarily by empirically verifying botanical information given in the Vedas and presenting it to his European colleagues in conventional scientific form.
Quite possibly a time will come when the Vedic information about extraterrestrial life will also come to be verified empirically—but we may have to wait decades, centuries, or even thousands or millions of years. Meanwhile, the Vedic literatures offer a shortcut: if one accepts the Vedic statements on their own authority, one immediately gets detailed information infinitely more reliable than Dr. Hart’s computerized simulations and more extensive than we could ever hope to gather by imperfect scientific research.
According to the Vedic literatures, all the planets in the universe are inhabited, many of them by civilizations far more advanced than our own.
But then, argues the astronomer, by now we should certainly have seen these other beings. To which we counter that until the mid-1800’s we had not even seen the common gorrilla, although it lives in great numbers right here on earth, well within reach of our universities and scientific institutes.
We ought to admit, then, that our vision is limited, our senses feeble and imperfect.
Yet even if we were somehow able to visit all the various planets of the universe and shake hands with our extraterrestrial neighbors, we would still not have solved—any more than they—the basic problem of our existence, the problem of repeated birth and death. From Bhagavad-Gita we learn that even if we could live on the highest planet, known as Brahmaloka, whose inhabitants enjoy a duration of life practically inconceivable to the residents of earth, we would still have to die, and then come back in another body.
This ultimate problem, the problem of birth and death, can be solved—but only by purification of consciousness, and not by any amount of speculative scientific research. Human life is meant for solving this problem, and one should seriously try to understand how to do so, before another lifetime comes to an end.