Whether it succeeds or not, the Alpha Centauri project is already a testament to the wonders of life

Paul Stapleton says even if the grand attempt to reach a star 4.3 light years away from us fails in our lifetime, just trying to do so is miracle enough

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:48am

The recent news about sending a space nanocraft to earth’s nearest neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri, surely qualifies in the category of mind-boggling events. That is, if scientists can pull it off. The spacecraft would be tiny, just a wafer-like microprocessor with sails propelled by lasers.

Until now, any hope of sending a spacecraft to that star, 4.3 light years away, was considered by most scientists as a feat for our distant future. Instead, in a mere half a century of space travel, we have advanced from orbiting the earth to talk of exploring the galaxy. This is a testament to the ingenuity of the human brain.

A giant leap for mankind... to Alpha Centauri

This news opens our minds to the mysteries of the universe. It is very unlikely that the first nanocraft to reach Alpha Centauri will find any definite signs of life. The three suns there may have no planets and, even if they do, finding them and detecting life with the tiny craft, and then sending this information back to earth would be an extremely tall order. However, even the discussion of trying to do so raises many questions about life in the universe, and brings wonder to our own existence.

Our extremely unlikely evolution into intelligent beings depended on a whole series of lucky events

Let’s begin with the fact that, despite great efforts by scientists to detect signals of life from space, we’ve received nothing but a stony silence. Does this mean we are alone? Or perhaps our form of life, Homo sapiens, is so intensely social that we expect all other intelligent life to want to seek out others, too? We assume intelligent life will want to explore other worlds. And yet, where are they? The answer may lie in biology and physics.

Our extremely unlikely evolution into intelligent beings depended on a whole series of lucky events. In other words, a remarkable number of steps in our biology and social evolution were necessary to create intelligent life, any one of which could have gone awry, leading to either extinction or “dummyhood”. Intelligent life may be extremely rare in the universe.

As for physics, the vastness of the universe, together with its built-in limitations, such as the maximum speed at which anything can travel, may be making contact between intelligent forms of life impossible. Even if any intelligent life eventually learned how to travel at the speed of light, its closest neighbours may be tens of thousands of light years away. Worse, as the universe expands outwards, contact may be getting more difficult.

Hello, neighbour

Sceptics argue that the proposed nanocraft is all pie in the sky with very little chance of success in our lifetimes. But that’s OK. Efforts like this bring to light deep speculation about our miraculous existence in the universe. Mind-boggling indeed.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education