The hallways of the old astronomy building were crowded with students. I was just passing the office of Prof. Zardok when he waved me in. He would often do this with passing students. I didn't particularly want to talk to him but I decided I would stop today and humor him.
After I had taken my seat his opening words were, "I want tell you how it is to go to the stars. Rather, I want to tell you how it is not to go to the stars." He gazed up at the popcorn ceiling of his office in an apparent blue funk for so long that I thought I might just have to get up and leave. Finally he continued, nailing me with a fierce look, "There are great many stars in our old Milky Way, you know - over 200 billion, maybe as many as a trillion." He arched an eyebrow. "Have you any idea why the number has jumped so much?" He leaned forward with an intense look as if revealing a dire secret. "Orange, red and brown dwarfs. They can only be seen when they are nearby but we now know the galaxy must literally be stuffed with them - stuffed! And most of them have a Goldilocks zone." Then as if he were making an announcement of some startling new discovery, "They have planets. Kepler says so. And I don't mean the man; I mean the satellite telescope. Some of those planets must be near earth size, and some of those must be cruising in the zone." His hair literally bristled, "Millions of possible homes for living creatures. As our famous predecessor, Fermi wasn't it, said "Where is everybody?'"
I shrugged. I really had no idea.
"I'll tell you where an awful lot of them are - staying home where they belong, totally oblivious of the call of outer space."
Again I signaled ignorance.
"You see, my young friend, without tidal forces - (you need a moon or maybe the star itself for that) - and with tidal locking - (small stars promote that with near Earth size planets) - you won't get any plate tectonics." He stopped and inspected the ceiling again. "Like in the fairy tale - too little, too much, and just right - applies to water too. No tectonics without a proper lube job. You can get life but they will consist of little one cell creatures whose interests are likely to be severely limited. Our dear old Earth has a lot of these fellows locked up in deep rocks or in the oceans that are just about the same today as they were a billion years ago. They found the note and stuck with it. You've got to have turmoil to have speciation and you've got to have speciation to have folks that build computers and telescopes.
"Even so there are still a million or more possibilities for sentient beings, even allowing a lot of them being some sort of alien Orcas or Elephants." His brow wrinkled. "Sarah Palin hasn't spotted any killer whales building rockets has she?" Then he said, "don't forget the regular Sol type stars. There are a lot of them with their gas giants which could host some Goldilocks zones. Anyway, we've come up with an idea that, as they say, the universe is teeming with life. Again, where is everybody?"
"Well," he said. "That's settled. The universe is teeming with life." He nailed me again with a piercing look. Leaning forward said, "We must have foreign visitors all over the place." He leaned back, raised one eyebrow, and smiling crookedly said, "Maybe we do. Maybe we do." Turning to his desk he shuffled some papers and came out with what seemed a non sequitur, "You ever heard of Pogo?"
Being a great fan of the comics, if nothing else particularly, I nodded. Some vague memory surfaced - "We have met the enemy and they are us," floated to the surface. "Uh! We're Martians. I heard that some where."
He was very business like now. "Yes - yes. That's panspermia, somewhat bowdlerized I fear. Let's try something else. Lets make some basic assumptions. We have to start someplace. First I think we can assume Einstein's assertion that the velocity of light is the same everywhere regardless of the frame of reference and his theories of relativity hold - nothing can exceed that velocity. If we desire to go from A to B, and they are a very long way apart, it will take a long time."
I interrupted, "But professor, time dilation! If we go fast enough it won't be so long after all. I read that just yesterday."
"On the web, I'll bet," he said, making a sour grimace. "Do the energy calculations. Even with anti-matter it turns out to be impractical." Continuing, "just for argument's sake let's assume that, having agreed to using only Goldilocks zones, we need liquid water and a modicum of radiation. So with these limitations we're left with a few million possibles in just our home galaxy."
"Boy! That gives us a lot of choices. We ought to get moving," I said.
The professor actually guffawed. "It gives them a lot of choices too. Careful now. Don't crowd the space lanes. Have you any idea why there's nobody strange around." He thought for an instant, "Well, there's plenty of weirdness around but I think it's all home grown." He hesitated a long time and glared at me. "It's all the fault of that pesky little photon."
He had me here. "What's the fault? Which photon is that?"
"Consider," he said, "you're an ordinary guy, living say sometime during the last thousand years or so. You go outside and look up. Hey! Look at all those neat little lights. If you are smart enough you finally figure it out. They are just suns like ours only a little farther away. A little farther away! You have no idea. Nobody has bothered to tell you that the human eye operates over a brightness range of ten million to one. Not many people have figured out that even with a reasonably advanced telescope the inevitable tiny blur circle of a point source can and does cover up the entire system of planets in that star system. Mr. Einstein comes along and says, "hold on now. If you really want to go there, there's a speed limit. Be sure and pack enough supplies to last a while." It turns out that the 'a while' of that trip he mentioned is all of yours, your children's, your grand children's ... Etc, lives. That will take a really swell ship. you can hope everyone enjoys their little piece of the trip. You probably aren't up for that and it's possible that Mr. Little Green Man of Gleise IV isn't either. What's the pay off? Not much I would venture."
Professor Zadock used to smoke a pipe. Now he chews twizzles. He fished one out of his desk drawer and began chewing on it. With a dreamy look he ruminated, "no twizzles beyond Neptune I hear." Coming back to the moment, "The eminent and exceedingly brilliant scientists of Earth in our little thought experiment have started a new program that replaces much of the useful astronomical research that they were doing. That work will help us reach our travel to the stars goal. We will call it SETI and it will be good. We know it will be good because the demonstrably misguided and ignorant national legislators refuse to fund it."
He leaned forward, far into my personal space and said, "Dr. Green Man also thought of this and actually built a rather expensive laser for the purpose. He sent out a slew of messages but unfortunately he picked the wrong targets, and I suppose he lost his political support. In any case he didn't live long enough to get any answers to his very important message. Oh. he lived a long healthy life, about 100 of our years, but that old pesky photon loafed along at a mere 300,000 km per second. The message was nonsense anyway - Pythagoras's relationship for a right triangle." He straightened up and gave me a side long look. "It was a very sad case. His target systems did support sentient species of ocean dwelling creatures. Their technical achievements were all directed downward, into the depths of their ubiquitous oceans, looking for new mineral sources and building under sea archologies"
I was frankly incredulous, "How do you know this stuff?"
He laughed, "I don't. Prove me wrong however. Buried in a lot of this is the fact that most people, even the experts, have a great deal of trouble with really long long periods of time and really long long distances. Life times, dozens of generations are just a blink and we fail to appreciate how far that pristine and pesky little photon has traveled."
"So" I said "not only is it not on for us little May flies to go there but we can't communicate either?"
Zadock turned serious. "I didn't say that. I did say that SETI is nonsense but I didn't say that communication was not on."
I perked up at this.
"If you are willing to go along with panspermia, then we can agree that the universe may be filled, nay, teeming with DNA based life. Like life on Earth it will be of nearly infinite variety and no doubt very bizarre," he said. Then he said, what many an SF writer has said before, "What if those bits of DNA that regularly fall to Earth contain a message?"
I smiled. I had read enough in Astounding and Analog to know this was an old and moth eaten idea. But then, had anybody really tried to tackle the decoding. After all, it's only been relatively recently that we have had the entire genome available to look at. Maybe it's like the optimistic little girl who got the pile of horse manure for Christmas. "There must be a pony in there somewhere," she said.
John Hood, Feb. 2020