Recent results suggest that virtually every star has planets, and more than one. They’re like, kittens. You get a litter. You don’t get one kitten. You get a bunch. So in fact, this is a pretty accurate estimate of the number of planets in our galaxy, just in our galaxy, by the way, and I remind the non-astronomy majors among you that our galaxy is only one of 100 billion that we can see with our telescopes. That’s a lot of real estate, but of course, most of these planets are going to be kind of worthless, like, Mercury, or Neptune. Neptune’s probably not very big in your life.
So the question is, what fraction of these planets are actually suitable for life? We don’t know the answer to that either, but we will learn that answer this year, thanks to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, and in fact, the smart money, which is to say the people who work on this project, the smart money is suggesting that the fraction of planets that might be suitable for life is maybe one in a thousand, one in a hundred, something like that. Well, even taking the pessimistic estimate, that it’s one in a thousand, that means that there are at least a billion cousins of the Earth just in our own galaxy.
Okay, now I’ve given you a lot of numbers here, but they’re mostly big numbers, okay, so, you know, keep that in mind. There’s plenty of real estate, plenty of real estate in the universe, and if we’re the only bit of real estate in which there’s some interesting occupants, that makes you a miracle, and I know you like to think you’re a miracle, but if you do science, you learn rather quickly that every time you think you’re a miracle, you’re wrong, so probably not the case.
All right, so the bottom line is this: Because of the increase in speed, and because of the vast amount of habitable real estate in the cosmos, I figure we’re going to pick up a signal within two dozen years. And I feel strongly enough about that to make a bet with you: Either we’re going to find E.T. in the next two dozen years, or I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. So that’s not so bad. I mean, even with two dozen years, you open up your browser and there’s news of a signal, or you get a cup of coffee.
Now, let me tell you about some aspect of this that people don’t think about, and that is, what happens? Suppose that what I say is true. I mean, who knows, but suppose it happens. Suppose some time in the next two dozen years we pick up a faint line that tells us we have some cosmic company. What is the effect? What’s the consequence?
Now, I might be at ground zero for this. I happen to know what the consequence for me would be, because we’ve had false alarms. This is 1997, and this is a photo I made at about 3 o’clock in the morning in Mountain View here, when we were watching the computer monitors because we had picked up a signal that we thought, “This is the real deal.” All right? And I kept waiting for the Men in Black to show up. Right? I kept waiting for — I kept waiting for my mom to call, somebody to call, the government to call. Nobody called. Nobody called. I was so nervous that I couldn’t sit down. I just wandered around taking photos like this one, just for something to do.
Well, at 9:30 in the morning, with my head down on my desk because I obviously hadn’t slept all night, the phone rings and it’s The New York Times. And I think there’s a lesson in that, and that lesson is that if we pick up a signal, the media, the media will be on it faster than a weasel on ball bearings. It’s going to be fast. You can be sure of that. No secrecy. That’s what happens to me. It kind of ruins my whole week, because whatever I’ve got planned that week is kind of out the window.
But what about you? What’s it going to do to you? And the answer is that we don’t know the answer. We don’t know what that’s going to do to you, not in the long term, and not even very much in the short term. I mean, that would be a bit like asking Chris Columbus in 1491, “Hey Chris, you know, what happens if it turns out that there’s a continent between here and Japan, where you’re sailing to, what will be the consequences for humanity if that turns out to be the case?” And I think Chris would probably offer you some answer that you might not have understood, but it probably wouldn’t have been right, and I think that to predict what finding E.T.’s going to mean, we can’t predict that either.
But here are a couple things I can say. To begin with, it’s going to be a society that’s way in advance of our own. You’re not going to hear from alien Neanderthals. They’re not building transmitters. They’re going to be ahead of us, maybe by a few thousand years, maybe by a few millions years, but substantially ahead of us, and that means, if you can understand anything that they’re going to say, then you might be able to short-circuit history by getting information from a society that’s way beyond our own. Now, you might find that a bit hyperbolic, and maybe it is, but nonetheless, it’s conceivable that this will happen, and, you could consider this like, I don’t know, giving Julius Caesar English lessons and the key to the library of Congress. It would change his day, all right? That’s one thing.