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Why We May Never Find Intelligent Life in the Universe

I am a technical writer with a Master of Science degree interested in exploring space technology and scientific research of the universe.

Is there intelligent life out there?

Is there intelligent life out there?

When you consider that there are billions of galaxies, and each has possibly well over 100 billion solar systems, the chance of intelligent life elsewhere must be tremendous. So why have we not heard from them?

To understand why we can't find intelligent life, we need to realize that what we are looking for may not be what we think it is.

For example, we have many different life forms on our planet, from a single cell to enormous multi-cell creatures. So, we haven't begun to entertain the idea that intelligent life on other planets might be so different from what we can imagine that we would overlook their existence entirely if we were to run into them.

Consider All the Forms of Life on Earth

Look at how vastly different each species is on Earth.

  • Take birds, for example. Birds have no hands or fingers to handle and manipulate their environment. Nevertheless, they adapt remarkably well to their lifestyle.
  • Some fish exist that don’t have eyes, known as Amblyopsidae.1 They live in dark underwater caves where there is no light, so they don’t need eyes. That’s just another example of how various forms of life can be so different.
  • Let’s not forget bacteria. These living creatures don’t even have brains. Bacteria survive very well, even without a brain.2 They probably have better survival skills than we do. Is that intelligence? Imagine being visited by an alien from outer space like that!

How Scientists Search for Intelligent Life

The task is known as Active SETI. It works like this:

  • They send radio signals into outer space, announcing our presence in hopes that someone will receive those signals and respond.
  • They monitor all possible frequencies to find any communication that others may send to us.
  • We hope the human race still exists when a reply arrives. And if we do not survive that long, we need to provide something to benefit other civilizations that find it.3

What Stands in the Way of Finding One Another?

1. The Limitations of Time and Distance

Sending out signals and monitoring for a response may be in vain. Even at the speed of light, these signals take too long to reach any possible extraterrestrial life within the same period we humans exist.

It takes more than ten billion years for a signal to reach us from the farthest reaches of the universe.

If there is intelligent life elsewhere, they may no longer exist when their transmission reaches us. Besides, we may no longer be around by the time a response to our signals would get back to us.

I think that time is the biggest problem with detecting life elsewhere since our signals and theirs (if any) need to travel a distance of many light-years. The farther away any potential intelligent life may be, the greater the chances that we both will miss each other's communication attempts.

It's useless if we both exist at the same time. Think of it this way: If a signal takes ten billion years to reach the Earth, then that other intelligent civilization would have existed ten billion years ago and most likely is no longer around to receive our return communication.

Even if they were still around, imagine how different their descendants would be after billions of years of evolution. They may not be interested in following up with the attempts of their ancestors to find other life forms.

Furthermore, because we humans only had the technology to communicate via radio signals for about 100 years, it's understandable that there would be a small chance of finding a similar species that have (or had) the same technology in the same small segment of time.

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2. Communication Could Be Impossible to Understand

If any intelligent beings had been sending us signals, they might have been using a completely different method—one that we haven’t been able to monitor.

Even other animals on Earth use a variety of communication methods that are very different from the way humans communicate:

  • Whales, dolphins, and porpoises use a low-frequency sound that travels through water to communicate with one another.
  • Bats use sonar that bounces off objects so they can determine what is in their path.

Those are just two examples of how challenging it may be to communicate, should we ever meet up with intelligent life in the universe.

One might think we should have picked up these signals that were designed to compensate for language barriers. However, if the method of technology is different, it may be invisible to our equipment.

3. Physical Traits Might Be Unrecognizable

Our five senses limit us to what we can be aware of and visualize. We even base our technology on our limited considerations.

We have our own interpretation of life. That may be a limiting factor. We are carbon-based animals, and other life forms may have an entirely different chemical structure.

If we were to look directly at an intelligent being made up of different chemistry, we might not even know it. It would be invisible to us. We may not be aware of its presence due to a vastly different body and chemical makeup.

4. Self-Destructive Tendencies

When we observe animals, we see that they have a knack for making use of the elements of nature. As a result, they survive well in their habitats.

Humans, on the other hand, tend to destroy their environment. So, can we expect the human race to be around at the time in a billion years when a response to our signals might be returned?

Intelligent beings tend to destroy their ecosystem with technology. Therefore, they would not survive long enough to contact other worlds and receive a reply while still alive.

Limitations of a Life-Supporting Planet

We discussed the limitations of finding intelligent life elsewhere. As a final thought, let's review the uniqueness of our Earth so we can appreciate our existence in the universe.

How a Life-Supporting Planet Provides Protection

With billions of galaxies in the universe that may have the potential for Earth-like planets in their solar systems, the possibility for intelligent life must be high. However, any planet needs to be perfect in many ways to support life.

Earth happens to be just the proper distance from the Sun to support life. Not too hot and not too cold. But it takes much more than that!

The Earth is different since it has a metal core. As the Earth rotates, that metal core becomes magnetized. The magnetic force surrounding our Earth diverts the dangerous solar wind plasma radiation towards the poles where no one lives.

If it weren’t for this magnetic field, the radiation of the solar winds would kill any chance of life on Earth.

This radiation, made up of electrons, protons, and alpha particles, is what produces the polar lights as it falls in at the magnetic poles (Aurora Borealis in the north and the Aurora Australis in the south).4

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

Life Support System

Earth is a self-contained life support system. Gravity keeps things in place. Otherwise, our water and atmosphere would drift away.

Besides being needed for breathing, our atmosphere protects us from asteroids. Most of them burn up upon entry. And our ionosphere protects us from ultraviolet rays.

Water makes up 71% of the Earth’s surface and makes our planet a life-supporting ecosystem.

Alien Life Could Be Visiting Us Right Now!

I'm not talking about UFOs. Who's to say that any living creatures that may try to visit us are anything like us? So why do we limit ourselves to thinking that they need to look like humans to some degree? That's why I began this article with a discussion of other forms of life we have right here on Earth. That's a wake-up call.

Let's think, for a moment, how different outer-space aliens can be.

If there is intelligent life elsewhere and they are capable of visiting us, they may be so much bigger than us that we are just a piece of dust as far as they are concerned.

For this reason, they can't find us. And, of course, we can't see them either because we are just molecules floating around, possibly in their bloodstream.

On the other hand, maybe we live on an atom that they are inhaling as they breathe.

It could also be possible that intelligent visitors are so small we can't see them. They might be flying around us right now. Like drones, but so little that we are not aware of them.

Maybe some dust particles floating through the air are UFOs from outer space with little people inside, viewing us and monitoring everything we're doing.

In Summary

Despite all the issues I mentioned, the chances that similar worlds exist elsewhere must be greater than zero due to the many billions of galaxies that exist.

However, the limitation of time to communicate and the destruction of a species by their own actions definitely stand in the way of any possibility of finding one another. Even if we do approach one another, we may never recognize a vastly different type of life-form.

Once we realize all this, we can appreciate how scarce the chance is of finding intelligent life somewhere else in the universe.

Ever since humans began looking up at the stars, we awed at the vastness of the universe. We felt it's unimaginable that we should be the only ones here, and we are probably not alone.


  1. Nelson, J.S. (1984). “Family Amblyopsidae - Cavefishes” -
  2. Jake L. Weissman, Hao H. Yiu, Philip L. F. Johnson. (July 24, 2019). “What Bacteria Do When They Get Sick” -
  3. Vakoch, D. A. (2010). "Integrating Active and Passive SETI Programs: Prerequisites for Multigenerational Research" (PDF). Proceedings of the Astrobiology Science Conference 2010. p. 5213.
  4. Staff. (October 11, 2017). “Northern Lights: What Causes the Aurora Borealis & Where to See It”

© 2015 Glenn Stok


Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on May 05, 2019:

Tim Truzy - Good point. I am sure there are a lot of things we still have yet to discover about nature and the universe.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on May 05, 2019:

Hi, Glenn,

Great article. I remember reading how we only recently came to understand "plasma" as a fourth type of matter. It makes me wonder how many things we have missed just like you wrote. I truly enjoyed this work. Respectfully, Tim

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on January 25, 2018:

Nito Gnoci - That’s exactly my point. We have no idea what other life-forms exist elsewhere in the Universe. However, they still may have an advanced stage of social development, therefore—civilization of some sort.

Nito Gnoci on January 25, 2018:

The odds are that people like Gene Roddenberry and Carl Sagan were wrong. As we (or our robots) voyage around the galaxy we might find bacteria on alien worlds but no civilizations.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on April 05, 2016:

ValKaras - You asked about my thoughts on "projection to an unlimited distance." If you are referring to the ability to travel between, or communicate with, other forms of life beyond our present means of technology, I can only say that we have no idea what's possible outside of the realms of our knowledge. Your last remark about "what seems impossible to us may not be impossible to them" covers it well. The word "seems" is the keyword.

ValKaras on April 04, 2016:

Glenn - Would you allow the possibility of an advanced technology that would involve de-materialization at one location and projection to an unlimited distance? Since the "true" answer is anyway up for grabs, why not think in terms of what seems "impossible" to us but is not impossible to "them"?

ValKaras on April 04, 2016:

Glenn - It's great to have a difference in opinions. Yours is more logical, mine is a sort of "strange" and going in many directions, although both of us touched the aspect of microcosm, each in our own ways. I like your way of thinking, and I would probably stick to logic if my mind was not so much in love with intellectual adventurism and frequent excursions into the "weirdness of everything", where our linear thinking has no place.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 03, 2015:

Kathleen Cochran - You hit upon the most important aspect of the issue with finding intelligent life elsewhere. We have our own interpretation of intelligence and we may be missing out on recognizing other forms of intelligence. In addition, what you were alluding to is that we are carbon-based animals, and other lifeforms may be based on a completely different chemical structure. Thank you for your very elucidating comment.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on December 03, 2015:

This is a supposition I've never considered, and it gave me much to consider. Interesting subject and point of view. One question I always have is this: intelligent life might be intelligent in ways unlike us. Yes, we need water and oxygen, but other thinking life forms may not. Will we ever know other beings and be able to communicate with them if they don't have our physical traits? Food for thought.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on December 01, 2015:

Very interesting and deeply thought provoking. You have presented very insightful and reasonable arguments. I agree with your thought process. Thanks for sharing it.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 01, 2015:

Jlbowden - Actually, when you think about it, other life forms are not really mind boggling at all Jim. We have all sorts of life right here on Earth, from single cell to higher up. It's only in recent history that we have the technology to view single cell life. Who's to say there isn't a life form even smaller than that? I'm glad I got you thinking about this. Thanks of your views on the subject.

James Bowden from Long Island, New York on December 01, 2015:


Excellent read on a topic that is difficult for me to ignore. I like some lean towards the fact that intelligent life must exist elsewhere within the infinite realms of space - but where exactly, is the big question?

I like your ideas that extraterrestrial visitors have travelled to our galactic neighborhood and have possibly paid us a visit via technology that we may possibly not notice during our travels about the globe.

As you mentioned in your article, alien beings disguised, or presenting themselves as some form of dust particle possibly. Or as you suggested - "like drones, but so small that we may not even recognize them" Mind boggling when you think about it for awhile.

Even if scientists find out years down the line that we actually are alone in the universe. When you think about it, we're never going to be completely alone. Given the 7 + billion people across the globe that we have to keep us company.


Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 01, 2015:

Reynold Jay - That's an interesting point you mentioned. If visitors came from another planet two billion years ago they would definitely have ruled out any possibility of life on earth at that time for sure, never to return! That goes to show - it's all a matter of timing.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on December 01, 2015:

You covered all the bases on this. The vast time and space part of this indicates to me that life could be all around and we will never see it. Imagine other beings visiting our planet a 2 billion years ago--they would agree "lifeless planet."

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 01, 2015:

Jodah - Thanks for your reply John. I thought that might be the case. I have the same problem here in reverse. I live in the Northeast United States but it's still too far south to see the Aurora Borealis.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on December 01, 2015:

Glenn, in regard to having seen the Aurora Australis the answer is unfortunately "no". My wife has always had a dream to view the Aurora Borealis but I doubt that will ever happen, so one day in the not too distant future I would like to take a trip south to Victoria or Tasmania to see the Southern Aurora. We live too far north of Antarctica here in Queensland for it to be visible.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on November 30, 2015:

Jodah - Thanks for your nice review of my hub, John. Being that you live in Australia, you might have seen the Aurora Australis. I always have fun asking people up here if they know what it's called down under. Few people I speak with around here know it has a different name. Thanks for stopping by.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on November 30, 2015:

Old Poolman - Your comments are also thought provoking and you added some very interesting concepts to consider. Imagine - we might be a life experiment in a petri dish of a much larger civilization. As you said, we'll never know. Thanks, Mike, for your inspiring thoughts.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 30, 2015:

This was a very intelligent synopsis of the possibility of life on other planets, Glenn, but more so on the reasons why we will probably never know. The Universe is just too vast.

Old Poolman on November 30, 2015:

Interesting and thought provoking piece of writing. I am one of those who often wonders about other planets that sustain life similar to ours.

My mind is incapable of grasping the size of our universe and your perspective of time is interesting. By that I mean the time it would take a radio signal to travel across several galaxies. And your also correct that even if we did manage to hear a signal, the sender of that signal has been gone for thousands or more years.

Perhaps we here on earth are just part of a science experiment to see how long we can exist before we destroy ourselves. And perhaps it was intended that we never meet with beings from other planets or we would likely destroy each other when that happened.

I doubt we will ever know the answer but it is fun to think about.

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