Why Intelligent Life in the Universe Is Beyond Our Reach

Updated on February 15, 2018
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has a Master of Science degree and has studied fields of science, physics and philosophy, for over 40 years.

When you consider the fact that there are millions of galaxies and each has possibly millions of solar systems, the chance of intelligent life existing elsewhere must be huge.

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. So if the chances are so high that life exists elsewhere in one form or another, why have we not heard from them?

In order to understand why intelligent life is beyond our reach, we need to be clear on what we're asking. What are we looking for when we say we're searching for intelligent life? It may not be what we think it is.


Consider All the Forms of Life on Earth

Even on our own planet, just look at how vastly different each species is.

  • Take birds for example. Birds have no hands or fingers to handle and manipulate their environment. Nevertheless, they are very adapted to their lifestyle.
  • There are fish that don’t have eyes. Known as Amblyopsidae1, they live in dark underwater caves where there is no light, so they don’t need eyes. That’s just another example of how different various forms of life can be.
  • Let’s not forget bacteria. These living creatures don’t even have brains. Bacteria survive very well, even without a brain2. 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 Are Searching for Intelligent Life

With the latest technology, scientists have been very busy with the task of searching for intelligent life out in the universe. The task is known as Active SETI3. 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 if there is any communication being sent our way.

What Stands in the Way of Finding One Another?

The Limitations of Time

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 of time that we humans exists.

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 be long gone by the time their transmission reaches us. In addition, we may be long gone by the time a response is received for our signals we send out.

I think 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 are that we both will miss each other's attempt at communication.

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.

If they are long gone, their signals might just be reaching us now—since it takes billions of years to reach us at the speed of light.

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

Furthermore, considering the fact that 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 has (or had) the same technology in the same small segment of time.

Communication Can Be Undecipherable

If any other form of life had been sending us signals that are just reaching us now, it may have been with a completely different technology that we haven't even discovered yet.

One might think we should have picked up these signals that include some form of intelligent meaning in the code to compensate for language barriers. But if the technology is different, it may be invisible to our equipment.

Alien Life May 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? Why do we limit ourselves to thinking that they need to look like humans to some degree? That's why I initiated 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. 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 small that we are not aware of them.

Maybe every dust particle floating through the air is actually a UFO from outer space with several little people inside, viewing us on their tele-macroscopicscreens. (I made that word up.)

Self-Destruction Tendency

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

Humans, on the other hand, tend to destroy their environment. This may be a controversial statement, but that’s for another discussion.

The way it seems, in my opinion, intelligent beings tend to destroy their ecosystem and would not survive long enough to make contact with other worlds, or to receive a reply while still alive. Can we really expect the human race to still be around in a billion years when a response to our signals might be returned?

Limitations for Life-Support

Up until this point, I discussed the limitations of finding intelligent life elsewhere. As a final thought, I'll remind you of the uniqueness of our Earth so we can appreciate our existence in the universe.

The Protection of a Life-Supporting Planet

As I said earlier, there are millions of galaxies and that means there are billions or trillions of planets. However, any planet needs to be perfect in many ways to support life.

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

The Earth is special 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 needed for breathing, our atmosphere protects us from asteroids. Most of them burn up on entry. And our ionosphere protects us from ultraviolet rays.

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


Despite all the issues I mentioned that stand in the way, the chances that similar worlds exist elsewhere must be greater than zero due to the many millions 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.

Once all this is realized, one can appreciate how small the chance is of finding intelligent life somewhere else in the universe.


1. Amblyopsidae - Wikipedia

2. Chetna Tyagi, Ph.D (Apr 21, 2017). Do bacteria, fungi, and viruses have brains? - Quora.com

3. Active SETI - Wikipedia

4. Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis - Wikipedia

© 2015 Glenn Stok


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 7 weeks ago from Long Island, NY

      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 profile image

      Nito Gnoci 7 weeks ago

      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 profile image

      Glenn Stok 23 months ago from Long Island, NY

      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 profile image

      Vladimir Karas 23 months ago from Canada

      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 profile image

      Vladimir Karas 23 months ago from Canada

      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 profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      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 profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      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 profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      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 profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      chefsref - What a great analogy! I love it. And as for the rest of your comment I see that you understood very well what I was discussing in this hub. Thanks for your way of explaining it.

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 2 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Glenn

      Seems to me that we should spend some time trying to preserve intelligent life on Earth. We in the US keep discussing whether climate change is real instead of addressing the issue. Kind of like passing a sign that says bridge out ahead and arguing if it is real or a liberal hoax.

      Full speed ahead! That sign is a liberal hoax trying to slow us down!

      Then, more on point to your Hub, so many things have to arrive at the precisely correct time for us to capture signals from other advanced civilizations that it is pretty unlikely. The other civilization has to be at the correct level of advancement to be broadcasting over radio waves at the right time for us to find them.

      So, we have to assume that someone 1000 light years away was broadcasting radio 1000 years ago, 2000 light years means 2000 years ago.

      And assume that advanced civilizations do not self destruct

      And assume that those civilizations advanced in the same way as ours has, to want radio broadcasts etc.

      And assume that those civilizations did not advance beyond the need for lightspeed communications. Radio is already showing its limits in communicating across our own solar system. If we are to venture farther away we need something better like Einstein's "Spooky action at a distance"

      This all seems like trying to find a specific fish in the Atlantic ocean,

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      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.

    • Jlbowden profile image

      James Bowden 2 years ago from Long Island, New York


      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 profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      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 profile image

      Reynold Jay 2 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      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 profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      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.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      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 profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      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 profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      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.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      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.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      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.