Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique

John Gribbin is well-known in academic circles for his books on cosmology; the library where I work has 33 titles by him in its collection. Gribbin’s latest work is Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique. I was attracted to this title because I believe in the argument that Gribbin presents: that Earth is the only planet upon which one may find intelligent life anywhere in the entire universe. I personally go two steps further than Gribbin, in that I don’t believe there is any kind of life in the universe, no matter how primitive, nor has there ever been any. The book’s inside flap had me hooked: 

“For some of us, it is an article of faith; for others, it’s simple arithmetic: with hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, billions of which are circled by planets capable of supporting life, there simply must be intelligent beings elsewhere in the Milky Way. Throw in the countless other galaxies, and it goes almost without saying that the universe abounds with intelligent species capable of building civilizations, right? Not so fast.”

Alone in the Universe

Gribbin always makes his case against there being intelligent life or technologically advanced life; thus I am left to believe that he may support the possible existence of anything else–single-cells, cloud-like beings, algae, space worms, whatever–that may in fact be living but don’t have the technological know-how to let us know they’re out there. 

The Earth is a one-in-a-trillion planet upon which life developed over billions of years. Any break in the sequence of the history of the universe, and later the history of the Earth, and life would not exist. Life on Earth depends on events in cosmic history and without our neighbouring planets, without cosmic catastrophes, without the Sun, without the Earth’s specific tilt and its precise position in the solar system between Venus and Mars, and without countless other cosmic conditions, Earth would not have been able to support and sustain life. The largest flowchart in the universe leads to life on Earth in a series of if-then sequences stretching light years. 

Gribbin takes care to explain the Drake equation. This equation was devised by astronomer Frank Drake in the early sixties to quantify the chance of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Gribbin analyzes the factors in this equation (some of which include the number of stars that have planets, the number of these planets that could potentially support life, etc.) and over the course of Alone in the Universe proceeds to rule out or colossally minimize the number of each factor in the equation. He writes: 

“The bad news is that if even one of the other numbers in the equation is zero, then N = 0, no matter how big all the other numbers are.”  

(N is the number of civilizations beyond Earth that we might be able to communicate with in the Milky Way.) 

I found that Gribbin talked over my head most of the time. I do not have a scientific background so I could not understand the physics or chemistry behind the various evolutions of the universe. I just accepted what he wrote and moved on. Fortunately, this did not tire me, as I often grow frustrated (or worse, sleepy) if I am bogged down by too much science babble. Gribbin made the history of the universe very interesting, however the edge-of-your-seat moments only occurred at the end of the book, where Gribbin writes about the series of events that will lead to the end of the Earth and all life upon it.

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