We’re often hear that it took a remarkable 13.7 billion years for intelligent life to emerge in the universe, and now here we find ourselves, reading articles on the internet and contemplating the amazing evolutionary process that, over vast eons of time, finally reached its apex with us. But when I was younger, that way of thinking always struck me as being hopelessly anthropocentric, privileging our place in the cosmos just because we happen to be the only intelligent life forms that we know, for certain, exist. Couldn’t intelligent life have arisen a long time before us—maybe even billions and billions of years before us—in some galaxy far, far away?
Maybe we are the ones who are just incredibly late to the evolutionary party?
Only later did I realize that astrophysicists and astrobiologists base their dates for the emergence of complex life on the idea that it has taken approximately this long for cosmic evolution to produce the heavy elements that life as we know it is built from. First-generation stars, they say, consisted of little more than hydrogen and helium. It took at least another generation or two for those heavier elements—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, nickel, iron, etc.—to be forged in the cores of stars and then released when stars died in epic supernova explosions, splattering their colorful evolutionary potentia across the blank canvas of infinite space. Given that our own solar system is believed to be 4.6 billion years old, this means that 9.1 billion years had gone by since the universe first burst into being (according to the Big Bang Theory, anyway) before the conditions for our own biosphere on Earth emerged. That, my friends, is a lot of time for nothing much to be happening other than galaxies silently rotating, conserving their angular momentum as they twinkle in the cold, dead void.
Of course, not everyone believes that our sun’s generation of stars was among the first. As with many other things in the wide and wonderful world of cosmology, there’s a lot of room left to speculation. For all we know, there may well have been nebulous, star-birthing clouds replete with life-friendly molecules and elements far earlier than most scientists suspect. In fact, that’s exactly what a new study out of Copenhagen suggests.
By studying ten distant galaxies dating from around 12 billion years ago, when the universe was just a wee toddler, astronomers working at the Niels Bohr Institute’s Dark Cosmology Centre have discovered a plethora of heavy elements suffusing these galaxies—elements that weren’t supposed to exist at such an early stage in the universe’s formation. They deduced this by analyzing the light from even more distant quasars—mysteriously intense beacons of light far-flung throughout the cosmos—as it passes through these galaxies, lighting them up from the inside and revealing a full spectrum of their contents. In the words of Professor Johan Fynbo of the University of Copenhagen:
“We have studied 10 galaxies in the early Universe and analysed their light spectra. We are observing light from the galaxies that has been on a 10-12 billion year journey to Earth, so we see the galaxies as they were then. Our expectation was that they would be relatively primitive and poor in heavier elements, but we discovered somewhat to our surprise that the gas in some of the galaxies and thus the stars in them had a very high content of heavier elements. The gas was just as enriched as our own Sun.”
But even more interestingly:
“For one of the galaxies, we observed the outer regions and here there was also a high element content. This suggests that large parts of the galaxy are enriched with a high content of heavier elements and that means that already in the early history of the Universe there was potential for planet formation and life.”
In other words, life as we know it may have emerged many billions of years before we arrived on the scene, when the universe was essentially just getting started. And that means that there may very well be highly evolved alien civilizations out there whose technological, social, cognitive, and spiritual sophistication is lightyears ahead of ours, figuratively and literally. In a natural hierarchy of worlds, humanity may rank on the lowest rungs of the developmental ladder. But even if we are the new kids on the block, we’re developing faster and faster every day. The ancient ETs, if they exist, will hopefully be prepared for us to join the party.
[via The Daily Galaxy]