The Seeming Impossibility of Life

The number of near misses, false starts, and legitimate disasters that have befallen our species since the day we took our first upright steps all those generations ago is too large to count and could honestly take up this entire book. I’ll give us humans this much, though: we’re survivors, through and through.

We are, to put it bluntly, remarkable. There is nothing in this cosmos that even begins to approach anything resembling the complexity of the human brain. There is no other world that we have discovered, within our solar system or without, that can support the dizzying array of chemical reactions that we call life, let alone consciousness.

Sure, with enough planets around enough stars within enough galaxies, life is probably bound to happen one way or another, but it appears that life only happened here, once, billions of years ago, when it didn’t appear – or was snuffed out – even in our own solar backyard.

Even our planet is special. Take a look at the other planets of the solar system. If doesn’t matter if you’re using a backyard telescope or the latest NASA robotic gear, the answer is always the same. While every planet looks and acts (and probably smells) different from all the rest, they all share one thing in common: they’re dead.

Lifeless. Uninhabitable. Inhospitable. Barren balls of cold rock. Barren balls of molten rock. Barren balls of exceedingly hot rock buried under thick layers of atmosphere. Barren.

There are a million tales that the universe has been spinning for over 13 billion years to make life possible. Life could not have arisen too early in our cosmological history, for there was not yet enough generations of stars born and dead to spread their ash, their byproduct of oxygen and carbon, into the wider galactic mix. And, alas, there will come a time in the distant future, trillions of years from now but yet countable with finite numbers, when the universe will be too old, too cold, and too exhausted to fashion new stars at all.

Life as we know it was given only a narrow window of possibility in time, dictated by the cold laws of physics and the chance byproduct of the great machinations foreign, alien, and unthinking that churn in our universe, each one stretching so achingly slowly for millions, if not billions, of years. Each one governed by forces both comprehensible and mysterious, each one leading to the lucky chance of an Earth.

Some argue that the way the universe is constructed is a little too particular. That if any one small thing were to change, from the speed of light to the amount of atomic matter assembled during the big bang, life as we know it would be outright impossible. Perhaps some other form of intelligence could rise up in that strange cosmos, shuddering at the impossible thought of creatures anchored to a planet and swimming in its water oceans. Perhaps not. Either way, it appears that our universe is especially tuned for the appearance of life as we know it, indicating either divine intervention or some conspiracy of physics too far beyond our comprehension to grasp.

To that line of thinking I have this response. We have but one universe for us to study; it is all we’ve had and all that ever will be. As peculiar as this universe of ours appears, we cannot access or interrogate other possibilities. We do not know how special or generic this cosmos is, the same way you could not measure the probability of the Queen of Diamonds appearing in your hand if you did not know the contents of the full deck. That stark reality does not rule out divinity or exotic physics, but it also does not demand them. If you wish to believe in either of those, I will not begrudge you.

No matter how you count the probabilities and odds and chance encounters, here we are, alive and abundant on some planet whose name is given only by ourselves, for there’s no one else to speak of it, the glimmer of thinking, watchful eyes looking out into the void and daring to call it home.