Others

posted 27 May 2012

In retrospect, it seems obvious that we were conducting our searches for extraterrestrial life in completely the wrong way, and even then half-heartedly. But then, so many things are clear now that once seemed impossibly mysterious.

Consider the contradictions inherent to our pre-contact thinking. Simultaneously, we marveled at the uniqueness of our planet, and searched for ones just like it. Earth has far too much water for a world so close to the sun -- our best guess was that it bad been deposited by comets. This thin envelope of water was just deep enough to give us oceans, just shallow enough to leave us with continents, while every other planet we could see was either an arid dust ball or else crushed under hundreds of miles of ice.

Our home planet has a moon nearly a quarter the size of the planet itself, a cosmic arrangement we could see nowhere else. This anomaly interacted with the first and gave us tides, repeatedly washing the borders of the continents with organic matter until finally some of it stayed there, first plants then animals and finally our species of crazy apes.

The presence of the organic matter was itself an insanely convoluted and unlikely tale. The core of our planet -- warm enough to create volcanoes at the tectonic boundaries, cool enough that the plates themselves were relatively stable -- fed energy and volatile chemicals through tiny fissures in rocks deep under the blanket of ocean. In these tiny channels, chance accumulations of chemicals formed and then multiplied, protected by a shell of rock until forced out into the cold depths.

After uncounted billions of iterations, the chemical compounds combined to form a shell around the core replicating body, and in a galactic eyeblink the oceans were filled with cells, then multiple-celled organisms, multiplying and diversifying into every possible shape, including monkeys clever enough to sit at keyboards and bang out books about how their own presence was so impossibly unlikely that there must have been an outside, intelligent force at work.

Our origins are so unbelievable that huge sections of the population literally refused to believe them. And yet, when we went searching for other life in universe, we pretended to keep an open mind, but what we were really looking for was more monkeys just like us. We were willing to accept perhaps a few extra limbs, a different skin colour, strange habits and languages. But we eliminated huge swathes of possible variation entirely -- scale, temperature, pressure, gravity, speed of perception and communication. Futilely, we searched the cosmos for ourselves.

And the contradictions didn't end there. If interstellar travel or even communication was possible, then the universe being so enormous and so old, it should already be happening: if there were aliens anywhere, they should be everywhere. In fact, we even had a name for it -- Fermi's paradox, summed up neatly as a question: "If they are out there, why aren't they here yet?" Aware of the question, we posited dozens of answers, including the correct one -- and yet we did nothing with it.

The solution to a big mystery is often the solution to another -- puzzled by the shape of the universe and the retrograde motion of Mercury, we discovered the answer to both. And so it was with us. For centuries physics struggled to come up with our grand unifying theory, and when we finally did, it finally answered Fermi's question as well.

Able at last to understand and perceive our own projection into twelve-dimensional space, we found it "crowded" -- though the term is meaningless in that space. Travel and communication through our paltry four dimensions had always been impossible: intelligence is too far apart, in time and space, to communicate there. But in our new space our distances were easily, trivially bridged.

Twelve-space freed us from the boundaries that we had never even considered anyway -- time and temperature, gravity and scale. They have no meaning. Instead, the deeper and harder problem confronted us: that of recognizing other intelligences, and having them recognize us.

The first intelligences we found in twelve-space were ourselves. Freed from time, every human who ever lived was simultaneously present, and immortal. We rediscovered ourselves not as the tiny, separate, fragile creatures we had believed ourselves to be in four-space. Those temporary protrusions are no more to be glorified or mourned than the scales of a fish when it brushes the surface of a pond. We are giant, simultaneously one and many, unified and legion, an endless branching tree of possibilities and personalities.

In four-space the patterns of our selves are faintly discernible as the connections of parents to children, to ancestors of the distant past down to the descendants in the indefinite future. But to think these patterns give any clue to the whole is like looking at the wrinkles on the skin of an elephant, noting the texture it has, and declaring oneself to understand not just the shape of the whole animal, but its entire biology.

Time has no meaning in twelve-space, but even to the creatures we now understood ourselves to be, with minds that stretch the length of the universe, from big bang to heat-death, the recognition of other intelligences presented a challenge. Forced to translate into four-dimensional terms, the others describe the addition of a new species into twelve-space like a baby opening its eyes, or learning to talk: the sights and sounds have always been there, but now there is slowly-dawning comprehension. What was previously inert, to be protected for its potential, is gradually becoming active, first merely absorbing, then actively listening, and finally participating.

Of course, the analogy breaks down because of the irrelevance of time in twelve-space. Once you are capable of perceiving it, every problem and solution that can ever exist is simultaneously accessible and active, attempted and solved and remembered all at once by every part of our beautiful, multi-faceted minds. But nevertheless, the pattern of how our awareness came into existence was a part of our selves, visible in twelve-space, like a long-healed belly button.

And so it is that I can speak, as the tail-end of a being that simultaneously fills the universe and shares it with an infinite number of other immortal intelligences of every possible form, of contact with "extraterrestrials" and the answer to Fermi's paradox. They are out there, and they are here, and so are we, everywhere and every time simultaneously. Our earth is not a prison or a cradle: it is a bubble on the surface of a pond, its life as short and its fate as inconsequential.

And the universe is waiting for us to open our eyes.

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