Who Has the Loneliest Hearts in the Cosmos?
Dennis Overbye’s 1991 book Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos is a story of solitary cosmologists staring through big telescopes into the night sky.1 In an essay praising Overbye’s work, physicist and popular science writer David Kaiser writes that cosmologists had lonely hearts for two reasons: They were genuinely lonesome, “sit[ting] up all night, alone, under unheated domes, squinting through huge telescopes to catch the faintest glimpses of light from faraway galaxies.”2 And they were intellectually isolated, as well, unable to approach their physicist peers’ equations inaccuracy or to formulate a grand theory of the cosmos—which, as cosmologists, meant they were like generals without an army, dogwalkers without any dogs. Socially unengaged and scientifically adrift, cosmologists were lonely hearts, pursuing a seemingly fruitless line of research.
But then, Kaiser notes, things “began to change, and to change fast, soon after Overbye’s Lonely Hearts appeared.”3 Data were streaming in from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, from the repaired Hubble Space Telescope, from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, and other new initiatives designed to tap the black night for clues to the makeup of physical reality.4 Theorists jammed to these new data riffs, coming up with big ideas about what our world is and who we are inside it.
Even before this data torrent from the stars, scientists had been trying to unravel the heavens’ secrets. Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking famously debated black holes and what they mean for the universe. Later, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, carrying on the legacy of personable science popularizer Carl Sagan, described his emotional, spiritual connection to the mysteries of the universe.5 Personal investment in the workings of the physical world has skyrocketed over the past few decades. In particular, the starry firmament seems—now, more than ever—the almost-got-it-key to understanding human life.
Many of the scientists who stare into telescopes or at readout screens during cosmic listening sessions have been atheists, or at best agnostics. Really, who can blame them? If one begins as a physicist, one is already committed to seeing the physical in physical terms. It is like standing before a vast library of LP records and declaring that because one does not own a record player, therefore there is no music. If one goes in with a certain set of assumptions, then how surprising is it when those assumptions yield their assumed results?
And yet, while many lonely hearts of the cosmos—cosmologists, physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, and other researchers of the non-astral plane—may have been unimpressed (or unconvinced) by the idea of God, they could not stop looking into the sky for answers, and then trying to connect what they found up there to the way things are in our little world. Stephen Hawking, for example, maintained a kind of Augustinian anthropocentrism until late in his career. Hawking was not willing to make the final epistemological split between the fact that human beings are here looking up at the universe, and the fact that the universe is up there to be looked at in the first place.6 In other words, Hawking could not, at least in his early career, divorce his mind from the universe’s material array, could not believe that there could be no connection between his ability to wonder about the stars and the fact that the stars could be objects of human wonder. In A Brief History of Time, Hawking appeals to the “weak anthropic principle” to help explain why other modes of cosmic engineering— namely, a universe essentially “running backwards” and contracting instead of expanding—“would not be suitable for the existence of intelligent beings who could ask the question: why is disorder increasing in the same direction of time as that in which the universe is expanding?”7 To spin Hawking’s argument a bit, we lonely hearts peer skyward because the universe presents itself to just such lonely hearts as we.
Lonely hearts abound among the scientific set, it seems. On St. Valentine’s Day, 1990, just a couple of years after Hawking released A Brief History of Time, Carl Sagan had the Voyager 1 spacecraft, by that point four billion miles from home, turn around and take a picture of Earth, where live all the known lonely hearts in all the sprawling cosmos. Voyager 1 was supposed to go looking for alien worlds—so far, the only life it has discovered is us. The Valentine’s Day snapshot of our planet, known as “Pale Blue Dot,” stands as a perfect metaphor for the often-contradictory roles of scientist and human being.8 Reason tells us that all we can see is all there is. Something deeper stirs us to keep looking all the same.
Are We Really Lonely and Alone?
Perhaps no one has a lonelier heart throbbing for companionship in the cosmos than those engaged in SETI research, such as the late Carl Sagan. SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. SETI researchers don’t just stare at the stars to knit together big theories about physics. They are hunting for a very different kind of prize: life. A brief SETI history at a NASA website explains that:
In the late twentieth century, scientists converged upon the basic idea of scanning the sky and “listening” for nonrandom patterns of electromagnetic emissions such as radio or television waves in order to detect another possible civilization somewhere else in the universe. In late 1959 and early 1960, the modern SETI era began when Frank Drake conducted the first such SETI search at approximately the same time that Giuseppe Coc coni and Philip Morrison published a key journal article suggesting this approach.9
Central to this search is the so-called Drake Equation, formulated by the abovementioned Frank Drake to estimate how many planets in the universe might, theoretically, harbor alien civilizations. The Drake Equation gives scientists just enough mathematical and scientific cover to engage in what is, speaking strictly historically and empirically, almost certainly a quixotic endeavor. There are many news reports about aliens. There are many who claim to have seen little green men. So far, not a single sighting has ever been confirmed. But SETI scientists keep at it, in what is an almost romantic quest for intelligent life blossoming elsewhere than on our own little pale blue dot.
No confirmations of Martians or Venusians yet, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a lot of excitement for SETI all the same. Nineteenseventyseven was a banner year for the movement. On August 20 of that year, the Voyager 2 spacecraft was launched, carrying both a golden record with sound recordings of human voices and earth sounds as well as etchings depicting the location of Earth in the solar system. On September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 (confusingly launched after Voyager 2), bearing an identical golden record, was sent on its lonely peregrination into interstellar space. Mankind was getting serious about reaching out to non earthlings.
Just five days before the Voyager 2 launch, the idea of sending probes into interstellar space in part to look for aliens suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched after all. The Big Ear telescope owned by The Ohio State University had detected a radio signal emanating from Sagittarius that seemed to be nonnatural in origin. It was just as Cocconi and Morrison had hypothesized: If we wanted to find alien worlds, we would have to find them on the radio.10 And, voilà! The signal detected by Big Ear seemed to resolve the Fermi Paradox. Physicist Enrico Fermi had famously asked, If the universe is as big as we think it is it should be virtually certain that we are not alone—but if so, then where is everybody? The 1977 signal was never repeated, but it was also never explained. The tingle down the spine never really went away—maybe, just maybe, there’s somebody else out there.
SETI and the Cold War
With the launch of the two Voyagers, the speculation in the press about possibly encoded radio bursts from deep space, Carl Sagan’s blockbuster book and TV series Cosmos in 1980, and, of course, the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial, the world had come to hold a very different view of what used to be beyond the fringes of respectable science. The “Weird Tales” science fiction comics and campy low-budget films of the 1950s and ’60s, and the Roswellthemed conspiracy theories of government coverups of alien ship crash sites and secret research projects in the desert, had given way to a more nuanced, even welcoming, view of creatures from beyond the moon.11 SETI became a serious sidebar for many researchers, and some even took it up as their full-time pursuit. “I look for aliens” went from being a conversation ending admission by a wild-eyed kook at the local watering hole to something MIT grads were eager to put on their CVs.
But all was not the euphoria of pure discovery. Notes of real-world caution crept in, too, just as the drive to overturn the Fermi Paradox was gathering steam. The backdrop to the Voyager missions and to all the other American satellite and probe launches—the very reason the space program existed, in fact—was the Cold War. The schmaltzy moralizing of E.T. and the lovable mad scientist vibe to the nerdy scanning of the night sky for radio waves barely concealed the hate that seethed beneath the human quest for scientific mastery of the cosmos. It wasn’t just star travelers, little “sputniks,” that Cold War governments were putting on top of rockets. It was also thermonuclear weapons. These weren’t figments of anyone’s imagination—they were very real, and very much capable of wiping out life on our planet.
Annihilation by atomic apocalypse became a subtheme of the antiwar Left during the Cold War. Any sane person, in fact, had to stop and think about what would really happen if some crazed warmonger “pushed the button.” General Buck Turgidson and Nazi holdover Dr. Strangelove wrangled over the use of “the bomb” in a classic 1964 Stanley Kubrick film, while nuclear winter was the theme of other cultural milestones from the era: Walter M. Miller’s 1959 book A Canticle for Liebowitz, Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon from the same year, Nakazawa Keiji’s 1970s and ’80s manga series Barefoot Gen, and many, many more. Even the weird 1954 Bgrade film Godzilla is a meditation on nuclear war. It didn’t take long for humanity living in the shadow of the Washington Moscow showdown to get the message that scientific advances had helped hang a sword of Damocles over everyone’s head.
The stakes of civilizational standoff were thus higher during the Cold War than they had ever been in human history. In 1962, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and American president John F. Kennedy circled one another like prizefighters over Soviet missiles in Cuba, the world was brought within a heartbeat of nuclear war. Just one slight misunderstanding could have set the exchange of warheads in motion. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan reprised this brinksmanship, turning warhead parity into a budget-busting chess match that he bet—correctly, as it turned out—the Soviets would lose. But before they did, and even after, the proliferation of nuclear weapons sobered the world into reconsidering the easy optimism of the earlier time of scientific heroes. Once, science had been touted as the savior of the human race. Now, it was alleged, we were increasingly likely to die of it. Atomic scientists started the so-called Doomsday Clock in 1947 to alert the rest of humanity to the consequences of what atomic scientists had unleashed.
A wave of pessimism overtook other scientific pursuits, too, and apocalyptic visions of end times have been a staple of scientific writing for decades now. Handwringing over the “Anthropocene,” the epoch of human destruction of Mother Earth, is de rigueur in science departments these days. Even without human folly, scientists have begun to whisper, the universe may still find a way to end us. In 2019, a team of researchers from Oxford calculated that the human race may stand an one in 870,000 chance of going extinct in any given year, and possibly as high as one in 14,000. Our planet, after all, has proven to be equal parts safe haven for life and apocalyptic graveyard. “Out of all species that have existed,” the Oxford team tells us, “over 99% are now extinct.”12 Check, please. No wonder the seeking hearts of the cosmos are so lonely. There seems to be little to comfort us either up in the universe or down here below. As the attention of rich nations turned to the heavens—heavens which scientists in both America and the Soviet Union seemed largely to agree were empty of any deities—the world under our feet and in front of our eyes unraveled.13 We sent reprisals of the old heavenly denizens—Mercuries, Apollos, Titans, Thors, Saturns, Geminis, and Artemises—into the sky, shot after shot. Even today, the out of this world remains the world’s most exclusive destination, as billionaires boast of their private space programs and compete with one another to go high er and faster than anyone else. Self-funded rockets carry already astronomical egos into orbit and someday, if the boasting holds, will ferry the godlike few among us even out to Mars, a New Eden for man’s despoiling. Down below, meanwhile, crime increases, families disintegrate, the psyche crumples. Out of wedlock births, drug use, the phenomenon of the “working poor,” human trafficking, and the endless churning of spite, bile, and vitriol in the cauldron of enmity misleadingly named “social media” comprise the all-too-real reality for starcrossed humanity. We glory in our knowledge, worship our technology—and have never hated one another so much.
The Missing Specter of Abortion
Fretting about nuclear winter or the possibility that a madman with a dirty bomb may take out a major city is not unfounded. Goodness knows, humanity has been trying to off itself by nuclear device for decades. The atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 were slaughters by incineration, irradiation, and blast. But those two bombs were mere firecrackers compared with the mammoth explosions set off in the Bikini Atoll in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Technology and numerical proliferation have since intervened to guarantee the plot device of the 1983 Dabney Coleman and Matthew Broderick movie WarGames: mutual assured destruction (MAD). Mathematician John von Neumann coined the phrase, having come up with the idea when he tried calculating whether, according to game theory, nations would realize that the only rational approach to nuclear weapons is not to use them. A quick glance around the world at those who have control over nuclear stockpiles does not provide much reassurance that, in the end, reason is going to prevail.
Given the obvious dangers, scientists around the world have long advocated for the abolition of nuclear missiles and bombs. But the fact is that, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world began a killing spree which the lonely hearts looking up into the star dappled cosmos seem to have missed. While the scientists were worrying about MAD, some of their colleagues in white coats, the physicians, were busy doing the real work of species eradication.
For instance, the 1948 Eugenics Protection Law, pushed by American liberals and Japanese cryptoMarxists on a defeated population, opened the floodgates of abortion in Japan. For a time, Japan was the abortion capital of the world, as women flocked to clinics in Tokyo to undergo “procedures” to “terminate pregnancy.” In the United States, too, an underground movement, documented partly in The Story of Jane, was clearing out infants from inner cities.14 Roe v. Wade broke the dam in America, and abortion became a government-sanctioned plague after 1973. The liberal democracies of North America and Western Eu rope have taken to exporting abortion and the related antihuman ideologies of contraception and gender disorientation to nations and continents that suffer terribly under the ideologies imposed upon them. In her 2018 book Target Africa, Nigerian biomedical scientist Obianuju Ekeocha has detailed how the elites of the West now bring a new kind of colonialism to her home continent.15 Hiroshima and its chilling legacies have rightly occupied the minds of concerned scientists worldwide, but somehow the mass human extinction event known as abortion—not speculative, but ongoing even as we speak—has failed to register much of a response among this rational-minded group.
All of this makes the SETI initiative and the arms control movement seem a bit out of touch. World population control was in full swing as the cosmologists and physicists—and political pundits—were running calculations about the likelihood of alien life on other planets or of nuclear war wiping out the human race. As the astrobiologists swung their telescopes across the starry arc, French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was just one of countless socialists and globalists advocating for a mass culling of human beings.16 Margaret Sanger was hardly alone when she fantasized about yanking “human weeds” out of the genetic garden of homo sapiens—a policy that has arguably created more lonely hearts in the cosmos than anything else in our universe’s history.17
Entire governments have been involved in this attempt to depopulate the planet, even as scientists have been warning of thermonuclear holocaust and scanning the skies for coded signals from aliens. Ideas from the population control group Club of Rome filtered into the Chinese Communist Party, for example, which turned the nation of China into a Petri dish for conducting experiments against human fertility.18 Forced abortions, forced sterilizations, forced placement of IUDs, and forced use of other birth control devices and substances— the wild imaginations of scientists and filmmakers pinching their brows over World War III overlooked the in-utero hecatombs being offered up daily and nightly around the planet. Lonely hearts of the cosmos—but how many lonely hearts in Chinese villages, hearts of women mourning the children who had been dismembered and taken from their wombs, placed in buckets, and set next to the devastated, bereaved mothers’ beds as a grisly warning not to defy the dictates of the Communist Party?
The “Unidentified Abortion Phenomenon”
In recent years, speculation has heated up again that we may be getting messages, even visits, from alien civilizations. In June of 2021 the United States federal government released a report on what are now being called “unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP),” or, in 1950s parlance, flying saucers.19 The report had been hyped by certain people appearing on cable news and YouTube channels, insisting that the feds know more than they are letting on about the existence of UFOs. That report turned out to be something of a dud. No big revelations of aliens in our midst. It did get people thinking a little more seriously about “unidentified aerial phenomena,” though. So did the videos and reports over the past decade or so of seemingly credible encounters with flying devices of unknown origin and unexplainable technical prowess buzzing Navy pilots and commercial airliners. Whether fashionable (as now) or not, mankind continues to look up to the heavens and wonder if we are really alone.
Despite the popularity, there’s a philosophical problem with SETI, I think. SETI potentially undermines the anthropic principle upon which it’s founded. If we are not alone, then there may be no rationale left to describe why we, alone, seem capable of understanding the universe. More than we realize, the explanations that many scientists have offered for human existence are tautologies. We can observe the universe, which explains, somehow, both the universe’s existence and our own. But what if we encounter alien worlds and find that they not only look different than we do, but think differently, too? SETI assumes that “intelligence” can be universalized. If “intelligence” is not universal, however, but plural—if other beings are found, but if we can’t communicate with them (the way we can communicate, somehow, even with many animals on earth)—then what will the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” have meant in the first place? If our human intelligence turns out to be, not translatable into cosmic terms, as Hawking argued by appealing to the weak anthropic principle, but rather a prison trapping us in a very narrow and provincial, Earthbound mode of thought, then we will likely rue the day we ever met a Martian. Human intelligence may be much more human than we realize, in other words. In which case, we will be thrown back on our heels, and thousands of years of speculative philosophy will need to be scrapped.
But let’s leave the philosophical quibbling aside and ask: What if there really are a myriad of communities out there, huddling on planetary specks in the trackless ocean of inky nothingness chilled to just a touch above absolute zero? Some scientists say it’s highly unlikely. According to these and other cynics and skeptics, alien civilizations probably don’t get much beyond our own level of technological advancement. Once they discover nuclear weapons, the argument goes, it’s only a matter of time before they use them on one another, wiping out their race with hydrogen and plutonium bombs. Instead of doing SETI, some claim, we ought to be doing SEETI, or the Search for Extinct Extraterrestrial Intelligence.20
That may be true, but given human history, isn’t it much more likely that aliens don’t end their own civilizations with nukes, but rather abort themselves into oblivion? If there are any lonely alien hearts on other worlds peering into telescopes and tuning massive radios to try to detect signs of life from, say, us, floating along the hazy outer bands of the Milky Way, then surely those hearts, too, grieve for something much closer to home than puzzling equations and cosmological theories that don’t quite add up. The real “UAP” is the Unidentified Abortion Phenomenon—the only guaranteed way so far devised for an intelligent civilization to destroy itself. Surely other lonely hearts of the cosmos, alien scientists at their telescopes and radar screens on fantastic worlds in distant galaxy clusters, sigh from time to time and wonder where all the little green children have gone.
1. Dennis Overbye, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the
Universe (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1991).
2. David Kaiser, “No More Lonely Hearts,” in Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020), p. 250.
3. David Kaiser, “No More Lonely Hearts,” op. cit., p. 252.
4. David Kaiser, “No More Lonely Hearts,” op. cit., pp. 252255.
5. Overall, see Michio Kaku, The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2021).
6. See Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Updated and Expanded Tenth Anniversary Edition) (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1996).
7. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, op. cit., p. 155.
8. See Jason M. Morgan, “Denizens of a Pale Blue Dust Mote,” New Oxford Review, JulyAugust 2019.
13. On Soviet atheism, see Jason M. Morgan, “The Soviets’ Doomed Battle with Byt” (review of Victoria Smolkin, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), New Oxford Review, April 2021.
14. See Jason Morgan review, The Human Life Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 2, Spring 2021, pp. 6374.
15. See Jason Morgan review, The Human Life Review, Vol. XLV, No. 1, Winter 2019, pp. 8084.
18. See Steven Mosher, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008) and A Mother’s Ordeal: Story of Chi An—One Woman’s Fight against China’s OneChild Policy (Time Warner Paperbacks, 1995).
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.