A followup to yesterday’s post on the Fermi Paradox, some reasons the Universe could have been less suitable for the evolution of complex life until recently, making us one of the first intelligent species to evolve.
1) Metallicity. Chemical elements heavier than helium are formed inside stars, after the Big Bang. Elements heavier than iron are formed in exploding supernovas. These elements have been building up over time. Maybe they had to reach a threshold abundance to make complex life possible.
On its own, it’s not clear this would have prevented intelligent life from arising long ago. The Sun has a high “metallicity” (concentration of heavy elements), but there are stars in the Milky Way older than the Sun with higher metallicities. But metallicity could combine with GRBs (below): toward the center of the galaxy there are more heavy elements but also more GRBs.
2) Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs). GRBs are bursts of gamma rays (high frequency radiation) lasting from milliseconds to minutes, like GRB 080319B. (Check out tweets for January 11.) They are probably supernovas or even larger explosions with one pole of the exploding star pointed at the Earth. A major GRB could irradiate one side of the planet, and also affect the other side by destroying the ozone layer, causing mass extinctions. GRBs may have swept the Milky Way frequently in the past. The good news is they’re probably getting less frequent. This could be the first time in the history of the Milky Way that enough time has passed without a major GRB for intelligent life to evolve. If true, we should think about how to protect ourselves from the next one – lots of sunblock recommended.
If GRBs are such a threat, we might expect to find evidence that they have caused mass extinctions in the past (not wiping out all life obviously). For more on this, check out upcoming blog posts and tweets for the end-Ordovician, March 3.
3) Panspermia (life from elsewhere). Pretty much as soon as Earth could support life, we see evidence of single-celled organisms. Then life evolves slowly for a long time. The usual story about this is that the origin of life is easy, and it happens as soon as possible. But there is another possibility (illustrated below). It may be that the transition from simple replicating chemical systems to bacteria with genomes of tens of thousands of DNA base pairs is a slow process that happened over many billions of years somewhere off Earth. Then newly forming planets in the nebula that gave rise to Earth were “infected” by this source, by meteorites carrying early cells. (It would have been easier for meteorites to carry life from star system to star system when the Earth was first formed than it would be today.) Back when our hypothetical “Urth” was forming, a billion years before Earth, there might not have been any planets with cellular life on them as potential sources of life-bearing meteorites.