Two British astrophysicists at the University of Nottingham, England, Tom Westby and Christopher J. Conselice, recently sifted their way through the Milky Way and discovered, they estimate, no more than thirty-six alien civilizations are presently capable of electromagnetic (radio) communication.
They do admit that if they had sorted things from a slightly different direction the number might get raised to a bit under a thousand. Chintzy isn’t the word for it, compared to the millions and millions we once were promised.
Westby and Conselice developed an analytical method and combined it with their own tweaked up version of the Drake Equation, a 1961 formula (frequently revised) estimating the number of habitable planets with sentient, technological life.
Radio astronomer Dr. Frank Drake (b. 1930) came up with the initial equation. It is a wondrously malleable piece of work that comfortably accommodates all the tweaks one can give it. By filling in the seven values one could calculate billions of planets hosting extraterrestrials. Fiddle another way, though, and there is only one Earth-like planet harboring Earth-like life—that is, ours, and only ours.
There is a serious “anti-Drake” equation, the Rare Earth Hypothesis put forth by geologist Peter Ward and astronomer Don Brownlee. They portray a cold galaxy, largely desolate of life, made up of short-lived stars and solar systems filled with planets uniquely hostile to complex life.
Nobody seriously accepts any of that. It is incomprehensible. Suggest, as Ward and Brownlee did, credible statistical speculation that the Earth—and perhaps only the Earth alone—hosts conscious sentience and scientists everywhere clutch at their pearls and flutter. We simply cannot be the only one; there are no one-off exceptions.
To suggest that we alone inhabit the vastness of this galaxy is to commit scientific heresy, a violation of the Copernican Principle. Earth is not the center of the universe. Stated bluntly, as the late Carl Sagan did in his Cosmos series, we of Earth “live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
It is a cornerstone of astronomy and cosmological studies: if there is intelligent life on Earth (though the jury may still be out), there must be intelligent life elsewhere.
As numbers go, 36 nudges too close to one. In the world of astronomy, SETI, and the Copernican Principle the only number shoddier than 36 civilizations is one civilization. Thirty-six is scientifically sacrilegious because it suggests Earth is a rarity.
The Westby and Conselice paper provoked scientific giggles at the SETI institute. Seth Shostak, a SETI researcher, astrophysicist, and science personality, wrote a reaction complaining about the methodology and assumptions Westby and Conselice used in arriving at the number 36. The article was humorous here and there as Shostak was politely but pointedly snarky. Prominent among Shostak’s observations, 36 doesn’t come close to matching 70. That’s the number of speaking parts awarded to aliens in Star Trek.
That is, I’d guess, a prevalent reaction. A NASA-sponsored conference in 2013 confidently predicted 8.8 million habitable Earth-like planets in our galaxy, all like us comfortably nestled around Sun-like suns in the Goldilocks temperate zone where water is liquid (sloshing is necessary for biological life), never too hot or too cold, and rocky. And out of 8.8 million potentially habitable planets only 36 show up?
Mind you, I once had the Drake formula memorized, I was so into Carl Sagan’s Encyclopedia Galactica. Where the Drake Equation was once regarded as predictive, these days the equation feels like an antiquarian intellectual probabilistic teaser from a day—59 years ago—when it was expected that plugging in a radio telescope would connect us to the alien party line. We’d be bonded to a network of galactic friends, learning, tweeting, exchanging kitten-equivalent images. No such luck.
One cannot rule out extrasolar intelligences, math probabilities being eventually probable. But waiting for ET to pick up, I once wrote, is like waiting for blind date that never shows and doesn’t call with an excuse. It is a rising irritation and a personal slight. I don’t see much reason to change my opinion. Extraterrestrials can be such jerks.
“Earth-like,” just to mention it, is a very elastic term, used even when describing rocky giants like Kepler 10B. As planets go it resembles nothing so much as a red-hot ball bearing with the density of iron, zipping around its sun in a dizzy orbital year of 20 hours. But it is rocky (melted rock, but still) so, in the announcement of its discovery, it qualified as “Earth-like.” With definitions like that ‘tis a wonder we haven’t found more.
Still, only 36 civilizations are disappointing. But even if there are 36 communicating alien societies, they probably still can’t communicate with anyone. Distances make it impossible under normal scientific constraints.
Do the math: There are some 250 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, plus or minus 150 billion. The probability of being next door to one of the 36 with a walkie-talkie is, well, astronomical. If they were only one light year distant from a neighbor, that’s still 6,000,000,000,000 miles for radio waves to travel at the speed of light, which is 186,282 miles per second, or 670,616,629 mph. The nearest solar system to Earth, Proxima Centauri, is 4.22 light years from Earth, meaning 25.32 trillion miles distant at the speed of light, meaning a travel time of roughly 137,000 years, one-way. “Are we there yet?” is a cruel taunt.
The distances aren’t merely overwhelming, they are stupefying. Being isolated and alone means inevitable loneliness. This, I speculate, is one reason for our anxious search for an ET and for proof of our unexceptional place in the universe. We want company. There must be someone to help us understand who we are.
We want to know someone other than ourselves. We want to know more about us, because at times it seems we know really so very little and comparing our self to another will tell us something important. Even if we learn they are just scraping along like us, that would be good to know. We need an alien interstellar buddy who can share with us a cosmological template for living successfully in the universe, somebody who will help us hang in there, urge us on, pat our back encouragingly.
We need to know the Earth is important and human life is precious. We need Somebody to tell us that, for it seems we may have forgotten.
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Having once been mesmerized by the Communist numbers game and lonely anonymity, the converted Whittaker Chambers (a Quaker) counseled his son on SALTZMAN’s PETITION, that “We need to know the Earth is important and human life is precious. We need Somebody to tell us that, for it seems we may have forgotten.”
This from Chambers”
“What little I know of the stars I have PASSED ON to my son over the years….we often stop to watch through the apple trees the great sky triangle tipped by the evening stars: Vega in Lyra, Altair in Aquila and Deneb, burning in the constellation of the Swan.
Sometimes, I draw my son’s eye to the constellation Hercules, especially to the great nebula dimly visible about the middle of the group. Now and again, I remind him that what we can just make out as a faint haze is another universe—the radiance of fifty thousand suns [with the Hubble telescope, now read three hundred thousand] whose light had left its source thirty-four thousand years before it brushes the miracle of our straining sight.
“Those are the ONLY statistics that I shall ever trouble my son with….I want him to have a standard as simple as stepping into the dark and raising his eyes whereby to measure what he IS and what he IS NOT against the order of reality. I want him to see for himself upon the scale of the universes that God, the soul, faith, are NOT simple matters . . . .I want him to remember that God Who is a God of Love is also the God of a world that includes the atom bomb and virus [!], the minds that contrived and use or those that suffer them, and that the problem of good and evil is NOT more simple than the immensity of worlds.
“I want him to understand that evil is NOT something that can be condescended to, waved aside or smiled away, for it is not merely an uninvited guest, but lies coiled in foro interno [that is] at home with good within ourselves. Evil can ONLY be fought. . . .I want him to know that it is his SOUL, and his soul alone, that makes it possible for him to bear, without dying of his own mortality, the faint light of Hercules’ fifty thousand suns” (Whittaker Chambers, Witness, 1952, pp. 797-8, CAPS added).
why, maybe, just maybe, they might even LOVE us?!….
looking for God in all the wrong places…
Such a nice article Russell; such nice comments Peter and Bob.
You give me hope that rationality and love are consonant and, indeed, resonant!
In grappling with the same issues my key question was: “What divine purpose is served by the immense complexity of our universe, life, and human cognition and culture.” And, of course, the unavoidable: “Since God is infinitely good, whence and for what is evil?”
The latter is addressed by Jesus Christ: evil HAS to expose itself (Mt 18:7; Lk 17:1).
That led on to the concept of a universe with sufficient inherent freedom to allow the extensive depths of subtlety of evil to be actualised, in a sort of exhaustive demonstration of what God is not – thus bringing glory to who God is.
A thesis followed and some publications. They are on the web, free of charge – e.g.
“Ethical Encounter Theology”; “Creatio Ex Ethica”; etc.
To friends who say: “Marty, ethics arise from physicality, not the other way around!”
I ask: “We know for certain God is Love; that is, supreme right ethics; and, God is the source of absolutely everything (e.g. see Colossians 1:16-20); so why is Creatio Ex Ethica a challenge? It also seems to open up new paths into many traditionally challenging theological questions.”
As regards ETI, the CEE approach reveals we have more than enough to try to handle on this planet, without troubling ourselves over unreachable uncertainties.
“One” by Three Dog Night- Released April 1969.The song starts with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention and a repeating “Busy” Signal.
No need at all to try to prove that life is precious. The more you try to prove it the weaker your case. God is all things, omnipresent, we cannot even separate God from our concepts although conceptually, as humans, we can say God does not exist. Lets relax with the conceptual arguments because what we are looking for is the experience of God that comes through intuitively, through our hearts. We don’t need to convince our selves of the fact because if we need convincing, we are not operating in the field where God is experienced. Try to convince that you love someone when they feel you don’t, its impossible. Better to just keep loving them!
Thanks for the article. I have always found the idea that there could be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, even though it may be rare, fascinating. On the other hand, the great distances to other stars and solar systems always means that it would likely be difficult to find direct evidence of life on other planets. Of course, we must always remember to put God first, and to remember that God loves each one of us, and died for each one of us, regardless of whether or not life exists on other planets. Of course, God created the whole universe, so that if life does exist elsewhere, it is part of God’s creation and providence too, just as we are. My understanding is that the Catholic Church has no official teaching on the question of life on other planets, or how God might have saved such beings (assuming they exist and need salvation). Personally I have no objection to granting the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, provided we remember to put God first, and recognize the entire universe, including all life, as being part of God’s creation. We must always strive first to do God’s Will for us.
Scripture mentions how earth is the footstool of The Lord ..
saints mention how we humans have been made to take up the place of fallen angels in heaven.. thus , earth as also the place for The Women and Her Seed destined to crush the head of the enemy .
Universe , said to be shaped like an egg – and thus earth , ? as the tiny entrance point , to bring Life and love , into the children , by The Spirit ..
The limit of our minds , being unable to grasp the reality of the seemingly simple truth of the earth being moved at 18 miles a second ..
yet , made with a heart , to love The Heart that holds it all ..
and as much as The Father does not mind us putting to use the God given wisdom to explore , to marvel at His works ever more , as long as we always come back , to the Heart , with awe and gratitude ..
and do not fall for the ‘elemental powers’ and their lies .
News letting us see how fast we can copy evil and its ways too …
that trait to copy mindlessly ..as in that act of copying poor Eve , in The Garden instead of having moved her away , at the speed of light and love, in the power of The Word ..
News about a 28 feet statue of the ‘ monkey god ‘ having been put up , in a place of worship , ? as a glimpse of the deep trails and tails of unholy soul ties too ..even as the news of the dust storm from Africa said to be coming these ways …
our oneness , in our wounds , that together we can embrace our dustiness , ask for mercy for all , including those who are in the dust ..
that we also trust to live in the truth that we are in the image and likeness of The Father in light and holiness – meant to ever ponder Him, to praise Him ..
and that is not monkey business either ..
Is this CWR’s indirect attempt to begin advocating for Young Earth Creationism? Please don’t embarrass yourselves by going in that direction.
Good one. Got me to laugh! Oh, wait; you’re serious? How did you get that from this essay? Huh.
Oh, gosh no. Banish the thought. I’ve said elsewhere – though in the moment I cannot recall where – evolutionary science best accounts for human origins. God creates probabilities that come in maturity to express his will.
We have good family friends who are convicted that Creation occurred in six days. I wasn’t there at the time so I don’t know but to me six calendar days seems unlikely.
But surely you don’t believe in evolution strictly per Darwin?
The way Darwin has been used philosophically, no. But most of the evidence for evolution fits Darwin’s insights. Check out the Society of Catholic Scientists. Good group, lots of stuff.
For the record I have no problem with the existence of ETI, but I prefer that my views be data driven. The Drake equation only becomes real when we can have actual experimental data to replace the estimates that are usually made. The exoplanet surveys are an important first step in this direction.
I have a theory about why we haven’t heard from ET. Do we want to communicate with ETI for its own sake or do we only want to score on some advanced alien technology? Maybe the advanced ETI civilizations are tired of being hit up by the younger ETI civilizations sending the equivalent of the proverbial college student’s message home to send more money. Based on the sorry state of many colleges, how willing would we be to accept anything that approached ETI fraternal correction from an advanced ETI civilization? Canceling anyone? For now ETI is a Rorschach ink blot test, including my musings.
Or maybe they’re really jerks?
The sci-fi series Babylon 5 had a take down of some academician types in season four in the episode titled “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.” The Wikipedia episode entry has a summary. The summary is:
2362: A live televised debate presents two historians mistakenly believing that the role of Sheridan and Babylon 5 in the war against the Shadows and overthrowing Clark has been mythologized, and that Sheridan was power-hungry. An aged Delenn makes a surprise entry to the debate, saying that Sheridan was a good, kind, and decent man. She chastises the historians for fabricating “facts” to fill in the gaps of their knowledge.
Delenn is Sheridan’s wife/widow in the series. The series seasons/episodes present the history under discussion so the viewers know what the series history is from seeing the show.
A clip of it titled “Babylon 5 scene: He was a good man” is available on YouTube at:
Well one thing for sure is they will be God’s creation and if they have free will….there’s a distinct possibility some will be jerks and some will not.
As with Alexander Pope’s “Alps on Alps arise,” Questions on Questions also arise:
(1) Have any possible and technologically advanced civilizations in the cosmos also been GIVEN, by the transcendent God, a very different washroom key—-for the Beatific Vision? Is there a glass-ceiling threshold for this kind of “intelligence,” governed more from above than from below (wrap-around “evolution”)?
(2) How might any implied cosmically-multiple sort of polygenesis square with terrestrial Original Sin (just a quaint local narrative?) plus the SINGULAR redemptive act of Christ—-a “person” both human and divine—-on Calvary? Is our familiar and universal capacity to sin (!) against God (!) a unique and more-than-technical endowment, inseparable from a freely given, alarming, and unique Redemption by the Creator (!)?
(3) Or, is any such Redemption both multiple across space and time and still ONE ACTION (not mass produced) just as every Mass (capital M!)around the world is both the unbloody renewal/extension of the SINGULAR Calvary, while also “numerically distinct”? Or, does the heart of God expose itself only here in backwater Jerusalem perhaps because none of those other hypothetical intelligences ever “fell”?
(4) Or, instead and with Blessed Duns Scotus, might Christ have become incarnate here (and even elsewhere?) ABSENT our particular need for salvation history, by an action of overflowing charity that includes, but not limited to our need for damage control?
(5) Or, despite hypothetical technical superiority elsewhere, is our access toward beatitude still a most singular gift into the cosmos? Pope Francis would readily baptize a Martian, he once said, but Pope St. John Paul II proposed a distinctive “ONTOLOGICAL LEAP” (sometimes fatally mistranslated [cross-dressed?] as only an “evolutionary” leap?):
“The moment of transition to the SPIRITUAL cannot be the object of this kind of observation [meaning the natural sciences], which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience fall within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans” (“Message on Evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.” Oct. 1996).
Just a few opening questions about possible ETI—what it might be and what it might not be. With Hamlet: “. . . that is the question.”
Some fascinating speculative theology. Thanks Peter; much enjoyed.
Our Catechism of the Catholic Church is firmly founded on more that 3,500 references to The New Testament; allowing us, as sincere Catholics, to be just as serious as Protestants about the deposit of Apostolic instructions we all share. The Holy Spirit of God has placed amazing gems within those 27 texts by 9 authors; and, miraculously preserved them despite the hells and high-waters of human history.
For example, 1 Peter 1:20 suggests that Christ was crucified from the beginning of space-time/energy-matter. John’s Revelation affirms this at 13:8 b. Then, of course, Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians amplify our understanding of: “The Lamb slain from/for the creation of the cosmos”.
In THAT light: God created our universe both in full knowledge of its stoicheia of self-deifying rebellion, destructiveness, death, and on-going dissolution; AND (most mercifully) with the Divine lowly-hearted, humble, self-sacrificing Servant solution for it all. How very great is God!
Theology and cosmology nicely concur once we have the Apostolic foundation straight.
To your readers and yourself Russell
there’s quite a lot written about the status of UFO entity(s).
Refusing details… its real. As fact, irrefutable from own experience, more than once.
This contest, challenged me as to how it all fits in with my entire faith as a Catholic and reality of Christ, God Almighty. It took me over 20 years, a lot of prayer and reading and searching. Irrefutably … I discovered ‘before’ it has since been regularly written about. The UFO situation is dominated by demonic presence. And currently, now, most UFO Authorities, admit this.
If you understand that… it all starts to fit together.
The mystery, anonymity becomes transparently clear. No longer a mystery, nor fear, intimidation, nor a struggle within oneself and one’s faith. As potentially insane is it might sound or read, This childish UFO charade is Lucifanic. Period.
One needs to weave the fallible inquisitiveness of man, his weak ability to grasp the omnipotence of God Almighty, and mans easy manipulation of imagination, possibilities… doubts, hesitancy in reality … pride.
The true and only all-powerful God is our Catholic trinitarian God. And he is in total control.
The rest… UFO’s, is just games and shenanigans. And utterly dismissive of our concerted attention.
Someone, I forget who it was, once asked amusingly why is it that in the search for intelligent life in the universe, all the telescopes are pointing away from planet earth.
It is all very well to dabble in the probability of life beyond our precious earth. Much as the temptation is there to be awed by the scientific progress and discoveries made by man, it should not deviate from the fact that God is the Creator of the Universe and the author of all life. In fact what comes to my mind is a quote from Vatican astronomer, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, who in 2010 stated that ‘God is not just another force in the universe, alongside gravity or electricity. God is the reason why existence itself exists. God is the reason why space and time and the laws of nature can be present for the forces to operate…’. God created the world and the earth so perfect that the laws of physical sciences hold true every single time as the earth’s gravity remains constant. His perfection is so great that even though the earth rotates on its axis at a speed of approx. 1600 kmph and hurtles around the sun at around 10800 kmph yet seemingly motionless and the delicate pen of a seismograph is able to detect even the slightest vibration of the earth.
He likely got it by means of Unicorn-Rainbow Statistical Analysis (URSA) which also, by the way, proves the viability of the “green new deal,” makes “transitioning” a real scientific concept, and confirms the existence of “gay gene,” among other things… 😉
The authors of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project Journal from the seventies noted two UFO conundrums. If ET is common in the universe, why should he find us interesting and grace us with so many visits? I ET is rare, how is it he found us and why does he keep coming back so often?
Great point Bill.
The truth, as, Jim Brennan posted, is that the ancient serpent, accuser of humankind, the devil, Satan, and (as Paul instructs us) all the spirits of evil in high places that includes principalities, powers, dominions, rulers, authorities governments, and thrones are VERY interested in human beings, who (if we faithfully follow Jesus Christ) are destined to sit in judgment of them!
How then to avoid the plethora of subtle deceptions they constantly throw up?
1. avail ourselves regularly of the holy sacraments mother Church provides;
2. make The New Testament our daily reading and research its meanings;
3. seek renewal in genuine infillings by The Holy Spirit of God given by Christ.
Even thus, so strengthened by God, we need to stay alert and pray constantly; clothing ourselves in the full armour of God (helmet of Salvation, breast-plate of Righteousness; belt of Truth; shoes of eagerness to spread The Gospel; shield of Faith; and skillful wielding God’s Word, that is the sword of The Holy Spirit, to expose and caste down deceits and frauds).
To those who say: “That’s all too much”; or, “We’ll leave all that to the clergy”; we ask them: “If you were a professional in army, navy, or air-force would you not expect to equip yourself like this simply to do your duty and preserve your life?”
How much more, in the fully cosmic battle against sin and evil, shouldn’t we equip ourselves and be totally serious about exhorting one another to hear Jesus Christ and to walk as He walked; even to the point (like a battle-hardened marine) of putting our lives on the line for the sake of God’s Realm.
Satan will not succeed in deceiving Christians who are fully equipped and alert with Christ’s righteousness and unconquerable love.
We have friends in West Virginia who live next door to a facility that is supposed to be set up to listen for radio signals from space but the local suspicion is that it’s really intended to listen to global intelligence. More about our national security than about outer space.
“The nearest solar system to Earth, Proxima Centauri, is 4.22 light years from Earth, meaning 25.32 trillion miles distant at the speed of light, meaning a travel time of roughly 137,000 years, one-way.”
If Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light years from earth, a signal traveling at light speed to earth will only takes 4.22 years.
Samuel, to clarify: Yes, 4.22 light years traveling *at* the speed of light. Traveling *at* 17,600 mph, the speed of the Space Shuttle requires a bit more time. I should have said said “137,000 years, one way, traveling in the Space Shuttle.” My #3 son caught that too and took time off from fighting a New Mexico forest fire to text me. A diligent boy.
Truly, absent some undiscovered science, we won’t be seeing aliens soon.
First time I drove Rt 60 from Sacred Heart parish Quemado to Socorro I passed through the Plains of Saint Augustin. Completely unaware. Awestruck by the miles of perfectly aligned rows of giant bright white radio telescopes of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It was 1982 prior to the 1997 movie Contact with Jodie Foster. Suddenly I was on a planet dramatically different from rustic rural New Mexico. I wondered what dish like telescopes were searching. Something somewhere outthere. On my return approaching midnight the scene was more spectacular, jet black sky lit with countless stars beautiful almost foreboding. They seemed to be listening. I supposed for physical signs, or something intelligent? Aside from the movie nothing intelligent has made ‘contact’. Science as science may validly speculate there may be intelligence outthere. Theologically in context of Christ Crucified and salvation that speculation is more than remote.
In modern astronomy astronomers have developed a technique called interferometry as a means to combine multiple telescopes’ data together to simulate a single telescope the size of the distance between all the telescopes used. There is a relationship between the size of the telescope to the size of the objects that are able to be observed. I’ve heard it said that with a large enough baseline it should be possible resolve Earth-size exoplanets. An ideal place to do this at is in space.
As to the theological issues, there is always John 10:16 where Christ talks about having other sheep. Maybe it could cover ETI. The Bible was written to address the human condition, and the human race’s relationship with God. Salvation is not contingent on having an advanced scientific civilization. In this regard scientism has the smell of elitism.
Greg that night they were moonlit like pallid ghosts ears turned upward. There all out there still, silent, listening, fueled by tax dollars. I assumed the radio telescopes were ‘listening’ to radiating waves of energy. I’m not a scientist and appreciate your description of what occurs with interferometry. There is value in the science. It’s okay too to stretch your imagination regarding ET [or is it ETI?] and Christ’s other sheep. Einstein thought imagination was essential to discovery. Extraterrestials at White Sands and elsewhere [I won’t mention the bizarre account of an underground joint USAF Space Alien project at Dulce NM where I was pastor] is a human craving for the unconventional. Christ has become passe. “Salvation is not contingent on having an advanced scientific civilization. In this regard scientism has the smell of elitism”. Best summation I’ve read in awhile.
Again, it’s local folklore, but we heard that radio telescopes were more listening to earthly intelligence matters than searching for signals from outer space.
There was a Navy radio facility in that same general area so perhaps there were both kinds of listening going on. At least taxpayers would be getting 2 for the price of one.
I think that you are talking about Green Bank Observatory. It is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), where there are restrictions on radio transmissions. In the Wikipedia article about this zone they also show the presence of the Sugar Grove Station that is a National Security Agency (NSA) listening station.
Yes. We had friends both at Green Bank & at the former Naval base in Sugar Grove, WV. The Sugar Grove base was sold off to a rehab facility but I believe the listening station is still in operation.
Evolution is nonsense. A fairy tale for intellectuals. Simply look at one human cell in detail, and the mathematical improbability of it all is overwhelming.
To summarise evolution: Given enough time, absolutely nothing became the French Academy of Science.
Nonsense? I disagree. I see the improbable mathematical probabilities as the engines of species development, a God-driven gift in errecting creation
Are we trying to find intelligence extra terrestrial because we have given up finding it in the USCCB? 🙂