“What’s happening in the universe, Mick?”
I’m so glad you asked. Several stories touching on the search for extraterrestrial life have crossed my desk recently and I’m dying to tell someone.
The “Storm Area 51: They Can’t Stop All of Us” event in late September was a modest success. In case you haven’t heard, it originated as an online joke about gathering a crowd to bum-rush the secretive military research base long rumored to house proof of alien life. But after 2 million people RSVP’d the event, its instigator backed out, fearing the joke was getting out of hand.
Nevertheless, about 2,000 people gathered outside of Rachel, Nevada, population 54, and nearby dots on the map. Rather than trying to break through the military-guarded gates, attendees mostly satisfied themselves with parties and conversation. (It was “mostly peaceful, but still plenty weird,” The Washington Post said.) A fun, if subdued, time was had by all.
As far as we know. It’s not like “they” would tell us otherwise.
In the Oct. 3 New Yorker story “Intelligent Ways to Search for Extraterrestrials: Is there a more rational way to scan the heavens for alien life?” science journalist Adam Mann posits that the current methods — searching for clues that we might ourselves emit into the universe, like radio waves or “biosignatures,” liquid water or atmospheric oxygen — may be inadequate. After all, an extraterrestrial species might be so different that its signals would be incomprehensible to us.
Despite the suggestive title, Mann’s story is mostly a review of the work being done by the SETI Institute, scanning the deep skies for radio waves from far-away civilizations — and its quest for government funding.
But the most intriguing story came from Fox News’ Chris Ciaccia on Oct. 2: “NASA chief scientist says ‘we’re close’ to making announcements about life on Mars.” According to Ciaccia, NASA’s Planetary Science Division director Jim Green, Ph.D., has said the space agency is close to “making some announcements” about finding life on Mars.
“It will be revolutionary,” Green said in an interview with The Telegraph. “It’s like when Copernicus stated ‘no we go around the Sun.’ Completely revolutionary. It will start a whole new line of thinking. I don’t think we’re prepared for the results. We’re not.”
“What happens next is a whole new set of scientific questions,” Green continued. “Is that life like us? How are we related? Can life move from planet to planet or do we have a spark and just the right environment and that spark generates life — like us or not like us — based on the chemical environment that it is in?”
But whoa, Green, one thing at a time. First of all, as far as I’m concerned, saying “we’re about to make a revolutionary announcement about life on Mars” is the same as saying, “We found life on Mars.” I’m all for it, but let’s see your cards. Put up or shut up.
And secondly — I think we’re ready for it. We’ve been teased about life on Mars for years: Organic molecules, signs of sub-surface water, NASA has found everything except an Air B&B bungalow on the Valles Marineris. At this point, such an announcement would be as surprising as saying that Facebook is for oldsters.
But it’s not a done deal. In March, the cover of National Geographic magazine announced, “We Are Not Alone,” a sensational declaration that was modified inside its pages with the phrase, “it’s almost certain.” The magazine’s authors offered no conclusive evidence — just logical arguments coupled with a deep desire and enthusiasm that threatens to surpass what we actually know. We need more before we can claim certainty.
I think about these things while sitting in the Hernon/Wills Supercollider Observatory (my back porch) with my coffee and telescope. I look at those mysterious points of light with wonder and awe. What surprises are orbiting those stars? Are there creatures that look our way and wonder?
Despite my hesitance, I agree with Green on one thing: extraterrestrial life has wide implications for life on Earth. How would it change us to find, finally, for sure, that we’re not alone? What if the discovery were somewhat ambiguous, like possible fossils of past Martian life or a repeating but indecipherable radio signal from Andromeda? Would it further diminish the view we once held — that the universe revolved around us? Would it make life seem less rare, thus less precious? Or would its expanse make it seem even more wondrous?
It’s possible that life exists elsewhere, but sadly, it’s also possible that we’ll never find it. Space seems to be infinite and distances are unfathomable. Then we add time. It could be that we’re all there is right now, the infants of the universe.
But I hope we do find other life. I really hope we do, in my lifetime. It would be thrilling.