Is it possible that intelligent life in outer space exists? Could it be that Earth has already been visited by aliens? Are there traces left out for us to find? Is it up to us to make the first step? These thoughts have captivated mankind for centuriesâ€¦
â€¦And still inspire the quest to reach out, find out, discover despite the fact that even scientists are fundamentally split on the question of whether or not life outside the Earth exists. Some believe that there are so many planets out there that it would be impossible for us not to find intelligent life someday. Others believe that, due to the lack of evidence, we cannot accept this prospect until presented with proof. So should we agree with the scientists for or against?
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Throughout history our predecessors have shown remarkable resistance to accepting ground breaking concepts, greeting new ideas with denial, sometimes even persecutionâ€¦ only to be proven wrong eventually. There are many examples of this happening – over 2,000 years ago, Aristarchus of Samos wrote about the Earth being just one of many objects moving about the Sun, even though the modern idea of orbits did not exist. His works show geometrical calculations based on observations, showing the Sun to be much bigger than the Earth and the Moon. Even though these calculations supported his ideas, they were not accepted as true until the 17th century. And so throughout the dark ages and beyond, people continued to believe that the Earth was flat and the centre of the universe and to say otherwise was heresy. Indeed even Copernicus and Galileo, who we celebrate today as great visionaries and seekers of truth, were severely punished for challenging the Roman Catholic Church view that the Earth was the centre of the universe.
So should we rule out the possibility of extraterrestrial life just for the mere lack of sufficient evidence on our hands?
Interestingly, some scientists believe that it is our loneliness in the universe which makes us imagine that extraterrestrial life is possible. The universe is vast, never-ending. There are billions of trillions of stars, planets, meteors, comets. To think of this infinite amount of space with no intelligent life other than our own is not a comforting thought to say the least. In fact it is positively terrifying when one really thinks about it. And so, according to these scientists, we invent stories to fill up the void beyond our solar system, to imbue a lifeless universe with intelligent life and thus to make it seem a more habitable and friendly place to live.
On the other hand, scientists such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking argue that it is exactly because the universe is so vast that it would be improbable for life not to exist somewhere other than Earth. Hundreds of planets are being discovered weekly. In six weeks alone NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) found 700 possible planets and 5 new solar systems (QMI Agency 2010). Scientists believe that a small group of these may be capable of supporting life. Many such planets, nicknamed ‘Goldilocks planets’ – not too cold, not too warm, have been found already, including Gliese 581 c, Gliese 581 g, Gliese 581 d and OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, all of which have Earth-like qualities.
Recently, on September 29th 2010, a new Goldilocks planet was discovered by scientists using one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth – the Keck telescope in Hawaii. Gliese 581 g lies 20 light years away from its star’s ‘Goldilocks zone’ – an area where temperatures are favourable and planets may be capable of containing water, and therefore also life. This planet might be the most similar “Goldilocks planet” to Earth yet discovered. “The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common,” says Steven Vogt an astronomer at the University of California Santa Cruz. The planet’s average temperature is thought to be between -12C and -31C, and we know for a fact that there are many intelligent animals living in these types of conditions on Earth, such as polar bears, whales, and even humans, such as the Inuit peoples. Dr. Vogt goes on to state that: “The number of systems with potentially habitable planets is probably in the order of 10 or 20%, and when you multiply that by the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, that’s a large numberâ€¦There could be tens of billions of these systems in our galaxy.” Tens of billions of planets. This is a huge number! Surely we cannot be so naÃ¯ve to think that we are The star Gliese 581
the only intelligent life in such a vast universe?
The Drake equation also seems to prove this point. Yet, some scientists argue that if the chance of finding life were so huge, we should have found it by now. Frank Tipler, for example, has proved that, if using pessimistic numbers, the chances of finding a civilization in the galaxy is lower than one. Even Frank Drake (the inventor of the Drake equation) has stated that the Drake equation is just a way of “organizing our ignorance” on the subject (Gowdy 2008). On the other hand, in 1966, Dr. Carl Sagan, although later implying that it could be much less, used optimistic numbers to conclude that there might be as many as one million in the Milky Way alone.
One reason as to why we have not yet found any traces of intelligent life might be because we have no idea of what to look for. The key to actually finding intelligent life is to fully understand what the term means. But how do we define intelligent? Some think that any form of life that can survive should be classified as intelligent, whereas others state that even homo sapiens cannot be placed in this category. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) believe that intelligent life must be able to transmit and receive signals, whereas a more general definition is that intelligent life must be able to learn.
Furthermore, just because we Earthlings need certain elements and compounds to survive (for example oxygen and water), it does not necessarily mean that any other intelligent life form would as well. As a matter of fact, recently, a microorganism has been found which uses arsenic instead of phosphorus in its cell components. Phosphorus is essential to both DNA and RNA, which carry genetic information for life, and was until recently considered absolutely essential for all living cells. Arsenic on the other hand, despite being chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth.
According to NASA this finding will dramatically expand the search for intelligent life as it proves the possibility of life which does not need the same conditions as most other known life in order to survive.
“The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction,” said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in California. “Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake.” (Brown and Weselby 2010)
This discovery also leads us to the revelation that we might not easily recognise intelligent life forms in outer space as such. They might be completely different from our expectations. As Felisa Wolfe-Simone, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in California and the research team’s lead scientist, stated: “We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new – building parts of itself out of arsenic. If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”
This shows us that so far, we might have been looking for the wrong thing. “The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the Solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.”
This change of mindset presents a new question: if we were to discover intelligent life, what would the result be for us? A reaction similar to the War of the Worlds radio panic in 1938 could be the outcome of such news. But awe is another option. Is terror or amazement the more likely response from our side?
There is also a lot of speculation as to what the intelligent life forms if found would do. Would they be friendly and wish to establish contact with us? Or is it more likely for them to be hostile and angry for having been discovered? It’s impossible to tell at this point. However, to avoid a world wide panic, agencies and organizations are trying to prepare us, the people of Earth, for the possibility of finding intelligent life.
Resting assured that public relations on the E.T. topic are well taken care off, scientists are free to pursue the quest to find extraterrestrial intelligent life. New projects are constantly cropping up to try and discover any trace of extraterrestrial intelligence. Organizations such as SETI are, for example, trying to search the skies for radio activity which would settle the matter and prove that intelligent life exists. An associated idea is that intelligent life might send laser signals into outer space.
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This is one of the best ways to discover other possible intelligent life forms in the galaxy – by looking for evidence of technology developed by that life. Scientists on board the High Resolution Microwave Survey in 1992 scanned the whole sky for strong microwave signals, their logic being that at one point intelligent beings on other worlds would eventually develop radio technology capable of sending these signals. In 1993, however, the United States Congress advised NASA to end the project.
In 1998, NASA astronomers also began to search for pulses of laser light. They thought that possible intelligent creatures in outer space might have developed powerful lasers. They then may have transmitted short laser light pulses into the universe for observers, such as us, to detect.
The only drawback with such space communication is that it takes thousands of light years for our signals to reach their destination, and it would take just as long for any reply or laser pulse to reach us. So, if we were to receive any kind of signal from outer space, it would be from the distant past, and there would be no guarantee that the life forms are still alive.
Have we reached a setback in our quest to find intelligent life in outer space? Yes. Does this mean we are going to stop searching? Definitely not. As Mark Twain put it, ‘There can’t be rainbows without rain.’ meaning that until you reach the end result, there are going to be problems along the way.
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Moskvitch, K (2010). “Goldilocks planet just right for life”. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11444022 on 17-12-10
Brown, D & Weselby, C (2010). “NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical”. Retrieved from: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/astrobiology_toxic_chemical.html on 20-12-10
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Gowdy, R (2008). “SETI: Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence”. Retrieved from: http://www.courses.vcu.edu/PHY-rhg/astron/html/mod/019/s5.htmlHYPERLINK “http://www.courses.vcu.edu/PHY-rhg/astron/html/mod/019/s5.html on 11-01-11” HYPERLINK “http://www.courses.vcu.edu/PHY-rhg/astron/html/mod/019/s5.html on 11-01-11″on 11-01-11
QMI Agency (2010). “700 new planets discovered by NASA”. Retrieved from: http://www.torontosun.com/news/world/2010/07/25/14822461.html on 11-01-11
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