It’s the most common question astronomers encounter: Do you believe there’s life out there? If you listen to our area’s public radio stations, you’ve heard me address this nearly every month for the past 35 years. Sadly, my answers are speculative and unsatisfying. Yet, as we’ll see, they’re underlain by profound possibilities.
Much of our collective mindset comes from sci-fi movies. These present aliens as either benign and cuddly or else obsessed with destroying us. Sometimes the aliens’ desire to obliterate humans stems from some larger benevolent motive, to make us stop our own destructive activities like air pollution and futile chronic dieting.
But all such speculation is pointless, serving only to illustrate how little we can honestly accomplish with just the knowledge that life dwells on a single world. One indicator of how easy it is to jump the gun with imagined ETs is to look at our own history of false alarms. In 1966, “signals” that seemed artificial were detected by Jocelyn Bell at Cambridge, England, using their state-of-the-art radio telescope. She and her mentor, Anthony Hewish, eventually decided that the LGMs (little green men, which they’d first thought they’d found) were instead a new type of celestial body — a spinning neutron star that was quickly dubbed a pulsar, which emits precisely timed flashes with each rotation. Precision and repetition are indeed a human sort of signal, but not in this case.
Then in 1996, NASA reported finding fossilized bacteria imbedded in an Antarctic meteorite that had originally come from Mars during the last ice age. But specimen ALH84001 quickly appeared to be another false alarm.
So let’s tackle this realistically. The likeliest known place for life in our own solar system is in the warm salt water oceans of Europa, a bright moon of Jupiter. Everyone knows this, and is aware that we need a probe that can drill or burn through the thick overlying ice sheets and see what if anything is swimming or floating there. Unfortunately, the only probes currently funded by either the European Space Agency or NASA are orbiters, which are easier and cheaper but practically useless if our quest is to find alien life. The motive of “cheap and easy” helps explain why we instead keep focusing on Mars, whose fluvial channels prove it once had abundant water. But that was a long time ago when its atmosphere must have been much thicker, its core liquid, its magnetosphere strong, and, well, the hope is that life did live there but has since burrowed underground. A long shot.
The only certainty is that all known life exists on or near the surface of Earth, and originated in water long ago. Which makes most folks assume that aliens will also be inhabitants of some planet’s surface. Toward that end, much energy and money is being spent looking for exoplanets orbiting stars at the correct distance to permit liquid water. Once these are found, we would spectroscopically seek the chemical signs of life, especially oxygen. Here on Earth, free atmospheric oxygen only exists because it’s continually released by plants. Unfortunately, if we do find extraterrestrial free oxygen, we’ll know little else unless we send a space probe to take a close-up look, and the fastest such probes would require thousands of years, even for a one-way trip to the nearest stars. So detecting aliens in our lifetimes is dubious, to say the least.
Unless they come to us. And here, a different chain of logic materializes. If our own galaxy contains about 900 billion planets, with probably a billion of those having an Earthlike temperature and atmosphere, ETs might indeed be likely in the Milky Way. Alas, distances between stars are so huge that even if they had light-speed capabilities, no aliens could expect to survey even the tiniest percentage of potential planets. Result: A wash. Science neither aids nor hurts our cause of gaining evidence for ETs.
Panspermia helps. That’s the idea that life in some microscopic or cyst-like form can survive indefinitely within cracks in asteroids or comet nuclei, protected from damaging ultraviolet rays. Hurled into space by giant impacts on their home world, their piece of rock or ice wanders for millions of years until they crash onto a planet with favorable conditions. Then they crawl out and start evolving into you and me. If panspermia is real, similarities between organisms on different worlds might be more likely than not, and the Romulans’ resemblance to photos of the January 6 riot becomes less implausible.
But if you want to board the latest fashionable ET wagon train, you can try the holographic universe idea. By this thinking, nature everywhere, including our own lives, are mere simulations. They’re holograms, realistic 3-D computer fabrications and we aren’t even aware we’re just “acting out” our pre-programmed roles. Some alien hacker or hackers have conjured this whole thing we call the universe. It’s all computer code. In which case, life definitely exists. But not here.
My take? The hologram business is silly, and as we emphasized on this page two months ago, I most like the conclusions reached by Werner Heisenberg and the other originators of quantum mechanics a century ago. Which is, since some physics experiments are mysteriously altered by the mere presence of observers, and consciousness has no explainable origin in any matter or energy-based configuration including fetal brain tissue, they decided consciousness must be fundamental. Meaning pre-existing and presumably eternal.
Though unrecognized by most, the “external world” that appears to visually exist “out there” in front of our noses actually occurs strictly within the brain and mind, and is not external in any sense of the word. Which, if followed to its logical endpoint, means the answer to the question “Is there life beyond Earth?” is: it’s all alive.
If this seems mere philosophy, it’s because our thinking process’s origin usurped the direct-perception mechanism we had at birth. That blissful comprehension we shared with animals and enjoyed in infancy, whose termination created a sense of separation from nature by replacing direct experience with an unending stream of language, made us solely aware of components, or, more accurately, symbols for them. Which is where we remain today. Just as the word ice is not actual ice, we tackle all our mysteries with a dualistic, representational methodology that follows predictable pathways. Which is one more reason the issue of “are we alone?” always terminates inconclusively.