Tag Archive | "extraterrestrial life"

Are We Alone?

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It is likely that for as long as man has roamed this planet, he has gazed at the sky and wondered what lies beyond.  Curiosity is a trait deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and man’s inquisitiveness regarding his observable environment has spawned innumerable voyages of discovery, both physical and intellectual, that have steadily and continuously expanded the limits of our collective knowledge.


In ancient times, man’s observable universe included the Sun, Moon, several planets, and a few hundred stars.  From surviving written works – the earliest of which is a poem by the Greek writer Hesiod in the 8th century BC, we can conclude that there were numerous other writings and oral traditions regarding man’s understanding of the cosmos that date to centuries, if not millennia, earlier.  Ancient man’s concern about the cosmos both mirrored and comported with his curiosity regarding his own existence, its origins, and his place in this world and the universe.


Thus, man created myths to explain that which he observed in the night sky.  In patterns of bright stars, he saw the outlines of hunters, lions, scorpions, crosses, and other images known to him from his earthly existence, and he created stories about these figures explaining their presence and meaning to him, often attributing divine traits and actions to the images observed.


While many of the stories and names created by the ancients survive and are known by us to this day, we now understand them as rudimentary attempts to explain what was, at the point in time of their creation, unknowable.  Today, the evolution of technology has expanded exponentially our observable universe and knowledge base regarding what lies beyond our planet.  And, with our curiosity unabated, we now pursue its once unknowable secrets.


Among the most haunting and publicly debated issues of the past century or more is the existence of life – that is, life on the order of human life – on other planets.  The 1898 science fiction novella, “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells, describes an invasion of England by aliens from the planet Mars.  On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast an adaptation of this story as an episode of the American radio drama anthology series “Mercury Theater on the Air.”  The resultant hysteria, created among listeners who had either missed or ignored the program’s opening credits, was perhaps the seminal moment in raising public consciousness with regard to the possibility of extraterrestrial life.


In the intervening decades, the subject became a source of inspiration for many works of fiction in literature and the theatrical and broadcast entertainment media, as well as serious investigation by scientists and other researchers.  In the decades of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFO’s) abounded in the United States, United Kingdom, and other parts of the world.  Often explained, many of these sightings remain a mystery to this day.  In addition, government and privately funded research into this phenomenon was commenced.  In 1960, Cornell University astronomy professor Frank Drake conducted the first of what have come to be termed Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) initiatives.  Drake’s “Project Ozma,” named after L. Frank Baum’s Queen of Oz in fantasy literature, employed a radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia to scan radio frequencies for evidence of transmissions by intelligent life originating in the area of the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani.


While the numerous SETI efforts thus far have not produced conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, European scientists in 2007 found the most Earth-like planet outside of our solar system.  Utilizing a special telescopic instrument at the European Southern Observatory in LaSilla, Chile, they discovered a planet orbiting Gliese 581, a red dwarf star.  The planet, dubbed Gliese 581c, is theorized to have an atmosphere and an average temperature hospitable to life similar to that on Earth.  At only 120 trillion miles and 20.5 light years from Earth, 581c is a neighbor to our planet, and its discovery has been deemed “a major milestone” in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in our universe.  In April of this year, another, smaller Earth-like planet was discovered orbiting Gliese 581.  Denoted Gliese 581e, it is the smallest extrasolar planet found orbiting a normal star and the closest in mass to Earth.  It is unlikely, however, that 581e harbors life.


Whether or not intelligent life exists on 581c or anywhere else in our universe, however, the discovery says a good deal about the nature of the human race and our shared curiosity and thirst for knowledge.  Mankind collectively over the course of its history has gained knowledge of the unknowable and achieved the impossible.  The limits to what can be known and achieved over time seem infinite.


Yet, individuals living today are confined by many of the same barriers that our ancestors experienced – ignorance, poverty, disease, tyranny, war, and other forms of inhumanity.  Perhaps, as we reach for the stars, we should also turn our attentions inward – improving education, feeding the hungry, elevating healthcare, fostering peace and tolerance, and enhancing the collective security of all of our world’s inhabitants.  Then, we as a race will be better prepared to meet, interrelate, and peacefully coexist with other potential life forms that may populate our universe.

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