This is the first article in ORBITER’s new Cosmic Culture series, exploring the wide and wonderful field of astrobiology.
What is life? Are we alone in the universe? These are intriguing questions, the kinds of questions we’ve been asking since we became aware of ourselves.
The field of study now known as astrobiology was developed from the quest to answer these questions. We’re a curious species. We want to know what life is all about. And lots of us are curious to know if aliens could be out there, and, if they are, what they might be like.
I recently found myself talking about alien life with some folks at a local restaurant. We discussed how, without evidence of alien life, we have to admit that there is a possibility that we’re alone. Which brought a point to mind that I’ve wondered about before: If we are alone, then life here on Earth is special and unique, and we might then arguably have an important responsibility for preserving and protecting this special case of life.
But if we’re not alone, if there are aliens out there living and dying and developing systems of government and arguing over the best burger joint on their home planet, then maybe they’re also looking at the stars at night and wondering if they feel alone. Maybe they want to know about us, too. Maybe they also question their responsibility to life in the cosmos.
Sometimes I hear people talk about being born a few centuries too late—or maybe a few centuries too early. Sure, there’s some romance in the idea of painting alongside the masters of the Italian Renaissance, experiencing culture in ancient Japan, or cruising out into the world during the Enlightenment to explore our world’s biodiversity. And many of us have surely wondered what the future may hold and what it could be like to live at a time when we’re boldly going to new star systems and exploring new worlds—or what it’ll be like if we ever manage to extend our lives by hundreds and maybe thousands of years.
But we shouldn’t lament being alive right now. If anything, right now is awesome. Right now, we are becoming a species that acts with a global mindset, and we’re just now learning enough about ourselves to really question what life is and whether or not we’re alone. For an astrobiologist, now is a good time.
So much in a short span
When I was born, the Voyager 2 mission hadn’t yet flown by Uranus and Neptune. In the early 1980s, we hadn’t yet completed the Human Genome Project nor found actual evidence of planets around other stars. These things have happened only in the short time that I’ve been aware of myself. Voyager 1 and 2 have both now entered interstellar space (though they’re both very much still inside of our solar system!) and continue their outward journey as the most distant extensions of humanity.
The Voyager 2 spacecraft, against a backdrop of stars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
We’re now at a point where we really need to have rational conversations about how we might choose to genetically engineer ourselves in the future, and whether or not we might soon merge parts of our species with our machines. We’ve now detected thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and the data tell us that planets likely outnumber stars in our own galaxy. Yet, the question of whether or not we’re alone remains.
Will we soon find an answer other than “maybe”?
We could be poised at a very important time. In 2015, former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan—now Director of the National Air and Space Museum—predicted that we would find definitive evidence of the existence of alien life within the next few decades. If there is other life out there, we definitely have some reason to think that we could find it soon, so I certainly understand Stofan’s optimistic prediction—and I, for one, hope she’s right.
We’re building ever better telescopes for discovering exoplanets and for surveying the atmospheres of distant worlds around other stars to see if signs of life might be found. We’re sending out more spacecraft with better instruments to fly by, orbit, land on, rove over, and soon even fly around worlds within our own solar system. We’re exploring worlds like Mars, Europa, and Enceladus for their potential to have had life—or even currently have it. There’s a lot of cool science going on in the search for alien life. And there’s a good deal of interest for what we might find. I find it quite compelling that I often meet people who think we’re probably not alone and want to know for sure.
Considering the big picture
Astrobiology is the scientific pursuit to better understand the nature of life in the cosmos; to figure out how life can start on Earth or on other worlds, how life evolves and changes through time, and how life might disburse through the universe. It’s also a pursuit that makes us consider ourselves and our cultural understandings of life and the universe.
Truly, attempting to understand the nature of life itself forces us to think with a cosmic perspective. We are one species among millions on a world that we still haven’t fully explored. Our planet is likely one of hundreds of billions or perhaps even trillions in a galaxy that we’ve only known was one of many galaxies for less than 100 years. The cosmos is vast. To ask ourselves about the nature of life forces us to also question our views of reality. What is consciousness? What is real? How do our cultural understandings of ourselves influence how we understand life?
So let’s all keep having those conversations about whether or not we’re alone in the universe. Let’s consider the ways we have engaged with the quest to understand the nature of life. From the history of the science of astrobiology to modern beliefs that aliens have visited us in the past. From explorations of the strange life right here on our rock to probing what our science fiction may actually tell us about how to prepare for the possibility of meeting aliens. Let’s explore how and why we send out spacecraft to explore other worlds, and let’s question how the view of ourselves from space may have started us on a path toward a new era in human civilization.
We also should consider the meaning that we derive from explorations in the realm of astrobiology. The question of “are we alone?” is one that we should ask together.
Graham Lau is an astrobiologist and communicator of science. He’s currently the Director of Communications and Marketing for Blue Marble Space, a Research Scientist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, the Director of Logistics for the University Rover Challenge, and a co-host of the show Ask an Astrobiologist. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram as @cosmobiologist.