The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Apr 25, 2014

What Is Life?

We of the human species have entered the third millennium. We have wondered for a long time whether or not life exists on other worlds, but we do not yet know the answer. There are tantalizing clues, and some astronomers believe that extraterrestrial life exists, but as of this writing, such beliefs are a matter of faith.

In our quest to find life in other parts of the Cosmos, we have assumed, perhaps unconsciously, that such life is similar to life on Earth. We do this partly as a mental crutch to help us get and keep a vision of what we’re looking for. We also do it to keep to a scientific course of thought so that we don’t fall into pure speculation or into nonscientific thought modes.

What If . . . ?

Some people suggest that the scientific method forces our minds to take a narrow and conceited view of reality. What if life is “out there” in a form entirely different from life as we know it? Suppose, for example, that some of the science-fiction authors’ stories have been true to the mark and that energy-field life forms dwell in the vast tracts between the stars and galaxies? Suppose that the stars and galaxies themselves are life forms that have evolved to levels of sophistication far higher than we humans—so much loftier that we are no more aware of their existence than a bacterium is aware of the elephant in whose ear it dwells? Are there life forms like this? We do not know the answer to this question. We have no idea of how to communicate with such beings. The closest we can come in this respect is to turn things over to the clergy and to approach the problem from a spiritual standpoint.

There exists a psychological split between the church and the scientific community that at times leads one group to criticize the other. Let’s not question the beliefs of people who have faith in the existence of life on loftier planes than ours. Nor should we make any claims as to the absolute truth of any scientific theory. Theories are just that. History is full of examples of people or groups of people who turned theory into dogma and later were proven wrong. Our job, as scientists, is to look for good evidence of life on a level similar to life on this planet. By taking this attitude, we have some hope of finding such extraterrestrial life, assuming that it exists, and communicating with it in a meaningful way.

With this in mind, and guarding against the danger of using statistics inappropriately (the “probability fallacy” mentioned at the beginning of Chap. 9), a special group of astronomers is engaged in a pursuit known as SETI (pronounced “SET-eye” or “SEE-tie”), an acronym that stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence . The purpose of SETI is exactly what its name implies: to find another technologically advanced civilization in our galaxy or beyond. We’ll encounter estimates of the “probability” or the “chance” that life exists elsewhere in the galaxy or in the Universe. We play this mind game with ourselves to make the nature of our quest comprehensible. In truth, however, we can only say this: Either we will discover life of extraterrestrial origin someday or else we won’t. We have a better chance (oops) of finding extraterrestrial life if we search for it than if we don’t.

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