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Mar 27 2011

How humans will discover alien life

Finally, a news article with “alien life” in the headline that gets it right — top to bottom, in every detail, including the headline (as long as you also read the article). Wonderful. Of course, it’s an opinion piece on the New York Times, but still, I have to give Ray Jayawardhana a hearty round of applause.

From Alien Life, Coming Slowly Into View:

But within the next few years, astronomers expect to find dozens of alien earths that are roughly the size of our planet. Some of them will likely be in the so-called habitable zone, where the temperatures are just right for liquid water. The discovery of “Earth twins,” with conditions similar to what we find here, will inevitably bring questions about alien life to the forefront.

Detecting signs of life elsewhere will not be easy, but it may well occur in my lifetime, if not during the next decade. Given the daunting distances between the stars, the real-life version will almost certainly be a lot less sensational than the movies depicting alien invasions or crash-landing spaceships.

The evidence may be circumstantial at first — say, spectral bar codes of interesting molecules like oxygen, ozone, methane and water — and leave room for alternative interpretations. It may take years of additional data-gathering, and perhaps the construction of new telescopes, to satisfy our doubts. Besides, we won’t know whether such “biosignatures” are an indication of slime or civilization. Most people will likely move on to other, more immediate concerns of life here on Earth while scientists get down to work.

If, on the other hand, an alien radio signal were to be detected, that would constitute a more clear-cut and exciting moment. Even if the contents of the message remained elusive for decades, we would know that there was someone “intelligent” at the other end. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescopes has come of age recently, 50 years after the first feeble attempt. The construction of the Allen Telescope Array on an arid plateau in northern California greatly expands the number of star systems from which astronomers could detect signals.

The author ends the piece with “I happen to be an optimist”. Considering what advances we’ve made in so short a time since climbing down from the trees, we have every right to be optimistic about our species and the advances we can make within the scope of our lifetimes. And knowing how vast this universe is, and how omnipresent stars are, and how many of these stars have planets about them, I have to believe it’s an inevitability that we will stumble across something that will completely turn on its ear every dogma humans cling to today.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Glendon Mellow

    I’ve been hitting mark unread in my reader since you posted this. I love your sentiments in the last paragraph, Jason.

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