Every week the Partners read articles that spark conversations and reflect their diverse points of view. This week they are discussing, “Are We Alone? Scientists Discuss the Search for Life and Odds of E.T.,” from Space.
The time has come to increase cooperation on how eco-systems integrate globally. Our existence on this planet becomes so much more precise when confronted with the vast discoveries of space. Society has advanced to a place where most people appreciate that resources have a limited use. Many people have discussed “Peak Oil” and other global parameters that could have incredibly detrimental effects if we do not calculate our consumptions and adjust accordingly.
Lately, the move has been to discuss the proper amount of carbon emissions as a way of understanding global changes to temperature. All of these are relevant and true, depending on who you might talk to, but something must be embraced to quantify more definitively the issues we face. Conceding, technically, our abilities to transition out of a post-industrial age into a sustainable age focused on protecting the planet’s limited resources while nourishing dynamic biodiversity.
We live on a planet that has a calculated space and equations must be developed to better understand our relationship within that space and the amount of time we have to find technology to extend a growing population. Socially, gone are the days of the industrial revolution where abundance of land and water were the norm, not the outlier. Like the article points out, we must again use science and math to measure the time and efforts of our collective global existence to avoid catastrophe, at worst, and manage equitable growth, at best. We have just begun to touch the vast expanses of our universe and our understanding of where we exist in that network, but sustainable cities and consumption must become a greater priority for our civilizations regardless of the slight disagreements we have. Even with these great discoveries of our vast universe, one is confronted with the fact that our planet is the only ship we have as we travel through it. The ship is beginning to list and we must recognize those signs and adapt quickly, trusting science and knowledge to do so. The beauty of our immense universe should inspire us to do no less.
At the outset, let me say that I surely believe that there are other life out in the universe (or multi-verse depending on your view of how quantum mechanics work). Carl Sagan summed it up perfectly when he said, “The Universe is a big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” This is where holding an inquisitive, but not solely empirical, mind helps: if we hold that certain things are at any given time, to the contemporary human mind, unknown, we also acknowledge that there are things outside of the basic ken of human understanding. However, engaging a philosophical track to the issue results (at least for me) in the acknowledgment that just because some things are unknowable or undiscoverable to human understanding, they are not outside human experience. While that normally is the purview of the realm of belief, it also frees up the inquisitive mind to hold a great conversation about “unknowns” without dismissing them based on lack of empirical data. It gives multiple ways to approach the equation.
Speaking of equations, the Drake equation has fascinated me ever since I become engrossed in sci-fi genres and began wanting to explore the “sci” behind the “fi”. As a non-scientist (but perhaps with a healthy dose of scientific inquiry), I could not speak to the mathematical structures of any of the individual variables with anything approaching authority or expertise. However, as an observer, I am giddy about the new discussions on how to consider L and fc, as these are variables that have as much a qualitative metric as a quantitative metric. One of my favorite concepts in science is that choosing what to measure is often more important than the measurement itself (remember Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics?).
As to fc, and the enviro-physical metrics on how life gets sustained on other planets, I am still surprised that the article has not taken into account some of the more non-humano-centric (should that be considered xeno-centric?) work as to potential structures extraterrestrial life might take. For example, the article implies that the Drake Equation still assumes a carbon-based structure with oxygen as the mandatory metabolic system. There have been interesting proposals that examine what a silicon-based structure or a methane metabolism would look like in a lifeform. Expanding outside of a homo sapien-centrism is going to be necessary to fully appreciate the full diversity of options life could take out in the universe.
The article’s brief discussion on L points out the irony of the bias of today’s concerns in the scientific community. Just as Nuclear Annihilation/MAD/Nuclear Winter/etc was the pinnacle of humanity’s destructive impulse in the 1960s, Environmental Destruction is today’s. Once we survive past an under-2degree world (yes, assuming the issue is resolved – a defeatist I am not!), the next large challenge humanity presents itself will be the next L measurement. And as well it should be. It makes my heart warm that scientists continue to refine formulae with ever-increasing access to better data. Thankfully the Drake Equation is not “settled science.”
Views From the Six (billion trillion stars in the solar system)
That was a Drake Equation joke. Get it? Ok, moving on.
The question of whether there is life on other planets has to me always been a fairly simple one based on the premise of the universe as infinite. Once I finish wrapping my mind around a conceptually infinite universe then it is quite an easy leap to get to not only life on some other planet, but rather life on an infinite number of other planets. To the extent that life does exist on other planets, I don’t think that we should presuppose, however, that it looks like what life on earth looks like. Perhaps life on other planets uses sulfur in the same way that earth beings use oxygen. Or that “plant” life on other planets think carbon dioxide is for the birds (if there are even birds on that planet).
I think the real and more interesting question isn’t whether life exists on other planets (I don’t think we’re so special just by virtue of existing), but rather whether or not we will ever actually come in contact or discover any other intelligent civilizations. Nothing would bring this world together faster than a little interplanetary xenophobia. Scientifically and academically, I would be very interested in knowing whether or not we could contact other intelligent beings (should they exist). Socially, however, I think we should tread with some caution. We don’t have a very good history with the “other” even amongst ourselves and let me posit that it would not take very long for us, as earthlings, to develop a reason for conflict.
I think that it is inevitable that our scientific community will discover some evidence of life on other planets at some point in time, however, we should also be open to the idea that we may be the natives and our interplanetary neighbors might be the Columbus.