Are we alone, the sole sentient species in the cosmos? Or, might there be others with whom we share the universe? It's a fundamental question, which has haunted humankind since first we realized that the points of light in the night sky are other suns. Now, for perhaps the first time in human history, we have the technology to begin to seek a definitive answer.
Contemporary scientific theories point to the likelihood that we inhabit a universe teeming with life. The emerging science of astrobiology, which contemplates the origin and distribution of life, is just beginning to bring in supporting evidence. Over the past dozen years, astronomers have detected hundreds of planets orbiting distant stars. A few of those planets now appear likely to support liquid water, a condition necessary for the emergence of life as we know it. We have long known that the chemical precursors of life permeate the black void of space. Recently, in the space between the stars, we have detected chemical process abundant that seem to mimic life. Many of us now believe that the emergence of life is as much a part of the natural cycle as are the burning of stars and the spinning of planets.
But, belief itself does not make it so. Scientists must continually guard against allowing their beliefs to overshadow their objective observations. We take pains to separate faith from fact. We can argue until our sun burns out, but the only way we will ever know for sure about other life is to search for it.
Fortunately, the tools for that search fall readily to hand. Around the world, dozens of organizations are digging deep for life's signature. They are doing so under private funding, with sophisticated equipment developed on a shoestring budget. The search for life is one of the greatest scientific bargains of all time.
One of the many search strategies to detect intelligent extraterrestrial life (the one to which I have dedicated a significant fraction of my life) is SETI, a science that uses radio telescopes to seek out artificially generated radio and laser signals in space. So far, none has been convincingly confirmed. But, we're in our technological infancy; a thorough SETI search may take generations. SETI is not a science that offers much to he or she who demands instant gratification. To date, not only have we not yet scratched the surface; we haven't even felt the itch.
If we do the search, and we do it right, sometime in the distant future we will have arrived at one of two conclusions: either we are not alone in the cosmos, or we are. Either possibility boggles the imagination.
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this page last updated 5 September 2009
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