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Thursday, December 9, 2010

LIFE UNLIMITED

Water on the moon. Bacteria that use arsenic instead of phosphorus as a building block in DNA. Billions and billions and, uh, billions more stars than we ever thought out there. And planets—dozens of them that we know about, meaning millions that must exist. Planets with atmosphere, with carbon, with the potential for liquid water, with the right size and gravity and distance from their suns.

The evidence is piling up in laboratories and observatories all over the world. We are not alone in this universe. Even if our neighbors are mere bacteria or slime molds that feed on methane, life of some kind must surely exist somewhere else in the galaxy. That life arose on this planet was not a fluke, an accident or a miracle. It was inevitable.

The space science establishment is gradually shifting under the weight of all the new evidence. Those who believe have now begun to vastly outnumber the few remaining skeptics. No one expects to encounter a fully formed civilization in a solar system 700 light years to the left of Andromeda. But an ice crystal bearing an amino acid on Io? Not the remote improbability it once was. The gang at SETI is no longer on the fringe of credibility, but at the center of it.

Which is not to say that the rest of the scientific world is willing to follow along without protest. The announcement that NASA scientists had discovered a bacteria in California’s Mono Lake that utilized arsenic in its DNA (prompting one online wag to comment, “It’s life, Jim. Just not as we know it.”) was met with open skepticism from non-NASA biologists. Many criticized NASA’s methods and the rush to a public proclamation of a “new form of life.” Maybe it was a case of seeing what they wanted to see. Or maybe it was a case of yet another lifeform adapting to environments that were once considered deadly—like the tubeworms around heat vents in the deep oceans, where the pressure and lack of light and oxygen simulate conditions on many “hostile” planets.

The American public is going about its business largely oblivious to the momentous changes in the way its scientists look at the universe. Aside from the occasional article or TV news item, stripped of any details and highlighted with only the most outrageous claims, the average citizen won’t have heard much about any of this and will have cared less. After all, there are the more immediate problems of surviving life here on Earth—job, health, family and all the rest.

A few people out there will look at these new developments and react with fear or at least apprehension. One commenter on the NASA website suggested the onslaught of news items supporting the idea of extraterrestrial life is part of a calculated plan, just a way of preparing us for the BIG ANNOUNCEMENT of something the government already knows: aliens do exist and have been visiting us for some time. Sounds like the basis of a good plot to me (or did John Campbell already write that?).

Those of a conservative religious turn might have a few restless nights ahead rethinking humankind’s pre-eminence in God’s heavenly plan. Certainly the idea of Adam, Eve and creation in six actual days is out the window. I suspect, though, that believers who allow for an expanded view of God, for a truly infinite scope of power and grace and inclusion, will not be bothered.

Those of us who yearn to fly among the stars—at least by way of our characters and our plots—see any confirmation of our most closely held beliefs, no matter how small, as reason for celebration. For us, life throughout the universe, life in profusion and wonderful diversity, has always been a cornerstone in the foundation of our work. Without it, we’d have only technology, fascinating enough, but ultimately sterile in the absence of beings to manipulate and react to it.

As writers we have always believed that somewhere out there is a reality that matches our dreams. Now the evidence is beginning to support us. Not with flying saucers and little green men, perhaps. But young solar systems with exotic planets will do for now. We’ll supply the creatures that live there soon enough.

Cheers, Donna

1 comment:

  1. Without it, we’d have only technology, fascinating enough, but ultimately sterile in the absence of beings to manipulate and react to it.

    Hear, hear!

    As writers we have always believed that somewhere out there is a reality that matches our dreams.

    And amen!

    This environment of discovery is not only exciting for what the future may bring, but also for how our history may be re-written.

    I've also wondered about this onslaught of alien films and media, and had the same thought about the public being prepared (de-sensitized?) to the eventual breaking news (or full disclosure) that we are not alone.

    I seriously doubt we would have the mass hysteria that's always been feared. I think now the world's react is more likely to be "I knew it!"

    Great article, Donna.

    ReplyDelete

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