The Looming Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life

Beginning a conversation about what our world will look like knowing we’re not alone.

Spiral galaxy UDF 423, Hubble Space Telescope, STScI, NASA, ESA

The discovery of extraterrestrial life appears likely, though not a certainty, perhaps within our lifetimes. As humans have fielded ever more technologically advanced investigations into space, outlining the unimaginable size of the universe and its constituents, the assertion we are not alone has become anachronistic, rooted in deep prejudices that privilege the position of Earth and her inhabitants. Major paradigm shifts throughout the history of science have deconstructed those old beliefs. Heliocentrism usurped geocentrism, general relativity replaced Newtonian mechanics, and religions great and small, struggling to compete with scientists’ better explanations for how the world works, are in retreat. Rather, the notion that we are not alone seems quite a dull insight after a quick survey of our knowledge. We live in a galaxy estimated to contain 100 billion suns, and the Milky Way galaxy is one of a 100 billion in the observable universe. Our observations and estimates could be off by several billions, and the scale would still be daunting.

Supergiant Elliptical Galaxy IC 1101, NASA/ESA/Hubble Space Telescope

Here’s a quick argument to illustrate the probabilities of life in the universe. We know that there is at least one g-type star with life on a planet in its orbit, namely our own. We estimate that about 7 billion of the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy are g-type stars. So, the probability of life occurring in the Milky Way galaxy around a g-type star is at least 1 in 7 billion. Galaxies vary in size, some are smaller than the Milky Way, and some are considerably larger. Take IC 1101, an elliptical galaxy with an estimated 100 trillion stars. That is 1000 times larger than the Milky way. If the ratio of g-type stars holds, then there would be 7 trillion g-type stars in IC 1101. If the ratio of g-type stars with life on an orbiting planet holds, then at least 1000 planets would have life. The other 99,999,999,998 galaxies remain to be investigated, as do the trillions of stars and planets they contain.

It just seems improbable that there are no other lifeforms in that incomprehensible mass, and the only good reason to think there is only life on Earth is that we thus far have found it nowhere else. I suspect this is less attributable to a universe deprived of life and more to the inadequacy of our inspective instruments. Making observations at such distance and scope is difficult to say the least, requiring ever more inventive technologies and techniques. Historically, as our instruments have improved, so have the data on which our most profound scientific theories are built.

Overcoming this problem takes a little cleverness, funding, and luck. We are lucky to have so many brillinat scientists, though we should always be training more. Currently, scientists make up about 5% of the U.S. workforce. The government contributes some funding, but not near enough to honor the profound nature of our search. Should governments shift priorities from tanks to telescopes, the benefit would be immense. Sooner or later, the stars will align, so to speak, and evidence will emerge in one form or another. Our efforts in our own solar system are numerous, particularly on Mars, and we are eager to explore moons like Titan, Enceladus, and Europa. Finding evidence for extraterrestrial life in any of these environments will confirm Earth is not so unique, but the mystery of life outside our solar system will persist. Without the ability to physically probe extrasolar environments, specifically the thousands of confirmed exoplanets, due to the vast distances of interstellar space, we will need to develop our telescope infrastructure to bring the surfaces of those worlds closer to us. That means a variety of larger telscopes.

James Webb Space Telescope, Primary Mirror Segment, Photo by Drew Noel

This kind of scientific research would have world-changing effects. The affirmation that humans are not the only living things in the universe should radically alter our priorities. It would be a risk assuming life beyond the edge of our solar system is benign, so efforts would need to be taken to prepare our civilization for a new millennium of hidden threats. Advanced technologies must be developed for all aspects of all functions of society. Crude energy sources like fossil fuels will need to be discarded in favor of widespread solar and nuclear power. New modes of communication must promote the level of cooperation needed to colonize, mine, and conserve resources accross the solar system. Medical technologies will need to be improved, to protect humans from the unknown harms of space travel, and the lurking diseases on our own planet. Transportation must be revolutionized, on and off Earth, to save time and energy. Politics and values must shift to prioritize science, research and development, and the building of a new age of human life. The new technologies will inevitably create opportunities for people to develop their skills and interests, in service of a broader human project to know, to explore, and to prepare. Perhaps the prospect of extraterrestrial life will lead to a unified Earth.

If we make it that far. Society’s organizing principle of exploitation still hasn’t been thoroughly challenged, and our research will be in a race against a changing climate and collapsing ecosystem. Too many people benefit from aggressively plundering the natural wealth of Earth without regard to its long-term viability. Too many powerful people flippantly excuse their actions and the systems that promote the abuse of natural resources by suggesting that science will save us all. But it won’t, unless we change. The discovery of extraterrestrial life might trigger a global reassessment, and shift our organizing principal from exploitation for profit to exploration as a means to knowledge and survival. Alternately, a crisis of meaning and identity could ensue, as the long-lived privileged human position collapses in the public sphere. Dictators, cult leaders, and squadrons of bad actors could use this crisis to their advantage and leverage the public’s fear to gain power. It is our leaders’ responsibility to prevent this, and turn the shock into productive, meaningful, and moral action. I remain optimistic, however, that humans’ imaginations will be captivated and inspired, and their base instincts of fear and despair will shrink in the light of discovery.

The future will be crafted by scientists, politicians, philosophers, and artists. But it seems like the hard work of actualizing a vision is stymied by the cynical expectations of leaders and the public. Caught in traps of tribal affiliation and greedy consumerism, the public is currently poorly equipped to handle the pressures that will soon be upon them. The time approaches to escape the gravity of small thinking, low expectations, selfishness, and ignorance, in order to survive as a species. A discovery like life on other worlds should shock us into realizing how small and vulnerable we are in a vast expanse of unknown possibilities, and how critical it will be to shed old paradigms and prejudices.

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