Science News April 30, 2016 ran a series of four articles entitled “Special Report: In Search of Aliens.” It begins by listing popular fictional aliens, then quotes Enrico Fermi, who asked “Where Is Everybody?”
Tom Siegfried’s article 1: “To An Ancient Question, No Reply” supplies us with a fascinating review of historic theological arguments that ranged from ancient reasons for multiple universes to Middle Age arguments focused on Aristotle’s deduction that worlds other than Earth were not possible. Things had become serious even before the 17th Century, when Copernicus declared that our “sun was at the hub of a planetary system.” By the 20th century, burnings at the stake had ceased, but monstrous fictional aliens had emerged, and the “sun had become just one of billions of stars in…one of billions of similar galaxies.”
Now that we have found evidence for habitable exoplanets, we are beginning to realize that, though they are Earth-liker planets in the Goldilocks zone, they may not remain “habitable long enough for life to develop an intelligent civilization. . . [or]change its environment
sufficiently well to provide for lasting bio-security.”
The question that drives Siegfried’s article—why “there’s been not a peep from anyone”—continues by noting that the “universe has grown incredibly vaster.” That’s putting it mildly. We don’t seem to be able to grasp just how isolated we are—not only by the enormity of the space around planet Earth, but by the time and the energy required to move, or even communicate, across that space. We haven’t begun to develop the required high tech long enough to make a dent in that enormity, and we can’t seem to realize how small that dent might be, realistically.
In this Science News’ feature, the other three articles review the problems of finding and contacting, any kind of life outside Earth: 1) what to look for besides chemical options obvious to us, 2) what the new telescopes will be able to do, like sniff atmospheres for familiar and unfamiliar signs of life, and 3)how to expand our minds to detect life,
especially microbial life, that might exist on exoplanets orbiting outside the liquid water zone of reasonably warm exoplanets’ suns.
The bad news: Even the new telescopes won’t be able to sniff “biosignatures on planets the size of Earth. Looking next door–4.2 light years toward Proxima Centauri–is like trying to see the head of a quilting pin 28 meters to the right of a basketball 10 million times as
bright as the pin, while standing 7500 km away…”
The good news: we can sniff the geysers of Enceladus, and the new telescope TESS can sniff atmospheres of super-Earths orbiting M-dwarf suns. Do read the full set of four articles. It’s an excellent, comprehensive review of the current state of astrobiology.
Author of The Archives of Varok
The View Beyond Earth (Book 1. Rewrite of A Place Beyond Man 1975)
The Webs of Varok (Book 2.)
Nautilus silver award 2013 YA
ForeWord finalist 2012 adult SF
The Alien Effect (Book 3.)
An Alien’s Quest–Reconciliation and Hope (Book 4. coming in 2015)
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