Strangely Charming: Life, the Universe and Everything

Opinion by Jack Cackler
Feb. 3, 2010, 2:00 a.m.

Strangely Charming: Life, the Universe and EverythingI have been called many things in my time at Stanford: a gentleman, a scholar, a friend, a wild man, a revolutionary, a menace to society and the savior of Stanford, but most of all, I am a huge dork. My descent into geekdom is far gone and extensive, past the gentle waters of cheap puns, through the fertile valleys of random science trivia and into the depths of the jungles of esoteric knowledge in abstruse fields nobody should know about. And so, henceforth, each week I shall be attempting to light the light of knowledge in each of you with the blow torch of modern science, by regaling you with a fascinating recent development in the research world, and relating it to your every day lives.

To start us off, I thought I’d brief you on some of the recent developments in the past few months in the search for life on other planets. Arthur C. Clarke may have jumped the gun a little bit in predicting we’d make contact in 2010, but there have been a host of monolithic discoveries in just the last few months. On January 4, NASA’s Kepler Telescope (based right here in Mountain View!) found not one, but five new planets, all around the size of Neptune. Given that the first extrasolar planet (a planet from another solar system) was only found in 1995, finding five in one mission is a resounding success.

Closer to home (well, relatively speaking), in December, the Cassini spacecraft confirmed that Saturn’s moon Titan has an atmosphere that can sustain fog, and also identified lakes on the surface, as well as possible underground oceans. The climate on Titan is quite alien (yes, you may groan) to ours on Earth, and so the liquid in the fog and the lakes is not water, but methane, CH4. For you organic chemistry sleuths, the existence of both organic material and liquid on another celestial body make a compelling case that life could be there.

Finally, in one of the most exciting space missions in recent history NASA’s LCROSS mission (also based in Mountain View at Ames Research Center, not that I am biased) launched a satellite into the South Pole of the moon. Suspecting water beneath the surface, the purpose of the mission was to see if plumes of water would shoot out to confirm the existence of water on the moon. The mission was a success, and footage of the impact is still available on NASA’s website. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), in a rare dramatic move in the space community, preempted LCROSS by announcing water on the moon on September 24, just two weeks before the impact. Water is key to life on Earth, and discovering water on other moons or planets could be a key first step to finding life there.

I want to stress that if we do find life somewhere (and I believe we will), they will probably not be elegant, blue, dragon-riding people that can mysteriously learn English, but will probably bear a much closer resemblance to the the tardigrades, the sulfitobacters and the other extremophiles on Earth that have survived billions of years of asteroids and ice ages with little effort. So while we might eventually find talking blue people, in the mean time, we should probably be content with looking for “dumb” life.

The implications of such a discovery would be vast. Would evidence of another civilization give us insight into science and technology and how to run our own? Would fighting with each other still seem meaningful at all if we knew there was other life out there? How would the existence of extraterrestrial life affect religion or an anthropocentric worldview in general? Would you feel better about putting off that IHUM paper? Believe it or not, the Vatican already has a prepared statement, written with the aid of scientists, to read if life is ever discovered.

On the other hand, what if we are alone? A macabre solution to the Fermi Paradox (if there’s life out there, why hasn’t it said hello yet?) is that in the 4.6 billion year history of the Earth, the development of means of communication with other worlds (radiotelescopes) and means of our own destruction (nuclear weapons) came within fifty years of each other. Perhaps the deafening silence is a grim reminder to play nicely with each other. These are all questions worth asking ourselves, so that in the event that we should ever meet a stranger from another world, we will know how to say hello.

Hopefully, I’ve illuminated some recent developments in the space geek’s universe about where life might be found. While sometimes (particularly after Thursday Senior Nights) I question whether there is intelligent life here at Stanford, I’m confident that one day, perhaps in our lifetimes, we will find it elsewhere.

Jack has a standing offer to bake cookies (Earth cookies) for anyone who can find a mistake in a column, and can correct him. Let him know at [email protected].

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