Posts Tagged ‘exobiology’

Astronomers working with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory in Paranal, Chile, have made an exciting discovery. They have literally detected rays of hope. Using ground-based observations, they have, for the first time, been able to observe the spectrum of an exoplanet.  (More info here.) This means that scientists may now be able to figure out, using the spectral properties of matter, the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere. Astronomical Spectroscopy is a very powerful technique that has been used to estimate the compositions of distant stars, but this is the first time that a planet is being probed using the same.  This is indeed a step forward in our search for life and habitable planets in the universe.

Even though this breakthrough is a preliminary step in our investigations and does not establish the evidence for life outside Earth, the quest for signs of extra-terrestrial life itself is one of the most rewarding of all human endeavours. It is no doubt a tedious process consuming both time and resources (the latter particularly in case of spacecraft exploration of planets), and the rewards, in terms of definitive evidence, have been none till date. However, this makes the efforts of those involved all the more commendable. The late astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a great champion of SETI, or the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, said that “in the vastness of the Cosmos, there must be other civilizations far older and more advanced than us.” The sheer statistics of the universe points at the inevitability of life, and even intelligent life, in other far-off planets. It is therefore not a question of if, but rather when we shall encounter a species as advanced as, or even more advanced than us.

The implications of such a discovery shall be far more profound than the discovery itself. If there exists life on another planet, light years away from us in some distant galaxy tucked away in some far off corner of the universe, it shall be a revelation of astounding import. Even if that life-form be rudimentary, and at the very early stages of evolution, it will still mean that we are not alone in this infinite cosmic dark. Not only will it provide us with immense intellectual food-for-thought, but it will also mean that ‘life’ is not as rare and as impossible as we thought it to be. It can occur in conditions very different from those on the Earth, and it will surprise even the most fertile of imaginations to see what form and structure and course life can take, and how much variety there can be in Nature.

If, however, we are lucky enough to find a civilization which is technologically more advanced than ours, then it will be the greatest ego-buster for the human race. It will be a reality-check of truly ‘astronomical’ proportions, and we shall, for the first time in all of our history, be able to put ourselves in perspective, and evaluate our place in the scheme of things. All the wars that we have ever waged in the name of lofty ideals and philosophies and sentiments will, in the light of a civilization more mature than us, seem like petty juvenile squabbles. We shall be forced to review our most fundamental convictions, including religion and theology, and our idea of an exclusive ‘Creator’ or ‘God’. It intrigues me to conjecture what we shall do in such a situation. Shall we modify our ‘sacred’ and ‘revealed’ beliefs to somehow adjust the vastly different world of the aliens in their scope and ambit, or shall we, in an act of historic defiance, shake off those very beliefs from which our ignorance springs, and adopt instead a more scientific and definitely more magnificent view of the Cosmos than that offered by any of our religions?

Once we have cut ourselves down to size, there is of course a lot of satisfaction to be had from the knowledge of an advanced technical civilization. The very fact of its existence offers us hope that a civilization like ours, in spite of its technology, can avoid self-inflicted annihilation and survive to see the light of better days. We shall have much to learn from such a civilization, including their ideas of morals, ethics and social organisation, and should it ever be possible to make physical contact with them, it shall be a most exhilarating experience. For once, we may extend a hand of friendship to a foreign culture that we have stumbled upon. What a leap in maturity it shall be from Hernan Cortez!

There is, however, the sombre possibility, though I would not like to contemplate it, that we may never find any trace of life in the universe, even after searching for hundreds and thousands of years. This will be cause for great disappointment, but with it will also come the realization that life indeed is something extraordinarily rare, to the extent that we may never be able to detect it elsewhere even if it exists, and we must therefore value it all the more. If to the best of our knowledge, we are all alone, we must consider ourselves ‘sacred’ in a cosmic sense. In such a situation, we shall know that, as Carl Sagan so brilliantly put it, “our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, vast and ancient, from which we spring.”

Till then, we must keep a lookout for rays of hope.

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