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Is There Intelligent Life in the Universe?


Miles beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus lies a relatively large, underground ocean that could support extraterrestrial microbial life. The findings, announced this week, explain giant geysers of ice and water vapor seen by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft back in 2005.

The Hubble Space Telescope made a similar discovery of icy plumes being ejected from Europa, a moon of Jupiter, last December. That also got scientists thinking there might be liquid water buried beneath the surface.

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And just five weeks ago, NASA’s Kepler team announced the discovery of 715 new planets orbiting 305 stars in solar systems not unlike our own. And some of those worlds are roughly Earth-sized; orbiting at a habitable distance from their suns, meaning their surface temperature could support liquid water and, potentially, life.

While science fiction authors have been writing about alien life forms for more than a century, what you probably don’t know is that, 40 years ago – decades before anyone had discovered a single exoplanet (a planet outside our solar system) or liquid water beyond Earth – scientists predicted our universe is likely full of extraterrestrial life.

I know that because, in 1974, we studied it in an Astronomy class called “Intelligent Life in the Universe” at Stony Brook University in New York. The course was based on a book by the same name, written by Russian astrophysicist I. S. Shklovskii and famed American scientist Carl Sagan. Interestingly enough, a new version of Cosmos – a documentary TV series that Sagan co-created and moderated back in 1980 – launched a few weeks ago.

In that class, we actually spent the semester calculating the probabilities and numbers of potential life-supporting exoplanets. We also analyzed the probable levels of sophistication of alien life forms that may have evolved on those worlds, and why we had not, as of yet, found or heard from them.

When the semester was over, we had what we called optimistic and pessimistic models. And while our most hopeful analysis called for a universe teeming with intelligent life, even our gloomiest scenario predicted that we were by no means alone. And now that we know there are plenty of suitable planets in other solar systems, it appears that our optimistic model was the correct one.

As for why we haven’t been contacted yet, we’ve only been broadcasting radio waves for just over a century now. So only star systems within a 100 light year radius have received those transmissions. And since we live in the outermost suburbs of a galaxy that’s a thousand times that distance across, that means the signal hasn’t gone very far and few, if any, exoplanets, let alone inhabitable ones, have gotten the signal yet.

Why bring this up now and in a technology blog? Improbable is it may seem, that college class was a key link in the chain of events that led me to a long and exciting career in the high-tech industry.

You see, I was a pre-med major when I took the class, but not when I finished it. The search for extraterrestrial life sparked a childlike sense of wonder I didn’t even know still lived inside me. It set loose the dreamer who couldn’t wait for a chance to get out in the world and discover new things.

No wonder I was so attracted to technology. If there’s one thing that breeds innovation and characterizes Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture, it’s curiosity and optimism. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t all be so enthralled by the tech revolution. It wouldn’t have captured all of our imaginations, as it has.

But beyond the question of whether there might be pointy-eared Vulcans in a distant galaxy, that class also got us to consider the dark side of intelligent life – the uncivilized things we do to each other. We used to joke that we were asking the wrong question, that it should be: does intelligent life exist here in Earth?

And therein lies the rub. Having grown up in a tough part of New York City, I was raised to think critically, to question the status quo. Skepticism and cynicism are more or less in my blood. So I could never be so enthralled with the technology we developed as to lose myself in it, something that seems to be happening to more and more of us every day.

Steve Jobs famously challenged the original Apple Macintosh developers to “make a dent in the universe.” I can certainly see why that worked so well in motivating his team. Changing the world can be as intoxicating a mission as discovering new worlds.

But now that we know that the lure of the devices and applications the technology creates can be equally intoxicating – even addictive – the coming years will determine just how intelligent life on Earth really is. 

What do you think?

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