Feature

Editor's Letter: The discovery of extraterrestrial life

How will our species react when confronted with proof that life has arisen elsewhere, whether in the form of bacteria, bugs, or intelligent beings?

In the two or three decades I may have left on planet Earth (if I’m lucky), there are a few historic events I’m counting on witnessing. World peace isn’t on the list, because I’m not that naïve; current indications point to a few centuries of additional slaughter. But I’m increasingly optimistic that I’ll be around for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. This year, science took a cosmic leap toward that possibility, as astronomers used the Kepler space telescope to identify hundreds of planets around distant suns, including some where temperatures are just right for liquid water and, presumably, life. (See Health & Science.) ) Astrobiologists will be training radio telescopes on these temperate, Earth-like planets this year, amid growing excitement. “We are at a special moment in human history,” says Geoff Marcy, an astronomer with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project.

Our galaxy, we now know, is teeming with planets—billions of them. Our solar system is not unique. And how will our species react when confronted with proof that life has arisen elsewhere, whether in the form of bacteria, bugs, or intelligent beings? It’ll be profoundly disorienting—as disorienting as the discovery of the New World. Perhaps this humbling new perspective will bring human beings together, as we see the relative unimportance of differences in skin color, nationality, and religion. Or people might react to their demotion from creation’s center with a frightened backlash, as they did in the times of Galileo and of Darwin. Perhaps we’ll be in an uproar for a few months, and then go back to petty bickering, war, reality TV, Facebook, and sports. Your guess is as good as mine, so let’s stick around and find out.   

William Falk

Recommended

Thailand is turning plastic waste into personal protective equipment
A monk in Thailand wearing PPE made from plastic bottles.
getting creative

Thailand is turning plastic waste into personal protective equipment

Taliban foreign minister asks to address the United Nations
Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.
seeking legitimacy

Taliban foreign minister asks to address the United Nations

Xi Jinping may have just signaled the end of international coal financing
Xi Jinping.
climate change

Xi Jinping may have just signaled the end of international coal financing

French still unhappy with Biden, but Boris Johnson stays positive
Boris Johnson.
'breath of fresh air'

French still unhappy with Biden, but Boris Johnson stays positive

Most Popular

Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?
Elizabeth Holmes and James Mattis.
Samuel Goldman

Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights
Editorial Cartoon.
Feature

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights

Former FDA commissioner questions whether researchers should continue to publish sequences of novel viruses
Scott Gottlieb.
sunday shows

Former FDA commissioner questions whether researchers should continue to publish sequences of novel viruses