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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

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