Thoughts & Insights
What We Don’t Know but Should Really Think About
Are we alone? – was the name of a radio program which built up a legendary reputation among its band of devoted followers over the years. The show’s still on the air but now called Big Picture Science and is broadcast and podcast on the internet every Thursday, hosted by Dr. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer and director of the SETI Institute, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Mountain View, California.
What fascinates me though is that original question “Are we alone?”. Who hasn’t wondered at some point if we’re the only intelligent life form in the universe? It’s a question which is inevitable as soon as you seriously start to investigate the universe and its mind-boggling phenomena. Nobody knows the answer but a concerted effort to try and find a possible answer is just as existentially important for us as our attempts to investigate the life and death of stars and galaxies, black holes and dark matter about which we already know quite a lot.
What thoughts went through the minds of our ancestors 3,000 and more years back when they gazed up into the night sky and marveled at the cosmos? Given the extremely limited nature of the technology they had, the discoveries they made and the knowledge they arrived at back then seem more than astonishing and impressive from our present-day scientific point of view.
Did this same question occur to the Mayans and the ancient Egyptians and Greeks? Did the idea of a world of gods which they posited to “explain” the workings of extraterrestrial influences on human life perhaps derive from the idea of intelligent life existing out there in the universe – even though they never named it as such? Could this be the origin of this nagging suspicion we’ve carried with us throughout the ages that we’re not “alone” in the universe?
We cannot give an answer to this question but it is one that we must address. And this is precisely what a symposium, held at the NASA/Library in September this year involving philosophers, theologians, scientists from a wide range of disciplines and three researchers from the SETI Institute as speakers, set out to do. One of the speakers was Dr. Seth Shostak. Interdisciplinary discussions aired the question of how we can deal with and accept new findings on the existence of extraterrestrial life, and how we as the human race can arrive at a new definition of our place is the cosmos.
From early childhood onwards OUBEY always held a cosmos-centered view of life. Any other was inconceivable to him. I fully shared his view and still do. That a symposium is now being held at the NASA/Library on this very issue that involves such a rich and distinguished cast of thinkers is very encouraging and would have been a great source of gratification for him. It shows that critical points in our collective worldview are now shifting from a geo-centric and homo-centric view of the world to a cosmos-centered one.
John Carpenter’s 1984 sci-fi movie STARMAN illustrates the tremendous challenges to our fixed view of life and where we belong in it that are thrown up when a (more) intelligent form of life from another cosmic system comes to our Earth and just how far away we are from responding with anything like intelligence to possible forms of extraterrestrial life. The movie was made over 30 years ago so its effects may seem a little antiquated. But its message was far head of its time and is still as fresh today as ever.