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Pondering Life Out There

[ 1 ] March 25, 2010 |

Astrophysicist Fred Adams + Indie Rocker Claire Evans in Brainwave 2010

Musician Claire Evans (left) and astrophysicist Fred Adams discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

Musician Claire Evans (left) and astrophysicist Fred Adams discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

“Do you think it’s the nature of life to destroy itself?” asked Claire Evans, one half of the indie rock band Yacht and author of the blog Universe.

“No I don’t think so. I’m more inclined to believe that life is plentiful but communication is rare,” answered astrophysicist Fred Adams, author of the acclaimed book The Five Ages of the Universe.

For just over an hour, Evans and Adams engaged in one of Brainwave’s most intelligently handled discussions of a topic that can easily veer into the overly-speculative. This is the third incarnation of the Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which pairs astronomers, physicists, and neuroscientists with a variety of artists, journalists, and other figures from the humanities (check out our ongoing coverage of the series).

Evans and Adams took the stage on Sunday to offer their own answers—ranging from speculative to evidence-based—to the question of the existence of other life-forms in the universe, and the chances of ever communicating with them. At several key moments, the pair smartly folded the discussion back onto questions about human nature and the desire to reach out into the cosmos to find beings after our own image.

Evans, whose thoughtfulness and breadth of knowledge on the subject is evidenced by both her writing and her eloquence during Sunday’s discussion, began by explaining Fermi’s Paradox—which asks the simple question: Where is everybody? In a universe this expansive, this full of stars and planetary systems—why have we not encountered extraterrestrial beings?

Evans and Adams tackled the handful of obstacles that keep Fermi’s question the paradox that it is. For one, any communication arriving from another star’s planetary system would take thousands upon thousands of years to arrive on earth, and perhaps more, forever bound to the speediest known constant: the speed of light. With the closest star being two thousand light years away from our own sun, we may finally hear—if anything—the radiowave-riding soap opera soundtrack from a bygone civilization millenia after their demise (not to anthropomorphize too much—a tendency the speakers noted is our human habit in discussing extraterrestrial life).

Do we assume that because we’ve evolved brains that allow us to peer into the depths of the cosmos that there must be other brains out there peering back? Can life evolve spontaneously in another planet’s environment? Given that we’ve only been human for one million years, and technological humans for perhaps several thousand, the slice of time in which we’ve found ourselves asking these questions is the narrowest of pieces in the cosmic pie.

“It could be that there is vastly more intelligent life out there than us, but they just don’t care to talk to us, just as we don’t care to talk to ants or cockroaches,” Adams mused.

In reality, Adams noted that some life may exist on ice-covered planets or moons just as it does at the bottoms of our own oceans—extremophiles fed not by the warmth of the sun but by hydrothermal vents from the deep.

What about the ending to the story of life on our own planet? As our own sun heats to become a red giant in three billion years, life on this planet—if it’s still around—will come to an end.

To the delight of the audience, Adams lucidly explained the possibility of ejecting Earth from the solar system to avoid the exploding sun by means of harnessing a large asteroid and whipping it around the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, then grazing past Earth just close enough to pull our planet out of its orbit. Falling away from the sun on spaceship Earth, deep-sea microbial life could continue unharmed for eons more. For any humans who are still around (now we’re getting speculative), the ending could be poetic.

“I thought it would make for a beautiful science fiction story. Every day waking up and seeing the sun further and further away, until your entire planet is frozen,” said Evans. The briefest of hushes swept across the room.

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  1. Larry Fleming says:

    The one consistent trait we as humans have is the desire for knowledge. We seek to find other life, because we need to. The sad part about exploring space is that we have a narrow range of life that we can reach out for and a vast universe to find them in. With our current technology, we are vastly limited on what WE can see. If there are intelligent beings out there, they will have to have a similar ability (of hopefully better), just to have a chance to find us. Will a vastly greater intelligent life want to be bothered with us? We we know if we find intelligent life? We will have to live in our science fiction as we explore. Maybe there we will find the clues to discovery.

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