The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: An Introduction

ufo sightings

Photo Credit: Travelandleisure.com

By Yonatan Gordon

In this series, we’re going to take a short break from the green topic of technology, to discuss another very green topic: The Search For Extraterrestrial Life.

Before we begin, there are some very fundamental questions we need to ask. The first we will introduce is one asked by Paul Murdin in his forthcoming book “Are We Being Watched?”. Let’s quote a review of the book from NewScientist.com:

“Over lunch at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950, a group of leading physicists turned their minds to flying saucers, and the possibility of interstellar travel. “Where is everybody?” Enrico Fermi exclaimed. As his colleagues laughed, Fermi performed a legendary back-of-an-envelope calculation showing that aliens – if they exist – should have visited Earth many times over.”

The conclusion then (as the title suggests) is that if intelligent alien life is out there, then they are already collecting data and observing human civilization. Our first approach to this series then is to observe our solar system as if we were outside of it. This is the concept here. For those who appreciate brevity, this same review sums up our answer in six words. Let’s quote again:

“Murdin seems to draw his inspiration from the [18th-century English] poet Alexander Pope’s famous quote that the “proper study of mankind is man”. His discussions centre mainly on Earth’s indigenous life, with the premise that alien life follows much the same pattern: evolution and survival of disasters to culminate – after much the same lapse of time – in intelligent creatures pretty similar to us.”

So once more, the first thought that we are introducing now is to observe ourselves–all of human civilization and our solar system–as if we came from some distant place. We will see why this is important soon.

FROM BARREN TO VERDANT

Our second thought is that the search for life begins once we reach a stage where things seem most dry and barren. If life can survive and flourish amidst these severe conditions, then this gives hope for our ability to withstand our own present harsh climate. In our “Revealing Your Secret Identity” article, we explained this as relating to a person who writes about the world while still in mid-tumble. Before a person opens up their eyes, the world seems dark and dreary or dry and barren. But as we explained in our Mars Curiosity Rover articles (one, two), the main drive of these discovery missions is to find signs of life amidst the seemingly desolate landscape. To find the green within the big red planet.

What does it mean to search for extraterrestrial life? To discover life within an environment that, at first glance, didn’t seem capable of having it. As we saw from Alexander Pope’s well worded quote, perhaps the most proper study of extraterrestrial life begins by observing ourselves. Seen in this light, everything that we observe outside our planet, can be observed as a reflection of our own personal ambitions for life on Earth. How do we see this with the Mars mission? In some ways, Earth seems very Mars like at times. When we don’t think that our hopes and ambitions have fertile soil with which to bear fruit, then Earth appears red and barren to us. When we see a younger generation that seemingly must withstand much more than what their parents did, then we wonder to ourselves whether Earth is so green and verdant after all. Will these kids have the same opportunities that their parents had?

If even harsh Mars can show signs of life, or at least show that it contains a life-friendly environment, then this gives us greater resolve to persevere through these trying times. But this is not only true of Mars. As the socio-political climate of today rises, the public is increasingly interested in signs of life from other planets.

“OUT OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM” THINKER

We are now ready to begin formulating our answer to the question presented as the title of Murdin’s book. Whereas our Curiosity rover articles discussed how to make the Earth appear more green and verdant, our question now is how to do this while being an “outside of the solar system” thinker. We’ve heard (and explained) the concept of being an “out of the box” thinker; but now we are ready to turn this concept something more expansive. In order to proceed, let’s first undertake what scientists call a “thought experiment.”

Before the Hubble telescope was invented, the limits of observable space was more contained that it is today. Now, with an abundance of stunning pictures, we have become privy to witness new stars, planets, nebulas and other space phenomena. Central to these findings is that they shed light on how our own planets and solar system operate. While the telescope reaches farther out, it gives us greater inside within. Much like the reflective nature of the mirrored lens itself, the greatest discoveries occur when we apply these findings to the betterment of our own lives on Earth.

There is a very important nuance here. Part of what makes a creative marketer so successful is that he is taking inspiration from a place much more distant than his colleagues. If he behaved and operated like them, then his marketing ideas would also be similar to theirs. Instead, the best “out of the box” marketers are known for their ability to push the envelope.

We expect the same for our Hubble picture. Why does our interest perk up when the newest batch of photos are released? The deeper reason is because we expect to draw something from these observations. Like the marketer whose observations are the furthest from everyone else, our hope is that these pictures should bring us some new finding that we can apply to our own solar system and planet.

SHARED ORIGIN

We began with the thought of viewing our solar system and planet as if we were outside of it (i.e. like an extraterrestrial would). Then we explained the idea of observing “outer space” into our “inner space,” much like our creative marketer does with his out-of-this-world ideas. Now we are ready to add a third dynamic which ties these two together and will hopefully give us the momentum we need to continue throughout the rest of this series.

When we observe some other planet, solar system, etc… what gives us justification for applying it to our own? Ultimately, it is because all matter shares the same origin and source. When we compare our solar system to another, we are not saying it is exactly identical to ours. Instead, by observing how that one developed, we gain more insight into the existence of our own in lieu of their shared origin. This third approach is our gateway for exploring the conceptual basis behind the search for extraterrestrial life.

COLORFUL TAPESTRY

What makes these Hubble photographs so remarkable is that they are also adding to the beauty of our own reality. Like a colorful tapestry that is benefits by new colors and hues, the discovery of new elements in space all add to the richness our own life experience. As our observations seek to peer ever-farther, these ambitions are but a reflection of our personal hope for human civilization down here.

When we see some new, colorful picture that doesn’t fit our prior landscape, it forces us to extend our tapestry; to include more colors  into our conscious awareness of the world. The more “outer space” we include in our “inner” observable reach, the more colorful the tapestry becomes.

LIFE-FRIENDLY WORLD

As we begin this series, it is also worth mentioning the news reports that are now coming out. It appears that the Curiosity rover has discovered “life-friendly conditions” on Mars. Let’s present some quotes provided by scientists in charge of the Curiosity rover mission (courtesy of the Mashable.com article):

“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that, if this water had been around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it,” said John Grotzinger, Curiosity project scientist.

“I think this is probably the only definitively habitable environment [outside of Earth] that we have described and recorded,” said David Blake, principal investigator for Curiosity’s CheMin instrument.

TRAVELLING TO MARS

There is another lesson here. In order to travel to Mars, you first need to learn Kabbalah. There are people now planning a round trip to Mars that will take 501 days each way, or 1.37 light years. What is the significance of these two numbers in Jewish thought?

501 is equal to the word head, ראש. Obviously, any search for intelligent life needs to start with the head. But also, we lift up our heads to see the skies. The concept of “lifting the head” relates to appointment, as with the Levites that were appointed to perform their service in the Tabernacle. This is the first motivation then behind undertaking a 501 day journey. That we should learn what our appointed mission in life is.

The second number explains how we can go on this mission without traveling inside a capsule. 137 is one of the most important numbers in science today (especially for those seeking the Grand Unified Field Theory) . It also equals the word Kabbalah, among a great many other things in Kabbalah and Jewish thought.

This series is freely adapted from a class given the night after the 1st of Nissan, 5773 by Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh.

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