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Searching for signs of intelligent life

When I get an opportunity to let people look at the night sky through my binoculars, their first reaction is often surprise at how much can be seen with just a little optical assistance.

Then, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Do you think there’s life out there?”

It’s a profound question. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke has been quoted as saying, “Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Perhaps I’m a bit desensitized, but “terrifying” seems too strong a word. I’ve grown up accustomed to ideas presented by Clarke and others in hundreds of books, movies, and television shows. Whichever option turns out to represent reality, I would prefer to use words like amazing, awe-inspiring and humbling.

The interpretation of evidence regarding the likelihood of extraterrestrial life has changed over the centuries. During the 1800s, some astronomers thought surface features of Mars were irrigation canals constructed by an advanced civilization. Twentieth century studies with improved instruments and spacecraft quashed that notion. The canals never existed. They had been the result of an optical illusion.

Venus has also been the focus of human imagination. Early observers reasoned that Venus was Earth’s twin because it is comparatively close by and has a similarly sized diameter. Modern studies of our planetary neighbor, however, revealed some dramatic differences. The Venusian atmosphere turned out to be thick and toxic. Also, Venus’s surface temperature was measured at 864 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead.

Then, this past September, scientists studying Venus announced a surprising discovery. The chemical phosphine may exist in a Venusian cloud layer where temperatures are more moderate than at the surface. No currently known photochemical or geochemical processes can explain their findings, and researchers observe that phosphine on earth can be created by microbes. In other words, possible explanations for the presence of Venusian phosphine include previously unknown chemistry or the presence of living organisms.

Weeks after that announcement, other researchers reported finding evidence of underground lakes on Mars. The presence of liquid water stirred excitement, because life as we know it requires water.

Astrobiologists get excited about the possibility of encountering any living organisms in a non-Earth environment. They would be thrilled to find bacteria. On the other hand, people who look through my binoculars typically envision much larger extraterrestrial beings. They imagine aliens with thoughts and intentions, otherworldly residents who work together in societies and employ novel technologies.

When I think about extraterrestrial life, I wonder how we will recognize it. At first glance, life seems simple to spot. People – alive. Rocks – not alive. But such distinctions haven’t always been clear. Some earlier societies attributed life-like volition to the forces of nature. Today, debates persist regarding the life status of things like viruses, viroids, and prions.

I also wonder how we will be able to communicate with any intelligent extraterrestrial life that may exist. So far, humans haven’t learned how to converse with other species on our own planet. Horses and dogs may understand our commands, and some researchers claim that the gorilla Koko learned to use sign language, but people have never acquired the ability to whinny, bark, or grunt in ways that yield mutually intelligible interspecies conversations.

Among members of our own species, Homo sapiens, people speak different languages and view the world through diverse cultural perspectives that often seem to result in miscommunication and misunderstanding. Even speaking a common language doesn’t guarantee an accurate exchange of ideas. If these challenges persist among people who live under the same sun, share the same physiological traits, and depend on a common store of planetary resources, then communicating with beings who lack these mutual experiences could prove challenging indeed.

Is there life out there? Maybe there is, and our horizons will someday be expanded to recognize it. But maybe there isn’t, and the living inhabitants of Earth are unique in the universe. We can prepare to embrace either eventuality by learning to recognize, communicate with, and care for the people and diverse creatures with whom we share this planet. If we can do that, perhaps whatever might be out there would consider us intelligent.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.