From a very early age I spent hours looking up at the sky and wondering, are we really unique, or is there life out there. And if there is what is it like? Do we bear any resemblance to it, or is it incredibly different and unique in its own right. Does life have to be carbon based, and does it need water and a climate such as that of earth. Undoubtedly, many others, also trying to exercise their curiosity have pondered this very subject for hundreds if not thousands of years. Why is it that we are so captivated by this subject, and how will our lives change if we discover that we are not alone after all, in the vast emptiness of our enormous universe. Does it really make a difference if we discovered life, no matter how primitive elsewhere in our galaxy or beyond?
Life on our planet seems incredible in itself. Biodiversity is truly remarkable. It seems everywhere you go on earth there is life. In the recent years we also discovered that life is infinitely more resilient than we ever thought possible. Extremophils is a term coined in the recent past to describe amazingly resilient bacteria capable of surviving, and thriving in the most inhospitable environments, such as near hydrothermal vents, miles undergrounds, in the deepest trenches in the oceans and under polar ice. Life is pervasive on our planet, even in harsh places, that in many ways resemble the extreme worlds in our solar system and beyond. This makes me wonder if creation and evolution of life on earth is not at all a unique process, rather it follows some natural principles which at this point we cannot define. However it is easy to argue that at some point earth became an environment friendly to carbon based life, and as life grew it began to adapt to an ever-changing environment. In other words, perhaps extremophils are a result of evolution, and for life to form, natural environment has to fit that narrow range of temperatures, and other factors, such as oxygen-rich atmosphere, abundant water, and even with these factors their mix has to be just right. This is a fascinating subject, center of much debate. If we could only understand how life formed on our world, we would likely have much better understanding of just how likely it is to develop and thrive elsewhere.
Because of tireless dedication of many astronomers and researchers we know today that earth-like planets, in terms of their chemical composition are not at all uncommon. We are discovering planets left and right, granted most are giant balls of gas, but some are rocky worlds a lot like our own. These discoveries alone give us reason to keep searching for potential signs of life. It is difficult to believe that earth is so unique that the same phenomena of life could not form on one of potentially billions of planets in our galaxy alone. We are far from having any sort of data that tells us how many rocky worlds are in the universe, or the Milky Way for that matter, but if even 10% of all start systems have planets as we understand them today, the numbers are staggering. The task of finding life elsewhere is so extremely difficult and slow that our chances of finding it are very low, even if the universe is teeming with it. The vastness of space to be searched is mind-boggling, and we still do not have any way of predicting which star systems have best chances of harboring life.
However, with all the challenges of searching for life the reward would be one unlike anything we as a human race have ever experienced. It only takes one discovery, no matter how primitive a life, to turn the world of science and religion upside down. Think about religion for a minute, and the fact that most religions treat earth as the center of everything. People who believe in god will begin to question their religion, and will look to their religious leaders to interpret this discovery. If we do discover life we will at last be able to say that earth is no longer the most special plant in the universe, and that life is a process which takes place naturally when the conditions are right. Discovery of life will fundamentally change the way we think about ourselves. We will no longer be alone in the universe, and even if we can never reach and experience this alien life, we will completely change our view of the world around us. Just like Earth was flat once, supported by giants, and in the middle of the solar system, which was the whole universe, this discovery too will rewrite the books, and will give us an added sense of belonging to something larger. After all, if we discover life on another world, there will no longer be a question of whether Earth is truly unique. The question then will be just how alive is the universe, and is there intelligent life out there with which we can one day connect. The most difficult questions of where we came from and how we came to be will be a step closer to being answered.
In my mind the biggest question is does it really matter if there is life elsewhere, if we cannot reach it? We are yet to travel outside of our own solar system. It is likely that we may discover a trace of life so far away that even light will take generations to reach that world. Does it really matter, if we never get a glimpse of life forms, even if microscopic from that distant world? We will begin rethinking the natural processes in the universe, and begin rewriting the books about life and its significance, both on Earth, and the alien planet. We will gain a better understanding of the conditions under which life takes form, and with this priceless data we will press on, looking up at the heavens wondering what other stars harbor life? I hope that if we do discover life, and our understanding of the universe and our own world changes profoundly, we will gain a renewed sense of hope and discovery and we will point more equipment towards the starts, in hopes of finding our cosmic partners in star systems closer to our own.