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People have been speculating about life beyond Earth since the dawn of history. What's new is that we have now begun to acquire the tools necessary to replace some of these speculations with fact. Humans have collected rocks on the surface of the Moon, sent instrumented probes to the planets, employed large telescopes on the ground and in orbit to study the stars, and explored the Earth to investigate how life here began and evolved.
So far, the results of the search for extraterrestrial life have been negative. The Moon, long portrayed in hoax and hopeful hypotheses as inhabited, is lifeless. Venus turned out to be fearfully hot and dry, a disappointment for those who had envisioned tropical jungles hidden beneath its perpetual clouds. Space probes dispatched to Mars have found no clear evidence of biological activity, although it may take decades of further study to determine whether there is — or once was — life on Mars.
Meanwhile, other avenues of research have opened new vistas onto the subject of extraterrestrial life and the related issue of how life began. Here on Earth, living organisms have been found thriving in hot vents in the dark depths of the sea, in frigid Antarctic waters, in core samples drilled miles down into the rocks, and floating high in the air. These findings show that life is tougher and more adaptive than had been assumed, and imply that life could exist on planets that had been thought to be too hot or cold. Jupiter's satellite Europa, for example, may have a global ocean and hot vents resembling the fertile fonts found in Earth's seas. Meanwhile, astronomers have adduced evidence of planets orbiting stars near the sun, confirming the long-held hypothesis that our galaxy contains billions of planets, some of which could be expected to have life even if the advent of life is rare. Earth scientists are finding new evidence that life began here quite early on, adding fuel to the argument that biology arises in the normal course of things, at least on planets that resemble Earth. Astrophysical studies of nebulae in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond show that the basic ingredients of life as we know it are not unique to our quarter of the cosmos but are widespread: Water, organic molecules, and sources of energy are found in countless locations, suggesting that the universe may have given birth to life in a literally unimaginable variety of environments.
From such discoveries come new incentives to keep learning about our planet and its place in the wider universe. These efforts are not forbiddingly expensive, as such things go — the United States in peacetime spends far more money each year on military applications in space than on manned and unmanned space exploration. Nonetheless they are criticized by those who have reasoned their way to the conclusion that there is no life, or at least none that is intelligent, out among the stars. Their arguments are not wholly without merit. It is true that we have as yet no solid evidence that extraterrestrial life exists, and that dream-struck enthusiasts might want to keep searching even if we had one day scrutinized a million planets and found that all were sterile. (The universe is so vast that we'd have hardly begun; life might yet be found on the next planet, or the one after that.) But we know so little so far that to stop now would be at best premature. We tried not searching, for more than ten thousand years; it didn't work. If science has taught us anything, certainly it is that one should never underestimate the scope of human ignorance and its influence on our commonplace ways of thinking.
It may be that the search for life beyond Earth is more about exploration than science, but that hardly diminishes its stature. Exploration has been central to our success as a species, and to cease exploring is to risk becoming less than human. Certainly the potential rewards of finding life elsewhere would be substantial. Science, which thrives on comparison and seldom does well when studying something of which it has but a single example, would benefit immeasurably from knowledge of just a single species of extraterrestrial life with which to compare the one form of biology that we know about. And the influences that would be brought to bear on philosophy, theology, history, and art from the discovery of even a humble life form, much less an intelligent one, can scarcely be overestimated.
Science sits at the center of our society, which deserves to be told about its findings and its informed speculations. It was to this end that I agreed to write and narrate the two-hour documentary film after which this book is titled and from which its words and many of its images are taken. Such films are not textbooks, designed to prepare their audiences to pass biology or astronomy examinations, but they can sensitize people to science and involve them in the enterprise of scientific research, if only as informed generalists. Their aim is not so much to provide answers as to help improve the quality of the questions we all ask, whenever we wonder about how life and intelligence began, who we are, and where we came from. We are rank beginners in this quest, and as such can reap the benefits of keeping an active imagination; as the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki put it, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." To reflect on the wild diversity of life on this one planet, and not least on the rich diversity of individuals within our one species, is to consider how much we have not yet imagined, but can perhaps begin to learn.
— Timothy Ferris
Rocky Hill Observatory
Copyright © 2000 by Timothy Ferris
Barnes & Noble.com: What did you enjoy most about putting together the documentary and book Life Beyond Earth?
Timothy Ferris: On the film, I enjoyed the opportunity of working with talented professionals like the series producer, Linda Feferman; producer Jamie Stobie; our cinematographers, Bob Elfstrom and Jon Else; and our editor, Lisa Day. The great space artist Don Davis worked on both the film and the book, as did my personal assistant, Terra Weikel. Writing is normally a pretty lonely affair, and one reason I like making films is that you get to have some company for a change. These folks were good company.
And, of course, I had a ball driving a Porsche C4S Carrera 170 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats for 4 days straight. We even had a state trooper, who had closed off the road, timing the runs on his radar gun. There are some advantages to writing the script of these documentaries.
B&N.com: As you point out, curiosity and the drive to explore are central aspects of human nature. It seems natural now to turn outward beyond our home planet. Skeptics disagree. I think one of the problems, which you address, is the matter of scale -- time, distance, and so on -- that has to be dealt with. What do you think?
TF: Explorers have always been in the minority, far outnumbered by those who complain that exploration is too expensive and risky, that we ought to solve our problems here at home first. And, sometimes the skeptics are right. I would not, myself, support spending $500 billion to go to Mars, though I might favor a Mars expedition that cost, say, half that amount. Reasonable people can differ on these matters. However, to say that we shouldn't explore space until we have solved all our problems here at home is another way of saying we shouldn't ever go into space. Had Spain waited to solve all her problems before financing Columbus, most of us Americans wouldn't have a home.
B&N.com: In science fiction, intelligent aliens are usually either "good" or "evil." If they fall somewhere in between (as we do) or simply have different values, don't we run the risk of misinterpreting them?
TF: Since we know next to nothing about what intelligent extraterrestrials might be like, we can only imagine them, and the results usually demonstrate the weakness of the human imagination when it lacks the stimulus of fact. There have been a few intriguing depictions of aliens in science fiction films -- I'm thinking of the charming ETs of Galaxy Quest, for instance -- but most such imaginings are rather pedestrian. That's why the most successful feature film representations of extraterrestrials haven't shown them at all, as in 2001 and Contact -- and why we don't show pictures of hypothetical aliens in the book or film of Life Beyond Earth.
Of course, one motive for projects like SETI, which searches for radio signals from civilizations on other planets, has to do with just this issue. If we learned anything at all about another intelligent species, we could begin the welcome process of replacing the poverty of our imaginings with a wealth of facts.
B&N.com: I'm hopeful that there is life out there. Did working on this project make you more or less optimistic about life beyond earth?
TF: I'm now even more optimistic about the prospect of our finding evidence of life beyond Earth than I was before I made the film and wrote the book. Perhaps the strongest reason is recent research confirming that life can thrive in extreme environments -- in ice, in near-boiling water, in cold air high up in the atmosphere, and in the total darkness of the deep ocean floor and the rocks beneath. This strengthens the view that other planets don't have to closely resemble Earth, or even have much sunlight, in order to support life.
B&N.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
TF: Just that science is, like, totally cool. Make science part of your life, and you'll never get old.