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Column Why are we compelled to search for life on other planets?

From the X-Files to the Men in Black, the alien occupies a unique place in pop culture, linked to widespread paranoia at the technological complexity of our age, writes Clare Taylor.

CAN WE BECOME interplanetary? Is there life on Mars?

According to Dr Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), “We’re going to find ET in the next two dozen years.”

From the X-Files to the Men in Black, the alien occupies a unique place in American pop culture, linked to widespread paranoia at the technological complexity of our age. More than 90 per cent of searches for extraterrestrial intelligence originate from the US. (The only SETI project in Europe is at the University of Bologna in Italy. A little closer to home, the highest number of UFO sightings take place in Roscommon.)

Recent advances in planetary science have massively increased estimates of the number of habitable planets; as of 2013, there are expected to be roughly 60 billion habitable red dwarf planets in the Milky Way. And it’s not just crazy Californians living on the edge of the future that share this vision.

Having cheerfully admitted that movie Contact strongly influenced her career direction, Dr Suzanne Aigrin, astrophysicist at the University of Oxford, says: “We now know that habitable planets are very common, statistically speaking, and the nearest habitable planet is only 8.3 light years away.” Dr Aigrin is quick to point out, however, that it is more likely that we find microbes rather than little green men performing salacious operations.

Should we continue searching?

Why should we continue to search for life on other planets – especially given the difficulties we face on this planet?

For starters, what we discover in the course of space exploration pushes the boundaries of innovation and leads to new inventions, especially in the field of material science. Well known NASA spin-off technologies include memory foam, freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, emergency blankets, cochlear implants – and even high performance swimwear.

Space exploration also requires a different approach and mindset – ‘black sky thinking’, referring to the universe beyond earth’s blue atmosphere and ventures into the unknown. Black sky thinking is for dealing with unfamiliar territories – both real and conceptual. It means that you have no past experience, or working models of what to expect from this space. Although such a prospect may provoke fear of the unknown, the black sky also represents radical new opportunities, with disruptive potential. And maybe just what we need to tackle the terrestrial challenges of our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

Think how radically it would it change our view of the world, to find life on other planets, a true paradigm shift comparable to the Copernican revolution.

‘No one shows a child the sky’

Mae Jemison is a doctor and former astronaut who heads up the 100 Year Starship project, with the mission to ‘make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years’. A passionate advocate of space exploration, Dr Jemison says, “There’s an African proverb – ‘No one shows a child the sky’. Space exploration is part of us. People dream – you can’t just stay in one place. Our dreams build our hope – and the future.”

Renewed popular interest in space exploration chimes with current societal preoccupations with ecology, spirituality and international boundaries. It can also enable us to deal with these preoccupations more sanely. In ancient Greece, Epicureans discovered that meditation on the cosmos released them from needless anxiety. Your own lifespan may be short, Metrodorus, a disciple of Epicurus, told his pupils, ‘yet you have risen through contemplation of nature, to the infinity of space and time, and you have seen all the past and the future.’ Stoics also discovered that meditating on the immensity of the cosmos revealed the utter insignificance of human affairs, and that this gave them a more sane perspective.

So whether it helps us discover new technologies that will save our civilization, or make us conscious of how little it all matters anyway – it’s time to embrace a cosmological perspective.

For some armchair space travel, tune in to Dr Seth Shostak’s radio show Big Picture Science, or even the new series of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. Essential listening: Irish alien pop duo Nanu Nanu.

Clare Taylor is a communications specialist in energy and environment. Follow her on Twitter  @Clare__Taylor @smallhushedwave

Column: What does this week’s major physics breakthrough actually mean?

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