Have you ever looked up to the sky at night, gazed at the stars or planets and wondered if they might be able to support life? This stirs up the question: Is there extra-terrestrial life in the universe? Primitive caveman 30,000 years ago might have been the earliest to wonder this timeworn question, since pictures and drawings of celestial bodies have been found and studied in their caves.
Today, this question is still considered by many, especially astronomers and scientists. Through technology, they are able to study the question more efficiently and try to arrive at a conclusion. However, there are many theories and not all agree with the probable existence of E.T. life.
The Seeds Of Life
Some believe that billions of years ago, comets and asteroids hit the Earth, bringing the seeds of life. The seeds formed in space's interstellar reaches and became part of these comets and asteroids. According to Herman von Helmholtz, a scientist, this is how life began on Earth and how it must also have begun in other solar systems through random chemistry.
Meanwhile, other scientists think that if comets and asteroids brought life to Earth, why has it not appeared in our vicinity? Still, many scientists are convinced that the seeds of life fell from space to our planet and the same must have occurred somewhere else in the cosmos.
Life on Earth
While it is life on Earth that has led us to think about the probable existence of alien life, astronomers (along with zoologists and microbiologists) have been paying close attention to the adaptability of some creatures in environments that would be regarded as too harsh for life to survive. In the abyss, for example, creatures, such as the anglerfish, have adapted to survive in total darkness and the incredible water pressure which is 100 thousand times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. Communities near pitch-dark hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor get their energy from minerals from the Earth's core, instead of sunlight. Microorganisms like the tardigrade, found in moss, can survive in temperatures from -400 to 400EF, and require very little water to live. And certain bacteria can tolerate 200EF and high acidity.
All this suggests the possibility that other creatures might also have mastered living in the environments of other planets of our solar system. They may live in Jupiter's dense atmospheric pressure, or on Jupiter's moon Europa where its water-ice crust may cover an ocean 30 miles deep where no light can penetrate. Another planet that might sustain life is Mars, where creatures similar to the tardigrade could survive this cold, waterless world. E.T. life could also exist in Venus' sulfurous clouds that are full of acid rain, and where temperatures are over 900EF.
The Possibilities of E.T. Life
The possibilities of the existence of intelligent life are great, but the possibility of finding them is not. Since 1960 a group of astronomers have dedicated themselves to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). One of these searchers is Frank Drake, a radio astronomer who invented the Drake equation used to figure out the number of civilizations capable of communicating through radio signals outside the solar system. Although this equation is not an accurate way to estimate the number of communicating worlds, it encourages radio astronomers to listen for signals from intelligent alien life.
Every day astronomers are listening for any kind of noise that could indicate another world trying to contact us. The only impediment to this is that if a civilization exists, the nearest one to Earth might be thousands of light years away. Communicating would take a long time and the radio wave might not reach its destination because of the estimated distances from one civilization to the next.
Another question remains: If we ever received a signal, could we decipher it? But even more intriguing is this question: Could we communicate through words or by other means? Some astronomers and exobiologists have high hopes that we could. They are looking at how some animals, like the gorilla, are being taught to speak American Sign Language in order to communicate with us. Humans are now able to communicate with dolphins, elephants, domesticated animals, etc. If humans and animals can now understand each other, with animals having less intelligence, it is very probable we could do the same with intelligent E.T. life.
It may seem easy to accept the idea that E.T life does not exist because there has not been any hard evidence to prove it. And if, as some believe, the formation of life is one of a realm of possibilities, it would mean that there is a good chance that we are alone in the universe. For now, those who believe in the existence of E.T. life can just hope and study the question. As an 18th century writer once said, "it is absurd to think that in a field sewn with millet, only one grain will grow." And if we are not that one grain in this vast universe, future discoveries may move us closer to answering this age-old question. ?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
Winston Churchill, British prime minister and one of history’s most influential statesmen, was undoubtedly a man with weighty questions on his mind. How best to save the British Empire? he must have mused. What will the postwar world look like? he surely wondered. But the legendary leader also focused his prodigious mind on less pragmatic questions. For instance: Is there life on other planets?
In fact, in 1939, Churchill penned a lengthy essay on this very topic, which was never published. Besides displaying a strong grasp of contemporary astrophysics and a scientific mind, he came to a breathtaking conclusion: We are probably not alone in the universe. The long-lost piece of Churchilliana has just floated up to the surface again, thanks to an article written by astrophysicist Mario Livio in this week's edition of the journal Nature analyzing Churchill's work.
“With hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible,” Churchill concluded in his essay. He wrote these words on the eve of World War II—more than half a century before exoplanets were discovered.
Until last year, Churchill's thoughts on the problem of alien life had been all but lost to history. The reason: His 11-page typed draft was never published. Sometime in the late 1950s, Churchill revised the essay while visiting the seaside villa of publisher Emery Reves, but the text still didn't see the light of day. It appears to have languished in the Reves house until Emery's wife Wendy gave it to the U.S. National Churchill Museum during the 1980s.
Last year, the museum’s new director, Timothy Riley, unearthed the essay in the museum's archives. When astrophysicist Mario Livio happened to visit the museum, Riley "thrust [the] typewritten essay" into his hands, Livio writes in Nature. Riley was eager to hear the perspective of an astrophysicist. And Livio, for his part, was floored. “Imagine my thrill that I may be the first scientist to examine this essay,” he writes in Nature.
Churchill did his homework, Livio reports. Though he probably didn't pore over peer-reviewed scientific literature, the statesman seems to have read enough, and spoke with enough top scientists—including the physicist Frederick Lindemann, his friend and later his official scientific adviser—to have had a strong grasp of the major theories and ideas of his time. But that wasn't what left the deepest impression on Livio.
“To me the most impressive part of the essay—other than the fact that he was interested in it at all, which is pretty remarkable—is really the way that he thinks,” Livio says. “He approached the problem just as a scientist today would. To answer his question 'Are we alone in the universe?' he started by defining life. Then he said, 'OK, what does life require? What are the necessary conditions for life to exist?'”
Churchill identified liquid water, for example, as a primary requirement. While he acknowledged the possibility that forms of life could exist dependent on some other liquid, he concluded that “nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption.”
"This is exactly what we still do today: Try to find life by following the water,” Livio says. “But next, Churchill asked 'What does it take for liquid water to be there?' And so he identified this thing that today we call the habitable zone.”
By breaking down the challenge into its component parts, Churchill ended up delving into the factors necessary to create what is now known as the “Goldilocks zone” around a star: that elusive region in which a life-sustaining planet could theoretically exist. In our own solar system, he concluded, only Mars and Venus could possibly harbor life outside of Earth. The other planets don't have the right temperatures, Churchill noted, while the Moon and asteroids lack sufficient gravity to trap gasses and sustain atmospheres.
Turning his gaze beyond our own solar system raised even more possibilities for life, at least in Churchill's mind. “The sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others,” he wrote. Planetary formation would be rather rare around those stars, he admitted, drawing on a then-popular theory of noted physicist and astronomer James Jeans. But what if that theory turned out to be incorrect? (In fact, it has now been disproven.)
“That's what I find really fascinating,” Livio notes. “The healthy skepticism that he displayed is remarkable.”
Churchill suggested that different planetary formation theories may mean that many such planets may exist which “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort.” Of that group, some may also be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature.”
The statesman even expected that some day, “possibly even in the not very distant future,” visitors might see for themselves whether there is life on the moon, or even Mars.
But what was Winston Churchill doing penning a lengthy essay on the probability of alien life in the first place? After all, it was the eve of a war that would decide the fate of the free world, and Churchill was about to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Such an undertaking was actually quite typical for Churchill, notes Andrew Nahum, Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum, London, because it reflects both his scientific curiosity and his recurring need to write for money. It was skill with the pen that often supported Churchill and his family's lavish lifestyle (recall that he won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, with a monetary award of 175,293 Swedish Kroner worth about $275,000 today).
“One recent biography is entitled No More Champagne: Churchill And His Money,” Nahum says. “That was a phrase he put into a note to his wife about austerity measures. But he didn't know much about austerity. He liked luxury so he wrote like crazy, both books and articles that his agent circulated widely.”
That’s not to say that Churchill was simply slinging copy about aliens for a paycheck. “He was profoundly interested in the sciences and he read very widely,” notes Nahum, who curated the 2015 Science Museum exhibition “Churchill's Scientists.” Nahum relates the tale of how as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill was once sent a book on quantum physics, and later admitted that it had occupied him for the better part of a day that should have been spent balancing the British budget.
He not only read scientific content voraciously, but wrote on the topic as well. In a 1924 issue of Nash's Pall Mall Magazine, Churchill anticipated the power of atomic weapons. “Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings nay, to blast a township at a stroke?” he warned. In 1932, he anticipated the rise of test-tube meat in the magazine Popular Mechanics: “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing, by growing these parts separately in a suitable medium,” he wrote.
In 1939 he authored three essays, tackling not just extraterrestrial life but the evolution of life on Earth and the popular biology of the human body. Two were published during 1942 by the Sunday Dispatch, Nahum discovered when reading Churchill's papers at the University of Cambridge. It remains a mystery why his thoughts on alien life went unpublished.
In the rediscovered essay, Churchill admits that, because of the great distances between us and other planet-harboring stars, we may never know if his hunch that life is scattered among the vastness of the cosmos is correct. Yet even without proof, Churchill seems to have convinced himself that such a possibility was likely—perhaps by swapping his scientific mind for one more finely attuned to the human condition during the troubled 20th century.
“I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures,” he wrote, “or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
Seventy-five years after Churchill's bold speculations, there's still no proof that life exists on other worlds. But, as was often the case, his analysis of our own still seems prescient.
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