Alien life form fantasy: Dude, it looks kinda like us
Another misguided piece of NASA propaganda appears on the New York Times op-ed page today, arguing that we really need to pour billions more into outer space. I like exploration, which is why I wrote a book about it.
But here’s my argument for discovering and protecting what we have here on Earth first:
You may have noticed the welter of headlines lately about planets outside our solar system dubbed “earth-like” or “potentially habitable,” orbiting in what astronomers call “the Goldilocks zone.” That’s the elusive sweet spot close enough to a star to be not too hot and not too cold for life to begin. Most of the recent announcements about these “exo-planets” are a product of the Kepler Telescope, launched by NASA in 2009 and credited, at last count, with having identified 139 wannabe Earths.
The excitement among scientists is understandable. People have been wondering for centuries if there are planets like ours beyond this solar system. Or, as it’s often phrased: Are we alone in the universe?
Honestly, though, these stories mostly make me yearn for what the Book of Common Prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home.” As with the mothers who raise us, we tend to take her for granted. Space exploration advocates have somehow persuaded us that it’s more exciting to look outward, and that finding any hint of life in outer space would be momentous, even down to the microbial level (also known as “exo-crud”). But even as NASA spends $50 million a year on astrobiology, plus $600 million so far on Kepler, we spend pennies to find the alien life forms we know live all around us here at home.
Alien life form reality: Doesn’t look at all like us, but actually lives here
By conservative estimates, about 80 percent of species here on Earth remain undescribed. Even biologists discovering new primates do so on a NASA publicist’s lunch budget, though these are creatures more astonishing than anything we will ever see in outer space. We spend almost nothing even on identifying species that might keep us alive. And we act as if natural life forms are worthless unless proven otherwise. The Pacific yew tree, for instance, was widely considered a “trash” species—until it turned out to be the source of Taxol, a $1.7 billion-a-year drug that now routinely saves the lives of cancer victims.
The idea that finding intelligent life in outer space would somehow relieve our deep sense of being alone in the vastness of the universe also blithely overlooks the braininess all around us here on Earth—the way honeybees waggle-dance to map out the location of a flower patch for their hive mates, or the idea that a border collie named Chaser can recognize words for more than 1000 objects. This is how narrow-minded the exo-planet set can be about life here on Earth: According to a recent article in one scholarly journal, the real value of studying how species on Earth communicate is to “de-provincialize” our thinking about how to communicate with extraterrestrials. This makes my head explode.
Hyping exo-planets while dumping on the real Earth is like ignoring your attractive and intelligent wife, because somewhere in the universe Scarlett Johannson lives.
Though it’s not the fault of the Kepler scientists, the search for “habitable” planets is also tainted by the lunatic idea that Read the rest of this entry »