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George Smoot III

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Are We Alone?

Posted: 01/04/2012 11:01 pm

It is interesting to start the new year with a discussion of the impact of science in our lives. There were many exciting developments during the past year. We all know that there are many ways that science and its resulting discoveries have shaped our lives and future.

One of which I take particular note of is the discovery of planetary systems around other stars. This accelerating process started with the discovery of extrasolar planets more than a decade ago (first confirmed detection was in 1992) and this year exploded with the discovery of planetary systems around other stars and planets that look to be similar to Earth, either in size or being in the habitable zone. More than 100 'Earth-like' planets have been announced as "discovered" in past few weeks, most of these by researchers working with NASA's Kepler satellite, which was designed and is dedicated to finding such planets by looking for them in transit in front of their stars (looking like dark dots in front of their bright star).

Based on these new observations, scientists now believe that there are likely to be around 100 million planets in the Milky Way that exhibit exactly the right conditions for life. We do not yet know what the exact range of necessary conditions is, and I would estimate that there could be on the scale of a billion planets in our galaxy that could be suitable locations for life.

For many centuries, humans have speculated that there might be planetary systems around other stars and that there could be extraterrestrial life there and even intelligent being. However, those were simply speculations and now we have evidence for the first part of these ideas. The discoveries of these extrasolar planetary systems have challenged our theories of how our own solar system and individual planets formed and promise to help us understand that process and history better.

However, imagine the next generation of observations that will probe the atmospheres of likely planets, looking to see traces of compounds suggesting and supporting life. This will first be done by looking at the star light passing through the atmospheres of the transiting planets and looking for the lines characteristic of things like water, oxygen and more advance organic molecules. These observations will beget more studies. The discovery and investigation of life on other planets is likely to change many of our ideas about how life arose on the Earth and even what is life and it natural development. Here I have jumped ahead and guessed that life, at least in simple form will be detected and investigated. It is possible that the Earth is unique in having life but the odds seem against that given the very large number (more than 100 million) of planets with Goldilock's (just right) conditions. Such discoveries cannot but change our ideas about ourselves and our world and drive us to the big question: "Are we alone?"

We are in the midst of one of the most interesting and challenging science research programs that humans have ever pursued. It is good to keep this in mind when the everyday press and peak crises of human affairs seem so overwhelming.

 
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