08/09/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Curiosity for Life Elsewhere: We Are Now Entering the Post-Global Age

Mars has become a very busy place, being orbited by satellites and crisscrossed by rovers. As if that weren't enough, Curiosity, a roving science laboratory, successfully landed this week in an ancient Martian crater called Gale, to probe for signs of whether the planet was life-friendly in the past.

We are mapping and processing our neighboring planet so extensively that it feels as if Mars has already been colonized. There is even a Google Mars website if you want to see the planet's surface in technicolor.

Man, despite our earthly crises, remains enthralled by the cosmos. NASA is planning manned missions to Mars in the 2030s, with the cooperation of Japan and Europe, and plans to establish a permanent station on the Moon. China, too, hopes to have a manned station orbiting the Moon, having sent a Moon orbiter in 2010 to map it out, and in 2013 China will send a landing rover. All the while, our satellites, probes, and telescopes are peering deep into the heavens, looking for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Welcome to the post-global age. We are now, so it would seem, entering an age where human interactions reach beyond the stratospheres of our world toward the cosmos.

Call it "cosmozation" or, better yet, "empyrealization" -- an age where man's reach for the heavens is realized. Neither words exist yet in the dictionary, but neither did "globalization" three decades ago. (So, readers, feel free to come up with a coinage that may be apropos in our post-global age.)

Roland Robertson, a social scientist, defines globalization as "[t]he compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole." The world shrinks, geographical constraints are overcome, and identities become multilayered, complex. As a species, we may not always get along with each other, but these days, thanks to an integrated economy, unprecedented mass movement across the various borders, and modern technology (satellites, cellphones, jet planes, the Internet, and so on), we are, like it or not, constantly aware of each other's existence. Humans are, in fact, interacting and influencing one another on an unprecedented scale and intensity, regardless of the distances.

Taking Robertson's definition a step further, it seems inevitable that the universe, too, shrinks and compresses as we explore and measure it, and as we infer profound implications from our discoveries. Cosmozation, or empyrealization, is then the process in which man's awareness and influences expand beyond our planet: We grow cognizant that we exists on intimate levels with the rest of the universe, that we are interacting with it, and, increasingly, having an effect upon it.

While thinkers and writers still haven't come to terms with the full impact of the forces of globalization, another age is already upon us, one in which man's awareness expands beyond the globe as his relationship with the cosmos intensifies.

There's a radical shift taking place in the human relationship with the universe. Not so long ago, until Copernicus came along, we assumed that our world was the universe's center (and flat, for that matter), and that the Sun orbited Earth. Throughout most of last century, we held on to the notion that our solar system was unique. And scientists just a generation ago assumed, too, that conditions on Earth -- a protective atmosphere, ample water, and volcanic activity -- made it the only planet that could possibly support life.

That sense of self-importance and uniqueness has given way to a more humble assessment of our place in space, however. The conditions on our home planet may be unique, but solar systems are not at all anomalies. We are in the process of accepting that we are very much part of the larger universe. Furthermore, by sending space probes to the edge of the solar system, by collecting Moon rocks and comet dust, by landing probes on Mars to dig for soils and search for signs of life, we are in constant exchange with outer space.

Consider some of these recent discoveries:

  • Using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Kepler observatory, which orbit Earth, and the Hale Telescope in California, astronomers have discovered hundreds of other solar systems, and nearly 800 exoplanets -- planets that are outside our solar systems. One planet, in particular, 150 million light years away, is believed to have an atmosphere.
  • We know that Earth is constantly bombarded by meteors when we look up into the night sky and spot shooting stars. But more astounding is astronomer Lou Frank's recent discovery. Using the Hubble Telescope to study Earth's atmosphere, Frank proved that Earth is constantly being hit by snowballs from space. The implications are enormous: If ice from outer space hits Earth regularly, it could be "raining" onto other planets, too, providing much-needed water to support life. The universe is suddenly very wet.
  • A few years ago a meteorite from Mars found on Earth, known as the Allan Hills meteorite (or ALH 84001 to scientists), astonished everyone when some scientists claimed they found tantalizing traces of fossilized life within it. Their findings have been contested, but the discovery fired up the imagination.
  • Moreover, the Galileo space probe that orbited Jupiter showed us that on Europa, one on Jupiter's many moons, huge oceans lie beneath an icy surface. Scientists found active volcanoes as well -- ingredients that could spark and possibly support life.
  • More tantalizing still is the organic materials found in comet dust collected from the comet Wild 2. Here's NASA's press release on the comet dust brought back to Earth by the space probe Stardust: "These chunks of ice and dust wandering our solar system appear to be filled with organic molecules that are the building blocks of life." The finding surprised scientists because many predicted that the space probe would find mostly ice. Instead, the finding could lend support to the belief that comets could have "seeded" life on our planet as well as others.
  • Then, of course, there's the discovery of water on the Moon. Scientists found this by deliberately crashing a rocket stage into the moon in 2009, and, in the floor of a permanently shadowed crater, found up to a billion gallons of water ice near the Moon's south pole.
  • And if there's water everywhere in the universe, why not the stuff that creates life? Panspermia (originating from the Greek word for "all-seeding"), the hypothesis that seeds of life could have been delivered to Earth (and possibly other planets), is now revised; this theory of an interstellar exchange of DNA was championed by Francis Crick, who discovered the DNA molecule with two other scientists more than half a century ago, but it was ridiculed last century. But if scientists laughed behind the Nobel laureate's back when he first suggested it, no one is laughing now. Besides, there's such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy: If Earth didn't receive DNA for a primordial start-up way back when, we are now actively sending out DNA through space via the various microbes that ride our spacecrafts, satellites, shuttles, and garbage scattered out in space.

Ours is no longer just a lonely blue planet amidst the heavens. As we send probes and manned missions to the comos and map the universe, as we enthusiastically search for signs of life elsewhere and collect comet dust, Earth increasingly seems like part of an open and intricately complex system.

Here on Earth, wars, strife, revolutions, and bloodshed seem endless, but when man gazes up to the night sky, it remains alluring and sublime. To paraphrase the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, that sea on which humanity now sails is infinitely more vast than that imagined by Columbus. And with a rover named Curiosity actively searching for signs of past life on Mars, there's no doubt that our place is in space. The cosmic age has indeed arrived.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in March 2013.