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The evolution of life in the Universe: are we alone?

  • Jill C. Tarter (a1)

Abstract

In his book Plurality of Worlds, Steven J. Dick (1984) has chronicled the millennia of discourse about other inhabited worlds, based upon deeply held religious or philosophical belief systems. The popularity of the idea of extraterrestrial life has waxed and waned and, at its nadir, put proponents at mortal risk. The several generations of scientists now attending this General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union at the beginning of the 21st century have a marvelous opportunity to shed light on this old question of habitable worlds through observation, experimentation, and interpretation, without recourse to belief systems and without risking their lives (though some may experience rather bumpy career paths). The newly-named and funded, multi-disciplinary field of astrobiology is extremely broad in its scope and is encouraging IAU members to learn and speak the languages of previously disparate disciplines in an attempt to answer the big picture questions: ‘Where did we come from?’, ‘Where are we going?’, and ‘Are we alone?’ These are questions that the general public understand and support, and these are questions that are attracting students of all ages to science and engineering programs. These questions also push the limits of modern instrumentation to explore the cosmos remotely across space and time, as well as to examine samples of interplanetary space returned to the laboratory and samples of distant time teased out of our own Earth.

Within my personal event horizon, the other planetary systems long-predicted by theorists have been uncovered, along with many whose structures were not predicted. The ‘just-so’ conditions requisite for the comfort of astronomers have been understood to be only a very narrow subset of the conditions that nurture extremophilic, microbial life. Thus the potentially habitable real estate beyond Earth has been greatly expanded and within the next few decades it may be possible to detect the biosignatures or technosignatures of inhabitants on distant worlds, should there be any.

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The evolution of life in the Universe: are we alone?

  • Jill C. Tarter (a1)

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