- - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

In my youth, I would try to find a grassy field and look up at the clouds in the clear, blue sky. Every so often, I would start thinking to myself, “I wonder if we’re really the only people in the universe?”

I’m sure many of you did the same thing. I also wouldn’t be surprised if you ultimately reached the same conclusion that I did: Yes, we’re alone.

From Roswell to the Phoenix Lights, our world has been inundated with a wide variety of tall tales about space aliens, abductions and UFO sightings. Most people involved in these cases appear to have been genuinely crazy, although a tiny handful have seemed quite normal. Their stories about outer space continue to intrigue our society, and have led to media interviews, TV specials and the occasional Hollywood movie.

Interestingly, the July 2014 edition of National Geographic magazine contained an intellectually stimulating article by author Michael D. Lemonick titled, “The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth.” Starting with radio astronomer Frank Drake’s famous 1961 equation estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, researchers have spent countless numbers of hours trying to determine whether there really is alien life.

As Mr. Lemonick wrote, “astronomers have confirmed nearly two thousand so-called exoplanets, ranging in size from smaller than Earth to bigger than Jupiter.” While they acknowledge that “[n]one of these planets is an exact match for Earth scientists are confident they’ll find one that is before too long. Based on the discoveries of somewhat larger planets made to date, astronomers recently calculated that more than a fifth of stars like the sun harbor habitable, Earthlike planets. Statistically speaking, the nearest one could be a mere 12 light-years away, which is practically next door in cosmic terms.”

Meanwhile, some Harvard University astrobiologists are “investigating a possibility that sounds more like science fiction than science.” Mr. Lemonick pointed out the primary focus of discovering “life on other worlds, like life on Earth,” is that it “will be built from complex molecules that incorporate carbon as an essential part of their structures — and use water as a solvent.” What if that’s not the case? Hence, this research team “is looking at alternate biologies that could plausibly exist on distant worlds, where, for instance, a sulfur cycle might replace the carbon cycle that dominates terrestrial biology.”

It’s a fascinating topic. Still, I don’t believe there is, or has ever been, advanced life on other planets. I doubt we’ll ever find evidence to the contrary.

This has nothing to do with personal faith (I’m not religious), or a strong position on evolutionism versus creationism. There doesn’t even seem to be a general consensus on these matters. As some readers of The Washington Times may be aware, the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, a Jesuit priest, astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory, actually told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in 2008, “How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere? Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God’s creative freedom.”

I don’t happen to agree with Father Funes’ position, but if the Vatican is willing to discuss this issue in a reasonable fashion — it even sponsored a 2009 conference on what alien life could mean for the Catholic Church — there’s no reason for me to be completely dogmatic, either.

That’s why I have always been willing to accept the possibility, as reputable scientists have previously suggested, that there could be, or could have been, tiny extraterrestrial microorganisms.

NASA held a widely viewed televised news conference in 2010 to unveil information about “the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic.” This was a groundbreaking historical event that helped transform our definition of life on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that space exploration could help us discover the existence of extraterrestrial microorganisms that could change our definition of the universe, too.

While there’s nothing else out there, in my opinion, I don’t think there’s any harm in continuing to discuss this issue. Studying this particular theory, and organizing future space missions to other planets to see if there is — or was — any validity to it, is worthy of greater intellectual discourse.

It’s worth keeping an open mind about the remote possibility of extraterrestrial microorganisms. When it comes to flying saucers and little green men, not so much.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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