The Grandest Question of All: Are we Alone?

A famous British mountaineer, George Mallory, died in his third attempt to climb Mount Everest in June 1924, and his frozen, well-preserved body was only discovered in 1999. Earlier, in reply to question as to why he so wanted to climb the mountain, he is quoted as replying, ‘because it’s there… the answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.’

We have not succeeded in conquering ourselves… and conquering the universe is no doubt a tall order. And if we did, who knows that we’ll do to it what we are doing to our own Mother Earth – ‘embattled, endangered, polluted’ (Karan Singh, 1984). Given its sheer astronomical expanse and size, however, we’re not likely to become its emperor. But exploring it is fine, and what triggers and drives any exploration is a desire to know about our world, starting with our immediate environment. That whole world of objects ‘out there’ – which also includes us human beings – is the ‘external world’ that is the playground of scientists. The ‘internal world’ refers to what sages call our ‘Self’ and it can only be understood and apprehended intuitively. But that is not the subject of this article, which is about something that is, nevertheless, as fascinating because it concerns us all: life.

All cultures and civilizations where open thinking is welcome have mythologies and imagined narratives about creatures, including human/humanoid ones, to be found in higher and lower worlds, which are variously referred to as heaven, hell, inferno, netherworld, middle earth (vide Tolkien’s stories) and so on. These are stages in man’s mental development, trying to go beyond himself, looking for comfort or adventure. It’s as if we are not satisfied with being limited to our own bodies or to only this world that we see: we are on the lookout for something more, preferably only a bit like or unlike us, but not really quite like us. We imagine them as monsters or friends. HG Wells’ green little men from Mars, ET and Jedi, or creatures from the deep of the Jules Vernes variety: man’s imagination spans many a range.

There are scientists pursuing a programme called SETI; the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In his book Cosmos, late Carl Sagan the famous astronomer has even given a formula for the possible number of planets in our universe that may harbour life as we know it, that is, life based on carbon. SETI is a serious pursuit, and it has spawned the science of astrobiology. If ever we find some evidence of life, it is likely to be in the form of microbes, and biologists are the ones who will be involved in unraveling their structure and so on, and search for the clues that may identify them as living or, if they are fossils, as having been living.

On the other hand, astronomers have been busy searching for earth-like planets, in terms of their size, whether their atmosphere contains oxygen, whether their surface contains water or ice – all these being conditions which would make the possibility of life existing on them likely. To date there are probably a few hundreds of such ‘exoplanets’ that have been discovered. Claims for evidence of ice on the moon have been made too, but as yet there is no firm conclusion.

The favourite planet in our solar system in our search for life, other than the moon, is Mars. It is a size that is comparable to that of the Earth. Known as the red planet, it has exerted a fascination on man’s imagination since early times. And of course, we have reached it, the Americans having landed their Rover which has sent back valuable data in addition to pictures of its forbidding but grand landscape. Several years ago, a meteorite of Martian origin was discovered in the Antarctic. It was probably some thirty million years old, and seemed to contain evidence of the presence of bacteria.

There is also the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan, which was launched in November 2013 and successfully entered the Martian orbit some weeks back. It is equipped with a probe to test for the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, amongst other experiments it will be conducting. As methane is a gas produced by some microorganisms, its detection would indicate that there may be life on Mars, which would tally with the meteorite finding mentioned above.

On the other hand, on Wednesday a mechanical space traveller called the Philae probe, carried by a spacecraft of the European Space Agency known as Rosetta, landed on its target, a comet ‘with a much less romantic name: 67P’, some 310 million miles from Earth. There is excitement about this achievement around the world. In the article on the ESA website, Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist, said: ‘Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our solar system. What were the conditions like at its infancy and how did it evolve? What role did comets play in this evolution? How do comets work?’

Science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds said: ‘This is science fiction made real in terms of the achievement of the mission itself, but Rosetta is also taking us a step closer to answering science fiction’s grandest question of all: Are we alone?’

There is a theory that life on Earth may have come from outer space (Fed Hoyle and Wickremansinghe), hence the interest in comets which come down to us from the depths of the universe. If indeed evidence of methane gas or microorganisms is found on them, we will have a lot of rethink to do!

As of now, as regards the beginnings of life scientists still do not know the definitive answer but there are certain puzzling observations – puzzling because we tend to take human life as the reference model. For example, the extreme conditions under which certain microbes live, such as in the hotsprings of Yellowstone Park in the US or in the frozen depths of Antarctica. Somewhere under the ocean floor they’ve even discovered that there are microbes surviving in sulphurous cracks apparently without oxygen and obviously without sunlight. These suggest that life may have begun in a volcanic spring or in a sort of primeval soup.

There are also the experiments of Stanley Miller in the 1950s: he made electric sparks pass through a mixture of gases presumed to have been present in the prebiotic (‘before life’) era and the result was the formation of some organic molecules, precursors of those found in living organisms. Don’t forget too that we are made up of over 70 per cent of water, and there are chemical similarities between the fluids in which the cells that make up our body are bathed and seawater.

If some day we discover that we are not alone in the universe, let us hope and pray that the living creatures we find will, unlike us, be messengers of peace and love makers rather than the warmongers and destroyers that we are. The world is truly war weary, and it is a necessity of the times to revive afresh the slogan of the days gone by: MAKE LOVE NOT WAR. Like the Bonobos in the Congo.

Shouldn’t we? That way we can focus our resources and energy on the many more exciting discoveries that await us. Let us join the search, even if it is of the armchair type, following what’s the latest about Philae and Mangalyaan. We’ll be doing all of us a greater service…

* Published in print edition on 14  November 2014

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