Absence Of Evidence

In 1952 the composer John Cage produced his most minimalist of all scores, entitled 4'33, which directs a pianist to play nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Some regard this as a pretentious intellectual game. Others see a statement about stillness, and the sounds we hear inside our own heads when given space to listen. What is the significance of the more than forty years of silence heard by SETI Researchers rightfully point out that the search is just beginning, that we have...

Interrupted Journey

You know those audience brush with greatness segments they used to have on Letterman where people stood up to tell about the time Henry Kissinger stepped on their foot, or how their sister fixed Venus Williams's carburetor Well, I once saw Gene Simmons from Kiss eating a hot dog at the Denver Airport.* And my dad roomed with John Mack at medical school. John Mack is the shining intellectual light of the UFO abductee movement. They prefer to be called experiencers, rather than abductees. Mack...

Astroengineering

As I scanned the table of contents of volume 1, number 1, of the new International Journal of Astrobiology, published in January 2002, the title of the final paper reached out and caught my eye A Search for 'Frozen Optical Messages' from Extraterrestrial Civilizations. Say what In this paper, Austrian astronomers Ronald Weinberger and Herbert Hartl reported on a twenty-five-year search for unnatural looking objects in the sky. They reasoned that an aged and powerful civilization *Nerd alert Do...

First Attempts

The modern era of SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) began in September 1959 when the Cornell University astrophysicists Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published a seminal paper in Nature entitled Searching for Interstellar Communications. The idea of trying to communicate with beings on other worlds was not new. In the nineteenth century, several schemes were proposed for contacting inhabitants of the Moon or Mars by drawing huge diagrams on Earth's surface for the...

Uncovering Venus World Gone Wrong

During those years of the first reconnaissance missions, the rest of the solar system didn't prove any friendlier to life as we know it. Mariner 2, the first machine (from Earth) to successfully visit another world, flew by Venus in December 1962 and radioed back news that was disheartening, at least for carbon-based creatures on Earth looking for close company or a nearby vacation paradise. The surface of Venus is hot as a kiln and dry as bones. There, organic molecules would fare about as...

Luxuriant Garden Pluralism Goes Mainstream

At the age of nineteen, astronomer William Herschel was forced to flee his native Germany when the French invaded his hometown in 1757. He settled in England and became one of the most famous scientists of the Age of Reason. Systematically mapping the heavens with a telescope, he was in many ways the first modern astronomer. It is difficult to determine how much of his reputation was really due to the work of his brilliant, diligent, and unsung sister Caroline, who helped build his telescopes,...

Gaia Is Earth Alive

Using a natural philosophy approach, perhaps we can study life's universals without simply projecting visions of our own kind out into the cosmos. Two controversial new fields of thought promise to help lift astrobiology beyond this conundrum of self-reference. These are the Gaia hypothesis and complexity theory. The Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek Earth goddess, was first proposed in the mid-1970s by James Lovelock, a British atmospheric scientist and inventor, and American...

Love And Keplers Laws

Johannes Kepler was a late-sixteenth-century philosopher freak who walked the fine line between genius and delusion. He had a lifelong conviction that a secret, simple mathematical order lay hidden just beneath the confusing, chaotic surface of the universe. He found it hard to find steady work and, like many astronomers of his day, kept a day job as a court astrologer, casting fortunes for the rich and famous.f With a seamless blend of mysticism and science he pursued his search for the...

Planethopping Jesus

Largely because Aristotle was invulnerable, early Christian scholars almost unanimously denied the existence of other worlds that might be occupied by rational beings. In the tale of Genesis, God creates the Earth for human habitation, and other worlds are not mentioned at all. Like hand in glove, this human-centered narrative fits snugly into Aristotle's cosmos in which perfect, untouchable heavens envelop an Earth that is unique, central, separate, stationary, and inferior. Furthermore, the...

Figuring The Odds

Frank Drake began the Green Bank meeting by writing an equation on the blackboard that summarized the major questions encountered when trying to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy. He intended only to suggest an agenda for the meeting, but his formula was destined to become the Drake Equation, the most famous equation in SETI research. Four decades later, it is still used in nearly every SETI paper, book, and discussion. The Drake Equation is not really supposed to...

Curiosity And Poor Eyesight Fontenelle Spreads The Word

In 1686, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, a poet, novelist, and natural philosopher who would later become secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, wrote Entretiens sur la Pluralit des Mondes or Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. This book was an instant best-seller and international sensation. Excitement about pluralism was building, and Fontenelle both rode and helped to propagate that wave. Writing in a playful, whimsical style, he produced what has been described as the first...

Notes on Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading

In these pages I have only scratched the surface of the rich and varied history of ideas regarding extraterrestrial life. My historical account is highly selective, with examples chosen for the way in which they presage or illuminate modern thoughts and trends. For the reader wanting more, there are two comprehensive and complementary books Michael J. Crowe's The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900 (New York Dover, 1999) gives a detailed account up to the dawn of the twentieth century....

Thank You Lucky Starr

Part of the reason why I'm in this planetary game stems back to a strange and powerful vision I received back in the fifth grade, when I happened upon an interplanetary time vortex transmitting extraordinary extraterrestrial visions from the 1950s. This information was communicated to me across time from the brain of Isaac Asimov, using a primitive device called a typewriter. His Lucky Starr series, full of obsolete but utterly captivating ideas from pre-space age...

Venus Interruptus

Modern planetary exploration rudely interrupted our age-old dreams of an Earth-like Venus. The high surface temperature on Venus was the first significant discovery ever made at another planet with a visiting spacecraft. Venus, a metal-melting furnace with a corrosive atmosphere and clouds so acidic they could etch glass, was declared off-limits to life. The romance was over. But planets seem to be like this every time we take a closer look, we see new sides to the place. Our understanding of...

The Missing Link Rna World

What was the evolutionary step, or series of steps, between simple self-replicating molecules and the elaborate reproductive machinery common to all living cells on Earth How did organics beget organisms This, not some shadowy ape-man, is the real missing link in evolution. The link may have been found in the form of remarkable chemicals called ribozymes, the discovery of which bagged a Nobel Prize for chemists Thomas Cech and Sidney Altman in 1989. Ribozymes are molecules of RNA that, in...

Index

382,386,421 Abelson, Philip, 229 accidental contamination, 258 accretion, energy of, 157 Ackerman, Diane, 408 Aczel, Amir, 143, 147-148 adolescent optimism, 305 Africa, origin of life in, 126-127 Agassiz, Louis, 19 Age of Reason, 30, 33 Albee, Edward, 97 Aldrin, Buzz, 52 alien life belief in, 6 communicating with, 406-407 as a cultural phenomenon, xvii, 5 current knowledge about, xiii-xiv debunking, 351-352, 354 on Earth, 130 groups of believers in, 11 renewed hopes for finding, xiii, 64...

Preface

Here's how this book is supposed to start My fellow humans, we stand here today at the edge of a new age of cosmic discovery that will transform all of our lives. Recent breakthroughs have sparked a scientific revolution in the search for life in outer space. Any day now, we may meet with success and find proof that we are not alone in the universe. And, indeed, it's true. Numerous recent findings have helped to ignite a resurgence in scientific interest in the study of extraterrestrial life....

Cosmism

I've been describing all this from an American perspective, but on the other side of the Iron Curtain, plans were also being drawn for robotic visits to the planets. In fact, the Soviet scientific establishment was more open than American scientists to the study of extraterrestrial life. The ground was prepared by the philosophical tradition of Russian Cosmism. Cosmism, or cosmic philosophy, was a space-related philosophy that thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It...

Spirits from the Vasty Deep

We have all felt this impulse in our childhood as our ancestors did before us, when they conjured goblins and spirits from the vasty void, and if our energy continue we never cease to feel its force through life. We but exchange, as our years increase, the romance of fiction for the more thrilling romance of fact. Image unavailable for electronic edition Image unavailable for electronic edition I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Why, so can i, or so can any man, but will they come

Same As The Old Mars

There is a cyclical quality to our ideas about Mars. Like pilgrims seeking tears on a stone Virgin, we are ready to announce, at the least provocation, that we see water running there still. For over a hundred years now, the watery channels of Mars have reappeared in different forms. So, when MGS scientist Ken Edgett excitedly exclaimed at the press conference, This is not your mother's Mars I thought, No, but it might be my grandmother's. I am not convinced that the gullies are evidence for...