Extraterrestrial life  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In popular cultures, life forms--especially intelligent life forms, that are of extraterrestrial origin, i.e. not coming from the Earth--are referred to collectively as aliens, or sometimes visitors.

This usage is clearly anthropocentric: when humans in fictional accounts accomplish interstellar travel and land on a planet elsewhere in the universe, the local inhabitants of these other planets are usually still referred to as "alien," even though they are the native life form and the humans are the intruders. In general they are seen as unfriendly life forms. This may be seen as a reversion to the classic meaning of "alien" (see foreigner) as referring to "other," in contrast to "us" in the context of the writer's frame of reference.


Cultural impact

Cosmic pluralism

Cosmic pluralism, the plurality of worlds, or simply pluralism, describes the philosophical belief in numerous "worlds" in addition to Earth, which might harbor extraterrestrial life. Before the development of the heliocentric theory and a recognition that our Sun is just one of many stars, the notion of pluralism was largely mythological and philosophical. With the scientific and Copernican revolutions, and later, during the later, during the Enlightenment, cosmic pluralism became a mainstream notion, supported by the likes of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle in his 1686 work Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes. Pluralism was also championed by philosophers such as John Locke and astronomers such as William Herschel. The astronomer Camille Flammarion promoted the notion of cosmic pluralism in his 1862 book La pluralité des mondes habités. None of these notions of pluralism were based on any specific observation or scientific information.

Early modern period

There was a dramatic shift in thinking initiated by the invention of the telescope and the Copernican assault on geocentric cosmology. Once it became clear that Earth was merely one planet amongst countless bodies in the universe, the theory of extraterrestrial life started to become a topic in the scientific community. The best known early-modern proponent of such ideas was the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who argued in the 16th century for an infinite universe in which every star is surrounded by its own planetary system. Bruno wrote that other worlds "have no less virtue nor a nature different to that of our earth" and, like Earth, "contain animals and inhabitants".

In the early 17th century, the Czech astronomer Anton Maria Schyrleus of Rheita mused that "if Jupiter has (...) inhabitants (...) they must be larger and more beautiful than the inhabitants of Earth, in proportion to the [characteristics] of the two spheres".

In Baroque literature such as The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac, extraterrestrial societies are presented as humoristic or ironic parodies of earthly society. The didactic poet Henry More took up the classical theme of the Greek Democritus in "Democritus Platonissans, or an Essay Upon the Infinity of Worlds" (1647). In "The Creation: a Philosophical Poem in Seven Books" (1712), Sir Richard Blackmore observed: "We may pronounce each orb sustains a race / Of living things adapted to the place". With the new relative viewpoint that the Copernican revolution had wrought, he suggested "our world's sunne / Becomes a starre elsewhere". Fontanelle's "Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds" (translated into English in 1686) offered similar excursions on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, expanding, rather than denying, the creative sphere of a Maker.

The possibility of extraterrestrials remained a widespread speculation as scientific discovery accelerated. William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, was one of many 18th–19th-century astronomers who believed that the Solar System is populated by alien life. Other luminaries of the period who championed "cosmic pluralism" included Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Franklin. At the height of the Enlightenment, even the Sun and Moon were considered candidates for extraterrestrial inhabitants.

19th century

Speculation about life on Mars increased in the late 19th century, following telescopic observation of apparent Martian canal—which soon, however, turned out to be optical illusions. Despite this, in 1895, American astronomer Percival Lowell published his book Mars, followed by Mars and its Canals in 1906, proposing that the canals were the work of a long-gone civilization. This idea led British writer H. G. Wells to write the novel The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling of an invasion by aliens from Mars who were fleeing the planet's desiccation.

Spectroscopic analysis of Mars's atmosphere began in earnest in 1894, when U.S. astronomer William Wallace Campbell showed that neither water nor oxygen was present in the Martian atmosphere.

By 1909 better telescopes and the best perihelic opposition of Mars since 1877 conclusively put an end to the canal hypothesis.

The science fiction genre, although not so named during the time, develops during the late 19th century. Jules Verne's Around the Moon (1870) features a discussion of the possibility of life on the Moon, but with the conclusion that it is barren. Stories involving extraterrestrials are found in e.g. Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898), an unauthorized sequel to The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells was published in 1897 which stands at the beginning of the popular idea of the "Martian invasion" of Earth prominent in 20th-century pop culture.

20th century

Most unidentified flying objects or UFO sightings Nonetheless, a certain fraction of the public believe that UFOs might actually be of extraterrestrial origin, and, indeed, the notion has had influence on popular culture.

The possibility of extraterrestrial life on the Moon was ruled out in the 1960s, and during the 1970s it became clear that most of the other bodies of the Solar System do not harbor highly developed life, although the question of primitive life on bodies in the Solar System remains an open question.

Recent history

The failure so far of the SETI program to detect an intelligent radio signal after decades of effort, has at least partially dimmed the prevailing optimism of the beginning of the space age. Notwithstanding, belief in extraterrestrial beings continues to be voiced in pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and in popular folklore, notably "Area 51" and legends. It has become a pop culture trope given less-than-serious treatment in popular entertainment.

In the words of SETI's Frank Drake, "All we know for sure is that the sky is not littered with powerful microwave transmitters". Drake noted that it is entirely possible that advanced technology results in communication being carried out in some way other than conventional radio transmission. At the same time, the data returned by space probes, and giant strides in detection methods, have allowed science to begin delineating habitability criteria on other worlds, and to confirm that at least other planets are plentiful, though aliens remain a question mark. The Wow! signal, detected in 1977 by a SETI project, remains a subject of speculative debate.

In 2000, geologist and paleontologist Peter Ward and astrobiologist Donald Brownlee published a book entitled Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe. In it, they discussed the Rare Earth hypothesis, in which they claim that Earth-like life is rare in the universe, whereas microbial life is common. Ward and Brownlee are open to the idea of evolution on other planets that is not based on essential Earth-like characteristics (such as DNA and carbon).

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in 2010 warned that humans should not try to contact alien life forms. He warned that aliens might pillage Earth for resources. "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans", he said. Jared Diamond has expressed similar concerns.

In November 2011, the White House released an official response to two petitions asking the U.S. government to acknowledge formally that aliens have visited Earth and to disclose any intentional withholding of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings. According to the response, "The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race." Also, according to the response, there is "no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye." The response noted "odds are pretty high" that there may be life on other planets but "the odds of us making contact with any of them—especially any intelligent ones—are extremely small, given the distances involved."

In 2013, the exoplanet Kepler-62f was discovered, along with Kepler-62e and Kepler-62c. A related special issue of the journal Science, published earlier, described the discovery of the exoplanets.

On 17 April 2014, the discovery of the Earth-size exoplanet Kepler-186f, 500 light-years from Earth, was publicly announced; it is the first Earth-size planet to be discovered in the habitable zone and it has been hypothesized that there may be liquid water on its surface.

On 13 February 2015, scientists (including Geoffrey Marcy, Seth Shostak, Frank Drake and David Brin) at a convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, discussed Active SETI and whether transmitting a message to possible intelligent extraterrestrials in the Cosmos was a good idea; one result was a statement, signed by many, that a "worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent".

On 20 July 2015, Stephen Hawking, British physicist, and Yuri Milner, Russian billionaire, along with the SETI Institute, announced a well-funded effort, called the Breakthrough Initiatives, to expand efforts to search for extraterrestrial life. The group contracted the services of the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia in the United States and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.


See also

Popular culture
Searches for extraterrestrial life

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