“Mars mystery solved.” These words have been ringing in my head all day. What is NASA planning to tell us on Monday? It’s not every day that we receive a planetary science announcement in a planned news conference. I know I’m a dreamer and it’s probably something far less exciting, but I can’t help hoping for life. Even if it’s evidence of life that ceased millions of years ago.
Mars has for a long time been the source of awe, speculation, and artistic inspiration on Earth. And ever since the first image of the Martian surface was sent to Earth from Viking I in 1976 (two years before I was born), we’ve had a lot more to think about. Those rocks and shadows and dust look like features we might see on Earth, but they are actually 140 million miles away on a different planet. That seems so far, but cosmically it’s really within arm’s length. Mars, our planetary neighbor, so similar in size to Earth, with such familiar geological features. Many are our differences, but what could be our similarities?
The observable universe is 91 billion lightyears in diameter. Our Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies hosting billions of stars and untold numbers of planets in that vast cosmic expanse. In the 1960’s, astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake created the Drake Equation, which basically defines a framework to predict the probability of extra-terrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. Although it has various interpretations and plenty of criticism, the equation nonetheless shows that statistically, in a galaxy with so many stars, we are unlikely to be the only intelligent life.
Intelligent life is fascinating, but I prefer to broaden the perspective to something no less intriguing: what about any life? What about evidence of any reproductive, self-sustaining, entropy-balancing creatures, all the way down to the tiniest microbes, past or present? Expanding the search that far must certainly enhance the probability. In a universe so vast, it can’t have happened only on Earth.
But why does it matter?
I hear objections to caring about the universe outside of our planet. We have so many problems right here on Earth. We have war, poverty, disease, starvation, injustice, environmental degradation, and hatred. True. We have a massive burden here on Earth; however, are we not to blame for much of this burden? Do we not choose to fight one another, to hoard our wealth where it exists, to mistrust anyone foreign of birth or status, to exploit our resources, and to seek retribution when others treat us as we have treated them? As a species, we have extraordinarily limited vision. After millenia of evolution, we still see each other as different tribes, different races, different species perhaps. We fail to see that we are one brotherhood of humanity.
The differences we see are arbitrary. Some humans with pink skin will say that humans with black skin are inferior; however, humans with dark skin probably just descend from humans who historically found some evolutionary advantage in having darker skin. According to the CDC, dark-colored humans have a much lower rate of skin cancer than light-colored humans. Many cultures along the equator of Earth tend to be populated by darker-skinned humans than those in cooler zones. Perhaps the skin color differences arose because the advantage conferred by color in one place was different than in another.
For the entire recorded history of the human race, we have behaved like spoiled children dividing up the toy box, failing to see beyond the walls of our playroom. Nation has fought nation for resources, humans have murdered for wealth, and genuine grace for the fellow human has become a sadly rare gem. We have for too long identified too deeply as ethnicities or nationalities or religions and not deeply enough as humans. To be made in God’s image does not mean to be of any color or shape or size; rather, it means we are rational, moral, and most importantly, communal creatures. It is unnatural for us to divide ourselves so deeply along arbitrary borders such as race or nationality.
We see only the planet we live on. We do not see beyond the atmosphere to other worlds. The universe is vast, but our perspective is narrow. If we are to overcome our desire to divide, we must unlearn, broaden, and re-inform that perspective. I assert that the discovery of any extra-terrestrial life — even microscopic life or life long extinct — would be the most important scientific discovery of our lifetime — perhaps of all scientific history. Suddenly, we will no longer look at one another as American, Russian, Christian, Muslim, black, white, or anything else divisive. We will realize we are truly a uniquely human creation on our uniquely Earth-ish planet in an immeasurable cosmic expanse awash with other unique life. Earth will feel smaller, more precious; our divisions will feel weaker, less significant; the universe will feel much larger, yet also much closer.
To learn that we are not alone in the universe will draw us closer together and make us more appreciative of the beautiful blessing of Earth in the universe. Our children will grow up in a world not divided by race or religion or class, but one knit together by human brotherhood. I can imagine no better future for my children. That is why the very idea of a life announcement is so riveting and keeps me awake late writing these words. By understanding our universe, we will come to better understand our place in it and our importance to one another.
Join me Monday to hear what NASA announces. If it is a life announcement as I dream, join me in embracing a deeper appreciation of what it is to be a human in a vast, exhilarating universe.