Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I See Living Things

If you've ever looked at one of those hidden picture activities as a kid, or one of those headache inducing 3D pictures they had in the 90s, you know that it takes a little while for the brain to know how to look for something. But once you see it, you wonder how you ever missed it.

I remember this lamp shade I grew up with as a child. I clearly remember this patch of blue and yellow and white lit up by the lamp. It was always there, that mottled mix of colors. Then, one day, I remember looking at it and suddenly realizing the white splotch was a sail attached to a ship on a stormy ocean. I could never go back to seeing that lamp shade the same way again.

In a flash it went from a chaotic jumble of color to a meaningful picture.

Try to look at letters and words as meaningless symbols and it requires a strain to remove meaning from them.

There's that moment between seeing chaos and seeing patterns, where the threshold is crossed and it can't be undone.

Some day in the not-too-distant future we will find life beyond Earth, no matter how lowly or small. And when that day happens, we'll start to find it everywhere. It'll be all over. And we'll wonder how we ever missed it.

Recently the Cassini probe discovered why Saturn's moon Iapetus seemed to darken and lighten as it orbited Saturn. Dark, organic-rich material is spread across a whole hemisphere. Meanwhile jets of fine water have been observed spraying from an ice fracture on the moon Enceladus. Some day soon we're going to find alien critters, and from then on we'll find a universe steeped in life.

Why does that matter?

Once we find it there will be a brief period of awe and wonder. Some will deny it - The same jerks who deny moon landings, holocausts, and the spherical nature of the Earth, and so on. The nutjobs and people with something to prove. But overall, there will be wonder and amazement. And then, it will be normal. We'll go to work and talk about it at the water coolers. Then we'll talk about sports. Then family. Then so and so's health. And alien life will fade in importance to our lives. Religion, and politics, and economics will continue to be conduits of power just as it has always been. There will be no dramatic moment where our leaders see their own hubris and lay down guns and suspicion and all the wonderful tools of power. Meanwhile everybody will find in this event a way to confirm his or her own life view.

We'll discover a universe of life and our lives will pretty much be the same.

So why does it matter?

Because as far as we know, we are the consciousness of the universe and all of our eggs are in one very small basket. Today all evidence points to Earth as the sole inhabited planet in the universe. Talk statistics all you like, but on evidence alone, we're it. When we're gone, consciousness, art, science are gone. And it takes one asteroid to wipe that spec from existence. When we find life, our lives will be the same, but our perception of the universe as a cold, barren, and hostile environment will evaporate. Like Polynesians watching the migratory patterns of birds before setting off on a vast ocean trek, we will begin to speculate about where we might set off in search of a second and third home.

Finding life will be the moment we grow up and realize that the universe is ours for the taking.

I like to imagine that ten thousand years from now a father will be telling his little boy about some place far away where people all came from.

Tonight Oscar sat on my lap and we explored Google Mars online, and he spoke in the dreamy way he does when his imagination has taken over. He asked to go to Mars. He suggested we sell the car and buy a rocket ship so we can go to Mars and see the Mars Robots.

We talked about how the Mars Robots are looking around for life. He suggested that maybe the robots will find worms and eat them.

I told him, "That would be so awesome."

1 comment:

Christopher said...

That would indeed be so awesome.

I suspect you are right — it would take an event on the scale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or maybe even Independence Day, for extra-terrestrial life to have a significant impact on daily life. Plankton beneath the ice on Europa or a particularly hardy bacteria on Titan just isn't dramatic enough to capture this world's attention for long. And most major religious texts are vague enough to justify whatever comes up and incorporate it into the dogma. Until there is an impact on the economy, nobody is gonna give a crap.