Cosmic voyages and the search for life’s origins

September 17, 2013
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An artist’s rendering provided by NASA shows the Voyager spacecraft. (NASA image via AP)

As Voyager I exits the solar system and becomes the first man-made object to travel through interstellar space, it could open a new chapter in mankind’s ongoing quest to determine its place in the universe. In the 36 years since Voyager I was launched, scientists have made impressive breakthroughs in fields ranging from theoretical physics to astronomy. Combined with Voyager I’s new findings from interstellar space, we may be ever closer to answering some of mankind’s eternal questions: Why do we exist? Where do we come from? Is Earth the only planet in the universe that supports intelligent life?

Our answers to these questions could change faster than we think. Take the issue of whether or not there is other intelligent life in the universe. Thanks to the ever-growing power of observational tools in astronomers’ hands, we are now able to peer into the deepest regions of the universe and determine the shape and structure of planets. Much of the universe, according to Voyager I, appears to be a steady hiss and whistling in the dark, signifying nothing. However, NASA’s Kepler SpaceTelescope has discovered the presence of a surprising number of “Super-Earth” planets in the universe that appear to be capable of sustaining the same type of life as here on Earth. Maybe we are not alone after all.

And, theoretical physicists are now making breakthroughs as to the size and scope of the universe. One of the still-to-be-determined questions – as brilliantly outlined by Stephen Hawking in “A Brief History of Time” 12 years after the Voyager I launch – is whether the universe is infinitely expanding after the Big Bang, or whether, at some point in time, it will collapse back in on itself. (Think of a balloon expanding to a certain size, and then the air slowly being let out of it). To answer this question, physicists and astronomers are now attempting to determine the role of all the so-called “dark energy” in the universe. Thanks to the construction of a new state-of-the-art Dark Energy Camera, essentially a giant digital camera that snaps pictures of the nighttime sky in the search for clues, we may soon have answers.

At the same time we probe the furthest reaches of the universe, we are also peering into the subatomic realm to understand the fundamental building blocks of life. The quest to find the elusive Higgs boson — the “God Particle” — was perhaps one of the most fascinating innovation stories of the past year. (Mostly, it must be admitted, because the catchy buzzword “God Particle” seemed to suggest something with mysterious and religious overtones) By slamming particles into each other at incredibly high speeds, though, theoretical physicists hope to unlock one of the mysteries of the universe — why do objects have mass and weight?

The only drawback, it seems, to this relentless innovation in the search for the origin of life is the arrival of what can only be called elements of science fiction rather than science fact. For example, there are new scientific claims that human life originated on Mars. The idea being, of course, that the molecular building blocks of living organisms could not possibly have come together as part of a vast primordial soup on planet Earth, so they must have been transported from Mars via meteorites. This seems, however, to beg the inevitable question: If humans came from Mars, then where did the Martians come from? (Or, maybe, as Stephen Hawking has joked, “it’s turtles all the way down.”)

It is precisely these questions that technology hopes to solve. As Carl Sagan famously pointed out in his “Cosmos” TV series (launched in 1980, around the time of Voyager I), humanity has always peered up at the night sky and wondered at the mystery of it all: “Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.”

As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, it should make it easier to conclude where life came from, why we exist, and how the universe began. Maybe these are the questions that will be addressed in the next TV version of “Cosmos,” due out in 2014. However, deep down, do we really want to know the answers to humanity’s eternal questions? The answers would have lasting impact not only for science, but also for philosophy and religion.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Dominic Basulto · September 11, 2013