VOICES: Otherwordly

Are we alone in the universe—or do other planets host life?

Ominous music plays in the background as eerie, green lighting surrounds a lone cabin in the woods. A family huddles inside, blockaded by otherworldly creatures.

When I was younger, I watched a lot of alien movies with my grandpa on Chicago's South Side. He owned a video store and had a large collection of conspiracy-theory videos and sci-fi movie classics. After he passed away, I discovered that I'd inherited his love for aliens and the otherworldly.

Lately, I've become interested in aliens in an effort to figure out the world around me. Like a lot of people, I want to find explanations for the unexplained: Why am I here? Do I have a purpose? Am I alone? To answer these questions, many people turn to religion, science or traveling; I turn to the search for aliens.

On June 19, 2008, the Phoenix Mars Lander mission discovered ice on Mars. Dr. Neville Woolf, emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, laid much of the scientific groundwork for the Phoenix mission when he discovered what appeared to be extraterrestrial water in 1963.

In order to answer some of my questions about the possibility of alien life, I asked Dr. Woolf to talk about how scientists look for life on other planets. (See below.)

I learned from Dr. Woolf that we are a civilization in "technological adolescence," as Carl Sagan, the famed astronomer, said. This means that we have just recently discovered advanced technology and are not quite sure how to handle it.

Call me crazy, but I think we should find a way to invest more money and time in the search for extraterrestrials rather than build another jet or tank to use to kill our own species.

Dr. Woolf couldn't tell me for sure whether extraterrestrials exist or not, but I learned that the search for aliens requires us to completely challenge our perspectives about what it means to be human.

When I consider the possibility of not being alone in this infinite universe, I feel overwhelmed. There could be thousands of other planets just like ours, booming with life. How could we be so arrogant as to think that our planet is the only one?

Frank Mapatis spoke to Neville Woolf, the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute Tucson node and an emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. He was the first person to observe extraterrestrial water in 1963. Woolf believes that life on other planets is probable, and thinks that our current inability to fully understand the enormity of time is what may keep us from making contact with extraterrestrial life.

To understand the search for other life, you first of all have to understand time, how rapidly things change, and therefore how difficult it is to have the chance of contacting other life.

So I have tried to devise a way of understanding time: I took the largest amount of time that we could really think about, a century, and I call it the letter "c." If I make up words with 10 c's, that's 1,000 years. Ten of those words on a line is 10,000 years, and say I'm going to build a book like that—so Page 1 of the book has a half-million years on it. And on the other side of the page, there will be another half-million years, so it's a million years covered in one page. Take 500 pages like that to make a nice, thick book, a little like an encyclopedia.

The book of time has 28 volumes of it!

You can see that we have changed with time. Let's go back just 500 years, and pick the smartest guy we can think of, just so we can try to communicate across the generations. We'll pick Leonardo da Vinci. There are a few things that we can't actually talk to him about: phones, TV, radio, CDs, DVDs, iPods, computers, rock, jazz, the United States, cameras, stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, airplanes, air conditioning, automobiles, flush toilets, Kleenex, pesticides, antibiotics, assembly lines, satellites, biology, genetics ... you start to realize that communicating becomes very limited over this incredibly short span of time. How does that span of time compare to the time that's available for other life forms to have developed in the past? The chance of drawing on a population that is only 500 years separated from you in their technological development is about your chance of winning the lottery if everyone in Arizona (buys in).

(We don't know) whether life needed a rare, freak event to occur, or was something that only occurred very rarely. In our Milky Way, there are about 100,000 million stars that might have planets. And there are about 100,000 million galaxies each with that many stars. So the chance that one of those got going and indeed developed life seems likely, even if there had to be a very rare event involved.

I suspect that there is life in the universe, though whether we can contact it or it has contacted us and seen us, we don't know. If life is extremely rare, we are alone. If life is common, (other life forms) may be here and not recognized by us, because they may be so small or they may move so slowly. They could be organizing our thoughts—we don't know! They could have properties that we regard as sort of godlike.

We have to take very seriously conserving human life and developing it. When you start to consider something so far beyond, that's what we call religion: the belief that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. I believe that we are here for a purpose, and that it's very important to keep humanity going. I can't prove that you exist. But I believe you exist.

Frank Mapatis spoke to Chuck Penson, a former staff technician at Flandreau: The University of Arizona Science Center who is also an amateur astronomer. Penson reports seeing an unexplained object in the sky while stargazing near his home outside of Picture Rocks.

I won't call (it) a UFO, but I have no explanation for this. (It) happened right out here in my front drive. I was sitting in my white chair, reclined all the way, just looking up. It was a nice night, and the sky was clear and very dark. I was just looking for satellites or stars. And almost straight above me, I saw a star appear in the sky—it wasn't there one minute, and then it was there for maybe 30 seconds and then went out.

About a minute later, it came back, and maybe 30 seconds later, it went out again. My first thought was, "It's a very slow-moving satellite." (It was) very high and very dim. (I thought) it could have been a piece of junk. That would explain why it didn't appear to move much, and why it would come and go—except when it came on for the second time, it was in exactly the same place; it hadn't moved at all.

So I grabbed my Burnham's Celestial Handbook and looked up that part of the sky to see what was there, but I couldn't find anything. Two days later, I'm out there again, sitting in my same chair, looking pretty much in the same place, and I'll be damned if this thing didn't appear again in exactly the same place. I do not have an explanation for what that thing was.

I have to step back once in a while when I'm looking up at the sky, whether it's with the telescope or not, and remind myself that what I'm seeing is literally what happened in the past. When you look up at the stars, the light you see is the way it was 30,000 or a million years ago, or however far away the star happens to be. You're literally looking into the past when you look through a telescope, and that, I find to be pretty enthralling. Whenever they build a bigger telescope, they see a little bit farther.

(How to define) "alien" depends on which side you're on. It's all relative. It's which side of the mirror you're standing on.

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