One of the most intriguing aspects of the history of the human quest to discover whether or not there is other life in the universe, and whether any of it is recognizably intelligent in the way that we are, is just how much our philosophical mood has changed back and forth across the centuries.
Today we’re witnessing a bit of a "golden age" in terms of active work towards answers. Much of that work stems from the overlapping revolutions in exoplanetary science and solar system exploration, and our ongoing revelations about the sheer diversity and tenacity of life here on Earth. Together these areas of study have given us places to look, phenomena to look for, and increased confidence that we’re quick approaching the point where our technical prowess may cross the necessary threshold for finding some answers about life elsewhere.
Into that mix goes the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI); as we’ve become more comfortable with the notion that the technological restructuring and repurposing of matter is something we can, and should, be actively looking for. If for no other reason than our own repurposing of matter, here on Earth, has become ever more vivid and fraught, and therefore critical to appreciate and modify in aid of long-term survival. But this search, labeled as both SETI and the quest for “technosignatures”, still faces some daunting challenges – not least the catch-up required after decades of receiving a less-than-stellar allocation of scientific resources.
What is so fascinating is that in many respects we have already been here and done all of this before, just not recently, and not with the same set of tools that we now have to hand.
In western Europe, during the period from some four hundred years ago until last century, the question of life beyond the Earth seems to have been less of ‘if’ and more of ‘what’. Famous scientists like Christiaan Huygens wrote in his Cosmotheoros of “So many Suns, so many Earths, and every one of them stock’d with so many Herbs, Trees and Animals…even the little Gentlemen round Jupiter and Saturn…” And this sense of cosmic plurality wasn’t uncommon. It was in almost all respects far simpler and more reasonable to assume that the wealth of life on Earth was simply repeated elsewhere. That is once one let go of a sense of earthly uniqueness.
And most intelligent people still do. To read more, click here.