Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Is there life on Mars?
It was so cold Monday that I thought of outer space.
Zero degrees on the Metra platform, in a long, bundled line, waiting to exit Union Station onto Madison Street. I watched the warm breath steam out of my fellow humans and thought warmly, or as warmly as I could, about the 125 degrees or so above us, the temperature range of human life, of all life, excepting some hardy bacterium that live in thermal vents.
A pretty narrow window. Then again, life is very localized event, as far as we know.
Space is a different matter. Space is very big and very cold, and time is very long, so it's poignant that people waste so much of their far more limited time pondering whether extraterrestrial life is here, now, watching us from nearby, when it's a far more probing question to ask if extraterritorial life is anywhere, ever, even long ago and far away.
I would say, given the vastness of creation, that the answer is probably yes, with an asterisk, and that asterisk is a) it's most likely so far away we'll never know about it and they'll never know about us; and b) it probably took place a billion years in the past, or will, in the future, or both.
Which doesn't even raise the question of "intelligent life" as if that weren't pretty rare here on earth, among humans. Why does it have to be intelligent life to matter? If there are solar sponges, or unicorns on Mars, would they not count? Would that not rock our world in the way our world is supposed to be rocked by the wise and gentle overlords of Rigel 6? I suppose a being has to be smart so it can appreciate us. That's what this whole UFO charade is really being about: drumming up imaginary fans, ginning up some cosmic interest in we oh-so-important humans so we can feel as significant as we'd like to be and not as small and trivial and alone as we actually are, like some jilted interstellar suitor, in our straw hat and candy-striped suit, our bouquet wilting in our hands as we stare with sagging hope, awaiting our star date who never arrives or, rather, only arrives for those willing to make the leap and interpret a splotch in a photograph as the Starship Enterprise.
Of which, I should point out, there are quite a number of us. About a third of Americans believe that UFOs are in fact space visitors. But then, a third of Americans believe in angels, and there is no doubt significant overlap in those two groups of believers.
People turn every blur that someone else glimpsed in the sky into motherships from Alpha Centuri out of neediness and vanity. Once God was watching over us and now, in his apparent absence, we conjure up new protectors and new judges to peer at us through the clouds.
So life, probably, somewhere, sometime, based on the undeniable fact that we popped up here, now—it's been done once, so it could be done again. One roll of the biochemical dice led to us, after only a billion years of slow transformation. Given the number of times those dice are being thrown, on trillions of planets over billions of years, odds are ... maybe not good, but certainly there, that other planets evolved similarly though, as I said, 10 million years ago and a billion light years away. Completely cut off from us by unspanable expanse of time and space.
Not as satisfying a plot line as aliens picking us up willy-nilly for sex experimentation. Very few fairy tales involve a beautiful princess in a castle in Never Never Land and a handsome prince in Shangrila who never meet, though one suspects the other does exist.
That said, the issue is worthy of at least a little contemplation. I think it is romantic, to stretch the idea of romance a bit. Usually the parties meet cute, interact, something happens, leading to the loss, and yearning that bring wisdom. But in this case, we start with the absence, the ache. You've got our swain hungering for company here, gazing up at the sky—and a tremendous yellow full moon Monday morning, the "Wolf Moon," the Native-Americans called it, which might have helped prompt all this. And whatever unimaginably alien multi-tentacled sweetheart over there, somewhere, across the galaxy and back, or ahead, in time, regarding the heavens with her one giant eyeball, or whatever, and wondering, in her own strange way, about us. Both parties never meeting, never knowing. But still, a kind of love.
Anyway, it was enough to get me to the end of the Metra platform.