ET and God - Paul Davies - Atlantic Monthly

Date: Tue Sep 23 2003 - 12:14:14 EDT

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    Subject:  E.T. and God
    The Atlantic Monthly | September 2003

    E.T. and God

    Could earthly religions survive the discovery of life elsewhere in the

    by Paul Davies

    The recent discovery of abundant water on Mars, albeit in the form of
    permafrost, has raised hopes for finding traces of life there. The Red Planet
    has long been a favorite location for those speculating about extraterrestrial
    life, especially since the 1890s, when H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds
    and the American astronomer Percival Lowell claimed that he could see
    artificial canals etched into the planet's parched surface. Today, of course,
    scientists expect to find no more than simple bacteria dwelling deep
    underground, if even that. Still, the discovery of just a single bacterium
    somewhere beyond Earth would force us to revise our understanding of who we
    and where we fit into the cosmic scheme of things, throwing us into a deep
    spiritual identity crisis that would be every bit as dramatic as the one
    Copernicus brought about in the early 1500s, when he asserted that Earth was
    not at the center of the universe.

    Whether or not we are alone is one of the great existential questions that
    confront us today. Probably because of the high emotional stakes, the search
    for life beyond Earth is deeply fascinating to the public. Opinion polls and
    Web-site hits indicate strong support for and interest in space missions that
    are linked even obliquely to this search. Perceiving the public's interest,
    NASA has reconfigured its research strategy and founded the NASA Astrobiology
    Institute, dedicated to the study of life in the cosmos. At the top of the
    agenda, naturally, is the race to find life elsewhere in the solar system.

    Researchers have long focused on Mars in their search for extraterrestrial
    because of its relative proximity. But twenty-five years ago, as a result of
    the 1976 Viking mission, many of them became discouraged. A pair of spacecraft
    had passed through the planet's extremely thin atmosphere, touched down on the
    surface, and found it to be a freeze-dried desert drenched with deadly
    ultraviolet rays. The spacecraft, equipped with robotic arms, scooped up
    Martian dirt so that it could be examined for signs of biological activity.
    results of the analysis were inconclusive but generally negative, and hopes
    faded for finding even simple microbes on the surface of Mars.

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