Look up at the stars tonight. Those twinkling diamonds are several thousand light-years away. Our planet is just a grain of sand on a virtually endless beach, a small dot in a gigantic galaxy. Is it the only dot with life on it? That’s a question humankind has been asking ever since we started to understand the basics of astronomy thousands of years ago. Now, we’re closer than ever to finding the answer, as an unprecedented crush of ultrapowerful telescopes and interplanetary missions try to trace where else life might possibly exist. Today’s Daily Dose travels to the far reaches of the universe on that search, taking you through the latest breakthroughs and the people behind them. Curious? You should be.
Josefina Salomon, Senior Writer
come out, come out wherever you are
1. Age-Old Search
Some 2,500 years ago, two Greek philosophers looked to the sky and wondered if humans were alone in the universe. Today, many scientists believe the question is a no-brainer. For decades, one of the fundamental laws of physics formed the basis of our understanding of life on Earth. The law of increasing entropy insists that energy tends to dissipate instead of coming together: pour ink in water and watch it diffuse. If that’s true for the universe, then the sublime marriage of millions of cells and molecules for the creation of life on Earth could be a low-probability fluke that needn’t repeat itself. But some researchers now believe that the existence of extraterrestrial life doesn’t necessarily violate that basic law: In fact, they argue, it could be what drives the creation of living beings.
2. Count the Stars
And then there’s simple math to consider. There are billions of galaxies in the universe, each one home to tens of billions of stars circled by at least a planet each. See where I’m going? From the first astronomer eager to catch audio signals using radio in the early 1900s to the rovers currently exploring Mars, our fascination with outer space has always in part had to do with the hunt for potential neighbors beyond our planet. Sophisticated new tools, including the soon-to-be-deployed largest telescope in history, are capable of exploring the atmosphere of planets trillions of miles away, potentially bringing us within reach of an answer.
But some scientists are urging caution, saying the broadly accepted global guidelines on how to respond to a potential alien encounter are not enough. Physicist Mark Buchanan worries that these new civilizations could be more advanced and powerful than ours. “Most stars in our galaxy are much older than the sun. If civilizations arise fairly frequently on some planets, then there ought to be many civilizations in our galaxy millions of years more advanced than our own,” he wrote in The Washington Post in June. On the opposite side is a slightly more eerie argument: If these super smart aliens wanted to kill us all, they would have already done it.
5. Wait, Are They Already Here?
What if we’re the aliens on Earth? While a recently declassified report on alleged UFO sightings by U.S. navy pilots raised more questions than it provided answers, some prominent scientists have been positing a much more interesting theory: that life on Earth could have actually originated on Mars, making us, well, Martians. How? Life forms when planets cool down and liquid water eventually emerges. Evidence is increasingly pointing to the fact that Mars formed and cooled down before Earth, and that it had methane (an ingredient for the birth of life). Add that to the theory that various forms of life travel across the universe through asteroids and other debris, and you have a hypothesis more credible than distant sightings by pilots that could be explained in part by optical illusions.
6. Who Are the Aliens?
Scientists have recently discovered more than 2,000 stars from where Earth would be visible when it passed in front of the sun. That means that aliens with powerful telescopeson planets near those stars could actually be looking at us without visiting us on UFOs. The good news? Hector Socas-Navarro, an astrophysicist at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands, says that if there’s life out there, we currently have a good chance of finding it. “The new large telescopes will allow us to scrutinize the chemical composition of many exoplanet atmospheres,” he tells OZY. “With those tools, we could find life elsewhere within the next 10 to 20 years.”
Become a financial thriver and survivor with a brand new world from Minecraft. “Fintropolis” shows kids how to take their money game to the next level. They’ll learn everything from responsible spending and saving to taxes and making big purchases. All in a super fun way that’s easy to understand. The goal? Increase players’ financial literacy and set them up to lead financially healthy lives. The game was created by Blockworks in collaboration with Ally, and was inspired by four interns from Moguls in the Making, a pitch competition that challenges young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs from HBCUs to create impactful business solutions. Their goal with Fintropolis was to help parents and teachers empower players from all backgrounds to build the blocks of financial literacy and practice good money habits. These skills will help them become good financial citizens in the game — and the real world too.
From the moment Galileo Galilei, one of modern astronomy’s founding fathers, pointed his telescope upward in the 1600s, the instrument has been central to our understanding of the universe. It helped early scientists study the surface of our moon and discover Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. Since then, telescopes have evolved in ways the Italian astronomer probably never dreamed of. In 1931, American engineer Karl Jansky’s giant rotating antennas detected the first radio signal from the center of the Milky Way. And more than seven decades later, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope identified thousands of planets that orbit around stars other than the sun between 2009 and 2018.
Telescopes are poised to become ever more sophisticated, with the ability to provide better images of smaller planets located farther away. The Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and the European Extremely Large Telescope (brownie points for original naming) are both due to be up and running by 2025. They promise to deliver images so sharp scientists might be able to identify the fine imprint that molecules leave in the atmospheres of other planets, tracking clues to the possibility of life. Another Harvard University-led project will search for possible technologies aliens might have discarded as junk. Meanwhile, other researchers are developing ultrafast light-driven nanocrafts, similar to the ones aliens could have, to launch toward Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to ours (about 25 trillion miles away) that could potentially harvest life. Why is it so important to search for life elsewhere? Astrophysicist Socas-Navarro tells OZY the answer is simple: “All the life that we know descends from one line. Biology has only one sample to work with in trying to understand life itself and how it originates. It's like trying to study medicine in a world with only one person.”
the next galileos
1. Yuri Milner
Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson aren’t the only billionaires locked in a space race. Milner, an Israeli Russian businessman and one of the moneybags behind Facebook and Twitter, founded Breakthrough Initiatives in 2015 and has invested more than $200 million in the search for alien life on Jupiter, Saturn and in the clouds over Venus. The businessman, who was named after the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to venture into space, has always been interested in what is out there. “I think it is only appropriate that we, as a civilization, devote at least some resources to try and ask the biggest existential questions; for example, are we alone in the universe?” he told CTech. But his biggest strength might be his proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who heads a state with one of the world’s most sophisticated space programs at its disposal.
2. Latinas in Nasa
Latinos represent just 7% of NASA’s workforce, though they constitute 18% of the U.S. population. For Hispanic women, making it to NASA can be as hard as getting to Jupiter. Mexican Ali Guarneros Luna is shattering that glass ceiling, remaking the space agency’s reputation for a new generation. Growing up in Mexico, she read about space missions in an encyclopedia — and was instantly hooked. Then, at the age of 12, she immigrated to California with her mother after an earthquake devastated her native Mexico City in 1985. After high school, she gave up on her college dreams to support her four children. After she finally went back to school and earned two degrees, a professor convinced her to try out for NASA. She now works as part of the Agency’s small satellite technology program, which develops new tools for space missions, and is a top safety expert at the agency. Shooting for the stars has paid off for her.
But you don’t need to be a space engineer to satiate your curiosity about possible alien life. All you need is a telescope and a ton of time. NASA is recruiting amateur astronomers keen to observe planets from outside our solar system as they pass in front of the sun. The idea is that mass observation will help build a body of data pointing to the time and frequency at which these planets travel near the sun, allowing more experienced astronomers to know when to point the larger telescopes.
in pop culture
1. Fact or Fiction?
If they exist, what do aliens look like? Are they green and cute as in E.T., tall and skinny as in Signs, human-looking like Sally from 3rd Rock From the Sun or perhaps angry and gooey like in Aliens? For decades, popular culture has stepped in where science has been unable to answer questions. Some argue these stories reflect other social fears (think about the many reports of UFO sightings between 1952 and 1969 during the Cold War).
2. Mirror, Mirror
OK, that’s Hollywood. What do scientists say about the way aliens might actually look? That we should look at evolution, and keep an open mind. They argue that the way we humans look is pretty much a result of necessity (two eyes for wide vision, two ears for stereo audio, two legs to stand up and grab things from high up). Each species is different, based on their own evolutionary needs. So aliens can actually look completely different to us. Where we are going wrong is that we are only imagining beings similar to creatures on Earth.
3. Man on Mars
What if we could combine scientific research with the spectacle of films? A series of cool new documentaries does just that, exploring some of the questions NASA scientists are asking themselves and offering a front-row seat to their findings. Among them is Nat Geo’s Mars, a documentary-style fiction series that takes viewers on a trip over the next few decades as humans settle on Mars. Spoiler alert: It will take more than finding a new habitable planet to rid humanity of its problems.