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NASA’s Holy Grail

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center CC

Jeremy Lott - published on 07/18/14

What if there is no E.T. and no home to phone?

The other day, Rare posted a short item that got me thinking. It was about the relentless scientific search for what we used to call “extra terrestrial life.” As in, life not of this planet.

Blame Steven Spielberg for the phrase’s popularity and his imitators for its exhaustion. When he launched his 1982 blockbuster, he didn’t take any chances, giving us both the abbreviation and the word in the title of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

This particular popcorn delivery vehicle is about a short, pruny alien whose space craft crash lands in a California forest. He befriends a group of kids who help him escape the clutches of government goons and jury rig a device to “phone home” for help.

Movies theaters, especially during the summer season, are chock full of this kind of movie and its nightmarish counterpart: the alien invasion movie.

This summer we saw Earth to Echo, an E.T. homage, and Edge of Tomorrow, a quite good Tom Cruise-Emily Blunt time travel alien attack flick. The latest Transformers was a mash-up of the two concepts, with plenty of explosions and dinosaurs thrown in for good measure.

Soon to come are two movies, Jupiter Rising and Guardians of the Galaxy, in the side-genre of an Earthling unwittingly getting swept up into an intergalactic conflict, with the fate of our planet in the balance.

Most scientists’ response to all of this is highly amusing.

On the one hand, they don’t want to look like cranks, so they make sure to distance themselves from the fiction part of science fiction. They pour cold Dihydrogen Monoxide on reports of UFOs and little green or gray men and the like.

On the other hand, they really, really want there to be aliens out there, somewhere. They have spent countless man hours and dollars, with SETI and telescopes and even satellites that host telescopes, trying to find signs of intelligent life on other planets. They desperately want to find a new Earth out there.

The lack of anything intelligible thus far is not slowing them down. The reason why is a sort of secular faith. At a conference held at NASA Monday, CNN reported, administrator Charles Bolden pronounced it “highly improbable in the limitless vastness of the universe that we humans stand alone.”

MIT planetary prof Sara Seager enthused, “We believe we’re very, very close in terms of technology and science to actually finding the other Earth and our chance to find signs of life on another world.”

Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who helped to repair the Hubble telescope to look for that planet, put it more succinctly, “Finding Earth’s twin, that’s kind of the holy grail.”

The holy grail!

Sure it’s a metaphor, but metaphors often tell us more than the speakers intend. In this case, that the scientific quest for life elsewhere is something like a holy quest. There must be life elsewhere, because what we have here cannot be unique. It just can’t be.

Now, life on other planets would present no special problem for Catholics or the religious in general. Christian novelists have no trouble entertaining the idea of life on other worlds or other planets.

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series posited life in parallel worlds and his science-fiction trilogy places life on Venus. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time took her children-protagonists to other populated planets.

The extra-terrestrial life in those novels is in the service of story, but neither Lewis nor L’Engle, nor most educated Christians for that matter, would have any sort of difficulty with life on other planets.

“In the beginning,” the book of Genesis tells us, “God created the Heavens and the Earth.” News that those Heavens were likewise populated with life would pose no special problem for religious believers.

But for secularists and scientists of a certain bent, lack of news could be utterly terrifying.

What if it turns out there isn’t intelligent life out there?

What if, 10, 25 or 50 years from now, we peer ever deeper into space and find nothing, or next to nothing?

What if we find the conditions for life but no life? Or life not much more advanced than algae?

What if the more we look, the more mankind stands out?

What if there is no E.T. and no home to phone?

Jeremy Lott is an editor of Rare.

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