Fill in the blank:
The mission of _________ is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.
If you said The Roman Catholic Church, you're way off. If you said the starship Enterprise, you're wrong, but closer. Here's the answer.
Recently Discover magazine ran an article on the probabilities involved in finding this extraterrestrial life. They referenced the Drake Equation, which was developed in the 60's (that ever fruitful decade) to estimate the likelihood of finding another intelligent civilization. It involves estimating the rate of star creation, the fraction of those stars which have habitable planets, and the ratio of those planets to host the development of amino acids which eventually walk upright, build a radio, and send an electromagnetic signal into space for the good folks at SETI to tune into.
The equation is not without its critics, especially those who hold to the Rare Earth hypothesis. If you're into math, feel free to check them out (especially you, "Anonymous" from two posts down). I'm not going to attempt to debunk the theories myself.
What amazes me in this whole affair is how much the serious scientific hacks trip over themselves hoping to find this hypothetical life. It's like they'd somehow have proven Christianity wrong. "HA!" they'd shout. "God doesn't exist after all! We know this because Zim Floobar has a wife, three kids, a pet slimpet, and a minivan on Alpha Centauri!"
Last November astronomer and Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno published a booklet entitled, "Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic Belief and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life.' The blurb on the publisher's site states:
Humans have always looked at the stars and wondered if there is anybody else out there. This unique booklet, by a Vatican astronomer, explores the likelihood of other intelligent life in the universe and speculates on the questions that such a discovery would raise in matters of Faith. Questions like: Is original sin something that affected all intelligent beings? Is Jesus Christ's redemptive sacrifice sufficient for the whole Universe? Would there be a parallel history of salvation on other planets? This booklet is a fascinating meeting between science and religion.
There is no conflict between the Truth of Catholic teaching and the Truth of science. John Paul II once told a group of scientists, "Truth does not contradict truth." As Brother Consolmagno's booklet says, "What Genesis says about creation is true. God did it; God willed it; and God loves it. When science fills in the details of how God did it, science helps get a flavor of how rich and beautiful and inventive God really is."
So let's say one day a little red light starts blinking in some SETI facility, and we hear a voice from light-years away saying, "Testing, one, two, is this thing on?" What does that mean for the Faith?
No doubt our scientific community would pick up the newspaper that breaks the story, roll it up, and smack the Pope over the head with it, demanding a recantation of all Catholic teaching.
I wonder though, what would be the response of the scientists if the first message they heard from outside the solar system was, "Probatum, unus, duo... In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
Doubtless they'd all convert.
Hey, it could happen. In an infinite universe, everything will eventually happen.
I've always wondered, too: science always debunks the idea that Earth is the centre of the universe. Yet we are told (link is a PDF document, see page 25) that the edge of the visible universe is about 13 billion light years away. Ok... in all directions? Call me simple-minded if you will, but that sounds like we'd be in the middle of a three dimensional object. If it wasn't 13 billion light years in each direction, you'd think they'd tell us. Being in the centre says a lot about our origins, especially if the universe is expanding and we're watching it from a relative stand-still. Almost like something started from this point in space.
But the real question that faces us as a civilization gazing at the stars is, "Are we here because Somebody wanted us to be? Or are we just the unnoticed result of a series of grand cosmic coincidences?" In other words, "Are we blessed, or are we just lucky?"
I've known the embrace of God. You'll never convince me I'm not blessed.