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The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life
It's been nearly four decades since Carl Sagan first addressed the general public from a scientist's perspective, confronting the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We've learned a lot in those years, and planetary scientist David Grinspoon is well prepared to explore this field with a new generation of readers. In Lonely Planets, Grinspoon investigates the big questions: How widespread are life and intelligence in the cosmos? Is life on Earth an accident or in some sense the "purpose" of this universe? And how can we, working from the Earth-centric definition of "life," even begin to think about the varieties of life-forms on other planets?
In accessible, lively prose, and using the topic of extraterrestrial life as a mirror with which to view human beliefs, evolution, history, and aspirations, Grinspoon takes readers on a three-part journey.
History is an overview of our expanding awareness of other planets, from the observations of seventeenth-century natural philosophers to modern-day space exploration. It traces the history of our ideas on alien life to the earliest days of astronomy, and shows how these beliefs have changed with humanity's evolving self-image.
Science tells the story of cosmic evolution and the evolution of life on Earth. Here, Grinspoon disputes the recent "Rare Earth hypothesis," which argues that Earth is unique for sprouting advanced life-forms, maintaining instead that life is likely to be well adapted to a wide variety of planets. He questions conventional assumptions of what is required for a planet to come to life, scrutinizing current ideas and evidence for life on Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter, and challenging readers to think about other life-forms that may exist on other worlds.
Belief discusses the limits of our abilities to conceptualize or communicate with intelligent aliens living on planets circling distant stars. Grinspoon speculates on what intelligent life might become, eventually, on Earth and elsewhere, and the implications, both scientific and philosophical, of these far-future evolutionary possibilities.
Written with authority and edge, and rich in personal,often amusing anecdotes, Lonely Planets explores the shifting boundary between planetary science and naturalphilosophy and reveals how the search for extraterrestrial life unites our spiritual and scientific quests for connection with the cosmos.
Spirits from the Vasty Deep
We have all felt this impulse in our childhood as our
ancestors did before us, when they conjured goblins
and spirits from the vasty void, and if our energy
continue we never cease to feel its force through life.
We but exchange, as our years increase, the romance
of fiction for the more thrilling romance of fact.
-- Percival Lowell
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man, but will they come
when you do call for them?
Shakespeare, Henry IV
Prologue: Bruised by An Alien
It was a dark and stormy night -- and already a weird one. My friend
Damon and I trudged around through a snowstorm in the Meatpacking
District, hunting for a spoken-word/hip-hop/acid-jazz event someone had
said we had to see, while the wind whipped the streets into soft, majestic
canyons. We were ants lost in a liquid-filled snowy Manhattan, and somebody
up there was giving it a good shake. After hours of increasingly
blind and frozen searching, we ducked into a corner bar where a jazz
quartet was only slightly mangling Coltrane's "Out of This World" and
sat down to regroup and have a drink. At one point we looked up at the
TV and there was Rudy Giuliani dancing with the Rockettes wearing fishnet
stockings and high heels. It was a little unsettling.
Soon it was several drinks later, the band was finishing Miles Davis's
"So What." and our waitress was ready to end her shift. She leaned over
our table and asked just what we were blathering on about and what we
were doing in New York. We had been baiting each other -- as we have
been doing since the eighth grade -- into some twisted science fiction
scenario that seemed good at the time. Of course she was much more
impressed with Damon, who is both cuter and a film director, than
me, a scientist and a "writer" (yeah, right!). She started talking about
her acting experience and aspirations.* She was not obnoxious or pushy,
just friendly, and we welcomed the diversion. Eventually, perhaps just to
be polite, she asked me what kind of scientist I am. What I said was "I
study planets and I'm writing a book about aliens," but what I was
thinking was "I wonder what her story will be." And then she told us.
(Cue spooky, New Age music.)
One night about a year ago she had stayed out late and had a few
drinks herself -- she doesn't remember how the night ended. There was
a strange interval of missing time, and she woke up the next morning
with an elaborate marking on her right outer thigh. It was a large,
stick-figure discoloration about six inches tall. It looked just like a
bruise, but it didn't hurt like one. And just like a bruise, it faded. The
design appeared to show some sort of helmeted and antennaed space-creature.
I asked her if she could draw it for us, and she did, right there
on the back of our bar tab. She even signed it "Jillian." Here it is:
Because you never know, I asked her permission to use the drawing
and the story in this book. She agreed without hesitation. She smiled
but didn't seem to be putting us on. This clearly intelligent, articulate,
and apparently undisturbed woman was certain that she had had some
kind of alien encounter. Damon asked her if quaaludes were involved
but she swore that it was nothing like that.
Given the Giuliani vision, not to mention Jillian's story, I would have
been inclined to think I had just hallucinated the entire evening, except
the next morning when I woke up, there it was. No markings on my
thighs, but a bar tab in my wallet with an alien on the back.*
One thing I've learned is that when it comes to aliens, everywhere
you go, somebody's got a story. This actually solved a problem for me.
I already knew that I wanted to write about science and our beliefs
about aliens. To me, this is familiar territory. But how would I include
stories about UFOs, abductions, cattle mutilations, crop circles, and so
forth, the phenomena that are widely associated with the topic of
extraterrestrials everywhere except in the pages of scientific journals?
There are so many stories out there. It would be futile to try to be pro-portionately
representative, yet you'd have to be blind not to see that
aliens are all around us. Without really trying I've picked up my share
of alien paraphernalia: beach towels, glow pops, rolling papers, magnets,
a little green dancing statuette, and even a pipe-smoking-alien
lawn gnome. Much of this alien lore is tongue-in-cheek, but some not
entirely, and some leaves the tongue just hanging out there flapping
loose in the breeze. Fortunately, many on all sides of the UFO debates
approach the question with a proper dose of humor.
But what balance to strike? After all, dammit Jim, I'm a scientist, not
a comparative sociologist. Anything I have to say that is of any interest
to you, fair reader, is more likely from the perspective of a working scientist,
not a UFO dilettante.
Since it seems that virtually everyone has something to say on the subject,
a strong belief, an opinion, or a must-read source of esoteric evidence,
I decided that rather than go to the aliens, I'd let them come to me.
After all, the cultural airwaves are saturated with alien signals, on all frequencies,
in all directions. All you need to do is unfurl your antennae, turn on your signal analyzers, and let her rip. So, I thought, I'll just pay attention
to all of the transmissions passing through my little region of space ...