Looking for life beats cooking up derivatives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am

Amid the global economic downturn, a launch into space should inspire more people to look up at the stars. The US space agency Nasa has sent the Kepler space telescope on a mission to look for habitable planets in our Milky Way galaxy that may sustain extraterrestrial life forms. The United States is under fire for triggering the worldwide economic crisis, but at least its space scientists are helping to answer a perennial question for humankind: is there life out there or are we truly alone? If western-style free-market ideology is driven by greed, science, it seems, is still motivated by curiosity and a deep sense of wonder.

Decades ago, most space scientists believed life on Earth was unique and rare in a vast universe of dead matter. Many now think the universe may be teeming with life. Since 1995, powerful telescopes on Earth and in space have found at least 337 planets outside our solar system.

The Kepler telescope will look for Earth-like planets orbiting suns similar to ours. If there are any, they should fall within what is called the 'Goldilocks zone' - one not too hot or cold but just right for life to evolve, as it did on Earth. There are an estimated 100 billion sun-like stars in our galaxy and more than 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, so the potential number of Earth-like planets in the universe is mind-boggling.

If the Kepler telescope finds such planets, we will know we are probably not alone. Even if it does not, we will still learn a great deal about new planets and stars in our galaxy. Of course, finding such planets is still a long way from identifying alien civilisations or intelligent life, which may be impossible to detect. But the idea behind the Kepler mission is that life on Earth is probably not unique in the universe. It is part of the progress of human awareness that started centuries ago when Copernicus dethroned humankind from the centre of the universe. Then Darwin demoted us from the pinnacle of nature. Humankind - or at least the enlightened portion - may be emerging from its childlike preoccupation with being the centre of all things.

For far too long, greed has driven so many bright mathematicians and scientists into finance, where they helped to devise ever more complicated and ultimately destructive derivative instruments. Perhaps now more of them will return to their rightful place and help advance knowledge and inspire us with their talent and genius.