An alien view of our humble place in space

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2011, 12:00am


Fifteen years ago, when scientists postulated that a Martian meteorite named Allan Hills might contain evidence of microscopic fossils of bacteria, the news was received with a mixture of astonishment and scepticism. Last week, Nasa researchers supported that theory by finding evidence that suggests nucleobases - the building blocks of genetic material - do exist in certain meteorites.

The researchers went further. These building blocks, they noted in their study funded by the US space agency, 'may have served as a molecular kit providing essential ingredients for the origin of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere'.

The discovery - and the idea that our planet is part of an infinitely vast interstellar ecosystem - is astonishing. It may very well be that a few decades from now, when we look back at 2011, the pivotal moment in human history was not mass starvation or that the US as a global empire staggered towards its collapse, or that Europe went up in flames due to social inequity, but that, in the long view of man's arduous history, the discovery that DNA came from space gave him a new and profound insight into his relationship with, and his appreciation of, the cosmos.

Our ideas about the universe have radically shifted in the last couple of decades thanks to discoveries. Once thought to be found on earth only, we now know that water, that basic element for biological forms, exists everywhere in cold, dark space.

Just as astonishing, Nasa's space-based telescope Kepler has found serious possibilities for potential life: 1,235 planets are orbiting nearby stars, and 54 of them exist in habitable zones, with protective atmospheres and liquid water - conditions that may support life.

Until Copernicus came along, we had assumed our world was the universe's centre. Last century, we thought our solar system was unique. Scientists just a generation ago assumed, too, that conditions on earth made it the only planet that could possibly support life.

That sense of self-importance has now given way to a more humble assessment of our place in space. We are an integral part of the cosmos, and we are - if the hypothesis of panspermia (meaning 'all seeding' in Greek) that life exists throughout the universe pans out - all aliens.

Indeed, gone are the days when we were special, a lonely miraculous teeming blue speck amidst the heavens, and the self-centeredness of all old world religions. What myth of creation, one wonders, should arise now when alien rocks carrying primordial soup might have given rise to all living things, and that earth is but one of countless gardens waiting to be 'seeded' in the vast and mysterious universe?

Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres