by Amanda Wyatt
Making contact with extraterrestrial life may sound like the stuff of science fiction — but if you ask some astronomers, that may not be such a stretch of the imagination.
For decades, scientists have been searching for evidence of life — both past and present — in and beyond our solar system. And according to Matthew Pappas, a professor of astronomy at Suffolk County Community College and Stony Brook University, they are closer than ever to finding whomever (or whatever) may be out there.
This was the subject of “Inevitable Discovery: The Scientific Search for Life Beyond Earth,” a lecture given by Pappas last Friday evening at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. Before and after the talk, dozens of curious stargazers also turned up for a guided telescope viewing of the night sky.
According to Pappas, finding life on other planets is “highly probable, even though it’s not confirmed. It’s highly likely that [life] is somewhere else in the universe.”
“There might be 17 million life-bearing worlds in our galaxy alone,” he said. “So then take 17 million, multiply that by the total number of galaxies out there and you could actually understand why scientists and astronomers are actually very hopeful, and might even be able to say that we expect to find life somewhere else, even though we haven’t found it yet.”
While Pappas, who has worked on projects such as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is optimistic about the likelihood of finding extraterrestrial life, not everyone is as hopeful. As he pointed out, scientists technically have no proof that life exists outside our planet.
“Are we alone? Scientifically, yes, because there’s no scientifically verifiable evidence to the contrary,” he admitted.
More cynical scientists, Pappas said, sometimes maintain that if extraterrestrials were out there, we would have been able to make contact with them by now. Others, however, point to the fact that the conditions for life — such as water — can be found all across the galaxy.
A number of planets and other celestial bodies have evidence of water, including Mars, which is famous for its “canals” where water may have once run. But as Pappas noted, the Italian astronomer who originally discovered these dry cracks on Mars’ surface actually referred to them as “channels;” “canals” is a mistranslation, and a rather misleading one.
Canals are man-made, so implicit in the word is the idea of someone building the canal. This, Pappas said, is the root of our cultural obsession with “little green men” existing on Mars.
In any event, humans have long been fascinated with the idea of making contact with aliens, and scientists have been sending correspondence into space for quite some time in the hope that someone may find it.
But increasingly, he says, it looks as if we are coming closer to actually receiving a return message.
About four years ago, scientists — in conjunction with Bebo, a social networking website — sent a radio broadcast of messages to a planetary system orbiting the red dwarf Gliese 581.
One of the planets, which Pappas referred to as potentially “an Earth on steroids,” seemed to be the best candidate for a planet that could support life, at least at the time. Located 20 light years from Earth, the radio broadcast will take 20 years to actually reach that planet, since radio waves actually travel at the speed of light.
Assuming intelligent beings happen to hear the broadcast in 2029, it would take an additional 20 years for us to receive a reply. That means that, best case scenario, we could hear back from another life form in the year 2049.
“It’s hopeful, because there’s a lot you’ve got to assume is taking place — that there’s life there, the signal is going to get there, it’s going to be picked up on and interpreted, and something’s going to be sent back,” Pappas said.
“This is the dreamer in me coming out, but potentially, in a matter of a generation, we may actually have confirmation of an alien civilization with a radio broadcast. And that’s the part that is most amazing to me,” he added.