Are We Alone?
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Are we alone?

Are we alone?

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“The bottom line:
Earth is not mediocre.”

Marcelo Gleiser
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Introduction

Imagine for a moment that you live in Ancient Greece and one night you decide to go out and look at the stars. What would you see? In a way, the night sky would look exactly the way it looks to someone camping at Yosemite in 2014; and yet, the sight would be radically different. An Ancient Greek looking at the night sky perceived the universe rotating around the Earth, which was thought to be located in the center of a perfectly spherical universe that contained all celestial bodies and everything else that existed.

This is how Western civilization perceived the universe for more than twenty centuries: a set of nested spheres, as it was depicted by the Ptolemaic system. Fixed stars constituted the outer spheres that circled around the planets’ orbits. Closer to the center, the moon’s trajectory formed the inner sphere. The world inside the moon’s orbit was thought to be different from everything above it. The Earth was not just the center of the universe, but an entirely unique place. This view concurred with the Biblical doctrine that God created life solely on Earth, where he reserved a special place for man, whom he created in his image and likeness. From Ancient Greece until Early Modernity we conceived ourselves, under this paradigm, as unique beings that inhabited the pivotal place around which everything else revolved.

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Opinions

Marcelo Gleiser

Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College and author of "The Island of Knowledge."

When, in 1543, Copernicus demoted the Earth to a mere planet, he had no idea that he would, albeit somewhat slowly, turn the world upside-down. The good canon of Warmia, Poland, set off a chain of events that would, in the centuries following, lead to the progressive humiliation of our species, once the proud center of creation. So goes the bad karma of science: the more we learn about the universe, the less important we become. Is this really what modern science is telling us?

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Ethan Siegel

Ph.D. astrophysicist and author of the blog Starts With a Bang!

In the film Independence Day, aliens arrive rather unexpectedly and in spectacularly horrendous fashion.

“Sir, what if they do become hostile?” General Grey asks the President.

“Then God help us.”

And that’s how science fiction usually envisions humankind’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life. With only a few thousand years of modern civilization behind us, we’re surely in our technological infancy, while other worlds may have had intelligent life on them flourishing for millions of years. With that in mind, we would have every reason to think that we won’t find alien life; alien life will find us.

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M. Anthony Mills

PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Saint John Paul II famously described the theory of evolution as “more than a hypothesis.” Nevertheless, he maintained, the philosophical supposition of reductive materialism, which many assume to be a consequence of the biological theory, “is incompatible with the truth of man.” 

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Agustín Fuentes

Chair of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

When we look to the night sky and ask “are we alone?” we imply two questions. The first is the most basic: Is there anything out there that we could call “life”? The second, and more interesting to those of us who study humans, is: If there is life out there, is it anything like us?

But how would we know if life “out there” were like us?

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Zeeya Merali

Zeeya Merali is a freelance science writer based in London, and editor of the Foundational Questions Institute website.

Congratulations, you’ve won the lottery! In fact, according to the increasingly popular “multiverse theory,” all of us -- every person, animal, star and planet we see -- hit the cosmic jackpot. The idea is that our universe is only one of countless many neighboring cosmoses, replete with different physical laws, forces and particles. While most are inhospitable for life, we have the good fortune to be in one of the few that has just the right the ingredients to support us.

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