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Are We Alone?

It's a question that humans have long asked themselves. We are probably not alone in the universe, though it may feel like it, since life on other planets is probably dominated by microbes.

Alvin Powell, of the Harvard news office, quotes radio astronomer Gerrit Verschuur as saying that he believes that though there is very likely life out there (and perhaps a lot of it), it is very unlikely to be both intelligent and able to communicate with us.

In the Daily Galaxy, Casey Kazan quotes astrophysicist Dimitar Sasselov as saying, "We don't now have the technology to physically travel outside our solar system for such an exchange to take place, but we are like Columbus centuries ago, learning fast how to get somewhere few think possible."

Verschuur bases his opinion on the Drake equation, formulated by astronomer Francis Drake in 1960, that provides a means for calculating the number of intelligent civilizations that it is possible for humans to make contact with.

Using Drake's equation, he calculates there may be just one other technological civilization capable of communicating with humans in the whole group of galaxies that include our Milky Way, which may explain why 30 years of scanning the skies for signs of intelligent life has come up empty. Powell quotes him as saying, "I'm not very optimistic."

Astrophysicist Dimitar Sasselov agrees with Verschuur that life is probably common in the universe and believes life is a natural "planetary phenomenon" that occurs easily on planets with the right conditions. The problem? Not many planets have the right conditions.

But Sasselow thinks we need to give it time, since our universe is relatively young (only about 14 billion years old). The heavy elements that make up planets like Earth were not available in the early universe: They are formed by the stars. Enough of these materials were available to begin forming rocky planets like Earth just 7 billion or 8 billion years ago. It took nearly 4 billion years for intelligent life to evolve on Earth.

Powell quotes Sasselov as saying, "It takes a long time to do this. It may be that we are the first generation in this galaxy."

Meanwhile, despite the fact that NASA has sent new probes like Kepler out into space, astronomers are using a new ground-based technique to study the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system. They are searching for Earth-like planets with traces of organic, carbon-rich molecules. In BBC News, Jason Palmer quotes NASA's Mark Swain as saying, "These molecules are eventually how we're going to answer the question of whether expolanets have a habitable atmosphere to support life."

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Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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