Finding aliens and the meaning of life

I was reading a story this week on how the universe is dying. Apparently there’s not too much need for immediate concern since we’ve still got a few billion years left. That’s a good thing, since we still haven’t quite decided where the universe came from.

These days, aliens are a very popular explanation. Carl Sagan, the astronomer and cosmologist, was convinced aliens had something to do with our being here. Richard Dawkins, the biologist, has also decided they’re to blame. Stephen Hawking, the physicist and cosmologist, fears aliens will wipe us out once we find them, but thinks the search is worth it anyway.

And aliens aren’t just a popular idea, they’re a very expensive hobby for some. Last month, a Russian billionaire donated $100 million to kick off Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year programme to hunt for hints of life in space. It will be run through the Seti Institute, a privately funded organisation (backed by more millionaires) that has been searching for aliens for three decades.

The pop science magazine New Scientist frequently dedicates articles to the search, and earlier this year reported that bursts of radio waves in a set pattern were being detected. One of the “tantalising” explanations put forward was aliens.

Unfortunately, aside from the odd cosmic curiosity like the space bleeps, the search is proving rather futile.

But we persist, and it shows just how much we strange little creatures long to know where we came from. In fact, we want to know where it all came from. The grass, and cherry blossoms, and lambs born in spring. The seasons and temperatures and stars scattered over the night sky.

We look at ourselves and marvel. We look around and wonder. We want to know where we came from because knowing that would tell us who we are, and what this all means.

But, as any child knows, the only one way to figure out who we really are is to find out who we belong to. That’s why we play the cosmic orphans, and spend millions searching the universe for data that may offer any hint. We simply won’t feel we know ourselves until we know our maker.

Of course, religious people have been saying there’s intelligent life out there for millennia. And they’ve been saying it has something to do with us, too. They’d even agree it holds the answers. This creeping convergence between theology and popular scientific theory might be why the Wall Street Journal declared last December that science has started pointing to God.

Oddly, the primary objection to the existence of God is the lack of hard evidence. Still, you’ll find those who object to him most loudly are often those who really are certain aliens exist. It is simply, they insist, a matter of finding the evidence.

Indeed, theology and popular science may be much closer than we think.

Both start the search for life out there to figure out the meaning of life down here. The question is whether or not the answer has already been found.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

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