Is Anybody Out There?
For The Moment
Is there life in other places in the universe? We may never find out for sure, but that won't stop us from asking. And here at Harvard, we know that when we can't answer a question, we should ask the experts.
With that in mind, we trekked through Cambridge, asking our beloved professors and administrators our most pressing questions concerning extraterrestrial life.
President Neil L. Rudenstine, for one (and you thought the president had better things to worry about) was inclined to think that the earth is not the only place where living beings thrive.
What does he think these extraterrestrials look like? "Animals, vegetables, or organic minerals," he commented.
And Rudenstine was not the only one to endorse the belief that other life forms could exist in the universe.
"It's arrogant say for certain that there is no life elsewhere in the universe," Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz said. "If life evolved here, why should we think that it wouldn't evolve somewhere else?"
Dershowitz, however, insisted that it is useless to attempt to fathom what these creatures might resemble. "The imagination," he said, "can't even conceive of what other forms might look like. We are as accidental as anything can be."
One professor seemed to have concrete evidence that there are "extraterrestrial aliens."
"I don't see any question of their existence, because I've taught several of them in seminar," said John R. Stilgoe, Professor in the History of Landscape Development.
While Stilgoe was adamant in his belief in aliens, other professors were not so sure.
Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, for one, wryly shuned the question altogether. "I'm still looking for real life on this planet," he said, "and haven't the time to worry about others..."
For Bradley Epps, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, the question was not very intriguing. "That is something I definitely don't think about," he said. "Cereal and extraterrestrial life go into the category of things I just don't think about.
And Peter K. Bol, Professor of Chinese History, commented that he spent more time wondering about life elsewhere in the universe in his youth.
"I used to think about it, especially when I was a little kid, until I saw E.T.," Bol said. "And then I was so sure that that was what they must look like that I just stopped thinking about it at all."
Scientists, offering a more grounded view of extraterrestrials, were predictably diverse with their views concerning whether it makes sound scientific sense to spend time and money trying to communicate with other forms of life.
Robert P. Kirshner '70, Science A-35 "Matter in the Universe" guru and Astronomy department chair, seemed quite skeptical about the value of trying to make contact with aliens.
"Dolphins are highly intelligent forms of life," said Kirshner elliptically. "But they certainly don't use cellular phones."
Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science Owen J. Gingerich was even more doubtful. "Our chances of ever talking to extraterrestrial life are as good as ever talking to blue-green algae," Gingerich said.
And Margaret J. Geller, another Professor of Astronomy, joked that "the logistics of having a dialogue with someone thousands of light-years away is quite difficult."
Yet many scientists insisted that we owe it to ourselves to continue looking.
"Our planet hasn't even tried very hard," said Paul Horowitz, Professor of Physics, who has established a radio telescope in the hope of detecting extraterrestrial life. "We must, at least, give a good strong search."
"There are trillions and trillions of stars," Horowitz said. "The thought that there wouldn't be life on at least one of them is preposterous."
Chemistry 10 professor Dudley R. Herschbach was quite hopeful as well.
"Bacteria can survive in an enormous range of conditions and temperatures," Herschbach said. "I would be surprised if it takes more than two or three decades to find other forms of life in the universe."
For biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the mere possibility of a fruitful search rationalizes the effort.
"I must justify," Gould wrote in The Flamingo's Smile, "the attempt at such a long shot simply by stating that a positive result would be the most cataclysmic event in our entire intellectual history."
Not all scientists' comments, however, dealt with the intellectual effects extraterrestrial life.
In fact, some speculated about the dreadful horrors that could occur should we stumble across ex-tremely advanced forms of life.
According to Professor Kirshner, "if this is the case, we ought to keep our mouths shut because if they ever hear from us they might want to eat us."
And as Professor Gingerich stated, there is only one thing we could wish for once that happens: "We would have to hope that our amino acids would rotate and we would poison them."