Heavenly Life?

Are we alone in the universe?
Astronomers say probably not

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Interview with James Hutchingson, professor of theology at Florida International University
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From Correspondent John Zarrella

MIAMI (CNN) -- Astronomer Paul Horowitz has patiently tended his giant antenna for years. As it scans the heavens, he hopes it will transmit the sounds of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

"Here we are, the first generation that could realistically establish contact. You'd have to be crazy not to try," Horowitz explained.

Although the Harvard professor admits that picking up a radio transmission from another world would be dumb luck, he believes "they" are out there.

"There's every reason to believe that there's other life in the universe and, indeed, in our galaxy itself," he said. "The processes that led to life on Earth are probably universal."

He has his detractors, but also has attracted a fair number of supporters. The possibility that Mars meteorites that fell to Earth may contain evidence of past life has given rise to tremendous optimism among people looking for signs of intelligent life on other planets.

the cosmos

The Mars meteorite discovery "suggests to me that life is pretty common in the universe," John Logsdon of George Washington University said. "But it's a big jump from that to little green or pink or purple people."

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson is one of the optimists. "It's staggering to think how much life might be out there, and I'm convinced it's all over the place."

Cosmologists and astronomers say the numbers are simply too overwhelming for there not to be life on other worlds. Just look it up. For starters, astronomer Rich Terrile said, "We now believe that perhaps the majority of stars that we see in the night sky contain planets around them."

And, the Earth is an ordinary planet sitting in an obscure corner of a galaxy that contains no less than 400 billion stars. If each one were a grain of sand, the stars would fill half of an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Scientists think one-quarter of the stars may harbor planets much like Earth.

our sun and planet

"We're not here because of a chain of miracles, as perhaps we were taught when we were kids," Terrile said. "We're here through a natural series of consequences which occur again and again throughout our galaxy."

The growing possibility that other intelligent life exists also carries with it tremendous religious implications. Theologians say creationists and others who literally interpret scripture may have to reevaluate their beliefs if life is found elsewhere.

Yet the world's mainstream religions, both Eastern and Western, could benefit from such a finding. Some theologians explain it as giving religion a dose of galactic modesty. But would a Supreme Being be limited to just creating Earth?

"One small piece of an incredibly huge creation," said theologian James Huchingson. "God's lavish generosity in His creation knows no limits, and I think that's what we're discovering here as much as anything else."

While science is more convinced than ever that life is out there, proving it is another matter. "We're probably not alone, but it may be so far between intelligent civilizations that we might go on another million years before we learn to communicate," Jet Propulsion Laboratories scientist Robert Staehle said.


Distance hasn't stopped Earthlings from fantasizing. A new wave of alien interest is surging, prompting television series and movies such as "Independence Day." True believers want to be covered. A London insurance agency said it has sold 900 policies covering the possibility of alien abductions.

Jo Carpenter bought a policy, which he said would pay his 1 million pounds if he's abducted and 1 million pounds to his survivors if he's eaten by aliens.

Simon Burgess, a broker at the insurance agency handling the abduction policies, isn't holding his breath for anyone to collect. "If I were to discriminate against the stupid or the feeble-minded, I perhaps wouldn't have too many clients," he said.

Fantasies aside, astronomers say the availability of telescopes needed to see planets revolving around other suns are only a decade away. Within 200 years, the dreamers believe star ships will be en route to those planets in search of life.

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