Amoebas, Asteroids, and Life on Other Planets

NASA calls it 99942 Apophis, and while it’s been “downgraded” to a 1 in 45,000 chance of impact in 2036, this asteroid fascinates me. In Egyptian myth, Apophis was the ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon that was determined to plunge the world into eternal darkness. The odds of the Apophis asteroid hitting Earth are about the same as hitting a hole-in-one in golf or being hit by a car while walking – things that happen every day and to people you know – so I’m hoping someone sends Bruce Willis to space to fix this problem soon (although humans will probably blow up this planet long before that asteroid).

I never took a physics course and other than watching “Space 1999” and every incarnation of “Star Trek,” I’m not really a science fiction buff either. I’m fascinated by space exploration because I’m fascinated by our connectedness with the universe. We can’t be all that’s alive out there.

Take the newly discovered, possibly life-friendly planet outside our galaxy called 581 c, which sounds more like a tax form than an interplanetary object.

“Liquid water is critical to life as we know it,” co-author Xavier Delfosse of Grenoble University in France, said in a statement. “Because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X.”

Other astronomers cautioned it’s too early to tell whether there is water.

“You need more work to say it’s got water or it doesn’t have water,” said retired NASA astronomer Steve Maran, press officer for the American Astronomical Society. “You wouldn’t send a crew there assuming that when you get there, they’ll have enough water to get back.”

NASA also shouldn’t assume that an intelligent life form would LET an exploration crew get back. “They” might be pissed off by the intrusion. Or if we sent a probe first rather than a human crew, what if it arrived on 581 c and some kid found it in his backyard and brought it to his basement and no one there ever knew we tried to make contact?

All told, though, we probably need to find another planet to live on if we keep fucking up the one we’ve been given. Mark Morford wrote a snarkily thoughtful column, as he always does, on the fate of the honey bee and its connection to the fate of humankind. A quick quote: “See, the sweet, sticky ontological truth is nature doesn’t really give a damn whether our species lives or dies. It is very possible that we are not nearly as essential or significant as we like to believe. Though I imagine if nature had her druthers, she might very well choose to eliminate us like a bad dream and let the honeybees and the ants and the trees and the whales take over.”

Science is based on evidence, not belief, and I’m looking forward to the day when evidence reveals that the tiniest one-cell amoeba existed or exists on another planet. That would tie the Kansas Board of Education’s underwear in a knot, wouldn’t it? It would certainly expand the field of theology. It’s about time for a new debate in that stale field that I admit I love more than artichokes (which, as regular readers know, is saying a lot).

DNA and god and tiny amoebas and asteroids and honey bees and extraterrestrial children hiding space probes in their basements – it’s all connected.

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