Earth 2.0



Guest List:

  • David Latham, Astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics,
  • Dimitar Sasselov, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative,
  • Jason Wright, Professor of Astronomy at Penn State, expert in the search for advanced extraterrestrial civilizations,
  • Sarah Rugheimer, PhD student at Harvard University studying the atmospheres of exoplanets.

With hundreds of Earth-like planets discovered over the past few years, it’s fair to say we’re on the verge of finding alien life. Two new programs at NASA hope to find and analyze thousands more of these exoplanets, as they’re called.  Scientists working on the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope say there’s a very real chance of finding extraterrestrial life within the next two decades. So, if we’re about to meet our extraterrestrial neighbors, let’s get to work on some opening lines. What if we’re really not alone?

What’s the news?

The search for exoplanets is heating up — they’ve found 700 exoplanets in the last six months.
Some of them are very strange: There’s Kepler-421b, which has a year that lasts 704 days, the longest on record for a small ‘transiting’ planet. Then there’s a gas giant  that orbits 20,000 times further away from its star than Earth is from the Sun. It takes tens of thousands of our years to go around once.

They’ve found a planet turning around a star in a binary-star system, and another planet in the so-called ‘Goldilocks’ or habitable zone that’s rocky like the Earth but 17 times more massive. For a (growing) list of the most extreme exoplanets, look here.

The big news is that the Milky Way alone contains by NASA’s estimate as many as 100 billion other planets, 10% of which might be in the right zone. This makes it all the likelier that there’s life out there, as astronomers have long suspected. All it took was someone to look using the right equipment.

All this sets up the flashy NASA announcement that we will find alien life in next twenty years. Is that plausible? is the question.

What’s next?

There are two planned telescopic/observational projects that are going to change the exoplanet search fundamentally.

TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) will launch in 2017. It’s run out of MIT, with funding from Google. And its mission will be to perform a “whole-sky survey” — covering 400 times more sky than Kepler has — looking at the brightest stars for transiting exoplanets.

Then the James Webb Space Telescope (really the next Hubble) will serve as the big eye in the sky for the foreseeable future after a delayed launch in 2018. It will launch in 2018, with ‘remote sensing’ infrared sight that will allow astronomers on the ground to look for chemical patterns coming off of planets that suggest life.

There’s still a long way to go for positive proof, though — the necessary rocketry and observation technology isn’t even on the books yet.


The search right now is limited to looking for planets at the right size and in the right neighborhood with respect to their star: that ‘habitable zone’.

The astronomer Christopher McKay says we need to look, when we have better instruments, for six components that, found together, are ‘certainly damn interesting’: oxygen, “temperature, water, sunlight, nitrogen, and nothing that will kill” everything. Life like ours depends on the climate control that comes from water, too; astrobiologists are highlighting the importance of a water ocean.

The worries

Stephen Hawking wants us to lay off the search for alien life:

“I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach… If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the American Indians.”

Nick Bostrom says any proof of advanced life anywhere is bad news. The Fermi Paradox implies little communicating life in our neighborhood. That could be because of one of two “Great Filters”:

a) The advent of life is surprisingly rare, and we’re precious!; or
b) All life keeps wiping itself out past a certain point of development, due to machine superintelligence or environmental collapse.

Back to earth: there are now and ever will be funding troubles. Shifting away from SETI and going to what Latham called the long-cut way — “searching for abodes” — made this work more palatable as pure science and less sci-fi. SETI got Senator Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” award for government spending.

Still, NASA has had to team up with the Canadian and European space agencies to launch the $8.8 billion James Webb telescope. Sarah Seager says the exoplanet search is the test of

whether or not we as a society still believe in building marvelous things and in bearing the costs and disappointments that invariably attend such projects. It is a question uniquely addressed to Americans, for if we do not build the James Webb Space Telescope, no one else will.

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  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris, et al. for devoting time and energy to this subject. My somewhat off-hand contrary remark would be we’ve mangled our tasks and treatment of Earth 1.0. It’s opening lines tend to be found in sacred texts and de factor forces (political, economic, military, media, etc) which degenerate into a useful dogma of expediency. Useful as means to justify and divorce ourselves from responsibilities. The means to twist reality into the madness of reductionism. Earth 1.0 (clearly a term of species chauvinism) is largely an exercise in dominion and domination. The psyche craves conquest and subjugation. Fueled by the phantom of scarcity. In short, as a species, we are alienated. Let us not export this folly beyond our locality. Let us hope what we find is neither alienated, nor conquerable.

    • Pete Crangle

      Let me add some sentiments regarding Earth 1.0 from our current epoch:

      “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”

      — R. Buckminster Fuller

      “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all.”

      — Adlai Stevenson

      “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”

      ― Wendell Berry

      Lastly, before we begin our possible future encounters and continued assaults here on Earth 1.0, it would be prudent to consider this wisdom:

      “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

      John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.”

      –Martin Luther King, Jr.

      I would only add to this the following: reality is a wholeness, hospitable to a myriad, and heretofore, largely impervious to our attempts to fragment it into our toy simulacrum. Our drives and explorations seem to straddle an understanding of, and defiance of this.

    • Cheese

      phantom of scarcity? Does this mean that scarcity is just made up?

  • Scott MacDonald

    I am frustrated by the complete lack of acknowledgement of the huge data base compiled by respected members of the armed services and others who presented as part of “the disclosure project”
    How does this type of evidence get completely left out of this discussion?
    Whether you believe a large majority of reports are bogus or not.

  • martinbrock

    I understand how astronomers detect exoplanets. I don’t understand how they could detect life on an exoplanet. Christopher McKay’s hope for more sensitive instruments and methods narrowing the “habitable zone” seems reasonable, but a smaller set of exoplanets that are “more likely” to contain life seems hardly more satisfying than the set of “habitable zone” planets we have now.

    Even if one or more habitable zone planets harbors life, expecting this life to possess human-like intelligence is like expecting it to possess kangaroo-like locomotion. Of the millions of species on Earth, precisely one possesses human-like intelligence, so we’re clearly an extremely unlikely evolutionary development. Several species possess kangaroo-like locomotion for that matter, but only one possesses human-like intelligence.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    When we think about the ROS show, “Earth2.0,” we remember PBS profiles of such Harvard physicists as Paul Horowitz, discussions in various places of the Drake Equation (quantitative variant of Enrico Fermi Paradox mentioned on the ROS discussion, as well as the Timothy Ferris PBS offering “Seeing in the Dark.” Ferris is a renowned UC Berkeley astronomer and author of “Growing up in the Milky Way” and “The Whole Shebang.”)

    “Horowitz was one of the pioneers of the search of intelligent life beyond the Earth, and one of the leaders behind SETI.
    This work has attracted both admiration and ridicule. Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr has sharply criticized Horowitz for wasting the resources of the university and the efforts of graduate students on such an endeavour. Carl Sagan, on the other hand, was believed to have based the main character in his novel Contact partly on Horowitz.
    Horowitz claims SETI has found 37 signals “which survived all our cuts” and cannot be positively identified. On September 10, 1988 the university’s 84-foot radio dish detected “an enormous spike which was 750 times noise. If you converted the radio signal into audio it would sound just like a tone. It would sound like a flute.”
    All 37 signals, however, have been single events which have never been heard again. The software company 37signals has been named after these signals.
    Horowitz holds professorial appointments at Harvard in both physics and electrical engineering. He has also served as a member of the JASON Defense Advisory Group.”

    Drake Equation:


    There’s a deeper layer and has to come not from within science but from outside science:

    Think of the 1965 movie “The Agony and the
    Ecstasy”. Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo. Rex Harrison plays Pope Julius II. The year is circa 1510.
    In the last minutes of the movie, the Pope is walking along the Sistine Chapel floor with Michelangelo and asks him what the doing of the painting has taught him. Michelangelo seems reticent but the Pope presses him for an answer and he, Michelangelo, blurts, “I guess it says I’m not alone.”
    The Pope disagrees vehemently and says, “No Buonarrotti, it tells us that we are not alone.”
    Now that science has basically displaced religion, the astronomers have, beneath their cultural feet, so to speak, a hidden impetus which is akin to Pope Julius II’s one in the movie. The hunger is for “species uplift” and not just new data. As a new religion, science is under pressure to come up with a meaningfulness framework.
    In the Timothy Ferris PBS Program,“Seeing in the Dark” of a few years ago, there’s an analogous “will to believe”. At the very end of the show, Prof. Ferris muses about Galileo’s dictum that the world of nature is a book written in mathematics and if you could estimate what page of that book we’re on, you’d know the status of humankind. Furthermore if you
    belonged to the select group turning the page of the book of nature, your life would be meaningful.
    In other words, the astronomers and “Earth2.0” discussants are trying to bridge the how of things to the why? and extract “species uplift” and a sense of direction and meaning. The hidden impetus lies outside of science itself. This “latency” is as interesting as the brute facts.
    Richard Melson