Is There Life Out There?—The Most Thrilling Question We Can Answer


"Science—knowledge—only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."

That's one of the first comments the late, great physicist Richard Feynman makes in a wide-ranging interview from the 1981 television documentary, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. I recommend you watch it, if you have the time. The title comes from Feynman's description of the visceral thrill that accompanies discovery, a thrill that intensifies in direct proportion with the discovery's profundity and certitude.

I was reminded of Feynman's documentary and quote one day in 2009, during a hike on a telescope-studded Chilean mountaintop with the astronomer Debra Fischer. Fischer is a planet-hunter, one of a handful of individuals around the globe who have discovered dozens of alien worlds, and who are bent on finding more planets like our own. She was using a telescope there to search for terrestrial planets around Alpha Centauri, the nearest neighboring stellar system to our own Sun.

It was a clear, sunny afternoon, with only a single condor spiraling in the sky—a good omen for telescope work, since more soaring condors would have meant hot, rising air, atmospheric disturbance, and muddy views of the night sky through the telescope. We also found an apricot tree, improbably laden with fruit in the midst of what was essentially high desert. Barely touched, the ripe apricots fell into our open hands, and as we paused and ate, we speculated on how the tree had come to be there, and how it had managed to grow and bloom and bear fruit. (The explanation turned out to involve a beneficent groundskeeper who had planted the tree and hooked up an irrigation line, but bear with me.)

You can, of course, trace such a question back to the rarefied abstraction of why there's anything at all rather than nothing whatsoever, but I prefer the more concrete consideration that, without a rocky, warm, wet planet to support a complex biosphere, neither Fischer's apricot nor Feynman's flower could have existed in the first place, let alone be savored and appreciated.

Science is filled with big questions, and astronomy and its subfields are blessed with some of the biggest. For example, where did the universe come from? How is it that its expansion is accelerating? Why is it that time only moves in one direction? These are great, worthy mysteries ... but no matter how many billions of dollars we throw at them, I'm not at all convinced that we'll be definitively answering any of them anytime soon—or that we even know how to properly address them yet.

Looking for other habitable or inhabited planets is different, partially because we already have such a well-characterized template to guide us: Earth, and its defining, life-enabling properties.

Many of our planet's most salient features—its liquid-water ocean, its atmospheric composition, and its global population of living things—appear relatively straightforward to remotely detect across the vast distances of interstellar space. That's largely why I believe that, quite possibly for the remainder of my lifetime, the most profound question that can be answered with reasonable certainty—the most pleasurable thing that can be imminently found out—is the frequency of living worlds around other stars.

I'm admittedly biased (just look at my Twitter feed—it's clear what my interests are), but my argument rests on facts: The research architectures and observational capabilities required to find Earth-like planets in our region of the galaxy, and determine whether or not some of them harbor life, are already reasonably well-defined. Public interest in (if not knowledge of) the search for alien life is high, and nearly universal. And, in comparison to tasks like finding the Higgs boson, establishing the precise nature of dark energy, or experimentally validating string theory, completing much (though not all!) of this "planetary census" simply isn't that expensive.

Imagine if we eventually discover tens, even hundreds of potentially habitable planets within a few hundred light-years of our solar system. Or, instead, imagine that we somehow find no worlds remotely suitable for life as we know it. Either result, and all those in between, would constitute a shocking revelation.

What if we are cosmically alone, on a planet as anomalously unlikely and fertile as a fruit tree flourishing in an arid wasteland, or a flower blooming in a desert? What if worlds like ours are common as grains of sand? Does the universe hum and throb with life, or does eternal silence and sterility reign outside of our small planet? The truth is, no one really knows. But that will soon change. And when it does, this knowledge can only fill our lives, our world, and our future with more excitement, mystery, and awe.

This week, NASA is releasing a new batch of discoveries from its premier planet-seeking spacecraft, Kepler. The editors at BoingBoing have kindly invited me to come aboard to blog about these discoveries, and other insights from exoplanetary research. My goal is to take you on a journey through the past, present, and future of the search for habitable exoplanets, so that you can better understand—and, potentially, even get involved in—this exhilarating scientific frontier.

Some rights reserved by NASA Goddard Photo and Video


  1. lalala I am first. I think that the universe is not a universe but just a part of a larger fractal of time and space and we are teeny microbes and that all ever-verses are crawling with us yeps

  2. I want to know if there is a place (or places) in the universe with a temperature of absolute zero. Thanks.

    1. Places at absolute zero? Not sure but there are a number of labs right here on Earth that have achieved temperatures pretty damn close – like less than a *billionth* of a degree above 0K

  3. I’d agree that this is likely one of the most thrilling questions – whether we can answer it is another thing, but…

    A less thrilling, but more urgent question: is there intelligent life here on earth? And if not, what can we do about it?

  4. I agree that this is THE question that will have the most profound impact on our world. One thing I have always wondered and have yet to find an answer for, is if SETI were to discover a signal from an alien world, how on earth (literally) would we ever be able to decipher it? Even if the alien signal helpfully included a math based “rosetta stone” how would we then be able to transfer any equations that they sent into an earth based language we could understand?

    1. “Even if the alien signal helpfully included a math based “rosetta stone” how would we then be able to transfer any equations that they sent into an earth based language we could understand?”

      2 + 2 = 4 on all possible worlds so assuming they want it to be decoded we should be able to. Understanding their culture perhaps not so much.

  5. Great piece Lee.

    I’m looking forward to following your reads + tweets (following you now) over the next couple of weeks.

    Over the past 4 years, the buzz around space exploration has really picked up. I hope that our generation can bring it back as a top priority rather than a poorly budgeted “science experiment”.

  6. If SETI found life or if any other of the respectable official seekers does it Would Be There. However, when they come here and visit the ordinary man-in-the-street they aren’t included in any evaluation.

    The biggest religions in our society today began with a man who was spoken to by a voice from a burning bush on a remote mountain.

    If we got near any other inhabited planets we would just be a liability, look what we do to our own world. There’s probably a filter/shield or whatever around us to prevent it.

  7. What fascinates me is how the vast majority of exo-planet and SETI researchers and scientists either dismiss out of hand or refuse to consider the very real possibility of some form(s) of advanced non-human intelligence being present on Earth, both in the past and currently, as represented by the large body of data regarding the UFO phenomenon. Seth Shostak is a prime example of this syndrome, for example.

    There have been multiple-witness sightings, complete with parallel radar detection and tracking, jet fighter pursuits, and witnesses to UFO manifestations from both ground and air, from both civilian, military, pilot, and intelligence sources.

    Just check out the history and records of the two consecutive weekends of UFO sightings that occurred in the Washington D.C. area on July 19/20 and July 26/27 in 1952, and which shook up the US government from Truman on down, particularly the CIA, and which led to the debacle of the Robertson Panel report from January 1953 which set government policy to dismiss and ridicule the public interest in the UFO phenomenon, on indirect national security grounds, while also recommending infiltration of UFO interest groups, and mounting a public media disinformation campaign.

    Check out the infamous 1957 RB-47 incident. Or the more recent O’Hare airport, Stephenville, Texas, and Phoenix Lights incidents.

    It seems that mainstream scientists in this field, with few exceptions, such as Dr. Jacques F. Vallee, among a relatively few others, seem to think, despite what most who truly and objectively research the empirical data available about the genuine UFO phenomenon, which strongly indicates some form on non-human intelligence and consciousness operating in our own sphere of existence, regardless of origins (the extraterrestrial hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis, and there are several alternative theories and ways to consider the questions raised by UFOs), “just can’t be, so it’s not possible” as their subconscious mantra, and derive comfort from the _idea_ that the galaxy or greater universe (multiverse?) are large is probably teeming with life, including some that is intelligent, but that there’s no way we have either been visited in the past, or especially over a very long time, including today.

    I think they are wrong, and short-sighted, unwilling to explore the evidence, or unable and unwilling to mount an honest, multi-disciplinary, multi-phasic research and investigatory effort, based on honest, empirical scientific methodology, because the idea that “the others” may be here, and now, is too ontologically challenging and psychologically threatening to them.

    Too bad, though, because if they are wrong, we may get a paradigm-shifting surprise one day on a more overt and formal basis or way than our culture and civilization will be ready for, due to the lack of political, institutional, and scientific acumen and objective interest in an area of endeavor that at least some others, like Vallee, have and continue to explore and derive new findings about that are ignored and dismissed by the scientific mainstream. Mores the pity.

    As has been said, there are none so blind as those who will not see. And I’ve seen, am not blind, and know the UFO phenomenon is real. I have researched the phenomenon for nearly 29 years now, due to my own personal experience, and a few other cases I am aware of involving either close friends or relatives, and the stories ring true, especially when multiple witnesses to the same incident have been involved. Believe it or not.

    Not that I assume it necessarily represents “aliens” or other presumed, new age or primitive belief concepts, just that I’ve had two close encounters with self-illuminated, anomalous objects, whose behavior was both reactive and interactive, very near by, and so that I know there is something being overlooked and disbelieved out of ignorance, and fear, not knowledge or experience. Consider the facts, and think, do not believe or disbelieve–investigate for yourself, as I have.

    Something _very important_ is going on, although I’m at a loss to either presume or interpret what it is, its source, or potential significance or intent, if any. I am an agnostic in this field of endeavor, but am also convinced there is a phenomenon that deeply deserves an objective scientific effort to begin to hopefully resolve some day. ‘Nuff said. Now for the requisite, compensatory ridicule and offhand dismissals. 8^}

    1. Or we could just stick to the topic of the post, which is the search for habitable or inhabited planets.

      I’m in the camp that thinks finding inhabited planets is extremely less likely than finding inhabitable planets. My question is: what good does it do us? If we found a completely habitable planet right now, is it feasible to start planning to get to it, or is it something that will be have to be back-burnered until we hit technology milestones A through X?

      1. What good does it do us? I see answering this question as something that will shake society to its core as it comes to grips with firm answers on ‘Are we alone?’.

        Its more the mental, spiritual and emotional impact. This will then drive further action, such as eventual exploration and perhaps (my hope), a profound respect for the spaceship earth. Perhaps we will learn that we need to protect and sustain as ‘beneficent groundskeepers’ instead of psychotic money-grubbing rapists of this planet.

      2. Before addressing the question of what we should do if we find intelligent life on other planets, we should probably try to answer the question of whether we CAN find out if there is intelligent life on other planets.

        Right now our best bet is detecting radio signals. I don’t know how likely that is to be successful — I think not very, unless you presuppose a planet deliberately sending out very strong directional signals for that very purpose. But I’m willing to be corrected; I’m no expert.

        This was why I queried whether it was in fact an answerable question. It’s thrilling, but I’m not sure “thrillingg” is a good criteria to judge questions by.

        (Not that I’m saying that we shouldn’t look for life in space!)

    2. You neglect to consider the many people who HAVE given serious objective consideration to the evidence for UFOs and found it less than compelling. Just because someone doesn’t share your interpretation of the data doesn’t mean they are being a close-minded ideologue.

    3. “as represented by the large body of data regarding the UFO phenomenon”

      Anecdote is not data. UFO reports only appear convincing if you believe the unscientific reports made by those with a vested interest in promoting them. There are plenty of ghost stories that are absolutely convincing if you believe the narrative. Once one actually investigates them virtually all UFO reports fall apart.

      There are no alien craft in our skies.

  8. As a postscript to the above little screed of mine, I’ll put it another, shorthand, way:

    The most thrilling question we actually may be able to answer is whether there is or has been any advanced, non-human intelligence here on Earth, regardless of origin, rather than just life in general somewhere “out there.”

    At least it seems a more exciting prospect and important question that whether some slime mold or primitive life might exist on a planet orbiting another star light years away, although that too is an important endeavor, of finding life elsewhere. Just not nearly as critical and relevant to human life here, by comparison, IMHO. Think of the ramifications, and potential consequences, if true. They are immense, to say the least.

    1. On 10/10/07 at 02:21 while at work I saw the entry of a large object through the atmosphere. This object stayed in place it didn’t touch the ground, it was approached by 2 helicopters one of which circled behind it. They withdrew and it took off at an angle of 45 degrees at lightening speed. I was at work on nights. During the following couple of weeks some very odd people came into work and told me I hadn’t seen it although I had only mentioned it to a workmate and also this wasn’t my first witness experience.

    2. I’m all for the scientific investigation of legitimate unidentified aerial phenomena, with an eye toward the notion that maybe, just maybe, some of them represent visitations/monitoring by an unearthly technological intelligence. I would guess most astronomers are, too, provided it doesn’t eat into their modest funding for other more concrete avenues of research.

      Of course, that word “legitimate” can be a bit tricky. Unfortunately, there is a stigma that haunts each and every attempt to seriously investigate UFOs. Given all the hokum and baloney associated with UFO phenomena over the years, that stigma in most cases seems well-deserved. Competent scientists who are interested in the topic could put their reputations and careers in jeopardy by strongly voicing their opinions.

      And there’s the rub. Regarding UFOs, we’re dealing with an excess of opinions and a dearth of facts. As Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But I’m guessing that for anything capable of routinely crossing the vast distances between the stars, it would be trivially easy to ensure that some curious planet-bound hominids cannot infiltrate or steal or destroy or even rigorously investigate the starships and associated tech.

      Leslie Kean’s recent book ( lays out a good framework for how scientific investigation of UFOs can be legitimized, allowing more useful evidence to be gathered. But it’s still way more of a crapshoot than the detailed investigation of potentially habitable exoplanets. Unlike with UFOs, for exoplanets there is an extremely well-defined path toward providing unassailable evidence that life exists beyond the solar system.

      1. Just got to say that a photograph of something in distant space is no more “concrete” than a photograph or even material substance and also first hand witnesses of something here on Earth..

        1. Just got to say that a photograph of something in distant space is no more “concrete” than a photograph or even material substance and also first hand witnesses of something here on Earth..

          That’s not necessarily true. If an astronomer has a photograph of what he believes to be a planet or a quasar or a distant galaxy that evidence can be independently tested, verified, or refuted. If other scientists are doing their jobs right it doesn’t matter what the person who made the initial observation believes, because the truth should stand on its own merits.

          The problem with categorizing most UFO research as “science” is that the overwhelming majority of theories and evidence is unfalsifiable. A blurry video of lights in the sky (or eyewitness description of same) might be evidence of alien visitation, but unless there is a protocol in place for how to prove or disprove that theory then it is still scientifically worthless.

          1. I really don’t want to be pedantic but there have been Thousands of people from historically as far back as we have records to the present, myself included, who have had close encounters with beings on this planet who were not human. A great portion of our literature is based on these, not to mention our religion, philosophy, mythology.

          2. “who have had close encounters with beings on this planet who were not human.”

            I think you meant, “who claim to have had…” Unless you have proof. Sorry, but that’s how science works.

            I’ve no problem with people claiming that they believe Aliens Are Among Us — frankly I believe things that sound just as unlikely myself — but when you start to talk about it as fact, then science has to come in and ask for proof. Science is a good tool, we should use it (too).

  9. This should be a great series of posts, I’m really looking forward to it.

    Also, Mr. Billings, if that casual mention of your twitter account was a sly way of building followers, it worked on me.

  10. Excellent post- I look forward to reading more (especially the releases to come this week)

    As for the UFO thing, I try to look at the big picture: Life on Earth started developing 3.5 billion years ago; humans evolved over the last 4 million. We modern humans have been on this planet for about 200 000 years (of which 50 000 can be considered “maturity”)- last numbers from Wikipedia, so may be off, but I’m pretty sure that’s the gist of it;

    Given this time scale, it seems to me that beings who evolved on other worlds around other suns- each with it’s own history and time frame for the development of intelligence- would, if they were technological at all, be at least several eons, tens of , or even millions of eons ahead of us. Why would they have any difficulty hiding from us, or even still, why would we presume that they’d still be using physical vessels to travel about? I can imagine that the idea of “travel” as we know it could very well be an obsolescent one to hyper-advanced beings such as they.

    So, yes UFO’s do exist (by definition); but I doubt that they are anything other than natural phenomena produced by Earth (including human agents), or our limited-experienced imaginations.

  11. Apparently it’s too much to ask for people to try and stay on-topic.

    I’m really interested in the possibilities and ramifications of finding inhabitable (not inhabited, though that would be awesome) worlds, but I’m despairing that every post by Lee is going to be accompanied by a well-trodden, circular discussion about UFOs. Can’t we stick to the science for now?

    @thirdway & shadowfirebird: while it would be hands-down fantastic to get evidence of inhabited worlds, that wasn’t the question I was asking. I’m more interested (because I think the chances are much, much greater) in the ramifications of finding worlds that might be inhabitable by us. Theoretically able to be colonized, that is.

    1. Based on the current cut of science as I have understood it:

      Finding one world that might be inhabitable by us = future likelyhood of finding infinite numbers of inhabitable worlds approaches 100%
      (based on the large number of galaxies, stars, etc)


      Finding ONE planet that might be habitable by us = likelihood of some habitable planets that WILL already have (or had) some form of life approaches 100%

      How would we know it has life?

      Based on current techniques, if we can get any light from the remote star passed through the planet’s atmosphere into a infrared spectrometer here on earth or in space, BINGO, we can look for chemical signatures of life processes.

      As to colonization, I think that’s less interesting as no science to date (other than science FICTION!) allows us to ever reach these planets in lifetimes of our species…. and no one really has any idea how or if a breakthrough in that area could change the rules of physics to adapt that…. ever.

      So, for me, I still think the major contribution and impact will come in the form of KNOWING that someone/thing else is ‘out there’, and how that will manifest itself our psychologies, religion and eventually how we live. That’s very interesting to think about.

  12. A couple points:

    1) NASA has nothing to do with science. It has always had to do with military (eyes in the sky, weather satellites) and commercial (communications, etc) applications.

    2) It is these types of typically unromanticized applications, not the possibility of alien life, that I think Feynman was referring to. Anyone who likes flowers probably already *does* like the idea of alien life.

    3) The whole exobiology thing is, in my opinion, an empty attempt to get more public interest and thus maintain a huge budget for NASA’s military applications.

    1. 1) NASA has nothing to do with science.

      Except, you know, Magellan, Voyager, Viking, Sojourner, Ulysses, Cassini, and so on, which are where most of our understanding of the solar system comes from.

  13. My two cents; worth no more (definitely) and no less (possibly). . .

    Nothing works my mind into a tizzy and gets my conciousness higher than looking up at a night sky filled with billions of lights from the heavens. My feeling of insignificance increases as my petty human temporal issues decrease; and somehow a feeling of one-ness with the universe permeates my being and makes me feel less afraid and lame.

    So I can understand how others look to the skies for solace and answers. . .and on some topics I can concur with the higher minds:

    Life out there, somewhere, at some point in time: I Believe!

    But spaceships/aliens from a galaxy far, far etc. . .coming to Earth. . .to spy on us?

    No way, Jose. Just. . .no.

    And if our big eyes in the sky and brains on the ground can find proof of ‘the others’ out there. . .I truly think that would be swell. Though I’m betting more on a giant space jellyfish that eats suns; rather than lizard men with a warp drive.

    But as for ‘Us’ getting ‘There’? Until we figure out how to turn lead into gold or fold space/time with fossil fuels: It Ain’t Gonna Happen. Never say never? I’m saying *Never*. Humans are too squishy, fragile and impermanent: and the distances are Unfathomable.

    Sorry to say, but this planet and the people in it are all we’ve got. Look to the skies my fellow apes, but deal with the dirt beneath your feet. It’s all we really have to work with.

    (of course, if everyone thought the way I do, we’d have never left the caves: “a sharp stick was good enough for my Grandfather, it’s good enough for me!”)

  14. One theory on the origin of life was that the blueprints for the simple life forms – bacteria DNA came from beyond Earth, going by that theory, life clearly exists somewhere out there.

    But then how did bacteria get on an asteroid and travel to Earth, it must have taken nearly forever and was its original planet destroyed for the bacteria to be able to hitch a ride on an asteroid?

  15. Saying that life is unique to this tiny planet in this backwater of the galaxy is the same as saying that we are the center of the universe and it all revolves around us.

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