January 19, 2001
Perhaps the major driving force behind space exploration, beyond the pursuit of pure knowledge, is the question of life. This divides into two distinct but overlapping aspects: does extraterrestrial life exist? And can/should terrestrial life expand beyond earth? These questions, whose contemplation has given rise to such diverse phenomena as the anthropic principle, panspermia theories and SETI, are crucial not only to scientists but to the present and future definition of humanity. The discovery of life anywhere else will double our so far single sample and be decisive in delimiting general life parameters, as well as testing the panspermia hypothesis. Beyond the intrinsic importance of such a finding, however, we must also grapple with the question of whether we can or should settle on other planets. This question is complicated by our blithe assumptions that technology will solve all problems we encounter and that we will remain essentially unchanged, regardless of our location in space or length of travel. A long-term settlement effort will bring to the fore questions hitherto confined to science fiction: Can we undertake this without prohibitive expense of both life and material? What will make the settlement biologically and socially viable? Can terrestrial lifeforms reproduce in a non-terrestrial context? How long, if at all, can we survive in completely enclosed environments? Is terraforming a realistic undertaking, in either its engineering or biological version? Should we accelerate the acclimatization of the colonists with genetic engineering? If humans stay on other planets beyond a temporary sojourn, the separation from Earth, the small size of the breeding pool and the radically different local conditions will promote rapid speciation. Our reaction to such events will tell volumes not only about our capacity to become a spacefaring civilization but also about our response to a real ETI signal.
Professor Athena Andreadis graduated magna cum laude in biochemistry and astrophysics from Harvard University. After receiving a Ph.D. in biochemistry at MIT, she returned to Harvard Medical for her postdoctoral and junior faculty work. She started forays into the published world beyond science - fantasy and science fiction stories, as well as book critiques for the Harvard Review. Two years ago, she combined all her interests and wrote To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek, in which she used the Star Trek series and films as an accessible way to introduce people to real questions in biochemistry, exobiology, effects of space exploration on humanity and the quest for extra-terrestrial life. The book got rave reviews and led to several articles and invited talks (from, among others, both NASA and the NIH) about future medicine, extraterrestrial life and dilemmas of planetary colonization.