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NORMAN LAMM
EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE
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beware of over-familiarity with the fantastic and an over-zealous stretching of the limits of possibility. Exuberance and eagerness and the sense of great expectations can overwhelm the sober skepticism of even the most disciplined scholars and diminish the prudent judgment necessary for accuracy and truth. That such lapses of judgment, the result of too much zeal and self-assurance, have occurred in the realm under discussion, has been amply illustrated by two recent events.
On April 12, 1965, Soviet radio astronomers announced that radio emissions originating from a source listed as CTA-102 indicated the discovery of a "supercivilization," the intelligent beings of which were sending these messages to its neighbors in the universe. Knowledgeable American reaction was that, if this report were correct, "it could prove to be the most revolu­tionary event in human history."16 One day later, as is well known, the Russians withdrew their statement and, instead, declared only that the 100-day cycles of radio pulses on a frequency that had previously been suggested as ideal for interstellar communications were worthy of further observa­tion.
Now these Soviet scientists were not children. They included Iosif S. Shklovsky, "one of the most brilliant theoretical radio astronomers alive" (according to Walter Sullivan) and author of a book on the subject published in 1962 by the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Another disappointment for space enthusiasts came some months later. Almost all literature on the subject, immediately prior to the Mariner 4 close-range photos of Mars on July 14, confidently predicted the discovery of sufficient amounts of water on that planet to sustain life and, consequently, the actual existence of some forms of living organisms. The photos, how­ever, revealed no signs of water action; and scientists have ruled out the possibility of the complicated processes of life occurring in any but a water medium. The possibility re­mains, of course, that the space-ship pass-by was coincidentally limited to a desert region, or that primitive forms of life exist below the Martian surface. Such conjectures will have to await an actual landing on the red planet; meanwhile it
is most likely that our cosmic neighbor is a dead and desolate body. What had been an almost universally agreed proba­bility has turned out to be highly unlikely. The "scientifically startling" discovery, according to the scientist who acted as the spokesman at the White House conference announcing the photographs, "further enhances the uniqueness of the earth within the solar system."ir
Other sobering notes have been heard, tempering somewhat the chorus of optimism about extraterrestrial intelligent life and the possibility of establishing communication with such life. Thus at the seventy-fifth anniversary convocation of the California Institute of Technology in October 1966, one of the world's leading astrophysicists, Dr. Jesse L. Greenstein, termed dreams of ultimate space travel as "pure fantasy" and expressed skepticism about the chances of ever communicating with life in space. On the reasonable assumption that the nearest civilization was 10,000 light years away, he calculated that we would need an aerial as large as the earth itself to catch its signals. Nevertheless, he felt that establishing inter­stellar communications could be of such momentous impact that, slim as the chances for achieving it are, it was worth budgeting a greater part of our natural wealth to achieve such communications.18 Less than a year and a half later, the same scientist, addressing a convention of science writers at the same institution, was far more pessimistic. He suggested the possi­bility that our planet is a distinct abnormality in the universe. He even expressed doubt whether solar systems exist elsewhere. His thesis is based on the rarity of solid matter in the universe, more than 99 percent of which is gaseous. Earth and the solar system are thus abnormal in that they are not in the main­stream of chemical and nuclear processes in the stars.19 For all our speculation, man may be quite alone in the universe.
The nature of the subject lends itself to extravagances; in­deed, the facts may prove to be amazing when compared to our customary conceptions. It is an inherent hazard of the subject that it becomes difficult to distinguish science from science fiction.20 "They are exhilarating," Struve warns, "but at the same time dangerous." The general'public, meanwhile, is asked
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