We just love the image that Lisa Kaltenegger, the founder and director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, has given us of the search for intelligent life. Don’t picture an astronomer in an observatory looking at other planets. Picture an alien on one of those planets looking at Earth. Do we qualify as intelligent life on another planet?
In this issue of Nautilus, Kaltenegger writes about her latest research. She has identified 1,715 stars in our solar neighborhood that could have seen Earth in the past 5,000 years. Any nominal, curious alien on a planet circling one of those stars, with technology similar to our own, could have spotted us.
The search for life, and meaning, is at the heart of two other Nautilus stories this week. Astrobiologist Caleb Scharf, an expert on exoplanets, finds himself deeply moved by Bewilderment, a new novel by Richard Powers, whose main character is an astrobiologist. Scharf explains how fiction, how Powers, rescues science from its image as a specialized field, and shows how it informs the biggest questions facing humanity.
Meanwhile Tania Lombrozo, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, tells us about her recent research to determine how people console themselves when faced with the biggest questions. Belief in God scores well, but for nearly as many of her test participants, she writes, “meaning without magic, humanist style,” provides the same existential comfort.
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