“Columbus forced everyone to rethink, redesign and rebuild their world view.That’s what we’re doing here," says Dimitar Sasselov, professor of astrophysics and director of Harvard University’s Origins of Life Initiative. "To put it in 15th-century terms, we’ve reached the Canary Islands. Getting to where we ultimately want to go is a slow process that involves astronomers, aeronautical engineers, biochemists, anthropologists and businessmen."
Sasselov believes that life is probably common in the universe. He said that he believes life is a natural “planetary phenomenon” that occurs easily on planets with the right conditions. “It takes a long time to do this,” Sasselov said at a 2011 Harvard conference. “It may be that we are the first generation in this galaxy.”
Though it may be hard to think of it this way, at roughly 14 billion years old, the universe is quite young, he said. The heavy elements that make up planets like Earth were not available in the early universe; instead, they are formed by the stars. Enough of these materials were available to begin forming rocky planets like Earth just 7 billion or 8 billion years ago. When one considers that it took nearly 4 billion years for intelligent life to evolve on Earth, it would perhaps not be surprising if intelligence is still rare.
If life did develop elsewhere, adds Andrew Knoll, the Fisher Professor of Natural History using the lessons of planet Earth to give an idea of what it might take to develop intelligence. "Of the three major groupings of life: bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes," he said, "only the eukaryotes developed complex life. And even among the myriad kinds of eukaryotes, complex life arose in just a few places: animals, plants, fungi, and red and brown algae. Knoll said he believes that the rise of mobility, oxygen levels, and predation, together with its need for sophisticated sensory systems, coordinated activity, and a brain, provided the first steps toward intelligence."
It has only been during the past century that we have had the technological capacity to communicate off Earth, Knoll said. And, though Kepler may advance the search for Earth-like planets, it won’t tell us whether there’s life there, or whether there has been life there in the past.
The Daily Galaxy via www.bloomberg.com/Davos and http://www.harvardscience.harvard.edu/environments/articles/life-universe-almost-certainly-intelligence-maybe-not