We contemplate the universe of which
we are an indescribably small part. Within our heads we hold the scientific basis
for the creation and evolution of a universe that contains a thousand billion billion
stars, and a statistical near-certainty of companionship. But science itself is
mute to meaning.
The search for extraterrestrial
intelligence assumes that the events on Earth that led to the development of large
brains and technology are not unique. Physicist Enrico Fermi asked the question
“Where are they?” because with one hundred million habitable worlds in our galaxy,
it seemed implausible that alien life forms should not have matched and eclipsed
our capabilities. With up to five billion years head start, they could be to us
as we are to the microbes on this planet. We are lonely, and search for companionship
with messages tossed into the ocean of night. We also communicate inadvertently
with a bubble of radio and TV transmissions that has expended to envelope the planets
around a thousand stars. Understanding may be elusive in dialog with aliens of unknown
function and form; when we look into the eyes of a great ape we know we cannot even
communicate with a creature that shares 99% of our DNA.
Windows are also mirrors. We touch
the water and look to the sky. Rooted in our water world, we are made of water and
think it is the best basis for biology. Water is one of the most abundant molecules
in the universe and watery planets are expected to be common in remote solar systems.
We touch the sky and look at the water. Below its surface, cephalopods and cetaceans
give us nearby examples of alien intelligences decoupled from technology—however
rich their inner lives they won’t point telescopes at the sky and puzzle about their
place in the universe. Our anthropocentric tendencies mean we may not be able to
recognize an alien intelligence, or the distinction between natural objects and
artifacts. Their powers may be godlike and may include the ability to simulate creatures
like us. Perhaps it has already happened and we live in a simulated reality.
We are divided against ourselves:
a young race full of poise and promise, but also tainted by aggression. We want
to know the alien, but through windows on the universe, perhaps we are looking for
About the Artist
Heather Green is a graduate student in the College of Fine Arts at the University
of Arizona and a second generation Tucsonan. Her current work is informed by her
lifelong relationship with the headland of La Cholla near Puerto Peñasco, Mexico,
a passion for old science books, and her love of the natural world. She has designed
exhibits about sustainable fisheries and materials for conservation initiatives,
and is currently developing a virtual museum about La Cholla.