alients alients We're currently scanning the skies for both simple and complex life. (Photo: diversepixel / Shutterstock)

Famous astrophysicist shares what finding alien life would mean

A scientist who worked with the Hubble Space Telescope thinks we could contact extraterrestrials soon.

Mario Livio has seen more of the universe than most people on the planet. The Israeli astrophysicist and prize-winning author worked with the Hubble Space Telescope from 1991 to 2015, where he researched supernova explosions, the expansion of the universe, dark energy, planetary system creation and black holes. But what he's most excited about has yet to be discovered: alien life.

Finding life in other solar systems "would absolutely be amazing from a scientific and philosophical perspective," he told From the Grapevine. It would change "our perception of our place in the cosmos."

If we found life far from Earth, our ideas about the universe could completely shift. Livio pointed out that, for thousands of years, we've imagined that we were alone.

"We only have one example of life so far, which is life on Earth," he said.

Finding other life would mean we weren't the center of life in the cosmos.

"It would automatically dethrone us from being so special," he said. "It would look a little like the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions combined."

If we find intelligent aliens (or if they find us), Livio wonders if we'll be able to communicate with them. He pointed out that, if we're too much more advanced than they are, or they're too much more advanced than we are, then we might not be able to understand each other. Of course, if we're both at a similar stage of evolution, perhaps we could chat.

"It would be absolutely incredible if we found something like that," he said. "I'm more modest in what I hope for."

“It would look a little like the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions combined.” – Mario Livio

While intelligent life might be hard to find, Livio thinks that even discovering simple alien life, such as bacteria, would tell us a lot about our universe and ourselves. For instance, what if aliens are chemically different than us? That could mean that life comes in completely different forms than anything we'd ever imagined, or anything we knew to look for.

"It would be amazing if life were not carbon-based," he said. Other forms of life may not function like our cells do or use DNA to replicate.

"This would be a very dramatic change," said Livio. "It would mean perhaps that life is ubiquitous."

On the other hand, finding life similar to us would be pretty amazing, too. Right now, scientists are looking for life on Mars and planning missions to Jupiter's moons. If we found extraterrestrials in the solar system similar to us, than that could mean both forms of life came from the same origin. We might finally be able to answer the question "Where do we come from?" And we could have more cousins in the solar system, or even beyond.

mario livioAstrophysicist Mario Livio speaking at the National Book Festival at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Livio doesn't expect us to find any horror-movie style aliens or silicon-based bacteria immediately. But he thinks we might develop tools to understand what the atmospheres of Earth-like planets are made of in a few decades, and young people will get some answers about extraterrestrials in their lifetimes. At the very least, we might get a better idea of the probability of finding life.

Even though we've yet to find aliens, Livio still thinks there's a good chance alien life exists. Some people imagine "there are some serious bottlenecks that life on Earth had to pass through to produce something like us," and perhaps we are the only ones who managed to become intelligent. If true, "that would put an enormous philosophical burden on us," he told From the Grapevine.

But if we are alone in the universe, perhaps that knowledge will encourage us to understand how amazing we really are, and how careful we ought to be with ourselves and our planet. "If we are something that is relatively unusual, then we better do our best to preserve [the Earth]," he said.

Of course we, like Livio, are rooting for aliens.

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