Astronomers have long looked for life beyond this planet and while there hasn’t been any real evidence found, the universe is so huge that the possibility of having intelligent life out there cannot be ruled out.

This was the main point of three scientists who participated in a panel discussion on the topic “Is there life out there?” at the Auckland University of Technology on September 12. The discussion was hosted by the Auckland Astronomical Society in coordination with Awana Rural Women.

The discussions between AUT Institute of Microbiology and Applied Ecology director
Professor Steve Pointing, Dr Faith Vilas, director of the Planetary Science Institute in the United States and Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory,
covered the definition of life as well as that of intelligent life, before moving on to the ethics of space exploration.

Br Guy noted that we moderns are not the first people on earth to think about creatures on other planets.

“The wonderful thing about ancient myths is that the pattern of the stories still works today, in terms of the scientific stories we tell ourselves – what are we looking for, what are
we afraid of, what are we hoping for?” he said.

Professor Pointing said the definition of life can be a little bit “robotic”.

“First of all, all life is autonomous. Secondly, all life is capable of reproduction, whether sexually or asexually,” he said. “Thirdly, all living things, and this is possibly the most important definition of living things, all living things must be capable of open ended
evolution.”

Dr Vilas said “the Holy Grail of planet work for astronomers, of course, is to find intelligent life that can talk back to us”.

In terms of other creatures in a different galaxy possibly being “good or bad”, Br Guy explained: “If a creature is able to recognise that it exists and that other things exist, number one, and, number two, is able to make a decision freely, those are the elements that people have talked of as being of human soul.”

“If you are free to do an action, you’re free to do a good action or bad action,” he said.

Professor Pointing said he believes life originated on earth.

“However, the idea of a second genesis, I don’t think that should be excluded. It’s
equally possible that life could begin somewhere else,” he said.

Br Guy added, “It’s possible that there is no reason to think we are the final stages of life. And it’s not even anti-biblical if you talk about angels.”

On the issue of ethics in space exploration, Dr Vilas, who worked for NASA, said the US Federal Government and NASA’s philosophy is not to damage the environment an exploration visits.

But she said it is human nature to explore.

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