Is there any theological motivation in the search for life beyond earth? Or is this just the academic bent of our Jesuit pope being felt early in his papacy? Is it a terrible pursuit of heresy or worse, the work of the Devil? Or is the Vatican searching for some greater inspiration for humanity?
The last time the Vatican was moved to pursue a momentous astronomical discovery was in 1580 to reform the Julian calendar. It was known that the equinoxes and solstices had drifted some distance off from true, and Pope Gregory XIII sought a reform to respect the traditional Easter celebration date as set by the Council of Nicaea in 325. The Gregorian Tower was ordered erected in the Holy See and stocked with the finest instruments of the day. Jesuit astronomers were able to refine the length of the year from 365.25 days to 365.2425 days (a reduction of about 10 minutes and 48 seconds per annum or <0.002%). To compensate for the calculated discrepancy, a Papal Bull decreed that all calendars would skip 10 days. The day of Thursday Oct 4th 1582 on the Julian calendar was immediately followed by the day of Friday Oct 15th 1582 on the new Gregorian calendar, and Easter has been when it’s supposed to be ever since.However, does the pursuit of the discovery of extraterrestrial life have a practical end such as that for calendar reform?
The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System: Exoplanets, Biosignatures & Instruments in Tuscon, Arizona was hosted by the Steward Observatory and the Vatican Observatory and took place from March 16-21st AD 2014. Nearly 30 hours of 30-minute talks by world-leading experts on the theories of extraterrestrial life are available online. And some amazing concepts came to be discussed.
For example, the study of life forms that live in extreme environments on Earth could provide apt analogs for the limits of life on other planets. Extremophiles can be seen to survive in environments from –50°C to 1000°C and up to 6km below the Earth’s surface. Using the basis of these habitats on Earth, one scientist proposes that the habitability zone around a star such as the Sun could actually be from the orbit of Venus to further than the orbit of Jupiter.
The conference also discussed observable biosignatures, or certain chemicals in the atmosphere of exoplanets that could be spectroscopically identified to deduce the presence of metabolizing life. Although emphasizing a non-terra-centric view of the parameters for biocentric gases, all the molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere are produced in some way by life (even ozone, in some cell functions), so it’s not yet clear which biocentric gases could theoretically be attributed to the presence of life on observed exoplanets.
The theoretical existence of extraterrestrial civilizations also present opportunities for directly observable evidence through their technology. For example a hypothetical alien homeworld, which is tidally locked to its parent star, may elect to employ a fleet of satellite-mirrors to make better use of the dark side of their planet. Such a project would produce transit signatures with properties measurably different from a normal solid planet as it enters and exits the transit of its parent star. This phenomenon could be detected by current technology, but there is some question as to how likely or common this could be, and whether it would be worth looking for.
Unintentional thermodynamic signals could be powerful biomarkers of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations. Heat radiation from technological activity as we see it from Earth-cities already exceeds background radiation (like from a forest or ocean) by ~4% in infrared wavelengths. With a proposed billion-dollar, ground-based telescope called The Colossus, we could conceivably detect this minute but tell-tale heat signature on a planet within 100 light years of Earth. The Colossus would have many other astronomical and practical applications, like imaging nearby stars and galaxies in much greater detail than Hubble or detecting millimeter-details on geostationary satellites orbiting 400km above the earth, but remains am unfunded dream of The Colossus Consortium.
Perhaps the Holy See’s true motivation for throwing resources at undercutting our interstellar loneliness, from a purely practical perspective, could best be surmised by one of the stated goals of The Colossus Consortium:
“The detection of an extraterrestrial civilization (ETC), even without further communication, is important in many gnostic and practical aspects. For instance, one of the current burning issues for our civilization is surviving global climate changes because of increasing power generation. Detecting more advanced civilizations will demonstrate a fundamental possibility that civilization can achieve a phase of sustainable global-scale power consumption.”