About the Book by Jaime Green Titled “The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Brandy Schillace of the book by Jaime Green titled “The Possibility of Life”:

The super-Earth Kepler-69c orbits its sun in a galaxy far, far away. I remember when its discovery was announced. The news headlines on April 18, 2013, declared the existence of an “Earth-sized Planet” thousands of light years away and raised our hopes that it “could host life.”

The following month, a congressional hearing considered what this could mean for the inhabitants of Earth. But what I remember most aren’t the technical details of Kepler-69c; it’s the unveiling, in full color, of a strange new world: a giant sphere wrapped in striations of hazy clouds that hovered over a dark blue sea. More than 11/2 times the size of our planet, Kepler-69c must contain wonders, I reasoned. My imagination plotted endless forests and deserts, strange flora and fauna, and waters teeming with life of unfathomable variety.

The first visual reveal of a new planet ignited my imagination. Yet it wasn’t real.

The planet was real enough—though we have since discovered that its climate is probably too hot for life—but the image was an artist’s rendering, a bit of Hollywood to accompany a press release. At first blush, that sounds almost criminal: We have been misled! But, as Jaime Green writes in “The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos,” all space exploration requires an element of creativity: “Artists are the ones who turn the place an astronomer can understand into one the public can imagine.” We can’t engage with the unknown universe without telling stories and painting pictures. Every astronaut, cosmologist and astronomer began his or her pursuit by virtue of wonder. What if there’s life out there? What would that mean for us?

Ms. Green’s book, alive with the color and drama of science fiction as well as scientific fact, helps us grasp that process of imagining—its limits and its greater purpose. The possibility of life on another planet, writes the author, gives us “a context, a foil, a richer way of understanding ourselves.” When we think of alien beings, what we are really doing is trying to understand life on Earth and its “different kinds of people. When we invent alien languages, we learn more about the human brain. When we dream of a benevolent visitation, we’re telling a story of what we think we need.”

Ms. Green, a science writer and the series editor of “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” makes clear that this kind of thinking is critical to the scientific endeavor. Like Katie Mack in “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)” (2020), which imagines the finale of the cosmos, Ms. Green shows us that even the most STEM-oriented fields, the ones where reality can only be understood mathematically and theoretically, rely upon our ability to envision and create. For that reason, “The Possibility of Life” answers the important what-if questions not through complex equations but through literature, art and film.

“Of course, we start with Star Trek,” Ms. Green states in her first chapter, before embarking on a wild ride through literary history. The 17th-century German scientist Johannes Kepler, for whom a satellite and an exoplanet are named, wrote a science-fiction story called “Somnium” (“A Dream”) about aliens living on the moon. Published posthumously in 1634, it’s possibly the first piece of literature to bring math and science to bear on the question of extraterrestrials. If the moon is half dark and half light, what becomes of the animals living there? Is it too hot, then too cold? Would the inhabitants be nomadic? Would they burrow underground?

Kepler envisioned creatures of monstrous size with elongated limbs like Dalí’s striding elephants. Since then, we have imagined many more aliens, including the humanoid Klingons and Romulans of “Star Trek,” the deeply unsettling xenomorphs of “Aliens” and the incomprehensible heptapods of “Arrival.” Imagining is part of how we look beyond ourselves.

Early science fiction mostly depicted voyages of scientific documentation, especially in the 19th century after Charles Darwin’s own journeys to earthly alien lands. By the early 20th century, however, as the world sat atop a powder keg that would spark two global wars, aliens became dangerous invaders. H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” (1898), for example, presents us with aliens who use their technological superiority to commit atrocities on Earth. “Stories of invasion,” Ms. Green explains, manifest “society’s fears and hopes for who we might become.”

Science fiction “guides us as we seek to expand the frontiers of knowledge,” the author reminds us. But these frontiers move inward, not outward: They reflect not what aliens are like but what we are like. And that is the crux of Ms. Green’s wide-ranging book. Against a backdrop of scientific breakthrough—including current laboratory work aimed at re-creating early life on Earth—“The Possibility of Life” centers on human beings, Earthlings standing upon our spinning rock and looking out into the wide expanse. The cosmos has become a mirror for humanity. After all, there is a certain amount of hubris in assuming that we could even recognize life forms that don’t adhere to the principles of life on this planet. (That’s one reason why we are always looking for planets with liquid water.)

As Ms. Green takes us on a tour through science-fiction worlds—from novels like Sue Burke’s “Semiosis” (2018), with its sentient plants, to blockbuster movies like “Avatar” (2009), in which evolution seems to privilege the humanoid over its many-armed neighbors—she wants us to see our own blind spots. Consider the SETI project, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—or, at least, advanced technology—in the universe. The problem: We can barely define life; we certainly can’t define all the possible permutations of intelligence and the ways they might communicate. Even when we try, we are basing our ideas entirely on ourselves: We once sought for signs of intelligent life through cosmic radio signals, because that was the technology of Earth in the 1960s. Then came lasers; but it could just as well be gravitational waves, or neutrinos, or something we can’t yet imagine.

Today, writes Ms. Green, SETI has settled for an “agnostic” approach, one that tries to avoid any assumptions about what life out there may be like. Even our math may be merely “one language among many for making sense of the universe.” Even so, we’ve sent out evidence of ourselves in the form of the Golden Record, an inscribed disc with a pulsar map and figures of humans. Ms. Green calls this wishful thinking but also the physical representation of hope. We send such evidence in case there are others. We send in case advanced versions of ourselves might one day find it. We send hoping that somehow, somewhere, life will go on.

Perhaps, says Ms. Green, we’re just lonely—a loneliness born of our own genetic success. The humans of today have either “outcompeted” or “subsumed” the other humanlike beings: Neanderthals, Denisovans, other early ancestor clans. The propensity of the human to use up resources, to the detriment of other species and perhaps one day our own, also drives the hunt for exoplanets like Kepler-69c. “Maybe every inhabited planet has its one lonely species, looking to other worlds for kin,” Ms. Green writes.

We should imagine these alien seekers. To do so may help us view the terrestrial with more kindness—and allow us to better love our neighbors, our planet, ourselves.

Brandy Schillace, the editor in chief of the journal Medical Humanities, is the host of the online “Peculiar Book Club” and the author of “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher.”

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