It goes back to the starfish. That's when the light bulb really popped over my head. We'd found one on the beach and I was struck by what astonishing creatures they are, talking with Dad about how they regenerate. I'd learned in school how severed fragments could grow into new adults and it seemed so utterly removed from the human experience. Lose a limb and it becomes another you? What would that be like? Dad smiled and said, "Nick, you and that starfish come from the same planet. Imagine how different a creature from another planet might be."
A few years before then, I'd recorded a message for potential extraterrestrial civilizations to discover. Surreal to say, but that sort of thing was normal in my household. Dad was a world-famous astronomer; Mom was the artist who drew the iconic Pioneer plaque. Together with Frank Drake, Ann Druyan, Tim Ferris and Jon Lomberg, they'd been working on the Voyager Golden Record -- a time capsule of Earthly sights, sounds, music and greetings for the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft to ferry to the enormous vastness of interstellar space. So that the aliens wouldn't mistakenly conclude that we're all full-grown adults down here, Mom and Dad decided it would be a good idea to have a child deliver one of the spoken language greetings. And there I was with all the necessary prerequisites: a six-year-old child who spoke English. They drove me to Cornell University, plopped me down in front of a microphone and asked me what I wanted to say.
It's fair to say I didn't fully understand what aliens were at the time. I mean I got the concept but I had trouble separating the fact from the fiction. Spock seemed cool. Marvin the Martian seemed harmless enough, aside from his interest in blasting Earth with an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. And Dad, who suffered from achalasia, would sometimes adopt the persona of a "Freenie" from one of Jupiter's moons, making a game of hopping around so he could amuse me and keep food down and not scare me with the seriousness of his condition. I thought the Freenie was fantastic, pretending he didn't quite understand human customs, giving me a chance to explain what was what. Is that what first contact would be like?
Now, all these years later, I'm a science fiction writer, having explored the dynamics of making contact with alien civilizations in episodes of Star Trek, one of my novels, and most recently a show at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. But science fiction only speaks to who WE are -- a projection of our hopes and fears about The Other. It can't really tell us who might be out there because no one knows yet. There have been claims, of course, but as Dad was fond of saying, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." We've yet to find any. Dr. Jill Tarter and her fellow SETI astronomers have been listening diligently for signals but so far no dice.
Of course, that could all change in an instant.
Are we alone? It's possible but looking increasingly unlikely. Life is proving to be wonderfully resilient and tenacious. Here on Earth, we've found organisms that thrive in environmental conditions we would have once thought uninhabitable. The presence of these extremophiles suggests that life could potentially take hold on worlds other than our own. Perhaps worlds very different from our own. Likewise, when I was a child, the existence of planets beyond our solar system was theorized but unproven -- now we understand there to be a staggering number of them, including an approximate half billion in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" where conditions are such that water might exist on a planet's surface. And that's just in our galaxy alone. Consider all the planets and stars in the many billion galaxies beyond our Milky Way.
With so many places for life to exist, we may be closer to finding E.T. than ever before. Imagine what we'd glean from that encounter. How much more we'll come to know -- not only about life in the cosmos but also about ourselves. Will we be ready for it? Will it become the transcendent moment for our species or the beginning of the end? We don't know but, undeniably, this is a thrilling time to be alive.
This month, I'm delighted to help bring attention to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence through a two-part special, Alien Encounters, which will air on Discovery's Science Channel March 13th and March 20th at 10 p.m. Hypothesizing how events might unfold were we to receive a message and then a visit from an alien civilization, these shows feature interviews with luminaries such as astronomers Jill Tarter, Frank Drake, Seth Shostak and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and science fiction writers John Scalzi and David Brin. Science has partnered with SETI and TED to explore the question, "Are We Alone?" via a month of programming that will spread the word about the exciting new SETI Live platform, which will allow anyone -- scientist or non-scientist -- to help search for intelligent life in the universe.
Maybe together we'll find the answer.