A recent article at Phys.org talks about finding the building blocks of life in an observation of a distant white dwarf. Make no mistake, they aren’t claiming to have found actual life, just the necessary ingredients. The atmosphere of the white dwarf star (200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Boötes) is rich in carbon and nitrogen, as well as in oxygen and hydrogen, the components of water. Presumably a planet containing those elements got too close to the star and was ripped apart to form a ring around the star. They figure this planet was 70% rocky and 30% water and ices, a perfect home for life.
I hope there wasn’t actually advanced life on that planet, though the possibility would make a great, if tragic, story. In any case, it is just more evidence that such planets must be common out there in the cosmos. Reports of possible Earth-like planets appear more and more frequently in the scientific literature. As the technology to observe distant places continues to develop, I wonder how long it will be before we are capable of detecting the actual signatures of life from astronomic distances. If not in my lifetime, I believe it will be in the lifetime of some of the younger people alive today.
So what then? What impact would it have on the human race if definitive proof of life were found out in space? I imagine the initial excitement would be significant, but I wonder if that would wane once it became obvious that such life existed too far away to impact day to day life on Earth. Would it soon become something only scientists and the lunatic fringe cared about? I hope not. I’d like to think it might be something that would inspire the human race the way the Moon race did for a short time. I’d like to believe we’d rise up to build probes to investigate such places, and maybe in the distant future actually go there in person.
Maybe I’m just a dreamer.