Arguing with Myself: The Search for Alien Life

Hello, friends!

So a certain argument has been playing out in the back of my mind for a long, long time now.  Whenever I write, there are really two different versions of me who do my writing.  On the one hand, there’s science enthusiast me.  On the other, there’s Sci-Fi author me.  And these two versions of me view science, space exploration, and the universe at large in dramatically different ways.  One of the biggest ongoing disagreements I have with myself involves alien life.

Science enthusiast me believes that extraterrestrial microorganisms are pretty common in the universe.  Science enthusiast me thinks we will find evidence of extraterrestrial microbes in the very near future, perhaps hiding under the ice on Mars or swimming around in the oceans of Europa, Enceladus, or even Titan.  (I almost wrote unambiguous evidence there, but science enthusiast me also expects that confirming the discovery of extraterrestrial microbes will be tricky—just ask the researchers who found (or thought they found) microfossils inside a Martian meteorite back in 1996).

As for complex multicellular life—plants and animals, or whatever the extraterrestrial equivalent of plants and animals might be—science enthusiast me is far less optimistic.  While microorganisms have proven again and again that they can survive almost anything, even direct exposure to the vacuum of space, multicellular organisms seem to be far more fragile, far less resilient.  Earth may be one of the very few worlds where complex, multicellular organisms like us are able to survive and thrive over cosmic timescales.

And intelligent life?  Science enthusiast me believes intelligent life must exist elsewhere in the universe—surely it must!  But the universe is an awfully big place.  Our nearest intelligent and communicative neighbors could be many galaxies away.  Humanity is not alone in the universe, according to science enthusiast me, but we may as well be.

Sci-Fi author me, however, sees things from a different perspective.

Sci-Fi author me wants to write stories where encounters with alien life are commonplace, almost routine—stories where the aliens are sometimes friendly and sometimes not so friendly—stories where all sorts of weird and wacky interspecies adventures are possible!  And Sci-Fi author me takes a particular and peculiar pleasure in handwaving away all the concerns and objections science enthusiast me might have, not just regarding alien life but also in relation to faster-than-light travel, time machines, cybernetics, et cetera, et cetera.  Part of the fun, for Sci-Fi author me, is thinking up clever excuses for why impossible things are now possible (in the context of the story world, at least).

So there is this ongoing argument happening in the back of my mind.  This argument is never going to end, and I’ve decided that that’s okay.  Not every argument needs to have a winner and a loser, nor do arguments necessarily need to end in compromises.  Sometimes a house divided can stand after all.  Science enthusiast me believes the universe is like this; Sci-Fi author me would prefer (for story reasons) if the universe were more like that.  And the tension between these two different versions of myself drives my creativity, both as a science blogger and a science fiction writer.

P.S.: For those of you who might be interested, both the “I Heart Science” and “I Heart Sci-Fi” designs in this post are available in my RedBubble store.  Click here if you heart science, or click here if you heart Sci-Fi.  And remember: nobody’s stopping you from clicking both if you heart both!

24 thoughts on “Arguing with Myself: The Search for Alien Life

  1. “A house divided can stand after all.” Wonderful. When I get comments from beta readers (for you non-writer folk, those are people who read the close-to-final-draft of a story and comment for free, bless them) I often get one or two people who say “that could never happen because of ” But I have a magic solution to such problems, handwavium. Surely, at some point in the future, someone will fix whatever the thing is. Besides, most readers accept a little fantasy with their scifi and never complain.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s my attitude as well. As a Sci-Fi reader, I’m willing to accept pretty much anything except violations of thermodynamics. And even then, if the author does enough hand waving about entropy negation, or whatever, I’ll probably be okay with it.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I once read somewhere that there are just six paramenters that permit sentient life on Earth. Distance from the sun was one, I think, and the fact that the Earth is tilted so that we have successive light, shade and seasons but despite my best efforts I have not been able to track down the six parameters in a non-technical language. Does sci-fi writing need to conform to these or dimilar criteria for more realism or is ‘handwavium’ the answer to everything?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sounds kind of like the Rare Earth Hypothesis. That was a book published back in the 90’s, or maybe it was the late 80’s. It basically said what you said: intelligent life wouldn’t exist on Earth if not for a list of very unlikely things happening.

      The general idea behind that book makes sense to me, though some of the specific details haven’t held up so well. One of the claims in that book is that Jupiter shields us from incoming comets and asteroids, so without a large planet like Jupiter nearby, we wouldn’t be here; however, Jupiter also nudges asteroids out of the asteroid belt and sends them hurtling our way. So Jupiter is now seen as a threat to us, rather than as our protector.

      Still, the general idea makes sense to me. If not for reasons x, y, and z, we wouldn’t be here. I’m just not sure anyone can say for certain what x, y, and z really are (which leaves a lot of room for Sci-Fi writers to fill in whatever details they like).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Consider a closer-to-home example. The chance that you will win the lottery (the exact combination of parameters throughout Earth’s history) vs the chance that someone will win the lottery (what range of parameters may allow life to arise.)

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I do feel that a scifi story must be consistent, but the range between a story based on today’s science (barely scifi at all) and a story based on wild fantasy is wide. Tropes like faster-than-light travel and time travel are almost a yawn, but seem to violate some very basic physics.

      As we explore space, planets, the deep ocean, etc, unexpected discoveries are made. Most scifi assumes such discoveries continue, so it’s almost a requirement that something in a futuristic scifi story will contradict today’s knowledge. I like the idea of imaging meeting Issac Newton in a medieval church – someplace he’d recognize – and handing him your smart phone. That’s scifi for him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, I really want to read a story where somebody brings Thomas Jefferson into the present and shows him all our smart tech. Jefferson was supposedly a big fan of whatever the latest new technology was in his own time, and he had a huge collection of gadgets and gizmos at his home in Virginia. More so than most historical figures, I feel like Jefferson would enjoy seeing the modern world (once he got over the culture shock and so forth, of course).

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess part of the success is how easily the characters accept the “advanced technology will appear to be magic” around them. If they buy it, I buy it as a viewer. I think that can work best in movies, where the story keeps running and drags you along. In a book, a reader can pause and say “now… wait a minute…” Yeah, you can pause a movie too, but I usually don’t.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One of the actors from Doctor Who (Elisabeth Sladen, from the 70’s era Who) said much the same thing. The sets may look ridiculous, the monsters may look ridiculous, the special effects may look ridiculous, but if the actors play it like they believe it’s real, the audience will believe it’s real too.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I feel that conflict myself. It’s worth remembering that sci-fi you has something that science-enthusiast you lacks, god-like powers in his fictional universe. So I say alter that fictional universe, come up with whatever excuses you need to, to tell the story you want to tell. It probably pays to remember the rule-of-cool. The excuses, whatever they are, really should be cool audacious ones.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I’m a relatively new reader (and viewer) of science fiction and sci-fi. I love both the versions that require I completely suspend disbelief, and the versions where I get to go wow is that really true/nearly here. I honestly believe there is room for both, but I just LOVE the handwavium solution suggested. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to write this genre, but I am going to read it with even more enjoyment looking out for that very thing from now on 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I have a very similar battle with me as well, I do think and the laws of probability in the least suggest that life on the cellular level could be found within the solar system and likewise the same laws of probability suggest the same outside. The problem is our solar system is not very common and that’s had an influence on how life on Earth came about and taking that into account I slide back into the meh – intelligent life can’t be so common camp.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Basically my feelings as well. It seems to me that microbial life should be pretty much everywhere out there, but how often do those microbes get to level up to complex multicellular organisms? Not often. And how often do multicellular organisms level up to be “intelligent”? Even less often.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If we do find something here in our own Solar System—something that we can be certain did not originate on Earth—then it’ll be a safe bet that alien life is everywhere.

        Liked by 1 person

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