Back on March 3, 2011, I posted a blog that argued for a slightly new way to define the word “life.” I suggested that since–given the appropriate conditions–life on any planet floating around in the cosmos is an inevitable consequence of the action of light, heat, water, simple organic and inorganic compounds stewing over a period of millions of years, then we should define life as whatever results from all that action, and not try to define it by such narrow distinctions as the ability to grow, to be aware of its environment, to metabolize extraneous compounds, to reproduce, and so forth. That new definition seemed obvious to me.
But now I’d like to take the argument to the other end. The end of “life.” If life begins in the water of a protoplanet, where does it end? As far as I know, we humans are the only ones who contemplate such questions. We have a lot in common with our fellow living creatures, plant and animal, such as the aforementioned ability to metabolize food, grow, reproduce, and so forth. But the human mind has developed far beyond any other creature on this planet. I’m including such intelligent animals as chimpanzees, dolphins, and whatnot, all frequently touted to be our nearest neighbors in the intelligence department.
But do those animals contemplate their fate? Do the higher apes understand death? Does a pine tree contemplate the end of all pine trees? Or are we humans the only ones who do? I’m sure all the dogs I’ve ever had as pets didn’t understand their ultimate fate. Perhaps in a limited way they may have, but only in their individual minds, and I doubt that they ever had any idea that the end of all dogs–ever–was a very likely possibility, although it might lie far in the distant future. Only humans think about such things. Like me, right now.
Yet, life arose on Earth. It almost certainly has arisen on other planets somewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy we call home, though I can’t give you a number. But will it ever end?
We’re just beginning to travel in space outside the Earth’s atmosphere and the gravity field that keeps us and shields us from the terrible un-life-like conditions that exist out there. We’ve already got a space station and eventually we’ll go back to the moon and set up a permanent base. We’ll reach Mars sometime and travel to the asteroids, to the outer planets, and then…who knows. In short, we’ll get our collective asses off this planet sooner or later. But will that be enough?
Will our species eventually end, or will space travel be the saving grace? It will be a long time (I figure several centuries) before we spread through the galaxy like Star Trek using its fictional and extremely unlikely “warp drive,” (though I could be wrong). Perhaps we’ll learn how to open a wormhole and travel to the other side of the galaxy in no time at all. But will that be enough to insure our permanent survival, or will we eventually, like the sun that warms us as we sit here on this little ball of water and dust, peter out and vanish in a massive nova explosion? In short, where are we headed? Anybody got any ideas?