Unraveling the science behind the origins of the universe and life on Earth requires scientists to look back billions of years. And many of the questions still left unanswered spring from our innate search for the unknown.
At the World Science Festival in New York City this week, Kerri Miller sat down with two experts in the fields of astrobiology and physics to discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life and clues to our origins.
"The moment we evolved curiosity, we started to think about what was over that next ridge," said John Matson, associate editor for Scientific American. "It's all very tied in: where we came from, what else is out there, how we came to be here in this tiny little corner of the cosmos, this really insignificant speck of a planet in a huge galaxy among other huge galaxies. I can't explain it, but everybody has stopped to wonder at some point how unique our situation actually is."
Caleb Scharf, director of astrobiology at Columbia University, said this search for the unknown might be a deeply rooted survival instinct.
"If you know what's over that hill, you might be able to exploit it or avoid it," he said. "For me personally, some of the urge to understand our place in the universe, to understand our origins, is about understanding how we're going to make it through this, how we're going to survive, how we're going to deal with our planet, which is finite."
LEARN MORE ABOUT SPACE:
• Life, Unbounded
Scharf's blog on planets, exoplanets, and astrobiology. (Scientific American)
• An Exploding Star, a Grain of Sand, and an Origin Story
"Keys to our origins are visible on a grand scale, in the heavens, and on much smaller scales, in the elemental bits of our planet and our bodies. And now, in a remarkable piece of serendipitous detective work, a new clue to these beginnings has been discovered in just two grains of alien sand, each no bigger than a virus, plucked from two meteorites found on our planet's southernmost continent." (The New Yorker)
• How our view of the universe, and ourselves, is changing
"What inspired a boy who grew up in the English countryside to study astronomy? Looking up at the starry night sky, of course." (Nautilus)
• The universe is a big place. So what?
"At the hands of astronomy and cosmology, we seem to have been reduced to near nothingness, specks within slivers of time and space, inside specks that are themselves entire universes. But how should we interpret this fact?" (Nautilus)