Is There Life on Other Worlds?

By Andrew Rooke

Who has not stared into the beauty of the night sky and wondered if there could possibly be somebody else on a planet far away wondering about our sun twinkling in their night sky? As we look up at the stars, most of us would agree with Paul Davies that "The discovery of life beyond Earth would transform not only our science, but also our religions, our belief systems and our entire world view. For in a sense, the search for extraterrestrial life is really a search for ourselves -- who we are and what our place is in the grand sweep of the cosmos." We are fortunate to live in an age of scientific discovery which is providing the beginnings of answers to this age-old question. In the last decade researchers have found over one hundred planets outside our solar system. Biologists have discovered life forms on and deep beneath the earth which prove that organisms can find a way to live even in forbidding conditions such as we might expect on other planets. Let us look at some of these recent discoveries in the light of theosophical teachings which tell us that the starry sky is indeed vibrant with life.

The search for life in outer space has a long and checkered history. The Greek philosopher Democritus (c. 480-370 BC), "father" of the atomic theory, speculated that the laws of nature are observed to operate universally and therefore, if life could arise on the earth, it must exist elsewhere in the cosmos. In a less enlightened time promulgating such ideas cost the life of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600. Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) held, based on his observations of our solar system, that planets would be common in space. Swedish mystic and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) went so far as to describe the inhabitants of some of the planets in our solar system, indicating their clothing as similar to European fashions! In modern times intellectuals who viewed life as a chance occurrence, such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), pessimistically predicted that "all the noonday brightness of human genius" was ultimately futile, as life would be destroyed when the universe eventually collapsed in on itself. Popular imagination today among ordinary people, however, almost universally accepts that life exists on other planets and that there can be some communication between us and these worlds. A whole genre of books and films is based on this popular belief, from 19th-century classics such as H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds to today's Star Trek, Star Wars, Men in Black, Independence Day, Signs, and many others.

Popular imagination and philosophical speculation are one thing -- but how about scientific fact? Our beautiful planet with its sparkling oceans, plentiful rivers, and rolling green plains provides a perfect home for the life forms familiar to us. Since 1991, when the first such planetary system was discovered, in excess of 100 extrasolar or "exoplanets" have been found, giving a tremendous boost to the idea that life may be common throughout the universe. Teams of scientists have found new solar systems which challenge the imagination as to how life might evolve under radically different conditions. The first exoplanets discovered, for example, circle the remnants of a pulsar 1,600 light-years away from us, PSR1257+12 in Virgo. This star contains the mass of the sun compressed into the size of a small city, and spins 150 times per second, bathing its planets in deadly radiation. Because of the techniques used to detect them, most exoplanets found are as large or much larger than Jupiter and orbit very close to their suns, exposing themselves to incredibly high temperatures. An example of this class of planets, known as "Hot Jupiters," orbits the star 51 Pegasi, 45 light-years from earth. About the size of Jupiter, its surface temperature is probably 1,300 degrees Kelvin.

At the other extreme, planets have been found that could be more kind to life as we know it, such as a colossal planet 8.1 times the size of Jupiter orbiting the star 70 Virginis, 80 light-years from earth, where the surface temperature could be 80 degrees C and there could be rain and oceans beneath a crushing atmosphere of swirling hurricanes and gale-force winds. As in our own solar system, earth-sized planets may lurk unseen by us in the shadows of these giants. Space missions in the making hope to identify such smaller and possibly life-bearing planets. Projects include putting an optical interferometer and several space telescopes into orbit. As more sophisticated technology evolves, the pace of discovery will no doubt increase.

Edge-On Protoplanetary Disk in a Quadruple Star System. UC Berkeley/CfA/Gemini Observatory/NOAO/NSF

The search for exoplanets continues in the hope of finding planets like our own. Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University recently acknowledged that the search for planets really amounts to a search for life: "This is a long, tedious process. We're hammering out the details. We know that life forms easily. But we need the petri dishes -- the planets. If planets form easily, then there are lots of petri dishes." Researchers are looking for bright, long-lived, main-sequence, metal-rich stars like our sun. Interestingly, the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri with three stars, has been identified as a promising environment for the evolution of intelligent life forms. Two of the stars are sunlike and have sufficient room between them for planets in the "life zone," at much the same distance as the earth is from the sun. The Alpha Centauri system will be the target of special attention in the search for extraterrestrial life in the years ahead. But perhaps it is unrealistic to expect to find a carbon-copy of our earth in the immensity of space, as nature may not repeat herself exactly anywhere (cf. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 2:699-708).

According to theosophy, however, life is everywhere, i.e., everything is alive even if scientists don't recognize it as such at present. The very stars, planets, comets, and huge dust clouds from which they are built, are alive and conscious in their own way. It is not life that arises from matter as conventional science teaches, but rather that matter is a passing phase of life. As G. de Purucker put it:

How could there be such a thing as matter without life; how could the component elements of any entity or thing hold together if there were not a unifying and cohesive energy -- and that energy is life. Matter itself is condensed life . . . There is no such thing as lifeless substance anywhere. It is not matter first and then life as a fragile fruit of it, but life comes first, life universal; and matter only occasionally appears as a mushroom growth. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 332

Thus all planets will include a spectrum of living beings -- indeed, be composed of such lives -- but their entities and "kingdoms" will be suited to the conditions prevailing on each planet and may have radically different characteristics and appearance. If life is universal, it is not limited to organic or terrestrial forms. As H. P. Blavatsky wrote in her Secret Doctrine, "Since no single atom in the entire Kosmos is without life and consciousness, how much more then its mighty globes? -- though they remain sealed books to us men who can hardly enter even into the consciousness of the forms of life nearest us?" and "The refusal to admit in the whole Solar system of any other reasonable and intellectual beings on the human plane, than ourselves, is the greatest conceit of our age" (2:702n, 1:133).

What about the questions involved in the genesis of organic life in the universe? Scientists hold that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. As they interpret the fossil record, the first life forms appeared on earth approximately 3.5 billion years ago, 100 million years after a 500-million-year period when the earth was subject to sustained bombardment by comets and asteroids. This leads scientists to conjecture that when life began on earth, and perhaps in other parts of the universe, it may have received assistance from outer space to get started. Carbon compounds are fundamental to life as we understand it, and when dissolved in water they can react in all kinds of ways to form complex compounds from which the life forms on earth are built. Research has shown that carbon compounds litter the universe as interstellar dust clouds, the remains of ancient stars which manufactured carbon and other heavy elements deep within their nuclear fires. When these stars exploded in their death throes, they offered these building blocks of life to future planets. Carbon and other organic compounds also make up a large percentage by mass of comets, meteors, and asteroids.

Research since the 1950s has led scientists to theorize that both the substance of meteorites and the primitive atmosphere of the earth four billion years ago could have produced a soup of organic compounds which had the potential for "life." However, the leap from primordial soup to living cell remains one of the biggest "gaps" in current evolutionary theory (cf. Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life in the Universe, 1986). Especially important discoveries concerning the outer-space connection were the meteorites which fell on Murchison, Australia, in 1969 and on France in 1862, both of which contain most of the amino acids found in earthly life, as well as many that are not found in the earth's biosphere. In 2001 high-tech analysis found sugars and biochemical agents (pyridine dicarboxylic acids) which are critical biomolecules. On January 18, 2000, a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid broke up above Tagish Lake in Canada's Yukon Territory, and proved to be full of simple organic molecules, particularly forms of carbon not naturally occurring on earth.

Like earlier researchers who speculated that comets and meteors seed the planets with life or that there is cross-fertilization from meteors enclosing bacteria, many scientists today feel it is probable that organic chemicals have fallen to earth to help form the basis of life, and that they could have done so on any planet with suitable conditions throughout the cosmos (cf. Joe Alper, "It Came from Outer Space," Astronomy, November 2002, pp. 36-41). It is interesting to note the theosophical idea that comets represent an early phase in the evolution of planets and stars. Rushing from their birthplaces in the interstellar "mother-substance," they follow their pilgrimage within the galaxy to their home system and begin the process of building new arenas of life for the billions of lesser creatures like us who live on them or depend upon their life-giving energies.

It may seem unlikely that conditions on a young volcanically-active planet could act as an incubator for biochemicals, but since the late 1970s scientists have discovered organisms living on the seabed several kilometers under the ocean in the super-heated water close to hot volcanic vents, which make it clear that cellular life is able to take hold in the most difficult circumstances. In the ocean depths there is no sunlight and hot water erupting from the volcanic vents is laced with sulphurous chemicals that would swiftly kill most organisms. Yet here and in similarly hostile environments organisms known as thermophiles thrive and support a rich ecosystem. Such evidence, of course, does not settle the question of whether life evolved under these conditions or later adapted to them. Moreover, deep-sea drilling in the ocean floor has found traces of remarkable bacteria that exist in the even more hostile environment of the hot rocks of the earth's crust, using hydrogen leaked from the rocks as their energy source. NASA scientists reported in 2002 that such studies suggest that the mass of bacteria existing below ground may be larger than the mass of all living things on the earth's surface! Such research has fuelled speculation that life may exist in oceans thought to exist under the ice of moons such as Jupiter's Europa. Recent pictures of Europa by the Galileo spacecraft clearly indicate features resembling the pack-ice of the earth's arctic and antarctic regions. Just as life teems in and below the ice of the earth's polar regions, NASA scientists speculate that life forms may exist on Europa, and future space missions will be geared to identifying whether such an ocean does exist below the frozen surface of this moon.

At the other extreme, in October 2002 and again in 2003 scientists from NASA and the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute climbed to the earth's highest lake, lying at 20,000 feet near the summit of the dormant Licancabur volcano in the Chilean Andes. Their mission was to find out how "extremophile" organisms survive in the volcano's low-oxygen, high-ultraviolet environment. Their research will throw light on the possibility of life forms that may have arisen in the ancient lakes of Mars, under the frozen wastes of Europa, or perhaps even in the methane lakes thought to exist on Saturn's moon Titan, currently under investigation by the Cassini spacecraft. This research followed the dramatic announcement in August 1996 of possible signs of microbial life preserved in the heart of meteorite ALH84001 found in the Allan Hills of Antarctica. About 15 million years ago a major asteroid impact on Mars blasted ALH84001 into space, whence it eventually fell onto an ice field in Antarctica 13,000 years ago, to be found by scientists in 1984. In 1996 NASA scientists and others identified organic molecules and strange wormlike shapes deep inside this meteorite that appeared to have been made by primitive microorganisms, perhaps giving hard evidence of extraterrestrial life, however primitive (cf. "Signs of Past Life on Mars?" American Association for the Advancement of Science News Release, August 11, 1996; and Leon Jaroff, "Life on Mars," Time, August 19, 1996, pp. 76-83). In August 2002 scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center gave credence to this discovery by reporting that some 25% of the magnetic crystals in ALH84001 have passed the set of criteria that only biological magnetic crystals have so far met.

Looking to Venus, scientists at the University of Texas have been investigating the possibility of life in its cloud-tops, where at 50 km the temperature is about 70 degrees C, with a pressure of about one atmosphere. Examining a region with a high water concentration, they found an unexpected absence of carbon monoxide as well as unusual concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and sulphur dioxide, gases not normally found together unless something is producing them, and carbonyl sulphide, considered an unambiguous indicator of biological activity. This points to the possibility that microbial life could have started in oceans on Venus long ago when the planet was cooler, but retreated into the clouds when the planet heated to its present high surface temperatures. While such discoveries and speculations about the origin of microbial life do not remotely indicate self-conscious intelligent extraterrestrial life, they have given a boost to the work of scientists, principally at the SETI Institute, who since the early 1960s have monitored the skies in search of radio broadcasts from high-tech extraterrestrial civilizations -- so far to no avail.

The amazing scientific discoveries of recent years are testament to the careful systematic investigation by dedicated scientists worldwide. According to The Mahatma Letters, written by H. P. Blavatsky's teachers, from time immemorial adepts of the ancient wisdom and their students have also investigated the mysteries of nature, recording their findings and comparing them with those of their predecessors in a venerable version of the scientific method. In this way they have studied not only the physical world but also the mysteries of inner space, returning from inward initiatory journeys and different dimensions of consciousness with knowledge about the characteristics of life on earth, within our solar system and, by analogy, of how life may be outside our solar system. Such research recognizes that the physical universe is only one aspect of the cosmos which, like the individual human being, is made up of ethereal, mental, and spiritual components. These various planetary aspects, analogous to the various consciousness centers or monads in man, are inhabited by and formed of living beings: science "cannot deny pointblank the possibility of there being worlds within worlds, under totally different conditions to those that constitute the nature of our world; nor can it deny that there may be a certain limited communication between some of these worlds and our own" (The Secret Doctrine 1:133).

H. P. Blavatsky said further of the exploration of other worlds by utilizing states of consciousness different from those of ordinary terrestrial humans:

even great adepts . . . trained seers though they are, can claim thorough acquaintance with the nature and appearance of planets and their inhabitants belonging to our solar system only. They know that almost all the planetary worlds are inhabited, but can have access to -- even in spirit -- only those of our system; and they are also aware how difficult it is, even for them, to put themselves into full rapport even with the planes of consciousness within our system, but differing from the states of consciousness possible on this globe; . . . Such knowledge and intercourse are possible to them because they have learned how to penetrate to planes of consciousness which are closed to the perceptions of ordinary men; but were they to communicate their knowledge, the world would be no wiser, because it lacks that experience of other forms of perception which alone could enable them to grasp what was told them.
Still the fact remains that most of the planets, as the stars beyond our system, are inhabited . . . -- The Secret Doctrine 2:701

One of HPB's teachers wrote concerning the limitations and scope of this investigation: "If our greatest adepts and Bodhisatvas have never penetrated themselves beyond our solar system . . . they still know of the existence of other such solar systems, with as mathematical a certainty as any western astronomer knows of the existence of invisible stars which he can never approach or explore" (The Mahatma Letters, p. 139).

Regarding the variety of extraterrestrial beings in our solar system, G. de Purucker has stated that

The inhabitants of the other planets -- those which are inhabited at the present time -- must have forms strictly related to and fitted by evolution for their particular planet. They would be very various indeed, and we might not easily accept those beings as intelligent, sensitive and conscious. Some may be flat, some spherical, and some long; the inhabitants of Mercury having, perhaps, the nearest resemblance to us, while those of Jupiter are probably the most diverse in form from us. . . . The inhabitants of some of the planets move by floating, while those of other planets of our solar family do not move at all; they are fixtures somewhat as trees are with us, and yet are highly intelligent, conscious beings.
The inhabitants of other planets would look like monstrosities to us, simply because our understanding is too feeble to grasp their evolutionary history -- and indeed, so far as that goes, we do not even know our own evolutionary history. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 333-4

No doubt as we come to understand more about how life manifests on earth -- about ourselves, the other terrestrial inhabitants, and the planet as a whole -- we will gain greater insight into the nature of planets in other solar systems and what forms life may take in those, to us, strange environments. The key theosophical point is that everything in the universe -- atom and particle, planet and galaxy -- is a manifestation of life and intelligence, though their consciousness and life may not be manifesting in forms which are currently recognized and acknowledged by scientists.

Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius was once asked, "Where have you ever seen the gods, and how can you be assured of their existence?" His answer was, "For one thing, they are perfectly visible to the eye." By this he meant that the stars and planets above us are the outer manifestations of the gods, if we have the eyes to see them that way. When next we look up at the night sky, perhaps we can ponder what modern science is slowly discovering and what theosophy has taught through the ages: that we are part of a glorious living universe. It is not a matter of whether or not there is life on other worlds, but of our seeing and celebrating ourselves as a part of an immense living cosmos.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

Science Menu

Mankind's persistent conviction is that this wide universe is sustained by spiritual as well as physical laws -- indeed, how shall we distinguish between them? Where in us does matter cease and spirit begin? How then shall we decide where science is supposed to end and religion start? What we search for above all else is truth -- not the truth of science or the truth of religion, but the actual truth.
Exploring the wide expanse of space has startled us with the fact that the universe science is probing is vast and real. In recent years nothing has occurred in religion to convey the same reality about its postulates or to keep pace with the advancing stream of scientific information. On the contrary, the often fragmentary remains of Western religious philosophy do not describe the universe, spiritually considered, in a manner that can adequately illumine the picture of the physical world that science is every day extending. This is tragic, because it means that in the absence of a systematic and comprehensive spiritual philosophy, material philosophies which are systematic and factual take over the field. But even if we are only briefly acquainted with ancient religion and philosophy, East or West, we cannot escape the conclusion that thinkers of former times were well aware of materialism as a possible explanation, that many had considered and accepted it, but many more had rejected it as insufficient to explain the wholeness of the cosmic and human scene.
When we think of majestic worlds floating in vast space, and then consider our human lives with all the trivia that fills them, the bickering, violence, and unreason, do we not feel that somehow we have wandered far from nature's more serene ways? Yet are we not inspired in viewing the wonders of cosmic nature to feel that humanity, puny though it may be, is nonetheless part of this process of the stars, and that human hearts contain, as it were, a spark of some Central Fire, something enduring and of infinite potential? -- John P. Van Mater