The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: An Amazing Discovery!

Search for Extraterrestrial Life-  An Amazing Discovery! s

New evidence reveals an abundance of Earth-like planets, but the search for extraterrestrial life also reveals something wondrous: the sanctity of life on Earth.

“Cosmology, theology, history, law: I feel as though I’m in a 30-credit graduate course reading TSW!” So began a recent letter from an old friend, a now retired official of the Archdiocese of New York with whom I lost contact some years ago. He heard of These Stone Walls and has been catching up. My friend marveled in his letter at the variety and scope of TSW. I told him in my reply that I often drop a post in the prison mailbox and walk away thinking that it might be my last. I have long feared that sooner or later I may run out of things to write about in prison, and then end up writing only about prison itself. That would be just awful – for me and for you.

There is something that still compels me to write about life beyond these stone walls, something that drives me out of myself and into the Cosmos, into human history and the great wealth and depth of human reason, into the story of what it means to be human and what inspires us, and especially into the mystery of life itself.

Of what else would I write? I don’t imagine I would have many readers left if my mind and soul were confined along with my body to this eight by twelve-foot cell. So despite the fact that I can only sense the stars, I am compelled to write of them. My view of the night sky from a barred cell window is obliterated by a towering wall, and blinded by relentless lights that turn every prison night into long, gray twilight. I can no longer see the stars, but my mind still wanders among them.

This is in part why I so admire cosmologist and physicist, Stephen Hawking despite my challenge to him in “Does Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” Professor Hawking is also confined in a prison of sorts by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease – but his brilliant mind is free. Mine is far less brilliant, but no less free.


Columnist Peggy Noonan had some interesting items in “Finding the Good in an Uninspiring Year,” her review of 2013 in The Wall Street Journal (“Declarations,” Dec. 28/29, 2013). It was surprisingly like mine in “The Hits and Misses of 2013.” Despite her title, Ms. Noonan went on to describe lots of inspiring things put forth by people she interviewed.

Matt Drudge of “The Drudge Report” said of 2013, “It’s the year I discovered prayer, and it changed my life.” Fox News’ Dana Perino, CNN’s Donna Brazile, and ABC News President Ben Sherwood all cited Pope Francis as the most inspiring figure of the year, a news phenomenon I wrote of in “A Man for All Seasons.”

Also in Peggy Noonan’s list, Mother Mary Agnes Donovan of the New York-based Sisters of Life was inspired by 12 “talented, educated, gifted young women” who made a lifelong commitment to her order in 2013. It says as much for Mother Mary Agnes Donovan and the Sisters of Life as it does for those courageous women. But the item that really caught my eye was one that most inspired Peggy Noonan’s colleague, WSJ columnist Mary Anastasia 0′ Grady:

“…who found herself thinking of something wondrous that maybe didn’t get enough attention. ‘A spacecraft called Voyager I went beyond the solar system this year, marking a mind-boggling milestone in human progress.’ “

It was just over a year ago that I wrote “The Final Frontier: Voyager I Enters Interstellar Space.” The Voyager I probe launched in 1977 left our Solar System in 2013 to journey among the stars. For the first time in human history, a human creation now travels the interstellar medium beyond the influence of Earth’s Sun. Some TSW readers found in the conclusion of “The Final Frontier” an ironic and meaningful defense of life. Since this will be posted on the same day as the 41st annual March for Life in Washington, DC, I want to repeat that conclusion:

“[T]here’s something vaguely comforting in the milestone of Voyager, in the fact that a postcard from the human race is out there now to drift forever among the vast ocean of stars like a message in a bottle….Humankind might want to revisit the notion that we are meant to live in the image and likeness of God. What an irony that in the 21st Century humanity scours the Cosmos for signs of life while on Earth we have let rise up a culture of death. We have work to do on accepting and living out the dignity and honor God intends for us. We have work to do on the value with which we view life on Earth before we explore strange new worlds, before seek out new life and new civilizations, before we boldly go where no one has gone before.”


Kepler Planets

The story of humanity’s place in the Cosmos is very different from what we science geeks imagined when Voyager was launched in 1977. I was 24 years old then, my mind engrossed in physics and metaphysics at Saint Anselm College. There were no known planets in the Universe but the nine in Earth’s local neighborhood – now reduced to eight once Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet.

Now, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009, the existence of thousands of planets in orbit around other stars has been confirmed. It is now believed that there are billions of planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, including an estimated 11 billion that, like Earth, orbit in their host stars’ “Goldilocks” or habitable zones and theoretically could support life. And there are 100 billion other galaxies in each of which stars with orbiting planets likely abound.

The science, however, may be prematurely hyped in the media. What is truly astounding in these discoveries is how very unusual our own Solar System is. A full two-thirds of the stars discovered to have planets in orbit are red dwarf stars, far smaller than the Sun, and emitting just ten to twenty percent of our Sun’s life sustaining energy.

And of the 3,000-plus planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope before it became disabled late in 2013, the majority have been shown to be “mini Neptunes” with small, rocky cores and vast dense gases that could not support even microbial life. Most are far older than the Earth, orbiting stars far older than our Sun.

The most immediate conclusion is that the process through which our Solar System was born and evolved was very different from the usual development of planetary systems in much of the rest of the galaxy. The “amazing discovery” in my title is the apparent uniqueness of our Solar System, of the world we live on, and of the form of life we call “human.” I wonder if Saint Paul knew how right he was when he wrote to the Church at Corinth:

“There is one glory of the Sun, and another glory of the Moon, and another glory of the stars, for star differs from star in glory.” (St. Paul, I Corinthians 15: 41)

And what of those planets – like the newly discovered one dubbed “Kepler 64-F,” 1,200 light years from Earth – that are in their stars’ “Goldilocks” or habitable zones? If you were a being on Planet Kepler 64-F gazing through a powerful telescope at our Sun, you would conclude that both Earth and Mars are in the Sun’s habitable zone.

At about the same time Voyager I entered interstellar space, NASA’s Curiosity rover found something wondrous in the Gale Crater where it drills for signs of life on the surface of Mars. Curiosity discovered that Mars once had flowing liquid water, an essential key to the existence of life, and also found all the elements needed for life to take hold: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus. This little excursion into a depression on the surface of Mars thrilled scientists with the knowledge that the conditions for life could abound on similar planets throughout the Cosmos.


But then the Curiosity rover found something – actually, the absence of something – that deflated the excitement. Its tests of the Martian soil and atmosphere detected no trace of methane, a signature of life. Despite physical evidence that Mars once had flowing water, and still has frozen water, the absence of any methane is hard evidence that Mars may harbor no trace of even microbial life, and possibly never did. In his book, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley, 2012) astronomer and biologist John Gribben described a world of difference between “habitable” planets and “inhabited” planets, concluding:

“Earth is the sole abode of intelligent life in the galaxy, the result of a profoundly improbable sequence of cosmic, geologic, and climactic events…”

I explored John Gribben’s book and the “Rare Earth” model in “E.T. and The Fermi Paradox? Are We Alone in the Cosmos?” Physicist and Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi asked the famous question – “So, where are they?” – while working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1943. His challenge led to SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Using radio astronomy, SETI has scoured the galaxy for over 70 years in search of a companion civilization to ours that has reached a level of technology that produces radio waves. The mathematics of billions of habitable planets dictates that there must be such a civilization, but the result of 70 years of radio astronomy dedicated to SETI is an eerie and absolute silence.

The vast difference between the discoveries of habitable planets and the actual emergence of intelligent life on them was profiled – though unintentionally – in a pair of articles in the May 2011 issue of DISCOVER magazine ( “The Planet Boom” by Tim Folger explored the first two years of planetary discoveries following NASA’s 2009 launch of the Kepler Space Telescope, and the speculation about other life on other worlds. In the same issue, in “Meet the New Human Family,” Jill Neimark analyzed new discoveries about the evolution of humans on Earth, and the extremely unlikely odds that anyone like us should exist at all:

“Certainly we are rare and strange: As biological anthropologist Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University says, ‘The chances that a creature like us will ever happen again are so small that I can’t even measure them.’ “

If this galaxy is teeming with thinking, self-reflective beings capable of language, science, art, and faith, then human life may be nothing special. However, The Fermi Paradox remains the great unanswered question of science. “Where are they?” As the late scientist and author Michael Crichton wrote,

“The belief that there are other life forms in the Universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence [for science] to maintain this belief.”

The annual March for Life taking place this week should have as much urgency for people of science as it does for people of faith. If life like us is unique or exceedingly rare on a galactic scale – as all available scientific evidence suggests – then humanity squanders life to our cosmic shame, and spiritual peril.

Dr Seuss

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Mary Fran says:

    I’ve often wondered what of the night sky you could see from your cell, if anything. I see now that it is nothing. Last week when I dragged the trash can out to the curb, I was astonished by how star-studded the sky was and thought of you and what you would be able to see there with your lost telescope. A wonderfully clear night. There are no street lights near our house and and no trees to obstruct our view. Unfortunately, I’m more familiar with the January sky. All I recognized was the Big Dipper and the Milky Way (which I only recognized when Steve pointed it out to me).

    I’ve ordered a subscription to StarDate Magazine put out by the University of Texas. I need something a little more up to date than the 1963 copy of Astronomy Made Simple that I took to Liberia. It’s time to learn some more stars.

    I’m trying to read How It Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe. Having a very slow go of it. My non-physics mind is lost amongst much of the terminology. But, there’s enough to keep me slogging along. I’m sure it’s an easy read for you. Too bad you didn’t write the book; I’m sure I would be able to understand it then. You manage to make astronomy intelligible for non-science people. And interesting.

    The link to the Peggy Noonon article takes me to a page that says if I want to read the rest of the article, I must either subscribe or sign in. Sad. Not a subscriber to the WSJ, though we do pick up a print copy once in a while. Good newspaper.

    Articles like this stretch my mind off the surface of the earth. It’s almost like reaching for God himself.

  2. Recent discoveries seem to indicate that our planet is in the very center of the universe. If that is the case we are in for a total revision of Science in the light of Religion. See for example The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson, a wonderful DVD that shows amazing scientific facts about how our universe and our salvation are wonderfully intertwined.

  3. Domingo says:

    Father G,

    I get to see the Milky Way every time I go to adoration at the parish. Sometimes, I just glance at it. Now I cannot look at it nonchalantly. I’ll remember that there is one person who so longs to see this masterpiece and I’ll say a prayer that he sees it again in no time.

    Asking for your priestly blessings for me and my family,

  4. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father!
    This should be a sign to us how special our creation is to God
    that with all these other worlds out there He STILL has faith in us!
    Prayers and love,

    • Jeanette S. says:

      The older I get ( turned 80 in 2013), the happier I am to be “in touch” – not with extra-terrestrials, but truly in touch with fellow human beings. (And wish I could underline “truly”!)

  5. M says:

    Loved this piece. It is a joy to look on God’s marvellous creation and re the right to life Didn’t God Himself say He was well pleased with His creation of Mankind and He made the womb a sacred place so we desecrate it at our peril ?

  6. jJane says:

    “What a piece of work is man”! (Shakespeare?)
    But we are God’s great piece of work, and I think
    we forget too often about the divine Artist who made us.
    Thank you Father for another wonderful column. I pray that
    someday soon you will regain your freedom and once again
    be able to see the incredible Milky Way as it shines forth in
    all of God’s great glory.

  7. Bonnie says:

    Life……, how can we disrespect it so profoundly in our country and yet eagerly search for it among the stars?

  8. Jeanette Slaw says:

    Dear Fr. MacRae,
    I’ve been in touch before, telling you of my 45+ yr. prison ministry.
    This time, how I wish I could share with you what I just watched on my computer: “The Space Station”. A female astronaut takes us on a walk through our space station!. It’s quite long, but fascinating as one “floats” through the tour with her. But I can’t help wondering….what are all those planets for out there?…..
    My prayers are with you….Jeanette

  9. Anthony says:

    Christ, King of the Universe, came to our little planet to rescue our race from sin. That tells me that we are unique; it is impossible for me to imagine other inhabited worlds if Christ came only here. I think the whole vast Universe is for us. Could we really be that special, the very apple of our Father’s eye? The goodness and love of God truly are unfathomable.

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