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I had a funny thought, and would like to pose it to you:

When I was a kid, reading any kind of astronomy or similar books would all say that there was no other life in the universe, and made it pretty clear that anyone thinking there could be was probably off his rocker.

Nowadays, it seems this has become a very important question for astronomers and other scientists, a new deep-seated belief that must now be proven. Some seem to think it would be the most important discovery of all time.

I'm wondering why?

My guess is, if we did 'discover' life on another planet, it'll make the news for a bit, and then the average person will go back to their every day life without much more thought about it.

For me, I would think this is great, only insofar as it means a possible new source of food (i.e., some delicious exotic cuisine assuming it's edible, and possibly even some place to go conquer and colonize if there was any profitability/money in doing so).

For some scientists, though, I get the sense it's more of an axe to grind with the long-dreary he-said she-said argument of science vs. religion.

Why do you think it would matter?

My question assumes any life discovered is probably not going to be very 'interesting' life, at least nothing we're going to have a conversation with.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is really a question about astronomy, beyond that it is driving forward astronomical technology and grabbing a lot of astronomy funding. The main implications are for biology, chemistry, philosophy and theology. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Jan 24 '16 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ It has to do with somewhat philosophical questions about how unique Earth (and humanity) is. It wasn't so long ago that no human even comprehended that we all live on a sphere rather than a plain/plane. To quote Men In Black, ... imagine what you'll "know" tomorrow. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Y Jan 25 '16 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ Unless you are relatively ancient you probably are misremembering what the books you read said, or you were looking at second rate books. The Drake equation dates to 1961, and the Fermi Paradox to ca 1950. So professionals were discussing these things at least as far back as 1950, which is before I was born, just. $\endgroup$ – Conrad Turner Jan 25 '16 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Y: Well, we know that even during the middle ages people knew the world was actually a sphere, it's just a myth that [most] people thought the earth was flat/plane. Much of those myths come from the Enlightenment period, as a way to disparage their 'dark' past. But you are definitely right that it's hard to imagine what we'll find out tomorrow... $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 26 '16 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ You'll need to cite some source to support the claim that "most people knew the world was actually a sphere" in the middle ages. I don't think that's very likely to be correct, you may be overestimating the level of education, or mistaking the knowledge of scholars for that of "most people." Still, it could be argued that it is only the knowledge of scholars that is relevant to astronomy anyway, as the rest is essentially astrology. $\endgroup$ – Ken G May 20 '18 at 17:59
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It will be very important in several different ways. Not as in Messiah having descended to the World, and maybe not during one single human lifetime. But it will profoundly change the world in our minds, and thereby change our collective long term actions. The next generation would grow up taking alien life in space for granted, their minds will be more different than we old guys can change our stiff brain flesh. Like Newton's physics dominate our everyday life now, even for those of us who don't understand how all of physics has been deduced.

  • If life survives in other places than Earth, then maybe we (as in life from Earth) can do so too in the future.

  • If there's life in other places than Earth, then maybe we came from it? All life on Earth is family, all living things are closely related with each other. The question of our origin has always had high priority in human minds, see all religions.

  • If alien life is biologically similar to that on Earth (as in using DNA and proteins) then we could use it as a huge laboratory for medicine and environment control and agriculture and what not in life science. Astronomy today contributes to physics in our everyday life by studying a laboratory (the universe) with scale far beyond what humans could ever construct. If biology could do the same, we would soon notice the results in the shape of useful products.

  • If alien life does not use DNA and proteins but is very different from us, then I can't even guess what discoveries would come out of that. Zweistein.

  • If alien life is not found, even when we have searched long and hard, then we can gradually make the greatest discovery of all times: That we are unique and special. Searching for ET without finding it would be the most mind boggling thing imaginable. I don't think this hypothesis has been well addressed yet, I suppose no philosopher knows even where to start.

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  • $\begingroup$ The bit about biology and medicine is definitely something I'd never considered before. Thanks for the thoughtful post. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 26 '16 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that we will ever be able to say that " we are unique and special ". We might be able to one day prove that life exists else where in the Universe but we will never be able to disprove it . The Universe is too vast and timeless . It can also be said that it, life in the Universe , has been proven already, because we are here aren't we ? $\endgroup$ – Peter U May 20 '18 at 17:08
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My question assumes any life discovered is probably not going to be very 'interesting' life, at least nothing we're going to have a conversation with.

What is "interesting" depends on your personal outlook.

I can think of any number of living breathing entities on this planet I wish I did not have to speak with. A life form that just lies in a Petri dish and does nothing else sounds quite pleasing sometimes.

From a scientific point of view, I don't see how any scientist could regard the acquisition of information, like a form of life not evolved on Earth, as unimportant. To me the difference between "I think this is likely to happen anywhere conditions are favourable" and "I actually found it" is pretty much the definition of good science.

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  • $\begingroup$ For me, it would definitely be 'interesting' if they looked like Supergirl, or a flying cheerleader. ;-) Seriously, my question was more interested in the non-intelligent kind of life, since intelligent like would definitely be interesting -- one way or another (scary conquerers or angels with a galactic encyclopedia). I think most of us already presume there is life out there of some sort, so an official announcement might just be greeted with a 'meh, figured so...' $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 26 '16 at 0:52
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Another point to bear in mind is that very few topics in astronomy are "important" in any kind of absolute or demonstrable way, astronomy is more or less the study of all the things that don't directly affect us (with a few exceptions that no longer motivate or justify astronomy). Instead, one of the most important reasons to do astronomy is to create a sense of place, a sense of where we stand in the grand scheme-- it is the way astronomy gives us a context we can't get from anything else. So I think discovery of life elsewhere would have a transformative effect in that respect, because it would change how we understand our own story.

By that I mean, right now we really don't even know if we are looking for a story of life on Earth that sounds like a spectacularly unlikely sequence of events that could only occur on one planet in a trillion, or if we are looking for a common, even inevitable, story that happens almost everywhere. And there is no way we could ever know which story we are looking for by looking only at life on Earth. No study of evolution, no study of the history of our weather, no understanding of the reasons for mass extinctions or even if mass extinctions require any reason beyond chance fluctuations, could ever really tell us if the story we are telling about our own appearance on this planet is a common or inevitable kind of story, or a spectacularly unlikely story that could only play out at all in a truly vast universe. So that's one of the most important elements of discovering life elsewhere, to understand the nature of life itself, including our own. It's the sense of context that astronomy provides.

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To be frank, mate, your viewpoint is quite odd.

To find life - intelligent life - on another planet would be THE most amazing, world-changing, breathtaking, scary, exciting discovery in the history of mankind (and that's an obscene understatement).

Just imagine it, man. We'd know we weren't alone. We'd then establish a communication with the beings, eventually, and start learning about their civilisation etc. The implications of it are endless.

Now, if, by life on other planets you mean microbes, bacteria etc, then yes, I agree that's boring and isn't something that would change anything.

EDIT: I answered this with the belief it was a new question. I've only just realised how old it is.

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    $\begingroup$ No problem, appreciate your viewpoint. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 21 '18 at 23:50
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Since any form of contact, would be next to impossible, because of the distance involved, I think the only importance of such a discovery would be for our curiosity .

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  • $\begingroup$ Well new scientific discoveries could be had with our attempt to build faster spacecraft or means of communication . However if they are hundreds of light years away there will be no hope of ever achieving contact with them. Let's ask the 51 million Americans that are struggling to pay their rent if they will be better off with this discovery ? $\endgroup$ – Peter U May 20 '18 at 19:41

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