The Sound of Silence

The latest hope for signs of possible life on other planets lies in the cargo bay of a spacecraft that blasted off from Cape Canaveral the morning of Shabbos parshas Toldos.

The Mars Science Laboratory will deliver a rover aptly named Curiosity to the surface of the Red Planet. Methane gas, which can be emitted by living organisms, has tentatively been detected in the Martian atmosphere, and instruments on Curiosity should be able to confirm the presence of the gas and of other carbon-based molecules likewise considered to be “building blocks of life.”

Many scientists assume that life must exist on other worlds. Although science doesn’t usually embrace beliefs that have not been supported by observations, the conviction that there is life elsewhere in the universe derives from the creed that chance pervades and governs the universe—that randomness lies at the root of reality.

If probability is the loom on which the universe’s fabric is stretched, the creed’s canon proclaims, what reason could there possibly be for only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy to alone have spawned life?

This abiding scientific faith assumes something of a miracle, that terrestrial life somehow arose from inanimate matter here on earth. It reveres a trinity: a single-celled ancestor, random mutation, and natural selection. Their interplay, the belief goes, is responsible for the astounding diversity of life on earth.

And so, during the same eons over which time and chance on Earth allowed inert elements to slowly morph into iPods and their owners, countless other worlds should have done no worse. Indeed, may have done considerably better.

Creation, we believing Jews know, was in fact an act of Divine will, not the yield of randomness. Still and all, it isn’t unthinkable that rudimentary life on other planets, like the kind Curiosity is looking for, exists. After all, G-d created life here on Earth that remained unseen for most of human history—whether in undersea volcanic vents or Amazonian jungle canopies. The discovery of life on other worlds would hardly challenge Jewish belief.

But intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos? Unlikely, I think. One thing is certain: all efforts thus far to detect it have come up empty.

Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”; META, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay”; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting the location of Earth in the galaxy and solar system and what humans look like were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the Arecibo message, which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” (BETA) was created, as well as a project harnessing the computing power of five million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Tens of billions of hours of processing time have so far been consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing.

The dearth of any sign of intelligent life beyond our own planet doesn’t prove anything, of course. It’s a big universe.

But I’m reminded of what Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev had to say about a verse in the Torah (Devarim, 17:3) concerning a false prophet who will “prostrate himself to… the sun or the moon or to any host of heaven, which I have not commanded.” Rashi explains that last phrase as meaning “which I have not commanded you to worship.”

The Berditchever had a different approach. The reason one may not bow down to a heavenly body, he explained, is because G-d has not commanded it in any way. One may, however, bow down in respect to a human being—because humans are unique, sublime creatures, beings who have been commanded, who uniquely possess the free will to accept and execute G-d’s will.

Intelligent extraterrestrials, I suppose, could have received their own Divine commandments. A planet revolving Alpha Centauri may have had its own Mt. Sinai revelation, or some alien equivalent.

One could, I imagine, “hear” such a thing.

Personally, I think the silence out there speaks louder.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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