The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos by Jaime Green
In The Possibility of Life, journalist Jaime Green takes us on an expansive and open-minded exploration of whether or not life may have formed elsewhere in the universe and if so, what that life might be like. If this were only that book, it would be well worth reading. But Green makes two choices that elevate her work beyond a good exobiology book easily recommended and into a fantastic medley of science, history, culture, and personal experience that is enthusiastically recommended.
One is her insight that our search for life, and our imaginings about what that life might be like is as much about us (if not more so) as it is about “them” (or even “THEM!” if you think one form might be giant ants). In other words, no matter how far out away from Earth we cast our gaze, what we look into is not the vast star-filled sea, but a mirror. One that reveals our fears, our hopes, our biases, our delusions, our loneliness, our wish to be better than we are. One that too is big enough to show us not just our own image but our world’s, and awaken us to the wonderment and beauty of the “alien” (i.e. non-human) life we share this planet with in all its varied glory: dolphins and bats and flowers and bacteria and mitochondria and birds that used to be dinosaurs. We sit amidst a feast of life, and Green’s book begs us to do more than just nibble at the bread rolls.
The other authorial choice she makes is to insert herself fully into the narrative, not simply as explorer and interviewer but as a fan. Not simply of science, though she’s obviously that as well, but of science fiction. After all, as she tells us on page two, if her dad is the one who, in teaching her the names of the stars and constellations, was the first to make the vastness of the universe seem a little less scary, what truly made her view it as a “promise, not a threat, because it might be full of benevolent creatures,” was when she began watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.
That’s the first but far from the last reference to science fiction, as she weaves the genre throughout The Possibility of Life, citing a host of writers (classic and contemporary and ranging across gender and race) such as Gene Roddenberry, Carl Sagan, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, N.K. Jemisin, and Olaf Stapledon in referencing works like Solaris, Contact, various Star Treks, The Broken Earth trilogy, and “Story of Your Life”/Arrival. She does this because:
Science fiction is more than entertainment, it a generative act that creates new possibilities of life beyond Earth, as valid and potent as anything we might conjure up in the lab. Through fiction we can move beyond likelihoods and binary outcomes to look instead at what our imaginations do with the limitless possibilities of outer space and, crucially, ask what that might mean.
Weaving in speculative fiction also makes sense because for most of our history our thoughts on possible life out there were based on speculation only, since science is a relatively recent concept/activity. Green’s first chapter takes a quick tour of that historical thought, noting how it was the Renaissance that “cracked open the cosmos, filling it with possibilities,” as humanity realized Earth was not the center of the universe, that the wandering stars were planets, and that the sky was filled with stars, “fat with potential.” First Copernicus, then Galileo, and then “a flood of other new notions . .. . the plurality of worlds flourished as both a scientific idea and a fictional inspiration.”
Somewhat ironically, it was our scientific progress that narrowed our vision. The more we learned of life here (chapter one has an excellently clear and concise overview of current thinking on life’s beginnings here) of what the other planets were like, the more it seemed both life and planets were rarities, if not one-offs. A view that was mostly consensus until relatively recently.
Chapter two covers the earliest discoveries of actual exoplanets and then, as both our technology and methodology improved, the explosion in number and type. Green explains as well that as we consider life, we should broaden our view beyond simply Earth-like planets around a Sol-like sun, with the various criteria we associate with life here (plate tectonics, a large moon, etc.). She notes, for instance, that less than ten percent of the stars in the Milky Way are like our own, and that galaxy is filled with far more red dwarfs and white dwarfs, each with their own host of planets where life may have “found a way.” And don’t forget the exomoons as well!
After dealing with historical perspective and place, Green turns to life itself. Chapter Three asks if life elsewhere would evolve as it does here, either similarly via convergent evolution or at the least, via the same evolutionary mechanisms, such as natural selection (she also looks at the debate over whether life would form the same way even here on Earth if, in Gould’s famed question of what would happen if we could “wind back the tape to the early days [and] let it play again from an identical starting point.” Gould says the chances that the movie plays out the same way are “vanishingly small,” though that’s far from a monolithic viewpoint.
After considering animal life in general, chapter four turns to intelligent life and “people”, though here Green starts not with extraterrestrial life but instead with our attempts to discover “intelligence” (however that’s defined) and possibly self-awareness here on our own planet in our studies of creatures such as dolphins and monkeys. Green is careful to point out though that a barrier exists that honestly makes it impossible to truly understand anything that is alien, citing Nagel’s essay on bats where he writes about their echolocation for instance that “there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.” And from there he says it holds equally true that he cannot fathom “the subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth.” And this basic reality, Green says, means that “A truly alien alien . . . is so incomprehensible that stories about them just become stories about human beings.” (there’s that mirror again).
After imagining, or trying to, an alien consciousness, chapter five scales it up to imagining alien technology and what signs we might be able to find of it (say, if the aliens were all living in a Dyson Sphere). What happens if we do find it (or they find ours) is the focus of Chapter six — “Contact”, a chapter title the cover both the concept and the Sagan book/film. It explores the SETI program and variations of it, what form contact might take (as well as the question would we even know if we’d been contacted), and what the repercussions might be (if Contact is the happier viewpoint on what follows contact, the other sci-fi work discussed here, Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow is the darker version). Outside of those two works, Green looks particularly at first contact stories from Latin American and African authors, works one such writer argues could/should be called “second contact, so present is historical first contact in their author’s minds.” One aspect of contact of course is language, and Green delves into alien languages in this chapter as well, referencing Klingon of course, but also Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the basis for the movie Arrival.
From how we might decipher alien languages, Green turns to our we ourselves try/have tried to communicate, detailing the plaques on our space probes and current attempts to come up with a means of warning people tens of thousands of years in the future away from radioactive waste sites. To imagine the magnitude of that necessary task, imagine the difficulty you had in understanding Shakespeare (less than half a century), the greater difficulty with Chaucer (less than a century) and the impossibility of Old English if your high school English teacher ever played you a digital recording (or tape, or record) of Beowulf.
Green, who has always been nothing but crystal clear, engaging, humorous, and fun throughout the book, here at the end waxes more lyrical as she recounts our desperate shouts into the void (or maybe not void) and weaves in as well that childhood favorite, Madeleine L’Engle. It’s both an inspiring and a moving close to a fantastic work of non-fiction. One, as you might imagine, is highly recommended for science fans, space fans, and science fiction fans (the Venn diagram is strong with this one).