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In an infinite Universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer. – Stephen Hawking
I saw something fly by in the sky, and I immediately thought: that’s not an airplane.
On a cloudless, bright summer day in central Washington state an eight-year-old boy named David played out in the yard. That boy was me, sometime long ago in the last millennium. My brothers and sisters had gone into the house to watch cartoons, but for some reason I was content to stay outside in the sunshine. Then a bright sliver of reflected light caught my eye, and I looked up.
I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing. My family lived near an Air Force base, and my father was a pilot, so I had a natural interest in everything that could fly. Even at eight, I could identify several different kinds and classes of military, commercial and private aircraft. But I had never seen anything like this aircraft, moving very fast across the sky. It made no sound and had no wings. Just a silvery disc, it flew faster than anything I had ever seen, even the fast-mover Air Force jets I saw speeding past every day.
A chill went down my spine. I realized, as the disc quickly moved beyond my vision, that I had just seen something I didn’t understand and would never forget.
The next day the local newspaper had a story about it, along with a blurry snapshot someone had taken. Many other people had seen it, too, but the Air Force base said nothing had shown up on their radar.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no idea what I witnessed. Was it an unidentified flying object, a UFO? It most definitely fit that definition—because it flew, and because I couldn’t identify it, and neither could anyone else who saw it. Was it some new experimental aircraft the military was testing? Very doubtful, and they denied it. Did it come from another planet, another solar system somewhere? That’s a tempting conclusion, but I truly don’t know, because the only evidence I had was a fleeting glimpse, and my own unfounded suppositions.
That experience has always stayed with me, and made me ask whether life exists anywhere else beyond the Earth. Are we alone in the universe? As Stephen Hawking says, “there is no bigger question.” Amazingly, science cannot yet give us an answer:
Here we are, sentient beings on a planet seething with life (although perhaps not as seething as it could be) that’s been busy sculpting and re-sculpting the physical and chemical environment for much of the past 5 billion years. And now we’re confident that there are lots of planets out there, and that many of them could have an equal shot at playing host to life. But we still don’t know whether or not we’re alone. No clue. That’s quite a problem. – Caleb Scharf, This Is What We Don’t Know about the Universe, Scientific American, May 12, 2014.
Among all the major mysteries of the universe, this one ranks right up there. We’ve all thought about it, but as far as we know no one has any actual scientific proof one way or the other. It certainly makes sense scientifically, now that we’ve actually discovered so many exoplanets in our galaxy, that a significant percentage of them could support life. Theoretically, science has begun to realize, the chances of extraterrestrial life are astronomically high (apologies for the bad pun…).
But we still don’t know with any certainty. So to seek answers to this big mystery, we may want to turn to the mystics and the prophets, those whose sight and insight exceeds our own. The Baha’i teachings offer us some of that insight. In fact, an early Baha’i asked Baha’u’llah about the universe, and this is what he said:
Thou hast, moreover, asked Me concerning the nature of the celestial spheres. To comprehend their nature, it would be necessary to inquire into the meaning of the allusions that have been made in the Books of old to the celestial spheres and the heavens, and to discover the character of their relationship to this physical world, and the influence which they exert upon it. Every heart is filled with wonder at so bewildering a theme, and every mind is perplexed by its mystery. God, alone, can fathom its import. The learned men, that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets. Consider, moreover, the manifold divergencies that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men. Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 162-163.
“Every heart is filled with wonder at so bewildering a theme, and every mind is perplexed by its mystery,” Baha’u’llah said about the heavens. Those who study the universe, the scientists and astrophysicists, will likely agree. Each day, they gaze into a fathomless and mysterious reality, with few ways of knowing what it all means. For every new discovery, we unearth new mysteries. For every new theory, we open the way to another insight and a thousand more puzzling questions. Want humility? Study the universe.
So does life exist anywhere else? Baha’u’llah, the founder and prophet of the world’s newest global Faith, says every planet has its own creatures. For now, without scientific verification, that’s as close as we’re likely to come to understanding something so far beyond our grasp:
Gaze upward through immeasurable space to the majestic order of the colossal suns. These luminous bodies are numberless. Behind our solar system there are unfathomable stellar systems and above those stellar systems are the remote aggregations of the Milky Way. Extend your vision beyond the fixed stars and again you shall behold many spheres of light. In brief, the creation of the Almighty is beyond the grasp of the human intellect. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 168-169.