Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Earth Exceptionalism

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Earth Exceptionalism

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE : "Where Are They?" by Nick Bostrom, in Technology Review, May-June 2008.

PHILOSOPHER NICK BOSTROM has surprising aspirations for the Phoenix spacecraft, which landed in the arctic zone of Mars on May 25. The director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University wants the probe to turn up nothing-sterility, dead rocks, lifeless sands.

Such an outcome would be a good omen for humanity, Bostrom writes. It would provide new evidence that the emergence of life is extremely improbable. It would suggest that billions upon billions of rolls of the dice have produced a score of only one. Heretofore, the notion that 100 billion galaxies containing possibly 100 billion stars each would have only once generated the spark of life seemed almost preposterous. Yet after nearly half a century of searches for extra-terrestrial intelligence with increasingly powerful telescopes and data mining techniques, the night sky has yielded no messages, no aliens, and no spacecraft.

The likely explanation for this, Bostrom writes, is that the path to life forms capable of colonizing space leads through a "Great Filter," a term he borrowed from George Mason University economist Robin Hanson. This filter consists of one or more steps that must be negotiated against odds so great as to make a particular process essentially impossible--except once. …

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