Last week I visited Jet Propulsion Laboratory during its annual open house. I was told by JPL media relations that about 30,000 to 40,000 visitors attended the event.
I was in high school the last time I attended a JPL open house, attending as part of an ROTC field trip. From what I remember, that visit proved to be most enlightening, as we got to check out the lab's largest clean room, the Deep Space Network facility, and saw a Mars rover in action.
Walking around the JPL campus got me thinking: What does the church have to say about all this science that's going on, the trips we've taken to the moon, the trips we've taken to the upper atmosphere and the trips we might take to Mars in the not-too-distant future. Then I was reminded about a special conference the Vatican held late last year on the possibility of life on other planets.
Recalling that story made me chuckle a bit. The Vatican and aliens? Really? So I did some research, and I discovered that the Vatican, in a five-day conference, had discussed what impact a visit from an alien species would have on the church and whether extraterrestrial life exists.
At the conference, astronomers, physicists, biologists and other experts gathered to discuss and study the origin of life "and its existence elsewhere in the cosmos."
Remember, these are the same people who centuries ago put Galileo in the slammer because of his theories that the sun was at the center of the solar system, not Earth. Here we are in 2010, and that same laity is looking up into the sky, perhaps now realizing that, like Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" showed us, we are really just a speck of dust in a very big, very infinite universe where anything is possible.
"If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs biochemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound," said the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, an astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory, in an interview with CBS News.
What does this mean, Father Funes? Will we lose our identities just because we discover aliens with ridges on their foreheads? We are who we are — human — and no alien can change that. That alien will be no less of an alien because of our existence. And we won't be any less human because of its existence. It just means there's a different type of life form out there sharing our universe, one who may not necessarily accept "God" as the "creator." And accepting God as the creator is a common theme I've seen quoted in various reports on the conference. Father Funes even goes on to say that "Christians should consider alien life as an 'extraterrestrial brother' and a part of God's creation," in a story in Catholic News Service.
Please. Who's to say that even if God did create alien life, that those very aliens truly consider God their creator? Sounds like Earth-is-the-center-of-the-universe talk to me.
In my opinion, what the Vatican is doing, holding conferences to discuss alien life and the origins of life itself, is nothing new. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, has been doing it for more than 20 years. And the Vatican seems to be one of the first major religious authorities to get on board with the whole idea of extraterrestrial intelligence, although the Vatican has had an observatory in one form or another since the time of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, according to the observatory's website.
Even the very concept of alien life isn't new. Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno proposed such an idea in 1600 — and was burned at the stake for his efforts during the Roman Inquisition.
Of course, the creationists, proponents of intelligent design and Darwinists are also getting into the loop. Each seeks to explain his theory on how the world was created — either by aliens, God himself or through a natural, evolutionary process that could "make it difficult to accept the concept of alien life," the report says.
So the search continues, and one day we'll get our answer. And just like the second coming of Christ, our answers may not come today, and they may not come tomorrow, but they will come someday.