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Is there extraterrestrial life out there?

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space

It sounds sensible to say that since there are roughly 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and probably more than 100 million galaxies throughout the universe, Earth can't possibly hold the only intelligent life in the entirety of it all, right? Well, Christopher Chyba, professor of astrophysical sciences and international affairs at Princeton, can poke holes in that argument – along with every other good idea you ever thought you had.

Chyba spoke to a standing-room-only crowd on the University of Texas campus last Wednesday evening on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The verdict? Nobody's got a damn clue.

The problem with the sensible way of looking at the universe is that it took so many double sixes on the intergalactic, billion-sided dice for civilization to flourish on Earth, the odds of it happening anywhere else in the known universe are pretty low. For example, that asteroid that killed all the dinos? Had it missed Earth, perhaps the dinosaurs would still be the dominant species on the planet.

Also, for intelligent life to happen, a planet must be the appropriate distance away from the star from which it gets its energy. So narrow the list of potential life-bearing planets down to that few billion or so, and now those planets need all the double sixes.

But if there is intelligent life out there, how do we find those critters, teach them English, and spread the Gospel to them? That gets hairy as well. Suffice it to say, we're more likely to get into the universe's first shuttle accident with an alien race than find them through telescopic means.

For more useful info, check out the SETI Insti­tute's Allen Telescope Array (www.seti.org/ata) and NASA's Kepler mission (www.kepler.nasa.gov), which is aimed at finding how many Earth-sized worlds are appropriately distanced from their "sun" to theoretically support life.

Pass the bong, man.

Posted Thursday, Feb. 21, on Newsdesk, the Chronicle News blog, austinchronicle.com/newsdesk.

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extra terrestrials, Milky Way, Christopher Chyba, SETI Insti­tute, NASA

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