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While grappling with the daunting technological challenge of performing a chemical analysis of planets they cannot even see, scientists searching for extraterrestrial life must keep in mind that it may be very different from life here at home. The lack of the red edge, for instance, might not mean a terrestrial exoplanet is lifeless: Life thrived on Earth for billions of years before land plants appeared and populated the continents. Biological evolution is so inherently unpredictable that even if life originated on a planet identical to Earth at the same time it did here, life on that planet today would almost certainly be very different from terrestrial life.

As the biologist Jacques Monod once put it, life evolves not only through necessity—the universal workings of natural law—but also through chance, the unpredictable intervention of countless accidents. Chance has reared its head many times in our planet's history, dramatically so in the many mass extinctions that wiped out millions of species and, in doing so, created room for new life-forms to evolve. Some of these baleful accidents appear to have been caused by comets or asteroids colliding with Earth—most recently the impact, 65 million years ago, that killed off the dinosaurs and opened up opportunities for the distant ancestors of human beings. Therefore scientists look not just for exoplanets identical to the modern Earth, but for planets resembling the Earth as it used to be or might have been. "The modern Earth may be the worst template we could use in searching for life elsewhere," notes Caleb Scharf, head of Columbia University's Astrobiology Center.

It was not easy for earlier explorers to plumb the depths of the oceans, map the far side of the moon, or discern evidence of oceans beneath the frozen surfaces of Jovian moons, and it will not be easy to find life on the planets of other stars. But we now have reason to believe that billions of such planets must exist and that they hold the promise of expanding not only the scope of human knowledge but also the richness of the human imagination.

For thousands of years we humans knew so little about the universe that we were apt to cele­brate our imaginations and denigrate reality. (As Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote, the mysticism of the religious visionaries of old arose from an "intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality.") Now, with advances in science, it has become gallingly evident that nature's creativity outstrips our own. The curtain is going up on countless new worlds with stories to tell. 

Veteran stargazer Timothy Ferris writes from his own observatory in California. His new book, The Science of Liberty, will be published in February.
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