Is there life on other planets, and will we ever discover another world with a biodiversity as rich as that found on Earth?
NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which last month sent back its first pictures from Mars, is another step in the attempt to answer these questions, and to find out whether or not we are alone in the universe and our planet a solitary life-raft in the emptiness of space.
Coinciding with this event, the most recent issue of Daedalus – the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – carries an essay by the eminent planetary scientist James F. Bell, entitled ‘The Search for Habitable Worlds: Planetary Exploration in the 21st Century’. In his essay, Bell fascinatingly outlines the pre-history and recent achievements of planetary exploration, and points to where the search for life is likely to continue, in and beyond our Solar System.
In the same issue, an essay by the ecologist David Tillman, ‘Biodiversity & Environmental Sustainability amid Human Domination of Global Ecosystems’, explores the reasons for our planet’s great biodiversity. He also reflects upon recent human-caused environmental destruction and the devastating rate of species extinctions, which is beginning to rival the largest extinction events found in the fossil record.
Tillman goes on to offer some practical solutions to alleviate the worst effects of our need for land and natural resources to support our growing populations. However, whether the same ingenuity that has enabled us to send probes to Mars and across the Solar System will allow us to sustain life on Earth in anything like its present diversity very much remains to be seen.