“John saw curious looking beasts in heaven, he saw every creature that was in heaven, all the beasts, fowls, & fish in heaven, actually there, giving glory to God. I suppose John saw beings there, that had been saved from ten thousand times ten thousand earths like this, strange beasts of which we have no conception <all> might be seen in heaven.”
-Joseph Smith, 8 April 1843
That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.
About two days ago the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. It’s a pretty big deal; in a few months we’ll be able to peer almost to the moment of creation itself (plus we’ll get some killer “worlds without end” shots). Because of recent events I’ve been lately thinking about big, existential questions that are still amenable to scientific testing, and the likelihood that neighboring solar systems harbor life is one such question.
My personal interpretation is that cosmological research has a part to play in D&C 121:30-31, which prophesies that big picture questions are going to be answered in the last dispensation. Unlike most other Christian faiths, extraterrestrial life was built into our fundamental cosmology almost from the beginning; it’s not the domain of speculative theologians trying to weld the concept onto frameworks that weren’t built with them in mind. (A very-informed-about-the-Church colleague of mine invited me to participate in a fascinating, interdisciplinary group of researchers interested in exobiology and religion; not being a very good ambassador for the Church I responded that we “already have all that figured out” and sent him a meme about Kolob.)
I think that most members of the Church basically hold my own perspective on this, which is that the other children do exist, but that they are so far away that we won’t interact before the second coming, so I’m not holding my breath that there will ever be mission calls to Proxima Centauri b, and the moving Ray Bradbury short story about explorers who visit planets shortly after Christ does will remain science fiction.
Still, the question of how numerous these other worlds and children of God on those other worlds are is interesting; so what is the latest on the search for such worlds? The following is my take on the state of the search, knowing that I am at most an informed amatuer and might have gotten something wrong.
First, from our radio listening efforts it is becoming increasingly clear that there isn’t some advanced civilization trying to contact us in our immediate neighborhood. Like when we found out that Mars didn’t harbor intelligent life, this realization has narrowed our sense about how plentiful life is in the universe. Given the cosmic speed limit of the speed of light, it is highly unlikely that we will ever have routine in-person exchanges with advanced civilizations a la Star Trek. If they’re out there, they’re outside of our local neighborhood, and are much too far to visit in-person on any reasonable timescale.
Second, while thanks to missions like NASA’s Kepler spacecraft we are getting a better picture of how many worlds are out there (although ultimately “they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine”) it appears that the vast majority of these worlds are barren and lifeless, as they are either lying too far away or too close to their stars to maintain liquid water, which is required for life. However, their lack of life does not mean that, for example, Neptune’s diamond rain or Jupiter’s blindingly bright “Northern Lights” do not testify to the glory of God or are not considered “glorious and beautiful” by their creator.
Third, while we have found some candidate earths in other solar systems that are in the “goldilocks zone,” not too far away and not too close to its star, what exactly is required for them to have life besides the right temperature is a matter of fierce debate. For what my amateur reading of the literature is worth, I subscribe to the “rare earth” hypothesis, which is that our planet is a very rare fluke that happens to have multiple rare characteristics required to develop complex life (plate tectonics, non-red dwarf star, radiation shield, large moon, etc), and that we may be the only planet in our galaxy inhabited with intelligent life.
Of course, because there are so many galaxies we can still have innumerable other civilizations, they are just sitting in the middle of millions of dead worlds and burnt out stars in incomprehensible vast blackness (I’m not sure what Jude meant by “wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever,” but it sounds like an apropos description for most of the universe). The alternative is that life is more plentiful in our galaxy. While the latter option fits more comfortably with my natural Latter-day Saint sentiment inclined towards planetary creations teeming with life designed for the “continuation of the seeds,” my current take is that it takes a lot of dead worlds to create one oasis of life in an otherwise sterile universe.
However, sometime in the next half century we will have more than just computer simulations to inform our guesstimates, and will be able to use space telescopes to directly observe whether our neighboring solar systems can develop life. (Also, there is a strong possibility in the next century or so that we may visit some of these close star systems using technology that isn’t completely science fiction. We will be able to analyze the light that skips off the atmosphere of earth-like planets outside our solar system, essentially directing that light into a prism, with the kind of rainbow that is reflected telling us what kind of gases are in the atmosphere. While some space telescopes (including the James Webb) can already do this on a rudimentary level, what we have currently is unlikely to be able to detect biosignatures in earth-like planets around yellow stars. However, the proposed HabEx Telescope is designed specifically for detecting chemicals on earth-like planets that signal either life or the possibility of life.
However, HabEx is competing with three other space telescopes to be chosen as NASA’s next generation space telescope. If chosen, it will not be launched for another decade. If it is not chosen, it may be several decades before we are in a position to comprehensively know if nearby stars have planets on which life does or could exist given the chemical makeup of its atmosphere. If this next generation (or the generation after that) space telescope comes up negative with the presence of water, oxygen, or other life-supporting chemicals in any possibly accessible star systems, then my hunch will be confirmed and we really are quite alone in a sea of dead darkness. If this is the picture that congeals in the next half century or so as the data comes dribbling in, I suspect it will cause some existential angst for the niche of secularists that seem to cling to their Star Trek/Carl Sagan/Elon Musk fantasies about colonizing other worlds as a way to avoid confronting our inevitable mortality as a species. If we are this one bright light swimming against chaos then it’s ashes to ashes and dust to dust when our world is destroyed by a red giant sun. Of course, those of us who are religious believers believe in a deus ex machina when God will intervene before that happens, but for everybody else it’s a fairly bleak picture.
So where does that leave us? In the next half century or so we will have a general picture as to whether there could be life on worlds in potentially visitable star systems or not. I’m not optimistic. That, combined with the lack of signals from other civilizations, would support what I think is most members’ sense about these things, which is that there are indeed other children, but their existence will not play into our own religious experience before things wrap up with the Second Coming and our own world sitting in the darkness will turn into a sea of fire and glass and become “sanctified, immortal, and eternal.”