Are We Alone?: Life beyond Earth in Western Religion, Science, and Popular Culture from Aristotle to H.G. Wells
A Newberry Library Public Seminar
60 W. Walton St., Chicago, IL| Tuesdays, 5:45 to 7:45 pm | June 2 through July 28, 2009 | 9 Sessions | $190
Required text: Michael J. Crowe, ed., The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: Antiquity to 1915, A Source Book (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008). Available in The Newberry Library Bookstore.
Description: The question of whether we are alone in the universe has preoccupied human beings for millennia. It is one of the great unanswered questions of our human experience, and today a science-based search for life beyond Earth continues in earnest. As the Newberry Library begins its Summer 2009 seminar session in Chicago, the European Space Agency's Mars Express satellite and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Exploration Rovers are collecting data in search of conditions on that planet suitable for supporting life. Concurrently, NASA's Kepler spacecraft has begun its multi-year search for Earth-like planets orbiting stars in one specific section of our own Milky Way galaxy.
Though many know of such projects through mainstream media, and often are inspired by the promise of what their sophisticated engineering might one day discover, most do not stop to think that these and other efforts are built upon a rich legacy of Western thought devoted to the nature of the cosmos, our place within it, and the prospect of life existing elsewhere.
Historians of science refer to the intellectual tradition associated with the idea of life beyond Earth as the extraterrestrial life debate. From philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome to the early 20th-Century astronomers who claimed to telescopically observe evidence of a Martian civilization, participants in this unfolding and as-yet unresolved debate have, in addition to making important contributions, aroused intense emotion, argument, and criticism, sometimes at great personal cost.
Curiously, while space scientists today undertake the complex and expensive research they believe will be most helpful to determine if life exists elsewhere, many people are already convinced that we are not alone. Nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed in 2005 believe life exists on other planets and eight in ten believe it likely that intelligent life forms living beyond Earth are more advanced than humans. How did such popular convictions become so widespread? What is the relationship of these views to earlier thoughts about life in the universe? To Western philosophy? To Western science and religion? How might the discovery of extraterrestrial life affect personal beliefs and the current scientifically accepted model of cosmology?
The proposed seminar will address these questions by surveying the major developments of the extraterrestrial life debate from Antiquity through the 20th Century, drawing upon a wide variety of primary sources from philosophy, history, religion, literature, and science. Emphasis will be on the 18th and 19th Centuries (five of nine sessions), during which major shifts in the debate took place and public interest in the plurality of worlds ignited. The instructor will present the material from the perspective of an amateur cosmologist curious about the intellectual history of the debate.
The seminar has three broad objectives: 1) expose participants to the rich legacy of thought on the extraterrestrial life debate; 2) demonstrate how this legacy contributes to and reflects major themes in the humanities and the rise of scientific thought over time; and 3) challenge participants to consider their own views on life beyond Earth in light of the weekly readings and classroom discussions. Additionally, the seminar will complement the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009), a global educational initiative of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in collaboration with the United Nations Education and Science (UNESCO). The purpose of IYA2009 is to help citizens rediscover their personal connection with the universe and deepen their appreciation of the contributions of astronomy and its philosophical heritage to society and culture.
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