Cosmos Episode 11: The Immortals

Cosmos Episode 11 covers the nature of how life may have developed on Earth and the possibility of life on other planets. Tyson begins by explaining how the human development of writing systems enabled the transfer of information through generations, describing how Princess Enheduanna (Christiane Amanpour) ca. 2280 BCE would be one of the first to sign her name to her works, and how Gilgamesh collected stories, including that of Utnapishtim documenting agreat flood comparable to the story of Noah’s Ark. Tyson explains how DNA similarly records information to propagate life, and postulates theories of how DNA originated on Earth, including evolution from a shallow tide pool, or from theejecta of meteor collisions from other planets. In the latter case, Tyson explains how comparing the composition of the Nakhla meteorite in 1911 to results collected by the Viking program demonstrated that material from Mars could transit to Earth, and the ability of some microbes to survive the harsh conditions of space. With the motions of solar systems through the galaxy over billions of years, life could conceivably propagate from planet to planet in the same manner.

Tyson then moves on to consider if life on other planets could exist. He explains how Project Diana, performed in the 1960s, showed that radio waves are able to travel in space, and that all of humanity’s broadcast signals continue to radiate into space from our planet. Tyson says that projects have since looked for similar signals potentially emanating from other solar systems and that the development and lifespan of extraterrestrial civilizations must be considered for such detection to be realized. According to Tyson, civilizations can be wiped out by cosmic events like supernovae, natural disasters such as the Toba disaster, or even self-destruct through war or other means, making probability estimates difficult. Tyson describes how elliptical galaxies, in which some of the oldest red dwarf stars exist, would offer the best chance of finding established civilizations. He concludes that human intelligence properly applied should allow our species to avoid such disasters and enable us to migrate beyond the Earth before the Sun’s eventual transformation into a red giant. Tyson ends the episode with a quote that humanity still has many “rivers” (voyages to come) to cross.