Why do We Explore? [Life at the SETI Institute]

by Nathalie A. Cabrol

I realize how immodest the title of this first blog may sound and it is certainly not my intention to convince anybody that I will answer this question in the limited space allowed here or even in a lifetime. My hope is, instead, to stir thoughts and invite an exchange of diverse perspectives to make this a thread that we can all pull from time to time. It is an immense subject debated in an abundant literature, but discussing it is certainly not the exclusive privilege of those called explorers. All beings, from the greatest minds to the simplest forms of life on this planet and possibly others, are explorers. All are, thus, without exception, competent to contribute to this discussion in one form or another.

Exploring may mean a number of different things for each of us but I argue that we all do it for the same reasons, whether those are reasoned or subconscious, and that the fundamentals of why we do explore have been the same since the dawn of life on our planet. My perspective stems from a passion for exploration, for living, breathing and imagining it every day of my life and dreaming about it at night. It is fueled by a fascination for the possibility of finding life on other planets and observing life's ability to adapt on ours no matter what is thrown at it. It is also sustained by the exceptional environment of the SETI Institute where I belong. Walking down the Institute's hallways, posters and photographs take residents and visitors alike from Is there anybody out there? to Do you sincerely believe that anything can survive down here? and everywhere in between. The sky is not even the limit. It is our starting point.

There is a very large universe out there and according to the String Theory, it could be only one out of an infinity of universes. Even better for us curious minds since that's more real estate to explore! Cosmology theories and quantum physics possibly epitomize, at least to me, the human mind's ability to play with what we know of our universe and to project it into the unknown. These explorations take us beyond the limits of where, directly or indirectly, our hands can touch, our eyes can see, and our bodies can travel, to look at all the angles our imaginations can reveal. There, we embrace an addictive freedom, while still clinging to the laws of physics with which we have come to evolve. One day these laws might fall but for now, they are still what make our universe go round. We explore at microscopic to macroscopic scale but this is not a human privilege. All species that made the journey thus far with us are still here because they were greater explorers than those that did not. This takes me to what I feel strongly is the most fundamental, primeval essence of exploration: survival.

While we are seeking brethren in the universe, our own beginnings remain unclear. Life on Earth may have developed and gone extinct many times before finally taking roots on a planet heavily bombarded by asteroids and comets for hundreds of millions of years, a planet ravaged by volcanic eruptions the likes of which we do not know anymore, and by many more countless deadly threats. In such an environment, immobility and scarcity were not the name of the game. Survival resided in the diversification of environments that life could make available to itself by multiplying when it could, and by colonizing the next crack in the rock, the next rock in the field, and finally all the fields in the continent, the next continent and the next ocean in the planet, and soon (at geological scale), the next planet. This is our journey so far.

Each species goes as far and as fast as its evolutionary path can take it. This path is dictated by that species' exposure to the environment and to other species. We (as in life in general) are all trying to constantly expand our horizon, for there is gain in doing so. At the most primary level the gain is physical survival through a greater range of environments, which provide additional resources to supply a greater number of individuals of the same group. The curiosity and awe that we humans associate with exploration is a late comer. Understanding when this driving force developed is by itself a fascinating subject. I do not believe the first bacteria were curious about their environment; they simply tried to adapt to it.

Curiosity requires first questioning, which is the attribute of a number of superior species who do not simply react but rather interact with their environment. Those species also show creativity and imagination, which are both signs that they are exploring their mental and cerebral abilities. I am now going much too far outside my area of expertise and will hope that others will comment farther on this. But as far as humans go, beyond survival, exploration is certainly associated with physical, mental, and spiritual questioning that fuel each other by changing our perception of all the dimensions we know of, and give to the universe. Iterative questioning and exploring expands our imagination, thus our ability to further question and explore. The curiosity we apply to exploration is also one way for us to stimulate our imagination and gauge its validity in understanding our universe and its endless diversity. To some extent, it is the way each generation has to create its own universe.

Today, we still strive to survive but now life has also reached the point where its exploration path has come to question its own origin. Indeed, we do explore to understand where we came from and define the meaning, if any, of this wonderful universal journey of ours. It is fascinating to realize how, as we walk the Earth, the surface of other planets, soon the Milky Way and beyond, that this journey gives greater depth to our consciousness, for exploration is also very much an inward voyage. We are made of all the bricks of this universe. There is, therefore, a chance that part of this answer that we have set out to seek so far away in the unknown confines of the universe, might be within us, waiting for the time when exploration will take us back home.

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