At Thomas Law Offices, we’re proud to take part in an annual scholarship campaign aimed to help students chase their dreams and build a brighter future. The Fall 2020 submission period just came to a close, and we were truly humbled by the overwhelming amount of applications we received. We received over 700 applications! The quality of the essays we received was outstanding. Thank you to everyone who applied!
We’re pleased to announce we’ve chosen a winner.
Congratulations to Peter Tam of New York!
Peter will be attending the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
This was the essay topic:
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
― Arthur C. Clarke
This was his winning essay:
Living in a city, I rarely get the clear skies needed for successful stargazing. To me, every night sky was a black backdrop with the occasional moonlight. The Moon always seemed like just another streetlamp, albeit a remote one. It was the lights near me—the dim hum of the streetlamps, the steady glow from an apartment window, the blazing colors of a neon corner store sign—that was the focus of my attention, not the one in the sky. Indeed, I never found much reason to ponder the existence of life outside Earth. The world I lived in was already full of intense fervor and bountiful energy. Despite this, in moments of deep thought, I often feel a swelling of curiosity as I try to understand my role in this cold, uncaring universe.
At the scale with which we live in—inches and miles—it is often hard to comprehend the vastness that exists just beyond the clouds. Why then, as a species, do we continue this fruitless endeavor to examine our cosmos, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence for life? This, I believe, is in part because of our evolution. Humans are social creatures. We have developed familial and tribal systems that foster communication, collaboration, and caring. We, as a species, thrive on the interactions with one another. That is why the idea of isolation, especially social isolation, is so dreaded. Our desire for contact is hard-wired, driven by our curiosity. We are desperate to encounter others in this endless world.
Until recently, around a few hundred years ago, humans held the notion that their planet was the center of the universe. This notion was powerful—believing you were the center of anything is. The shattering of this belief through Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric model gave way to a new age of scientific reasoning. With Earth just another floating ball, humans set their eyes on their interstellar neighbors. Initially, we believed the Moon held life, then, after this notion was disproven, we set our eyes on Mars, then, finally settled on the stars. Our search for life is one of constant retreat. Simultaneously, this drive gave rise to an entire generation of speculative culture, from the aliens of Roswell to the face on the Moon, which has profoundly shaped how we view our world.
However, there is an intrinsic flaw in this thinking. In the gray and hazy, humans jump to intelligent life to explain events. Look at explanations for Tabby’s Star, a star with irregularly fluctuating light patterns, and Oumuamua, an interstellar asteroid. Some, well-regarded in the scientific community, jumped to far-flung conclusions, from a Dyson sphere to an alien probe, respectively. This belief is not wrong but rather, misguided. In this infinitely expansive world, the idea of a single planet holding the Biblical Ark of life is difficult to comprehend. We would like to argue, as many scientists do, by pointing to statistics—it is mathematically impossible that we are alone. Out of the 700 quintillion planets in our known universe, shouldn’t there be more than one harboring life? However, this is discounting the various unknowns that must take place for life to emerge. This line of argument is also very short-minded. Because we only know of one planet harboring life, our entire data set for life revolves around carbon-based organisms with conditions similar to Earth’s.
This is not to discredit the fuel that drives our curiosity, on the contrary, I believe this drive is highly beneficial. Indeed, Clarke’s statement represents the very foundation for human curiosity. The desire to understand the unknown has driven us, the collective human population, into pursuing truth. Many things in our world are rarely black and white; we like answers. Clarke dangles an unknown in front of us, daring us to find the truth. At the same time, Clarke warns us of the dangers of uncovering this truth.
What if we are alone? The belief of loneliness is unpalatable; it shatters our dreams of one day joining an intergalactic society. It is uncomfortable to think that, after billions of years, the sum total of all life exists on this tiny, spinning ball. Are we perhaps condemned to isolation? The entire knowledge of existence is confined to this limited globe and subjected to the throes of entropy. One wrong step and it was as if we never existed. However, I believe this idea is more empowering that dread-inducing. We are the awareness that drives the universe, the candle against thoughtlessness. We are entrusted to be the torch bearers for future generations. But also, we are unique. Everyone, even a nameless stranger, is a diamond in this vast, unknown universe.
But what if we aren’t alone? This is slightly more complicated to answer. If humans, stranded on an island that is Earth, discover a message from an interstellar civilization, we will likely be filled with a sense of hope and then impending dread. The message tells us that we are part of a larger world, though separated by immeasurable distances. There is a wealth of knowledge scattered across the galaxy, just waiting for us to discover it. Even so, the terror that comes with exploring the unknown will be unmistakable. Despite the inundation of media depicting a universe teeming with alien life, the reality will be horrifying. It is wishful thinking to assume that first contact will occur smoothly. In the grand scheme of things, this reality will likely be more terrifying.
Nonetheless, our desire to discover life is a case study in human nature. Clarke’s quote asks us to ponder the implications of humanity’s centuries-old search for life in space. It is a distinctly human endeavor, fueled by our curiosity and desire for interaction. In the end, we do not know if life exists outside our blue ball. We live our lives essentially impervious to the goings-on of extraterrestrial space. Yet, humanity still drives forward in its pursuit into the unknown.
Bell, Trudy E. “The Grand Analogy: History of the Idea of Extraterrestrial Life .”Cosmic Search2, no. 1, 1980.
CBS Sunday Morning. “Bill Nye the Science Guy on life beyond Earth.”Youtubevideo, 0:48. July 8, 2016.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJai33NYgxc/.
Puiu, Tibi. “There Are over 700 Quintillion Planets in the Universe–but There’s No Place like Home.” ZMEScience. ZME Science, November 27, 2019.https://www.zmescience.com/science/news-science/there-are-over-700-quintillion-planets-in-the-universe-but-theres-no-place-like-home/.
Reuell, Peter. “Harvard Researchers See Alien Potential in Mysterious Object.” Harvard Gazette. Harvard Gazette,November 26, 2018.https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/11/harvard-researchers-see-alien-potential-in-mysterious-object/.
Wenz, John. “NASA’s Next Telescope Could ID Alien Megastructures.” Popular Mechanics. Popular Mechanics,February 15, 2018.https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/telescopes/a19346/james-webb-telescope-alien-megastructure/.
Williams, Matt. “What Is the Heliocentric Model of the Universe?” Phys.org. Phys.org, January 5, 2016.https://phys.org/news/2016-01-heliocentric-universe.html
For more information on our next scholarship period which will be for Fall 2021, please see our law firm’s scholarship page. Congratulations again, Peter! May all your dreams come true.