“Columbus forced everyone to rethink, redesign and rebuild their world view.That’s what we’re doing here," says Dimitar Sasselov, professor of astrophysics and director of Harvard University’s Origins of Life Initiative. "To put it in 15th-century terms, we’ve reached the Canary Islands. Getting to where we ultimately want to go is a slow process that involves astronomers, aeronautical engineers, biochemists, anthropologists and businessmen."
“It’s feasible that we’ll meet other sentient life forms and conduct commerce with them,” Sasselov said. “We don’t now have the technology to physically travel outside our solar system for such an exchange to take place, but we are like Columbus centuries ago, learning fast how to get somewhere few think possible.”
Sasselov believes that life is probably common in the universe. He said that he believes life is a natural “planetary phenomenon” that occurs easily on planets with the right conditions. “It takes a long time to do this,” Sasselov said at a 2011 Harvard conference. “It may be that we are the first generation in this galaxy.”
Though it may be hard to think of it this way, at roughly 14 billion years old, the universe is quite young, he said. The heavy elements that make up planets like Earth were not available in the early universe; instead, they are formed by the stars. Enough of these materials were available to begin forming rocky planets like Earth just 7 billion or 8 billion years ago. When one considers that it took nearly 4 billion years for intelligent life to evolve on Earth, it would perhaps not be surprising if intelligence is still rare.