How far planetary science has come since the days when the “hot” topic was finding Planet X!
Scientists recently discovered a planet in another solar system with an orbit that would make it theoretically possible to sustain water which, in turn, makes life [as we know it] a real possibility there.
This is the type of news that I’m still having a hard time filing away even though it’s a few weeks old–here’s a link to one of the first news blasts I saw about the discovery.
We’ve known about extrasolar planets for a long time. And according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, nearly 500 such planets have already been discovered. And this after only two decades’ worth of confirmed discoveries! I remember when yogurt came in paper cups. I remember when scientists were still arguing about what it was that did in the dinosaurs. And I remember when the notion of planets beyond our own solar system was only speculative.
So all the more hair-raising to live in a time when there is finally word that something is out there with an orbit that might make our own little blue planet more mundane. I was ecstatic.
But now lets do an orbital dance around more theory. In the event they ever do find life on Gliese 581–or elsewhere beyond our own atmosphere, for that matter–what does that mean for how humanity sees itself in the bigger scheme of things?
- I’ve heard it said that finding out that we are truly alone in the galaxy/universe/etc. will finally force us to stop fighting, stop trashing our current home, and finally do things the “right” way.
- I’ve also heard it said that discovering life beyond will do nothing short of completely up-ending our view of the world(s), ourselves, etc.
I don’t know about #1. Have you ever seen high-speed film of bacteria growing in a petri dish? Those things just grow and grow and grow until the dish nutrients are all used up. Then the population crashes and that’s that. (Sound familiar?) I’m not sure that having proof we’re the only decent petri dish around is going to stop our own high-speed film.
Frankly, I’d rather focus on #2 anyway, since I truly believe we’re going to find something “out there,” sooner or later. Or vice versa! (And note, extraterrestrial life doesn’t have to be of the walking, talking sort. Simple bacteria–limited petri dish nutrients notwithstanding–seem hardy enough to be likely. I’m no biologist, but I’ve seen enough documentaries on NOVA and The Discovery Channel where they show stuff growing inside rocks found in the Antarctic or just floating around more than a mile below the ocean’s surface [especially by geothermal vents].)
So if the headline tomorrow reads that life has finally been discovered elsewhere, will we alter how we view ourselves–in a good way? What does it do for science vs. religion? What’s to stop us from getting xenophobic on other lifeforms the way we [(speaking futuristically here) used to] get xenophobic here on Earth?
I’m not sure there’s a rosy, “everybody lives happily ever after” outcome for either scenario. But that shouldn’t stop us from simply marveling. About what we know. And what we don’t.