It's Full of Planets!
Over 400 exoplanets discovered so far. Finding more expolantes is almost becoming normal - and its not just "hot Jupiters" that are being found. Increasingly, as our techniques and equipment improve and more telescopes are brought online to join the hunt, smaller terrestrial planets are being found. Everywhere we look, it seems, we find planets. It is looking like the universe is full of planets.
Think abut that. Full of planets. Maybe in 2001: A Space Odyssey astronaut David Bowman should've exclaimed "The thing's hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it's full of planets!"
Apply the Drake Equation, and it's looking like the universe is also full of life, including intelligent life.
This does not automatically mean we are not alone. If the universe is infinite, and life arose in one spot of it, it does seem incredibly unlikely we would be the only ones. Even if the universe is not infinite - it still contains at least 100 billion galaxies, each with many stars (our own contains an estimated 100 billion stars), many of which may contain planets. The number of possible planets is astounding. However, while it may seem rather implausible, just because the universe may be populated with planets is not a Q.E.D. proof that we are not alone, despite, as Jodi Foster's character in the movie Contact propositions, that "if we are the only ones, it would be an awful waste of space, wouldn't it?"
If We Are Alone
What would that mean, if we were alone? That we are given, or by chance have, all this space in which to explore, expand, and evolve in? If we are given all of the immense space filled with stars and planets, but no other life - what is the purpose of that gift? What are our responsibilities? Should we go forth, multiply and replenish not only the Earth but the universe? Or should we leave other planets alone and not contaminate them with Earth probes and the Earth microbes that may be on them?
And does it even have to have a meaning? The universe does not know it is immense, or teeming with planets. A star does not know that it exists. It does not feel itself traveling through space, circled by planets. Gravity acts upon it without it knowing that anything at all is happening. A planet does not know that it is barren, or that it has life on it. It is barren, or life-filled, only to us (if any of this has an echo of familiarity to it, it may be because you've read Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's thought provoking poem "View with a Grain of Sand"). Meaning is arbitrary, maybe illusory.
What is Meant
But even if that meaning is arbitrary, and only has meaning to us - that may be enough. It may be up to us to give beauty to the universe, to create meaning, even if it is only for our benefit, our pleasure, our peace of mind.
I have no answers. I would be stunned if there were no other life forms outside the Earth. But, I also realize that true absolutes rarely exist, and to say it is impossible is wrong. It may be astronomically (if you'll excuse the pun) improbable, but not impossible.
What do you think?
Image Credits: 1. Warner Bros. 2. Chris Butler.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
It's Full of Planets!