About three years ago in the May 2 edition of “Nature” magazine, there was an article regarding the discovery of three new exo-planets which has again rekindled interest in the belief that one or two of them could possess atmospheric conditions that could harbor extra-terrestrial life.
Although the “Nature” article did not specifically say so, the discovery of these exo-planets that are located within what’s known as the “Goldilocks” zone will no doubt enliven conversations about the question: Are we alone in the universe?
Over 23 centuries ago Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “There will be nothing to hinder an infinity of worlds”.
As of Aug. 1 of this year, there are 4,031 exo-planets outside of our solar system that have been discovered orbiting stars other than our Sun.
Many of these exo-planets are so strange as to confirm the biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s famous remark: “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”.
Amid such exotica, scientists are getting very eager for a hint that an exo-planet resembles Earth, orbits their parent star in that “Goldilocks” zone which has the right distance — neither too hot nor too cold — to support life as we know it.
Of the exo-planets discovered to date, the majority have been discovered by the very efficient Keppler space telescope but only a dozen of them have as yet had their pictures taken. Most others have been detected by scientist’s use of space spectroscopic Doppler technique.
Using this Doppler technique, scientists have been able to analyze the star to see if it is being tugged ever so slightly back and forth by the gravitational pull of its planets.
While grappling with the problem of identifying those stars that possess Earth-like planets, an even more daunting technological challenge is performing chemical analysis of exoplanets they have detected but have yet been able to see.
While making these chemical analyses, scientists must keep in mind that if life is detected it may be a very, very different form life than found here at home.
Will science succeed?
According to a Roman poet Lucretius nothing in the world “is the only one of its kind, unique and solitary in its birth and growth.” As there are countless individuals in every species of animal, from “the brutes that prowl the mountains, to the children of men, the voiceless scaly fish and all the forms of flying things,” so there must be countless worlds and inhabitants thereof.
If a life form is detected elsewhere in space and it was decided to release that information to all the citizens of Earth, what would be the best method of disclosing it?
Needless to say the announcement would be revolutionary. The discovery of alien beings might lead to a greater unity on men on Earth, based on the oneness of man or on the age-old assumption that any stranger is threatening.
As I wrote in one of my past columns, much would depend, of course, on the nature of the “Close Encounter of the Third Kind.” Mortal man is so completely accustomed to regarding himself as supreme that to discover he is no more an intellectual match for beings elsewhere than our dogs are for us, would be a shattering revelation.
On another closer-to-home subject, most of tonight’s stargazing will have to be put on hold because of the full “Sturgeon Moon” shining so bright.