The fevered speculation that broke out two weeks ago about extrasolar planets that could support life, or even civilization, has broken out again, with fresh announcements from NASA about an abundance of “candidate worlds” and one world of particular interest. But this time, enough cool heads remain to dampen the misplaced excitement.
As before, the speculation comes from the purported findings of NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Recall that that craft “detects” planets by looking for the shadows that they cast over the earth as they obscure the light from their suns. Allegedly, Kepler found 1,235 planets by this method, of which 54 orbit their stars at a distance allowing liquid water at their surfaces. Yet the determination is only a rough estimate, based solely on the semimajor axis of the orbit and another estimate of the star’s size. It makes no allowance, and indeed cannot make allowance, for the thickness of any atmosphere or an attempt to predict the climate on any of these worlds.
Nevertheless, the latest reports now quote the Kepler science team as estimating that 50 billion exoplanets exist in our galaxy alone, of which 500 million rest in their systems’ “habitable” or liquid-water-at-surface zones. The news has caused otherwise sober-minded people to leap from the bare possibility of finding a planet having an ocean (and not a vast ice shelf or a network of glaciers on the one hand, or a killer steam bath like Venus on the other) to the chance, that some believe that humanity ought to take seriously, that the earth might soon receive a Commodore Perry-style trading expedition. (Or worse, have to defend itself against invasion.)
The debate on whether extraterrestrial life (or civilization) exists includes a range of opinion between two extremes. On one side, Seth Shostak of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) Institute, actually wagered coffee on the house that an ET contact would occur within the lifetimes of at least some who listened to him at yesterday’s session of the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. On the other side, Dr. Howard Smith at the Harvard Smithsonian Institute told his listeners that the earth most likely is unique in supporting life, and people ought to appreciate how “blessed” (a remarkable word for a scientist to use in front of scientists) humanity really is. Smith introduced his “misanthropic principle,” or the notion of the uniqueness of the earth, as a pun on the anthropic principle, which says that the universe is finely-tuned for life.
The misanthropic principle is joyous. We should rejoice in our good fortune.
Even William Borucki, the head of the Kepler science team, had to admit one thing: with so many candidate worlds, humanity has so far not seen one hint of otherworldly habitation, let alone a visit. To his credit, he did not flinch from the obvious question: “why haven’t they visited us?” His own refreshingly frank answer: “I don’t know.” The point is: an ET race should have visited earth by now if intelligent life were as abundant as claimed.
But another comment highlights why ET civilization is so important: everyone knows that ET civilization, if it exists, would shake to the core all of the monotheistic faiths of man, because not one of them makes any allowance whatsoever for such a thing.
This Examiner is not worried. Not only does the ET-civilization speculation begin with a very slim chance that another world exists with a proper ocean, but it also depends on the entire universe being billions of years old. For various reasons, this galaxy cannot be nearly as old as that. Furthermore, the very distances that prompt conventional astronomers to insist that the universe is old, also provide an impenetrable barrier to any sort of interstellar interaction, be it trade or war. After all, Albert Einstein posted a speed limit on the universe, and that speed limit still holds.
So again, we need not worry about anyone flying in “conquering and to conquer.” And if anyone does come in, pretending to have come a long way and at the limit of their endurance, supplies, etc., one should remember that Joshua documented in detail how a group of near neighbors fooled him into taking them for travelers from afar. (Joshua ch. 9) In which case humanity would do well to remember this aphorism:
Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.
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