Pondering Things Beyond the Earth

Posted on December 29, 2014

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It’s Lila’s last post of 2014… time for a little pondering about big things beyond the Earth (mainly because we are probably all pretty tired of hearing about all the human-inflicted calamities on our little planet this year).

The news this year has been full of all kinds of space-related stuff: humanity has managed to land a probe on a comet, The Dawn spacecraft is looking for the possibility of life on Ceres, NASA is mulling airship missions for Venus’ atmosphere, billionaires are taking steps toward privatizing space excursions, and people are signing up in droves for a one-way ticket to attempt the first colony on Mars. Still, we’re in our infancy on this frontier, nowhere even close to Gene Roddenberry’s visions of Captain James T. Kirk warping around the galaxy, boldly going where no man has gone before, encountering various alien life forms and getting romantically involved with them. Will we ever get there?

You probably recall the Drake Equation from school: the one which whimsically ponders how many planets out there might be hosting intelligent life. It turns out that the Kepler telescope puts a little meat on the bones of this mental exercise (but just a little): while we really can’t guess how many intelligent civilizations might be out there, the Kepler telescope is finding a fairly hefty proportion of potentially life-supporting planets.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s some kind of bustling activity among inhabited planets nearer to the galactic core where there are more stars and they are closer together, while we – located out in the sticks, about two-thirds of the way out along one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms – are missing out on all the action.

milkyway-galaxy

Consider some Stone Age tribe living in the Amazon Rain Forest or Papua New Guinea, isolated and unchanged for millennia while the Pyramids are built, Constantinople rises and falls, Marco Polo brings pasta, tea, and gunpowder from China to Europe, Columbus opens the way to the New World, agriculture leaps forward with the discovery of concentrated fertilizers, the Industrial Revolution sweeps by, aviation becomes routine, communication and travel becomes ever faster and ever cheaper, international trade flourishes into a global economy, the Internet allows for the exchange of information and ideas at an exponentially faster and faster rate, technology booms in every sphere: agriculture, medicine, engineering, transportation, energy. The Stone Age tribe, meanwhile, slumbers on, continuing to build their huts of palm fronds and to hunt lizards or monkeys with their bows and arrows, insulated from contact with outsiders.

What if we are like that tribe, living on our little backwater planet, far from the center of activity, almost completely ignorant of anything much beyond our little podunk solar system? Sure, we have launched probes that send data back to us; we scan the skies with radio telescopes and other instruments; we have learned much about the physical galaxy itself. But our reach has been pitifully small in the grand scheme of things.

It could be worse, though! If, somehow, we could have arisen in the overcrowded galactic core itself, there would always be danger lurking in all directions: collisions, supernovas, black holes, and the possibility of being flung out of the galaxy itself as a “hypervelocity star.” As Time magazine describes them, these stars are usually massive and traveling away from the galactic center at speeds of at least 1.5 million MPH.

Whatever the explanation for the rogue stars, for any intelligent beings living on planets that might be orbiting one of them, nothing much would appear to be amiss for eons. It will take many millions of years before the stars approach the outskirts of the Milky Way. After that, the skies would go gradually dark—aside from whatever other planets and moons were part of the stars’ retinue…

Imagine the emptiness, the hopelessness of a starless night sky. We may be the galactic equivalent of an undiscovered tribe of cavemen in the backwaters of the Milky Way, but any intelligent beings orbiting a rogue star deep in the dark spaces between galaxies would be truly, unequivocally alone, without even the possibility of discovery or exploration.  At least we have that.

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