There’s No Place Like Home

The discovery of planets orbiting other stars continues apace. Science nerds love this stuff, but I’ve come to find it very silly and more than a little disturbing.

The theory that our own planetary system developed out of a cloud of dust and gas dates back, you may be surprised to learn, more than 200 years. The theory is now fairly well developed, though of course it’s developed using mathematical models. Nobody actually gets to watch the process happening, because there would be nothing to see until after the planets had formed, and anyway it takes millions of years. Nonetheless, it’s not at all surprising that many stars (quite likely most of them) are orbited by planets. That some of those planets would have about the same mass as Earth and would orbit in the “Goldilocks zone” of temperature where water is a liquid is not at all surprising.

It’s nice that we now have telescopes powerful enough to do some research in this field. What disturbs me is the unexamined spiritual aura around the search. It’s not enough that we find balls of rock — no. We’re searching for planets that may have life.

Let’s take a step back and examine what that means.

Life is a chemical process. It’s just molecules. So any planet that has the right temperature and combination of ingredients (plenty of water, plenty of carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, and so forth) and that isn’t rendered uninhabitable by meteor bombardment will quite likely support living organisms, or living processes if you prefer. And … so what?

In the first place, we’re never going to go there. Nor will our great-grandchildren ever have the opportunity. Space is simply too vast and the available methods of transportation too slow, too expensive, and too dangerous.

But it’s worse than that. What we now understand about our own planet is that life has existed here for at least 2.5 billion and possibly 3 billion years. And what we know about this is that for the first 2 billion of those years, life consisted entirely of single-celled organisms. Toward the end, maybe a few worms crawling along in the mud at the bottom of some shallow ocean, but basically we’re talking about organisms that would be too small to see with the naked eye, except in large clumps.

For most of the history of our own planet, if a space-faring alien race had happened to drop in for a visit, they would have found … pond scum. That’s it. Pond scum. Not an inspiring prospect, is it? Even if you could fly off to a planet orbiting another star, and even if you had chosen one that almost certainly harbored life, why would you want to visit a place where the big tourist attraction was pond scum?

And then, 500 million years ago, came the Cambrian revolution. Multi-celled life! Zowie! So our imaginary aliens drop in for a visit, and what do they find? A planet overrun by trilobites. Trilobites everywhere, little multi-legged critters crawling over one another, scuttling around in the water, and probably nothing on land but bare rock.

The search for exoplanets that support life is really no more than a Star Trek fantasy. There’s nothing out there that would genuinely be of any interest, except to science geeks like you and me.

Instead of spending millions on these sophisticated instruments and more millions in salaries to the staff that examines the data the instruments scrape up, why not spend the money trying to make sure our own planet remains habitable?

There is no Planet B, folks. There’s no place like home. We’re stuck here, and our descendants will be stuck here quite likely for as long as there are any of them. If we don’t take care of this planet, when our interstellar visitors finally come to visit they’ll probably find nothing but pond scum. And maybe cockroaches. I expect the cockroaches will do all right. We probably don’t have the power to actually bring about the end of life on Earth, but we’re certainly on track to destroy every single species of land-dwelling vertebrate.

We humans quite regularly go haring off after bizarre irrelevancies. The Crusades were not an aberration. We have a real hard time keeping our eye on the ball.

The Earth is the ball. Maybe we could figure out how to keep an eye on it, rather than gazing off into blazing infinity. Fiddling while Rome burns.

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4 Responses to There’s No Place Like Home

  1. Tim Bartik says:

    I don’t think it is an either/or. The minor amount we spend on astronomy research or SETI research, even if doubled or quadrupled, would hardly interfere with the needed efforts to minimize climate change, for example.

    • Tim Bartik says:

      And I guess I would add: you could use the same argument that we should spend no time writing novels or composing music, either — instead we should devote all of our time to the important tasks of dealing with key challenges such as climate change or social justice. I don’t think you feel that way. You no doubt feel, like most people, that novels and music and poetry are part of being human, and should not be sacrificed in the belief that they get in the way of more important tasks like protecting the environment.

      The same is true of scientific knowledge. Just as human beings get meaning from reading stories about their fellow humans, or listening to music, so they get music from learning more about this amazing universe, from the dirt to the stars. Yes, we should spend more money on minimizing CO2 emissions. But this need not come about throught defunding the NEH or the NEA or NASA or NSF.

      • midiguru says:

        There is merit in what you’re saying. But I’m pretty sure a lot of the people who are ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the discovery of exoplanets have a Star Trek mindset. I have known people who were of the opinion (in a baffling failure of intellect) that colonizing Mars would somehow do something to insure the continuation of the human race. I would be not at all surprised to learn that these same people anticipate interstellar travel and the colonization of other planetary systems — that they have somehow bludgeoned their intellects into the belief that this could actually happen.

        In any case, playing music and writing novels _are_ ways, however trivial, of enhancing life on Earth. Gathering data about exoplanets is only life-enhancing if you start with the Star Trek mindset.

      • Tim Bartik says:

        Personally, I find it very life-enhancing to learn about new scientifc discoveries, about exoplanets as well as many other things. A lot of people have that mindset where they find new scientific findings exciting, and one of the best things about humanity. Dismissing it as “Star Trek mindset” doesn’t explain why many of us also find it exciting to learn more about what might have come before the Big Bang, whether the universe will expand forever, or why time has a direction, to pick some issues that physics can help explore. Or, for that matter, to learn more from digging up fossils — what’s the point of that, in terms of enhancing life today, except for the sheer exhilaration of discovery and knowledge and understanding our place in the Universe and in history? I am an economist who spends a lot of time worrying about how to enhance life on earth, broadly defined, but I recognize that there is more to life than that, such as the arts, the humanities, mathematics, science, history, etc., even if these things have no immediate use. Your mileage may vary.

        I wonder if you’ve ever read the book by British mathematician G.H. Hardy, “A Mathematician’s Apology”. In it, he defends doing mathematics without ANY practical applications — simply for the beauty of it. The same defense can be made of pursuing scientific truth about the universe: this truth is beautiful even if it has no practical application.

        Or, since you write fantasy books, I assume at some point you’ve read Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic science fiction book, “The Dispossessed”, which is about an alien physicist named Shevek. In it, at one point Shevek describes making a fundamental physics discovery, and how the compelling beauty of it catches him up in a universe beyond himself.

        “The wall was down. The vision was both clear and whole. What he saw was simple, simpler than anything else. It was simplicity: and contained in it all complexity, all promise. It was revelation. It was the way clear, the way home, the light.

        The spirit in him was like a child running out into the sunlight. There was no end, no end…

        And yet in his utter ease and happiness he shook with fear; his hands trembled, and his eyes filled up with tears, as if he had been looking into the sun. After all, the flesh is not transparent. And it is strange, exceedingly strange, to know that one’s life has been fulfilled.

        Yet he kept looking, and going farther, with that same childish joy, until all at once he could not go any farther; he came back, and looking around through his tears saw that the room was dark and the high windows were full of stars.

        The moment was gone; he saw it going. He did not try to hold on to it. He knew he was part of it, not it of him. He was in its keeping….

        There were no more abysses, no more walls. There was no more exile. He had seen the foundations of the universe, and they were solid. ”

        I think that any true scientist, at times has seen a little piece of this beauty of knowing a previously unknown truth — REGARDLESS of whether it has immediate practical application to the problems of the day.

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