As Microcosmologist turns one, today is Johannes Kepler’s 440th Birthday. Happy 440th, ya old coot!
This week I saw a headline at Ars Technica (one of my favorite sites to read): “This week in Exoplanets” which added the subtitle “with a side dose of the rest of science”. I had to laugh at this.
I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that my readership is already well informed about the latest findings (go ahead and peruse the above link if not) so I’ll skip out on rehashing these latest news bytes. Indeed, one could run a whole blog solely devoted to chronicling the Kepler team’s findings.
What fascinates and delights me at this moment is standing back and observing the fact that this project is completely dominating the headlines. To the point where other very interesting scientific discoveries are taking a backseat to Kepler. It underscores the universal desire to know this cosmos around us. And the yearning to answer that nagging question ‘are we alone?’ (spoiler alert: we’re certainly not!) It’s a natural question to ask. But it’s an exceptional group of people who begin the undertaking to concretely find it and prove life exists, which is what we’re all talking about here.
So Kepler has found Earth-sized exoplanets, and exoplanets within the habitable zone of their star. It’s simply a matter of time before a world is located satisfying both of these criteria. As much as Kepler has grabbed the headlines, the project is still in the ‘warm-up’ phase, in the sense that if they need 3 transits to verify a planet, and the mission launched in 2009, next year will be the year in which they could start verifying planets with the exact size and position of Earth, orbiting around other stars. The best is yet to come!
I firmly believe they will find their Earth-twin. Probably tens or even hundreds of them. To me, this is a foregone conclusion, but one that will nevertheless be monumental when it’s announced. It’s a major stepping stone on the path to finding more life as-we-know-it. When I think about the cosmos, think about its vastness, it occurs to me that if there is a non-zero probability of life arising (and here we are), then in a universe as inconceivably expansive as ours, life MUST abound. It simply must. The realist in me doubts that I will live to see its existence scientifically verified, but as a nerd-type I deeply envy/revere the people who are conducting this search. Going a step further, as a human being, a self-aware consciousness, I know it is in our nature and our very destiny to seek connection with whomever else shares this universe with us. It is a quest upon which we are compelled to embark.
One thought that keeps reoccurring to me as the Kepler data gets dissected, is that our search is so ‘geocentric’. That is to say a lot of the analysis I read is focused purely upon the assumption that life can only arise on a goldilocks planet with Earth mass, Earth gravity, Earth atmosphere, and Earth chemistry. That’s a sensible and proper extension of the scientific though-process: we go with what we know. One thing I am very hopeful to see in my lifetime is the shattering of this geocentric view on life. Maybe even as early as this time next year when the Mars über-rover curiosity touches down on the red planet and kicks off its search for life there.
We humans think of ourselves as impossibly complex organisms, but really we are nothing more than collections of microbes that have had long time scales to build up into spiffy configurations. If we find microbes in the soil of Mars, or deep underground in Martian caves or aquifers, or somewhere beneath the icy surfaces of Europa’s oceans, then it follows that given adequate timescales, these microbes can build up their own spiffy configurations in the form of Europa-pean super-intelligent dolphins or whales, or fox-like Martian creatures that exist in complex networks of subterranean caves. Consider the fact that the number of microbes which live inside your digestive tract is greater than the number of humans ever born. Intricate organisms grows from microbes, and the more extremeophiles that pop up, the wider the playing field grows.
Daydreaming of what must be out there, I imagine there must be species which exist in far heavier gravities than a human could withstand, species that dine on arsenic-seasoned dishes, and organisms that swim through seas of radiation which would kill us almost instantly. When asked whether he looked forward to the first contact with an alien lifeform, Stephen Hawking expressed his belief that the encounter would likely parallel the meeting of Christopher Columbus and the American Indians. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more formidable intellect than Stephan, but the alien Christopher Columbus parable only holds true if Earth had some uncommon resource or a hospitable environment. Perhaps it does; oxygen atmospheres and vast oceans of liquid water. But look at our own search: singlemindedly seeking Earth-twins. Aliens from a gas giant would be singlemindedly searching for a planet like our Jupiter. How common would it be, for other intelligences to arise whose environmental requirements are incompatible with our own? And perhaps a more fascinating question: what would we learn by communicating with them? Even if we could never physically meet in person, what would their cultures have created? What truths would they see in the universe we share?
Among the awe-inspiring discoveries ongoing in our lifetimes, the chronicling and cataloging of exoplanets is right up there at the top. The other prong of this search is the expansion of our science’s boundaries on where life can exist. That includes extremeophiles living in volcanos and deep sea trenches here on earth, as well as the planetary science missions underway and forthcoming. Both of these are metaphorical digging in our own backyard that will change the way we look at what we see through the mirrors of our greatest telescopes. As Kepler blows up the newspaper headlines, my mind floats out to the Curiosity rover, traveling fast and silent through the coldness of space, racing towards a higher plateau in our search to find the next door neighbors beyond the thin blue shell of Earth’s skies…