My little columns are personal conversations about stuff that interests me. I know those interests are often at wide variance with those who read my column.
That variance is very much in evidence this week, so you may want to stop reading now. You might just fall asleep at the breakfast table and drown in your Cheerios.
Lately a lot of news blurbs have been rolling around on a subject near and dear to my heart. "Are we alone in the universe?"
To me it’s a no-brainer, preposterous to think there aren’t untold creatures out there given extrapolations from the most conservative of probability estimates. Just think about it.
Earth inhabits a galaxy with a conservatively estimated 350 billion planets orbiting stars within it. And our run-of-the-mill Milky Way shares a universe with perhaps another 800 billion galaxies!
Although we humans have developed a full measure of arrogance, it seems impossible that we are arrogant enough to seriously believe that earth is the only place in the entire cosmos that has replicating organisms. In my view that’s stellar silliness of the first magnitude.
What is fueling this current media reporting about alien life isn’t a rash of sightings or strange kidnappings. The resurgence is because planet-detecting technologies have evolved with such amazing speed. Our species are becoming much better detectives thanks to Hubble, Chandra, XMM-Newton and other amazing observatories.
Scientists are "watching" thousands of stars, checking for telltale variations in brightness which indicates something obstructing our view. The "somethings" creating these micro-eclipses are typically orbiting planets.
Planets come in a wide range of flavors, so astronomers concentrate their searches to catalog those positioned in what we consider to be the "habitable zone." Among many apparent prerequisites of life we believe exist, for our searches we consider liquid water to be the absolute common denominator.
This subject is hugely complicated and full of speculations, but suffice it to say that we little ole humans are accumulating knowledge and skills to put us on trajectory to the most tantalizing of human goals. What we’ll interpret as confirmation of intelligent life in space will likely come in the form of radio waves.
We’ve been broadcasting into space for about a century. Therefore our communication bubble extends out 100 light-years. Any "listeners" would have to be within that distance to "hear" us.
Our Milky Way is about 150,000 light-years across, and it’s quite possible alien civilizations got into the wave transmission business way back before we were walking upright. Of course that doesn’t mean one day our SETI display will pick up a signal remotely akin to anything we broadcast, but who knows?
I know this sort of thing bores most folks to tears, but I’ve always been hooked on astronomy and remain so. Our cosmic neighborhood is unbelievably interesting, which makes me wonder why more kids don’t change channels from MTV to Discovery.
It’s a sad mystery. Perhaps we need fewer rock stars and "billions and billions" of Carl Sagans.
Otis Gardner’s column appears here weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.