China recently removed the wraps from the largest filled-in, single-dish radio telescope in the world.

China recently removed the wraps from the largest filled-in, single-dish radio telescope in the world. This thing is 500 meters in diameter! A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier could easily float in the dish with room to spare.

I suppose the natural response to this statement from most folks is, “so what?” Well, to me and astronomy nuts like me, it’s a big deal.

I’ve always been interested in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) efforts that involve “listening” to electromagnetic jabber streaming from numberless sources in the universe. The hope is that one day we’ll receive and isolate a transmission from a clearly intelligent source.

Carl Sagan and his wife explored this concept in their book and subsequent movie, “Contact.” The premise was that aliens “discovered” us through our radio and TV transmissions that we’ve been spewing into space for about a century. Perhaps “I Love Lucy” won them over.

We’ve sowed our electronic seeds throughout a sphere with a hundred light-year radius. Sagan’s premise was interesting and entertaining but not a truly viable scenario because any signal intercepted by “others” must arrive powerful enough to be detectable.

Given the vast distances involved and the inverse square relationship power required to arrive in strength is immense. Of course, it’s reasonable to assume (and hope) that an advanced alien civilization would have massively advanced detectors so might be able to find our miniscule human electronic needles within the cosmic haystack of static.

Anyway, regardless of improbabilities and the realities of physics, any blurb about this subject attracts my immediate attention. Think about our galactic neighborhood within which we must mine. It contains a total weight of about 100 billion solar masses, which extrapolates to about 100 billion stars assuming our sun to be average.

Based upon what we know and what we think we know, it’s estimated that there are somewhere around 100 billion planets orbiting stars within “Habitable Zones.” That means being not too close, not too far, not too hot and not too cold for life to exist, assuming our understanding of required parameters is essentially accurate.

I really love this stuff and hope I’m around at the “eureka” moment of discovery that I believe will eventually arrive. Finding evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence would be an amazing moment but whether I see it or not, I have no doubt it’s inevitable, more confirmation rather than revelation.

I’m glad this particular subject hit the news outlets when it did. The overriding focus of American life has lately consisted of little more than politics, politics and politics. It’s nice to step back to realize just how tiny and unimportant our little rock is in the cosmic scope and scheme of the universe.

We humans have a tendency to let our personal worlds shrink when we get overly entangled in the minutiae of human interactions and forget to look up once in a while. On a clear night, the stars we can observe in our galaxy can provide a huge perspective, making it harder to care much about which bee controls the hive. Is it possible we’re actually drowning in our own self-importance?

Take a breath.

Otis Gardner can be reached at ogardner@embarqmail.com.