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Editorial notebook / Daniel Ruth

Editorial notebook: Science suggests worlds elsewhere

Since man first looked to the heavens and gazed upon the multitude of shimmering lights, one question has vexed us all. Are we truly alone in this vast celestial soup? Now we might have an answer. Maybe not.

New findings collected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft have led the scientific community to conclude it is entirely possible there may be as many as 40 billion potentially habitable Earth-size planets throughout the cosmos. It is not overstatement to suggest this is big news, fascinating to some and disconcerting to others.

The astronomers and other experts applied the Goldilocks theory by using Kepler's data to calculate the number of planets orbiting their suns where the temperatures are not too hot nor too cold but just right to accommodate the existence of surface water and therefore the possibility of life. Or at least life as we know it.

By that reasoning, with an estimated one in five sunlike stars in the galaxy having a planet roughly the size of Earth orbiting it, the odds for the potential existence of life-bearing Earth 2.0s are astronomical.

What does it all mean? Certainly since the publication of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds in 1889, popular science fiction has been obsessed with life beyond Earth. The imagination ranges from Martian attacks, to E.T. trying to phone home, to the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, to the ability of an alien life form capable of making the Earth stand still. Or put another way, "Klaatu barada nikto." The Kepler mission suggests these plots could hold out the tantalizing prospect of being more science and less fiction.

Considering the magnitude of the Kepler data, the $550 million spent on the project by NASA would seem to have been money well spent. And other programs such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rover Curiosity, and especially Voyager, now in its 36th year of productive interstellar flight, continue to contribute to our knowledge of the universe and remind us all of the critical importance of science.

The idea of potential life to be found far, far away will test deeply held beliefs of Earth's unique status within the grand order of things. But if God could create this spinning globe, why not other life-supporting landscapes?

Or is it possible, knowing Earth would become such a place of hubris, war, violence, famine and hatred, that the Almighty decided to simply hedge his bets?

Are we truly alone? Or do we need to slightly revise that old children's rhyme? "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder who you are."

Editorial notebook: Science suggests worlds elsewhere 11/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 8, 2013 5:16pm]
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