Monday, July 20, 2009

So What If We're Not Alone In The Universe?

Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette
There are plenty of causes right here on terra firma to want to look away from our troubled earth; but last week’s launching of the Kepler spacecraft gives us another reason to search the stars with questioning eyes.
The on-going mission of the Kepler is to look not for signs of intelligent life, but size. The Kepler will search the celestial firmament for tiny but measurable shadows passing across distant stars which will indicate a planet that is of the right size and distance from its sun to create and sustain intelligent life. That is, not some ancient microbe buried on a dead planet like Mars; but a blue dot with the oceans and atmosphere to nourish life to the point of opposable thumbs and abstract thought.
Such a find, as was noted leading up to the launch of the Kepler, could help to answer the question “Are we alone in the Universe?” But is that really the right question? It seems absurd on its face to suggest that in all the billions of galaxies swirling about the cosmos, only this one would produce poets and prophets. (To say nothing of dictators and derivates.)
But science and science fiction have become so entwined (or confused) in the popular imagination, that we automatically assume that not being alone in the universe means some kind of cosmic block party is inevitable. That some far blown voyager must some day touch down here as surely as Columbus did the New World (only hopefully a kinder and less greedy one.)
But is that so? The Star Trekization of our imagination leads far too many to assume that our own galaxy is chock full of Vulcans, Klingons and all manner of humanoids just itching to set up a Federation of Planets. And thus the self-serving delusion that “UFO” stands for “Spaceship Piloted By Intelligent Beings.”
There oftentimes seems little regard for the science behind the science fiction. Space travel is both made possible and constrained by the rigors of the Einsteinian universe: space, time, light and gravity. And in that non-fiction world there is an absolute speed, and it is the speed of light.
Yet our own galaxy is some 100,000 light years across, and other galaxies where reasonably there is life are millions and millions of light years away. Even if some civilization could travel at light speed it would still take tens of thousands of years to get anywhere in just the Milky Way. Indeed, the Kepler is looking for Earth-like blue-dots in the constellation Lyra which is itself merely 32,000 light years away. What do the UFO hunters and Trekkies believe? That we or another life form will launch spaceships on voyages lasting dozens of millennia? The quaint notion that exploring the universe would be done in man-made spaceships was invented before we had any idea how unfathomably vast creation is.
And so perhaps the right question is not “Are we alone in the universe?” But “So what if we aren’t?” Because the insurmountable barrier to E.T. visiting is that the cosmos is so measureless, traveling even at the speed of light is going nowhere fast.
“But, ah….” cry the Trekkies, “we’ll just find a worm hole and pop out the other side of the universe!”
And that is precisely where the ruse of fiction takes over. Where the imagination does what we cannot: conflate the Einsteinian world of an absolute speed, with the theories of quantum mechanics in the sub-atomic world. It is the quantum theory which suggests the theoretical possibility of worm holes – some celestial tunnel though which we can pass to the far side of this universe, or all possible universes.
But quantum scientists themselves point out that such a theoretical phenomenon does not have to come super-sized as some whacking, great hole conveniently large enough to accommodate a starship.
It is just as possible, they theorize, for a worm hole to be small enough to exist in quantum foam, the smallest of all impossibly small sub-atomic particles. So while a worm hole theoretically awaits us in un-chartered space, it is as likely to exist in the newspaper you are holding, or inside a molecule in the human body.
Thus the very science on which the fiction is based, theorizes we are as likely to discover a worm hole in our own inner space as outer space!
Personally I think the answers to the macrocosm are found in the microcosm, and so we shall one day learn that galaxies are like wombs: most often they birth one life at a time. As such, our nearest neighbor is likely a galaxy away, and thus unreachable in a man-made spaceship through outer space.
And this is why so many shy from the melancholy of accepting that some alien intelligence will not come and rescue us from our ignorance, our self-destructive, environmental ponzi schemes: they are just too far away. No matter what the Kepler finds out there, we are left with the sobering knowledge that even if we are not alone in the universe; our future, our fate is entirely in our earthling hands.
I would offer one strange possibility: what if our purpose on this planet is to survive a thousand millennia so that we can evolve to the point where we might one day ramble across the universe not in a spaceship through outer space, but by accessing the inner worm hole in inner space?
Joe Gannon, a teacher and writer who lives in Florence, can be reached at