The Whole Wide Universe (and our place in it)

…the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose.

J.B.S. Haladane

We live in a positively gigantic world. I don’t just mean this planet Earth, and certainly not the little personal worlds we make up for ourselves, consisting of our wants, needs, families and cultures, which are certainly huge when we look at them from our own very limited perspective. No I am talking about the entire Universe itself. When compared to just our galaxy our planet is not even a grain of sand on an entire beach.

I bring this up because of some recent numbers crunching I did. Inspired by a National Geographic article I read recently I wondered how likely it might be that there were more planets like Earth out there. Given that this planet is 600 light years away, I supposed that distance for each world in that “sweet spot” for life as we know it. In that case I assumed a radius for each galactic neighborhood containing such a world to be 300 light years. I figured out the area of that neighborhood, and then the area of the galaxy in square light years using its radius, found on Wikipedia. I divided the latter by the former and came up with over 100000 planets in that sweet spot. If only one percent of those actually manage life and only one percent of those manage intelligent life that suggests 10 other intelligent life forms just in our galaxy.

Now this was some pretty quick and dirty math. Really in the grand scheme of things it is overly simplified. There are all sorts of variables that I left out, mostly because I do not have the proper training to account for them. One variable I left out that is significant, though, was the fact that Earth was supporting life far earlier than we have supposed in the past as evidenced by the discovery of the world’s oldest fossils. Given that according to this information a far more hostile world can support life the assumption of only one percent of those planets in the “sweet zone”, or even the need for it to be those planets, supporting life is far too conservative. It is possible that we are alone in the universe, but the assumption of such is arrogant beyond all belief.

I wonder how we will treat these beings if and when we meet them. We don’t exactly treat ourselves very well between obsession with melanin, our need to fight over metaphysical principles, or the disenfranchisement of half the human population. I am not hopeful that anytime soon we would be able to deal with an entirely new intelligent species in an open and compassionate matter. Hell we have some of our greatest thinkers already committing to anthromorphic xenophobia (I would like to point out that while Stephen Hawking is a beyond brilliant mathematician and physicist, he is no more learned in the social sciences than most people.)

I hope we do get over all these problems soon. I don’t think we can even explore our tiny corner of the galaxy unless we do. It seems like it would be difficult to do so if we don’t learn to share what we have here and to accept each others’ differences. I dream about that day a lot though. Maybe it will come in my lifetime the day we can accept our commonality and dream together of going out into the Universe together, riding the solar winds and braving cosmic storms to learn how vast it is and learn that its enormity does not make us smaller, but greater.


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