Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena

As a kid, I believed everything my parents said and taught.  My understanding of god and religion came from them.  And then there was school.   Science.  It was awesome.  The scientific explanations were a lot more convincing and beautiful and were, ahem, divine.  The tensions grew within between science and god.  There were plenty of moments when I kept going back and forth,, until I finally broke away from god and religion.  The truth shall set you free, indeed!

Over the decades, I find myself more and more convinced about the vastness of this universe with Carl Sagan's point on there being more stars out there than there are grains of sands on all the beaches on this pale blue dot.  In fact, it boggles my mind even more now than ever before that there could be so many stars out there.  It is way beyond my imagination, it seems like.  Could earth be so unique, so special, that we are the only ones with life, out of a gazillion bodies floating around in this universe that has billions and billions of stars?  It does not appeal to me one bit.  There has to be life elsewhere.

Back when the internet was in its infancy, I naturally signed up my computer's time also to help with the search for extra-terrestrial life.  Remember that project on distributed computing?  Recall Jodie Foster's Contact, adapted from Sagan's novel?

You can, therefore, sense my excitement with the news about a home next door:
A potentially habitable planet about the size of Earth is orbiting the star that is nearest our solar system, according to scientists who describe the find Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The newly discovered planet orbits Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star that's just 4.25 light-years from Earth — about 25 trillion miles away.
Yes, it does not mean anything for our life today and tomorrow.  But, it is yet another step towards understanding who we are and what life is all about.  The greatest mystery ever that haunts us: Where did all these come from?  To those of us who couldn't care about the mumbo-jumbo creation stories that religions offer, this is one awesome mystery to solve.
Were we to go – and were there to be life – there is so much this newly discovered world could potentially tell us about ourselves.
We do not know how life began on Earth. We do not know if life has to be based on DNA. We do not know whether life can only exist in a narrow range of conditions or is resilient to a wide range of extreme environments. If – and it is still a big if – there is even the simplest microbial life on Proxima Centauri b, it would be a real chance to look for these answers.
The next few years are going to see an intense period of activity using ground-based telescopes to learn more about Proxima Centauri b.
Science will not be able to solve the mystery within the two decades that I have left on this pale blue dot.  But, then stranger things have happened in very short periods of time.  We couldn't even predict the Berlin Wall coming down! Heck, a year ago we couldn't even imagine this guy as a presidential candidate! ;)


Ramesh said...

Get your government to fund NASA (ditto me petitioning my government to fund ISRO). Just 10% of military budgets. Then maybe in our lifetimes we'll be astounded with discoveries every year.

Did you read the discovery of an entire galaxy made on dark matter. Wow ! And we don't even know what dark matter is.

Mike Hoth said...

Those of us who believe the religious mumbo-jumbo instead of the newest science mumbo-jumbo are interested in the new planet too, you know! Of course, I have little love for Sagan's mad ambition to reach out to intelligent life in the great beyond. I don't trust any life on Proxima Centauri b to maintain diplomacy with a species as cruel and thoughtless as ours for very long.

Sriram Khé said...

It is not any "mad ambition" but a sincere drive to understand how all these came about, Mike. It is one awesome, awesome mystery that should haunt every one of us, I think.

Ramesh, thanks to your comment, I looked up the $$$ figures for NASA v. the military. It is about 20 billion v. 600 billion. We could triple--yes, triple--NASA's budget and it will be about 10% of the military budget.
So, here is a thought ... maybe NASA should start figuring out how to convince the politicians that there are brown people in outer space and why we need to bomb the shit out of them! ;)

Anne in Salem said...

Space exploration really is amazing. And to connect to a recent post, look at the changes over the last 115 years. From the first flight to a man on the moon in mere decades, and now we can see 25 trillion miles away. Amazing.

Sriram Khé said...

It is amazing.
I wasn't raised here, nor with a TV set at home in India, when the moon landing happened ... I can only imagine the excitement that July 1969 was absolutely memorable to millions.

Oh wait, the entire moon landing was a fake, and was shot in a Hollywood set ;)

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