This article also appears at Religion Dispatches
As you probably know, a couple of weeks ago the pope was in England smack-talking the atheists. What is generally less known is that, at the same moment that pope was having his say with the UK’s radical non-believers, Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, also in England, was busy talking about baptizing space aliens. Which, to me, sounded preposterous.
But, after some contemplation, I’ve decided that it’s not preposterous after all.
Last week, a new planet — Gliese 581g — was discovered orbiting a star a mere 20 light years away in the constellation Libra. This in itself is not too big a deal, because the discovery of planets orbiting other stars (termed exoplanets) has become a weekly occurrence. But this planet is special because (1) it’s massive enough to retain an atmosphere, and (2) it resides squarely in the center of the so-called habitable zone of its parent star, red dwarf Gliese 581.
So far as we know (and that may not be very far, admittedly) liquid water is a requirement for life. And the habitable zone is a region surrounding a star within which water can exist in its liquid phase. Inside the habitable zone, close to the star, water boils. Beyond the habitable zone, far from the star, water freezes. Astronomers — wits ever — have come to call this region the Goldilocks zone (not too hot, not too cold…). It turns out that we live near the center of the Sun’s Goldilocks zone, and Venus and Mars also occupy it but sit close to its inner and outer edges, respectively. (If these planets’ atmospheres had evolved differently, they too would be able to support liquid water.)
The search for life on other planets has been ongoing for a long time, starting with the founding of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in 1959. Today, SETI is funded by private money and NASA funds an extensive Astrobiology research program. In its 2008 Roadmap, this program states the following as its first goal.
Understand the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the universe. Determine the potential for habitable planets beyond the Solar System, and characterize those that are observable.
The news about Gliese 581g is so big because it is apparently the first positive data point — outside the Solar System — in any future “distribution of habitable environments in the universe.” A big step forward for all of us who like to look up at the night sky and wonder: Are we alone?
Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote in all truth, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” What’s more, whether or not it reflects reality, there is an unavoidable psychological tendency to associate the small with the insignificant. This may be seen in the history of astronomy, which is a history of receding horizons. Scientists have often balked — and not always for scientific reasons — at many of these outward steps. Tycho Brahe, a well-known Danish astronomer of the late 16th century, rejected Copernicanism not only because it contradicted the Aristotelian physics of his day, but because it increased the size of the universe by several orders of magnitude. In Brahe’s view, Copernicus’s Sun-centered model expanded the gap between Saturn (at the time the highest of the planets) and the sphere of the stars to outlandish proportions. God, he reasoned, would not waste so much space. My point is that this objection had nothing to do with science and, to my mind, had everything to do with a basic human resistance to accepting that we are much smaller — and therefore much more inconsequential — than we would like to believe. The universe has grown enormously since Brahe’s time, and with every step the Earth has become tinier, its inhabitants more inconsequential, and, paradoxically, more ignorant.
And with every outward step, as our universe and our ignorance grows, so does the number of potential space alien hideouts. So does the belief that there must be someone out there.
So every time I read about the discovery of a new Earth-like planet or read about NASA’s upcoming Kepler planet-finding mission or watch a movie like Contact, I grow excited over — and, like Brahe, even a little afraid of — the vast unknown. My mind boggles. What’s really out there?, I wonder. Yet I cannot help but detect a kind of desperation in our quest for extraterrestrial intelligence. I can’t point to any single source of this feeling, but I can’t shake my sense that these efforts — as much as I support them — are symptoms of a profound loneliness. We listen to the universe. Night after night we search the sky. We wait and hope and listen and look. With our telescopes we gaze outward across billions of empty light years to the very edge of the big bang, trying to find out where we came from, who we are, where we’re going, whether or not we are alone. And we do all of this for the same reason we pray and sing and worship: We are a lonely and bewildered species and we seek a connection to someone or something, whether visible or invisible. We think, maybe the connection is out there somewhere. There is no scientific quest more religious than the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
But this outward search is, on a certain level, guaranteed to bring us right back where we are. To illustrate, let us perform an interesting thought experiment. Let us place ourselves on Gliese 591g and turn those same telescopes around and observe us observing the universe. What a strange, strange sight. What a wonder. Clearly, it is we — not black holes, not dark energy, not quasars — that are the strangest things in the cosmos.
Through this reversed telescope we see many interesting beings on that small blue planet set squarely in the midst of the habitable zone of its ordinary yellow star. And among them is a creature called Brother Guy Consolmagno. There he is, talking to his fellow creatures about the possibility of space aliens needing to be justified before God Almighty. At one time, not very long ago, Consolmagno’s comment would have struck me as preposterous, perhaps as an expression of the Vatican’s deep need to be way out ahead of everyone else on matters of science. (That Galileo affair really stung, didn’t it?)
But in this reverse view, looking down on Earth from Gliese 581g, things seem a little less silly and a lot more interesting. Because the truth is, there are creatures, lost somewhere in the vast darkness of the cosmos, who baptize one another, who chatter and argue endlessly about the divine, who pray fervently and without ceasing, who worship and sing and dance before their God. That such exists anywhere is nothing short of miraculous.
And, to paraphrase author Dennis Danielson, whether those creatures are here or there, well, that’s neither here nor there.
With thanks and apologies to Walker Percy and Dennis Danielson