The view from Gliese 581g

Space Alien Pantocrator. Source: www.tribine.lv

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

Comment Pages

There are 13 Comments to "The view from Gliese 581g"

  • cedric says:

    interesting that you would write about this today. as i was walking down the Viking Trial with my lovely wife this afternoon enjoying the scale model of the Solar System in the midst of God’s creation, the story of Gliese 581g popped into my head and i suddenly felt very small and insignificant. and for a fleeting second i almost felt someone from there looking through a telescope at me being small and insignificant. and all of this is, of course, neither here nor there.

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    • Paul says:

      How could you possibly feel insignificant? You crossed the distance from the Sun to Neptune in a single afternoon!

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      • Cedric Lazlo says:

        i crossed the distance from the sun to Neptune in about 12 minutes earlier in the day. the trip back took closer to half an hour. but i still felt insignificant.

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  • The view from Gliese 581g…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

       0 likes

  • Keith says:

    I hate to work the “arrogance of the church” angle when Paul has described his transcending of that, but one thing that came to mind was this: it sounded like Brother Guy was making a preemptive strike or planting a Roman flag metaphorically on other planets, as if to say, “if there’s life on other planets, the Pope is the Pope of them, too.”

    That’s what it sounded like to me, anyway.

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  • Todd says:

    Bob Park, in his What’s New column, claims that Gliese 581g is tidally locked. I haven’t seen that said anywhere else, but it makes sense for a planet that close to its star (and also that big). If that’s so, then it’s probably not much of a Goldilocks planet, since the hot side would stay hot and the cold side would stay cold (like a McDLT – remember that?). The only really habitable region would be along the terminator.

    I can appreciate the claim that we are special by virtue of our religious behavior. I think we are also special by virtue of our scientific behavior. I think we always assume that aliens will be scientific, but not religious. I’m not sure why, unless we view religion as a stage that lifeforms outgrow (I don’t really buy that, but I’m sure some do). But even if those distant aliens have figured out some stuff about the universe, we can say with confidence that no non-human lifeform is aware of the volcanoes on Io, or the chemical composition of Martian soil, etc. Those are things WE have figured out, and I think that makes us pretty significant, at least in this neck of the (admittedly very large) woods.

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    • Paul says:

      Thanks for the comment, Todd.

      I’m not really saying that our religious behavior makes us special. In fact, I’m saying that it may not make us special, and that it may not be at all silly to think that space aliens may be religious. I mean, we are. Why not them?

      Maybe I’m misreading the first sentence of your second paragraph. If so, in the words of the immortal Nina Wheeler, please advise.

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  • Todd says:

    What I took you to be saying is that anything that participates in religious behavior (baptisms, etc) is an oddball in our Universe. Not necessarily that we were the only ones doing it. Sure aliens may be doing this oddball stuff as well (and, like you, I see no reason why they would not be since we seem inclined to do it). But there’s no doubt that this kind of thing is atypical of the Universe at large. As you say, black holes are much more common, even if they seem exotic to us.

    The fact that we are oddballs among the universe makes us special, unusual, in a way that a gamma ray burster simply isn’t. My claim is that our scientific behavior is also unusual in this very same way. The universe operates according to the laws of physics (the REAL laws, whatever those may be) but we are among the precious few who have tried to figure out what those laws are and to understand them. I’m sure the aliens are right up there with us, but combine us and all the aliens out there and your still looking at a tiny and highly unusual sample of the Universe at large.

    Much of what we as human beings do is not readily distinguishable from things that bacteria do. (In fact, I have a pet theory that we are really just vehicles for helping bacteria get around. Keep in mind that I have sons age 4 and 7.) But there are a few human activities (science, religion, art, etc) that really make us oddballs among living organisms. In turn, living organisms are oddballs among the stuff of the universe. Heck, most of the universe is just plain empty space (with the occasional vacuum fluctuation, of course). I for one like the fact that we are oddballs, and I don’t think we should readily give up those things which make us so.

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  • Denni says:

    Interesting post. I’m also very interested in Gliese 581 since the discovery of Gliese 581c and Gliese 581d. One is too close, one is too far. But many of us were still optimistic even if a planet only set one foot on the edge the habitable zone. Life could survive in such extreme conditions as long as it is served with liquid water. I’ve been wondering if there was a smaller planet sitting between those two. And there it is. Gliese 581g is a very exciting discovery and I was celebrating it.

    About the oddball things. I guess we can modifiy the infamous Drake Equation and add the factor of religion. I say if there were 7 ±3 planets in our galaxy that have religion feature. It’s a small fraction of the result of the original Drake Equation. But in our time now, even for this whole century, 4 is a big number. And please be noticed that the observations found more planets than we previously thought. And if the equation applied to the universe with vast amount of galaxies, you will find a very large number, to the power of very large number. So we’re may now considered significant, and we won’t be proved otherwise at least in our lifetime. But in a matter of space and time, humanity is getting insignificant.

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    • Paul says:

      Hi Denni.

      Thanks for the comments.

      For a post in which there is in fact a new religious term added to the Drake equation — fj, the fraction of communicable civilizations that need Jesus — look here.

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