Friday, October 13, 2006
Astronomers have begun to prove that we are normal, that this place where we live, though rare, is not unique. What a relief! Why not admit it: we’ve always felt so strange, so monstrously singular and unaccountably, diabolically intelligent and wayward that it only made sense to assume that an unapproachable Creator once took the care to plant us here on the only patch of fertile ground and to warn us (this goes without saying) not to screw this up.
But the astronomers have come to our rescue. Arriving like the Messiah, in the most unexpected form, without warning, a wild-haired, blinking figure—so I imagine the astronomer—now shows us that among the billions of stars in our galaxy, quite a few have planets. Some stars are likely to have Earth-like planets capable of supporting life. And ours is only one galaxy among billions. As planetary science advances, we’ll be forced to confront the truth of multiple worlds more and more. Unless the law of probability has been suspended only in our own private backwater of the universe, there are certainly countless other biospheres out there, no matter how far away: tiny dots of life that, upon closer inspection, are as beautiful, as unimaginably complex, as resilient and as fragile, as our home planet. This realization, although a staple of science fiction, is hard to face.
In this vision, the process of life and the development of intelligence move forward in many places, and our Earth is just one of those places, in a universe in which life blinks on and off like a field of fireflies. In some places perhaps life fades prematurely. Somewhere else life prospers. I take comfort from the thought that our self-destructive tendencies, at least, aren’t repeated everywhere. Ours is not the only roll of the dice, and although we can’t see how the game plays out elsewhere, just knowing that it does relieves us of sole responsibility toward something like a god. Our end is not the end. But, on the other hand, out there, thriving perhaps beyond our wildest dreams, life proliferates; and it may aid our own continuance to think of other life-worlds as the competition. Earth is also a wonderful place to be. We share it and belong to it. From a galactic perspective, no matter our national and social allegiances, we all wear the team name, “Earthlings,” sewn in green letters on the fronts of our jerseys.
Now imagine how in a short while, maybe no more than two or three thousand years, we discover a way to communicate with intelligent life on another planet. Would that give us enough time to make ourselves morally presentable? Will it be too late for us to show off much more than the depleted husk of this Earth? This is the challenge we should pose ourselves. In a universe in which we are not the Chosen People, how might we nevertheless shine?