Gwynne Dyer: Earth and its humans are as common as dirt

In this interval of blessed tranquillity between the titanic struggle to choose the next president of the “world’s greatest nation” (same guy as last time), and the world-shaking choice of the next leader of the “Middle Kingdom” (Xi Jinping, but it’s still officially secret for a few more days), a delicious moment of sheer silliness. The British Broadcasting Corporation has banned a science programme because it might trigger an interstellar invasion.

They would not normally ban a programme made by Brian Cox. He is a jewel in the BBC’s crown: a particle physicist with rock-star appeal—he played in two semi-professional bands, and in the right light he looks like a younger Steven Tyler—who can also communicate with ordinary human beings. They just forbade him to make the episode of “Stargazing Live” in which he planned to send a message to the aliens.

Cox wanted to point the Jodrell Bank radio telescope at a recently discovered planet circling another star, in the hope of making contact with an alien civilisation. The BBC executives refused to let him do it, on the grounds that since no one knew what might happen, it could be in breach of “health and safety” guidelines.

Cox, a serious scientist, knew exactly what would happen: nothing. Even if there are hostile aliens out there, space is so vast that light from the nearest star, traveling at 300,000 kilometres per second (186,000 miles/sec.), takes four years to reach us. He was just doing his bit in the centuries-long scientific campaign to convince people that they are not at the centre of everything.

The BBC “suits”, who do think that they are at the centre of everything, weren’t having any of that. If there are aliens out there, and they find out we are here, their first reaction will probably be to come here and eat our children. And then the BBC will get blamed for it. Sorry, Brian. Drop the radio telescope and step away from it slowly.

The suits richly deserve the derision that has come their way, but if there really is life elsewhere, and even perhaps intelligent life, then we aren’t at the centre of anything any more. We are, as Douglas Adams once put it in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy.”

We used to believe that the whole universe literally revolved around us. Then came Copernicus. But we went on believing that we are very special. We look like other animals, but we are so special that we don’t cease to exist when we die. We give the universe meaning just by being alive.

A bit at the time, however, science has been destroying all of our traditional ideas about our own centrality. And here comes another blow.

In a universe with trillions of stars, it was always less presumptuous to assume that we are not unique than to insist that we are. But just twenty years ago there was no evidence to show that other stars actually do have planets, let alone that some of those planets harbour life.

We now know of the existence of some 800 “exoplanets”, and the number is doubling every year or so. Most of these planets are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, not at all like Earth, simply because the giants are easier to detect. But what we have really been looking for is planets like our own. We know that life thrives here.

The astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have now found such a planet. It is called HD 40307g, and it orbits a small orange-coloured sun 42 light-years from here. The planet is rocky, like Earth, and it orbits its star at a distance where the temperature allows water to exist as a liquid. It is certainly a candidate for life.

In the past decade we have learned that most stars have planets, and that they typically have lots of them. HD 40307 has six planets orbiting at different distances, at least one of which (HD40307g) is in the “Goldilocks” zone.

There are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and probably at least as many planets. If only one in a hundred of those planets harbours life, which is likely to be an underestimate, then there are two billion living planets. We are not unique and special. We are as common as dirt.

Douglas Adams also wrote: “If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” But we are gradually acquiring exactly that, and it doesn’t really hurt. It is possible to be aware of your own cosmic insignificance and still love your children. Even though they are without significance too.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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miguel

Nov 11, 2012 at 9:04am

As Bill Hicks said: We're viruses with shoes.
Miguel

Anton K.

Nov 11, 2012 at 10:51am

We may be as common as dirt, and rather insignificant. Still, with a little water and effort we can become mud. Mud in an unfashionable, backwater arm of the Milky Way. And we might manage to suck in the wheels of something more complex than us. Which will not cause that something to put us under an galactic microscope. It will just piss them off. That resounds quite well with my personality, however conflicted it is. So hopefully they won't pave over us.

Mosby

Nov 11, 2012 at 11:29am

I, for one, would welcome our overlords to come and eat our children.

Jonathan Swift suggested something similar almost 300 years ago, so let's get on with it already!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal

Mark Fornataro

Nov 11, 2012 at 3:31pm

Re: we are"'gradually acquiring...a sense of proportion" reminds me of George Harrison's lyric from Within You Without You-" And to see you're really only very small,
And life flows ON within you and without you."
As for the BBC, feeling very much under siege (see link) perhaps they feel too alienated these days to allow aliens on earth. Better ban the movie Contact too.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/nov/11/crisis-bbc-lord-patten

Bem Gock

Nov 11, 2012 at 5:21pm

I point out that the BBC transmits 10,000 times the radio energy out to the stars every day.

The reason we are coming to eat you is Simon Cowl.

Austin

Nov 11, 2012 at 6:35pm

If Stephen Hawking things active SETI is a bad idea, I would have to concur.

dru

Nov 11, 2012 at 9:17pm

I'm always mystified by some people's refusal to believe that life exists outside of Earth. Perhaps framing the question as: "do you believe in aliens?" conjures up some ridiculous sci-fi images of laser-gun pointing green men.
But the vastness of the Universe, and the sheer number of planets within it, tell me that it's quite reasonable to suppose that ONE of those planets is also teeming with life.

Jim Slock

Nov 11, 2012 at 9:34pm

Read the book "Rare Earth" by Peter Ward and you'll get the real deal on how unusual "complex" life is in the universe. I agree...simple living things may be common...but for beings no way Jose...a combination of many series of events and stages must happen. Too bad one being on this planet Earth is hell bent on testing the brink.

adam gee

Nov 11, 2012 at 9:48pm

Of course we're insignificant, thats why we feel special ordering a Starbucks tall hazelnut soy latte no whip extra shot of espresso in a venti cup for 7 dollars.

Logan

Nov 11, 2012 at 9:55pm

Great Article, but 1 in 100? thats not an understatement, its a vast, vast over statement. its likely closer to at least 1 in a 100,000. One simply has to look at how perfect the conditions had to be here. Size, Habitable Zone, Magnetic Field, Atmosphere Make-up, Jupiter absorbing astroids, Many even profess that the earth would not harbour life without the moon. And these odds are just for a planet with life, a planet with life as intelligent as us? 1 in 1 million of the planets with life, so 1 in 100 billion.

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