New evidence reveals an abundance of Earth-like planets, but the search for extraterrestrial life also reveals something wondrous: the sanctity of life on Earth.
“Cosmology, theology, history, law: I feel as though I’m in a 30-credit graduate course reading TSW!” So began a recent letter from an old friend, a now retired official of the Archdiocese of New York with whom I lost contact some years ago. He heard of These Stone Walls and has been catching up. My friend marveled in his letter at the variety and scope of TSW. I told him in my reply that I often drop a post in the prison mailbox and walk away thinking that it might be my last. I have long feared that sooner or later I may run out of things to write about in prison, and then end up writing only about prison itself. That would be just awful – for me and for you.
There is something that still compels me to write about life beyond these stone walls, something that drives me out of myself and into the Cosmos, into human history and the great wealth and depth of human reason, into the story of what it means to be human and what inspires us, and especially into the mystery of life itself.
Of what else would I write? I don’t imagine I would have many readers left if my mind and soul were confined along with my body to this eight by twelve-foot cell. So despite the fact that I can only sense the stars, I am compelled to write of them. My view of the night sky from a barred cell window is obliterated by a towering wall, and blinded by relentless lights that turn every prison night into long, gray twilight. I can no longer see the stars, but my mind still wanders among them.
This is in part why I so admire cosmologist and physicist, Stephen Hawking despite my challenge to him in “Does Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” Professor Hawking is also confined in a prison of sorts by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease – but his brilliant mind is free. Mine is far less brilliant, but no less free.
WILL THE 21st CENTURY RESPECT LIFE?
Columnist Peggy Noonan had some interesting items in “Finding the Good in an Uninspiring Year,” her review of 2013 in The Wall Street Journal (“Declarations,” Dec. 28/29, 2013). It was surprisingly like mine in “The Hits and Misses of 2013.” Despite her title, Ms. Noonan went on to describe lots of inspiring things put forth by people she interviewed.
Matt Drudge of “The Drudge Report” said of 2013, “It’s the year I discovered prayer, and it changed my life.” Fox News’ Dana Perino, CNN’s Donna Brazile, and ABC News President Ben Sherwood all cited Pope Francis as the most inspiring figure of the year, a news phenomenon I wrote of in “A Man for All Seasons.”
Also in Peggy Noonan’s list, Mother Mary Agnes Donovan of the New York-based Sisters of Life was inspired by 12 “talented, educated, gifted young women” who made a lifelong commitment to her order in 2013. It says as much for Mother Mary Agnes Donovan and the Sisters of Life as it does for those courageous women. But the item that really caught my eye was one that most inspired Peggy Noonan’s colleague, WSJ columnist Mary Anastasia 0′ Grady:
“…who found herself thinking of something wondrous that maybe didn’t get enough attention. ‘A spacecraft called Voyager I went beyond the solar system this year, marking a mind-boggling milestone in human progress.’ “
It was just over a year ago that I wrote “The Final Frontier: Voyager I Enters Interstellar Space.” The Voyager I probe launched in 1977 left our Solar System in 2013 to journey among the stars. For the first time in human history, a human creation now travels the interstellar medium beyond the influence of Earth’s Sun. Some TSW readers found in the conclusion of “The Final Frontier” an ironic and meaningful defense of life. Since this will be posted on the same day as the 41st annual March for Life in Washington, DC, I want to repeat that conclusion:
“[T]here’s something vaguely comforting in the milestone of Voyager, in the fact that a postcard from the human race is out there now to drift forever among the vast ocean of stars like a message in a bottle….Humankind might want to revisit the notion that we are meant to live in the image and likeness of God. What an irony that in the 21st Century humanity scours the Cosmos for signs of life while on Earth we have let rise up a culture of death. We have work to do on accepting and living out the dignity and honor God intends for us. We have work to do on the value with which we view life on Earth before we explore strange new worlds, before seek out new life and new civilizations, before we boldly go where no one has gone before.”
AN AMAZING DISCOVERY ABOUT EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE
The story of humanity’s place in the Cosmos is very different from what we science geeks imagined when Voyager was launched in 1977. I was 24 years old then, my mind engrossed in physics and metaphysics at Saint Anselm College. There were no known planets in the Universe but the nine in Earth’s local neighborhood – now reduced to eight once Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet.
Now, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009, the existence of thousands of planets in orbit around other stars has been confirmed. It is now believed that there are billions of planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, including an estimated 11 billion that, like Earth, orbit in their host stars’ “Goldilocks” or habitable zones and theoretically could support life. And there are 100 billion other galaxies in each of which stars with orbiting planets likely abound.
The science, however, may be prematurely hyped in the media. What is truly astounding in these discoveries is how very unusual our own Solar System is. A full two-thirds of the stars discovered to have planets in orbit are red dwarf stars, far smaller than the Sun, and emitting just ten to twenty percent of our Sun’s life sustaining energy.
And of the 3,000-plus planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope before it became disabled late in 2013, the majority have been shown to be “mini Neptunes” with small, rocky cores and vast dense gases that could not support even microbial life. Most are far older than the Earth, orbiting stars far older than our Sun.
The most immediate conclusion is that the process through which our Solar System was born and evolved was very different from the usual development of planetary systems in much of the rest of the galaxy. The “amazing discovery” in my title is the apparent uniqueness of our Solar System, of the world we live on, and of the form of life we call “human.” I wonder if Saint Paul knew how right he was when he wrote to the Church at Corinth:
“There is one glory of the Sun, and another glory of the Moon, and another glory of the stars, for star differs from star in glory.” (St. Paul, I Corinthians 15: 41)
And what of those planets – like the newly discovered one dubbed “Kepler 64-F,” 1,200 light years from Earth – that are in their stars’ “Goldilocks” or habitable zones? If you were a being on Planet Kepler 64-F gazing through a powerful telescope at our Sun, you would conclude that both Earth and Mars are in the Sun’s habitable zone.
At about the same time Voyager I entered interstellar space, NASA’s Curiosity rover found something wondrous in the Gale Crater where it drills for signs of life on the surface of Mars. Curiosity discovered that Mars once had flowing liquid water, an essential key to the existence of life, and also found all the elements needed for life to take hold: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus. This little excursion into a depression on the surface of Mars thrilled scientists with the knowledge that the conditions for life could abound on similar planets throughout the Cosmos.
E.T. AND THE FERMI PARADOX
But then the Curiosity rover found something – actually, the absence of something – that deflated the excitement. Its tests of the Martian soil and atmosphere detected no trace of methane, a signature of life. Despite physical evidence that Mars once had flowing water, and still has frozen water, the absence of any methane is hard evidence that Mars may harbor no trace of even microbial life, and possibly never did. In his book, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley, 2012) astronomer and biologist John Gribben described a world of difference between “habitable” planets and “inhabited” planets, concluding:
“Earth is the sole abode of intelligent life in the galaxy, the result of a profoundly improbable sequence of cosmic, geologic, and climactic events…”
I explored John Gribben’s book and the “Rare Earth” model in “E.T. and The Fermi Paradox? Are We Alone in the Cosmos?” Physicist and Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi asked the famous question – “So, where are they?” – while working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1943. His challenge led to SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Using radio astronomy, SETI has scoured the galaxy for over 70 years in search of a companion civilization to ours that has reached a level of technology that produces radio waves. The mathematics of billions of habitable planets dictates that there must be such a civilization, but the result of 70 years of radio astronomy dedicated to SETI is an eerie and absolute silence.
The vast difference between the discoveries of habitable planets and the actual emergence of intelligent life on them was profiled – though unintentionally – in a pair of articles in the May 2011 issue of DISCOVER magazine (www.DiscoverMagazine.com). “The Planet Boom” by Tim Folger explored the first two years of planetary discoveries following NASA’s 2009 launch of the Kepler Space Telescope, and the speculation about other life on other worlds. In the same issue, in “Meet the New Human Family,” Jill Neimark analyzed new discoveries about the evolution of humans on Earth, and the extremely unlikely odds that anyone like us should exist at all:
“Certainly we are rare and strange: As biological anthropologist Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University says, ‘The chances that a creature like us will ever happen again are so small that I can’t even measure them.’ “
If this galaxy is teeming with thinking, self-reflective beings capable of language, science, art, and faith, then human life may be nothing special. However, The Fermi Paradox remains the great unanswered question of science. “Where are they?” As the late scientist and author Michael Crichton wrote,
“The belief that there are other life forms in the Universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence [for science] to maintain this belief.”
The annual March for Life taking place this week should have as much urgency for people of science as it does for people of faith. If life like us is unique or exceedingly rare on a galactic scale – as all available scientific evidence suggests – then humanity squanders life to our cosmic shame, and spiritual peril.