Never trust an astronomer with a sinister goatee
Okay! So! This post has been sitting around in my Drafts folder for like four months or something. It is all outdated planetary news by now. What I really want to talk about is TYCHE!!! 'cause OMG TYCHE!!!
But Gliese 581g still matters too, so here it is, the report on the previous go-round of the planetary enthusiasm/disillustionment/enthusiasm carousel:
You know, nowadays I consider myself mostly kind of an eye-rolling jaded sophisticate as far as interstellar settlement goes. While I'm moderately bullish on humans making some interesting use of the rest of our own solar system someday -- God willing -- I scoff at FTL drives and galactic empires, and even managing a quick trip (by biological humans) to Proxima Centauri seems honestly like it's going to be a matter of several millennia from now at best.
I'm not really talking about engineering, here; we know perfectly well how to build something that could push a small craft a few light-years, and do it in under a century. I'm talking economics, and sociology, and technological history, and ecology. (If you want to know my exact reasons for thinking this, you can read the massive essay below, after the cut. I moved it there because that wasn't really going to be the point of this post.) I think that, in all likelihood, we are stuck living in and around Earth for a long while. And we are stuck in this solar system for a long, long while after that.
So we're not going anywhere; and Wittgenstein's Lion says that even if there is someone very complexly made out there, they are unlikely to be broadcasting prime numbers, never mind schemata for cold fusion reactors, on radio frequencies in our direction. Very likely there is somebody out there, for sufficiently broad values of "somebody" -- and very likely those values are so broad that we will have, essentially, nothing to say to each other.
So the issue of life on other worlds is, in the end, a matter of pure academic curiosity. Right?
But [a few months ago, when I originally wrote this blog post], when I read in a news headline that they'd found an earthlike planet, I burst out crying.
Given my jaded sophistication and all, this was quite a surprise.
It turns out I've been waiting my whole life to read those words: earthlike planet found.
And despite all my sophistication, despite my general environmentalist attitude of "let's tidy up here a bit first, shall we?", my first overwhelming thought was: we have to go. Now. We have to go now. I found myself desperately calculating: 20 years, maybe, to build a tiny probe with a massive solar sail and a big laser at L5 to push it? -- or else one of those doohickeys driven by exploding nuclear bombs against a plate? Could we get it up quickly to, what, half the speed of light, and have it do a flyby? That's another 40 years, maybe, and 20 years for the signal to return -- eighty years from now I'll be 121 -- that's doable, right? I could hang on until word came. That we are not alone. That this fragile globe is not our only shot.
(Now, some months later, they are finding so many bushels of extrasolar planets in the right zone, that it is already a little hard to remember how shocking that headline was; which is one reason to blog it now, and mark that historical moment...)
The putative planet, Gliese 581g, is a Goldilocks planet -- the right distance and size from its star for liquid water. We already know there's some water on the Moon, Mars and -- our best bet for finding life larger than a microbe in this solar system -- Europa. Also, with a little patience, Kepler is likely to find earthlike planets actually traversing the surfaces of their stars from our perspective, allowing us to actually look at their atmospheres' spectroscopy for signatures of life. So it's not like Gliese 581g is our only chance. But still.
So it was with consternation that I read a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1320539/Gliese-581g-exist.html">the news that a team in Geneva was unable to find the planet, analyzing (most of) the same data. When I read the article aloud to Noah Sunday morning, I could not help reading the comments of the Swiss team's leader (who does have a sinister goatee) in a leering and menacing Swiss-French supervillain's accent, peppered with scare quotes, italics and ellipses. (Try reading it yourself that way, it's very convincing.)
Come on, Gliese 581g. Hang in there. Exist!
Interstellar-exploraton skepticism after the cut:
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