BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | New 'super-Earth' found in space
The Gliese 581 super-Earth is in what scientists call the "Goldilocks Zone" where temperatures "are just right" for life to have a chance to exist. Commenting on the discovery, Alison Boyle, the curator of astronomy at London's Science Museum, said: "Of all the planets we've found around other stars, this is the one that looks as though it might have the right ingredients for life.
"It's 20 light-years away and so we won't be going there anytime soon, but with new kinds of propulsion technology that could change in the future. And obviously we'll be training some powerful telescopes on it to see what we can see," she told BBC News.
And hear what we can hear, I might add. It's much, much more likely that something momentous could be discovered in the days, years, decades to come by radiotelescope: if, if, if there is someone there advanced enough to build machines that transmit signals, we might hear something someday. They might hear us, someday, because we've been screaming our collective heads off via radio and television transmissions since…Marconi's day? And we've got some things to think about.
Logically, on this "Goldilocks Zone" planet, there may be life, or there may not. If not, it might evolve someday, but that'll take billions of years so we needn't worry about it.
If there's life, it may be only at the bacterial stage. Again, not to worry. Also no need to bother if it's only at the large-organism stage, whether the dominant life form is a blue 3-eyed teddy bear with 7 double-jointed radial digits per round paw, or a 2-foot insectoid with the potential of developing multiple opposable calipers on their forward legs and a complex, multi-segmented brain in each division of its exoskeleton. It takes a while to get from there to digital watches and "what time shall we have lunch," so we probably can relax.
But if there's life, already sufficiently advanced to evolve intelligence, culture and technology, we'll hear them someday. And they'll hear us.
Question is: what will we say? It's one thing to imagine a crazy-advanced culture sending us fiendishly complex plans for building a transport device. But in reality, all we can really expect is that someday, we might send a powerful "Hello?" in their direction, and they might send one in ours.
But should we?
How would we react if we got an interstellar "Can you hear we now? " Not well, in some quarters. There would be a tremendous upheaval amongst the sort of people who attend conferences where they sit around making shit up to explain away the scientific evidence for an old earth, rather than a young earth created in 6 days of arbitrary length. People of various fundamentalist stripes (no matter what their actual faith) would be screaming about Satan's children out there in space and either thirsting for alien blood or hungering to rocket off and evangelize them.
Frankly, the best we can hope for at this stage of our planetary development is discovering nothing more complex than algae, slime mold, and microbes on "Earth-like" planets within a hundred light-years of this solar system. We're not ready for anything with half-a-brain, because we'll freak out and destroy ourselves and the entire planetary economy at the news of anybody out there as "smart" as we are.
And their reaction might be even screwier than ours. What if they're paranoid religious fanatics (like a significant fraction of our lot)? What if they're xeno-fascist carnivores who look at us in a ginormous, moon-sized telescope and say "hello, lunch? " We have to hope for peaceful, New-Age mantra-spouting teddy bears, or spiritually advanced philosopher-monks who really ARE entitled to be called "Grasshopper. "
Yes, the smart humans and the smart teddy bears or smart grasshoppers would just be excited and happy to talk to each other in a mutually agreed-on numeric and chemical language while we work out linguistic systems for understanding each others' broadcasts and cultural mileus. But each species would have to be very, very sure that their stupid people aren't in a position to screw things up for everyone else between here and Libra.
And as an actual Libra myself, I'd like to say I'm happy and hoping that there's life on this new planet in "my" constellation, and I'm also a bit worried that there might be and sort of hoping there might not be, for the reasons I've detailed above. How stereotypical of me.
And now for something completely different.
For some time now, I've been telling myself "bedtime stories" at night, while waiting (mostly fruitlessly) to fall asleep. They're science fiction stories, mostly, and they're just images and pondering "what ifs." Quite often, I mull over what a real "first contact" between us and some imaginary aliens might be like.
In the scenario I've been thinking about most recently, aliens whose motivations and goals are completely mysterious instantaneously transport a huge number of people to the surface of a world that consists of empty, rolling grasslands and a long waterfall.
The people find themselves in clear, bouncing spheres suspended of some sort of life-sustaining gel. They are naked, immobilized, and frozen in whatever position they were in when they were "borrowed." The spheres are extruded from a glasslike device suspended above the grassland, or they simply "pop" into being and drop gently to the ground, bouncing slowly and gracefully along.
The people in the spheres may be able to draw breath and scream or shout questions, but the gel prevents any but the faintest sound to escape. Hundreds and thousands of shimmering blue worlds, each containing just one naked inhabitant, bounce downhill and into a wide slow river. They float on for a while, mostly right side up depending on the body mass of the person trapped inside, and then fall over a wide, impossibly high waterfall.
The people in the spheres can't really see very much, because the gel makes it difficult to see anything clearly, and many of them are without their glasses or contact lenses anyway. Some spheres may appear to have occupants that don't look like humans. At the bottom of the waterfall, which is more of a very long, steep water-race, a few spheres were damaged and have burst, with struggling figures trying to get out of the gel. These figures quickly discover they can't breathe, and try to scoop up the gel to suck "air" out of it, but dimly seen Others surround them holding strange devices, and they "pop" out of existence. These Others seem to be wrangling stray spheres back toward the river that happened to have bounced out of the stream and rolled to a stop in rough ground. The screams from nearby spheres become clearly audible when the wranglers appear, because they are all too clearly Not People, even though the gel and the tough membrane on the outside of the spheres prevents the people inside from being able to bring them into focus.
The people in the spheres float on after the waterfall, and are slowly collected in a giant spiral sweep that pushes them out of the river, and up a to an incredibly high, wide ramp, where they are transported onward and downward on a long sloping incline towards a staggeringly large central collection point. At this point, there appear to be millions of spheres, gathered in streams from points all over the grassland planet, stacked up like pearls in a ocean-sized fishbowl. They are shown images of Earth, the grassland world, bizarre things that might be interplanetary natural history, and the stars, in a confusing stream of moving and still pictures of humans and of other beings who can't be identified. A few, a very few people, suddenly "get" that they are being shown a message of peace, but don't know exactly what for. Quite a few people are so exhausted from overload that they're in shock or unconscious, and a fair number of people assume they're dead, and in either Heaven and Hell, depending on whether they're upside-down or not. This bumping, rolling, floating, falling, sphere-collecting experience goes on for untold hours or days. The somewhat soothing images go on and on, projected all around and in the tiny spaces between the tightly packed spheres. No matter where the people in the slowly loosening gel manage to turn, they see images of planets, bizarre creatures, aliens, stars, water, ice, plants, and structures that are either art or architecture. This goes on for long enough that people start to wonder why they aren't hungry, thirsty, or in need of a rest room. The gel seems to be taking care of all their physical needs, for at least as long as the images keep running.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, everyone else has suddenly realized that The Rapture has occurred and the End Times have come. A few naked people that appeared unexpectedly, telling bizarre, but consistent stories about broken spheres, gel, and an airless prairie world are quietly taken to behavioral health centers in countries all over the world. Quite a few scientists get beaten up and jeered at. The major news channels all have fancy graphics on the wall-to-wall coverage of the global disappearance of several million people, but only one cable channel was foxy enough to copyright "The Rapture: End Times," so everyone else has to make up a catchphrase that uses some other apocalyptic buzzwords. A number of scientists hide out at the summer homes of friends, say "well, crap" a lot and mutter under their collective breath, but they have no physical data other than discarded clothing and personal possessions, and absolutely no explanation for the disappearance of so many people at the same time.
In all this religious ferment, a lot of poor people starve to death or die from neglect because nobody thought to keep the famine and social services and human rights campaigns running, since most of the do-gooder religious types thought it was the end of the world.
On the third day, several million screaming naked people suddenly reappear on Earth, approximately where they were when they "left." Those who were in planes or riding as passengers of cars are considerately returned to other moving planes and cars, so nobody appeared 33,000 feet up, free-falling. However, they appear at random, which tends to unnerve airline seatmates and solitary drivers, but not a few of the latter quickly move their vehicles into the HOV lanes, so there are relatively few accidents. No one who was actually operating a plane, car, bus, train, boat, space shuttle, or other conveyance was "taken," so there were no catastrophic plane crashes or horrific multi-car accidents as the believers in Rapture had so confidently predicted, a fact that they had been attempting to explain away while they ordered the Earth to their liking for the long expected and imminent thousand-year reign of Christ. The scientists who had pointed out this and a few other uncomfortable facts return from their summer-home exiles and get back to work. They try not to look too smug, and really, really try not to look too relieved.
The "World Government of Christ on Earth" falls apart pretty fast, since they hadn't done much in three days other than argue fine points of doctrine. The regular governments slowly start to pick up the pieces.
Everything gets very, very screwed up for a long time, because the religious people think the naked people are a trick by Satan, and the naked people just want to get their clothes and car keys and cell phones back and get someone to believe their crazy, but consistent story about gel-filled bouncing spheres on another planet and alien wranglers and bizarre, but rather soothing images. Not a few of the naked people actually think they were Raptured, but must not have made the final cut because of the sin of their nakedness, and only a few of the smartest people think they've been given a gift, an opportunity to know that we are not alone, and that we have been offered a greeting of peace and friendship from an unimaginable distance.
The scientists perk up when they start collecting reports. Nobody can get them a sample of the gel, though. The naked people all come back with beautifully moisturized skin, but not a drop nor molecule of gel came back with them.
Quite a few of the not-so-smart, but politically connected people are so pissed off about the abductions that they convince a lot of government scientists to work on contacting other planets via new technologies, to "get around" the problem of communicating and traveling across the vast distances of interstellar space, to find some allies, and hunt down those sphere-wrangling bastards that kidnapped half of humanity.
They manage, after many years of secret research, to contact one other intelligent race, who send images of spheres full of individuals of their species, and of a mass abduction, along with a warning. They are sent, in return, images of spheres full of humans, a similar mass abduction, and an invitation to help search for the perpetrators.
By this time, the religious people have given up waiting for the real Rapture, because they've finally been worn down by the enormous preponderance of evidence for a mass abduction by aliens. Yet another alien race is just too much for them to take in, because they cannot imagine God creating aliens too, if humans were created in His image. This and other paradoxes finally put paid to most of the "magical thinking" and "scriptural literalist" threads of religious thought. A few die-hards go on insisting on the Truth, the Way, the (insert title of holy book here). Most of them die off eventually. After a few decades, of course, all the original naked people have died off too (even the ones still stuck in mental hospitals), and the abduction attains legendary status because it is no longer within living memory. The Last Naked Person lives to be 108, and got very boring at the end, endlessly going on about Rube Goldberg-like structures made of extruded glass thousands of feet tall, and the sight of millions of spheres bouncing down into a bowl-like Coliseum the size of the Gulf of Mexico for the big show-and-tell at the end.
The scientists, and the new aliens, contact a third race. More images of spheres, warnings, negotiations, and invitations ensue. By triangulating the position of each new race contacted, after hundreds of years, the likeliest location for the abductor race is deduced to be in a "bare patch" in the center of a sort of "sphere of influence" containing all the pissed off abductee races. Their entire planetary economies are put to the task of finding the abductors, physically traveling to their planet, and bombing them back to the stone age. Some of the races advance incredibly quickly because of all the inter-species cooperation. There is a good deal of competitive spirit and jockeying for pride of place, literally and figuratively, in the plans for a joint spacial expeditionary force.
A few smart people still keep trying to tell everyone, including the allied races, that the messages the original naked people were shown in their abductions were an attempt to say "hello" and "peace." They are still mostly ignored, but each partner planet has a quite a few so the movement is pretty far-reaching.
One glorious day, about a milennium after the Earth abductions and a hundred years or so after the last known extraterrestrial one, the humans and their allies assemble in battle formation at the point they have determined to be the center of the area that must logically contain the grassland world, because all their planets range outward from that point.
But there is nothing there, other than an odd astrophysical feature that seems to be an intermittent weakness in the fabric of space. The abductors are probably located in some unimaginably distant and unreachable galaxy, and there is nothing to see here at all. Years of standing watch on station go by, waiting for some kind of "abductor" activity to shoot at or follow. The gigantic fleet has nobody to go to war with but itself; political and economic tensions have built up between some of the allies over the centuries and now that everybody has a big hot new fleet of warships, it's inevitable that somebody will do something stupid. Eventually, someone does just that, and very few ships make it home from the station-keeping point. None at all come back to Earth.
Back home, the few smart people, and the descendents of smart people, that had been saying all along that they'd been shown a message of peace and friendship, take up the governance of their respective planets, because clearly the fleets weren't going to return and the "punish the abductor" parties were politically ruined. The massive military programs that nearly caused economic disaster are scaled back, tensions are reduced, detente is experimented with, and a kind of trade springs up in music, literature, and other cultural products that can be transmitted across sub-space. It's far too expensive and energy-limited to think of commercial shipping; the militaries could afford to build and launch and power ships only when it had the entire gross planetary product to spend of each allied race.
Meanwhile, back on the grassland planet, the guardians of the holy message of peace and friendship between all sentient beings had set their sights on a neighboring arm of the same obscure little galaxy, secure in the knowledge that their cause was noble and their peace would never be shattered, because no race would ever be able to resist their message…or find them for that matter.
Yes, this is the kind of bedtime story I tell myself at night – mostly the part about bouncing around immobilized in the sphere, making a slight "bloongy bloongy" noise as it goes downhill in the grassland toward the river. I find that part kind of relaxing.
Maybe sometime I'll tell the story of the hyper-intelligent spacegoing tree that reproduces by asexual budding, leaving pieces of itself behind in its journey Outward to communicate telepathically with intelligent species it encounters, and how it is befriended by a lonely, troubled Earth boy. It looks a little like the ceiba, the World Tree of Mayan cosmology, except that it's purple and its many thin branches end in tiny hand-like structures, like the rays of the sun on an Egyptian tomb mural.
Tonight, I'll be telling myself about this new exoplanet for a while – how a "year" is only 13 planetary revolutions around its small, dark, cold Sun, and wondering how quickly it rotates on its axis, and whether you can see the sun-disk moving across its skies, and whether the shadows are constantly moving, and whether the other giant planets in its system hang hugely portentious in the sky. And wondering what tides are like, if there are oceans there as the scientists think, and whether aliens could surf the crazy coriolis-effect waves. Hang twelve!
[tags]Space, exoplanets, Earth, Science Fiction[/tags]