11/15/2008

EXTRASOLAR


Planets, that is....outside our solar system....we (that is, the scientific community, of which I'm a junior member) have pictures:



A quick, up-to-the-minute but not dumb-downed presentation of the science can be found at this Science Express article, viewable as a PDF file. It comes with a wonderful schematic diagram in color at the end of the file that compares the two planetary systems imaged with our Sun and other well-characterized systems.

There's also a pretty good video with animations providing the context on these findings:



Let's be clear on what the long-term implications of these research programs are for those of us who study biology. If Earth-like worlds exist, they are going to eventually be visualized, and not just in the infrared band, but with visual light. Spectra will be able to detect the presence not just of elements, but of whether certain building blocks of life (amino acids, etc.) are present. The probability that a given world's spectra is consistent with or points toward the presence of life elsewhere in the universe will be estimated. As more such systems are discovered, an estimate of life's prevalence in this universe based on actual data will become feasible, as opposed to models like the Drake equation.

When we compare this data with the models, we are likely to come to some conclusion about the degree to which the capacity for life seems 'built-in' to our universe's structure. It could turn out either way, but my money is on the intuition that life, given the appropriate initial conditions, is inevitable, an inherent property of our universe's physical laws. I hope I live long enough where the debate on such a topic moves past intuition.

2 comments:

Ian H Spedding FCD said...

Like you, I believe that life and, eventually, intelligence will emerge anywhere in the Universe given a reasonable chance so, as you say, that's what makes these first faint glimpses of extra-solar planets so exciting.

And it may only be a matter of time before we hear something too. It's not hard to imagine an older civilization elsewhere that emerged, say, 15,000 years ago and began broadcasting radio signals 10,000 years ago. If they have survived, they should be way ahead of us scientifically and technologically. Yet they could be 20,000 light-years away which would still put them well within or galaxy but would mean those first faint signals won't reach us for another 10,000 years. That's assuming we'll still be around to receive them.

But 20,000 years is such a tiny sliver of time compared with the vast age of the Universe. What is tragic is that great civilizations could have risen and fallen in those depths of space and time of which we may never know anything.

I have to say that contemplating such prospects arouses a far greater sense of awe than I ever felt when I was a member of the Church of England. Perhaps, as Paul Davies and others believe, there is something profoundly mysterious underlying it all but I cannot believe it is something as cosy and parochial as the popular Christian concept of God.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Hi, Ian! A very thoughtful response. Let me say something about the parochialism that you alluded to. If there is, in fact, some great embodiment of purpose behind all the apparent complexity we observe in the universe, I daresay that it is quite possibly beyond our present attempts to understand it---because, realistically, all of our attempts have been more or less 'cosy and parochial.' That includes the typical Christian conception of God, for sure. I am comforted by the notion, expressed by St. Paul, that 'now we see through a glass, darkly', but that at some future point we will meet whatever 'God' is 'face to face': plainly, and with at least some understanding of the real nature of things. That's a tall order, and admittedly fuzzy in terms of what it all will mean, but I imagine many people (even skeptics!) could see this as a hopeful and open-minded response to our ignorance, rather than dogmatic and closed to new findings. Peace....SH