Saturday, March 9, 2013

Is there life out there?

When I was about 7 or 8 years old my parents bought me a telescope. It wasn't very powerful but it was good enough for viewing the moon, and I spent many a cold evening outside watching it rise over the mountains. And maybe that's one of the great things about being a kid - you can be interested in so many things and there's always something new and exciting to learn. But it isn't an interest I've pursued much since then. Yes, I still love to look at the stars - especially if a friend has a really great telescope - but my little binoculars are all I have. And yet I'm still interested enough to read books and articles about space exploration.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Destiny or Chance Revisited: Planets and their Place in the Cosmos by Stuart Ross Taylor is about astrology and fortune-telling, but this excellent book really is about the stars and planets. More specifically it's about the possibility that there is intelligent life (kinda like us, but hopefully more intelligent) out there. And it's a topic that's frequently in the news lately as we see more and more stories about astronomers discovering new "earth-like" planets as they scan the heavens. A problem, Professor Taylor says, is defining what "earth-like" actually means.

This is a good primer on what we know about the universe, which is largely limited to our observations of those planets nearest us - and what we see is a whole lot of variety. None of the 8 planets in our solar system are alike, and astronomers aren't finding a lot of planets elsewhere that resemble them. In fact, the conditions we find nearest to us don't appear to be normal or ordinary elsewhere. Taylor discusses the composition of the planets and the current theories on how each was formed after the Big Bang. He discusses a broad range of things like comets and asteroids and orbits and tilts (and lots of other stuff that was a bit over my head!) and it was fascinating to read.

This probably isn't the best introduction to the subject and I found I had to go slowly and frequently re-read pages to understand. Taylor often uses terms that aren't included in his glossary in the front of the book, and sometimes they aren't even explained at the same time he first uses them but much later on. And it was irritating that he begins many sections with quotes that are only attributed in the endnotes of the book - I wish the author's name and maybe even the date had been included with the quote for context (the notes in general seemed thin). But that sounds like I'm complaining more than I am and honestly I enjoyed this book and found it very insightful. (In fact, the ideas and concepts were so awe-inspiring that I was embarrassed to think of the hours people - not me - waste watching something so stupid as "reality television"!)

As for the question of whether or not intelligent life can be found elsewhere; I have my own opinions but they're based on my religious beliefs - something Professor Taylor is especially derisive and condescending about. Initially I was rather offended, but there was much to learn from his book even if his faith in admittedly imperfect models and ever-evolving knowledge left me shaking my head. Most eye-opening, however, was his conclusion that intelligent life on earth (us) was the result of so many "accidents" (his word, not mine) and chance events that the chance of such randomness occurring elsewhere is essentially zero. His "impressive" list of accidents includes:
  • the size of the material that formed our solar system was ideal so that only one sun formed
  • the size of Jupiter (and that there was only one Jupiter) shielded the earth from continual bombardment of comets
  • the 500 ppm of water on earth which was "accidentally contributed by icy planetisimals" made plate techtonics and continents possible, and allowed for the formation of granite and ore deposits (which enabled advanced technology)
  • the collision that formed the moon, creating the ideal rotation (24 hour days rotating forward, not backward) and a tilt that provides seasons
  • that same collision also removed any thick primitive atmosphere
  • the asteroid that closed the Age of Reptiles and allowed for the rise of mammals
  • and many more...
And if so many (dare I say "miraculous") accidents are the reason we're here, doesn't that leave open the possibility of a Creator? Perhaps a Creator who knows the principles of science and physics better than we do? And if there's a Creator, isn't it possible that we're not alone?

(I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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