When I got old enough for my parents to tell me about the meaning of life, my parents took me to the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan so I could see the great display they had in the ceiling there—this consisted of all the planets on their orbits circling the sun in our solar system. The sun was in the center, bright red and yellow and about the size of a beach ball. And there were nine monorails hanging from the ceiling that formed concentric circles around the sun under which the planets, ranging in size from a marble to a basketball, slowly made their way around Mr. Sun, spinning as they went.
Closest was Mercury, not much bigger than a marble. Then Venus and Earth, each about the size of a softball. After that came Mars, halfway between Mercury and Earth in size, and after that, and quite a bit farther away from the sun on the ceiling, came Saturn with its rings, and then Jupiter—both the size of basketballs. After that, way, way out from the sun were Uranus and Neptune, bigger than Earth but smaller than Jupiter, which, at the pace they were moving were going to take days to do one complete revolution around the sun. Then out at the very wall, about the size of Neptune, was Pluto. It might take a week for Pluto to circle the sun on the ceiling at the almost imperceptible rate that it was traveling.
The thing I remembered most about that display was that only the Earth had clear-cut white clouds, green land masses and blue oceans. All the others were faded, blurred and ugly. Mercury was way too hot. So was Venus. Mars was too cold, and for the rest way out there things were so cold as to be almost unimaginable. It was only here on Earth that there was life.
I remember being told all these planets lived in the vacuum of space. I remember thinking how lonely Earth was, spinning through that vacuum. This was our home. As for the rest, they were just bigger or smaller rocks. Wasn’t there anybody else out there? Apparently not.
This feeling of being alone in the universe was reinforced, when I got to be a young teenager, by the installation of a giant radio telescope constructed in Arecibo on a mountain peak in the center of Puerto Rico. It had been built in the ’60s, and in 1974 it was used to emit radio waves into space that basically said “We are here, contact us, please respond.” A few years later, with no good news from Arecibo, a rocket was fired out into space that bore a large coin with several identifying phrases in different languages agreed upon by people a lot smarter than I am. It also showed the outline of a male and female person to show whoever found it living on a star far away that there was somebody out “there” from “there.” It read “here I am” in these different languages.
It seemed to me at that point that clearly there were a lot of people who felt about things the way I did. God had made us all. He made the planets and the stars. Wouldn’t you think he would put some other living things on other planets or stars? And now that we had the tools to look, wouldn’t you think we would come up with something?
Well, we didn’t.
In 1990 we expanded this effort with the launch and placement in the upper atmosphere of a very powerful telescope called the Hubble to have even more of a look. It didn’t work at all up there at first. Its lenses had been made incorrectly, but after a couple years our scientists had figured out a way to bring up new lenses and, using space walks by astronaut ophthalmologists, installed them on Hubble’s eyes. Now Hubble could see.
Then, about a year ago, the Kepler telescope—launched in 2009—located a small planet, about the same size as ours, that was circling a sun about the same size as ours, about the same distance from that sun as we are from ours, and with spectrum light that indicated that life, water and air might possibly be on that planet. It was so many million light years away from us, however, that learning more about it was at the present moment impossible. Certainly it was way beyond our ability to get to visit anybody there. But it gave us hope. Maybe, someday we could find a way to meet up with them, shake their hands (or whatever) and celebrate the fact that there was at least one other part of the universe where we could ponder our fate. Was there a God? We believe there is. Had they found proof? We could tell them about us, they could tell us a lot about them. There would be a lot of backslapping and gifts given back and forth and promises to get together soon. We would be like cousins.
In early January, The New York Times published a front-page story headlined “So Many Earth-Like Planets, So Few Telescopes.”
It seems that now various telescopes have located as many as 24 planets out there that could support the life we know of on Earth. This is amazing news.
In early January a group of scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced the discovery of eight new planets circling stars way out there that appear to be only slightly larger than ours at a distance from a sun that will allow water to babble down streams and brooks without freezing solid or boiling off into steam. One of them, Kepler 438b, circles its sun every 35 days. Another, Kepler 442b, circles its sun every 112 days. Others appear to be “rocky” with valleys and mountains and, one supposes, fields of lilacs or clover. The scientists call these planets “Goldilocks planets” because things are not too hot or too cold. There are sure to be more to come. A new scientific group is building a telescope in the Canary Islands that will study spectrographic observations. Another satellite, called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is scheduled to be launched in 2017.
So now I don’t feel loneliness. I feel fear. Here on Earth, all these different tribes are fighting with one another. We have a flag for the United Nations, but most people don’t give it any respect. With 24 inhabited planets out there, it’s my belief we will someday find out that some of the creatures on these planets have chosen sides and made treaties with those on other planets and that they fight with one another with opposing armies, while others will be caught up in fights on their home planets where the radicals are battling the conservatives and the rich are vying with the poor and there are businesspeople looking to exploit and mine wealthy minerals on barren planets they hope to get to first.
How nice it would be to get back to the old days when we just felt so alone and we hoped to locate just one planet with life on it so we could pop the champagne corks and exchange presents whenever we got together.
I think sometimes too much knowledge can be a bad thing.