Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brave New World

Gliese 581 g as it faces its red dwarf sun

Just this week, astronomers have released news that they have found an Earth-sized, extra-solar planet. More importantly, the planet is orbiting its start within the so-called "Goldilock's Zone," - an orbit that is not too close, nor too far from the star. The temperatures there range from 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 25 below. Neither extreme is unfamiliar to life as we know it. In fact, consider the tubeworms of the Pacific Ocean that thrive (along with dozens of other species) next to super-hot thermal vents spewing sulpher into the surrounding water. According to one scientist, if there is water on this new planet, the chances of life are "100 percent."

The planet is 20 light years away, meaning that even communicating at light speed with the critters on the planet would take decades.

It is frustrating living in 2010. Meaningful space exploration beyond our neighborhood will not be a possibility for generations. Or at least it looks that way. The moon and Mars and the local asteroids will consume our attention for the next 100 years. Solar slings, fission drives, quarter-light speed engines are just science fiction at this point. It would be nice if our new neighbors in Gliese 581g would send power up their warp drives, take on a two year mission and get their assuredly quadrupedal butts to Sol a deliver a Care package to get us caught up. Naturally, if they are that advanced, they probably know a thing or two about us already. We are no threat to them, but we are also nowhere near being ready for first contact.

Do you ever wonder what that day will be like? When we first get "the call," the unambiguous signal from that far out somewhere just beyond the tail of Scorpio saying, "yes, we are here and your are there. We share the same universe"

Riots in the street? Break down of civilization? Or, to be optimistic, a wholesale conversion to humanism and an end to all religion and superstition.

Both outcomes seem unlikely. I think we all know what will happen:

- The news will be sensationalized
- Scientists will say they need to study the signal more
- One or many conspiracy theories will develop,followed by an equal number of conspiracy theorists and devotees
- Religious zealots will see this as science's final attempt to quash their belief by making the greeting correspond somehow to a passage in Revelation
- UFO nuts will see this as confirmation of ALL of their ideas - from flying saucers to "Grays" to abductions
- Political leaders will make uninspired, ho-hum announcements, none of which will really capture the magnitude of the moment
- The Pope will say something along the lines of the opportunity to declare "The Good News" to a whole new group of pagans (as IF!)

But the discovery will fall out of the news cycle. Lady Gaga will wear something weird. An American Idol judge will say something stupid A drunk Southerner will ride a John Deer into doughnut shop and steal a dozen glazed Cruellers. The new iPhone App will allow you to send pictures of yourself doing things you haven't done yet. The Sex and the City sequel will be dislodged by The Jersey Shore movie.

Seriously, haven't the aliens been watching our sci-fi films? We need dozens of mile-long ships hovering over Washington DC for days on end. We need mind control and menacing silver robots. We need a spectacle, not a candy-gram.

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