Dyer: Life Everywhere

Only 39 light-years away, astronomers have found seven planets circling a very small “red dwarf” star called Trappist-1. All seven are in or near what we call the “Goldilocks zone:” not too hot, not too cold, but just right for water to remain liquid on the planet. So we all speculate once again, but a little more bravely this time, about whether some of these planets might be home to life.

Not only are three of Trappist-1’s planets dead centre in the Goldilocks zone; the other four are on the fringes of the habitable zone. And they are all big enough – from half Earth’s size to slightly bigger than our home planet – to retain an atmosphere for billions of years.

If an intelligent life form evolved on even one of these planets, it could have colonized all seven: they are very close together. The journey would be not much more demanding than a trip from the Earth to the Moon.

So think about that: a seven-world interplanetary civilization. It may not exist at Trappist-1: we cannot yet assume that life crops up everywhere that the circumstances are suitable for it. But it surely must exist in one or many (or most) of the hundreds of millions of similar star systems that exist in this galaxy alone.

It looks like life is as common as dirt in the universe, which for living creatures like us is infinitely more interesting than a dead universe ruled only by physics and chemistry. Whereas the poor scientists, shackled by their duty to go not one millimetre further than the evidence will currently support, are condemned to say cool, restrained things like:

“The discovery of multiple rocky planets with surface temperatures that allow for liquid water make this amazing system an exciting future target in the search for life.” (Dr Chris Copperwheat of Liverpool John Moores University, which provided one of the telescopes used in the study.)

But I am a journalist, and I am allowed to speak obvious truths even when the scientific evidence is still falling a bit short. Planets are self-evidently as common as dirt. Life is almost certainly as common as dirt. And even intelligent life must be pretty common in the universe.

Maybe only one planet in a million has intelligent life, you say?

OK, then there are at least 140 million planets with intelligent life in this galaxy alone. And there are at least 100 billion galaxies.

I started reading science fiction when I was quite young – maybe 10 or 11 – and my parents knew an old guy a few streets away who was an amateur astronomer, so they sent me along to see him.

He showed me his telescope, and pictures he had taken, and even an exercise book where he had done sketches of our own solar system and the entire galaxy with coloured pencils.

But he couldn’t tell me whether there were any planets beyond our own system, let alone whether there was life elsewhere in the universe. Nobody knew, and he was being properly scientific in his caution. So I returned to my science fiction, and never went back to see him again.

I am probably now at least as old as that “old guy” was then. We live in a truly marvellous time, when the whole universe is opening up to us, and I wish he could have lived long enough to know what we know now.

And now for the next perplexing question. If life is as common as dirt, and intelligent life only maybe a thousand times less common, then where is everybody?

Is intelligence so counter-productive that an intelligent species automatically self-destructs within a few dozen generations of developing a scientific civilization? Or is there something so terrible out there that everybody who survived is observing radio silence?

Questions for another day. But Trappist-1 is so close that in a few hundred years we could probably get there in a generation ship. Meanwhile, a private consortium led by the BoldlyGo Institute and Mission Centaur is working on an orbital telescope that will look for planets around our closest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri, only 4.4 light-years (40 trillion kilometres) away.

It’s called Project Blue, after astronomer Carl Sagan’s famous picture of our own “pale blue dot”. But there are a gazillion other pale blue dots, and maybe Alpha Centauri has one too. Hallelujah!

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.

Just Posted

Women’s marches underway in Canadian cities, a year after Trump inauguration

Women are gathering in dozens of communities across the country today to… Continue reading

Red Deer councillor balks at city getting stuck with more funding responsibilities

Volunteer Central seeks municipal funding after being cut off by government

Olds chicken barn burns to the ground, no livestock harmed

More than 100,000 chickens were saved as fire crews prevent the blaze from spreading

Bear video meant to promote conservation: zoo owner

Discovery Wildlife Park says it will look at other ways to promote its conservation message

WATCH: Setters Place grand opening in Red Deer

Red Deer’s Setters Place officially opened to the public Saturday afternoon.… Continue reading

In photos: Get ready for Western Canadian Championships

Haywood NorAm Western Canadian Championships and Peavey Mart Alberta Cup 5/6 start… Continue reading

WATCH: Red Deer city council debates cost-savings versus quality of life

Majority of councillors decide certain services are worth preserving

Got milk? Highway reopened near Millet

A southbound truck hauling milk and cartons collided with a bridge

Stettler’s newest residents overcame fear, bloodshed to come here

Daniel Kwizera, Diane Mukasine and kids now permanent residents

Giddy up: Red Deer to host Canadian Finals Rodeo in 2018

The CFR is expected to bring $20-30 million annually to Red Deer and region

Ice dancers Virtue and Moir to carry flag at Pyeongchang Olympics

Not since Kurt Browning at the 1994 Lillehammer Games has a figure… Continue reading

Beer Canada calls on feds to axe increasing beer tax as consumption trends down

OTTAWA — A trade association for Canada’s beer industry wants the federal… Continue reading

Most Read

Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month