We Are Not Unique In The Universe, But We Are Very Much Alone

It has been increasingly exciting to follow the recent surge in the discovery of exoplanets. Not only because what started as a needle in the haystack endeavor in the late 1980s has become a booming field of space exploration, when it gained its latest momentum with the success of Nasa’s Kepler Telescope. As of this moment of writing, the exoplanet data explorer maintained by Jason Wright at Penn State lists 1,642 confirmed planets and 3,787 unconfirmed Kepler candidates.  

There are severe downsides to most of those planets. Only 63 light years away for example a blue marble planet named HD 189733b orbits its star. Daytime temperatures on this planet average 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, wind speeds reach 7,000 miles per hour and the blue color in the atmosphere comes from rains of molten glass. Only four of the exoplanets found by now have the right distance to their stars to host life. Given the UC Berkeley estimate of 11 billion earth-like planets in the milky way alone, there is a definite conclusion though that our home planet is far from unique in the universe, even though we as humans are very much alone.

Most conclusions drawn from the discovery of exoplanets aren’t quite as philosophical. Great findings about the history of the universe and the origins of life are made. There’s even a practical side to it. Given that the search for exoplanets has enabled science to peer farther into the universe as ever before, short-distance space missions have been reduced to outer space prancings of status seeking enterprises and emerging nations trying to prove they are the new superpowers.

While the glamour of physical space exploration still lives on in the dreams of billionaires and potentates, even pop culture ideas of settling space are gaining traction again. With the apocalyptic specter of climate change rendering this planet inhabitable colonizing other planets seem like an attractive idea.

Blockbusters like Interstellar and The Martian have used this longing for a life beyond our atmosphere for great entertainment. But even when Harvard astronomer Dimitar Sasselov toured the conference circuit a few years ago talking about the thrill of discovering far away planets (his team had actually once found the furthest planet of them all), you could sense the pangs of science fiction longings in the audience. What if there indeed is life out there? Other habitable planets? They still lingered, no matter the thoroughly scientific nature of the research of exoplanets. After all, Sasselov also serves as the director of Harvard’s origins of life initiative.

But it is exactly those lingering science fiction dreams, which make the news about the vast number of exoplanets of important. As symbols they can serve as an extension of the Blue Marble image of planet earth taken by the Apollo 17 crew in December of 1972. Back then the Blue Marble showed mankind the reality of what Buckminster Fuller had called spaceship earth just four years before—earth being a rather small vehicle with finite resources. The Blue Marble went on to the cover of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, the principle manual of the emerging ecological movement.

Even though the recent wave of anachronistic space age glamour overshadows the great news about exoplanets, they are great symbols of a shift in global consciousness. With all escape routes now officially closing (planet HD 189733b being just one sensational example of the forbidding nature of space), the realization that mankind has to make the best out of its home planet starts to become common knowledge not only in progressive circles. Climate talks in Paris have shown that the political will to take action finally transcends borders, ideologies and national interests.

The symbolism of exoplanets goes beyond the Buckminster Fuller metaphor of spaceship earth. It shows that the drive of science knows no limits. When astronomers will confirm the first extragalactic planets, the reach for infinity will open even wider realms of understanding the universe. This understanding coupled with a new consciousness about the value and fragility of planet earth can lead to a will to push for solutions right here on earth. Science will continue to reach ever farther into infinity for ever great findings. Here on earth this will just strengthen the realization that the dream of habitable planets or even communicating life forms in our reach is as absurd as the ideas of afterlives and deities.