Friday, February 1, 2013

Under Another Lamppost

It was Science News tickling me again - here is the lead: Earth-sized moons in planetary systems trillions of miles away could be hotbeds for alien life, astronomers report in the January Astrobiology.

Fascinating article.  I highly recommend it. Basically the question posed is whether - in galaxies far, far away - large rocky moons circling gas giant planets like Jupiter and Neptune might be habitable, might house environments that could sustain life. The discussion bounced back between yes, no and maybe.  Perhaps the most interesting part was the complexities of radiation that would strike the moon from both the system's star and the radiation that would be reflected onto the moon from the planet it was orbiting.

The article concludes with this upbeat assertion:  “Moons just improve the chances that life as we know it exists elsewhere," says Darren Williams, an astronomer at Penn State, “The diversity of environments that you can have is just amazing.”  I was struck by the simultaneous optimism and provincialism of the statement.  The optimism springs from the continual curiosity of every scientist worth his/her salt, the "Oh, goody! A new question!" perspective.  The provincialism dwells in our obsession with "life as we know it."  We are back to the "drunk and the lamppost" paradox: The midnight drunk searches vainly beneath a lamppost for the car keys he knows he dropped further down the street.  Why search here? Because the light is better.

Interestingly, the space blogosphere was all abuzz this week about another issue.  Seems that Fomalhaut b, a weird planet with a long erratic orbit that circles its star once every 2000 years has reappeared around its sun, also called Fomalhaut.  Well, it turns out it never really went away.  Rather, the astronomers who went looking for the planet assumed that it, like most planets, would really "pop" under the infrared "lamppost."  So that is where they looked for it.  It now appears that Fomalhaut b, unlike planets "as we know them," shuns the infrared, and likes the realm of the spectrum that is "visible" - to us. So Fomalhaut b was there all the time, ironically hiding under the lamppost with which we are most familiar.  Is to laugh.  Hah.

Why, then, do we insist upon searching for life as we know it when the far more tantalizing questions draw us to the consideration of life as we do not know it?  It stuck me that, had I the necessary time and skills, it would be amusing to write a sci-fi piece in which the protagonist would be threatened with - oh, firing, denial of tenure, execution, something like that - for proposing that life could exist in the newly discovered, carbon-rich, and hence completely toxic to "life as they know it," galaxies. S/He would argue the case for "life as we do not know it."  I have no idea if the piece would end in triumph or tragedy, or from whose perspective.  My friends who write fiction for a living assure me that the story would dictate its own ending.

The nature of the ending is not all that important.  Either way I would hope the tale would encourage us, next time we walk outside on a starry night, to think of each pinprick of light as its very own lamppost swarming with its own myriad planets and moons.  I have no doubt that from many of them other eyes are staring back at us wondering where in the universe they might encounter "life as we know it."