It was inevitable that this would happen. Sooner or later, we’d discover that we weren’t alone in the universe. This week, with the announcement that the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered a remarkably Earth-like planet with a high probability of life, Earth’s unique place in the cosmography of our own mind moved a little farther [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

‘Earth 2.0’ – or: How we are not alone (er, well, maybe!)


It was inevitable that this would happen. Sooner or later, we’d discover that we weren’t alone in the universe. This week, with the announcement that the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered a remarkably Earth-like planet with a high probability of life, Earth’s unique place in the cosmography of our own mind moved a little farther out of its customary self-centred orbit.

Let’s back up a bit, though. True, Kepler-452b is every science fictionist’s fertile dream sprung to real life. True, it’s a Terra-class planet orbiting a Sol-class star, like the Earth around our own Sun. True, it’s in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ – that precariously thin wedge of space between fire and ice where liquid water exists. A little closer to the sun and any life would be burned to a crisp. A little farther out and it would die of freezing cold. (The intriguingly named spatial zone’s fairy-tale name comes from the Goldilocks narrative of our childhood: from the little girl who liked her porridge neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.) Even atmospheric and planetary compositional factors seem to favour a high statistical probability that Kepler’s newfound planet could harbour (humanoid?) life…

However, perhaps it’s a tad too early to roll out the welcome wagon for, er, those little green Keplers. (Keplerese? Keplereans?) Or, more to the point, to man Earth’s woefully thin-on-the-ground defences against putative space invaders. For, as Stephen Hawking only recently warned whoever would listen, ‘first contact’ with an alien space-faring race is unlikely to be a warm and wonderful experience for the natives of Earth. Think of Earth’s own chequered history of conquest and sundry natives’ first contact with alien races from across the seas… hardly salutary – gifts in one hand, and guns in the other; venereal disease and a plethora of other epidemics to infiltrate immune systems unfamiliar with alien pathogens; plunder, pillage, rapine, and slavery. You name it. Colonists from across the seas of space might well be, like Columbus or Cortés or other great explorers of new solar-systemic continents, inimical to the welfare of the native inhabitants.

The potential down side of space-faring cultures aside, the discovery of Kepler-452b is a scintillating moment in Earth’s search for life out there. SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) has been probing the near vicinity of our galactic neighbourhood for signs of life for decades – with no stunning discoveries… yet. In the meantime, the space-bound Hubble telescope’s findings have been bringing us a visual smörgåsbord of what the deepest reaches of the cosmos look like.

Be that enterprise as it may, this near-twin of Earth find is unprecedented. So the assortment of writers, scientists, dreamers, et al. (colonisers of space included) would be forgiven for feeling and acting like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into their ken. It’s not a metaphor any more… a new planet has swum into our field of vision, bringing into sharp focus the sphere of a myriad possibilities and philosophical ramifications.

Real possibilities (and some improbabilities)
- Kepler-452b might host life… maybe even humanoid life… although there is no guarantee that, given the same Earth-like conditions, life would emerge as it once did on Earth 1.0

- Earth’s newfound twin may be home to an advanced civilisation in one of three stages of galactic development: Phase I (a united federation of countries or solar systemic planets exploring the galactic arm that humanity has made its home); Phase II (a galaxy-wide civilisation with the super-light-speed drive); Phase III (a highly advanced civilisation able to manipulate the very fabric of time-space, à la Interstellar). NOTE: Earth’s own civilisation is still in Phase 0 (early space age, with a manned mission having been undertaken to Earth’s only satellite over 46 years ago, since which date – largely for lack of political interest and concomitant funding and logistical issues – the ‘space race’ of the Cold War era has fizzled out but for ventures such as the Plutonic ‘New Horizons’)

- Not in a million years (not at sub-light speeds) would a probe such as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which recently plumbed the secrets of on-again, off-again, planet Pluto (a plutoid, or dwarf planet) reach Kepler-452b. Now what is needed is what has been the traditional fantasy of space-age science-fiction (time-distort, as in Blake’s 7; warp-speed, per Star Trek; or the hyperspace-plumbing warp-drive of Star Wars) – although pre-space-age science-fact imagination has boldly gone where no television or film crew has gone before. By dint of mathematics and by virtue of then groundbreaking theoretical physics, we had wormholes: a theory courtesy German mathematician Herman Weyl (1921) and named by American theoretical physicist John Wheeler (1957)

Philosophical ramifications (plus a few speculations)
- Suddenly we’ve been displaced for the umpteenth time from the hallowed stronghold of our proud imaginations. Science has been striking at the heart of the human idol since 3rd C. BC philosopher Aristarchus of Samos threatened to displace us out of heliocentric orbit. But Kepler-452b strikes a harder blow to the heart of Homo sapiens’ pride than Copernicus’s theory; Kepler’s modifications; and Galileo’s observations, with his moons and moving-Earth: all posits and proofs of a solar system in which Earth was no more than “the third rock from the sun” in an elliptical orbit, thus displacing misplaced terra-centric misconceptions

- There are some faiths and worldviews which would and will neatly accommodate the existence of other Earth-like planets in our galaxy. On the one hand, the multi-tiered structure of the Buddhist or Hindu universe wouldn’t be averse to populated planets on the galactic plane. On the other, all-encompassing Christianity could easily fit other extraterrestrial races into its worldview, as C. S. Lewis did in his space trilogy

- At least, literature would have new boundaries opened and expanded. Sci-fi writers of the Golden Age from Isaac Asimov to Ray Bradbury had been populating a gamut of worlds in their mind’s eye with strange and exotic races long before Hubble and Kepler captured it in a more sophisticated light. But one can’t help remembering the warning of the Angel to Adam in the Puritan John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Dream not of other worlds/ what creatures there live/ in what state, condition, or degree…”

- Reality bites hard, and perhaps religionists and politicians would do well to take a breather from their doctrines and their dogmas and their demagoguery to consider the heavens, the handiwork of an elusive but expansive God (“He made the stars also…” “What art man, that Thou art mindful of him!?”)

Let me end with two quotes from two of my favourite space-farers:
“Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” – Arthur C. Clarke: sci-fi writer, futurist, inventor of the geosynchronous communication satellite
“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” – Carl Sagan: astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist

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