First Images

I awoke to an image from the James Webb Space Telescope.  Looking at the universe at it was 4.6 billion years ago is a humble and terrifying experience.  Our universe is so incredibly vast and we are tiny.  As we on this planet bicker and kill and destroy, out there something truly wondrous looms.  Those tiny pinpricks of galaxies.  Our own galaxy so massive that we can’t comprehend it.  Our own midsize star large enough to hold more than a million earths.  Our own planet big enough that no human being can see it all in a lifetime.  What in the world are we fighting for?  This image is just a patch of sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  How many grains of sand would it take to fill the visible sky?

Many people argue that such things are a waste of money.  Yes, there are very real, human-created problems right here on earth.  The siren call of space, however, has the potential to save us.  If we look into that immense universe just out there and realize that we are part of something larger than ourselves, we can stop fighting and hating and electioneering.  Keep looking up instead.  Costs, after all, are relative.  Our entire economic system is arbitrary.  We decide what’s valuable and what’s not.  We make rules that allow individual human beings to control the lives of countless others based on nothing more than agreed-upon principles.  Food could be freely distributed.  Medicine could be given to the sick.  What’s required is perspective.  If looking at the universe doesn’t provide perspective, what can?

I often wonder about life in those distant galaxies.  Given the sheer numbers it’s practically impossible that life evolved only here.  We’re told that teleological thinking is wishful and naive, but looking at the way life behaves I have to wonder if that’s true.  Life may be seeking goals.  If it is, than intelligence may be among them.  We’ve got billions of years and billions of lightyears to work with.  And when I look at the headlines I find those of the James Webb Space Telescope to be the most hopeful of all.  Galaxies are all about possibilities.  Stars being born where the outcomes may be better than one gender assuming it’s better than another.  Or that the “right to bear arms” means  stockpiling assault rifles to kill others in a fit of pique.  No, this money’s not wasted if only people might listen and pay attention to the stars.


Mother of Life

Homeostasis is, if I recall correctly, the state of equilibrium that entities and systems seek.  When we’re too warm we seek someplace cooler and when we’re hungry we look for something to eat.  It’s a great process of evening things out because we live in a world of extremes.  Well, relative extremes for a planet that suited to life.  Autumn came in with a chill this year, at least around here.  We had a couple of nights with frost before apple-picking season even began.  Over in Denver they went from a heat wave to inches of snow overnight.  I often wonder, if our species manages to survive long enough, what life will be like once everything evens out.  Until then, because of human climate degradation, we’ll be facing more extremes.  That’s the way the GOP likes it.

Meanwhile, there may be evidence that life exists on Venus.  Or at least in the atmosphere of the hottest planet in the solar system.  Up through my college years I toyed with the idea of being an astronomer.  I’d learned in high school (for we were a Sputnik-era school in rural Pennsylvania that had a working planetarium) that it was mostly about math.  I’m afraid I have no head for such things.  Still, I remain fascinated by other planets and their potential.  I’m in the market, you might say.  Venus had captured my young imagination not only because Ray Bradbury and C. S. Lewis wrote stories about living there, but because of the images from the Russian Venera (blush, giggle) probe program.  I knew in high school (planetarium, remember?) that Russia had landed probes on the rocky surface of Venus that had only functioned for a couple of hours at most before breaking down in the extreme conditions.  Extremes, again.

Venus could, it was thought, never have supported life.  The new evidence, however, stands to show us just how little we understand life.  It exists in the most inhospitable environments on our planet.  When life was found near black smokers on the ocean floor it was considered a fluke.  Maybe life is the norm instead of the rarity our exaggerated sense of self-importance suggests.  Venus, after the sun and moon, is the brightest natural object regularly visible in our skies.  Both the morning and evening star, it beckons to us.  Although not definitive, we’ve found evidence of life on both Venus and Mars.  And yet many of us prefer science deniers to lead our nation.  So I think of homeostasis as I look at Venus out my early morning window.


Exobiology

Are we alone in the universe? The answer is every day growing more and more certain that we are not. Humanity may experience shortages of many things, however, pride is not among them. For millennia we’ve been convinced of our own superiority and, of late, we’ve become convinced that we must be as good as it gets. We’ve mastered logic and our material world. We’ve sent probes to land on Venus and Mars, and flying by just about every other planetary body close enough to reach. We sure are smart. So it stands to reason that we are the brightest beings in a universe that we tell ourselves is infinite. A recent article on Exobiology that my wife pointed out to me on The Conversation, traces the history of the idea of life outside the earth. Not surprisingly, the idea has its origins in religious thought.

Giordano Bruno was an early modern Dominican who was burned at the stake for his heresies. Like his near contemporary Galileo, he was fascinated by the sky and postulated that the world up there could be full of life. A church increasingly under pressure from the pesky Protestant movement had no time for flights of fancy among the faithful. No, religion at the time wanted its feet planted on solid ground. The only life up there was angels and God. Still, the idea had been broached. Since the world’s major religions have been geocentric, as a rule, they’ve had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the idea of the other other. God as other is one thing, other creatures as other is quite another. How do earth-bound religions account for the possibility of life in space? This is not merely academic fancy at play. We will almost certainly discover life elsewhere—whether it comes to us (or already may have), or we go to it (which might take a little longer), we will discover that a universe that is infinite has infinite possibilities. Will religion keep us grounded?

596px-Apollo_11_bootprint

Ironically, one of the areas where science and religion have broadly agreed is in the superiority of humankind. Both remain staunchly geocentric. Religions and tend to say we’re sinful, but other than that, pretty much the best the earth has to offer. Although biologists say evolution is non-teleological, they still have a hard time imagining something more advanced than us. We are pretty self-absorbed. Meanwhile, we are discovering water is likely not unique to earth. Rocky planets seem to be the rule rather than the exception. And there are billions and billions of stars in our own galaxy alone, among billions of others. What are the chances we’re alone? Virtually none. Here is one place that both religion and science might learn a lesson based on early spiritual teachings. In the face of the unknown, humility is the most logical response. I’m impressed in how far we’ve come in the last several millennia of civilization. I think, however, that we’d better be prepared to meet exobiology with a realization that Genesis 1 was only the beginning.