Egypt and Extrasolar Planets

In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, press release 2 Feb 2011

In sixth grade, we were taught that we lived on a planet circling a star we call the sun, and that other stars might also have planets — but also that, since planets can only shine by the light reflected from a star, it would forever be impossible for us to see planets around other stars with a telescope. Those planets would always be too dim to see from Earth.


It’s over three decades since I was in sixth grade. We’ve found 500 planets orbiting other stars by careful observations of the sky; we also have 1200 candidates for even more extrasolar planets. We’re living when the discovery of a planet around another star is only a noteworthy event if there’s a possibility that the planet is Earthlike; the recent discoveries by Kepler are exceptional for the sheer quantity of possible planets identified.

Soon we’ll be discovering more and more potentially habitable planets and we’ll have more data to process than people to go through it. If it doesn’t already exist, look for distributed-processing screensavers where you can help drill through the volumes of data that are no doubt being generated by orbiting telescopes.

As I write this, I’m watching coverage of the horrifying conflict in Egypt. People are being mowed over in the street by emergency vehicles, reporters are being intimidated and attacked, and Mubarek still wants to finish out his term in office. As we discover more planets and places where life could exist, we’re still beating on each other here at home.

I have no idea if conflicts like this occur on any of the planets we’ve discovered. We’re a long way from being able to go to the moon or Mars, let alone to any of these planets. Going to the stars won’t solve our problems, but it will spread them out a little bit — and slow them down. When it takes years for even a message to travel from Earth to a colony, we’ll have situation much like when colonies in the new world had to travel by sea to get a message to Europe. The only difference is that there’s no prospect for that to ever change; oceangoing ships get faster over time, but the speed of light will always keep stars years, decades, centuries apart.

The discovery of hundreds and hundreds of extrasolar planets should give me hope, but it’s not. Is it pessimistic of me to believe that these colonies would find a way to generate their own wars and political backstabbing?

Have a great weekend; I’ll try to post something more optimistic next week.


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