Go outside tonight. Bundle up, find a comfortable place to lie down and look up. You’re looking back in time. On a very clear night, with the naked eye, you will see stars whose light left their source between three thousand and sixteen thousand years ago, the former a thousand years before Jesus Christ lived, and the latter about the time our hunter gatherer ancestors were transitioning to farmers, and were slowly breeding, through unnatural selection, dogs out of gray wolves.
Galaxies, like our own Milky Way galaxy, are collections of stars drawn together through gravitational attraction, and the nearest we can see with the naked eye, the Andromeda Galaxy is about two and a half million light years away, so the light we see from Andromeda left that galaxy, about four and a half million years after genus homo was separating from our nearest genetic relative, chimpanzees. Anatomically modern man, homo sapiens, cromagnon man, whatever you wish to call us, goes back only about 200,000 years, and we didn’t successfully leave Africa until about seventy thousand years ago, on a planet where life first developed about four billion years ago.
The Hubble telescope showed us a galaxy about 13.4 billion light years away, and the furthest star, about nine billion light years away, all this in a universe judged to be about 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. Hubble also revealed a quasar whose light left Markarian 231 twice as long ago as dinosaurs first began appearing on earth, at the dawn of the Triassic. The night sky kind of puts things in perspective.
Three of the life enhancing advantages of living up here in the Adirondacks are the lack of traffic so many of our fellow Americans deal with every day, the wide range of seasonal outdoor activities, which despite many of our poor personal habits, encourage us to follow a healthier lifestyle, and most importantly, the staggeringly beautiful environment which drew many of us up here in the first place.
A key aspect of that beauty is experienced by simply looking around and seeing the mountains, forests and fields adorned in the changing colors of our seasons, and displayed in our increasingly crazy and chaotic weather, from the brightest sunny days to rainy misty windy days, to lazy days when cumulous clouds drift towards the horizon, and those magical days when giant snowflakes fall so thickly, slowly, and gently, muffling all sound. We are truly blessed to be alive today, and living in the Adirondack Mountains, far from the crazy bustle of modern COVID and Climate Changed Civilization.
Thanks to the absence of serious light pollution, the Adirondack night sky is a continual source of beauty and information, nature’s cathedral, wherein we all become Spinozan pantheists and the stars and planets are the ceiling through which we can not only look back in time, but experience the slow and steady movements of human placed satellites, the twinkling of distant stars, the flat, disc-like appearance of our visible planets, and the occasional “shooting star”, which tend to be tiny fragments of meteorites and other space debris, burning up as they streak through the friction of earth’s atmoshere.
The universe is so enormous we can conceive of its vast areas of emptiness, broken up by the violence of collapsing stars, supernovas, comets and meteors, black holes, quasars and pulsars, with everything rushing apart until that time when gravity reasserts itself against the outward momentum of the Big Bang, and everything begins collapsing again towards a center which leads to what? …..another Big Bang, a new universe, and how many of those are there, have been or will be?
Our kids grew up looking through my unsteady rickety telescope, which revealed four of the 79 confirmed moons of Jupiter, as well as the rings of Saturn, which almost look artificial, as though Zeus was playing frisbee, and let one get away. In those days, we brought a circular cardboard star chart outside, which used the position of the North Star, to help us figure out what we were looking at. Today with our lives run by instant communications and smart phones, you may download apps like Skyview, which lets your iPhone camera identify a planet, star or galaxy just by pointing at it.
Our moon, about 250,000 miles from Earth, has no atmosphere, which would act as a brake for incoming meteors smashing into its cratered surface, while the earth, living within the Goldilocks Zone of our sun, an average of 93 million miles away from our star, not too close (like Venus and Mercury) so that any water would evaporate, or too far away (like Mars and the outer giants) where any water would freeze. The tilt of the earth’s axis and the consequence of the angle at which sunlight strikes earth’s surface, causes our seasons, such that in the Northern hemisphere, we’re actually closer to the sun during our winter, than we are during our summer.
Our atmoshere is about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, with a narrow sliver of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, as well as argon, neon, helium, krypton and hydrogen, as well as water vapor. The two critical physical components of life on earth are water and carbon.
Distances between objects in the universe are so ridiculously large that we measure distance by the time it takes light, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, to get from its source to any other point. It takes about eight minutes for sunlight to reach the earth, and about a second and a half for the moon to reflect sunlight towards the earth. To put it another way, you see the sun as it was eight minutes ago.
The nearest star to the sun is Apha Centauri, about 4.2 light years away from Earth. This means that if we could travel there at the speed of light, which would be a challenge since, according to Einstein, we’d have to be pure energy (Han Solo’s warp speed?… maybe a “worm hole”), and would have to be somehow reassembled at our destination, it would take over four years for our space ship to reach Alpha Centauri, and another four plus years for our astronauts to message back to earth, “okay.. we’re here… what should we do?” When we begin serious space travel and exploration, there will be generations of astronauts on ships, who have never even been on their home planet.
If there’s a God or a Mother Nature who designed the universe, they must have a wickedly sharp sense of irony. Why design it in such a way that living beings can detect billions of other stars, spread over millions of other galaxies, but with such absurdly long distances between them that there would be no chance of humans ever reaching the Kuiper Belt, the outer limits of our quaint little solar system, never mind getting to other planets in other solar systems?
Talk about scary predictions, the late astro physicist Steven Hawking, judging by what he saw us doing to our planet, said we’ll have to leave Earth within the next hundred years. I recall reading at some point that the two most shocking headlines in a future world, would be first, that Jesus Christ returned, although in today’s crazy fake news political environment, he’d have to perform several indisputable miracles to be taken seriously. The second headline would be the confirmation of life on other planets, and here is where our subject gets really interesting.
It all starts with that periodic table of the elements we hated in Chemistry class. There are 118 elements recognized in the table today, but the thing to understand is that the entire universe is composed of those elements. Does this mean that we won’t discover more elements? No… but what it does mean is that the composition of the universe is probably much simpler in principle than you might imagine. Carl Sagan once speculated that it may be regional prejudice to suppose that all life in the universe must be carbon based, and one of his books had a cartoon, showing a parched extraterrestrial crawling across a planetary desert screaming “ammonia… ammonia!”
What we do know is that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and that our star, the sun, is a retread composed of the remains of older novas or supernovas, exploded stars in which the battle between gravity and the outward radiation of nuclear burning, has been won by gravity. Our sun is a garden variety star, large enough that the collapse of stellar material drove temperatures inside the star high enough to cause nuclear reactions, usually at about 15 million degrees F (27 million degrees in our sun today), mostly turning hydrogen, by far the most common element in the universe, into helium, a process that tends to resist the further gravitational collapse of the star.
That’s what our universe is in essence, a battle between gravity and nuclear burning, using mainly hydrogen and its offspring, the heavier elements, on a vast stage which includes light and dark energy. The sun is about 4.5 billion years into an expected lifespan of maybe 10 billion years, as it slowly turns its hydrogen into helium, residing in a nondescript and unfashionable outer arm of the Milky Way, a spiral galaxy, spinning at 130 miles per second, at least in our sun’s neighborhood.
Much larger stars like blue giants, burn hotter and go through their nuclear material much faster than slow pokes like our sun, often ending their shorter lives in spectacular novas and supernovas, which blast the stars remaining components out into space, supplying material for new stars and their planets to build on. When you look at the Pleides in the night sky, you’re looking at a stellar nursery. In its final stages, our sun will bloat into a red giant, encompassing all the inner planets from earth to Venus and Mercury, before shrinking and flickering out to become a white dwarf.
Assuming we haven’t extinguished ourselves by then through nuclear holocaust, political madness, misguided religious fervor, extreme climate change, poisoning of the earth for creatures such as we are, or managed to leave for greener planets, that will be the end of mankind. It will no longer matter what your address was, what you and your kids have accomplished, or which God you had to thank for judgement day. Revelations Big Time.
When a star begins to burn iron, it uses up more energy than it creates, which lessens its resistance to gravitational collapse, which causes such high temperatures in the star that a supernova may result. We are literally star children, as everything in our world, including our bodies was originally created in the nuclear reactions within stars. When you die, that amalgam of atoms and molecules which we call you will simply pass into other forms and functions, just as you were made up of components which had a much longer history than you’ll have.
Here’s the intellectual dilemma, and the question which threatens so many of the beliefs we hold dear. Since the universe is composed of known elements, and since we know which processes led from single cell creatures to the complexity of man, higher mammals and corvids (crows, ravens jays etc.) on earth, what are the odds that we are the only planet in the Milky Way, never mind the universe, which features life capable of what we call thinking, with its possibilities of discovery, innovation and creation?
Discovering other planets is a fairly recent development, but since 1995, astronomers have identified 3,800 other planets, mostly within our own galaxy, with the understanding that planets going around stars are at least as common as solo and binary stars. What percent of those planets are within the Goldilocks Zone of their stars, and feature water and carbon? Does anyone seriously doubt that, taking the universe as a whole, the answer will be in the thousands, if not millions?
Like many amateur space buffs, I always assumed there was life on other planets, but that the incredible distances between stars and galaxies made it almost impossible to imagine contacts from other civilizations in our galaxy. The old joke that advanced extraterrestrials are watching old reruns of “I love Lucy”, or more probably have recognized our fascination with violence in entertainment, which may encourage them to remain silent notwithstanding, there are recent developments which are shaking the foundation that we’re alone. TV waves probably disipate within a third of a light year, and that doesn’t simply mean that visible images break up, and are only recognizable as some sorts of intelligent signaling. Since the nearest star to the sun is 4.2 light years away, it’s safe to assume that E.T. is not watching our old reruns.
There are thousands of UFO sightings every year, the vast majority of which have natural explanations, such as weather balloons, meteors or seeing the planet Venus in opposition around sunset, etc. In the early seventies, I was with a group of friends on the deck of an A frame in Hardwick Vermont, and we all agreed that, stoned as we were, we saw several lights in the sky, moving around in ways that no modern aircraft could do.
The problem today is that many eyewitness accounts come not from groups of impaired friends, but from distinguished, well-educated people, many of them pilots, for example an astronaut, a former Governor of Arizona who happens to be a pilot, in other words, people whose opinions can not be written off. Several instances of military aircraft, many with multiple passengers who’ve agreed they saw some self-propelled object doing things modern aircraft can not do. Even NASA and the Pentagon have admitted that they have no explanation for many of these sightings.
But what about those great distances between solar systems, and the enormous expenditure of research, money and materials that might discourage more advanced civilizations from embarking on visiting earth to try to understand those primitive earthlings who believe that going to the moon was a big deal?
I am no physicist, but is it possible that Hollywood and all those Star Trek and Star Wars takeoffs are right, and that the speed of light is not the limiting speed in the universe? What if physics doesn’t end with relativity and quantum mechanics? You tell me.
What about the value of future shock? Think of the world’s established religions, never mind the hundreds which have come and gone. Any civilization which could visit earth would be by definition far advanced over our own, and therefore, if they were created by a God, probably considered priority in the creator’s mind, whatever that means. What if our Garden of Eden was just one of many of thousands of instances of life developing on a planet somewhere.
What’s at stake here? While most of us are all wrapped up in worshipping or hating Trump, following the Kardashians or our favorite sports team, there will be several earth shaking consequences. For starters, the belief which most people hold, that there is an all-knowing infinite creator who actually listens to their prayers, their hopes and fears. From a logical perspective, does it make sense to believe that a creator started the universe 14 billion years ago with the goal of creating people, but waited until 200,000 years ago to create our kind on a planet orbiting a secondhand star, who didn’t find out who God was until the Zoroastrianns and Jews started the first monotheistic religions a few thousand years ago. What if we are not the end goal and purpose of nature?
Interesting reading: UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record,
By: Avi Loeb
Photos courtesy of NASA