Maybe 55 Cancri is the Place
All my life I have believed that there must be other intelligent life in the Universe. When you gaze upon the endless starry night it seems statistically impossible that there isnâ€™t some form of intelligent life out there. It may not be human-like but life there must be. In a prior column, I wrote about the fact that scientists looking for life elsewhere have redefined the definition of life as it was concluded that perhaps our earth bound definition needs to be greatly expanded.
Last week there was an announcement that astronomers had discovered that there were five planets circling a star called 55 Cancri where it had been thought there were only four. This makes this planetary system the most extensive found outside our own. Further, this fifth planet has some earthly characteristics relative to its distance from 55 Cancri, so that it just might have water. This discovery came about as scientists are in transition from studying planets to studying planetary systems. As Geoff Marcy, a professor at University of California, Berkeley said: â€œWe now know our Sun and its family of planets is not unusualâ€.
Another way of saying this is that scientists, in their effort to locate life elsewhere have moved from looking for planets that are earth-like to solar systems that are similar to ours. This is an obvious and logical progression. Technology is not yet at the stage where we can find small planets. Evidently the smallest size detectable is on the scale of Jupiter. Therefore, the finding of a solar system such as Cancri might mean that there is a yet to be detected planet that is even more earth-like than the one just discovered. The strategy going forward is to look for solar systems and then when we increase our technological capability zero in on exploring each solar system for planets that might be like earth.
This endeavor is to be totally embraced. It continues the ever ongoing effort to look for intelligent life. The problem I have with it is that it continues based upon the assumption that life has to be as we know it on Earth, that if a planet isnâ€™t closely similar to earth it probably cannot sustain life. We have been necessarily earth bound in our definition of life, it is the only life we know. Since it is what we know it must be what we look for. It may in fact be the universal definition of life. It may not be. There may be different kinds of life out there.
The interesting issue will be whether we recognize a completely different life if and when we encounter it. We might think of it as a physical phenomenon, or a shapeless field of energy. We have, to a great degree anthropomorphized heaven and made hell somewhat less so as it is a bad place, so there are monsters and vile creatures there. To date, that is what we have done with alien life. It is either human-like or it is some type of monster bent on destruction.
There is also the issue of time, or perhaps the fact that there is no time outside our own constructs. We might discover a planet that is like earth was a billion years ago or like earth will be in a billion years. After all, unless this life form comes to us, it will take us perhaps hundreds of light years to find it. By the time we return there may be no longer life on earth. Infinite variables at play in infinite space makes it impossibly hard to comprehend. It does open up the mind to how much is unknown. It always makes us realize how small and insignificant we are in all our earth problems when put into the context of space and all its possibilities. However we must solve these problems particularly the ones that are global in scope if we want to have the possibility of ever interacting with life from other solar systems. There may already be life traveling to us from 55 Cancri but it wonâ€™t arrive until my yet to be born grandsonâ€™s 50th birthday. So part of interacting with alien life is to make sure humanity is around to do so.