It’s easy to forget what an amazing time we live in. Today I took a bike ride while listening to a book being read through my smart phone. Just think for a moment how many lovely technological advances had to occur for the above sentence to be true. Most obviously the bicycle, and the good roads to go along with it, had to be invented. Even before that, though, the health, safety, and prosperity of a society that allows a luxury like a bike ride had to come to be. Next the smart phone, with all the technology that allows it to store an entire book (many books, actually) and the voice reading it in a box that fits in my pocket – not to mention the speakers, volume control, rechargeable battery and so on that allow the book to be played back over several hours as I pedal through the neighborhood.

And then, of course, there’s the Internet, with innovative services like Audible.com that allow me, for a minimal cost, to download a fantastic selection of books. My latest downloads include two books by Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World and the original Cosmos.

Today I was listening to Cosmos, read by Geordi La Forge himself, LeVar Burton. It’s wild to hear Geordi reading Dr. Sagan’s words about futuristic spacecraft and travels to the stars. But what I want to write about today is the enthusiasm, the utter joy, with which Carl wrote about the search for planets around those other stars.

When Cosmos was published in 1980 the search for extra-solar planets was in its infancy. Sagan wrote at some length about the prospects for the search, which he judged to be very good. He had lots of reasons to believe that there would be many, many planets out there. But of course he did not know. And the excitement he felt about this soon-to-be-gained knowledge is palpable in his words.

Since the writing of Cosmos, scientists have discovered literally thousands of extra-solar planets, and based on the percentages of stars with planets so far identified, estimates for the entire galaxy run into the hundreds of billions. Sagan would be overjoyed by this number.

The latest additions, found in the data of the now-disabled Kepler Space Telescope, include ten Earth-sized planets found in the habitable zones of their planets. If the raw materials are there, any or all of these planets could have liquid water in the form of rivers, lakes, and oceans. We don’t know yet if they do, but, like Carl in 1980, we today stand on the edge of the future. In not many more years, we will not only know about Earth-like worlds around other stars, we will have peered at them and learned their secrets. What will we find there?

Kepler186f-ArtistConcept-20140417

Above is Kepler-186f (artists concept) We of course have no idea if this is really what the planet looks like, but its distance and size make this conception a possible reality. Someday we will know.

 

Carl Sagan was eternally hopeful that not only planets, but life would be a commonplace in the cosmos. I agree with him that while life itself may be quite common (after all, life on our planet began almost as soon as it could have), complex life equivalent to animals and plants might be relatively rare (as these took billions of years to appear on Earth). Unlike Sagan, however, I actually hope that this is the case. That’s because I’m an optimist.

When I look at the advancements humans have made – not the least of which, as I mentioned above, is a relatively safe, stable, law-abiding society that is positively exploding with technological advancement – I believe that human potential is unlimited. If we can find ways to not destroy one another and our planet (and of course we can), then there is nothing we can’t achieve. We can venture from “the shores of the cosmic ocean” as Carl said, and carry the human adventure to the stars.

And if we can do it, then of course any other intelligent life form could, too. The fact that (apparently) they haven’t, the fact that, as far as we can tell, our neighborhood is without any sign of a galactic civilization, should give us pause. The universe is very old, much older than ourselves, or even our planet. If no one is yet master of the galaxy, then my optimistic hope is that intelligent life is almost impossible to evolve. We may be the only one.

Otherwise, if complex life, and then intelligent life, are commonplace, it means virtually every intelligent species runs into some sort of wall, some obstacle that keeps them from moving out into the galaxy and leaving their tell-tale signs. If, instead, the problems of civilization are soluble, then we may well be alone. I hope so, anyhow.

 

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