An astronomical discovery

The universe is not empty of meaning. It’s just that we’ve been looking in the wrong places.

In “Colliding galaxies and ‘Goldilocks’ planets: the revolution in astronomy” (The Guardian, 12 January 2019), Jo Dunkley writes:

“Astronomy is in the middle of a data revolution, a time of enormous discovery. Humans have been looking up at the stars for thousands of years, but modern telescopes and computers are rapidly accelerating our understanding. We know far more than we did even 20 years ago, and we are now much closer to answering questions about whether life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, how our planet came to be here, our cosmic origins and eventual fate.”

This statement is striking for two reasons. The first is that, despite being in the slow lane on life-threatening issues such as climate change, eradicating poverty, safeguarding the environment, and conserving biodiversity, and despite playing fast and loose with human rights and democratic freedoms, we are still ardently seeking knowledge about ourselves and our planet. We are still only beginning to understand what lies at the bottom of the oceans, under the Earth’s crust, and beneath the ice covering the fifth largest continent: Antarctica (such as the recent discovery of dead crustaceans and tardigrades, also known as “water bears” or “moss piglets”). And we are still disentangling DNA and exploring the microcosm of nanoparticles.

Using Nasa’s Kepler satellite, astronomers are examining thousands of planets orbiting parent stars, solar systems with multiple planets, and planets that orbit two stars. Overturning a long-held belief, they now think that there are more planets than stars. Some are larger than Jupiter, others smaller than the Moon. Late last year, British astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, denied the Nobel prize for her discovery of exotic cosmic objects that light up the heavens, won the $3m (£2.3m) special Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for her work on pulsars.

All this is exciting beyond belief. Yet these advances are notable for another reason: after centuries of speculation, astronomy has failed to detect any sign of other life forms. Some will say that this is because we are not technologically sophisticated enough, or that other life forms disdain us for our backwardness, our aggressive tendencies, and our propensity for choosing incompetent and morally corrupt leaders. Some will say that there are no other life forms, that we are alone and that the universe is consequently indifferent to our fate. It looks increasingly likely that we are on our own.

However, in Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, that most noble and astute of commentators Richard Holloway writes passionately of simply being alive:

“Even if the experiment of being was empty of meaning from the beginning, and even if the universe is destined to be sucked back into the nothingness it came from and be succeeded by a naked silence and a profound stillness; then we will have proved ourselves better than the void that spawned us, because of what we ourselves created: great music, torrents of it, poured out down the centuries; great words, rivers of them, all trying to express the mystery of our own existence; paintings that captured its loneliness and grandeur; and acts of loving kindness that defied the sneer of the abyss that swallowed them.”

Searching the universe to identify the grand circumstances of our evolution is a fundamental part of the human quest for knowledge. At the same time, we should not disparage the sheer miracle of human life, our immense achievements, or the acts of loving kindness that ultimately sustain us.

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Published by

Philip Lee

Writer, editor, and musician (in a former life) who likes exploring less obvious or forgotten paths and joining up the dots.

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