Monday, May 12, 2014

Exoplanets: Sign of doom for humanity?

Extinction sure is a headline-grabber.

Sometimes with a scientific study, the media can grab a nugget out of the press release that makes for good copy, but it doesn't truly get at the point of the research.  That's not exactly what happened with this article in Discover, but I see the point that the author was trying to make.

Another exoplanet was discovered last month.  It appears to be about the same size as Earth and its orbit occupies the theoretical "habitable zone" around its star.  It may have liquid water.  It may have life.

Fascinating news, right?  Then, just when you're feeling good about all that, the Fermi Paradox pulls your ET-wanting car over to the shoulder and pretty much does a Rodney King on it (90s reference).  The Fermi Paradox, posited by Enrico Fermi, asks the question, "If the building blocks of life are everywhere in the universe, then why haven't we encountered any?"

I'll keep the discussion away from UFOs for now.

Why?  Because the idea of the Great Filter, as shown in the linked article, is more interesting to me at the moment.  It answers Fermi's question by saying, "intelligent life has a habit of going extinct."

There might be an expiration date on civilizations.  They could destroy themselves with their own war machines, much as we threatened to do to ourselves with nuclear weapons during the Cold existential threat that is far from over, I might add.  They could ruin their own environment through carelessness, just as we're doing.  Perhaps even their technological developments could get away from them as thinkers such as Stephen Hawking have asserted on matters like artificial intelligence.  The concern is a bit overblown in my opinion but I get what they're saying.

Or it could come down to just bad luck.  The universe is full of all sorts of nastiness that could befall a civilization. An asteroid strike, a supervolcano, a pandemic, there are any number of variations.  Our own world has gone through at least few extinctions.  Why should we think ourselves immune?

It should be a sobering thought to humanity, yes.  I would cushion it, however, by going back to the nature of the Fermi Paradox.  Our definition of "life" can be rather narrow.

And arrogant, too.  All gaudy with human frippery.

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