September 30, 2010

Gliese 581g: An Exoplanetary Riff.

What is now proved was once only imagin’d.—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

There may be completely new colors. photo - jeff frazier

They have found it at last; it’s finally happened: a team of astronomers has identified a planet in an orbit to its star capable of supporting Earth-like life, and even allowing liquid water. It’s called Gliese 581g, and it’s three times as big as Earth, and it orbits a red dwarf star that is twenty light years away. And even if Gliese proves to be a tease, more Earth-like exoplanets will follow swiftly enough, the Kepler satellite detecting them by the score, as fast and furious as Pope John Paul II making new saints.

But what kind of news is an exoplanet, when we have so many issues here on Earth, and our space travel is not yet adequate to get us that far? Is an M-class planet really an issue?

It is. It will be for theologians, and it will be for all of us eventually, each our own theologian, very much so.

We have so much to deal with on this planet, on Earth. But the ideas that start generating now will unspool and influence events for a long time, including whether or not we treat Earth as disposable… or as more disposable than we already do. Earth will become dearer to us and less dear. We will hear differently our ancient poetry and pop songs about our Sun and our Moon, when we consider that there is another Sun to someone else, and perhaps another Moon, perhaps no Moon, perhaps many.

Set your meditation now. Start rooting out your prejudices now, because you will find them deep within where they lie buried and where you thought they were irrelevant, or forgone conclusions: your secret settings about how humans are the pinnacle; all of the assumptions that you have ever had about humans evolving together, about there being only one stream of humans, evolving all one way: because if any of us move to another planet, however long in the future that is, we will, over aeons, necessarily alter to adapt. Any secret ancient samskaric ideas you had about the Divine being a god belonging only to the tribe of Earth, looking like a person, and any sacred geometry that follows from that assumption. Because that is going to change.

What is the spectrum of light on a planet with a red star? Are night and day even estimated when your planet doesn’t spin, as Galiese 581g does not? And there are seriouser questions than that: what are emotions like on a planet that has no moon? Science fiction is an exhilarating and enthralling genre because the best science fiction writers ask such questions through stories, in ways that allow us to think about them, and also in narrative forms that keep us safe. Fact is not as safe as story.

The discovery of a new world is lyrical and strange. It could be terrifying to some people. It will be enlarging if we meet it. It will be an end, and a beginning.

There is a place at the edge of the known universe so dense that light cannot escape it. It is called the dark epoch, a horizon we cannot see past and do not yet know how to look. Before yesterday, the considerations of another planet where life is, where life could be, where we could someday be, were only fantasy, a dark epoch through which fact could not press. Now it is blown open, and we see farther through.

The edges of our assumptions are dark epochs. What happens when we breach them?

This discovery enlarges us. It makes us children again, in a way. It refreshes everything. Sit with it to-day. See what comes up, and what you want to do with it.

Gentlemen (and ladies of Earth), start your meditations!



Photo of the Earthsky by Jeff Frazier, www.jefffrazier.com

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