Over the past 20 years over, almost 800 planets (i.e., exoplanets) have been detected outside of our solar system. Recently, light from a world orbiting the star 55 Cancri, 41 light-years from Earth, was captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope, giving astronomers new insights into the exotic environment of this distant world. The planet – 55 Cancri e – appears to be covered by a layer of water in a supercritical fluid state, in which it exhibits the properties of both a gas and a liquid. While of broad interest to the scientific community, there was only light coverage in the mainstream press, a pattern that fits reporting on the search for exoplanets.
Why would such momentous discoveries be treated like this by the mass media and the public? The most likely explanation is that the search for other worlds has little practical application. Although science and technology are interwoven, they are not viewed equally by the public. While science, the systemic investigation and analysis of natural phenomena, is arguably the more important of the two, it is technology, the concrete manifestation of our observations and understanding of the natural world, that commands most of our attention. This is understandable: on a day-to-day basis, the average person experiences the benefits and costs of technology, while science is more of an abstraction.
It is not for practical reasons, however, that we search for other worlds. Rather, it is to gain insight into how the universe works and to better understand our place in it. As it relates to the latter, the discovery of other worlds orbiting alien suns continues the process of eroding the anthropocentric view of the universe.
For most of our species’ existence, it was believed that humanity was at the center of all things, physical and spiritual. The advances of the last 600 years – the Age of Science – have slowly chipped away at that notion. When we can look up and know that there are probably billions, perhaps trillions of other worlds in our galaxy alone, we realize that we are part of a vast system, not something that stands apart from it.
Instead of looking for a universal meaning for life, instead of clinging to the notion that there is only one preordained way to live, every advance in knowledge contributes to freeing us from the constraints that worldview imposes. In a universe of infinite worlds, of endless wonder, we are truly free: to create our own destinies, while realizing that we can only rely on ourselves and our collective knowledge to guide our way. The light of a distant world isn’t just a scientific curiosity, a bit of arcane knowledge for an intellectual elite; it is a beacon in the dark, urging us forward to a better future and a wiser, more mature humanity.
“Light from alien ‘super-earth’ seen for first time.” Christian Science Monitor. May 9, 2012.
“NASA’s Spitzer Sees the Light of Alien ‘Super Earth’.” Jet Propulsion Laboratory. May 8, 2012.
The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia.