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The world is not enough

Copernicus, Galileo and so many others faced persecution for challenging the ‘status quo’. Some of the new discoveries may not be palatable. Sitaram Yechury writes.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 16:39 IST

Of the many issues that torment the human mind, like the refusal to accept the inevitability of death, is the question if life, like us on Earth, exists anywhere else in this colossal cosmos. Many draw comfort by presuming that we are, indeed, unique. However, by the sheer logic of probability, this may not be the case. Also, life may exist elsewhere, but not in the form that it does on Earth.

After all, Earth is but a small planet circling a small star on the edge of a small galaxy, among an estimated 125 billion other galaxies in the cosmos. Many of these are many, many times larger than our galaxy. Despite the famous observation by JBS Haldane — “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose” — human inquisitiveness urges such a search.

The year 2009 may not provide any definitive answers, but the search has assumed higher levels of endeavour. This year has been declared the International Year of Astronomy, a global awareness campaign to “help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the universe”. It marks the 400th anniversary of two important events in astronomy that irreversibly changed human perception and had a profound impact on philosophy. In 1609, Johannes Kepler, a scientist working in Prague, published Astronomia Nova where he detailed the laws governing the movement of planets around the sun. In the same year, Galileo Galilei used the telescope to monitor the movements of heavenly bodies. In Starry Messenger, he says: “All the disputes which have tormented philosophers.... are exploded at once by the.... evidence of our eyes.” How this tormented the Vatican and the Church, which finally restored Copernicus into the fold of Christianity four centuries after his excommunication is a different story.

The Kepler Telescope was launched on March 6 this year, designed for a lifespan of three-and-a-half years. Orbiting the sun and pointing in the direction of the solar system’s orbit of the centre of our galaxy, this powerful space telescope began beaming its first images from April 8. It is designed to simultaneously monitor 100,000 stars in search for signals of orbiting planets. If this experiment locates such planets, then further investigations to pick up chemical and other signals, like the presence of life- sustaining gases, will follow.

All this is indeed exciting. But there are formidable challenges. Can the unique combination of various elements and chemicals that create conditions for life on Earth be replicated elsewhere? Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, maintains that six numbers in particular govern our existence and if any of these values were changed even very slightly, things would not be as they are. Bill Bryson in his fascinating travelogue on the history of science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, elaborates that, for us to exist as we do, hydrogen needs to be converted into helium in a precise but comparatively stately manner — specifically, in a way that converts seven one-thousandths of its mass to energy. Lower that value even slightly — say, from 0.007 per cent to 0.006 per cent — and no transformation would take place: the universe would consist of hydrogen alone. Raise the value slightly and the bonding would be so prolific that the hydrogen would have been exhausted long ago. So, with the slightest tweaking of the numbers we would not be here. Are we, therefore, unique?

Further, a planet of our size is likely to be located orbiting a star that is 1,000 light years away. To confirm if life exists, it would take us 1,000 years, travelling at the speed of light, to reach there. This would mean that space travellers who would set out on this journey would have to give birth to 15 generations of progeny, in conditions of zero gravity, while transferring to them the requisite technical skills so that they may report their findings. Perhaps, by the time they reach, the sun that sustains a particular planet may have even died. Of course, there could be other ways of identifying life besides interstellar travel. Huge resources to fund experiments and explorations would be needed, raising questions on transferring resources from meeting the elementary needs of survival, which must, indeed, be accorded the highest priority.

Copernicus, Galileo and so many others faced persecution for challenging the ‘status quo’. Some of the new discoveries may not be palatable. Bertolt Brecht, in his play Galileo, says: “They [rulers] would love it if the sun and the moon stood still.” The age-old philosophical battle between the supremacy of mind over matter may be further challenged by these discoveries that will lead to establishing that mind is the highest form of matter.

The views expressed by the author are personal