On the discovery of new worlds


An artist’s conception of what one of the newly-discovered Trappist-1 planets might look like (a NASA image)

I bet I’m not the only one whose initial reaction to the big news this past week was the remarkably good timing of it, regarding the possibility of escape from this increasingly hate-filled world.

I refer, of course, with semi-humorous and thoroughly fantastic irony, to the discovery by astronomers of a solar system of seven Earth-sized planets revolving around a small, red sun. The planets are said to be in a “habitable” zone where life could exist.

“This is the first time that we’ve found so many small planets — each potentially habitable — around the same star, a star that’s close to us,” Julien de Wit, a planetary scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is studying the planets’ atmospheres for crucial clues to whether these new worlds could harbor life, told the Boston Herald.

Under normal  circumstances this would be the big news of the year, even one of the biggest in recorded history. It will be a continuing story no doubt, but not likely to be at the top of the news cycle for very long, what with all the Trumped-up, potentially Earth-shattering, geo-political controversy currently going on – day after day, week after week, and so on.

Where it will all end? For surely it must end, before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.

I daresay many millions of us around the world wonder and worry about that, to the point of despair. Or we turn away from it, unable to cope with the unspeakable, unthinkable thing we sense in our hearts? No wonder the discovery of other habitable planets inspires escapist fantasies.

After all, those newly-discovered worlds are a mere 39 light years away. That’s not so far, eh? By the time in the not-so-distant-future somebody builds a space ship to get there  – our remarkable human capacity for innovative, survival technology will doubtless find a way to put us to sleep, or otherwise on hold, for a 40-year space voyage.

Ah, but here’s the rub: A “light year” is the distance light travels in a year (six trillium miles, or 9.6 trillium kilometres). So that newly-discovered solar system and its “Earth-like planets” are a mere 240 trillium miles, or 384 trillium kms distance. It could take a hundred thousand actual years to reach the newly-named Trappist-1 system

Now, any astronomer knows that’s not very far at all in the vastness of the entire, still-expanding universe; and someday, perhaps in a century or two, or more, a spaceship-load of us may indeed head off in that direction at Star Trek “warp speed,” or something like it. But that’s if we’re still here, and if the Earth itself remains habitable in the meantime, and human life – or what remains of it – hasn’t descended into a new and terrible “dark age” of ignorance.

But for the foreseeable future here we are, and we, and our descendants will have to make the best of it.

We’d better start doing that as soon as possible. There’s really no time to waste, especially when it comes to dealing with the biggest issues we face.

The biggest, in my humble opinion – and as if there weren’t enough already – is hate, the group, tribal, nationalistic hatred that now seems to be spinning out of control, that has entered a dangerous new, or renewed, phase of politicized and institutionalized hatred.

In the news today is the murder of two immigrants from India, murdered in a bar by a man allegedly shouting “get out of my country.” A third man, apparently a bystander, was seriously wounded when he intervened. The FBI is investigating it as a hate crime, various news media outlets say, including Canada’s CBC, just now.

The reporter says White House secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the possibility of a connection between the incident and President Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric. Spicer dismissed any such suggestion as “Absurd.”

It is not. The deliberate promotion of a climate of hate for political gain inevitably runs the risk of leading to just such a crime. It essentially gives it permission.

Who knows where the hate comes from in the damaged backgrounds of people capable of such anger?

But hate also appears to be rooted in something basic and primeval in human nature, a fear of “the other,” the stranger in our midst. An expert in such things would surely be able to explain that it hearkens back to a critical, perhaps extremely arid period in human evolution when survival depended to some significant extent on being wary of desperate intruders.

If that’s the case it’s high time the human race grew up.

I’m currently in the midst of reading a book, The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. Long regarded as a heroic British sea-explorer, Cook made three epic voyages in the 1770s, effectively rewriting global sea charts and discovering many new lands, at least from a European perspective.


Capt. James Cook

In that so-called “age of discovery” the world did indeed seem like a very big place, much of it still unknown and inhabitedby people of vastly different races and cultures who often knew little, if anything about each other. Cook managed to navigate those little-known oceanic and cultural waters well enough to survive two global voyages. He died on the third one, in February, 1779, after an argument broke out on a beach between himself and the inhabitants of Hawaii.

That was just 238 years ago, not much time at all in human historty or prehistory, for that matter. But to say much has changed since then is surely a colossal understatement.


Capt. Cook’s three voyages of “discovery”

We may still feel like we live far apart in our various villages, towns and cities in different cultures and countries. And sure enough, many of us, myself included, have not traveled the world to anything like the extent Capt. Cook did; but technology in all its forms has made this a small world indeed.

Hear me, my children: It is pure folly to isolate ourselves out of fear and hatred behind tribal, nationalistic walls. And beware of those who seize the opportunity to practice the worst kind of dangerous, political demagoeury by exploiting fear and promoting  hatred to gain dictatorial power.

Hate, and other big issues affecting the continued survival of the human race, must be met and dealt with head-on by something much better and wiser than that. Each of us needs to look into our own hearts to work it out, and do what we can in the world to help promote that better way.

Otherwise, inevitably, there will soon be no time for anything, let alone a space-exploration trip to neighbouring, Earth-like planets in another solar system.

The idea of escaping to another world may be tempting. But when all is said and done – call it a leap of faith – I believe this beautiful, blue-green jewel of a planet, our home, is a Cosmic, one-of-a-kind miracle. It deserves the best we can be for its sake, as well as our own.


Our home

A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in February, 2017


5 thoughts on “On the discovery of new worlds

  1. Now is a good time to remember FDR’s words: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

    Let’s stop running around like Chicken Little and get on with living together in tolerance and harmony. 😉 xoM


    • One of the hardest things to accept is one’s intellectual limitations; but it is the beginning of wisdom. I’ve long believed that, and still struggle with it myself. I’m not sure why, but that came to mind re your comment about ignorance, especially of the blindly self-righteous variety. I think in Trump’s case he’s deathly afraid to admit the truth about himself in that regard. He really seems to have no idea who he really is or could be. As in all such pathetic cases someone else will pay the price – a wife, and in his case , a nation and even the world. And all because he stuck at about the emotional/intellectual age of 12.


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