It’s reasonable to expect there to be someone out there if you consider the astronomical (pun intended) numbers involved when we talk about space and the heavenly bodies hurtling through it.
NASA scientists estimate that there may be tens of billions of solar systems in The Milky Way, perhaps even as many as 100 billion.
The Milky Way in turn is one of an estimated two trillion galaxies in the observable universe each one with tens of billions of solar systems and trillions of planets in them.
Just on the numbers alone, the probability of intelligent life should be very high, yet, so far our search for evidence of intelligent life out there has only yielded a deafening silence.
This inexplicable situation is expressed in the Fermi paradox which originated from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Enrico Fermi who, in the face of no signs of extra-terrestrial life asked: “Where are they?”
Business Insider reports one hypothesis is that before intelligent life manages to spread beyond its original planet to other nearby planets, it runs into a sort of “Great Filter.”
This idea suggests there are several “evolutionary transitions or steps” that a planet like ours would have to achieve before it can communicate with civilizations in other star systems. An obstacle or barrier may make it impossible for an intelligent species like ours to get through all those steps. That would explain why we haven’t heard from or seen any other life.
In Earth’s case, climate change may be that filter preventing us from exploring nearby planets in our galaxy.
Business Insider quotes David Wallace-Wells who wrote in a recent feature for New York magazine:
“In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another.
“Peter Ward, a charismatic paleontologist among those responsible for discovering that the planet’s mass extinctions were caused by greenhouse gas, calls this the ‘Great Filter’: ‘Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly,’ he told me. ‘If you look at planet Earth, the filtering we’ve had in the past has been in these mass extinctions.’
“The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.”
Scientists have already warned that Earth’s sixth mass extinction is on the horizon. Rising temperatures are already causing havoc and displacing communities. Extreme weather incidents are more frequent, droughts are intensifying, rising sea levels are threatening coastal areas and rising ocean temperatures are killing fish and coral reefs.
If we are unable to halt these conditions, we won’t survive to be able to look for our fellow cosmic brothers.
Want to fly to the moon? Well, now you won’t have to bother with all those years of rigorous astronaut training – all you need is a huge wad of cash. Elon Musk, technopreneur, has built a small spaceship called Dragon and if you slap down enough money – maybe a hundred million dollars or so – he’ll fly you to the Moon.
The first flight is set for 2018, a target so ambitious it verges on the incredible.
Musk’s moonshot plan has been greeted enthusiastically by most space fans but some are a little doubtful. Other commentators remain totally uninspired, ridiculing the idea as a gigantic waste of money.
This ambivalence isn’t surprising really, since history shows that soon after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, people switched their televisions to more down-to-earth events while wondering why NASA kept going back to the Moon again and again with Apollo 12, then Apollo 13, then Apollo 14 – all the way up to Apollo 17.
Natural process, or a social one?
Musk would tell you he’s not using taxpayer funds for his moonshot and that his SpaceX venture is a private commercial business. But SpaceX’s only significant customer so far has been NASA – a taxpayer-funded agency that pays it to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
And even before SpaceX had delivered anything, NASA made a massive investment in the firm to get it up and running. Any claim that SpaceX is purely a commercial business, then, is also incredible.
Like many space fans, Musk will tell you that this moonshot is the first step in the “natural process” of human space expansion. The next steps involve the colonisation of the Moon and then Mars.
But space travel is not a natural process; it’s a social process involving domestic politics, international competition, the marketing of patriotic heroism, and the divvying up of state funds.
Harkening back to the dark past
The “colonisation” theme of space expansion is also problematic since it signifies a potential re-emergence of the social injustices and environmental disasters wrought by past colonial ventures. Being a fan of “space colonisation”, then, can be likened to rejoicing in the displacement of native peoples and celebrating the destruction of wilderness.
Unfortunately, too often space expansion has utilised historic conquests to map out the future; witness Star Trek’s Space: the Final Frontier theme, or Musk’s own idea to colonise Mars.
Calling for a new “age of exploration” in space recalls past voyages of discovery ignores how Chritopher Columbus decimated native tribes with smallpox and how Spanish conquistadors ransacked Meso-America’s temples to loot gold.
Space fans might argue that there are no people in space to be colonised, that the Moon and Mars are uninhabited lands. But the plan to settle Mars, for example, and then to set about extracting valuable resources without working out if some alien species is living there – even if those life forms are microbial – seems reckless.
It also smacks of anthropocentrism since humans will doubtless carry to Mars the attitude that microbes are lower lifeforms and that it’s OK to stomp all over their planet spreading pollution and mucking up their environment.
Even if they are lifeless, we should consider that the Moon and Mars belong to all of us; they are the common heritage of humankind. And those who first to get to the Moon or to Mars shouldn’t be permitted to plunder these worlds just for the sake of their own adventure or profit.
An alliance of interests
One prominent fan of American space expansion is US President Donald Trump. “Space is terrific,” he said in Florida last year. Trump also called for more space exploration in his recent speech to Congress.
Many scientists are wary of Trump’s attitude to science but, in a surprising willingness to embrace both science and the wider universe beyond America, the president wants NASA to “explore the mysteries of deep space”.
In the process, Trump is also working out how to rid NASA of the those pesky climate scientists who, he claims, are peddling “politicised” science.
Trump met Elon Musk within days of assuming the presidency and, with their shared love of capitalism and penchant for self-promotion, they seem to be entering a working relationship, described by some as cronyism.
Trump seems willing to support Musk if the entrepreneur can help Make America Great Again by shooting Americans off to the Moon before China gets there. Musk may seem confident about his 2018 plans because he believes he has presidential blessing.
A note of caution
But perhaps it’s too soon to worry about Moon grabs or Martian colonialism.
First, both Trump and Musk are notorious “big talkers” and they may be playing with the macho spectacle of space travel. If their space plans gurgle into an economic sinkhole, they’ll probably quietly abandon them.
And the 2018 moonshot is not going to actually land on the Moon; it’s merely going to shoot around it and then head back to Earth. Nobody will get the chance to plant a flag.
Space tourism, moon bases and Martian colonies have all been predicted for decades and nothing has ever come of them. Wernher von Braun, the Apollo rocket hero (and ex-Nazi) showcased such prospective space endeavours on a television show with Walt Disney in the 1950s (using whizzing Disney graphics). But 70 years later, a space colony is nowhere to be found.
An outright Moon grab would also be illegal, since the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty forbids such acts. The US has re-interpreted this treaty to suggest that it permits resource extraction from the Moon and the planets in the Solar System, but not all nations accept this view.
Not what we all want
If Musk does get his rich clients to circle the Moon next year, and then manages to set up bases and colonies on the lunar surface and then Mars, it won’t be because he’s made a business success out of space expansion. And it won’t be due to the scientific merit of moon bases.
Rather, it will be because he has managed to dupe the American taxpayer with expensive technological fantasies and because he’s broken the ideal of the common heritage of mankind enshrined in international law. Humanity and the Earth will be diminished in the process.
It’s possible the cosmos will be diminished and despoiled too with mining firms digging up the moonscape, rocket fuel spilled all over the Martian surface, and neon lights flashing in shiny space casinos.
Of course, some space fans believe the only way they’ll realise their space fantasies is to ride behind the glory of “visionaries” such as Musk – and the unknown mega-rich space passengers set to shoot off around the Moon next year.
But the Earth abounds with those willing to poke fun at such showy space adventures, which is good – Musk needs to know that not everybody is on board.
By Alan Marshall, Lecturer in Environmental Social Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Mahidol University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
A team of scientists from INAF Milan and the University of Zielona Gora have observed a remarkable first ever vacuum birefringence. The Vacuum birefringence is a strange quantum phenomenon that had never been observed through a Very Large Telescope (VLT), only observed on an atomic scale.
It’s a phenomenon described when a neutron star is surrounded by an intense magnetic field that rises to a region in an empty space where matter randomly appears and vanishes.
A research team lead by Roberto Mignani were able to observe neutron star RX J1856.5 – 375 using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT). Neutron stars are not strongly visible but are 10 times bigger than our sun and have significantly strong magnetic fields percolating their surface and surroundings. The neutron star RX J1856.5 – 375 is about 400 light years from Earth.
According to Einstein and Newton, vacuums are empty spaces where light can pass through unchanged. However, research shows that space is full of virtual particles popping in and out of existence and strong magnetic fields such as the surrounding neutron stars, are capable of changing such vacuums.
Using the VLT, researchers were able to push the known limits of a telescope and explore deeper on neutron stars. Using the FOR2 instrument on the VLT, neutron stars were able to be seen with just visible light. Analyzing this data, researchers found the linear polarization occurring at a significant degree of approximately 16%, which is most likely due to the strange vacuum birefringence in the area around RX J1856.5 – 375.
Robert Mignani describes “The high linear polarization that we measured with the VLT can’t be easily explained by our models unless the vacuum birefringence effects predicted by QED are included”. Mignani is confident that future telescopes will provide detailed answers about similar strange quantum effects surrounding neutron stars.
Originally published on The Power of Ideas.
“Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity?” Galileo asked in the seventeenth century during the time he dethroned human beings from the center of the universe. “Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”
Over 400 years later, we continue to make revolutionary discoveries that invite us to revise our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Our discoveries bring up the same troubling questions:
How can we live with any sense of importance and meaning in our lives when we continue to find out how insignificant human life on a pale blue dot seems to be? What is the point of even building on the human stock of knowledge about the universe we live in?
These are the questions addressed by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt in her 1963 essay titled “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” from her book Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought.
The title of the essay was inspired by a question posed by the editors of the magazine Great Ideas Today or a feature edition focusing on “what the exploration of space is doing to man’s view of himself and to man’s condition.”
In the essay Arendt writes:
To understand physical reality seems to demand not only the renunciation of an anthropocentric or geocentric world view, but also a radical elimination of all anthropomorphic elements and principles, as they arise either from the world given to the five human senses or from the categories inherent in the human mind. The question assumes that man is the highest being we know of, an assumption which we have inherited from the Romans, whose humanitas was so alien to the Greeks’ frame of mind that they had not even a word for it. (The reason for the absence of the word humanitas from Greek language and thought was that the Greeks, in contrast to the Romans, never thought that man is the highest being there is. Aristotle calls this belief atopos, “absurd.”) This view of man is even more alien to the scientist, to whom man is no more than a special case of organic life and to whom man’s habitat — the earth, together with earthbound laws — is no more than a special borderline case of absolute, universal laws, that is, laws that rule the immensity of the universe. Surely the scientist cannot permit himself to ask: What consequences will the result of my investigations have for the stature (or, for that matter, for the future) of man? It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such anthropocentric, that is, truly humanistic, concerns.
For the scientist, man is no more than an observer of the universe in its manifold manifestations. The progress of modern science has demonstrated very forcefully to what an extent this observed universe, the infinitely small no less than the infinitely large, escapes not only the coarseness of human sense perception but even the enormously ingenious instruments that have been built for its refinement.
Arendt argues that the task of the scientist is to stand outside the idea that the self is all that can be understood. It’s the notion that there is even an objective world out there for us to explore and understand that drives the human search for knowledge.
She draws attention to the paradox that we can never find an objective truth and yet should continue to search for it:
All answers … whether they come from laymen or philosophers or scientists, are non-scientific (although not anti-scientific); they can never be demonstrably true or false. Their truth resembles rather the validity of agreements than the compelling validity of scientific statements. Even when the answers are given by philosophers whose way of life is solitude, they are arrived at by an exchange of opinions among many men, most of whom may no longer be among the living. Such truth can never command general agreement, but it frequently outlasts the compellingly and demonstrably true statements of the sciences which, especially in recent times, have the uncomfortable inclination never to stay put, although at any given moment they are, and must be, valid for all. In other words, notions such as life, or man, or science, or knowledge are pre-scientific by definition, and the question is whether or not the actual development of science which has led to the conquest of terrestrial space and to the invasion of the space of the universe has changed these notions to such an extent that they no longer make sense.
Therefore if science should be concerned with questions beyond the current human scale of thinking and free from human ego, then seeing our pursuit to understand space as a “conquest” is antithetical to the real purpose of science.
It is, I think, safe to say that nothing was more alien to the minds of the scientists, who brought about the most radical and most rapid revolutionary process the world has ever seen, than any will to power. Nothing was more remote than any wish to “conquer space” and to go to the moon… It was indeed their search for “true reality” that led them to lose confidence in appearances, in the phenomena as they reveal themselves of their own accord to human sense and reason. They were inspired by an extraordinary love of harmony and lawfulness which taught them that they would have to step outside any merely given sequence or series of occurrences if they wanted to discover the overall beauty and order of the whole, that is, the universe.
It is, in fact, quite obvious that the scientists’ strongest intellectual motivation was Einstein’s “striving after generalization,” and that if they appealed to power at all, it was the interconnected formidable power of abstraction and imagination.
She turns to the particular case of space exploration and its immense value in enlarging not only our knowledge but our humility:
The magnitude of the space enterprise seems to me beyond dispute, and all objections raised against it on the purely utilitarian level — that it is too expensive, that the money were better spent on education and the improvement of the citizens, on the fight against poverty and disease, or whatever other worthy purposes may come to mind — sound to me slightly absurd, out of tune with the things that are at stake and whose consequences today appear still quite unpredictable. There is, moreover, another reason why I think these arguments are beside the point. They are singularly inapplicable because the enterprise itself could come about only through an amazing development of man’s scientific capabilities. The very integrity of science demands that not only utilitarian considerations but the reflection upon the stature of man as well be left in abeyance. Has not each of the advances of science, since the time of Copernicus, almost automatically resulted in a decrease in his stature? And is the often repeated argument that it was man who achieved his own debasement in his search for truth, thus proving anew his superiority and even increasing his stature, more than a sophism? Perhaps it will turn out that way. At any event, man, insofar as he is a scientist, does not care about his own stature in the universe or about his position on the evolutionary ladder of animal life; this “carelessness” is his pride and his glory.
Why is there a bridge between these two spiral galaxies? Made of gas and stars, the bridge provides strong evidence that these two immense star systems have passed close to each other and experienced violent tides induced by mutual gravity.
Known together as Arp 240 but individually as NGC 5257 and NGC 5258, computer modelling and the ages of star clusters indicate that the two galaxies completed a first passage near each other only about 250 million years ago. Gravitational tides not only pulled away matter, they compress gas and so caused star formation in both galaxies and the unusual bridge.
Galactic mergers are thought to be common, with Arp 240 representing a snapshot of a brief stage in this inevitable process. The Arp 240 pair are about 300 million light-years distant and can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of Virgo. Repeated close passages should ultimately result in a merger and with the emergence of a single combined galaxy.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope; Processing & Copyright: Chris Kotsiopoulos
Source: APOD NASA