ZONE OF THE TENTH DEGREE (Starscape)
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Shop Books. Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Overview In , an alien ship crash lands in the Atlantic ocean, setting up a secret colony that remains undetected for centuries, allowing them to manipulate some of the most important events in human history -- from the sinking of the Titanic to the Bermuda triangle to global warming. In this case it reveals that our conclusions about life in the universe are acutely dependent on what we assume—what our prior theory is for the probability of life arising on planets, and to a lesser degree on the specific outcome on Earth.
A simple, optimistic model assuming that the frequency of abiogenesis is a constant, or perhaps decreases with planetary age, predicts an abundance of cosmic life when calibrated to abiogenesis here on Earth. But the model admits abiogenesis rates as low as once per 10 billion or even billion years, implying we could also be the first life in the cosmos. Change the model slightly, and all bets are off. There is simply too little data to swing our confidence in either direction.
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Furthermore, Spiegel and Turner show that this analysis hinges on the simple fact that, because we are here to ask the question, we must be on a planet that supports the eventual emergence of intelligent life. Unfortunately, as a result, our own existence tells us very little indeed about the probability of life off of Earth: it is, in some sense, an echo of the question itself. One would need to invoke some extraordinarily contrived circumstances to argue that the fact and nature of life on Earth is at all special.
What their investigation does vividly demonstrate is how enormously our understanding changes if we find just one other example of life in the universe. The probable rate of abiogenesis on a given planet would rise by a factor of 10 or more, to more than once every billion years. The universe is only Suddenly, our galaxy is full of life. Are we a standard example of carbonaceous life in a universe teeming with it? But there is something else I can tell you: science has shown us how life, any life, is in some ways far from mediocre. There is something very old, deep, and, yes, significant that might challenge the notion of our mediocrity.
A little more than 3. It might have been a handful of your carbon, oxygen, or nitrogen atoms, or some of the many hydrogen nuclei that now exist in your molecules. Primordial things are these, the remains of a hot Big Bang that took place 10 billion years earlier. Pieces of the one-in-a-billion tailings of a universe filled with annihilating matter and antimatter.
Your heavier elements passed through the digestive system of other stars. Cooked up by nuclear fusion in 10 million degree stellar cores. Hidden from sight under seething cloaks of plasma that could be millions of miles deep, these tiny clusters of matter were eventually dispersed to interstellar space in supernovae explosions that could momentarily outshine an entire galaxy. Going through this process just once is enough to make a smattering of heavier elements if the star is sufficiently massive, but it takes multiple stellar generations to enrich the universe enough to build worlds like ours, and us.
We are well down the family tree. Back at the birth of our planet the elements arrived first in great embryonic collisions and later in a tapering, diminishing rain of metal, rock, and ice . Some were carried into oceans and atmospheres, others sequestered into the cooling minerals of a floating planetary crust. Trillions upon trillions of microscopic organisms have processed many of these atoms across the eons—perhaps carrying them around for a while, or simply plucking them up for the briefest instant of chemistry before discarding them.
Some atoms were incorporated into other living matter: insects, plants, animals—a wild array of trajectories and histories. But, if a handful of fundamental physical constants and initial characteristics of the universe were slightly different, these pathways to galaxies, stars, heavy elements, the ubiquitous carbon molecules, and life itself, would be subverted. For example, the fine structure constant determines the size and behavior of atoms.
If it were slightly bigger, or slightly smaller, objects like planets might not form, nor would chemistry operate the way it does.
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If the strength of gravity were a little greater all stars would be blue giants, and planets like Earth could not exist. If it were a little smaller, all stars would be red dwarfs and there would be few, if any, heavy elements. There are other apparent coincidences. The manufacture of carbon in the bellies of stars relies on the existence of a specific, resonant, excited energy state of carbon nuclei, the unusual stability of beryllium, and the nature of oxygen nuclei. Without all these ducks lined up in a row, there would be no carbon. Without carbon there would be no life.
There is also the remarkable coincidence of us being able to discover all of this. See Middle Ground. Such observations have led to the Anthropic Principle —the idea that our very presence is somehow relevant to the cosmos. In truth it need not be our presence, since the presence of any life does the trick.
This principle has different variants. The weak Anthropic Principle was an early argument for the existence of multiple universes, which neatly avoids us having to explain why this universe ended up this way and connects with multiverse ideas emerging from fundamental physics. We simply exist in a universe suited for life. The strong Anthropic Principle goes further still, and argues that a viable universe is somehow compelled to produce life like us—it could not be any other way.
There is even a body of thought that supposes that life is the ultimate end or expression of our universe, the apotheosis of complexity in a vast space that can seem curiously suited for us to exist in it. In fact the late, great physicist John Wheeler mused on whether information is at the root of all physics.
Zone of the Tenth Degree by Brad Aiken
A consequence might be that consciousness itself, also built from information, is a key component of reality and that ours is a participatory universe in which consciousness affects reality. In most respects, the connectedness of life to basic features of our universe, and the Anthropic Principle, are the polar opposite of the Copernican worldview, which can be an uncomfortable thing. In other words, cut from the same fabric. Indeed, there is a nagging doubt that any life we find will be truly independent of us.
In our own solar system, asteroids have battered planets throughout the past 4. Pieces of Mars eventually end up on Earth. Pieces of Earth end up on Mars, and even on the distant moons of the giant planets. Nature may have already created an intermixed diaspora of life in our solar system. And it is also possible that life further afield is connected to our own, just through a more ancient bridge. So if we find life off Earth, the Bayesians will have their work cut out for them. As for our sense of our own significance, we could argue that it would strengthen, by confirming the entrenched nature of life in our universe.
On the other hand, we tend to take things personally, and a universe full of life might seem a lot smaller.
We are wrestling with two distinct questions: our uniqueness, and our significance. Uniqueness is easier to approach. For the astrobiologist, uniqueness can be defined as the probability that Earth, and life on Earth, is different from anywhere else. Primatologists, on the other hand, may define uniqueness as the collection of characteristics that distinguish us from our evolutionary cousins. For computer scientists, uniqueness can be defined in terms of the specific way in which we process and store information. In each case, while the answer may not be simple, progress is being made.
In my own field, astronomers and exoplanetologists are actually beginning to construct quantitative measurements of our uniqueness, by evaluating the degree to which alien systems and worlds may or may not be suitable for life. Within 10 years, the James Webb Space Telescope may tell us if nearby terrestrial-sized planets exhibit the chemical signatures of a biosphere.
Sniffing their atmospheres through the spectra of filtered starlight. And new, giant, telescopes that are starting to move from blueprints to reality will help do the same. Significance is trickier, and also, perhaps, a question that astronomy gives a unique perspective on. Certainly the frequency with which any kind of life occurs in our galaxy and in the universe as a whole is relevant. We are in the process of refining this question, asking what detailed properties correspond to what abundance of life and not just how little the universe need be different to prevent all life.
But will this be enough? Like it or not, significance is an emotionally charged question for us humans, and it can mean many different things.
European Southern Observatory
It can be about whether our home, our planet, our universe matters. Or in other words, whether nature gives a damn. Science has told us, though, that we belong to the universe in interesting and deep ways—that we should think carefully about the Copernican narrative of ever-diminishing importance. So has science sealed our fate?
The answer is a resounding no. Whatever science tells us and often because of what it tells us , we possess the capacity to take matters into our own hands, to make ourselves significant.
Our solar system and the star systems beyond represent a huge terrain for exploration and habitation. Although there are enormous hurdles to traveling to our sister worlds, much less through interstellar space itself, there is nothing obviously impossible about it. Even if we content ourselves with just sending robotic avatars out into the universe, by doing so we have the opportunity to alter the fundamental balance of the significance equation. We can become the significance that we are looking for. Dumusque, X. An Earth-mass planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B.
Nature , Beckwith, S. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field.