Planets "Pour Out" of the Sky

We are left alone with our day - Auden

Even though we're now discovering that the "universal solvent," water, exists in unexpected locations like our own Moon, why would finding microbial life below the surface of Mars or in the underworld oceans of Europa not necessarily be an encouraging development?

In the latest in the IdeaFestival's "Five Questions" series, we talk with Lee Billings, author of "Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars."

From a brief description of why the subject is so interesting to him, to the significance of finding the bio-signatures of oxygen and methane in the atmospheres of other worlds, to his sobering recollection of his biggest surprises while writing the book, Billings touches on the following eternal question.

Are we alone?

My favorite part of the interview begins at about the four minute mark when I ask him about what surprised him most. Billings talks movingly about two things. One, we sentient self-referential beings are able for the first time to locate and examine other planets for their suitability for life, and yet, and yethis emphasis, not mine - we aren't making the commitments to do so. Kepler, launched in 2009, suggests that planets orbiting other stars are a common feature of the universe. But the future for space-based terrestrial planet finders, for follow-on spacecraft, is sadly an uncertain one. Two, the nature of what he calls "deep time" is simultaneously profound and unsettling. Were, for example, all of Earth's history compressed into one 24 hour period beginning at 12:01 a.m., the appearance of humans would have occurred just over a minute ago, and our 21st century moment would be a mere second or two before midnight.

So why would finding other microbial life nearby one nondescript yellow dwarf in the Orion Arm of a single spiral galaxy, itself one of billions, be such a bracing discovery? It's because simple life may be common. It's because intelligent life may be rare.

You can find Lee Billings' outstanding book here.

Stay curious.