Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thoughts on: Superior Super Earths

I ran across this article: Superior Super Earths and it really got my mind going. Here are some of my thoughts. I recommend you read the article first, then come back and debate my ideas with me.

  1. I find it truly amazing that we are discovering planets around other stars. PLANETS! It wasn't that long ago that we barely knew anything about the planets around our own star and now we can discover and analyse planets light years away.

    I never expected that in my life time and I'm still young. I can only imagine how technological improvements will allow us to see more and more about these planets without having to actually go there first.

    Right now we are only detecting planets that have enough mass to effect their stars in such a way that we can detect with our instruments. As our tools become more detailed and techniques are developed and refined we should be able to see more and more planets, smaller ones too, as well as gain greater clarity to the details of their atmosphere and composition. In theory we could even be able to detect if that planet has life or technology, if abundant enough.

  2. The article talks about how Earth is a tough place for life to be sustained and suggests that these large Super Earths would be somehow better, but the explanations for why are not clearly laid out.

    If a planet is more massive it's going to have a greater gravitational pull and possibly be hit by more asteroids and comets than Earth. If the plate tectonics are more aggressive life will have to adapt to deal with that greater upheaval.

    As the article states, 99 percent of all life that has ever existed on Earth has gone extinct. That's scary on one side, but also note that we humans are a result of that. Sure we can look at it as though we will just end up as part of that statistic, and perhaps we will, but it cannot be denied that because of all that planetary evolution, the human race has come to being.

    Now consider a planet where that evolution may be accelerated. It's possible that these planets got to an intelligent sentient race before the Earth did. It's also possible that due to the upheavals that life there never gets beyond a certain point before it's 'recycled'.

  3. The age of the Universe compared to the age of our solar system is surprisingly short. The age of our solar system is just a little over a third of the age of the entire Universe. As the article mentions it's possible and even likely that other intelligent life in the Universe is on a similar time scale. This suggests that unless other life forms evolved much faster than us and have developed extra-solar space flight, it's likely to be awhile before we meet any aliens. That doesn't mean it can't or won't happen but the likelihood is much slimmer.

    The Universe may be full of life, but to what percentage of that life is sentient. What percentage of that sentient life has developed technology sufficient enough for space travel? What percentage of that space-faring life is close enough to Earth for a visit? What percentage of that alien life would be interested in our civilization?

    Considering the distances, we may discover an intelligent race out in our neighborhood of the Milkyway, but it could end up being a very slow long distance relationship for many centuries.
I know the human race and Earth is not the only place in the Universe that has life. I have no proof of that other than the fact that the Universe is just too large for Earth to be the only one. Science finds regularly that life exists and even thrives in locations that are surprisingly harsh. So while the life may not seem likely to us, evolution has a way of making life work.

We humans tolerate a specific temperature range, can see and tolerate specific wavelengths of light and radiation. We process food in a specific way with numerous cooperative bacteria and other creepy crawlies that most of us would prefer not to think about or know. Other life in the Universe may look at us and wonder how we are able to tolerate the environments that we do because they are alien and harsh to the life forms observing us.

It's nice to watch Star Trek and Star Wars and think that all these alien races will be pretty much like us and be able to share the same environments without issue, but I suspect that's just a romantic notion that we dreamed up to hide the frightening truth that we really have no idea what life outside of Earths will be like. It's less scary if aliens are like us. We humans don't like 'people' who are different.

1 comment:

mattg said...

They're already doing all kinds of awesome stuff for finding smaller planets. They used to detect them by looking for wobble on a star, but now some of them are looking for dimming as a potential planet passes in front, stuff like that. Check out the Kepler mission - probably the best shot of finding another earth yet. I am blown away by how far planetary science has come in my lifetime. There are some really great things happening in astronomy these days. I just heard about a new idea somebody had to look for exo-life by looking at the polarization of light coming from the planet. It turns out that light reflecting off of a plant leaf is polarized a special way by the chlorophyll, so a densely vegetated planet should be easy to spot cheaply (assuming of course similar chlorophyll-based plants). That's a cool way, since all our existing searches for exo-life are limited to either intelligent life like us, or planets we can visit. Anyway, cool post. You should read Contact (if you haven't already).