Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Our Cosmic Context

NEW YORK – We have always lived on a changing planet, but many of today’s variations in climatic and ecological states are taking place exceptionally fast, and are directly attributable to our behavior. Slowing the rate of alteration is the only rational course of action, given the potential outcomes. But we also need to examine our responses closely, or risk repeating our shortsighted behavior. Unexpectedly, the search for life elsewhere in the universe may provide a critical new perspective.

Our technologically advanced civilization – replete with remarkable tools and notable headaches – owes everything to a tapestry of cosmic and planetary history. Consider, for example, oil, gas, and coal. These substances comprise a complex package of carbon chemistry, produced by biology and geophysics operating within a deep rhythm of variation and evolution originating far from our own epoch. The minerals and rare-earth elements that we exploit to build ingenious devices – extending our bodies and minds – are also a part of this rhythm, and are accessible only because of a great chain of circumstances, from planetary origins to plate tectonics and asteroid impacts.

Our trajectory as a species is hardwired to this four-billion-year-old bio-geo-chemical system that has profoundly worked and reworked the planetary environment, all the way from bacteria to city planners, atmospheric oxygen to paper mills. In addition to our own genes, each of us carries the genes of tens of trillions of microbial passengers. These tiny organisms harbor codes for metabolic processes that have been preserved across eons – the same processes responsible for shaping the world. It is a plausible blueprint for successful life anywhere, even if the biochemical details differ.

Our daily business usually ignores this existential backdrop. The struggle to mold our future, to stave off the humanitarian disasters of war, disease, and starvation leaves little room to be philosophical about our place on this crumb of cosmic dust. But many scientists, including me, have a sense that the universe might be about to reach in and give us a metaphorical slap in the face.

For the last few decades, the modern scientific endeavor known as astrobiology has been seeking to determine whether or not all of this – life, death, and evolution – has happened elsewhere in the cosmos. Humans have long asked this question, but the evidence – the raw data – was lacking.

Now, astronomers have discovered a remarkable abundance of planets orbiting other stars. The numbers tell us that 15-20 percent of Sun-like stars harbor worlds similar in size to the Earth, orbiting stellar parents at distances implying that their surfaces might be temperate. We have not found the nearest such world yet, but statistically it should be within about 15 light years of us – a stone’s throw in cosmic terms. There is an excellent chance that we will find it and its brethren within a decade, and search for signs of an alien biosphere in these worlds’ atmospheric compositions or climates.

In the Solar System, NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered what may be organic carbon in the fossil mud of an ancient Martian lakebed. Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, has been spotted spewing water into space from a hidden ocean that could hold twice the volume of all of Earth’s oceans. Serendipity is providing us with access to an abyssal realm that could conceivably harbor life. We just have to go smell the salty spray.

Even finding nothing in such places is important, because these new data have predictive power, narrowing the field of planets, or moons, that might harbor life. Nature has the critical experimental data that we need to finally place Earth in context, within a zoo of worlds emerging from ice ages, worlds descending into greenhouse hells, young worlds, old worlds, barren worlds, and possibly worlds teeming with life. And that means that we will have new data to steer decisions about planetary stewardship.

In other words, the cosmic sprawl can help us disentangle the complex terrestrial systems and histories of which we are a part. This is not a frivolous exercise. On the contrary, it could be the key to overcoming our scientific ignorance. We might guess the general consequences of global warming in the next couple of decades, but the details remain hard to predict, as does the distant future. Biological networks change, chemical balances change, species go extinct, ecosystems unravel, and new ones emerge. Cosmic context would go a long way in sorting this out.

For many people, the idea of spending time and resources on such otherworldly pursuits is difficult to swallow. But if we are to sustain our species into the distant future, we need to make big decisions correctly. It is time to take the long view seriously, because we have tried the short view, and it has not worked.

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  1. Commenteddavid ursiny

    Well it could very well help if the wise men of year would step back and take Copernicus's advice :the earth revolves around the sun, and see that that what they believe as the origins of the universe hold no water, its the emperor has no clothes story, no logic that the universe came from the singularity of nothing,its almost ridiculous, that all the parts processes matter and magnetics came from some tiny point of nothing to create an explosion big bang of everything , boy does that take magic or what, let me give you the real story earthman, a super massive galaxy with a super massive black hole traveled far off from its sisters over two hundred billion years in its journey, it produced a trillion stars in its life span and the black hole stripped those atoms of their electromagnetic bonds and stored all the parts (dark matter sub atomic particles, that make up the protons in atom cores) just as a star has a fission engine and over its life can only expand its mass and core so far before its chamber sub atomic particle wall of its fission chamber fails and a massive tidal wave of atoms enter to create an uncontrollable fission event to light off the fuel of atoms outside that wall to nova, so is the life of the black hole when it expands to its designed limits its containment wall is streches and weakened and after two hundred billion years its not only full but the star density and atom density of the inner galactic core is very well over populated with not only billions of close stars but hundreds of thousands of neutron stars very small highly dense matter orbiting that black hole in concentrations and one of the using mass velocity and kinetic energy punches a hole at its perimiter. Radius. And enter that chamber right thru that sub atomic chamber wall and it sets off the uncontrollable fission event in and out that breech to lighten up the inner galactic core in a massive explosion called a super massive big bang of a billion stars about instantly, that makes the outermost stars a planets along with any mini galaxies to get thrown out followed by most of the electrons in the galaxy followed by the contents of sub atomic particles of a trillion stars that black holes been collecting for this event, and there you have a new universe with parts and processes and magnetics already in existence to seed a new universe those sub atomic particles get inducted thru magnetic fields off the already existing magnetics back into protons where the capture one electrons to be reborn into a self sustaining hydrogen atom, that's the perpetual living universe which has reason logic processes and the parts verses the singularity of no logic no processes no parts no magnetics, how can you defend that holy grail compared to my truth

  2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    I assume the book on the Copernicus Complex will focus on the human picture within the context of the humanities / and or science. It is worth noting that there is one area---logic---that might benefit from a Copernican view. In my mind there are an endless series of Copernican Revolutions, all of which contribute to the process of human evolution.

    I can see how that might be undercut if the original Copernican Revolution was, in some ways, a misguided idea (or a failure of context). However, that this does not say that Copernican Revolutions are not a useful idea, in themselves. The value is not completely reducible, in my mind, particularly when new prospective areas are emerging, or have been evident to some (tantalyzingly, perhaps) for decades, or centuries.

    Here are some of the areas where future Copernicans might look:
    (1) Irrationalism / Meta-Logic, (2) Distributed Metaphysics / Value for New Forms of Life and Their Values, (3) Exceptionalist Technologies, such as those that make boredom not boring, (4) Realizations based on longer-term survival, such as Continuum Consciousness: the ability to re-think and re-wire life, as though one has started over from an earlier beginning, and occurring as a natural process.

    These and others---I wish I could think of more. I know Copernicans are extreme events, but there is no technical limit on what defines the complexity and perfection which underwrites such a thing---it may depend on a wide variety of conditions which are not automatically cosmological, or for that matter, scientific.

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