Look to the stars

Just a typical Tuesday newsletter based on an article from The Astrophysical Journal, and the trip my wife and I took after our wedding. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

We interrupt this cycle of pandemic and protests to bring you something a little bit different.

On Monday, scientists from the University of Nottingham in England published an article in The Astrophysical Journal theorizing that we’re not alone, and there could be a minimum of 36 potential “active and communicating intelligent civilizations” in the Milky Way galaxy.

Astrophysicists Tom Westby and Christopher J. Conselice based the whole thing on mathematical supposition. As Conselice put it in an email to CNN:

“The key difference between our calculation and previous ones … is that we make very simple assumptions about how life developed. One of them is that life forms in a scientific way. … [I]f the right conditions are met, then life will form.

This avoids impossible to answer questions such as 'What fraction of planets in a habitable zone of a star will form life?' and 'What fraction of life will evolve into intelligent life?' as these are not answerable until we actually detect life, which we have not yet done.”

So, to oversimplify a bit, Westby and Conselice:

  • Assumed that since our Earth supports life, other Earth-like planets would, too;

  • Applied a theory surmising what makes a planet Earth-like; and

  • Did the math and counted.

Alas, their 36 planets idea can probably never be proven or disproven, because of sheer distance: an average of 17,000 light years between each planet.

If they are right, however, it offers a counterargument to the Fermi Paradox, which says that if there were other extraterrestrial civilizations out there, some of them should have found us by now.

Conselice and Westby are basically saying: Yes, there could be other civilizations, but not billions — just a few dozen in our galaxy. So it’s less surprising that few or none would have developed to the point where they could communicate with us—never mind, travel to find us.

It’s just a theory. But I find it oddly reassuring. I store it away mentally with something I learned just before my wife and I went to the Big Island of Hawaii on our honeymoon in 2013.

One of the many highlights of the trip was our trek to the top of Mauna Kea, which is a 13,803-foot mountain, and one of the best places on the planet from which to observe the stars. In advance of that, I started reading about astronomy.

A single number has stuck with me ever since: 23 sextillion. No wait, 70 sextillion. No wait, 300 sextillion. (It keeps getting bigger.) These are the ever-expanding estimates of the sheer number of stars that might exist in the observable universe.

A sextillion has 21 zeroes, so if we assume there are about 7.8 billion people on Earth, then even the low estimate would mean there would be a ratio of 2.9 trillion stars for each of us.

Those are some staggering numbers, suggesting each of us is but a mere fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the universe. I find it all oddly reassuring.

I think it’s the opposite of nihilism: an idea that our lives are small and insignificant by comparison to the sheer scope of the universe, and yet, we know they’re still important.

Let’s give Oscar Wilde the last word here, as he put it more succinctly than I could: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

7 other things worth your time

  • There was a groundbreaking judicial decision Monday, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law protects LGBT people from employment discrimination. (Associated Press)

  • Got $15,000? Now you can do a Zoom call with a celebrity on Cameo. (The Verge)

  • Gallup says the percentage of Americans who are proud of their country has fallen to a record low since they started asking about this in 2001. (Gallup)

  • There are still 40,000 cruise line workers stuck at sea, months after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (Miami Herald)

  • A former U.S. Marine accused of espionage in Russia was sentenced to 16 years in prison. (Associated Press)

  • A growing amount of research shows loneliness could be linked to all kinds of mental and physical problems. (CNET)

  • Several players for the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys NFL teams have tested positive for coronavirus. At least one of them wasn’t happy that his private medical test results were leaked. (SB Nation)

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