Tuesday, November 28, 2006

This Enceladus is no myth

Carolyn Porco is the team leader of NASA scientists who are involved in the Cassini mission to investigate Saturn and its moons. In her presentation at the Beyond Belief conference, she reveals that sometime last year the Cassini probe took extremely close-up photos of Enceladus (hovering just 175 km above that small moon of Saturn). Pictures taken by Cassini revealed that Enceladus has an icy surface, has an active geology, that its south pole has many fissures and that these fractures contain organic compounds. Moreover, the Cassini team discovered that the south pole is the warmest region of the moon. This, she says, is as remarkable as finding that the earth's Antarctic is warmer than the equator. But the most incredible find thus far has been the discovery of jets of fine ice streaming out of these fissures and shooting tens of kilometers into space, with the ejecta actually forming Saturn's outermost ring (known as the E-ring).

Porco enthusiastically tells us that given the presence of liquid water, elevated temperature, organic compounds, Enceladus probably has the conditions for sustaining biological life as we know it, and that there is a (slim) chance that microbial organisms are happily inhabiting it. If the latter is true, then it's also possible that these denizens are being launched (all freeze-dried I guess) into space courtesy of the plumes being created by the geysers. She goes on to say that if life is present in Enceladus then this would imply that the universe is almost surely brimming with life (knowing that two celestial bodies in one solar system have life vastly increases the probability that life in the universe is ubiquitous). Furthermore, such a finding would impact heavily on religions--not least Christianity.

Much as we would want superstition and mythology (aka religion) to be completely obliterated by the discovery of any form of extraterrestrial life (even unicellular), it will, on the contrary, spur faith-heads to dig their heels in even deeper. Faced with such undeniable facts and the consequent experience of cognitive dissonance, these religionists would crank the theology mill and run it at record speeds. And in no time at all we would be treated to a dazzling array of rationalizations and explanations (all without a shred of evidence and all nonfalsifiable, of course), all emanating from that wonderful human faculty called imagination (rather than empirical investigation).

There are to date some 200 planets that've been discovered outside our solar system. Thus far only Jovian-sized bodies have been detected. But as we engineer telescopes and instruments that have greater magnification and better resolution we will soon enough be able to pick out and see earth-sized planets that are not too close to their suns (else they won't be hospitable to life) . And who knows, in perhaps just two or three generations we may even finally stumble upon one that unmistakably bears the signature of life.

This may very well be wishful thinking on my part, but I can hardly wait for the day when the last human provincialism and centrism will be hacked--when we finally discover sentient, intelligent life out there. Discoveries over the centuries have already dealt a coup de grace to our various comforting egoistic, anthropocentric beliefs--our planet is not at the center of the solar system, our sun is not at the core of the Milky Way, our galaxy is just one in billions, Homo sapiens is just one terrestrial species and one with a long lineage, with humans sharing over 90% of their DNA with chimpanzees. Now that one last refuge of our narcissism is just waiting to be forever dissolved. What a thrilling disillusionment it will be when that day arrives.

1 comment:

Howard Greene said...

The Cosmic God

Men who are strong in one or more ways, but lack character, often seek power for selfish reasons. Men who wish to be strong but aren’t, often seek power over others to compensate for their own inadequacies. Men who are weak derive confidence from following those who are strong, but men who are weak do not know if those that they follow are strong without character or weak pretending to be strong. And there but for a handful of men who have power and who are strong in character lies most of the world. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.”

It is quite natural therefore for some to strive for power, but for most to seek out someone (or something) with more power than all the others. A “God All Mighty” fits the bill. A God can explain the unexplainable and can give comfort to the week and strength to the strong (and those who pretend to be strong). So it is easy to understand the invocations made by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians to their Gods, by the Asians, Hindus, and Jews to their Gods and more recently by the Moslems and Christians to their Gods. But it is not at all easy to determine which, if any of them, is the real God. All are based on needs of humans to be, or to follow, something stronger and better than what we ourselves are. And so we believe, we have faith, that there is a God. But faith does not depend on the scientific method, it requires no physical evidence, it requires no measurements, it cannot be proven nor can it be disproven.

For those of us who need to, or want to, believe in something or someone with God like attributes I propose a Cosmic God. A God that is not at all inconsistent with math and science. Indeed a Cosmic God evolves easily out of our research and understanding of Relativity, Quantum Theory and Cosmic Evolution.

Most scientists believe that a big bang, an explosion of cosmic proportions, began the universe as we understand it today. There is solid scientific evidence that if you run the universal clock backwards some 15 billion years there was an entity so small, so dense and so filled with energy as not to be conceivable by us humans, but none-the-less quite real and quite measurable. It took a Galileo, a Newton and finally an Einstein (the genius of geniuses) to convince even the most skeptical of scientists that there is a universe out there so enormous, so complex and so old that our own earth becomes less than the size of a single grain of sand in comparison to its vastness.

Modern man, what we call civilized man, is perhaps 10,000 years old here on Earth. We are a mere speck on the time line of the mammals, reptiles, fish and plants. There is irrefutable scientific evidence that up until 65 million years ago dinosaurs were the dominant life form on earth. There is compelling evidence that complex living creatures existed well before the dinosaurs and that simple single celled animals existed billions of years ago.

Most scientists believe that humans evolved into their current form only 20 to 25 thousand years ago. And if you believe in evolution, science tells us that it was mere chance that humans evolved only thousands of years ago. It would have been just as possible for mankind to evolve 500 thousand years ago or even 50 million years ago. Imagine what we humans would know, and be like, if we had the benefit of 50 million years of life, experience and science. But alas we cannot know. One of our many limitations is that no one on Earth today can even begin to imagine where 50 million years of science would have brought us, or will bring us in the future. Pushing the frontiers further it is well within the realm of scientific reality, that in our 15 billion year old universe, there may well be other intelligent forms of life that came into existence billions of years ago. And as our gold fish, which we surround with water and keep in a tiny bowl, cannot possibly begin to understand our existence, human existence, so we humans cannot begin to understand an intelligence that is millions or perhaps billions of years more advanced than ours.

I believe that such advanced intellect is worth searching for and worth believing in. Such intellect would have abilities far beyond our imaginations, God like abilities and powers, but nevertheless powers based on the universal laws of physics. I believe that such cosmic powers and abilities would do more good for all of us, each and every one of us, than what the many different Gods have done for our many different civilizations throughout our brief history here on Earth. Think of it, it might no longer be important to have Hindus, Moslems, Jews, Christians and Buddhists fighting to see whose religious beliefs shall prevail, whose God is the true God. Think back to when all of us were children. Think back to when little girls said, “My father is the best father” or little boys said, “My father can beat up your father.” We adults are all infants on a cosmic scale.