Saturday, April 28, 2007

From Earth to eternity

DON'T Earthlings just love to fantasise they have approximate company somewhere in the star-lit field of infinity? Otherwise, as noted sagely in Carl Sagan's writings and attributions, it will be such a waste of space. Put another way, the human mind has since antiquity tried to reconcile itself with imaginings that, statistically, there should be many more Earth-like living worlds. Carbon-based life is but one minute alternative in the vast cosmic sea. Astronomers this week appear to have rendered the musings a bit less Hollywoodish when they reported the existence of a planet beyond the mother solar system that conforms to earthly notions of life's sustenance. The planet does not appear to be a gas ball. It may have equable mean temperatures of between 0 and 40 deg C. The temperature assumption excites scientists the most as it hints at the probability of water. A leader of the team that made the find, Dr Stephane Udry of the Geneva Observatory, stuck his neck out with this comment: '(Computer) models predict that the planet should be either rocky like our Earth or fully covered with oceans.'

One thinks of Stephen Hawking. It was a fortuitous circumstance that in the same week of the announcement, the cosmologist was taking a zero-gravity plunge over the Atlantic Ocean in a rigged-up airplane to experience weightlessness for 25 seconds. All in the interests of science. And without his wheelchair, silly. Professor Hawking will have things to say about modes of travel to that planet, dubbed Gliese 581c, which is 20.5 light years distant. The fastest spacecraft, Nasa's interplanetary probe New Horizons, can get up to 75,000kmh or 21km per second. One light year is the distance covered in an Earth year at the speed of light of 300,000km per second. Readers are invited to work out how long it will take to reach Gliese 381c riding in New Horizons. 'We don't know how to get there in a human lifetime,' a Nasa astronomer said sadly. Add a multiplier to that. Prof Hawking could regale Earthlings with visions of wormhole or interstellar travel, a theoretical collapsing of time and space between parallel universes.

The new planet will provoke plenty of metaphysical talk, mostly a lark at dreamy astronomers' expense. But scientists may have the last laugh: The threat of a nuclear winter induced by mad politicians and accelerating climate change making Earth rickety could force interstellar emigration well before the dying sun, eight light minutes away, broils this planet. The sun's expiry is said to be five billion years away. That's many, many lifetimes away, but still a blink in the grand galactic scheme.

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