The science reports I read have been recently full of breathless reports from astronomers diligently discovering exoplanets, that is, extrasolar planets. Those are planets outside our Solar System that might be like Earth, or at least similar enough to support life. The list of exoplanets is approaching 1000, however, a quick look at a list of their host stars shows that they are not close enough for a quick trip. Although one, Epsilon Eridani, is “only” 10 light years away (that’s 60 trillion miles, you know), most of them are more than ten times that far away. Assuming that the laws of physics don’t have a big hole in them (an assumption, certainly), it’s hard to imagine visiting. If you travel close to the speed of light, you won’t get much older, but you’ll find it hard to phone home, and when you return, all your friends will be long gone.
So the big question we should all be asking is, who cares, anyway?
But of course many people do care, and it’s interesting to speculate why. See whether any of these reasons speak to you:
– Do we want an early warning before bug-eyed monsters or other undesirable aliens (that’s the extraterrestrial type) invade Earth and drink our precious bodily fluids?
– Are we so lonely that we want someone to talk to?
– Is it all an excuse to get more money into the NASA budget?
– Do we want to learn more about how life arose, or might arise? (Be careful who you pose that question to, since some people already know the answer.)
– Are we looking for real estate to off-load our teeming population? Good luck!
– Do we have the urge to spread our seed throughout the universe? If that’s the case, perhaps we should be shooting capsules of DNA into space, like bottles with messages in them. Of course seeding an exoplanet with “our” kind of life might be seen as biological warfare by the existing inhabitants of said planet!
– Perhaps we just have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. We want to know all about everything, just because it’s there. And that’s the answer that seems most comfortable to me.
Why do we care, or why should we care, about exoplanets? What do you think?
Takeaway: It’s amazing what we can learn (or believe we can learn) about things so small and far away. But: do we really care?