World View columnist Gwynne Dyer writes that there are yet
more reasons to be aware of our cosmic insignificance.
In this interval of blessed tranquillity between the titanic
struggle to choose the next president of the "world's
greatest nation" (same guy as last time), and the
world-shaking choice of the next leader of the "Middle
Kingdom" (kept secret for days) a delicious moment of sheer
silliness. The British Broadcasting Corporation has banned a
science programme because it might trigger an interstellar
They would not normally ban a programme made by Brian Cox.
He is a jewel in the BBC's crown: a particle physicist with
rock-star appeal - he played in two semi-professional bands,
and in the right light he looks like a younger Steven Tyler -
who can also communicate with ordinary human beings. They
just forbade him to make the episode of Stargazing Live in
which he planned to send a message to the aliens.
Prof Cox wanted to point the Jodrell Bank radio telescope at
a recently discovered planet circling another star, in the
hope of making contact with an alien civilisation. The BBC
executives refused to let him do it, on the grounds that
since no-one knew what might happen, it could be in breach of
"health and safety" guidelines.
Prof Cox, a serious scientist, knew exactly what would
happen: nothing. Even if there are hostile aliens out there,
space is so vast that light from the nearest star, travelling
at 300,000km per second, takes four years to reach us. He was
just doing his bit in the centuries-long scientific campaign
to convince people that they are not at the centre of
The BBC "suits", who do think they are at the centre of
everything, weren't having any of that. If there are aliens
out there, and they find out we are here, their first
reaction will probably be to come here and eat our children.
And then the BBC will get blamed for it. Sorry, Brian.
Drop the radio telescope and step away from it slowly.
The suits richly deserve the derision that has come their
way, but if there really is life elsewhere, and even perhaps
intelligent life, then we aren't at the centre of anything
We are, as Douglas Adams once put it in The Hitch-Hiker's
Guide to the Galaxy, "far out in the uncharted backwaters
of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the
We used to believe that the whole universe literally revolved
around us. Then came Copernicus. But we went on believing
that we are very special. We look like other animals, but we
are so special that we don't cease to exist when we die. We
give the universe meaning just by being alive.
A bit at a time, however, science has been destroying all of
our traditional ideas about our own centrality. And here
comes another blow.
In a universe with trillions of stars, it was always less
presumptuous to assume that we are not unique than to insist
that we are. But just 20 years ago there was no evidence to
show that other stars actually do have planets, let alone
that some of those planets harbour life.
We now know of the existence of some 800 "exoplanets", and
the number is doubling every year or so. Most of these
planets are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, not at all
like Earth, simply because the giants are easier to detect.
But what we have really been looking for is planets like our
own. We KNOW that life thrives here.
The astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile
have now found such a planet. It is called HD 40307g, and it
orbits a small orange-coloured sun 42 light-years from here.
The planet is rocky, like Earth, and it orbits its star at a
distance where the temperature allows water to exist as a
liquid. It is certainly a candidate for life.
In the past decade, we have learned that most stars have
planets, and that they typically have lots of them. The star
HD 40307 has six planets orbiting at different distances, at
least one of which (HD 40307g) is in the "Goldilocks" zone.
There are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our
home galaxy, the Milky Way, and probably at least as many
If only one in a hundred of those planets harbours life,
which is likely to be an underestimate, then there are two
billion living planets. We are not unique and special. We are
as common as dirt.
Douglas Adams also wrote: "If life is going to exist in a
universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to
have is a sense of proportion." But we are gradually
acquiring exactly that, and it doesn't really hurt.
It is possible to be aware of your own cosmic insignificance
and still love your children. Even though they are without