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Stephen Lee Naish on dreaming our way off the planet and whether we should embrace oblivion or look ‘abroad’

Michael Summers and James Treffil, Exoplanets: Diamond Worlds, Super Earths, Pulsar Planets, and the New Search for Life Beyond Our Solar System (Smithsonian Books. 2017) 224pp.

When a group of astronomers announced earlier this year that they had potentially discovered seven Earth-like exoplanets orbiting around the cool dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1, which is located thirty-nine light years away in the Aquarius constellation, the question asked on social media was how quickly could we get there? The timing was almost perfect. US President Donald Trump had only taken office a few weeks prior and many were thinking (jokingly and also very seriously) that our world was screwed, so why not try again somewhere else.

In fact with seven known possibilities one could try and fail a few times before utopia was finally settled. Thirty-nine light years seems like a short walk in galactic terms, but as pointed out by countless sources, even our fastest probe, the formidable New Horizons which skimmed Pluto in 2015, would take approximately 817,000 years to travel to the TRAPPIST-1 system. Scores of people, no doubt disheartened, began unpacking their bags.

Yet, with a few decades since the discovery of planets beyond our solar system, the news of TRAPPIST-1 seemed to spark a genuine and feverish excitement in the general populace in the existence of Earth-like planets. For centuries the heavens have been occupied with a reliable and steadfast set of planets and objects in a neat orbital ballet. The aforementioned Pluto snuck in as a new discovery early in the 20th century, but in 2006 it was reclassified as a dwarf planet, or a Trans-Neptunian object. Yet when New Horizons crept up on it and began its exhaustive photo session, we discovered a world of immense complexity and stark beauty. The numerous moons of Jupiter have also occupied our minds, especially with recent discoveries of a vast ocean of salty water under Europa’s icy exterior. The further we reach into and out of our solar system the more we find and its complexity is beginning to challenge the paradigms we’ve held on to for ions.

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“Paradigm” is a word that crops up constantly in Michael Summers and James Trefil’s book Exoplanets: Diamond Worlds, Super Earths, Pulsar Planets, and the New Search for Life Beyond Our Solar System. Its usage refers to the scientific assumptions and expectations that have shaped our understanding up to this point. Yet there is also the challenge to paradigms that have come with the discovery of planets that defy our expectations that exist outside our small patch of the galaxy. For centuries we’ve believed our solar system to be a typical design, that nature could not foresee any other logical outcome. Small rocky worlds lay closer to the parent star, whilst the gaseous giants lay beyond. As it would turn out, our solar system is just one organizational structure among countless others demonstrated by the diversity of our galactic neighbors.  In fact our system is quant compared to the systems first discovered in the infancy of exoplanet discovery. This included pulsar planets – worlds that orbit dead stars, hot Jupiters – gaseous giants that orbit almost bumper to bumper with their gigantic star and the presumption (though as yet unproven) of rouge planets – worlds that drift through the cosmos unattached to a particular star’s orbit. These were the worlds that astronomers first encountered and the idea that Earth was a rare gem was almost a certain; that is until the launch of the Kepler telescope in 2009.  Now it seems a week doesn’t go by without the announcement of Earth-like planets lingering around distant stars.

Whilst Summers and Trefil’s book certainly covers the thrill and imagination of exoplanet discovery it also relies heavily on the hard data supplied by the Kepler observatory.  Thankfully the enthusiasm that the authors have for their work translates this data into laymen terms. At no point is the reader bogged down in incomprehensible language or scientific jargon. Every element of exoplanet discovery is matched to an Earth-like example. Every hypothesis on the development of these worlds is given credence via some known scientific function that exists to us.  When the authors offer a guided tour of recently discovered worlds it is done with the knowledge gathered by years of data analysis matched with the child-like fascination of intrigue and imagination that first pushed mankind to look up and wonder.

Whilst the idea of other civilizations living out there in the cosmos is appealing, we have yet to find any evidence of such. The authors point towards some alarming theories about why we have not, so far, located life beyond our own planet. On one hand, scientists have a certain chauvinism (their words) towards surface life forms (life living on surface, or above it) and carbon-based life forms (life that has evolved on a similar trajectory to Earth-based life forms). This means that life that doesn’t look, behave, or live the way we’re accustomed to with Earth-based life is hard to spot. But, with the discovery of bizarre and inexplicable worlds, ones that have formed around pulsar stars or that have been ejected from their solar system to wonder the vastness of space, our perception of life, or worlds were life can thrive may have to change. One other bleak opinion the authors offer is that of the ‘Great Filter’, the idea that intelligent life that once thrived and conquered has wiped itself out in a cataclysmic event. The need for basic survival matched with advanced weaponry and dominance ended an entire civilization in some deep region of the galaxy. The idea that a ‘Great Filter’ is an inevitable act of intelligent life offers a sad future for mankind and judging by the conditions we find ourselves in today, all to eerie to contemplate.

Exoplanets is geared towards a readership of those in the field of planetary science and life sciences, but due to its accessibility, it should also be read as a primer to understanding, as a species, where we are headed. Do we embrace oblivion within our own planet, or venture beyond to find other versions of life?  If indeed life is found inside or outside our solar system, even if it’s swamp scum, it means life is not unique to our own planet, but inevitable everywhere. Earth may just be an ordinary rock with mundane variations of life.  In this event, we can stop acting so special.


Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.

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