July 23, 2017

Slice of PIE: Habitable Worlds for WHO?

Using the Program of the North American Science Fiction Convention in Puerto Rico in July of 2017 to which I will MIGHT go someday if I recognized any of the names on the guest list… to go, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the program. This is event #. The link is provided below…

Habitable Worlds: This is one-hour presentation from Arecibo astronomer Abel Mendez on astronomers' current search and understanding of potentially habitable planets. The presentation also includes the biological context to understand the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the Solar System and extrasolar planets. (bilingual)

I’ve been teaching a class for gifted and talented children for the past 20 years called ALIEN WORLDS. It’s a popular class. I teach it twice each summer and also frequently teach the class at an annual conference for the parents of GT kids. It became such a big draw, that I had to add another class called ADVANCED ALIEN WORLDS.

I used to let the students, who range in age from nine to thirteen, just choose an imaginary star with an imaginary star system. Of course, I started the class in 1997…since that time, we have grown the Open Exoplanet Catalog (http://www.openexoplanetcatalogue.com/) from nonexistent to containing 3468 confirmed exoplanets and they have to pick the star system they’re going to “grow” from those. In fact, the Catalog has become so much a part of our culture that the spellchecker on this laptop accepts it as a word – and I didn’t have to add it as I did in the past.

The discovery of new star systems makes it into the news regularly with the most recent splash being the Trappist System (40 light years away): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRAPPIST-1, as well as the biggest splash before that, Kepler-60 (2500 light years away) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kepler-90), and the “first” among the splashes, Kepler 186 (500 light years away) with its Earth-sized planet (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kepler-186), and Gliese 876 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gliese_876).

I started teaching the class using a book called HABITABLE PLANETS FOR MAN (http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/commercial_books/2007/RAND_CB179-1.pdf) and still use several graphs from it to this day in my Power Point lecture.

I begin this class with a discussion in which I ask the question, “How many of you actually believe in aliens?”

The kids are somewhere between enthusiastically waving their hands in the air and scowling at me. I usually smile and backtrack and say, “OK – how about this. Raise your hand if you believe,” (I flash an image of Gram-stained bacteria), “that there is microscopic life ‘out there’ that didn’t originate on Earth?”

They’re much more confident when they raise their hands now. I flash the next image, the bizarre Hydnora africana and ask if they believe that there might be alien plants. Most of the them are fine with that. When I get to animal life, I flash an image of the star nosed mole. They laugh, but are a bit less certain. Finally, I show a full Gray, bulging eyes and bulbous head and all, no UFO present, but might as well be one in the background. By then, half of the students have dropped their hands. It’s a lot of big leaps to go from alien bacteria to intelligent alien life. Then I ask them if we have found real, certifiable evidence.

One or two might mention the fossilized “Martian bacteria”, but I point out that the consensus that it’s the result of chemical reactions and not the remains of life is pretty solid in the scientific community (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Hills_84001). So…other than reports of alien abductions (which always gets a good giggle from these critical thinkers), I tender to them that there is NO EVIDENCE of life off of Earth.

“What about water under the ice of Europa?” one of the kids offers. I nod, then point out that unlike Minnesota, where a cold winter may cause the ice to reach four or five meters thick, the ice on Europa is estimated to be between 75 and 100 KILOMETERS thick. They can’t take their ice augers and drill through the surface of Jupiter’s moon!

Now don’t get me wrong, I badly want to see evidence of aliens, but as a science teacher, I teach FACTS. Speculation is fine for messing around with, but when you talk FACTS, you’re talking SCIENCE. So, when we talk about habitable planets, we have to be careful – we’re talking habitable planets for us, not the homeworld of the Klingons (Omega Leonis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omega_Leonis, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klingon) or the Eclipsing Binary home star (Eclipsing Binary Star M31V J00442326+4127082) of the Xandar Empire in the Andromeda Galaxy.

Aliens, despite Jody Foster’s (often misattributed to Carl Sagan) protestation to the contrary that “If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space”; are not proven by making loud proclamations that space would be a waste if we were all that there is. The statement doesn’t produce any evidence that we are not the only technological civilization in the known universe. In fact, the evidence indicates that we are the only technological civilization. Sagan hedges his bets by stating in a COSMOS episode that the nearest technological civilization is possibly two hundred light years away, but more likely 1000 light years away. There is no way for him to be wrong in any sense of the word because the potential for gathering evidence either for or against his proclamation is miniscule. So, he opts for inspiring without having to make the sacrifices necessary to see his words through to the end; unlike president Kennedy, who put American dollars where NASA could use them in order to send Humans to the Moon the first time.

The industry, economics, and pure cash built around our profound belief in the existence of intelligent alien life (https://www.inverse.com/article/25908-hunt-for-aliens-grassroots-movement-funded-by-billionaires) surpasses the net worth of the planet’s religious institutions. (Wealthiest organizations, religions:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_and_religion) vs net earnings from extraterrestrial (invasion ONLY) movies(http://www.boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=scifialieninvasion.htm). To put it into cash numbers: Religions approximately $1 trillion = Alien (invasion only, since 1985) $5.8 trillion dollars

So…there you go.

No comments: