Friday, August 27, 2010

More planets than you can shake a stick at...

It seems like every major astronomy story recently has been about exoplanets, exoplanets seem to be the equivalent of cosmic x-factor contestants. For those not up with the latest astronomy terminology "exoplanets" are planets circling around a star other than our own sun, i.e. planets outside of our own solar system (Murcury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus etc.).

It's pretty tricky to see an exoplanet as even our nearest (non-sun) star (Proxima Centauri) is around 4 light years away. I know this doesn't sound like much but it translates to 24,000,000,000,000 miles or about the same as the length of the queue for the new iPhone at the Apple store. It's also hard to see such tiny objects since they are (relatively) right next to giant thermonuclear balls of burning gas, which tend to be a bit on the bright-side, anyway those clever boffin's have figured out that you don't actually need to see them directly, you can work out they're there by measuring the "wobble" effect that their gravity has on the star they're orbiting.

Recently a whole system of at least 5 planets was discovered flying around a star 127 light years away, and another two Saturn sized planets were seen by the Kepler space telescope roughly 2,000 light years away. All this exoplanet action would seem to suggest that planets are quite common things, if that turns out to be true then since there are trillions of stars in our universe and potentially many planets circling each of them then the probability that there are many other planets out there just like our own is almost certain, or at least a pretty safe bet. This raises the possibility that life has evolved all over the universe, how exciting, imagine studying one of these exoplanets and finding life creating organic molecules in it's atmosphere, I wonder how the theologians would rationalise that?


G said...

Real theologians would thank God for her/his amazing creativity, and start asking questions about whether the new life was sapient, did it have a sense of right and wrong, what does the term "made in the image of God" mean in the light of these learnings... it would be a fascinating discovery. But then CS Lewis had much these reflections 70 or so years ago. A strongly traditional Christian who wrote Sci-Fi works such as "Out of the silent planet", he had to answer the same question.

Steve Borthwick said...

G, interesting, (hypothetical I know but) do you think given the hole such a discovery would knock into the fabric of (specifically) Christian thought, i.e. that we're made in God's image and that humans are special and that we have dominion over everything et al, that real Christians would be dented by it; or would they just plough on regardless, in other words, what would it actually take for Christians to throw their hands up and say, "you know what we were wrong, like all the other religions in the history of mankind reality has overtaken our best hopes"... quite a lot I would guess?

G said...

It's not hypothetical - you've got to presume life out there on the basis of such (literally) astronomical numbers.
But most Christians (and certainly most professional theologians) aren't as flat-earth as you seem to believe.

And I wouldn't say all the other religions are "wrong" - we all grab at bits of truth. I believe that truth is best embedded in the Man Jesus, who was God as well. How that relates to other species - I'd need some more evidence to try to understand!

But can I refer you to a ghastly, hippy and yet informative hymn. Sadly by the bloke who wrote "Lord of the Dance", so suspect to all right-thinking Christians, but it shows that someone had already been thinking about this:



G said...
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Steve Borthwick said...

G, Thanks for the link, I suppose this is one of the areas that make me an Atheist as opposed to a "progressive theist" or agnostic; you hit the nail on the head, i.e. I don't think theologians are necessarily "flat Earth" merchants and that's what I can't grasp. Assuming the theologian is actually a theist (I know one that isn't), the plasticity of that kind of faith baffles me, I see no utility in it other than a mechanism to control other people and their actions etc.; when I don't know something I just accept that I don't know, rather than filling the void with "stuff" that might simply be ontologically possible etc.