Entry 5

One flat cat

This morning Wookie was stretched out long and flat as a superstring—a one dimensional cat. He thinks he’s cool because of his cameo in a NASA-sponsored debate about the “Rare Earth Hypothesis.” The Rare Earth Hypothesis argues that complex life is unique to Earth. Rare Earthers point out, rightly, that our evolutionary path depended upon many strange and accidental circumstances of Earth history, including planetary collisions and specific orbital arrangements. These events will not be duplicated elsewhere, and thus we won’t find animals evolving on other worlds.

To me, Rare Earth seems like believing in an Earth-centered universe. Sure our planet is weird, and the life here reflects that, but so what? All planets will have convoluted histories that will seem, to their own semisentient inhabitants, surprisingly well-suited to produce their own kind of life. Why conclude that “this is the best of all possible worlds” (the Pangloss hypothesis)? In my view, many varieties of planetary environment will foster evolution of advanced life. Some other worlds will produce thinking creatures more readily than Earth, where, after 4.5 billion years, there is only sort-of intelligent life. Hearing people say that a planet must have a life story just like Earth’s in order to produce advanced beings prompts me to propose the “Rare Wookie Hypothesis,” in which our cat’s unique biography proves that he must be the only cat in existence. Wookie is here sleeping on the bed only through an extremely unlikely set of circumstances, starting with a chance meeting of two other cats and including a narrow escape from the dog that mauled his litter-mate. What if we had never found him, or someone else took him in first? So many events had to occur in just the right way for there to be a Wookie in our house. There is no chance it could all happen the same way again. From this should I conclude that there are no other cats?

Today, in the juggling act that is my life, I am back at the Southwest Research Institute. This afternoon we all went to see the new Lord of the Rings movie, and the department picked up the tab. Of all the institutions where I’ve worked, including several universities and a NASA center, the Department of Space Studies here has the most friendly and creatively fertile atmosphere—a refreshing contrast to the often paranoid and factional halls of academia. This difference stems partly from the fact that our jobs are “soft money,” meaning we must keep winning grants to keep our salaries flowing. You might think this would breed insecurity, but it actually attracts scientists who are good at what they do, psyched about it, and confident of their ability to get continued support. No tenure, but no “dead wood” either.

Me and Leslie outside SwRI

Often it’s too distracting here to actually “do science” (read the literature, make new calculations, build computer models, interpret data, and write papers). Uninterrupted hours are rare. In theory I can just close my office door, turn off the phone, and yank out my Ethernet cable, but I lack discipline. To solve this, Leslie Young has invented the “science date.” Leslie is an expert in the thin atmospheres of icy planets, and she has a major role in the Pluto mission (launch in 2006—Pluto in 2015) being led by Alan Stern, our department director. When we’re both in town, Leslie and I go on weekly science dates, hiding at the Trident Café for a few hours and actually doing science.

E-mail today from Jim Campbell with a thoughtful critique of my book Lonely Planets. Jim runs a B & B in the tiny, almost nonexistent, rural town of Moffat, Colo. (where he is also the mayor), in the mysterious San Luis Valley, home to copious UFO lore, sprawling cattle ranches, and a thriving Buddhist community. I wrote much of the book there, and we became good friends (another mayor in my circle). In seeking Buddhist views of ET, I was impressed that the ancient texts advocate compassion, not just for humans but for “all sentient beings.” Yet Jim feels I am too dismissive of knowledge gained from the science of meditation. How much can we learn from the exploration of inner space? I admit I am biased toward outer space, but I agree we must explore both to ensure that we survive long enough to meet extraterrestrials, or become them ourselves.

Why worry about underground life on Mars during a week when Saddam Hussein has been found underground in Iraq? Why devote your career to questions that won’t be answered in your lifetime? Because in the long run, current events are trivial, and Cosmic Evolution is the real story. Our worldly concerns will melt away quickly. Our world itself will melt away in 5 billion years, engulfed by our dying sun. All signs that we ever existed will be gone (unless our remote descendants have found themselves a new star). There is no bigger story than Cosmic Evolution, and I want to know how we fit into it.

This is Dr. G, signing off

Thanks for listening. My week is up. If any of you reading this are in fact aliens, please do get in touch.