Column: There are worse things than being alone

Nov. 23, 2013 @ 04:21 PM

The heavens are exploding above you, every day.

Whether that equals vast interstellar carnage and the snuffing of civilizations or it’s just interesting science trivia, we may never know.

Stare up on a clear night and all you’ll see is a tranquil blanket of sparkling pinpoints, but if the human eye were equipped to see gamma rays the view would be a little different. Once every couple of days there would be a massive flash from an exploding star, and the gamma rays you saw would be a beam of death that, thankfully, originated too far from Earth to cause harm but could vaporize the atmospheres of planets that aren’t so lucky.

This information comes from a story from the Associated Press last week saying that in April astronomers recorded the largest gamma ray blast that has been seen in the 20-plus years humans have been able to detect them.

Now consider the recent announcement by an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley that there could be 40 billion habitable planets just in the Milky Way galaxy. Consider also that NASA says there may be 200 billion galaxies, or more.

In our culture, almost no one questions that there must be abundant intelligent life in the universe, even if none of it is anywhere particularly close to us. We are raised now on “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” where inhabited worlds are, at most, a few days apart for travel in advanced spaceships.

But the outer space depicted in popular culture tends to be fairly static and serene, like our own night sky. The occasional star may explode, but the Enterprise can pull back a distance and watch it, the better to record what in that fictional universe seemingly is a relatively rare event.

Gene Roddenberry apparently never dreamed that massive stars burst at least every couple of days – probably more often, given that we can’t “see” the gamma rays unless the explosion, which shoots out in a line, is pointed right at us.

So surely if there is life out there, especially in a more densely packed galaxy, it constantly is in peril, death beams liable to shoot past from a dying star a mere few million light-years away.

But then there also was an article last week in the New York Times by Paul Davies of Arizona State University, arguing that there is virtually no chance at all that any other planet anywhere – not in this galaxy, not in any other – has any life on it.

“The underlying problem is complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is, at the molecular level, staggeringly complex,” Davies wrote. “… If life arose simply by the accumulation of many specific chemical accidents in one place, it is easy to imagine that only one in, say, a trillion trillion habitable planets would ever host such a dream run.”

If you’re bad at math, let me help: One in a trillion trillion – or one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 – is way worse than the odds you will win Powerball. You’re more likely to wake up next to George Clooney tomorrow than for there to be even one living microbe in all of the Milky Way that wasn’t born on Earth, is what Davies is saying.

So I guess on the positive side, we don’t really need to waste any time thinking about the intergalactic equivalents of Pompeii occurring. There’s not a planet where, as millions watch their World Cup on their version of TV, a death beam from an exploding star sucks the air from everyone’s lungs in an instant.

That wouldn’t make the stars at night any less pretty to look at. Just a lot less … interesting.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I really ought to be doing something useful. Express your condolences to my wife when you see her.