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Monday, 25 January 2016

Dark Star

If I'd been born before the 1930's the Solar System would have ended at Neptune. Then some bright spark discovered Pluto. At that time the size of the Universe would have been restricted to the Milky Way. Then Hubble and others extended our vision by some billions of light years.

New Horizons has stunned us with the news from Pluto. A piece of planetary debris a long way away from our sun's emanations is not as we thought dead but surprisngly active. Closer to home, Saturn's moon Enceladus has water shooting out of its surface. It has an ocean underneath its icy core. Titan, another of Saturn's off springs has a chemistry that  produces complex molecules and the precursor to life.

All this is taking place a long, long way from the Goldilocks zone at temperatures where water freezes into metal.

Jupiter is no less exciting. Its moon Europa, deeply ice covered, would appear to have an ocean that is abysmal. Its waters, heated by tidal forces that act on the moon, interact with its core to produce complex chemical reactions - and life? It would appear that Arthur C Clarke was not far wrong.

It wasn't that long ago that the Kuiper Belt was unknown, or the Oort Cloud the imaginings of a fertile Estonian mind. Now we're planning deep space missions to plunge the mysteries of Saturn's moons and Europa's watery core. Mind you we've Lake Vostok and her sisters to plumb here on Mother Earth with the prospect of life forms as yet undiscovered and eons off our evolutionary path.

Speculation about a Neptune sized planet in the Kuiper Belt shouldn't be so surprising. Why, it would appear that space may be littered with planets zillions of miles away from any star. Earths expelled from paradise and forced to wonder in the void. Some may be captured by passing stars to join an existing planetary system. Just imagine a few billion interstellar migrants turning up on our door step. Others to wander lonely as a cloud 'til all the stars dim and the cosmos falls silent.

Our ancestors were unconcerned that we might be the sole inhabitants of our Universe. In fact our uniqueness was celebrated. God's specific creation, and any thought of other life anywhere else was frowned upon. Just ask Giordano Bruno.

Now the prospect of our solitude is worrying. We crave for evidence that we are not unique, that we are not an infinitesimally small accident, that we are not alone in a dark, unreasoning cosmos.

The Gods may have been unreasonable, cruel and fickle, but they had a relationship with us. we could talk to them. They may not always listen but sometimes they did. Science just explains: actually it doesn't even do that. It gives us plausible fictions but they are deeply unsatisfactory.

"Interstellar", "Contact", "Star Trek" and "Star Wars", they all serve our deep need to be be more than just a small dot in a silent universe, full of billions upon billions of firing synapses conjuring up the  mirage of consciousness and meaning.

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