Under the Gargoyle

Star Light, Star Bright?

byRobert J. Bliwise

As Bill Cochran sees it, there's a plodding routine to his plotting routine. But his grand-scale accounting is no ordinary effort: It takes him through barriers of time and space.

A couple of nights every month, Cochran aims the 107-inch diameter telescope of Texas' McDonald Observatory at thirty-six stars. What he has been plotting--over years and years--are changes in the velocities of stars. He looks for signs of "stellar reflex motion," meaning a wiggle in a star's orbit. A higher frequency on the light spectrum signals movement toward our earthly observation point; a lower frequency signals movement away (a variation on the familiar example of the approaching train sounding off at high frequency and the distant train at low frequency). Such wiggling may point to something exerting a gravitational tug on the star--most likely a planet.

Cochran '72, a physics major at Duke who earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Princeton, is a research scientist with the observatory and the University of Texas at Austin. He runs a program that searches for planetary systems around stars. "A year ago, when all our research was not turning up anything, I was a little bit worried that our solar system might be very rare or even unique," he says. "But now that we are indeed finding other systems, and have good possible candidates for other systems, it ap-pears that solar systems may be fairly common."

Back in January, astronomers announced the discovery of a pair of planets outside the solar system. As one of the discoverers described them, the new planets, orbiting stars in the Big Dipper and the constellation Virgo, "almost smell like planets in our own solar system." They are gaseous, Jupiter-like planets; but they may be close enough to their suns to support life forms, perhaps free-floaters guzzling water high in their atmospheres. (The surfaces are too steamy for water to exist in liquid form.) The planets may be orbited by one or more still-to-be detected moons, a notion that also carries intriguing connotations for life.

Around the same time, images from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed thousands of objects thought to represent the faintest--and therefore the farthest and oldest--galaxies ever observed. When scientists extrapolate beyond the small "patch of ordinary sky" captured by Hubble, they arrive at a hugely expanded estimate of the number of galaxies in the universe--around 50 billion, an instant quintupling of the old estimate. It's a figure, Cochran points out, that is of course incomprehensible to the human mind.

Cochran says he wishes he could have claimed the distinction of planetary discoverer. But he has had his astronomically astounding moments: In the summer of 1994, his McDonald Observatory team played a key role in documenting an explosive event in the recent history of the solar system--pieces of a comet, named Shoemaker-Levy 9, col-liding with Jupiter. "I thought back to the formation of the solar system. The early history of the planets was governed by these catastrophic events, including the giant impact that allegedly killed the dinosaurs. Intellectually, I knew that before, but actually seeing giant fireballs coming out of the atmosphere of Jupiter was quite an experience."

Those new planets, because they are so massive and relatively close to their star, are relatively easy to detect, Cochran says. Techniques are improving; and with a new telescope, he expects to expand his star sample from thir-ty-six to about a thousand. He's watching "several systems that look very promising" for planets. Within the next decade or so, he predicts, astronomers will be charting more than gaseous giants here and there; they'll be unraveling entire arrays of planets, beginning to figure out how they formed and associating them with particular types of stars.

"The discoveries are not really surprising," he says. "Whenever you develop new technologies, you expect to find new things. Looking back over the past twenty years, astronomy has been always at the dawn of some new era. Those new eras are coming fast and furiously. There are constant advances being made, and the field is unfolding right before us, like physics in the early 1900s."

It's hard for him not to weigh "the ultimate implications" of his astronomical assays. "As people walk outside at night and look up at the stars, they should now realize that those stars are indeed very much like our sun. At least some of them have planets around them. If there are Jupiter-like planets, maybe there are Earth-like planets. And if there are Earth-like planets, maybe there is life elsewhere in the universe."

Such speculating leads Sy Mauskopf, a historian of science at Duke, to reflect on the continued "de-centering" of humanity. That de-centering may have begun with Galileo and his telescope. Even though he was obliged to recant the idea that Earth moves around the Sun, Galileo stuck with the assertion that the Moon and other planets are Earth-like bodies. Darwin declared that man was no longer unique and separate biologically from other creatures. Insights into animals--including a Duke researcher's observing orangutans that modify sticks to scoop up insects, fruit, and honey--has dislodged humanity a bit more from the front and center of the universe.

And, Mauskopf wonders, just how improbable is the appearance of life on a planet? At least on this planet, the geological evidence more and more suggests, not at all improbable. "If life were just a random conjunction of coincidences, then we wouldn't expect it to appear for a long time after the Earth cooled," he says. "In fact, it seems life appeared about 500 million years after the last cataclysm." In geological terms, rather instantaneous.

Not just through our discoveries, but through our inventions as well, we might be the authors of our own "de-centering." Chess champion Gary Karparov struggled in his February match over chess-playing IBM computer Deep Blue. The human power of abstract judgment, in the end, overcame the programmed power of concrete calculation. But the match left unresolved a basic question for this age of discovery: If we do succeed in building machines that, by some measure, out-think us, whom do we celebrate--the silicon monster or the human minds behind the monster?

Silicon monsters from our own hands, in-telligent monsters from the animal kingdom, alien monsters from those far-away planetary systems--we're exhilarated and unsettled by such notions.

We have a hard time accepting "de-centering," says Willie Jennings Ph.D. '93, an assistant professor in the divinity school. "The most important thing to recognize about 'de-centering' man is that it shows the discomfort we have at placing anything else at the center other than ourselves." A fan of science fiction shows, Jennings says that a series like Star Trek reveals "a propensity to see ourselves as a part of the salvation of the universe"; even remote aliens will look like us and, more often than not, conveniently speak English.

So does the unraveling of the mysterious universe inspire awesome regard for the di-vine, or does it just point to the puniness of humanity? Historically, according to historian Mauskopf, science has encompassed religion; historically, science has extended to "the comprehension of nature, including the agency behind nature and the values and ultimate goals within nature. The assumption was that there was a design, a purpose in nature--and not just in nature, but in our own lives as well. Otherwise, those lives are just absurd blips." God's greatness was testified to by the book of Scripture and the book of Nature, both of which would validate the idea of a divine architect. Even the law of gravitation, uncovered by Newton, could be seen as an element of the architectural vision.

Since the scientific revolution, though, the tendency has been to shed the spiritual side of science. Science is reduced, then, to the comprehension of nature. If evolution--or, for that matter, the expansion of the universe--is a self-sustaining mechanism, we don't need agency, design, or purpose.

But if our science is devoid of divine con-siderations, that's not true of our science fiction--the same science fiction that has long speculated about the otherworldly encounters given new credence by astronomy. Says the divinity school's Jennings, "Science fiction is the projecting of our hopes and dreams as well as our social conditions onto space. And it is clear that with science fiction, we give ourselves permission to imagine the theological." Ironically, there are few other arenas in popular culture that celebrate "the power of the religious imagination and theological reflection to shape inner lives, to create desires, to set people on the right path."

In Jennings' view, communication with inhabited planets could spell the end of human history as we know it--a human history of only incremental advances in understanding. But such communication wouldn't necessarily spell the end of religion as we know it. "Religious belief nurtures the ability or the desire to imagine what the future might be like, what the universe might be like, to imagine a God who has created on other planets." Contact with previously unknown beings, with previously unknown capacities and beliefs, "is not a basis for jettisoning" a system of faith or, as Jennings puts it, for developing "false humility."

For now, the evidence of other worlds comes quite indirectly, through measurement of planetary pull on stars. For future searches, NASA is proposing a new generation of space telescopes. Because of the mind-boggling distances involved, signs of life would probably come through radio waves rather than through visual evidence (including saucer sightings). Some privately-funded researchers are using a radio telescope and a data-crunching supercomputer in the so-called Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: They're probing a swatch of the sky and listening to a frequency band that, they reason, is universally appeal-ing for communication. "It's one of those ex-ercises that has a low chance of success," says astronomer Cochran. "But we have to do it be-cause, if we are successful, the consequences are absolutely staggering."

If this is a Darwinian universe, where the fiercest survive by zapping the more vulnerable, alien contact might threaten more than our belief systems. But what if tens of billions of new galaxies, and an only slightly less daunting number of planetary systems, add up to no signs of life at all? A lifeless outer space might "re-center" humanity. It would, though, make us very lonely in the universe.

Copyright 1996 Duke University. All rights reserved.
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