Nautilus

Goodbye Copernicus, Hello Universe

When Copernicus told us more than 400 years ago that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, he could hardly have imagined that it would lead this far. At the hands of astronomy and cosmology, we seem to have been reduced to near nothingness, specks within slivers of time and space, inside specks that are themselves entire universes. But how should we interpret this fact? Does this ultimate extension of the Copernican narrative seal our infinitely mediocre fate? The question is more complex than it initially seems.


It’s easy to feel unimportant

It starts in our own galactic backyard, around the star Alpha Centauri B. Last year, we discovered that our neighbor harbors at least one world [1].1 It’s not the kind of place we’d call home, mind you. Its year is only three days long. Its surface temperature may be more than a thousand degrees Celsius—enough to melt silicate rock. You would be immersed in scorching mineral vapor on arrival, flash cooking your lungs—that is, before you exploded in an evaporative puff.

But it is Earth-sized, and it is only four light years away. There could be other, more temperate planets in this system. These worlds would, in turn, be merely the nearest motes among our cosmic neighbors. Our Milky Way galaxy has more than 200 billion stars, and is one of a few hundred billion galaxies [2] in the observable universe. And we have learned in the last few years that a flotsam and jetsam of worlds forms around this dizzying starscape with a shocking degree of efficiency. (See Planet Detection)

In 1995, we detected the first planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets) around sun-like stars. Since then, the count of known exoplanets has rocketed to a few hundred, with 2,700 robust candidates and as many as 18,000 stars in need of further study. Some star systems are positively bursting with worlds, packed into orbits that hover at the hairy edge of gravitational chaos. In fact there may easily be many more planets than there are stars in the universe—which means hundreds of sextillions of planets, small and big, hot and cold, and, probably, some vaguely like our own Earth. Indeed, recent analyses [3] suggest that at least 15 percent of all stars may have Earth-sized planets orbiting within the zone where liquid water might exist on their surfaces. 

Life on these planets is appearing increasingly likely, too. We’ve learned in recent years that the cosmos is filled with the very same building blocks that life on Earth uses. Look outwards and you’ll find that more than 70 percent of the molecules drifting in interstellar space contain carbon atoms, which, with their spare valence electrons, are fantastically good at bonding with other elements.

Outer space, it turns out, is

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