Sunday, August 26, 2012

Whoops, There's Another One

One interesting wrinkle of contemporary astronomy is that we're finding planets everywhere we look.  It's now inescapable that there are more planets in the universe than there are stars.

And how many stars are there?  Well, current estimates range from ten sextillion to 1 septillion.  To get an idea of how big a septillion is, if you had been spending 1000 dollars a minute since the age of Charlemagne, and if your septillion dollars were in a bank making two percent interest, you wouldn't have touched the principal yet.  Nor would you.  Ever.

(I made that up, so don't break out the old calculator, but I think it's true, with a lot of change to spare.)

The point is there's an unimaginable number of stars, and that number is smaller than the number of planets.  You could visit a different planet each second for a billion years and still have room in your passport for more stamps.  Not to mention frequent-flyer miles like you couldn't believe.  You could take a plane to work every morning and still not use them all up.

Of course, you wouldn't want to visit most of these worlds, and in fact you wouldn't survive your one-second drop-in on the vast majority of the ones we've discovered so far.  Many of them are all gas, others are barren rocks, some are frozen at almost absolute zero, others are literally boiling.  Some are boiling on one side and frozen on the other.  Some of them are covered entirely in thick liquefied gases, a never-breaking tidal wave circling them, staying on the side facing their star as they rotate.  Some are so big their gravity would instantly turn you into a glistening film a couple of molecules thick.  Hundreds of millions of them don't even have a star to call their own; they got yanked out of orbit and floated away and now wheel silently through the freezing dark, waiting for some foolish space traveler to rear-end them.  Some of them are exactly like Trenton, New Jersey.  (With numbers--probabilities--as vast as these, it's hard to imagine any possibility that isn't going to be actualized somewhere.)

Making up for those planets that have deserted their stars, it's widely believed that about half the universe's stars are in binary or even trinary arrangements, orbiting each other, so zillions of planets have two or three suns.  Some planets are so close to their sun that they gradually spiral into its surface.  Some have suns that expand and contract, brighten and dim, regularly.  Some planets cling hopelessly to radio stars, massive lightless objects that sizzle with radioactive energy, a kind of dark sunshine.  Some of these planets, if the image below is to be believed, look like a marble orbiting a pizza.

When the discussion turns to exoplanets, lots of people want to cut to the biological chase: is life a local phenomenon, like the weather, or distributed through the universe?  If it's the latter, how many of these newly-discovered  worlds could sustain life?  I think there are three or four possible motivations for this question: to find out whether we're alone in the universe; to raise a sticky issue for religious fundamentalism; to expand our dating possibilities; to hear how the other person might answer the question.  Me, I don't much care.  

As astonishing and full of grace as individual human beings can be, as a whole we're polluters and wastrels of the worst kind. It's hard for me to believe that the inhabitants of exoplanets are high-foreheaded, shimmering translucent beings who emit music as they move and think in benign algorithms. I'm more inclined to believe that they're a little like us, since we're all likely to be made out of the same materials.  About the most I can work up is a mild interest in hearing the poetry and music from those worlds, learning whether their inhabitants have solved the problems of pain and death, and whether they've found a way to create political structures that, over time, don't ineluctably shed the principles that once inspired them and evolve into ever more efficient ways of exploiting the weak.  

Nature, as Tennyson observed, is red in tooth and claw.  But not on Mars, it's not.  There's something pristine and crystalline about that still, silent stone-littered worldscape.  I'll bet the vast methane ice-caves of Titan are breathtaking, if there were any breath in the vicinity to take.  As we cut down the last of the old-growth forests, as we burn off the chaotic genetic tangle of the Amazon basin, as we kill each other over insane belief systems that were antiquated centuries ago, I sort of hope all those gazillions of planets, or at least most of them, are as untouched as the crystals in the center of an uncut geode.  Just there.  Emptiness is okay.  

The planet we inhabit came into being about four and a half billion years ago, and life erupted on it about a billion years later.  This means that the universe did just fine without us or our terrestrial forebears for ten and a half billion years.  Things beyond our imagining expanded, condensed, formed, ignited, exploded, froze, boiled, and did the gravity dance with no supervision, or at least none I'm willing to accept.  From the tiniest quark to the Great Attractor, everything seems to have worked as it should.  And in addition to all that, it was beautiful.

So glisten away, exoplanets.  Sweep through the heavens empty and immaculate.  Let's hope no one is coming to plunder your treasures and darken your skies.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Just beautiful, Tim. Kurt Vonngut would have been proud of you!

  2. Yet all the hype seems to be about the 'Goldilocks' planets - the ones just right to sustain life as we know it. Apart from anything else, it's a really hard scientific problem to determine if a planet is in just the right zone or not. No one's really convinced so far. But the numbers that Tim invented certainly suggest there are lots of them out there...somewhere.

  3. Just think of the possibility - There could be as many books as there are planets!

  4. Twinkle, Twinkle little star,
    How I wonder what you are.
    Up above the world so high,
    Like Tim Hallinan's wit so spry.

  5. Well, let's see, Tim. I just happen to HAVE a calculator handy (and I KNOW how important to you it is to be accurate in these things...)

    Based upon the best current estimates, your number of a septillion stars is right in the ballpark. That's a 1 followed by 24 zeroes. If you put that in the bank and earned 2% interest, you'd be earning a 2 followed by 22 zeroes in interest every year. Now, there's 365 days in a year (we'll forget about that extra day every four years, what's a day amongst friends?) That's 548 followed by 17 zeroes dollars in interest every DAY. With 24 hours in most days, that comes to 228 followed by 16 zeroes dollars you'd be having to spend every hour. Divide that by 60, and you're spending 381 followed by 14 zeroes dollars every MINUTE. And, of course, with 60 seconds in a minute, that's a sum total of $10,600,000,000,000, about 10.5 TRILLION DOLLARS you have to spend EVERY SECOND. At that rate, in the time you've taken your next breath, you'd have MORE than paid off the ENTIRE U.S. national debt. A few more breaths, and you've paid off the personal, corporate and governmental debt of EVERY person, company and government within the U.S.

    I'd say you're going to need a REAL good shopper to spend your bucks if you don't want to be suffocated by all of them.

    For a true "gut feel" for the immensity, view this video:

    and keep in mind that each of those little smudges of light is an entire GALAXY containing BILLIONS, and often HUNDREDS of BILLIONS of stars. Galaxies like flakes in a snow storm!

    And the latest evidence and theories seem to point to our universe being just one tiny bubble in an immense froth of universes, like an immense boiling pot of broth, each rising bubble its own universe filled with incompreshensible wonder.

    Yes, Tim, the beauty of the Universe is enough to drive the human mind to stunned incoherence. Well, everyone but you... :-)

  6. There is such a sense of enormity and wonder in what you write. I can't even begin to think in terms of dollars. Just wondering about the number of beings that might be out there is overwhelming.

  7. This is a great response. I wrote this in a very short time last night, realizing about halfway through what I had been writing that I had been asked, in very gentle terms, to lay off the American political process for the time being. I had to come up with something far, far distant from American politics, and exoplanets seemed like just the thing.

    Lil, if extraterrestrial beings are out there (and they certainly are), there's a mob of them. I just hope they get along with each other better than we do.

    Everett, I put that parenthetical confession in the piece precisely because I knew that you'd rise to the challenge. Numbers this size are (I think) simply too big for us to comprehend biologically, especially when you realize it was only about 20,000 years ago that we learned to count on our fingers. But your comparison of it to the deficit -- less than two seconds' worth -- caught my attention. Well done! About the bubbles -- well, why not? As someone said, it's turtles all the way down. And why aren't you working on MAKING STORY?

    Rubble, rubble little rock
    Why are you inside my sock?
    One of zillions, that's real odd
    Oh, my Lord, I must be God

    Harvee, that's the first perspective anyone's suggested that makes my TBR pile look small.

    Michael, I think it's an absolute certainty that "goldilocks" planets, with life on them, are as common as fruit flies in a banana orchard. And what happens then to the Unique Creation of Mankind according to all the Deity Books?

    Annamaria, right -- "Sirens of Titan." Funny how prescient Vonnegut was -- Titan, as of about an hour ago, might be the most likely object in this dinky little solar neighborhood to be infected by -- sorry, to host -- life of some kind.

    1. No, Tim, infected was right. As I have said in these precincts before, mankind is an evolutionary mistake. We got so "intelligent" that we started multiplying and crawling all over this beautiful planet like vermin and acting as if we have a right to be in charge. I just knew you would also love the Sirens of Titan!!