An exciting piece of news crossed the television screen last week, sandwiched between a missing airplane (“Breaking news: Searchers still have not found Malaysian Flight 370.) and Russian troops daring the Ukraine army to come out and play.
The news was the discovery of a planet that may be capable of supporting life as we know it. It didn’t get a lot of play – couple mentions during the day and it was done – but it’s pretty big news in the history of human-kind. It is the first planet that is both the right size and the right distance from its sun for its climate to possibly have water and other features essential to human existence.
It wasn’t really all that long ago we Earthlings thought we were the center of everything. Some of us still do. We watched the sun and moon “come up” on one side of us and “go down” on the other and knew that we were the pin that kept everything in place.
But for those of us who know this whirling glob of molten rock and crusted mud is merely one among many, last week’s announcement was to be cautiously hailed.
As Jody Foster’s character’s father told her in the movie “Contact,” “I guess I’d say if it is just us … seems like an awful waste of space.”
I’ve long held to that idea, and often have confided to children and other believers that to get to my home, you fly to the “second star to the right and straight on till morning.” (I used to live next door to Peter Pan, you see.) I’ve ridden along with Carl Sagan and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke and known there are more worlds out there and often thought it would be great to be a reporter traveling among them the way we do among counties and nations on this planet.
But those little specs of twinkle in our night sky are a long way off. Some are so far away that they ceased to exist millions of years ago and their light is only just now reaching us.
I used to stand on the shore in early spring and watch a man across the pond hammer nails into planks as he repaired his dock from the damage of winter ice. I would watch the hammer fall, and a second or so later hear the sound as it slammed the nail home. That was long before I studied such stuff, but I understood that light was way faster than sound.
Later. I discovered just how much faster. It’s difficult to truly comprehend the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second, or how far it can travel in an earth-year. For the mathematically challenged among us (my calculator doesn’t have that many zeros, either), that’s about 5.9 trillion miles.
The potential Terra II announced last week and currently officially known as K186f – the latest deep space discovery of the Kepler telescope – is 500 light-years away from Good Old Terra I. If our grandkids could figure out how to make warp drive work – and they may well – 16 generations of Earthlings would be born on the ship before it arrived at its destination to send back a message: “Peter Pan has landed. We are filling our water tanks.”
And 500 years later, if we haven’t burned this place up by then, we will light bonfires to celebrate the news.
Not long ago, we thought 60 miles per hour was pretty darn quick. But we found California, and then the Moon. All our kids need from us are some books to give them maps, and imagination to read them. The math, it turns out, is the easy part.