Special in the Universe?

Are we special? Scientists have been asking that question for perhaps centuries. In various philosophical and religious ways, we have too.

The truth is that we don’t really know. Politicians, more assuredly, American politicians, feel obligated to say that America and Americans are special. The GOP, especially, bases its politics on a version of America having jingoistic trump (not with a big T) cards, one seen especially with the George W. Bush administration.

Americans justified an imperialistic vault into the West based on what we called “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that we are so special that displacing “inferiors,” more primitive than us, was fully justified because of a religious-based destiny our advanced Anglo-heritage brought. This attitude still guides many imperialistic ventures.

So the scientific basis of being a “Goldilocks” civilization is more widely intermixed with an anthropocentric bias we’ve universally developed with our “advancing” civilization.

Look at history.  Early people stood in wonder and appeasement with the gods, making bargaining-based sacrifices of various types to solicit the best deals utilizing imagined dominions by gods over our fortunes, impacted by weather and supernatural forces, this in terms of our prosperity in crop bounty and animal husbandry.

Our Christian leaders placed us, but mostly themselves, in the center of our known world and cast out purveyors of opposing views, like Copernicus, who said that the Earth was not the center of existence, but the Sun. Science slowly overcame superstition, and our solar system soon became the Universe.

Then, until Edwin Hubble discovered in the 1920s that vague objects known as the spiral nebulae were actually other galaxies, it was our own Milky Way that was the universe. Soon we saw our universe stretch and expand.

Now more than ever we are struck by the fortuitous position of our solar system some 26,000 light years from the galactic core, composed of a super-massive black hole, and the Goldilocks position we inhabit in our own galaxy. Too close, near the chaos of the black hole and star formation, and we’d be crushed; too far away and we’d be unmoored.

This lends continued thought to our specialness as a species in our singularly viable world. One of over 200 billion stars in our galaxy, which is in turn but one of an estimated several billion galaxies, we still feel gifted in our assumption that we are alone in our “Goldilocks” universe.

The Goldilocks position in our own galaxy perhaps extends in time and space to the whole universe. Cosmic time and space favor us. Our Sun has at least another billion years before it will fry us as its age leads to scorching heat. Our galaxy won’t collide with Andromeda for another several billion years, and even that might not be tragic for many Milky Way solar systems.

We exist in a universe producing much fewer stars. Other suns and planets are forming at an average rate barely 3 percent of that some 8 to 11 billion years ago. We came awake technologically soon enough to witness the vastness of the universe, one which will grow and separate galaxies in its rate of expansion to a point where astronomers will see, eons in the future, no evidence of galaxies near us.

Until we find evidence of life elsewhere, perhaps we will still feel superior in a universe some 13.8 billion years old, ballooning some 46 billion light years in its expansive state, much like a party balloon, but filled with a dark energy which continues to stretch it.

Even our search for extraterrestrial life is guided by our imagined specialness. If ET is out there, he must be somewhat like us and subject to the same exceptionalism that makes us viable.

Thus we look for the water planet, one the approximate size of Earth, one with a moon to control its rotation and orbit, to regulate ocean tides, one with a massive planet like Jupiter to build and protect a water planet like ours. We believe an atmosphere must shelter it from the worst of its sun’s rays, that a magnetic field must protect it. And it’s mostly a carbon-based life we are looking for.

We are looking for a second Earth. Perhaps metaphorically, it’s a fresh start, a virgin Earth enabling us to start over and do better this time, not despoiling, like a rapist, the new Earth’s virginity again.

Cynics among us might see discovery as another siege like the Spanish explorers conquering the Aztecs and leveling their population with plague or manifest destiny morphing into space and exploitation of its real estate. We certainly see examples of private companies burgeoning for colonization of the Moon and Mars with exploitation in mind, and government ceding Moon property rights of the people to private concerns.

Many of us are still mindful of our pitiful smallness, some explaining it with religious fervor, some casting with a cosmic fishing line of hope for scientific discovery, hoping something is out there that is better.

Perhaps the docile and the meek will not inherit the Earth, the Moon, and Mars – at least to start with. Maybe it will be the “specially” greedy among us.

Stay tuned for the next chapter.

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.