Endless Worlds Beckon
“You believe that?” asked the stranger.
Enoch said, “It was just an idle notion.”
“Not so idle,” said the stranger. “There are other planets and there are other people. I am one of them.”
Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
For a great many dark centuries, some of us speculated about the existence of worlds circling other stars, often speaking in whispers to others—if at all—for fear of being shunned as madmen or persecuted as heretics. Perhaps 200 years ago these primitive taboos lifted, and we began to dream of these worlds in earnest and construct elaborate theories “proving” that they were alternately common or rare, randomly scattered around their stars or bound in regimented orbits under Bode’s Law, familiar and comfortable or utterly alien. Who knew? Pick any combination, or none of the above.
Less than twenty years ago we had our first glimpses of massive planets dwarfing Jupiter, hotter than Mercury, and in many ways completely unexpected. Soon thereafter, we found a precious few new solar systems, most of them bizarre in configuration from our limited perspective and challenging our assumptions yet again.
In mere months, we will finally know the answer to a question asked over many ages and in many cultures. We will know a first approximation and for the first time—finally—how common tiny worlds like our own really are as the torrents of data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope are analyzed and understood. By inference, this will also be the first true indication of how common other life may be, as we inevitably seek the familiar: other cradles like our own scattered through the sky, warm and comfortable…and other eyes peeking out as we peek in?
It is an ancient dream come true, a staggering revelation, and a core validation of both the power of the human imagination and of our own ingenuity. In an earlier age…perhaps even as recently as fifty years ago… it would have marked the beginning of an epoch. In the modern period, will this profound milestone of human progress even be noticed?
We see them poorly through our slowly opening eyes, but they will be planets as we intuitively understand them—not sub-stellar gas giants or balls of glowing lava but bodies with definable surfaces, some with atmospheres whose compositions we may discern over the next few decades. Unfortunately, they will NOT be planets as the mass media has portrayed them, filled with exotic life-forms—many of whom are not only highly intelligent, but surprisingly attractive and available. Although (vanishingly unlikely as it may be) for all we know the planet Pandora of “Avatar” and/or the other multitudes of worlds in science fiction & fantasy may be real places, Kepler cannot identify them as such, nor can any present or anticipated future spacecraft or instrument. Barring a series of near-miraculous breakthroughs and, perhaps more importantly, a sustained will and effort of unprecedented proportions on the part of our species, practical interstellar travel is at least several centuries away, and that is the only means by which these fantasies can be realized…or, much more likely, superseded by a far more amazing reality.
Public expectations are high indeed for alien worlds. Dreams alone are not only cheaper and easier to produce than reality since the mid-20th Century; they can be demonstrably quite profitable. The entertainment industry has given the general public beautiful visions of what might be Out There, but too often at the expense of raising unrealistic expectations and thereby rendering the marvelous reality of true space exploration and discovery pale and lackluster by comparison in the minds of far too many…if they are indeed aware of it at all.
It is tragic, then, that this seminal moment soon to be upon us will in all probability produce a very momentary public sensation, only to be followed by an exponential drop in interest in a few days or, at most, weeks. There will be a flurry of media attention, doubtless intermingled with clips from popular movies and TV shows of aliens and fanciful landscapes, but then nothing further as the next scandal or disaster or the antics of erstwhile celebrities sweep our first true vision of alien planets like our own from the flickering screens like so many grains of glittering diamond sand.
However…we will know, some of us, and remember it with awe. We will know, now and forever, this truth so simple, profound, and powerful, as will all new generations after us. Like any other form of evolution, it is a statistical matter. A few will take this knowledge and use this power of a dream realized as a force for change, an impetus for further discovery to make less ancient dreams real. Some changes will be slow, some will be sudden…all will be towards an unimaginable future in a rich Universe in which—in our brief time on this infinite stage—we revealed endless worlds.
“Take a war to make you spend. Take a jam to make you think. Take a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around lazy, you. Pigs, you! All right, God damn you! I challenge you, me. Die or live to be great. Blow yourselves to Christ gone or come and find me, Gully Foyle, and I make you men. I make you great. I give you the stars.”
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1957)