Is there an Earth-like exoplanet in our galactic backyard? For those who stay on top of space news, you may have run across this rumor. The websites Universe Today, Discover Magazine, and Phys.org are running a tantalizing speculation that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will be announcing the discovery of a new, Earth-like exoplanet later this month. All three articles state that the planet to be announced is orbiting the star Proxima Centauri, which is a little over four light years away. The piece from Universe Today even speculates of a nanocraft that could reach this star within our lifetime. Needless to say, this has the potential of being some rather exciting news!
Having written for The Catholic Astronomer now for over a year, I have learned to be quite cautious about these type of rumors. One of the reasons is that anyone can go online and find an amazing amount of astronomy rumors and speculations on any given day - most of which are complete garbage. Time will tell whether these rumors are true or false. However, the reason I want to mention this is that, if the rumors are true, it will reawaken interest and curiosity in the age-old question, Is there life beyond our planet?
As I and others on our blog have reflected on in the past, the question of life outside of our planet is rather complex and difficult to answer. Do we mean simple forms of single cell life or life that would fit the definition of being made in God's Image and Likeness? Can science confirm life outside of our galaxy based on spectra data or is the best we can do be an affirmation of chemical markers consistent with life as we know it present on a distant planet? Given the philosophical and theological density of defining the human person, can science give a comprehensive definition of human life on our planet? If it can't, how can it look for life outside of this planet? Have the categories we use to define the person become so ingrained in our psyche that we need to revisit this idea as a culture? Or is our understanding of the human person chancing on a cultural level, setting us up for a great deal of confusion in the future? Since I am a parish priest and not a professional scientist, I am not qualified to give an exhaustive answer to these questions. Nevertheless, those who are far more educated than I in the sciences argue that the only way we can arrive at a definitive answer to these questions is through close observation and interaction. In other words, a close encounter.
On a personal level, these speculations about a "new Earth" seem a bit grandiose. The part that seems far fetched isn't the discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet. We have been hearing of these discoveries for quite some time now. Rather, to think that we could reach this planet through a nanocraft within our lifetime seems to be a bit of a reach. This reminds me that these type of rumors always need to be read with a grain of salt.
That being said, a question I often get as a Priest that is sparked by these type of rumors is this: Father, how do you think the discovery of life outside of our Solar System would impact the Church? The honest answer is, "I don't know." So much of this answer would depend on what kind of life is discovered and how it compares to life on Earth. Given our current technologies, this will be very hard to achieve.
Further, the more I grow in my love of astronomy and the sciences the more I am coming to appreciate the uniqueness of life in all its forms on our planet. I often wonder if scientists are too quick to use terms like "Earth-like" without giving a full explanation of the differences between a Super-Earth and our Common Home? I often wonder if the day will come when we discover life elsewhere and the conclusion will be that life on our planet is unique not because life can't be found elsewhere, but that life on Earth is unique to Earth just as life on another planet will be unique to that planet? This, of course, is merely speculation from a hobbyist. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the reality of discovery is often far more complex and beautiful than our presumptions. Therefore, let us keep our minds open, embracing the heart of adventure and discovery that is central to the human experience.
In light of this, I thought it would be good to revisit a lecture given by Br. Guy at the University of Arizona on the difficulties of defining life on Earth. Enjoy this video and let us work toward deepening our understanding of what it means to be human on this planet before we try to find life beyond our Common Home.