Several days ago, I remember reading about an important announcement from NASA that there would be an important announcement the next day. Being a skeptical man, I was thinking pretty much what most were probably thinking (“If this doesn’t have something to do with aliens, I just don’t care, life on Earth is already crazy enough.”) And then I woke up the next day and read the news that NASA had just discovered 7 new, Earth-like planets in a nearby galaxy, three of which that were not only in the Habitable Zone, but were also likely to have water! Basically what this means is that these new planets are the best chance we have so far of (possibly) discovering alien life. So I’d say that’s a good balance between what I wanted to hear about and what I was realistically going to hear, so I guess I should be excited! Though you’d never know it considering how “excited” everyone around me was (they couldn’t possibly have cared less, if they’d even heard the announcment).
In all seriousness, I’ve begun to appreciate nature and the cosmos more often as I’ve gotten older, partly because of maturity, but mostly because of nature/science documentaries narrated by British dudes. And anyone who enjoys stargazing at night doesn’t need to be convinced how mesmerizing it is. However, it seems like the majority of us on this planet are so wrapped up in the issues of our own lives that it often feels like a waste of our precious time to pay attention to news that is not of this world. Actually, it is anything but. In fact, it would be a waste of our time not to.
These new planets exist in a planetary system known as TRAPPIST-1. These mysterious planets orbit a dwarf star that is exceptionally cool, especially when compared to our own sun, uncommonly known as Sol (hence the name Solar system), which dwarfs TRAPPIST-1 in size as well. All seven of these planets could potentially hold liquid water on their surfaces, which is the most important factor of all. This all sounds fantastic, except for the fact that none of this will matter if we don’t put in effort to get there in the first place, seeing as how TRAPPIST-1 is over 39 light years away (that’s roughly 234 trillion miles…..yeah).
So why should this matter to you, the average, everyday person? Well, truthfully, this is where it gets tricky, because it really depends on whether you’re the type of person who prefers to live firmly in the present or a long-term thinker that likes to ponder the big picture. Firstly, it matters because studying these planets could answer a myriad of questions about life itself that we’re still ignorant to (Is life on Earth truly an anomaly or is it common? Can any life exist without liquid water?).
Secondly, it matters because, frankly, that’s just how progress works. You get yourself a scientist and have them discover something important, then you have them apply said thing to everyday life, and then you get them to go and discover more stuff, rinse and repeat. You don’t make one scientific breakthrough and then reward yourself by giving up and letting assuming someone else will take it from there. Whether it’s that smart phone you love so much, the car you drive, or the fact that you (almost certainly) don’t have polio, everything you take for granted today wouldn’t be here if we had listened to the people who undoubtedly argued that pursuing these scientific goals was a waste of time, and that we should’ve been pursuing “higher” goals like hunting witches and preventing race mixing.
Thirdly, taking an interest in the cosmos matters because it gives us a much needed sense of perspective. When mankind landed on the moon in the 1960’s, public interest in outer space was at an all time high because this was the first time a human being had ever set foot on a surface that was not our own. You don’t need me to tell you that was a monumental moment in human history. But as the glow of what we had just accomplished faded and the hardships of our world crept back into our lives we inevitably lost interest in the stars and went back to all of our petty conflicts that feel like the most important problems in the world to us.
For some reason, our chosen candidate winning the presidential election or our favorite sports team winning the big championship game makes us feel larger than life. Like we’ve actually accomplished something. What we need most right now is to be reminded just how small we are, and staring into the stars has a tendency to do that. There’s a reason I keep using the word we. Because society need to be reminded that in the eyes of history, for all intents and purposes (and I mean this in the nicest way possible), you and your problems don’t matter….we matter. Not just you. All of us. Our culture matters. The health and beauty of our planet matters. Not just you. All of us.
A thousand years from now (if we’re still around), history will not remember when the Patriots won the Super Bowl or that one time Kim Kardashian made a sex tape because neither of those things contributes to the human race in any meaningful way (at least not in the long run). What history will remember is the choices we made to improve our world, how we treated each other, and whether or not we listened to our natural curiosity that told us we need to go further, beyond the moon.
There are approximately 10 billion galaxies in the known universe, which likely means trillions of stars, and that’s just what we can currently observe! It doesn’t matter how far away they are, we need to begin the process of exploring this new frontier before we ravage our planet’s natural wonder and resources, not after, and for the time being, the planets of TRAPPIST-1seem to be the most promising candidate for that next step. But in order to even hope to get there, in our lifetime or otherwise, we’re gonna have to start actually caring about them.