The Everlasting Siren Song of Space
Two movies released this year, Interstellar and The Martian, deal with the promise of space exploration. In the former, we are living on a doomed planet and only through the intervention of things we cannot understand do we learn how to escape en masse from this world and move onto another. In the latter, we have finally gotten to our neighboring planet, and one man must find a way to survive utterly alone on a cold and barren world. Both were major commercial successes, and stirred up our collective wistful dreams of Manifest Destiny across the stars.
We know this world will not hold us forever. In time, the sun will become too hot, and our little world will bake and all life on it will wither away. It is a fact as inescapable as that same sun rising in the morning. And even though none of us will survive to see that day, we can dream of our progeny millions of years in the future, and we can wish the best for them.
“The best” means getting out of here.
The Search for Adultier Adults
The horrifying moment when you’re looking for an adult but then you realize that you are an adult. So you look for an older adult, someone successfully adulting. An adultier adult.
As the meme goes, we all know the feeling of being entirely in over our heads and wishing someone could bail us out. That impulse, whether it takes the form of idolizing celebrities or politicians or scientists, or any one of the many flavors of religious fervor, is constant across societies.
When we look at the problems in front of us — global climate change, political unrest, disease, hunger, and violence — it’s all a bit much. Environmental scientists, educators, and activists of all stripes are prone to bouts of depression and terror as we confront issues on a global scale. We have good ideas, but we have no road map for how to fix all this. We, as a species, are alone and more than a little afraid on our little blue marble.
A civilization that has gotten through this rough patch in history, even if it’s one we could never contact, would be a beacon of hope for everyone trying to save the world. Somebody made it. It’s possible.
I want to tell you a story about canals.
Percival Lowell was in love with canals. Not canals in general, but Martian canals: the phantom lines seen in the telescopes and minds of astronomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born of low quality optics and the endless ability of the human mind to create patterns where none exist, the canals took on a life of their own in the public consciousness. No one was more swept away in the fervor than Lowell.
He decided to dedicate his life to astronomy, and particularly the observation of Mars, after reading Camille Flammarion’s La planète Mars. He built a fantastic telescope in isolated Arizona, to better see the planet he loved. He sketched his own maps of the canals he believed were there, and penned three volumes about Mars as the home of an ancient, intelligent civilization.
Nothing about what he saw or wrote wound up being true. The canals were never there. But his love of that story, his wholehearted and wrongheaded embrace of the impossible, fueled real scientific endeavors. Pluto was discovered at Lowell’s observatory. His dreams fed the dreams of great science fiction writers, who kept Mars in the hearts and minds of the public for generations.
Good things happen when we let ourselves fall in love with the promise of the unknown, even when those good things may break our hearts.
So, is it Aliens?
Chances are, we are going to get our hearts broken again. KIC 8462852, more likely than not, is a normal-ish star with a weird little dwarf companion that’s screwed up its Oort cloud (or Oort cloud equivalent), sending waves of icy bodies in towards the star. The swarm of comet tails streaking across that alien sky would be enough obstruction to account for what we are seeing on Earth. And it’s quite a thing to picture, placing yourself in an imaginary spacecraft in orbit of that ordinary star, surrounded on all sides by colorful streaks of delicate gasses.
But that can’t be what we hope for.
We need to get our hopes up. We need to get excited about the possibility, to imagine what life would be like if this is the generation that discovers the first evidence of a civilization outside our little world. We need to let ourselves get carried away in possible scenarios, to gossip about the worlds that could be and the futures our great-grandchildren could have. We need to imagine cantinas full of monsters and little green men and starships ferrying strange intelligences across the galaxies. Getting excited is how we get funding. It’s how we get the energy to do all the work to make a better future possible.
KIC 8462852 is exciting because it looks like exactly what people hunting for extrasolar civilizations have been looking for all along. The pattern of light obstruction are what you would see if an advanced civilization was collecting a significant percentage of the light from its star to use for energy. And harnessing solar energy on that kind of scale would be a mandatory step for any civilization considering leaving the rock it evolved on and making its way into space proper. They could be our adultier adults, our big brothers in the cosmos.
And when it turns out they’re not, we have to pick ourselves back up. We need to fearlessly embrace the real story, even as it demolishes the stories we fell in love with. And we need to have the courage the next time something weird happens to fall in love again anyway.