The science news wires are buzzing about NASA/Kepler’s discovery of two roughly earth-sized planets. “An encouraging sign that humans can someday find other life-friendly worlds,” bubbles the New York Times. Admittedly, both planets, designated Kepler 20e and 20f, are a bit on the warm side at 800 and 1400 degrees Fahrenheit respectively (that’s in the shade).
Meanwhile, the very same day, the New Scientist gives a surprisingly favorable review to a new book with a different and more austere message: Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique, by cosmologist John Gribbin. Writes reviewer Valerie Jamieson:
The Milky Way is just one of a trillion galaxies in the observable universe and contains just as many stars. As the haul of planets we discover around those stars grows, so does the feeling that it’s only a matter of time before we find someone else sharing our cosmic patch.
In Alone in the Universe, John Gribbin dares to shatter that myth. Chapter by chapter, he describes how we are anything but an ordinary intelligence, living on an ordinary planet around an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy. Instead, our existence relies on a series of remarkable cosmic coincidences.
It sounds remarkably like the case Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards make in Privileged Planet. Gribbin, though, gets a pass for two reasons. First, because he puts an environmental-catastrophic spin on his conclusion:
Gribbin makes any ideas of decamping to another Earth-like planet in the future seem absurd. Our telescopes might find seemingly similar planets around other stars, but these worlds will inevitably be nothing like ours. He concludes that we must look after the extraordinary planet we have. It has survived far worse catastrophe than climate change and will go on, but we won’t.
(Gonzalez and Richards: “Why didn’t we think of that?”)
Second, because he cleverly inoculates himself against any suspicion — which would naturally come up given his thesis — of harboring thoughts of intelligent design. I don’t know if this figures in his current book but he’s written elsewhere that the universe gives evidence of design. But don’t get any smart ideas! That’s not “intelligent design,” he warned in an article in the Telegraph last year, but rather design by “a technologically advanced civilization in another part of the multiverse,” “designers [who] make universes by manufacturing black holes.” In Expelled, Richard Dawkins voiced openness to the same speculative type of hypothesis.
The problem with ID, of course, is that it leaves open the possibility — not dictated by the scientific evidence but compatible with it — that the intelligence behind nature may have a moral interest in us, having communicated already with humanity in the past, and might try to boss you around in your private affairs.
With hypothetical advanced aliens residing at a safely distant address in the hypothetical multiverse, that is — to the relief of folks like Gribbin, Dawkins, and the New Scientist — manifestly not the case.
Image credit: Kepler 20e, NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech