Some of us look at stars, like Pollux and Aldebaran, because they’re beautiful. Others do it to seek answers. I think I’m one of many who look at the sky for both reasons. For all of us, engineers of all stripes have imagined and developed tools to make these tasks easier and more fruitful. From binoculars to telescopes to space-based multifaceted marvels, the stargazing industry has become so sophisticated that what was once the stuff of science fiction is now a steady stream of undisputed scientific discovery.
Indeed, the study of stars is now as much about learning their properties as it is about looking for, describing, and finding out whether the planets in orbit around them – exoplanets – appear able to sustain life. The thing is, while all of the incredible technology has gotten us closer to that goal, the real issue that has yet to be addressed is what we’ll do when life is ultimately found.
That day seems more inevitable and probably closer than ever. Already, some 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered. So, much more to the point, if we accept the inevitability that, sooner or later, one of these very distant worlds supports life, isn’t it incumbent upon all of us to begin right now to ask ourselves – individually and globally – just what that means and whether it requires us to reexamine our behaviors?
Exoplanet hunting takes skill and equipment far beyond the backyard observer’s grasp. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t envision the day when astronomers announce that we’re not alone in the universe.
First, though, take a moment to consider that there are exoplanets around some very famous and very bright stars. It seems important to recognize that astronomers are not just looking for exoplanet-harboring candidates in some indecipherable catalog where stars are known only by a series of letters and numbers.
Let’s go back to those beautiful stars. Exoplanets orbit Pollux, in the constellation Gemini, and Aldebaran in Taurus. Both can be located by first finding Orion. It will be somewhat low in the west throughout April. Gemini will be to its east, while Taurus, north of the Hunter and appearing as a sideways “V,” might be easier to spot. Pollux and Aldebaran are alpha stars, the most prominent members of their constellations.
I’ve looked at them many times. I don’t need to look anywhere else to believe that planets are everywhere, and that eventually the data will show that at least one of them (other than Earth) supports life. I think one of the reasons I am so mesmerized by the sky is that it holds such promise. It holds the key for all of us to start thinking and acting collectively as a world, to shed the selfishness, fear and distrust that has led to so much horror even to this very day.
I look at Pollux, one of the twins of Gemini, and wonder how foolish we will feel knowing that life on other planets has for eons figured out how to get along without killing one another.
I look at Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull, and wonder how foolish we will feel fighting over chunks of land when there are so many entire planets with so much to learn about and learn from.
But, for way too many of us, “what ifs” don’t always promote change. They don’t promote nearly enough planning. They don’t promote the kind of sharing that brings all of us together. We learned that with Covid.
So, this month when I scan past Pollux and Aldebaran and probably past a thousand other stars that are part of planetary systems, I will hope that the “what if” of distant life becomes a reality. I will hope that such a discovery pushes all of us to consider the benefits of thinking of ourselves as part of something larger, of something that requires us to find more commonality while still being able to appreciate the differences that make us so special.