It’s full of planets!

A trickle becomes a flood becomes galactic ubiquity. That is the message from astronomers who from an analysis of data from optical telescopes infer that planets around stars are the rule rather than the exception. The implication is that the Milky Way is likely home to billions of Earth-like planets. And the ramification of that is something I shall leave up your fertile imaginations.

The discovery*, flight of rational fantasy, call it what you will, was to those of us who follow research into exoplanets always coming, but that has in no way lessened the impact of the announcement. It is staggering in its immensity, and the cultural narrative underlying the scientific report has within hours taken on a life of its own. Humanity alone in the universe? Though we have yet to find direct evidence of extraterrestrial life, it seems inevitable that it exists. In abundance.

So where does this leave us as a thinking, enquiring, telescope peering species? Exalted, I would say, rather than relegated to the status of mere specks in the cosmos. This soulless, mechanistic universe, once dissected mathematically by Isaac Newton and later bemoaned literarily by William Blake, has once again become a poetic marvel. It is a truly awesome universe that can give birth to intelligent life and consciousness, as is the thought of lifeforms such as we semi-evolved bipeds reaching out to find and possibly communicate with others across the galaxy.

* Cassan et al., “One or more bound planets per Milky Way star from microlensing observations”, Nature 481, 167 (2012)