Who hasn’t stared into the starry night and felt — you know — alone?
Well, seems there are a lot of neighborhoods in our universe and over the past 20 years astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets. However, they’ve been either too big – too small – too hot or too cold to sustain life. But astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, says a newly discovered planet holds out the tantalizing prospect of being — just right.
TYSON: Yeah, yeah, its a jackpot actually. What we’ve always been curious about was whether any of them orbited their host star at the right distance where you could sustain liquid water- if you had an atmosphere. Nearly all of those planets were not in this ‘Goldilocks Zone.’ The one or few that were are huge Jupiter-sized planets where no one imagined that you’d have life on Jupiter. So, the holy grail in this exercise, was trying to find an Earth-sized planet in the Goldilocks zone around one of these stars, and that’s what was just announced.
GELLERMAN: This Goldilocks planet- the one that’s outside of our solar system, does it have a name?
TYSON: Uh, yeah, well it’s GLEEZ-581G (?).
GELLERMAN: It kind of rolls of the tongue.
TYSON: I know, and Gleez is the name of the catalog. 581that’d be the number in the catalog. G is the Gth object found the system- so it’s not a lone planet in orbit around the single star- there’s other stuff there. And, so that’s part of what’s exciting about it is that it’s a star system that it’s a part of. It’s where many of the exo-planets have been found.
GELLERMAN: So, what exactly is an exoplanet?
TYSON: That’s just a word that we give to planets outside of our own solar system. So, we’ve got our 8… get over it. (Laughs).
TYSON: And then we go to other stars and they’ve got planets of their own. And, they used to be called extra-solar-planets, but that’s too many syllabuls and unnecessary, so, they’re exoplanents. And then there’s the field of study that is in search of life and it’s exobiology. The exo is what gets you out of our own solar system
GELLERMAN: In exo-biology the ex could also be for extreme biology.
TYSON: Yes, in fact, excellent perceptive point. There’s biology on earth thriving in extreme conditions that would kill us post-haste. And, we call those extremophiles, actually, lovers of extreme environments. That has allowed people who look for life elsewhere in the universe to cast a much wider net of the conditions under which they think life might thrive. Simply because of the broad conditions that we find life thriving here on earth- high temperature, low temperature, high pressure, high radiation- and you say ‘hey, wait a minute! It doesn’t just need a room temperature warm pond.’ If it can thrive in all these conditions- bacteria life that is- then why can’t we look in many more places than we have before?
GELLERMAN: Yeah, it turns out that life is so tenacious, it really can exist in very extreme conditions.
TYSON: Right. Not all life- there’s some life that can, and does and thrives. And, what it means is, if you need intelligent life to have a warm pond- then you can just forget it (laughs). Figure out how to talk to bacteria and that might be all you’ll be finding. But, none-the-less, it would still be remarkable to find life of any variety out there, even if it’s just single-celled life.
GELLERMAN: But if we went to an exo-planet, we could literally trip over something and we might not know it’s life.
TYSON: Yeah, that’s an interesting philosophical point. Whether there could be forms of life that are beyond our awareness, or our capacity to even register as life- and I once sat a little too long with a philosopher and he said “I wonder if rocks are alive”- I said ‘Ok, I’m done with this coversation.”
TYSON: (Laughs). I’m sorry- I’m not going with you there on that one, alright? Take that one back to the philosophy coffee lounge. But, normally when we think of life we think of a metabolism, and ability to process energy, we think of it’s ability to make copies of it’s self. But, now, by the way, biologists, as much as they might celebrate the diversity of life on earth, at the end of the day, they have to confess that they have only a sample of one. Because all life on earth has common DNA. All life we’ve ever investigated- oak trees, lobsters, jellyfish, humans. And, as a result, we’re not really in a position to assert what the minimum criteria for life should be. And so, that’s an unfortunate situation and part of what feeds this eager search for life elsewhere in the universe and nearby stars.
GELLERMAN: In astronomy, nearby is a relative term.
TYSON: (Laughs) I should have made that clear! This one is about 20 light years away- which if you wanted to visit it on the very fastest space craft we have ever launched- it would take about 300,000 years. SO you need really fertile people on board this spacecraft, or just be happy with the telescopes. I’d rather just stay at home on Earth. I’d be happy just looking at it through a telescope- staying at home on Earth and using my telescope to check it out.
GELLERMAN: Well, the Russians are going to be launching a space hotel soon. Within five years. Have you heard about that?
TYSON: Yeah, well, you know everyboday…here’s the problem… normally we are at the head of this innovation and entrepreneurship, and my big concern is, just as an American, that the rest of the world has discovered space. We know that. China has just sent a mission to the moon just a few days ago, and here we are trying to convince ourselves and Congress that it’s a cool thing to do. And, people aren’t listening strongly in America as they are listening in other countries. So, sure, more power to them. Put up a hotel. And then that means they collect our rent, that’s just how that goes.
GELLERMAN: Well, I’m just thinking about all the frequent-flier miles I could have by going to this Russian hotel actually.
DE GRASSE TYSON: (Laughs) I bet they’d have to recalculate what the unit of reward is.
GELLERMAN: Frequent light-years, actually.
TYSON: That’s right.
GELLERMAN: Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson. He’s director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. T, always a pleasure.
TYSON: Thanks for having me!
Photo Flickr/CC PBSPress