Astronomy: Gaia: A cautionary tale

Tom Burns - Stargazing

Powerful telescopes on Earth have revealed a tiny planet called Gaia orbiting a distant star. Seen through a telescope, the planet is perhaps the most beautiful in the universe. It is a shimmering ball of blue, life-giving water partly covered by brilliant, white clouds.

Land masses jut upward from its oceans. They are tapestries of yellow, brown and green. Green! That color tells us that Gaia teems with life. Radio and television broadcasts tell us that Gaia has even developed a race of intelligent beings who call themselves Gaians.

Those Gaians have developed primitive space travel, and they have sent small capsules into close orbit around their planet. When the Gaians asked their astronauts what impressed them about their trips into space, they invariably replied that it was not the beauty of the continents and oceans but the view of Gaia’s atmosphere.

When these space travelers looked along Gaia’s horizon, they could see the atmosphere, thin and tenuous as a soap bubble, surrounding the planet. Gaia has a radius of about 4,000 miles from its center to its surface. But its atmosphere is only 60 miles thick, a scant 1.5 percent of Gaia’s radius. It covers the surface like the thinnest layer of cellophane around a grapefruit.

Yet within that narrow envelope, and a few feet down into the planet’s surface, is all the life on the planet. It is probably all the life in their stellar system as well. The planets closer to their sun are too hot to support life. And the planets farther out are much too cold. Perhaps around the unimaginably distant stars are planets like Gaia, and perhaps some of them have developed the incredibly complex elements that are necessary to sustain life.

But perhaps not. Many Gaians believe that life may be a sort of unrepeatable cosmic accident, or that it took divine intervention to create the unique conditions that led to Gaian life. It is, after all, an extremely complex sets of events.

First, there must be a star of stable middle age. It must have planets. One of those planets must orbit within the narrow band of life that is neither too hot nor too cold. On that planet, the circumstances for life must be perfect – the right mix of water, earth and gasses. And over millions of years, the complex chemical reactions that Gaians haven’t even come close to understanding must slowly develop into a form of matter that can absorb the elements it needs from its surroundings and replicate itself.

Then somehow it must develop the greatest and most mysterious quality of all – the intelligence to understand and manipulate its environment for its own good. Even if all of those circumstances did repeat among the 300 billion stars of Gaia’s galaxy, the Gaians may never know it. Space is vast.

The distances to the stars are so great that it would take many generations for a spaceship from Gaia to reach even the nearest star. The Gaians manipulate their surroundings with a vengeance that only an intelligent species can muster. They live on their tiny speck of a planet as if it holds inexhaustible bounty.

They pull from the ground its precious resources and then dump them back into the ground in unusable and even deadly forms.

They strip the surface of the planet of the trees and other life that they need to survive. They have created weapons of destruction so powerful that they can turn their planet into a radioactive cinder.

Into the thin film of their atmosphere, they spew life-destroying poisons.

Most tragically, they burn their fossil fuels with reckless abandon. They thus load into their atmosphere carbon compounds that raise its temperature. As a result, they may be making their beautiful planet into an unlivable wasteland.

Their scientists point to incontrovertible evidence that this is so, but their leaders do not listen. They prefer to heed critical short term-interests instead of the longer-term survival of their species. But there is hope for Gaia. The Gaians are, after all, intelligent creatures. They have begun to realize that their life is only part of a greater whole, that all life on their planet is connected, that Gaia is itself a living, breathing organism. Like the cells of their bodies, the individual parts cannot survive unless the whole survives in an intricate and easily disturbed balance.

They know that they may never reach the stars where other planets may hold the possibility for their continued existence, and that even if they do after many centuries, it may be too late. The intricate balance of life may already be disturbed beyond repair.

They have begun to understand that beyond the thin, tenuous film of their atmosphere, there is nothing but the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space. That they are alone. That there is no place else for them to go. That in the vastness of the cosmos, Gaia is all they have. So some Gaians take a day out of the year to celebrate their planet.

But they must do far more. They have reached a tipping point. Every day must be Gaia Day. Every act must be designed to prevent the devastation of the fragile speck of dust on which they live. On the warm nights of spring, I will point my telescope through the thin layer of our atmosphere at the other stars in our galaxy and at the other galaxies, so unreachable, so far away.

And I will think of the Gaians. And I will pray for them.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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