The bus is rerouting to acknowledge last night's successful launch and deployment of NASA's Kepler spacecraft, the first mission in human history capable of identifying Earth-sized rocky planets orbiting stars outside our solar system at distances from those stars where liquid water may exist on the surface.
Liftoff of the Delta II rocket carrying NASA's Kepler speacecraft, March 6, 2009. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller.
A nuts and bolts description of the Kepler mission was the subject of a post several weeks ago, but this take has more to do with its technological promise and potential: what will we think if some -- or perhaps many -- rocky worlds in the presumed habitable zones around stars are found? How will people respond?
The answer, of course, depends on who is doing the responding. It's a safe bet that Kepler team members and planetary scientists will be ecstatic. Reactions among members of the public worldwide will vary from complete indifference to the kind of excited curiosity that inspires a lasting commitment to learn more, and everything in between. I'm sure some will ponder the religious or spiritual implications of what Kepler's discoveries suggest but a majority will likely focus on the science. The 24-hour news cycle will make the most of any early results, but Kepler discoveries by themselves probably won't dominate headlines more than a few hours.
And why should they? After all, Kepler isn't designed to deliver proof of life beyond Earth, but rather important new information about its possibility.
This occured to me because recently I've been reading about Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), a French writer who, at the age of 23, created a literary sensation with a book about life on other worlds. His Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes) was the first major work written on the subject that broadly presented the science behind Copernican and Cartesian cosmology to a general audience. Published anonymously early in 1686 in the form of five dialogues between a philosopher and a marquise, its entertaining prose was attributed to the young man from Rouen within months. Fontenelle moved to Paris the following year, added a sixth dialogue, and saw his Conversations land on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Tiger of the Stripe edition of Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, transl. by Elizabeth Gunning and rev. by Jerome De Lalande (London, 2008).
No doubt its banned status sold more than a few copies. (The book was on the Catholic Index of prohibited publications for most of its life, even as late as 1900.) According to science and cultural historians Michael Crowe and Karl Guthke, three English translations were available by 1688. Four more appeared later. Before Fontenelle's death in 1757 thirty-three French editions had been published. His book was also translated into Danish, Dutch, Greek, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. Guthke writes:
"For decades these evening conversations between the gallant scientist and his eager pupil the marquise, in the rococco gardens of a French chateau, featured in the everyday talk of educated people, and not least of women."
In fact, Fontenelle was among the first writers to specifically acknowledge women's intelligence in scientific subjects; the marquise is a full participant in the Conversations. It's also important to remember this was a time when very few women had access to formal education.
In terms of the extraterrestrial life debate, Fontenelle's contributions aren't limited to his great success in popularizing the idea of a plurailty of worlds as a literary figure and amateur scientist. In the Conversations he also inadertently raises important philosophical issues while making a conscious effort to avoid strictly theological questions. Guthke explains how the book reveals perspectives on topics such as scientific inference by analogy, anthropocentrism, and ambivalence toward God and Nature.
How interesting that at the beginning of what we call the Enlightenment, in a much different world than what we know today, so many people were enthralled by a bestseller that described how Venus, Jupiter, Earth's moon, planets orbiting other stars (suggesting a plurailty of solar systems), and even comets were inhabited by creatures not unlike ourselves.
More than four centuries later, as Kepler begins a scientific mission unlike any before it, our capacity to be fascinated by the idea of life beyond Earth, in whatever form, remains as large as ever.
Fortunately, we are also that much more accustomed to waiting.
Next stop: Science and Religion Frameworks
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter.