Rare Earths: More on Captain Kirk’s Sub-Orbital Climate Grief

October 9, 2022

William Shatner famously soared into space a few months ago on Jeff Bezos Blue Origin. He’s now recorded his impressions in a chapter of an autobiography.


I had thought that going into space would be the ultimate catharsis of that connection I had been looking for between all living things—that being up there would be the next beautiful step to understanding the harmony of the universe. In the film “Contact,” when Jodie Foster’s character goes to space and looks out into the heavens, she lets out an astonished whisper, “They should’ve sent a poet.” I had a different experience, because I discovered that the beauty isn’t out there, it’s down here, with all of us. Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound.

It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.

I learned later that I was not alone in this feeling. It is called the “Overview Effect” and is not uncommon among astronauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride, and many others. Essentially, when someone travels to space and views Earth from orbit, a sense of the planet’s fragility takes hold in an ineffable, instinctive manner. Author Frank White first coined the term in 1987: “There are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.”

It can change the way we look at the planet but also other things like countries, ethnicities, religions; it can prompt an instant reevaluation of our shared harmony and a shift in focus to all the wonderful things we have in common instead of what makes us different. It reinforced tenfold my own view on the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective human entanglement, and eventually, it returned a feeling of hope to my heart. In this insignificance we share, we have one gift that other species perhaps do not: we are aware—not only of our insignificance, but the grandeur around us that makes us insignificant. That allows us perhaps a chance to rededicate ourselves to our planet, to each other, to life and love all around us. If we seize that chance.

“Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder,” co-authored by Josh Brandon, was published by Atria Books on Oct. 4, 2022.

Below, – a dozen years ago Paleontologist Peter Ward wrote a book called “Rare Earth”, which pushes back against the idea that the cosmos is teaming with Star Wars Bars full of intelligent aliens, and points out the delicate balance of serendipitous configurations of planet, star, and galaxy necessary to make life, any kind of life, possible.

“Arriving at our current configuration of planets, with their very different sizes and places outward from the Sun, was itself a rarity,” write the authors. “Exoplanet discoveries have revealed that most systems have Jupiter-style [that] planets “spiral in” and earthlike planets are destroyed by their star. Our solar system is a very rare exception.”

The authors note that rocky planets in orbit around Red Dwarf stars, the most ubiquitous out there would be plagued by very strong solar flares and solar winds. 

The flares would blast nearby planets with lethal radiation, and the winds would tend to strip atmospheres, like Mars in our system, the authors note. “This is likely because a habitable planet would be “tidally locked” and not rotate, and therefore could not have an earth-style magnetic field to shield the atmosphere from radiation,” they note. 

Even so, there is an awful lot of astrobiological overselling, Peter Ward, co-author of “Rare Earth” and a paleontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told me. A week does not go by without some new exoplanet being plugged as the new “second earth,” he says.   

Ultimately, this sort of oversell creates a cynical public. People hear time and again that life is ubiquitous and yet SETI comes up empty year after year and we remain decades away from finding microfossils on Mars. 

“I even see the strange new concept of “super habitable planets,” said Ward.  “Seems like selling used cars —- try out this three times earth sized planet!  Perfect for flatworms!  Giraffes need not apply for emigration!”

The crux of the Rare Earth Hypothesis seems to be that intelligent life on Earth is rare because we are the end result of a lot of serendipitous Goldilocks-type events. 

Thus, is intelligent life a fluke?

“I would bet my life in an instant that there are other intelligent species in our galaxy,” said Ward. “The numbers are too great to believe otherwise.”

But Ward cautions that the fossil record is humbling because of what it tells us about extinction.  Living fossils —- living examples of an otherwise extinct group that have remained virtually unchanged over the eons —- are the exception, not the rule, he says. 

But before the long road to intelligence can even begin its journey down the yellow-brick road of complex life, it first needs a planet that can maintain liquid water and stable temperatures over billions of years of geologic time. That’s no small feat. 

For a species to evolve into anything approaching Human or even Cetacean intelligence requires the kind of evolutionary serendipity that continues to amaze us all.

Ward has a list of important criteria for a life-sustaining planet.


One Response to “Rare Earths: More on Captain Kirk’s Sub-Orbital Climate Grief”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Even so, there is an awful lot of astrobiological overselling, Peter Ward, co-author of “Rare Earth” and a paleontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told me. A week does not go by without some new exoplanet being plugged as the new “second earth,” he says.

    There’s a different issue that astrobiology addresses: The likelihood of any life originating (abiogenesis) on places other than Earth. For Creationists it is important to disbelieve that life could develop naturally where there was none before. Even Ward’s derided flatworms would serve as proof of the inevitability of life in a wide range of environments, even if the other criteria for development of self-aware megafauna are missing.

    In any case, none of this changes the fact that for us there is no Planet B.

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