The Nobel Prize in Physics announced on Tuesday went to cosmology and exoplanets — the second half specifically to two people who discovered a planet around a Sun-like star.
In October 1995, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz announced the first discovery of a planet outside our solar system, an exoplanet, orbiting a solar-type star in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. At the Haute-Provence Observatory in southern France, using custom-made instruments, they were able to see planet 51 Pegasi b, a gaseous ball comparable with the solar system’s biggest gas giant, Jupiter.
This discovery started a revolution in astronomy and over 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way. Strange new worlds are still being discovered, with an incredible wealth of sizes, forms and orbits. They challenge our preconceived ideas about planetary systems and are forcing scientists to revise their theories of the physical processes behind the origins of planets. With numerous projects planned to start searching for exoplanets, we may eventually find an answer to the eternal question of whether other life is out there. [source: Nobel Prize in Physics press release]
If you look at an HR Diagram, the Sun is a main sequence star of spectral type G, which says things about its mass, luminosity, and the amount of time it will be active before going nova. Following μηδὲν ἄγαν, both very massive, hot stars and very low-mass stars would present many challenges for life on Earth-like planets — namely that massive hot stars burn bright and fast, and very low-mass stars require a planet to be close enough to experience more solar phenomena, even tidal locking (where the same face of a celestial body perpetually looks at what it is orbiting) and ejecta. G-class stars have solar flares and other phenomena, and their behavior changes as they age, but they do follow the principle μηδὲν ἄγαν by providing a good age length for life to evolve at a decent distance from the host star.
The discovery of a planet around a G-type star other than ours has a lot of social significance. We’re only a few hundred years out from the Copernican revolution. Galileo Galilei made sketches of the largest four moons of Jupiter and documented Venus’ phases. Johannes Kepler used Tycho Brahe’s data to learn how orbital motion works, abandoning the idea of perfect circles in favor of ellipses.
The physical universe is a lot larger than we once thought, and the magnitude of both space and time — in any direction, forward or backward in time — hints at, to some extent, the Romantic period’s sense of the Sublime. It’s like looking over a cliff’s edge.
Most of my high school classmates were Christian creationists. They believed that the world was 6,000 years old. They were having an ideological war with evolutionists, who were atheists. This was before creationism and intelligent design became synonyms, and in fact if you said that you believed in any divine agency in the universe, but also evolution and the universe’s actual age, people did not actually know how to react.
In that context, any discovery like this can be shattering and schism-generating. The prevailing circumstances around us — secular or religious — often teach that human beings are at the center, that Earth is special or unique. The data-crunching of centuries ago, the observation that other worlds in our own solar system are just like ours (in a general sense), the discovery of exoplanets, and the inevitable discovery of exolife — be it microbial or complex — are further de-centerings and destabilizations.
There are already hundreds, if not many thousands, of think pieces by people asking questions about what exolife means. The predominant sentiment is that it would shake faith to its core, that alien life presents a case that nullifies God(s). This is because religion, at least in Western societies, is often tied to those aforementioned ideas about human exceptionalism and the exclusivity of our experience.
But why sentient life on this planet, why is it this species, at this specific point in time? I think that’s the wrong set of why questions.
A theological model needs to be adaptably capable of integrating new knowledge. If it is so vulnerable from a shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric to the we-can-see-in-a-sphere-from-us-due-to-the-speed-of-light-and-how-large-space-is-ity, the system is not flexibly robust enough, and it’s not rigorous. I’d place my former classmates in that box.
Many people practicing polytheism or theistic paganism already do a good job of pushing back against human-centric tendencies, albeit often in the form of environmental activism and conscientious behavior. The house where I went to Circle as a kid in the 1990s and early 2000s legit had a composting toilet.
One of the things I like about reading Platonic philosophy, too, is that it does approach “flexibly robust” enough.
Earth is not particularly unique.
However, it could be argued that one of the points to being in matter is its high degree of specificity and granularity. Earth is a specific type of planet habitable by life with our biology; each of us is a specific person who is the product of that. Our sun is a life-giving star because it hosts a planet that has life. Not all stars probably do. We are each also individuals worshipping Gods, who come out of specific pantheons, with stories, names, and symbols attached to each of them. (I’m going to give a shoutout to Edward Butler because I just finished reading some of his Proclus-related essays, and some of the way I’m thinking about this is based on things he repeatedly says in his work and on Twitter about the henadic manifold, the identities of Gods, a bit about myth, and the devotee-God relationship.) Alien civilizations worshipping Gods from their own pantheons wouldn’t really be that different from the pantheon diversity we already know — the biggest difference I could imagine would be if their fertility worked differently from ours, either via more sexes or a different reproductive process, because polytheisms often revere or use images of phalli and yoni, and our myths involve various types of copulation.
So, even if the universe is enormous, and even if we are not special, we are still specific, and we still have access to the Gods and to theurgy that acknowledges the relationship between us and them (to draw from Iamblichus). Regardless of how large the universe is, we still have community/polity obligations to one another, and we’re a social species, so we cannot treat ourselves as if we are each isolated and if the people around us do not matter. We’re the ones getting burned by climate change (literally); we’re the ones who have to take action on our tiny rock in the breathtaking vastness of void, space, and stars.
The cycle of the seasons happens on just so many worlds.
Persephonê descends, and she rises, and the greater patterns of speciation and extinction belong to her mother Dêmêtêr. There are worlds where to light a torch for processing would set the atmosphere on fire; there are water-worlds where the goddess’ descent would be from saline sea into the maw of a hot vent while she plucked tubular plants swaying in the soft current.
It’s this beautiful, intricate dance in a hall so vast that we often cannot see beyond ourselves, especially not to scale. In my astronomy classes, our professors stressed time and time again that the human mind will never be accustomed to thinking to scale. What is a million years? A billion? How do you hold such a thing in your mind?
When we do, even for an instant, it is an instance of the Sublime. It is destabilizing. It is opening our senses to take in a night that is bottomless and without direction — a darkness we can feel in the clench of our bellies, in the taste of stardust on our tongues, in the sensation of falling as our gazes fight to catch on anything in the vast expanse, an absence of sound.
And Gê is still the mother of us all. 🙌