Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Real WMD

Just read about this today, but apparently back in February, this supernova was visible from Earth. This star exploded 470 million years ago, and the light from that event is just reaching us now.

This explosion was so massive, the light it generated was brighter than the 100 billion stars in the rest of its galaxy combined. The gamma-ray burst of this supernova, normally measured in seconds, lasted for 33 minutes. It was the first supernova with a gamma-ray burst of that duration to be found closer than the "deep field" which is billions of light years away.

If there was any life, intelligent or otherwise, in that galaxy or any nearby galaxy - it was exposed to levels of radiation that make life (as we know it, anyway) impossible. The two closest recorded supernovas to Earth, 180 light-years and 1500 light-years respectively, both roughly coincided with major extinctions on our planet. While it's impossible to say whether or not they were the cause, the possibility is definitely there. And both these supernovas had the garden-variety gamma-burst - a few seconds at most. If the one observed back in February would have happened that close to Earth, the 33 minutes of intense radiation would have not only killed all life on our planet, but likely would have altered the atmosphere and climate to the point that life would never be possible here again.

It is interesting to think about these sorts of cosmic events in terms of extraterrestrial life. I'm a believer in the statistics of life on other planets, even intelligent life. But even if the universe is teeming with living organisms, the odds of running into those other organisms has to be infinitely small.

We haven't developed the technology yet to travel to Jupiter, let alone out of our own solar system or galaxy. But we're well on the way to wiping ourselves out with either war or global warming. How many intelligent species fall prey to themselves, or to cosmic events like supernovas, before they ever venture deep into space? How many species did actually travel into space, and then died off anyway? How many species will travel into space, long after humans are extinct?

Self-conscious brains tend to assume that their own species, even their own consciousness, will exist indefinitely. But logically, we know that can't be the case. How long will humans be alive on Earth, with the technology to travel to other galaxies? Zero years? Ten-thousand, or one-hundred-thousand years? Before some comet crashes into the planet, or some gamma-burst fries our ozone layer? Assuming the universe has been around for billions and billions of years, and will be around for billions more...what are the odds that two space-faring species, with lifespans of 100,000 years, will even exist at the same time, let alone find each other across the vastness of space?

I know this isn't exactly original thinking...greater minds than mine have explored these avenues before, and no doubt expressed their ideas more eloquently than me. But it's still interesting to think about, and hopefully for the non-football-oriented readers of this blog, a refreshing break!


At 10:19 AM, Blogger millhousethecat said...

Don't discount Bruce Willis and his rag-tag band of astronauts. They'll save us!


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