Saturday, March 04, 2000

Solar Dance 3: The Living Solar System

As we move toward this new, physical awareness of the cosmos, there several specific ideas that will be useful starting points. As with the course of this journey in general, we’ll look at both our solar system and the galaxy beyond.

Starting closer to home, let’s anchor into a new view of the solar system. Call to mind, if you will, the solar system we’ve all seen in drawings and tabletop models. You know, the one with a small yellow sun in the middle, surrounded by concentric rings, each one inhabited by a little colored ball. True as these abstractions may be, they don’t begin to suggest the physical reality. A bit better, perhaps are the scale models that appear in some museums, or, more commonly, as descriptions in textbooks. These "if the sun is an orange, the earth is a cherry pit a hundred yards away, with Pluto way out by the countty line" sorts of descriptions offer a more realistic sense of scale, to be sure, but most of the time, inspire little more than a passing bit of awe. Despite their accuracy at suggesting the immensity of the solar system and the miniscule size of all its elements, they are so separated from the actual sun and planets that we are hard pressed to enliven our actual experience through them.

Instead, try starting here: the solar system is alive. At its heart, offering the very molecules of its body every single day to create the energy fueling the whole thing, is the sun. The planets are the concentrated remnants of a huge cloud, then disc, of dust and gas that condensed at its center until igniting into a star. The new star burned away its cloak of gas (or blew it away with its vast "solar wind"), just as we can see in nearby supernovae. -

What dust and gas remained around our sun clumped together thanks to gravity and collisions, until 9 specks remained. Each one has its own remarkably unique and fascinating physical form. Beyond these specks is a vast cloud of debris, known to astronomers as the Kuiper Belt; surrounding the whole thing is a huge halo, a ball of fine matter called the Oort Cloud. From these distant reaches seem to come comets, bearing water and organic building blocks. In the early days of the sun’s life, far more comets rained into the inner solar system, perhaps building the oceans, surely carrying some organic matter. More scientists are beginning to suspect that the building blocks of life may in fact permeate the dust and fires of space, settling everywhere, taking root wherever it finds even marginally suitable terrain. In this view, the entire solar system, indeed, all space, is alive. Earth may be the only life-sustaining nursery in the solar system, though some moons of Jupiter and Saturn are under close scrutiny as possibly being life-friendly as well.

In the years just after the new milenneum, as Jupiter and Saturn moved through one of their 17-year conjunctions, the Galileo spacecraft enjoyed an active retirement around Jupiter (its planned mission ended in 1998). It was directed into a series of very close flybys of Jovian moons, sending back images of startling clarity of active volcanoes, cracked-ice surfaces of possibly liquid oceans, and other stunning beauty. When we watch Jupiter, we wonder at the search for life at one of its leading edges. In 2004 and 2005, the Casinni probe has been making similar rounds in the Saturn system, giving us close up views of the beauty of her rings and two-score moons.

You can see the moons of Jupiter with modest, everyday binoculars. They appear as tiny dots in a line extending on one or both sides of the planet (they move fairly fast, and so the pattern of dots will change daily). If you wish to experience the dynamics of Io or Europa more directly, consult an astronomy magazine or web site for diagrams that identify the visible moons for each day.

Once we realize that the entire solar system is alive, it is but a small shift to let our biological identity follow our cosmological one. In recent centuries, western science let go of the idea (logical from simple observation) that the earth was the center of the solar system, and accepted the heliocentric view, with the sun at the center.

Similarly, we are at the verge of releasing our earth-centered view of life: the idea that life arose spontaneously in the "primal soup" of earth, built of molecular ingredients spawned by purely earthly processes. While it is certainly true that key steps in the emergence of cells and organisms were triggered by terrestrial dynamics, it is becoming more and more likely that some building blocks of organic life do indeed exist in space, at least in the extended solar orb, and perhaps (though only conjecture at this point, it certainly would be a logical extension), in interstellar space. Thus we can now say with some validity that life is a solar phenomenon.

This gives concrete validity to the Joni Mitchell’s poetic evocation that "we are stardust". Indeed, in this view, life on earth can be seen as a fertile spot within the huge body of the solar system. The earth itself is but a fragment of the gas and dust cloud that birthed the sun at its center; our bodies and the bodies of all plants and animals are built of tissues that were built, by life, from the minerals of the planet (this piece of the solar body), fueled by energy derived from sun-fired cellular processes.

So it may be that ancient sun-worshiping cultures were on to something very real: their worldview, with the sun as the source of life, allowed them to participate in the dance of life in a very direct way. Or, we may suspect that their intuition or tradition about the role of the sun, followed from a foundation of seeing humans as participants in a dance of life within their local landscape and biological communities. In either case, our latest scientific advances seem to be leading us in a similar direction: we are being offered the chance to glimpse the workings of life at a scale that is both awe-inspiring and deeply physical.

To know ourselves as inhabitants of a star system is a profound expansion of identity. It will doubtless take us a while (a few years as individuals, a few decades or centuries as a race?) to really embody this experience. Yet even as we come to understand this, it can inspire us to cast our eyes and senses beyond the solar dance, to begin to know the lay of the local landscape within which our star is living its life. This is the realm of the galactic landscape, to be explored in another segment.


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