There are ten billion trillion planets in the visible universe where life could form. Given this astonishingly large number, most people would argue that we cannot be the only self-aware intelligent creatures in the universe. And from this conclusion sometimes comes a deep sense of our own insignificance. How can we humans matter at all in the face of this vast universe full of planets and possibly life?
However, this conclusion is highly misleading. This is the main thrust of my colleague and fellow writer Marcelo Glazer’s new book 13.8 The Dawn of the Conscious Universe: A Manifesto for the Future of Humanity. Glaser has written a broad and comprehensive argument for a fundamental shift in how we understand ourselves and our cosmic environment with equally fundamental consequences for the future (if we are to have one). Here, I want to focus on a particular point that lies at the heart of his argument.
There can only be one Earth
With his usual blend of a poet’s ear and scientific acumen, Glazer gives us a grand tour of astronomy, physics, and astrobiology to set the stage for asking the question: How can we possibly matter in such a vast universe? Detailed descriptions of the evolution of planets and life lead him to a startling conclusion: there can only be one Earth. From this standpoint, a new perspective emerges for ourselves and our future.
that Ten billion trillion number It certainly tells us that the universe had plenty of planets to experiment with life and civilization on. But what was not disclosed is the accuracy of the results of those experiments. The particulars of development in each world would be extraordinarily dependent on so many accidents that no two worlds would have the same history. This may seem like a small point, but when we add the evolution of life into the mix, these events become significant.
Take the land and water balance. Oceans cover about two-thirds of the Earth. Why only two-thirds and not more or less? It turns out that the delivery of water to the planet came through its early bombardment by comets and asteroids. The exact number of these planetary interlopers was a complete accident. In fact, we should expect that most planets will lie at the extremes of conducting water. Either they got so much water from comet impacts that all the basins were completely filled up, and the water rose over any existing continents, or they got almost no water at all. This means that most of the planets will be either water worlds or desert worlds. The roughly half-and-half mix we ended up with might be very unbearable. This has enormous implications for the details of the evolutionary course of life on each world. On Earth, tidal zones at the junction between ocean and land play a role important role In the biological strains of our world.
What all this means is that we will never find another Earth. The history of our planet is unique, and as a result, so is its life. There may be other planets with life, but they will have their own paths, including the possible evolution of brains. The origin of self-awareness on Earth is likely to have features that reflect the specific history of our planet. This means that we are likely to be completely and uniquely unique in the entire universe.
Beyond the Copernican Principle
It is with this in mind that Glaser presents his radical proposal. It’s time to move beyond the “Copernican principle” – sometimes called the “principle of cosmic mediocrity” when it comes to humanity. In his view, we need to tell a new story about ourselves that acknowledges how and why we are unique, even if other planets are inhabited. The kind of “biocentrism” he advocates brings humanity back to the center of a unique planet’s story and history. Only then, he says, will we be able to see how precious, even sacred, the world we find ourselves in is.
Human civilization faces profound challenges, ranging from nuclear war to climate change to unchecked artificial intelligence. I think Glaser is right that the worldview we live in is not up to the task of dealing with these challenges. We need a different kind of story, and the one he provides is grounded in science and rooted in wisdom.