February 26, 2022•1,186 words
A night or two ago, I was out walking the dog and glancing up at the sky as usual. At least, as much of if it as I can see given the (sub)urban light pollution. One vista that never fails on a cloudless night even in a light-polluted city is the constellation Orion.
It’s been my favorite constellation since I was kid and first learned to look up. Perhaps because it’s so easy to find. Perhaps because there’s so much of it. And while it had crossed my mind before, I wondered with a keen focus this night about Orion’s Belt. Those three stars, so radiant. They stand together bright and bold and unmistakable, perhaps the most recognizable part of Orion.
The stars appear, from our point of view, to be in an orderly line. We understand now that is not the case. They are not equally distant from us, and so viewed from ‘above’, if you will, they form a massive triangle. From Wikipedia:
- Orion's Belt or The Belt of Orion is an asterism within the constellation. It consists of the three bright stars Zeta (Alnitak), Epsilon (Alnilam), and Delta (Mintaka).
- Alnitak is around 800 light years away from earth and is 100,000 times more luminous than the Sun; much of its radiation is in the ultraviolet range, which the human eye cannot see.
- Alnilam is approximately 1340 light years away from Earth, is over 1.5 times brighter than the sun; in ultraviolet light it is 375,000 times more luminous than the Sun.
- Mintaka is 915 light years away. It is 90,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is actually a double star: the two orbit each other every 5.73 days.
Consider the scale; even the closest of these to each other are over a hundred light years apart. Our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri, is less than 5 light years. Yet they appear to us, with our inability to measure depth at that scale with naked eye, in a singe resolute line.
It is unlikely, given the immense ultraviolet output and luminosity of these stars, that life as we understand it could have developed on their planets. Nearly 100,000 times the UV output of our Sun, in the case of Alnitak (even worse for Alnilam), is a recipe for instant sterilization of any life that that has ever developed on Earth. Bring your SPF 50,000 sunblock! But we cannot completely rule out nature coming up with some as-yet-unimagined way for matter to self-organize in such an environment.
I like to imagine, looking up at Orion, that civilizations exist around these three stars and they know of each other. Or one exceptionally long-lived civilization grew at one and expanded to the other two. Perhaps they have a name for their collective, something we would translate as the Stellar Triad, or the Temple of the Three. They would have by necessity, a stable culture and technological advancements beyond what we can envision.
Crossing or communicating across many dozens of light-years would be a requirement to maintain relationships and governance, but at the same time is of astounding difficulty. We don’t even know if it’s possible. As in, per the well-tested principals of Einstein's Special and General theories of Relativity, ever possible. Ships and messengers crossing Europe and the Atlantic in the centuries past, to keep the communications and goods flowing between kings and kingdoms, lords and lordships? That’s nothing compared to crossing even a single light year.
Such a civilization, if it exists, would be a culture beyond our conception, a level of intelligence of which we could only be in awe. Would they have any idea that we look at them from many hundreds of light years away and relegate their noble status to a symbol of mere myth, an imaginary warrior’s belt? Would we regard them as gods if we encountered them?
How would our conceptions of importance and relevance compare to theirs? Would their space program be subject to the changing whims and priorities of an administration that changes every 4 or 8 years? Would they even have a space "program" or would it be as foundational to their society as electricity, running water, and roads? Certainly they would have to be devoid of our deep cultural rifts, our sectarian divisions, our wasted effort on constructing meaning from the metaphysical, and then spilling blood over the conclusions. The amount of human effort and potential, the time and energy, spent in these ways is an uncountable loss.
It is not a new idea to look upon the stars, or even within our own Solar System, observe the mute and indifferent movements described by Einstein and Newton, and see the shallowness of our concerns.
It is a different thought altogether to compare our interests and desires to that of a truly alien and vastly superior intelligence. Yet we must imagine that a species such as this, if it exists, has had similar observations. Indeed, I would argue these musings must be their default mode, deeply woven into their culture and philosophy. Whatever characteristics they may possess, a deep humility and honesty about the astonishing fortune of their existence must be one of them. They could not have progressed to this point, past the stage where a young species becomes just intelligent enough to potentially destroy itself and lacking the wisdom to know better, without shedding the arrogant belief that a God made the Universe for them alone.
Consider this wondering a lesson for us, whether at the cosmic scale or the individual. I know, and sometimes remind myself, that when I perish the traffic on my road will be just the same the next morning. A handful of other humans would miss me… or so I certainly hope. We should have the humility to recognize that even with 7 billion of us, were we to vaporize ourselves, poison our environment irreparably, or suffer some other existential catastrophe, we would not be missed at all. There would be no one to even notice we had gone. Our self-importance can only be recognized by other humans. Not even animals with which we share the deepest kinship, our close genetic primate relatives or the domesticated felines and canines, have any conception of the things we fret over.
Humility is often misunderstood as meekness or subservience. It is neither. It is simply the recognition of what one is (a so-far exceedingly rare example of self-organizing intelligent matter) and what one is not (important to the universe at large). It is this definition which is indeed a virtue. And the one that may save us.
"... the great world, so far as we know it from philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy"