By Tom Burns
Powerful telescopes on Earth have revealed a tiny planet called Gaia orbiting a distant star. Seen through a telescope, their world is perhaps the most beautiful in the universe.
It is a shimmering ball of blue, life-giving water partly covered by brilliant, white clouds. Outward from its oceans jut land masses, intricate tapestries of yellow, brown and green.
Green! That color tells us that Gaia teems with life.
Radio and television broadcasts inform us that Gaia has even developed an intelligent species that call themselves Gaians.
The Gaians have developed primitive space travel and sent small spacecraft into close orbit around their planet.
When the Gaians asked their astronauts what most impressed them about their trips into space, they invariably replied that it was not the beauty of the continents and oceans.
They marveled at the view of Gaia’s atmosphere. When these space travelers looked along Gaia’s horizon, they could see the atmosphere, thin and tenuous as a soap bubble, surrounding the planet.
Gaia has a radius of about 4,000 miles from its center to its surface. But its atmosphere is only 60 miles thick, a mere 1.5 percent of Gaia’s radius. It covers the surface like the thinnest layer of cellophane around a grapefruit. Yet in Gaia’s narrow atmospheric envelope, in its soil a few feet into its surface, and in its oceans just a few miles down, all the planet’s life occurs.
All the life in their stellar system resides within that thin shell. The planets closer to their sun are too hot to support life. And the planets farther out are much too cold.
Perhaps around the unimaginably distant stars are planets like Gaia. Perhaps some of them developed the incredibly complex elements necessary to sustain life.
But perhaps not. Many Gaians believe that life may be an unrepeatable cosmic accident or that divine intervention was necessary to create the unique conditions that led to Gaian life.
After all, a highly complex set of events must occur. First, a star must reach stable middle age. It must have planets. One of those planets must orbit within the narrow band of life that is neither too hot nor too cold.
On that planet, the circumstances for life must be perfect — the right mix of water, soil and gasses. Over millions of years, a complex set of chemical reactions must slowly develop into a form of matter that can absorb the elements it needs from its surroundings and replicate itself.
Then, somehow, it must develop the most remarkable and mysterious quality of all — the intelligence to understand and manipulate its environment for its own good.
Even if all those things happened among the 300 billion stars of Gaia’s galaxy, the Gaians might never know it. Space is vast. The distances to the stars are so great that many generations must pass for a spaceship from Gaia to reach even the nearest star.
The Gaians manipulate their surroundings with a vengeance that only an intelligent species can muster. They live on their planetary speck as if it holds inexhaustible bounty.
They strip the planet’s surface of the trees and other life they need to survive.
They pull from the ground its precious resources and then dump them back in a tragically unusable form.
Into Gaia’s thin atmospheric film and into its oxygenated oceans, they spew poisons that kill the other forms of life they depend on for their existence.
Most tragically, they have created powerful weapons capable of turning their planet into a radioactive cinder.
But there is hope for Gaia. The Gaians are, after all, intelligent creatures.
Some of them have begun to realize that their life is only part of a greater whole — that all life on their planet is connected, that Gaia is itself a living, breathing organism. Like the cells of their bodies, the individual parts cannot survive unless the whole survives in an intricate and easily disturbed balance.
They know they may never reach the stars, where other planets may hold the possibility for their continued existence.
Even if they do, it might be too late. The intricate balance of life may soon be disturbed beyond repair.
They have begun to understand that beyond the thin, tenuous film of their atmosphere, there is nothing but the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space. That they are alone. That there is no place else for them to go.
That in the vastness of the cosmos, Gaia is all they have.
So some Gaians take a day out of the year to celebrate their planet. This year, it’s our April 22, 2023.
But they must do far more. Every day must be Gaia Day. To survive as a species, they must preserve and protect their planet.
They must learn that short-term solutions to their myriad problems must not conflict with the long-term health of the fragile speck of dust on which they live.
On the warm nights of spring, I will point my telescope through the thin layer of our atmosphere at the stars in our galaxy, so unreachable, so far away.
And I will think of the . And I will pray for them.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.