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I’ve mentioned before that I don’t find the thought of life originating and evolving on Earth through purely naturalistic processes incredible. Five hundred million years — the approximate time we think it took life to get a figurative toehold on our cooling orb — is a long time: multiply that by the number of ponds and puddles and deep ocean vents and, well, there are a lot of places where naturally occurring lipids might self-organize, as lipids do, into little test tubes in which organic molecules can dance.
I find it entirely plausible that that’s what happened.
But I realized today that I’ve been looking at the numbers wrong. Yes, a half a billion years on Earth is a lot of time for chemicals to slosh around, but nonetheless that’s really a drop in the bucket — no, a drop in the ocean.
No, far less than a drop in the ocean.
There’s no reason to think only of the opportunities for life to appear on Earth. More sensible is to think of the opportunities for life to appear anywhere, because, wherever it appeared, that’s the place from which we’ll end up marveling at its improbability.
About a billion lightyears from Earth is a cluster of galaxies named Able 2029. One of the galaxies in that cluster goes by the poetic name IC 1101. It’s the biggest galaxy of which we’re aware, containing on the order of one hundred trillion stars.
That’s 100,000,000,000,000 stars.
In comparison, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, contains a mere quarter of a trillion stars.
There are well over two hundred billion galaxies. Ours is unexceptional — other than being the only one, as far as we know, that contains life.
We now think that most stars probably have planets. Recently, scientists decided that the so-called “Goldilocks zone,” the range of orbits about a star in which the temperature might be “just right” for water to exist as a liquid, is probably much broader than we originally thought. (This has to do with atmospheric dynamics of planets considerably larger than Earth.)
The universe is pretty young (at least it seems that way to me), less than 15 billion years old: life on Earth has been around for more than 20% of the age of the universe. But our sun isn’t a first-generation star: there have been at least two or three generations of stars before ours, perhaps more. So that’s a lot more stars than “merely” the 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars we can see on a clear night. (I kid, of course, but that’s a rough approximation of how many we think are out there.) So double that number to account for those stars that have come and gone before us.
That’s an awful lot of stars with an awful lot of planets. Multiply that by half a billion years, to give life a chance to start. Think of all those ponds and puddles and deep ocean vents.
Given all that, while I find it wonderful and beautiful and deeply moving that life exists at all, I don’t find it surprising.Published in