A message to us all

The Tagish Lake meteorite has proved author Douglas Adams was, quite possibly, right. Hitchhikers, it seems, have populated the galaxy.

The Tagish Lake meteorite has proved author Douglas Adams was, quite possibly, right.

Hitchhikers, it seems, have populated the galaxy.

After some preliminary studies of the meteorite, scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas have determined that it is rich in carbon and hydrocarbons, and that these globules would make perfect “little condos,” (a lovely image, that) for early life.

The carbon recovered from the meteorite is not found on Earth, or in our solar system, said Mike Zolensky, one of the NASA scientists.

So the globules formed somewhere else — in deep space, long before our solar system existed.

And then something dislodged it, and it crashed to Earth. Near Tagish.

Like a seed pod.

An exceptionally old seedpod.

NASA believes it’s at least 4.5 billion years old.

Which reminds us of a statement by Freeman Dyson, the English-born physicist and mathematician: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe, in some sense, must have known we were coming.”

See, it’s quite a marvelous thing that our ancestors — if you believe the theories — were able to crawl out of the seas onto the beach.

According to some estimates (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is a wonderful introduction to such things) no less than 99.5 per cent of the world’s habitable space is completely off limits to human life — we can’t survive there.

And of the dry land we can inhabit on Earth, a lot of it is too hot, too steep or too cold for us to thrive, especially in the early days. You know, before Gortex and fleece — when we were … well, naked.

Yet somehow, we beat the odds.

Those odds — for complex creatures, like us — get longer still when you consider the wider solar system.

Our existence boils down to blind luck.

Physicists believe Earth would be uninhabitable to the likes of us had it been just five per cent farther from the Sun, or 15 per cent closer. That’s not much of a margin of error.

We would not have had a chance had our planet not had a molten interior — the venting gasses created the atmosphere we’re screwing up today.

That roiling magma also created the planet’s magnetic field that protects us from cosmic radiation. Without it, we’re toast.

The shattered and constantly moving continental plates crinkled the Earth’s surface, preventing it from becoming Waterworld, completely submerged under four kilometres of water.

We’ll let Bryson take over: “The universe is an amazingly fickle and eventful place, and our existence within it is a wonder.

“It seems evident that, if you wish to end up as a moderately advanced, thinking society, you need to be at the right end of a very long chain of outcomes involving reasonable periods of stability interspersed with just the right amount of stress and challenge (ice ages appear to be especially helpful in this regard) and marked by a total absence of real cataclysm.

“We are very lucky to find ourselves in that position.”

Yet, despite all we know, we’re oblivious to our luck.

And we’re tossing it all away.

The evidence is everywhere — our cars and coal-fired power plants, among other things, are quickly warming up those life-giving oceans (see page 40), which could leave them barren, even as they hasten the warming of the atmosphere — starting a calamitous loop.

Here in the Yukon, bellwether alpine species, like the tiny, oft-squeaking rock rabbits (pikas) found on Yukon mountains (see page 71), are dying off because of extreme winter temperature spikes.

So are our forests — the western Yukon’s trees are being decimated because the winters haven’t been cold enough to kill off the spruce beetle infestation in the region.

You might remember all this the next time you glance up at the glorious Moon — it, too, plays a role in our existence.

It is more than one quarter the size of the Earth and the pairing is unique. Earth is the only planet in our solar system with such a comparatively large sattelite.

And without it, our planet would wobble like a top at the tail end of its spin — a condition that, no doubt, would wreak havoc on our planet.

The Moon was created, so many scientists believe, after a Mars-sized object crashed into the Earth.

That event happened about 4.5 billion years ago.

And that’s just about the time the Tagish Lake meteorite was formed, with its little condos tailor made for life. It sailed in from beyond our galaxy looking for that billion-to-one shot — a place to take root to grow and prosper.

And so that little lump of ice and carbon contains a message for us all.

The message: With or without us, life goes on. (RM)