Last night – late last night – if you looked southwest you would have seen a beguiling object twinkling in the inky black sky.
It wasn’t white, or silver-gold, as is normal. This baby was clearly flashing quicksilver, green and red.
It was awesome, but perplexing. Especially if you have only a smattering of knowledge of the night sky. It didn’t look like Venus. Perhaps Mars – it was red. But those pronounced flashes of green?
It was bright enough to make one question, for a moment, if it was an aircraft.
Or… um, something else.
Yeah, suddenly you’re feeling uncomfortable, aren’t you. Rolling your eyes.
Well, you haven’t been listening to Paul Hellyer.
The 85-year-old guy does not fit the profile of a nutter.
He’s a former defence minister. One of the youngest MPs ever elected, he served under Pearson and Trudeau, ran for the leadership of the Liberals and Conservatives and tried to start his own political party.
And, these days, he’s talking about our neighbours in the Milky Way.
The evidence of other life is “irrefutable,” he recently told Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor.
And, in a new book – his, er, 13th – he asserts that people are going to have to realize they are not unique in the galaxy.
We’re sharing it with other life forms.
Astronomers tend to agree.
There are, give or take, 100 billion sun-like stars in our galaxy. There are 100 billion galaxies in the universe.
That’s a lot of shots at life.
Of course, the stats on the flipside are equally mind-boggling.
Our sun, literally one in a billion billions, is perfect. It’s just the right size – had it been 10 times larger, it would have winked out after 10 million years, instead of its estimated lifespan of 10 billion years.
And it’s in just the right place. If the planet were a smidge closer to the sun, or further away, complex life on Earth would probably not have developed.
Earth’s molten interior blurted the radiation-blocking, heat-trapping atmosphere we’re polluting so quickly. Without that pool of liquid rock at our core, we wouldn’t be here.
As well, we have a huge moon, roughly one-third the size of the planet that helps steady Earth, keeping it rotating properly on its axis, according to Bill Bryson’s delightful A Short History of Nearly Everything. Again, it was happenstance – the detritus of an interplanetary collision with Earth about 4.5 billion years ago.
And, had another meteor not slammed into the planet near the coast of Mexico about 60 million years ago, wiping out the great lizards that roamed the land, where would we be today? Just another convenient twist of cosmic fate that allowed us to develop coal-fired hydro facilities, Romeo and Juliet, the Hummer and the cave paintings of Lascaux.
The mind boggles, but here we are.
And if our little home is a billion-to-one shot, there are billions of other critters out there in deep space.
Hellyer believes some of the more sophisticated of them are keeping tabs on us.
He’s not alone.
There were a record number of UFO sightings last year -Ã‚Â 1,004 according to Ufology Research, a Winnipeg-based group that monitors such things.
That’s up 25 per cent from the year before.
Most are airplanes, satellites, meteors or that green-red celestial body that was so dazzling last night.
But a small number -Ã‚Â say one to 10 per cent -Ã‚Â are something inexplicable, said astronomer Chris Rutkowski, who works at Ufology.
He uses the word “mysterious.”
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the aliens are here, but it suggests there is a real physical phenomenon that is being observed and should be taken a little more seriously by scientists and the lay public alike,” Rutkowski told the Canadian Press.
So, maybe it’s nothing. Or, perhaps, interstellar visitors are swinging by for a peek.
Whatever the explanation, as we cavalierly turn up the heat on our own extraordinary blue-green planet, killing it through the off-gases of our civilization’s rapacious industry, it’s strangely reassuring to gaze at a twinkling star and think, as Hellyer does, that the universe is “teeming with life.” (Richard Mostyn)