Monday, February 6, 2012

Holy Grail

Perhaps you've heard the news that a planet 4.5 times as massive as the earth has been discovered occupying the habitable zone of a relatively nearby star.

Artist's rendering of the alien planet GJ 667Cc, which is located in what could well be the habitable zone of its parent sun in a triple-star system.
The properties of the planet and it's star have led to the claim that this star is the best candidate ever for being able to support life, but the author of Privileged Planet, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, dissents:
Here are a couple important points about this particular system. First, the planets orbit an M dwarf star. M dwarfs provide very poor environments for life. They show erratic brightness fluctuations, and they produce powerful flares with dangerous radiation. Planets in the habitable zone of an M dwarf will spin down fairly quickly, leading to a "tidally-locked" situation that leads to all sorts of problems.

Second, terrestrial planets more massive than Earth are likely less habitable than Earth for several reasons. For instance, they will have less surface relief, which makes it less likely they will have dry land.
Some astronomers are eager to discover planets that can support life because if they do it'll be an important step in discrediting the modern argument for an Intelligent Designer. As it is there's no reason to doubt that our planet is unique, perhaps not just in our galaxy, but in the universe. Books like Rare Earth and Privileged Planet make this case pretty convincingly by identifying a raft of characteristics any life supporting planet (and its star and galaxy) must possess.

These books support the claim - inadvertently, perhaps, in the case of Rare Earth - that the earth is extraordinarily special, that in some sense we really are at the center of the universe, at least ontologically.

If it were discovered that our planet is not privileged, however, that it's not special, not unique, then the design argument is rendered a little less compelling. Thus the search for other suitable planets is the "Holy Grail of exoplanet research," not only for those astronomers curious to learn as much as they can about the cosmos and life, but also of those astronomers seeking, for whatever reason, to discredit the belief that the earth is a very special place.

Why the West Is Best

Over the years it's been dispiriting to encounter students who no longer feel confident that they live in the greatest country in the history of human civilization. Their lack of confidence in American exceptionalism is as unwarranted as it is sad.

Of course, anyone who bases their opinion of America upon Super Bowl ads, political ads, or television in general, can be forgiven for scoffing at the claim that the United States is a great nation. Even so, it is. No nation in modern times has been as a great a force for good in the world as has the United States.

It's ironic, therefore, that proclaiming the greatness of the West in general, and of America in particular, falls to foreign-born writers like former Muslim Ibn Warraq. Pamela Geller talks about Warraq's new book Why the West Is Best at The American Thinker. After quoting a passage from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (perhaps a regrettable selection on Geller's part) she says this:
But what about slavery? What about colonialism? What about the usual laundry list of the evils of the West that America-hating leftists trot out at every possible opportunity? This is what they're learning in our own universities these days: that America and the West are the worst things that ever happened to this planet, and if we just gave up and gave it all back to the Native Americans, the world would be better off.

Ibn Warraq shows in Why the West Is Best that the sins of the West are common to the whole world: plenty of other cultures have histories of conquest and colonialism, as well as slavery and exploitation. Only in the Western Judeo-Christian context, however, did the principles of free speech and free inquiry develop to the point that longstanding societal and cultural practices could be questioned and ultimately rejected.

Muslims took plenty of slaves, but only in the Western world did there ever arise an abolitionist movement. Muslim countries have been home to plenty of tyrants, but only in the West did free speech become a valued and protected principle, as one of society's foremost protections against regimes that could do whatever they wanted, no matter how much it outraged the will of the people.
There's more at the link. I hope liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reads Warraq's book. She recently made the baffling assertion to an Egyptian audience that Arabs contemplating a new constitution should not look to the American constitution as their model.

More importantly, I hope Warraq's message about the West percolates through American culture to the point where young Americans take pride in the accomplishments of this country and in what our country means, not only to it's own people, but to the people of the world. No other nation has ever been as powerful, as free, as prosperous, and as just.

Some nations may be able to match the U.S. in one or two of these qualities, but no nation has ever come close to matching America in all four.