I went camping recently in Pennsylvania. Not the wilds of PA. This was the rolling farm-and-forest land of the Lancaster area.
Walking through the campground on a clear night, I'd look up, as is my habit, at the sky. Get out of the metropolitan area, and it's rather remarkable. Not quite as remarkable as it is in places like the Southwest. I still am in awe of the show the heavens put on when you're in a place like Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, more than 8,000 feet above sea level, miles from any significant artificial light source, a vast expanse of sky spreading before you ablaze with stunning variety and vividness.
When I returned to Long Island, I discovered that Jin Koda has been looking at the stars, too. He's a professor at Stony Brook University with better equipment and a higher vantage point than me -- a huge telescope on top of Hawaii's dormant volcano, Mauna Kea.
Koda announced last week that he and his collaborators had discovered 854 new galaxies in a part of deep space some 330 light-years from Earth. That's nearly 2 quadrillion miles away (that's a 2 with 15 zeros). Now consider that the universe is billions of light-years deep. And that estimates of the number of galaxies in the universe range between 100 billion and 200 billion. And that astronomers using data from the Kepler space observatory say there could be 11 billion planets of Earth's size orbiting Sun-like stars in habitable zones just in our own Milky Way galaxy. That's a whole lot of potential for a whole lot of life.
And it becomes pretty clear that the real science fiction is that we are it, that there is no one else out there.
Mathematically speaking, and I do love math, such self-centeredness makes no sense. We're the third rock from our sun, but there are so many rocks and so many suns.
We might be the most advanced life form in the universe. We might be laughably the least. Others might be having as much trouble getting to us as we have had reaching them. Or they might have been watching us for centuries.
If we ever do discover life somewhere out there, what will we see?
Will we find a world whose inhabitants are knowingly polluting it, degrading it with their chemicals, poisoning their water and their air?
Will we find a world where the residents, all members of the same species, take turns slaughtering each other in the name of race, religion or resources?
Will we find a world that lets hundreds of millions of its citizens struggle with hunger and extreme poverty?
Will we find a world divided into fiefdoms with leaders who have friends and their friends all using those fiefdoms as their own personal piggy banks?
What would we think if we came upon such a world? Would we recoil in horror? Would we think them insane for what they do? Would we recognize the mirror? Would we do anything different if we did?
Sometimes you need distance to see yourself up close.
We're just a stone in a giant cosmos, after all, and we're in this together, far more dependent on each other than we ever want to admit. And at some point we need to start acting that way, for ourselves and the sake of everyone else who will follow.
I'm going camping again later this summer, in Acadia National Park in Maine. And I plan to be atop Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in the park, at sunset. Showtime.
I wonder what I'll find.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.