Image: Alpha Centauri and nearby stars. Notice that Centauri A, B and Proxima Centauri all appear as a single light source. Credit: Akira Fujii/David Malin.

Musings on Solitude and Contact

by PAUL GILSTER on OCTOBER 10, 2012

Back in 2007, science writer Lee Billings put together a panel for Seed Media Group on “The Future of the Vision for Space Exploration.” The session took place at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, and I remember flying to Washington with a bad head cold to moderate the event. Miraculously, my cold abated and I enjoyed the company of Louis Friedman (The Planetary Society), Steven Squyres (of Mars rover fame), Edward Belbruno (Princeton University) and interstellar guru Greg Matloff (CUNY). But I particularly remember conversations with Lee. I can’t say I was surprised to see him go on to emerge as one of the most gifted science writers now working.

Not long afterwards, Lee wrote an essay called The Long Shot for SEED Magazine that took him into the thick of the exoplanet hunt, from which this fine paragraph about the nearest stars and why they have such a hold on us:

Alpha Centauri is today what the Moon and Mars were to prior generations—something almost insurmountably far away, but still close enough to beckon the aspirational few who seek to dramatically extend the frontiers of human knowledge and achievement. For centuries, it has been a canonical target of the scientific quest to learn whether life and intelligence exist elsewhere. The history of that search is littered with cautionary tales of dreamers whose optimism blinded them to the humbling, frightful notion of a universe inscrutable, abandoned, and silent.

I have to add my own cautionary note, that Billings and I share the view that intelligent life is rare in the galaxy, though I suspect that Lee would be as pleased to be proven wrong as I would.

Read more: Musings on Solitude and Contact — Centauri Dreams.

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