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Why Gilese 581 C matters

I know what's going to happen. The story of the discovery of Gilese 581 C will be big news today, and maybe tomorrow, and then fade away.

And we'll go back to our bickering about our imaginary friends, and squabbling over little bits of property and another inaginary thing we call "money," and we'll get back to our stupid little power struggles and dick-waving contests, and we'll claim that it's all much more important than what may or may not be on the surface of a rock we can't see that's so far away we'll never go there.

But it isn't.

Because if the speculation turns out to be true, and there is liquid water on Gilese 581 C, then everything we know changes. And if further inquiry reveals that there is life there, or somewhere else, then it all changes again. We're not unique. We're not special. And all we have is each other.

It's too big for us, you see. Like Douglas Adams once said, "The simple truth is that interstellar distances will not fit into the human imagination." There is, almost certainly, some other place out there, as teeming with self-replicating self-sufficient creatures as this one is, more than one, possibly millions, and we'll never see any of them. But we'll know they're there. We'll gaze into the night sky, what we once thought was a barrier full of pinpricks, and instead see a multitude of faces staring back at us, wondering the same things about us that we wonder about them.

Somewhere out there, somehwere along the line, some creature sufficiently evolved to build an isntrument to look at the stars turned that instrument upon our Sun and found, to its wonder and delight, a planet with liquid water on its surface. A planet quite possibly capable of supporting beings much like itself. A planet too far away to visit, but close enough to gaze at in wonder.

And just for a moment, it caused its fellow creatures to look up from their petty squabbles and bickerings and hopelessly inadequate little fairy tales and gaze at the sky alongside it, wondering if there was anything living on that blue ball spinning around that yellow star.

Then the creatures went back to their fairy tales and territorial disputes and lonely existences in some far-flung region of the universe. But every once in a while, one of them casts an eye our way, and wonders...