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‘Cosmic Modesty’ in a Fecund Universe

I came across the work of Chin-Fei Lee (Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Taiwan) when I had just read Avi Loeb’s essay Cosmic Modesty. Loeb (Harvard University) is a well known astronomer, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a key player in Breakthrough Starshot. His ‘cosmic modesty’ implies we should accept the idea that humans are not intrinsically special. Indeed, given that the only planet we know that hosts life has both intelligent and primitive lifeforms on it, we should search widely, and not just around stars like our Sun.

More on that in a moment, because I want to intertwine Loeb’s thoughts with recent work by Chin-Fei Lee, whose team has used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect organic molecules in an accretion disk around a young protostar. The star in question is Herbig-Haro (HH) 212, an infant system (about 40,000 years old) in Orion about 1300 light years away. Seen nearly edge-on from our perspective on Earth, the star’s accretion disk is feeding a bipolar jet. This team’s results, to my mind, remind us why cosmic modesty seems like a viable course, while highlighting the magnitude of the question.

Image: Harvard’s Avi Loeb. Credit: Harvard University.

What Lee’s team has found at HH 212 is an atmosphere of complex organic molecules associated with the disk. Methanol (CH3OH) is involved, as is deuterated methanol (CH2DOH), methanethiol (CH3SH), and formamide (NH2CHO), which the researchers see as precursors for producing biomolecules like amino acids and sugars. “They are likely formed on icy grains in the disk and then released into the gas phase because of heating from stellar radiation or some other means, such as shocks,” says co-author Zhi-Yun Li of the University of Virginia.

Every time I read about finds like this, I think about the apparent ubiquity of life’s materials — here we’re seeing organics at the earliest phases of a stellar system’s evolution. The inescapable conclusion is that the building blocks of living things are available from the outset to be incorporated in the planets that emerge from the disk. That certainly doesn’t count as a detection of life, but it does remind us of how frequently the ingredients of life manage to appear.

Image: Jet, disk, and disk atmosphere in the HH 212 protostellar system. (a) A composite image for the HH 212 jet in different molecules, combining the images from the Very Large Telescope (McCaughrean et al. 2002) and ALMA (Lee et al. 2015). Orange image shows the dusty envelope+disk mapped with ALMA. (b) A zoom-in to the central dusty disk. The asterisk marks the position of the protostar. A size scale of our solar system is shown in the lower right corner for comparison. (c) Atmosphere of the accretion disk detected with ALMA. In the disk atmosphere, green is for deuterated methanol, blue for methanethiol, and red for formamide. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Lee et al.

In that context, Avi Loeb’s thoughts on cosmic modesty ring true. We’ve been able to extract some statistical conclusions from the Kepler instrument’s deep stare that let us infer there are more Earth-mass planets in the habitable zones of their stars in the observable universe than there are grains of sand on all the Earth’s beaches. Something to think about as you read this on your beach vacation and gaze from the sand beneath your feet to the ocean beyond.

But are most living planets likely to occur around G-class stars like our Sun? Loeb reminds us that red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri b and TRAPPIST-1, both of which made headlines in the past year because of their conceivably habitable planets, are long-lived, with lifetimes as long as 10 trillion years. Our Sun’s life, by comparison, is a paltry 10 billion years. Long after the Sun has turned into a white dwarf after its red giant phase, living things could still have a habitat around Proxima Centauri and TRAPPIST-1. Says Loeb:

I therefore advise my wealthy friends to buy real estate on Proxima b, because its value will likely go up dramatically in the future. But this also raises an important scientific question: “Is life most likely to emerge at the present cosmic time near a star like the sun?” By surveying the habitability of the universe throughout cosmic history from the birth of the first stars 30 million years after the big bang to the death of the last stars in 10 trillion years, one reaches the conclusion that unless habitability around low-mass stars is suppressed, life is most likely to exist near red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri or TRAPPIST-1 trillions of years from now.

But of course, one of the reasons for missions like TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is to begin to understand the small rocky worlds around nearby red dwarfs, and to determine whether there are factors like tidal lock or stellar flaring that preclude life there. For that matter, do the planets around Proxima and TRAPPIST-1 have atmospheres? There too the answer will be forthcoming, assuming the James Webb Space Telescope is deployed successfully and can make the needed assessment of these worlds.

…very advanced civilizations [Loeb continues] could potentially be detectable out to the edge of the observable universe through their most powerful beacons. The evidence for an alien civilization might not be in the traditional form of radio communication signals. Rather, it could involve detecting artifacts on planets via the spectral edge from solar cells, industrial pollution of atmospheres, artificial lights or bursts of radiation from artificial beams sweeping across the sky.

Changes to the traditional view of SETI abound as we explore these new pathways. In any case, our technologies for making such detections have never been as advanced, and work across the exoplanetary spectrum, such as the findings of Chin-Fei Lee and colleagues, urges us on as we try to relate our own civilization to a universe in which it is hardly the center. As Loeb reminds us, we are orbiting a galaxy that itself moves at ~0.001c relative to the cosmic rest frame, one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

Either alternative — we are alone, or we are not — changes everything about our perspective, and encourages us to deepen the search for simple life (perhaps detected in exoplanetary atmospheres through its biosignatures) as well as conceivable alien civilizations. Embracing Loeb’s cosmic modesty, we press on under the assumption that life’s emergence is not uncommon, and that refining the search to learn the answer is a civilizational imperative.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • hiro June 30, 2017, 18:30

    Will NPR still be around here by 2500 AD? Or in 10k – 1M years from the present? The answer is obvious indeed.

    • ljk July 5, 2017, 11:11

      According to the 2006 film Idiocracy, Fox News will be the only surviving media outlet by the year 2505.

  • Larry Kennedy June 30, 2017, 19:45

    If ” Cosmic Modesty” means letting the science talk and not assuming we know the answers I’m all for it. Not at all sure that’s what’s happening here.

  • James Stilwell June 30, 2017, 20:40

    This post widens the horizons for finding distant civilizations…The new book, Homo Deus, speculates that organic life will eventually evolve into inorganic life…Life that has survived the eons may be inorganic, and may have decided to move from planetary surfaces to habitats in outer space…The ease of mobility has its advantages for life forms who will outlive basic planetary changes…Why would such life forms look for earth? They may have moved away from fretting over subjects such as death, love, and curiosity…Have they broken the FTL barrier and if not why bother trying when eternity makes the universe their footstool…Perhaps artilects a half million years from now will not even feel the need to reproduce…that is the imperative of organic life…and the territorial imperative…We’re moving away from human logic and entering another realm…the inorganic one…

  • Neil S June 30, 2017, 21:53

    It’s sort of back to the question “Would we recognize life if it …?” While it makes sense to put a lot of effort into finding life a lot like earth’s, we’d be wise (and modest?) to stay open to finding something very different than we’ve ever imagined.

    • Haxo Angmark July 4, 2017, 1:46

      some of it has been imagined: for instance, Stanislaw Lem, SOLARIS (1961: sentient ocean) and THE INVINCIBLE (1967: silicon-based metallic swarm); Jack Vance, “Nopalgarth” (1966: trans-substantial mind parasite); Gene Wolfe, “Alien Stones” (1972: vast, self-repairing whatsit); and etc.

      • ljk July 5, 2017, 11:32

        Orion’s Arm has a universe full of Artilects and GELs, or Genetically Engineered Life forms:


        • Harry R Ray July 12, 2017, 10:46

          Speaking of “Artelects”: The LAST FIVE DAYS of the KIC8462852 light-curve have been EXTREMELY PERPLEXING!!! Ten days ago, Boyajian’s Star started to dip for the third time since mid-MAY. The first five days(i.e., the DESCENT)were typical(i.e., “dippier in b than in r”), but since then TWO INCREDIBLE THINGS HAVE HAPPENED: One, the dip has LEVELED OFF to a CONSTANT 0.5%. Two, the last 5 days are CLEARLY “dippier in r than in b”. WTF!!! Artelects having fun at our expense? This has NOT been mentioned on http://www.reddit.com/r/KIC8462852 YET, for some unknown reason, and any reader(EricSECT, etc)who is part of that sub-reddit should try to find out WHY!

  • J. Jason Wentworth July 1, 2017, 1:37

    While I certainly don’t advocate that humanity should be “cosmically ^im^modest” (my apologies for the strange formatting; I would have italicized the “im” had I been able to), carrying the idea of cosmic modesty too far wouldn’t be good, either.

    Even if *every* reasonably Earth-like planet in its star’s (or stars’, in the cases of multiple-star systems) habitable zone were the home of an intelligent race who had developed a technological civilization (or had the potential to do so), NO two of those races would be identical, or even necessarily very similar. With those variations of form, senses, and history would also go differences in mental outlook, philosophical bent, and scientific interests. (If the case of the Earth is typical, such differences would exist even ^among^ the people of any given world.)

    Therefore, the possible commonality of life–and perhaps even intelligent life–throughout the galaxy (and the rest of the universe beyond) does not make humanity (or any other peoples out there) any less unique, precious, and special.

  • Robin Datta July 1, 2017, 2:48

    “Life” is a form or system of chemical processing of matter and energy. As part of the process, it concatenates complex structures and processes. We have but one example of how this is done. The possibility remains that processes sufficiently alien to be unrecognisable to us might achieve the same ends.

    Even sentience may be a realm that has a span beyond our reach. Human infants learn very early in life to perform “Turing tests” to separate the sentient from the non-sentient empirically, sufficient for the purpose of human interactions. But there is no way to know with certitude that any particular individual is not a “meat robot”.

    It has also been suggested that the underground network of plant roots and fungal elements functions in a manner similar to a network of nervous tissue. The responses are slow, over minutes to weeks, rather than milliseconds in animal neurons even though all and perhaps more sensory modalities of animals are represented in plants.

    A civilisation based on such structures may also be entirely overlooked.

    • NS July 2, 2017, 1:04

      When my son was learning to talk, he would say “Hi” not only to people but to animals, the elevator, and swirling leaves. He appeared to have the idea that motion meant sentience, and was disappointed that most of the things he said “Hi” to didn’t respond.

  • DCM July 1, 2017, 3:23

    We’ll know as we grow.

  • Antonio July 1, 2017, 4:01

    Modesty? It’s the same old geocentric view of organic molecules and the water zone as necessary conditions for life to originate.

  • ericSECT July 1, 2017, 6:11

    The author stated “…Rather, it could involve detecting artifacts on planets via the spectral edge from solar cells, …”

    What does he mean by “a spectral edge”? Does he propose a vast array of solar panels that periodically rotate into view, and absorb some discrete spectral lines? And as it rotates away, these absorption lines disappear?

  • Andrew Palfreyman July 1, 2017, 16:47

    We have an existence proof (with some very modest extrapolation) that it takes less than 5 billion years to ascend the first two rungs on the Kardashev scale. Thereafter, one is essentially decoupled from one’s own star system. The gates are flung open and the horses running free. Thus our advanced brethren may well not be found permanently attached to a particular solar system and so looking there may be fruitless.

    • ljk July 3, 2017, 13:33

      Those who look for Dyson Shells aim for the deep cold parts of space far away from galactic center – all computers prefer the cold to avoid overheating. Yes I subscribe to the view that a Dyson Shell is actually a Matroishka Brain and only go for the type of shell that is actually a loose collection of habitats if you want a place for organics to live. Look especially for objects that appear in the infrared but not in the optical range.


  • ole burde July 2, 2017, 16:08

    This is very much like teological debate about Gods existence , or lack af same , and so the logical position is to assume nothing , including the existence any form of life outside our own solar system . There may or may not be a loving all-powerful ET out there !

    • Harold Shaw July 3, 2017, 8:06

      I think the most logical and modest thing to say is that we don’t know because we can not gather the evidence. Imo, the assumption that life on Earth is the most rare natural phenomenon in the universe comes from the same emotional space as the assumption that there is a creator. Both emerge from a desire to be special.

      • ljk July 3, 2017, 13:52

        Several appropriate quotes from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams:

        “It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.”

        “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”


        Natives to the small forest world of Oglaroon, Oglaroonians have taken what is a fairly universal trait among sentient species (to cope with the sheer infinite vastness of the universe by simply ignoring it) to its ultimate extreme. Despite the entire planet being habitable, Oglaroonians have managed to confine their global population to one small nut tree, in which they compose poetry, create art, and somehow fight wars. The consensus among those in power that any trees one might observe from the outer branches are merely hallucinations brought on by eating too many oglanuts, and anyone who thinks differently is hurled out of the tree, presumably to his death.

        • Mark Zambelli July 4, 2017, 10:56

          Tee hee (although Adams got it wrong there for the sake of humour… there would still be an infinite number of inhabited worlds even if only one-in-a-Grahams’s-number were inhabited.)

          One favorite bit among the many (other than the two war-fleets of the Vl’hurgs and G’gugvunts) was the primitive cave art of the multi-armed spherical creatures depicting their invention of the aerosol deoderant before fire… priceless!

    • ljk July 6, 2017, 9:42

      Given all the people who regularly believe that stains on a wall or a misshapen tree trunk are signs from a supernatural deity, how difficult would it be for an advanced ETI to pull a few technological tricks to make many humans believe they have met God?

  • Spaceman July 2, 2017, 22:14

    Any guesses as to how close is the nearest system with microbial life? Multicellular life? Intelligent life? Technologically advanced communicative intelligent life?

    • ljk July 3, 2017, 13:36

      If you accept Carl Sagan’s optimistic take on the Drake Equation that there are about one million ETI in the Milky Way galaxy, then on average the nearest one to Earth is about 200 light years away.


      • Haxo Angmark July 4, 2017, 2:26

        Sagan was of an “optimistic” mindset. Essentially there are two types of intelligent high-tech life: species that have no hard-wired inhibitors about killing their own kind…and those that do. All other filters aside, both are self-limiting in time and space. In the first case – for example, ourselves, derived from primates lacking fearsome natural weapons, and then too quickly evolved a brain big enough to crack the atom – are civilizations which, about the time they begin to penetrate extra-planetary space, enter the nuclear funnel and don’t survive. In the second case, an occasional species with fearsome natural weaponry – say, something like a velociraptor – has such inhibitors before going big-brain, and survives long enough to break out into intersteller space. This would be a Conquistadore civilization or, if you prefer, Galactic Strip Miner: relatively benign to its own, but lethal to all or most external species. Sooner or later, though, one GSM will encounter another and, in the resultant Sector War – utilizing anti-matter weapons and the like – one or both go extinct. So there’s not much out there, and none of it nearby. The current random distribution of civilizations in our galaxy at this or any point in time might include a half-dozen or so Type I (local) civilizations (like ours) soon to wink out, and two or three Type II (intersteller) civilizations with a longer but still quite finite lifespan. And each thousands of light years apart. Thus the Great Silence.

        • Brett Bellmore July 5, 2017, 15:19

          Alternatively, species develop uploading and related technologies before they get energetically expensive interstellar travel, migrate to their respective Kuiper belts, (Where the low temperatures are conducive to efficient computing.) and never go near stars again.

          • Haxo Angmark July 16, 2017, 1:48

            is there sex after uploading? If not, count me out.

    • Robin Datta July 3, 2017, 23:38

      How close to me? Right here, folks!

  • ljk July 3, 2017, 9:28

    Cosmic Modesty. Ah yes, in less sensitive times it was called the Mediocrity Principle, namely that terrestrial organisms and the planet and by extrapolation the solar system they occupy are not unique and therefore life is probably abundant all over the Universe.

    Now whoever coined that term likely did not mean to say we humans are mediocre in the negative sense, just as whoever did the famous mnemonic to remember the acronym for stellar classifications did not intend to be sexist, but these are sensitive times so Loeb no doubt had to pick a less threatening term.

    We are of course significant to each other and the single planet we are living on at the moment, but on the widest scales in physical terms, no, we are microscopic and far too few in number in terms of just our species to matter to the rest of the Universe. However, if there are a lot of intelligences throughout the Cosmos observing and interacting with reality, the collective may make a difference, perhaps even serving as a sort of collection of cosmic “brains” where the Universe can get to know itself, to paraphrase Carl Sagan.

    By coincidence (or was it?) this essay just appeared asking if humans are cosmically significant or not:


    By the way, that fallacy that humans once thought they were the literal center of the Universe was a misinterpretation of the geocentric concept of Earth as the main body everything else circled around. In fact most educated people in antiquity viewed our planet as being at the center of existence not in terms of being in some exalted position but actually as at the very bottom of the universal pit, where all the dreck and dross of the Cosmos collected. The higher you went up the closer you were to Heaven and therefore purity.

    So when Copernicus and Galileo came along to make Earth “just” one of the planets circling our Sun and that our star was just one of the stellar multitude, they were actually elevating our world and our species out of that horrid pit, for which the only thing lower than being on Earth’s surface was being at the center of our planet, where Hell naturally resided.

    See here for more information:



  • Jer July 3, 2017, 11:36

    I like these avenues of inquiry, but we may want to reconsider whether there is as strong a relationship between these findings/ theories and the likelihood of complex life, however we define it.
    Without trying to be too pessimistic at the get-go, let’s reconsider the Fermi per recent papers:

    I think these studies shed more light on astrophysics than astrobiology.

    • Spaceman July 5, 2017, 8:59

      Interesting presentation. I like the conclusion that the Fermi paradox is really only a paradox if we use unjustifiable overconfident estimates for the biological parameters in the Drake equation. Could someone please explain or reference Carter’s argument that in order to produce a nonempty Universe but not one overabundant in life requires a narrow interval of parameters (“Conlusion 1” slide)? What parameters? Does Carter’s argument imply that life is either very common or very rare?

      • ljk July 6, 2017, 9:24

        The main flaw in the Fermi “Paradox” to me is the assumption that ETI want to contact/visit us, especially the advanced ones who have an entire galaxy and beyond to explore and settle.

  • Ronald July 4, 2017, 3:07

    With regard to red dwarfs, they have taken quite a beating in recent years: flares, tidal locking, etc.
    Now there is more research indicating that red dwarfs will not be easy for habitability, because of CME’s and resulting atmosphere stripping;


  • Robin Datta July 4, 2017, 7:58
  • ljk July 28, 2017, 10:10

    Cameras on NASA exoplanet spacecraft TESS slightly out of focus

    by Jeff Foust — July 27, 2017

    WASHINGTON — Cameras recently installed on a NASA spacecraft designed to look for nearby exoplanets will be slightly out of focus once launched, but the agency said that will not affect the mission’s science.

    NASA confirmed July 26 that the focus of the four cameras on the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) spacecraft will drift when the spacecraft cools to operating temperatures after launch next March. The problem was noticed in recent tests when the cameras were chilled to approximately –75 degrees Celsius.

    “Recent tests show the cameras on TESS are slightly out of focus when placed in the cold temperatures of space where it will be operating,” NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said in response to a SpaceNews inquiry. “After a thorough engineering evaluation, NASA has concluded TESS can fully accomplish its science mission with the cameras as they are, and will proceed with current integration activities.”

    The problem with the TESS cameras came up during a July 24 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council science committee in Hampton, Virginia. Alan Boss, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institution, brought up the issue in a summary of a meeting last week of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee, of which he is a member.

    “That could have some big effects on the photometry,” he said of the focus problem. “This is certainly a concern for the folks who know a lot about photometry.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk September 19, 2017, 11:53

    Max Tegmark: ‘Machines taking control doesn’t have to be a bad thing’

    The artificial intelligence expert’s new book, Life 3.0, urges us to act now to decide our future, rather than risk it being decided for us.

    By Andrew Anthony

    Saturday 16 September 2017 14.00 EDT


    To quote:

    “I think Hollywood has got us worrying about the wrong thing,” he says. “This fear of machines turning conscious and evil is a red herring. The real worry with advanced AI is not malevolence but competence. If you have superintelligent AI, then by definition it’s very good at attaining its goals, but we need to be sure those goals are aligned with ours.

    I don’t hate ants, but if you put me in charge of building a green-energy hydroelectric plant in an anthill area, too bad for the ants. We don’t want to put ourselves in the position of those ants.”

    The third stage, Life 3.0, is technological, in which post-humans can redesign not only their software but their hardware too. Life, in this form, Tegmark writes, is “master of its own destiny, finally fully free from its evolutionary shackles”.

    This new intelligence would be immortal and able to fan out across the universe. In other words, it would be life, Jim, but not as we know it. But would it be life or something else? It’s fair to say that Tegmark, a physicist by training, is not a biological sentimentalist. He is a materialist who views the world and the universe beyond as being made up of varying arrangements of particles that enable differing levels of activity. He draws no meaningful or moral distinction between a biological, mortal intelligence and that of an intelligent, self-perpetuating machine.