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Sirens of Titan

     The Huygens probe is a phenomenal success. To land a spacecraft on a moon 900 million miles away is an achievement that momentarily redeems the human species. Sure, we blow each other up and destroy our own environment and occasionally pillage and plunder and maim -- and that's just at an NBA game! -- but we also know how to send a spaceship into orbit around Saturn and drop a probe onto an alien surface and send back some pretty decent pictures. (And to think I get befuddled by disposable cameras.)

    The surface of Titan is intriguingly varied. We've heard (those of us who are exobiologically inclined) about Titan's possible oceans, and by gosh there does seem to be some kind of lake or ocean or ... something. It's hard to know what we're looking at. We're biased by our terrestrial landscape. Obviously it's not liquid water at 270 below. It might be hydrocarbon slush. Guy Gugliotta's story makes the crucial point that Titan seems to have weather, something we don't see anywhere else in the solar system.

     Undoubtedly there will be the usual rash of pronouncements that this latest bit of data increases the odds that there is life throughout the universe. There's always some expert that pops up and declares that we now realize that surely we're not alone. On certain key technical points I remain contrarian: Yes, there's probably life throughout the universe (though we have zero data on this), and probably even intelligent life here and there, but the overwhelming message of our solar system is that life is exceedingly rare, that habitable environments are probably few and far between, that bad things happen to good planets. It took four billion years for simple life on Earth to evolve to the point where it could build a spaceship. How many planets are habitable for four billion years? That's a third the life span of the entire universe.

     So the news from Titan is dazzling, but it should make us appreciate Earth all the more.

-- written Jan. 15, 2005

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 17, 2005; 2:08 PM ET
 
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