Are we truly alone in the universe?
That question has been evoked anew by the publication of a recent paper based on data received from the no-longer-functioning Kepler spacecraft, which was launched by NASA four years ago to survey the heavens for possible Earth-like planets.
Any such planet, to be habitable, would need to be approximately the size and mass of ours and orbiting its sun at a proper distance to receive light and warmth that would permit the surface presence of water — the broth of potential life.
Astronomers estimate there could be as many as 40 billion such planets in our galaxy, and they have so far listed 4,500 possibilities, some perhaps near enough to allow reconnaissance by unmanned probes in the distant future.
The report of these findings brought fresh to memory a conversation, on a day nearly 30 years ago, with a man who had devoted decades to considering and writing about the mysteries of the universe.
He was J. Allen Hynek, professor of astronomy at Northwestern University and consultant from 1947 to 1969 on three U.S. Air Force projects, seeking to confirm or discount the validity of frequent UFO reports by the public and by commercial and military pilots.
A single question drove the inquiry: Did the accounts of sightings of bizarre aerial vehicles and contacts with otherworldly visitors have any basis in fact, or were they only the products of overactive imaginations?
I’d arranged the meeting by telephone, and my daughter Anne — then a fourth- or fifth-grader — had gone with me to Chicago for the interview.
Hynek was in his twilight, and on the day we were to meet he had a touch of the flu. But he insisted on keeping the appointment and asked that we come to his home, where he received us in his bathrobe and slippers.
The subject of UFOs and the frequent claims of contact with visitors from space had come to occupy much of the latter part of his career and had brought criticism from some of his professional colleagues.
He had served as a consultant on Steven Spielberg’s 1977 motion picture, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
” He was a teacher by habit and nature, and he spoke on the subject without hesitation.
I was impressed by the seriousness with which he answered my daughter’s childish question: “Do you think there really are people out there?”
“People?” he said. “I don’t know. But imagine this. Imagine if the universe could be represented by the distance from California to New York. On such a scale, our Earth would not be a tennis ball. Or a golf ball. Or even a single grain of sand on a beach.
“No. Our Earth would be just one of millions of drifting particles, too small to be seen by even the most powerful microscope. And is it reasonable to think the accident of life would have happened on just that one particle?”
I could see that my daughter was smitten speechless by the elegance of that image.
For me, and I suspect for her, it has been impossible ever again to look into the stardusted night sky without remembering that day, and that man, and his words.