The space-loving world has been all a-twitter about Trappist-1, a newly-discovered red dwarf star a scant 39 light-years away, around which orbit seven planets, many of which are rocky, have liquid water, and may be very suitable for life. The title of a Mother Jones article sums up most people’s feelings; “There’d Better Be Some Goddamn Aliens in This Solar System Loaded With Earth-Sized Planets“.
But as cool as that initially sounds, the existence of sentient beings whom we can wave to, who will recognize us as not from around there, and enthusiastically wave back, isn’t the greatest thing about the Trappist-1 system. Just having established life would be the greatest thing we could find there; it would give us so much data that we could directly compare to our own lives here.
Life on Earth is based on a thermodynamic process of atoms combining into molecules, molecules combining into cells, and cells combining and sharing resources, in order to collect energy to grow and sustain itself as an organism. Evolution is a process of randomly reorganizing those organisms into differing combinations and abilities, some of which turn out to be better at growth and sustenance than others; the more superior organisms procreate more successfully where the less superior organisms do not.
As well as we understand this basic arrangement, what we do not know as well is how common this system might be in other places: Are there processes other than thermodynamics which can spur the life-developing process? Can evolution operate differently depending on different environmental conditions? Can evolution operate differently even with the same environmental conditions? Or does it operate the same under any environmental conditions?
We might learn, for instance, that large animals can successfully thrive with a structure of odd numbers of limbs. Or we might simply see arrangements of limbs and organs that are unlike any that have developed on Earth, leaving us to puzzle out why different adaptations develop on different worlds. Or we might discover methods of transferring needed energy from organism to organism other than having to catch and eat each other. Or maybe we’ll find a hitherto unseen sensory organ that provides information about their environment that we can barely imagine.
Meeting sentient species that we can actually talk to… sure, that would be a perk. If we can communicate, they could help us learn about the aspects of life that they experience. It would tell us that evolution into highly-specialized sentient species wasn’t a local anomaly. But we might also learn that the motivations on different planets may not mirror ours. Suppose, for instance that a sentient species on one of the Trappist planets knew the stars were other planets and stars, but there was no tribal curiosity to learn more about them, or even visit them? Suppose Trappists couldn’t understand why our species would bother to travel 39 light-years through hazardous space in tin cans, just to say hello?
Suppose they are asexual—or transexual, pansexual or decasexual, for that matter—and so won’t understand our many family-based customs and attitudes? Suppose they have no conception of mortality, lies, emotions, society or uniqueness? All of these things could tell us a lot about their species… but it might tell us even more about how we developed those concepts, and what they mean to us.
Personally, I think it would be just as fascinating to get to Trappist and discover life, but so different from Earth-based life that we find we have decades, maybe centuries of study ahead of us. Getting a new perspective on how life works could provide scientific discoveries and breakthroughs we can scarcely imagine today, including some that might be transplanted to Earth to provide a fresh perspective.
Some nice, basic information about Trappist-1 can be found on the Mother Jones site.