Stargazing and Riddlemaking

Two new Gaian Kōans help us explore the universe and the nature of Gaia:

During dinner one evening, a student turns to her teacher and asks, “Teacher, is Gaia unique in the universe or are there other planetary beings like Gi?”

The teacher puts her spoon down, looks at her student, and replies:


The name of this photo is: ” Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way.” How could I not use it? [Gaia is the name of the satellite] (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)

Truthfully, this needs no commentary. Just as all humans are unique but have the same 99.9 percent genetic code as everyone else*—and many shared genes with non-human beings—would it truly surprise to discover other planetary beings in the universe—a universe composed of ‘billions and billions of stars?’** 

And which would be more surprising: that the rules of life are eerily similar or dramatically different on each of those planets? In all probability, the same rules around water and carbon as the basis of life would play out more often than not and while alien beings may be incredibly dissimilar superficially, at the heart (if they have hearts) they’d follow similar rules—around genes, biochemistry, and so on. And thus, other living planets would, yes, be unique, worthy of their own sacred way, but also of the same cloth as Gaia—siblings across space and time.

Dancing Planetary Beings

Another student then asks his teacher,

“With sextillions of stars in the universe, that probably means that planetary beings are more numerous than humans on Earth.”

The teacher, after eating another spoonful of soup, replies, “How many planetary beings can dance on the face of a star?”

Photo of thousands of galaxies captured by the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field mission, the faintest of which are a ten billionth the brightness of what the human eye can see. (Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team)

In the 1600s, and even earlier, theologians debated questions that seem laughable today: Are angels sexless? Can multiple angels be in one place at one time? One theologian, perhaps in jest, perhaps in seriousness, asked the question: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Ultimately, the question is nonsensical—being embedded in so much fantasy and inarguable elements (How many angels exist? Can they change their size and form to dance on a pinhead?, etc.) that even if one believed in angels, the question feels ridiculous, or simply unanswerable. Hence, why today the question is the poster child of “questions whose answers hold no intellectual consequence.

But arguably, that might have been the point: to pull theologians out of conversations of ridiculous topics and into topics that matter—like how does a good Christian live.  

Hence, our Gaian teacher in this story attempts to do the same. Whether there are ten, ten thousand, ten million, or ten billion living planets in the universe—more than humans on this living planet—is irrelevant.*** The only thing relevant for us, now, is how we reconnect ourselves with Gaia, understand that we’re part of and utterly dependent on Gi for our ability to survive and thrive, and then act accordingly. Before it’s too late. One day, we may play a role in seeding new planetary life—sending out microbial polyextremophiles to nearby planets or moons, for example, or even farther, but not if we don’t come back into harmony with Gaia forthwith. So finish your soup and go forth and heal the planet, teaching others to do the same.

*That’s the equivalent of a half a page out of the novel The Overstory being different. Yes, it could dramatically change the plot. Though probably not. But either way, each copy of the book would be unique.

**Or actually perhaps 300 sextillion.

***And there actually may be ten billion living planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone—which is just one of a few trillion galaxies. Imagine that.

Caption for photo on Reflections page: “Circular representation of the observable universe on a logarithmic scale. Distance from Earth increases exponentially from center to edge. Celestial bodies were enlarged to appreciate their shapes.” (Image and caption by Unmismoobjetivo via Wikimedia Commons)

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2 Responses

  1. wornsmooth

    I am posting this comment here not to reply to this latest Reflection, but rather to comment on your open letter to President Biden on Nuclear Weapons that came with the e-mail sent to me each week from

    Thank You , Thank You, Thank You for that letter!

    Nuclear war is my biggest fear as to how Global Warming/Climate Change will manifest itself as it causes societal and political breakdown. Politically, complete disarmament probably is not in the cards. Reducing the numbers, (as you suggest), to still act as a deterrent, but not enough to cause the complete destruction of Civilization, or even possibly extinction all large life forms (such as Homo Sapiens Sapiens) is politically possible. You mention the number as being around 1000 weapons. I suspect an effective deterrent would be much less, maybe less than 100, but those numbers are details. It is the main concept you present that is important. I believe it possible as any current nuclear power would still have plenty of power to deter any aggressor, but collectively we would be unlikely to destroy civilization in total.
    The current system of MAD (mutually assured destruction) is indeed madness, with the possibility of its failure (for many reasons) ever present. An Honest to God Doomsday Machine, as Daniel Ellsberg has called it.
    If the Powers that Be could reduce their arsenals in a manner as you proposed,
    we could shift from under the Sword of Damocles to the risk of “mere” catastrophe.
    I call it MAR (mutually assured response)
    Thank you again for the letter. I intend to share it with anyone I can get to listen.
    I do not have Optimism, but will not give in to despair, so I have Hope.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks so much! Yes, 1000 was a made up number–smaller but not so small that the amount seemed impossible (like 350 parts per million–certainly not low enough but a goal to aim for for now). Once we hit 1000 we can push again for lower! Of course, that first means we get down to a thousand. The instability of the US revealed to me just how urgent this process is. I don’t think, unlike with the Soviet Union, we’ll be able to deal with this after the US fails.

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