42, the famous answer offered by the brilliant writer, Douglas Adams, in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, to the question what is the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, may be slightly incorrect.
What’s this, you might ask? Isn’t this presumptive of you? Bear with me, there is some rationale behind my idea, or delusion if you prefer.
Looking up in a night sky, especially away from cities and light pollution, the simple vastness of the Universe is overwhelming. What we see with the naked eye is an infinitesimally tiny portion of the stars and galaxies in the observable Universe, The most distant light from objects we can observe with radio telescopes is from 13.5 billion years ago, the time of the big bang. (Although there are now objects scientists believe are even further away—a scientific paradox if the speed of light is an actual limit, but I digress.)
When one looks at those stars, you are looking into the past. The closest star, not counting the sun, is actually two stars orbiting each other, Alpha and Proxima Centauri. They lie 4.5 light-years away. If one were to look at the stars today, June 22, 2020, you would see light that left the stars sometime in 2015-6.
You are actually looking back in time, and perhaps someone on an exoplanet is doing the same thing with our sun.
When I was growing up, there were nine planets. Since then, we have demoted Pluto to a sub-planet, leaving only eight in our solar system. We may have a finite number here, although there is a suspected planet X far beyond Pluto, but there are plenty of planets elsewhere.
Almost everywhere we look, we have found extraterrestrial planets orbiting stars, including an earth-sized planet, perhaps in the Goldilocks zone, which could support life, orbiting Proxima Centauri.
We have neighbors!
At last count, there were over 4000 confirmed exoplanets with thousands of more “candidate” objects yet to be confirmed.
It turns out planets are fairly common.
So, what does this have to do with my premise of changing 42 to 46 for the answer to the question? Bear with me a bit more.
A recent revision of the Drake Equation (I won’t bore you with an explanation, you can read about it here (https://www.britannica.com/science/Drake-equation) speculates there are thirty-six extraterrestrial intelligent communicating civilizations in our galaxy. (https://www.advancedsciencenews.com/astronomers-estimate-there-are-36-communicating-civilizations-in-our-galaxy/)
This estimate is on the low end of the process, there could be many more. Or none. But let us assume there are at least thirty-six.The chance of our finding them—or conversely their finding us—is, well, astronomical.
But what if?
In the Star Trek series, one of the biggest objections from a biological-scientific perspective (aside from faster than light travel) is Mr. Spock, a blended creature with a Vulcan father and a human mother. The likelihood of the chromosomes from an extraterrestrial species being compatible enough to permit reproduction with us is low.
But suppose, like our once certain science there were only nine planets, we are wrong? Suppose planets are a common object in the Universe and that intelligent life will develop given the proper conditions. What if the “right conditions” for developing intelligent life is 46 chromosomes?
What if, given this requirement for developing intelligent life, we could crossbreed with ET?
If we can find them, that is.
I am an optimist. But I’ve long ago abandoned my childhood dream of flying to the stars. Yet, it may happen for my grandchildren (whenever they arrive… hint, hint.) But I still hope to live long enough to see the day when we actually communicate with another intelligent civilization.
Or at least know they exist.
Perhaps, generations from now, a blend of the 46 chromosomes from the Broadmeadow lineage will fly to those very stars, taking me existentially along into the Universe.
Here’s to 46 and all the possibilities of imagination.