Communion Of Dreams

Nothing special.

One of my favorite episodes of the SF series Babylon 5 comes in the final season (not my favorite season, by a long shot). It is episode #92, A View from the Gallery, and is unusual in that the main focus of the episode is on a couple of maintenance workers, and their ‘common man’ perspective. Here’s what the series creator, J. Michael Straczynski, had to say about the episode:

One of the things I always do is look for ways to turn the series format on its head, and show us our characters from other perspectives, since perspective is so much at the heart of the show. Whether that’s jumping forward in time, or an ISN documentary, or seeing everything through the eyes of a third party (or two), it’s always a risk, because it’s never what one expects to see, and a lot of people like to see what they expect to see.

“… a lot of people like to see what they expect to see.” Indeed.

* * * * * * *

A new study comparing our sun to the general range of ‘main sequence‘ stars has concluded that it is pretty much run-of-the-mill. And this has significant implications for the possible development of life elsewhere. From NewScientistSpace:

There’s nothing special about the Sun that makes it more likely than other stars to host life, a new study shows. The finding adds weight to the idea that alien life should be common throughout the universe.

“The Sun’s properties are consistent with it being pulled out at random from the bag of all stars,” says Charles Lineweaver from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. “Life does not seem to require anything special in its host star, other than it be close.”

And from Cosmos:

To get a better answer, Robles and his co-workers simultaneously compared 11 stellar characteristics that could plausibly influence the evolution of life.

They looked at parameters such as: the Sun’s mass; age; metallicity (the amount of elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen); as well as its rotation rate; its whereabouts within the galaxy; how it ‘bobs up and down in the galactic plane’; and the activity of its photosphere. Using statistical methods, these were measured against data available on other stars.

* * *
“When analysing the 11 properties together, the Sun shows up as a star selected at random, rather than one selected for some life-enhancing property,” Robles said. “The upshot is that there doesn’t seem to be anything special about the Sun. It seems to be a random star that was blindly pulled out of the bag of all stars.”

* * * * * * *

When I was growing up, I always wanted to think that I was special. I was that unlikely hero from so many Science Fiction stories, the kid who had some undiscovered special ability or trait that would prove to be remarkable. Believe it or not, the death of my parents just as I was entering adolescence fed this fantasy. Think about literature, and you’ll see that this is actually a fairly common trope: the orphan who discovers his ‘real’ history, and goes on to greatness. There are even elements of this in Communion of Dreams, both with the main character and with the Chinese girl. It is a very common theme.

Of course, real life isn’t like that. As smart and well educated as I was, I didn’t grow up to be particularly remarkable. I’ve had plenty of successes, plenty of failures, accomplished things which gave me a touch of fame here and there. But for the most part, I am like most people – just trying to get through life with my self-respect more or less intact.

And that’s OK. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fantasy – of having dreams and desires, goals that you work towards even though they may never be achieved in quite the way you would like. I wouldn’t have started this blog, were that not the case. But it is healthy to maintain perspective, to understand that only wishing for something will not make it so.

* * * * * * *

“… a lot of people like to see what they expect to see.”

Think about that again. JMS was talking about some of the flack he took over doing something a little bit unconventional with what had become a well established and much beloved television series. But he did not betray any of his principles, didn’t go for some kind of a cheap emotional trick. He just offered a different perspective, challenged people to open up their thinking a bit.

For centuries, one of the basic tenets of common belief was that God put us here, and that we were at the center of creation. As science has expanded our understanding, we came to realize that we weren’t at the center of creation. Or the solar system. Or the galaxy. Or the universe.

As I mentioned a few days ago, there is a growing awareness that Earth may not be unique in holding life, even intelligent life. Discovering that there is nothing particularly unusual about our local star adds to this awareness. We may be nothing special, just one island of life in a universe teeming with the stuff.

And that’s OK.

Jim Downey

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