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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Rethinking Our Place

<t’s our place in the universe—how do we fit in? Some recent science news makes questions like these a lot more difficult to answer, assuming that the universe sticks around long enough for us to answer them.

That’s right, the universe may end in only 3.7 billion years! Stockpiling Twinkies won’t save us this time—if our universe goes, we’ll be destroyed as well.

Or not. This story sounds more sensational than it is. Some physicists were playing around with a thought experiment: if the universe is constantly expanding, it throws off all the rules of probability. To make better predictions, physicists have to work with a finite sample cut out of the infinite universe. The thought experiment posits that in order for valid calculations to hold in a cut-off area, this cut must actually exist in some real-world form. Such a gash would stop time, and the universe, where it occurs.

This theory requires a mathematical construct to impact the real world, which just doesn’t make sense. In other words, the consensus is this: if a cut-off really stops time in 3.7 billion years (the calculated “end of time” for our particular universe), then you can say, “I told you so.” Until then, chill out.

Unfortunately, even if the universe doesn’t cut off in a few billion years, our planet will eventually become uninhabitable. In about five billion years, the sun will expand into a red giant and engulf Earth. On the bright side, unlike the end-of-time apocalypse, we might survive this disaster…as long as we find a new place to live.

The exciting news is that astronomers just discovered a potential new home. Most suns have a “Goldilocks zone,” an area for planets to orbit where it’s not too hot, and not too cold, but just right for liquid water—as long as the planet in the Goldilocks zone has an Earth-like atmosphere. And if liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface, this means that the planet can support life.

Well, a mere 20 light years from Earth, in the Goldilocks zone of star Gliese 581, sits Gliese 581g, with the right mass to hold on to an Earth-like atmosphere. In other words, it’s the first inhabitable planet that humans have found so far, and it’s a (cosmically) short distance from our own world.

Long after our Sun fries Earth to a crisp, Gliese 581g will still be intact; its star can live for tens or hundreds of billions of years. But Gliese 581g isn’t our only future option. After all, just because liquid water CAN exist on this planet does not mean that it does. Plus, this world may be completely un-Earthlike. The reason this discovery is exciting isn’t because we’re planning on moving to Gliese 581g—rather, Gliese 581g’s existence indicates that there are plenty of Earth-like planets in our galaxy. Our world is not a unique anomaly, but one of potentially millions of Goldilocks-zone planets with enough atmosphere to support water and even life.

We may not be ready to bid goodbye to our own planet, but we now know it’s not the only one out there. And Earth’s not the only one who lost a bit of uniqueness in recent weeks. Have you ever considered self-awareness one of the defining markers of humanity? Well, forget it: this ability to recognize ourselves may not be limited to Homo sapiens.

When you look into the mirror, you recognize the image in the glass as a picture of you, not some other human. This “mirror test” is linked to a being’s self-awareness; in fact, human children fail the mirror test, only later developing the ability to recognize themselves. For years, scientists studied monkeys’ reactions to their own images, seeking to discover if a monkey possesses the same self-awareness as a human.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin were conducting a separate study on rhesus monkeys, which involved surgically implanting electrodes into their skulls. After surgery, researchers noticed that the monkeys were looking at themselves in mirrors, which had been put into the cages for stimulation, more often. They examined their new headgear, groomed their fur near the implanted device, and even used the mirror to examine other body parts. Scientists tried substituting different sized mirrors, and ones darkened with paint, but monkeys preferred looking at the real mirrors.

In fact, one particular monkey, which had not undergone appearance-altering surgery, inspected its entire body with a large, manipulable mirror (video available online at Rather than reacting as if the image was a different creature, the monkey twists around upside down and strikes different poses while gazing at its reflection.

While this behavior is not a sure sign of mirror self-recognition, or MSR, it certainly indicates that monkeys have some level of self-awareness. Because the video is not conclusive, however, more tests with better controls, may be run in the future. Nonetheless, these findings are disturbing the assumption that monkeys cannot exhibit MSR. In fact, other animals like dolphins and chimps have also shown signs of self-awareness. So much for our supremacy in that area.

The universe may not be ending (at least not for a few billion years), but our place in it is constantly shifting. Our planet isn’t the only livable one out there, and our species isn’t the only one with self-awareness. So let’s not get too cocky about our human supremacy. If this is a near-infinite universe, there are a lot of other things out there.

-Sophie Bushwick is a Carletoniancolumnist

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