Saturday, March 7, 2009

Goldilocks zones

I remember vaguely seeing a movie that contained a dialogue along the following lines:

QUESTIONER: What made you want to leave England?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody cold.
QUESTIONER: Today, why don't you want to stay in Australia?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody hot.

That sums up things nicely. What we're all searching for, of course, is a place that's just right.

When I was a child, I was particularly fond of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. For those of you who've forgotten this marvelous tale, here's a version I found on the web:

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in. At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. "This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. "This porridge is too cold," she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. "Ah, this porridge is just right," she said happily, and ate it all up. After she had eaten the bear's breakfast, Goldilocks was feeling a little tired. So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet. "This chair is too big!" she exclaimed. So she sat in the second chair. "This chair is too big, too!" she whined. So she tried the last and smallest chair. "Ah, this chair is just right," she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces! Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep. While she was sleeping, the three bears came home. "Someone's been eating my porridge," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!" cried the Baby bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair and they've broken it all to pieces," cried the Baby bear. They decided to look around some more, and went upstairs to the bedroom. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed," growled Papa bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed too," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby bear. At that moment, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed: "Help!" Then she jumped up and left the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door and raced away into the forest. She never returned to the home of the three bears.

What I liked about this tale, I think, was the idea that a solid little single-son family unit could be existing harmoniously in the middle of the woods, in an isolated and independent environment. All the elements of their domestic environment had been adjusted optimally to cater for the respective sizes of the father, the mother and the son. And, when a lovely little blond girl happened to stray into this home, and evaluate its contents, she found—not surprisingly, I was tempted to imagine—that the mini-universe of the son (including his bed) was "just right".

For a long time, researchers in cosmology have been using the term Goldilocks as a metaphorical adjective to designate any remote world that might be just right for some form of life. We lucky Earthlings live in such a Goldilocks corner of the Cosmos. Maybe, elsewhere among the stars and black holes, there are other Goldilocks zones...

The NASA has just launched its Kepler satellite, designed to spend the next few years searching for Goldilocks zones inside the Milky Way.

Now, I don't wish to be a devil's advocate in any way whatsoever, because the idea of finding new forms of life appears to me as one of the most exciting human challenges that could possibly exist. But the Goldilocks metaphor disturbs me a little, for two reasons:

— We cannot exclude the possibility that the satellite might discover unfriendly places inhabited by ferocious giant Papa bears and wicked Mama bears.

— The harshest part of the children's story is that Goldilocks, having found an environment that was "just right", did not however decide to stay there. For bizarre reasons, she raced away in terror. In other words, in this otherwise delightful tale, there was no happy ending...

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