If there's one thing we've learned in the last 500 years, it's that humans are not as special as we like to think.
Copernicus forced us to expand our narcissistic worldview in 1512 by suggesting that the Earth wasn't at the centre of the universe. Since then, we've also found out that our sun is a pretty average star, our solar system is one of many and even our magnificent Milky Way galaxy is a run-of-the-mill spiral, one of billions flying through space.
The only thing left to make us feel even more insignificant is the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. This, according to Professor Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, is a real possibility in our lifetime, due in part to the progress of her own work hunting for planets outside the solar system.
"The building blocks of life are readily available throughout the universe," she said last week during a talk at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall as part of the 100 Years Of Astronomy series organized by the department of astronomy and astrophysics. Fischer commands the stage through a wireless headset, as comfortable with public outreach as she is behind a telescope.
It's not just bright minds like Fischer's, though, that bring about revelations in astronomy, but also the tools and technologies available to scientists working on such heady problems.
If telescopes hadn't been available in the port city of Venice in the early 1600s, Galileo would never have become such an eloquent spokesperson for Copernicus's heretical vision. Similarly, Edwin Hubble required the gigantic telescope at Mount Wilson in the 1920s to turn tiny blobs into fully formed galaxies expanding with the universe.
Fischer is optimistic about the current state of technology. She and her colleagues have unearthed over 160 planets orbiting distant stars, but so far they are all Jupiter-sized behemoths, not conducive to life at all.
Even so, astronomers can't see the planets directly, but infer their presence from tiny wobbles in a star's motion that suggest the orbit of a large planet around it. With more powerful telescopes on the horizon, though, Fischer suggests this is about to change.
Finding a pale blue dot similar to the Earth would be tremendously exciting, says Fischer later that evening over a beer. "A real image has a lot of appeal for the public, and that acts as a huge source of motivation."
One of these projects, the Terrestrial Planet Finder, is still in the planning stages, but will consist of a space-borne telescope designed to capture images outside of our pesky atmosphere. It will filter out the light from a star itself, sort of like during a solar eclipse, so astronomers can hunt for planets orbiting around its edges.
"The current costs of space-borne telescopes are around $1 billion per pixel," says Fischer, "so our goal is to get six or seven pixels on these stars" with the eventual goal of resolving tiny Earth-sized planets.
Fischer also enjoys speculating on forward-looking fields like nanotechnology. "Science requires speculation, creativity and wild ideas," she says.
One of the main obstacles to sending spacecraft outside the solar system is the tremendous amount of energy required to blast a Volkswagon-sized craft past its gravity.
"Nanotechnology solves this problem by sending off tiny spacecraft" into the cosmos like a cloud of dust.
So who knows? Perhaps the technological stars will align in our lifetime to make possible a discovery as profound as the one Copernicus unleashed 500 years ago.