Polaris from the parking lot

The recent announcement of the discovery of a planet orbiting Iota Dracona, in the constellation Draco (see story, right) is but the latest development in the long-running story: Are we alone in the universe?

It's been a bitterly contentious question over the centuries. The philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, among other things, positing the possible existence of other worlds orbiting other stars than the sun.

Perhaps the resistance of ecclesiastical authorities and other advocates for the status quo to the new worlds opened up by the telescope was understandable. Yet wouldn't an infinite universe reflect better, so to speak, on an omnipotent creator than would a limited one? And aren't we humans ennobled, rather than diminished, by being able to reach out across the vastness?

Since Christmas, I have been dabbling with a new astronomy software program that lets me identify, with a few keystrokes, the stars and planets I can see from my balcony. My neighborhood has plenty of streetlights, but from my fourth-floor apartment, in a relatively low-rise part of town, I have a view of a pretty broad swath of the heavens.

I start with Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, the three musketeers of Orion's belt, recognizable even to a light-polluted city dweller, and go from there.

If the view through hand-held field glasses shows the Pleiades swirling around like the New Year's Eve fireworks on Boston Common, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm able to share, with almost no effort on my part, in the knowledge that has taken humanity centuries to acquire.

Like Sir Isaac Newton, I am mindful of standing on the shoulders of giants.

• E-mail walkerr@csmonitor.com

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