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  • Posts Tagged ‘our incredible universe’

    Kepler’s Exoplanets, visualized


    2011 - 02.14

    Over at vimeo, there is this excellent video comparing sizes, temperatures and orbital distances of the 1236 planets (I thought it was 1235… now there’s one more!) discovered by the Kepler space telescope. The two highlighted planets are the ones most likely to have ‘habitable’ conditions.

    And this also merits an addendum to my previous Kepler post; all the planets discovered have orbits very close to their stars–just look at the position of Mercury in that video! Which means that all of them have fast orbits.

    Kepler hasn’t even begun discovering the planets that have slow orbits, farther away from their stars. I see only one single planet out of those 1236 that has an orbit wider than Earth’s. Just think what this Kepler work will reveal as the years continue to pass.

    Gorgeous Time Lapse, in HD


    2011 - 02.08

    Put on some cool tunes and check out this astronomical action. To watch it properly, you really should follow this link, go fullscreen, and hit the HD–it’s worth it. Seriously.


    Kepler, blowing it up right now


    2011 - 02.06

    Big cosmological news this week, huge news. More exciting than the arsenic bacteria, I think.

    The Kepler Space Telescope team has just released a dump truck’s worth of data on what they have seen. The short synopsis: 1235 new planets outside our solar system. There’s a lot of juicy details to talk about, but the main takeaway is that these 1235 new planets are just the tip, of the tip, of the iceberg. A small iceberg, in a vast sea of ice.


    So first the disclaimers: they need to gather more data to firmly verify many of these planets. But that disclaimer becomes a moot, scoffable footnote when you consider how they found these 1235:

    The Kepler Space Telescope has been floating in space, watching a specific group of stars, around 145,000 of them. The size of the group is roughly equivalent to the size of one’s fist held at arm’s length if you were looking up at the sky. Note here, the entire Milky Way has an estimated 100-400 billion stars. So really just a tiny little group is being looked at.


    The way Kepler detects a planet is by watching a star to see if it’s brightness dips, when something passes between the star, way far away, and the telescope, near Earth. Now this is a hugely important point: the odds of a planet just-so-happening to be in the perfect orbit that it would actually pass between its star and Kepler’s vantage point is less than a 0.5% chance. Those 1235 repeating brightness changes that Kepler saw are only the ones that beat the incredible odds of lining up perfectly for our convenience. There is no special law of the cosmos stating “planets must be aligned perfectly between their stars and the planet Earth.” These 1235 worlds are the ones that actually do obey such a ridiculous, nonexistent law.

    So what does it mean? That are abundant planets. Everywhere. As in, more of them than you or I can possibly imagine. Says Wikipedia: “Based on Kepler data, an estimate of around 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy may be realistic.” “HABITABLE.” As in, if we ever get our act together and figure out terraforming, we could go live there. And “PLANETS.” As in, ‘we’re not counting all the moons in orbit around the giant Jupiter-like worlds that could also be habitable too’. (For reference, Jupiter has 4 large moons, while Saturn and Neptune both have 1 large moon each. So these moons are common too.) I would call 100 million a conservative estimate.

    I’ll go back to that mind-blowing sentence from the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book: “There are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Oh how that sentence delights me! Andromeda, our nearest galactic neighbor, is over twice the size of the Milky Way. Multiply the conservative 100 million habitable planets by a conservative number of galaxies in the universe, let’s say 170 billion, going again by Wikipedia (though this may be low). So if every galaxy were at least somewhat like ours with regard to the odds of planetary formation, or would grow to be like ours by the time we could ever reach it…

    100,000,000 x 170,000,000,000 = 17,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 17 Quintillion habitable planets in The Cosmos.

    Quintillion, ten to the eighteenth power, I actually had to look that up before I knew what it was. When’s the last time you heard someone use that in a conversation? I mean, is that even a number? Or is it just some bafflingly abstract word? Carl Sagan loved to say “billions and billions”; well one quintillion is what you get when you multiply one billion by one billion. I think he hit pretty close to the mark.

    Now I know what I just did there was wholly unscientific, and it’s way more complicated than just multiplying some numbers. The galaxies further away are younger and undeveloped, there’s so much we still don’t know, you can’t just multiply like that, I know, I know! But hear me out: the larger point is, that there is a universe out there ineffably vast and surprisingly accommodating to life as we know it. (never mind life as we DON’T know it!) My absurdly large 17 quintillion doesn’t consider moons either. If there is a non-zero chance of life arising, which there obviously is because we’re alive, I’d say it’s a pretty safe conclusion that, in the incomprehensibly wide expanses of this universe, life abounds.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    There’s an awesome interview with this guy Geoff Marcy over at Wired Science. Dude is like Mister Exoplanet. It probably says that on his business card. Out of the first 100 discovered, he was involved in 70 of those, and he is listed as a co-investigator with the Kepler telescope team too. He has a bunch of deeply thought provoking things to say, one of the largest of which centered around the question, how common is intelligent life in the galaxy?

    “What we need are big radio telescopes that hunt for radio signals. It’s not that much of a secret. But we don’t have the cultural, political will to fund a serious radio telescope to answer a question that every six-year-old asks. The telescope called the Allen Telescope Array, which is our greatest hope, is struggling. And for what? It costs $100 million. NASA’s budget is $19 billion. Less than one percent of NASA’s budget in one year is enough to fund this marvelous, epochal Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria – why aren’t we doing this?”

    Word.

    I suppose it will forever be the fate of the scientist to have their resources be dictated by the whims of bureaucrats who can’t be reasoned with. I’m sure the funding proposals for the Allen Telescope Array has taken many a red ink slashing on the desk of some idiot senator. This is one reason why I’ve decided (at least for now) not to write about politics on here. Seems like even when the so-called “good” guys are in control, foolish decisions are bound to be made and tantalizing opportunities are still squandered. I’d rather spend my time talking about things that inspire and fascinate me, rather than just complaining.

    Some more memorable quotes from Marcy, speaking about his early days, “Everyone seemed smarter than me. I felt a little bit like an impostor, like they haven’t figured out that I’m not as smart as them, that I’m not really smart enough to be a scientist. I thought okay, well now the jig is up. Maybe my career is over… I remember one morning in my apartment in Pasadena, as I took my shower, thinking, I can’t suffer like this anymore. I’ve got to just enjoy myself, do research that really means something to me… by the time I turned off the shower, I knew how I was going to end my career… by knowing I was a failure, I was free. I could just satisfy myself and hunt for planets–even though it was a ridiculous thing to do. At that time, I hadn’t heard of anybody actively hunting for planets.” When asked what people thought when he told them what he wanted to do, he says, “They were embarrassed for me. I might as well be looking for little green men, or how aliens built the pyramids in Egypt, or telekinesis.”

    I find those quotes both deeply moving and deeply inspiring. Anyone trying to do something great feels self doubt, whether it be something as modest as trying to make a painting, a film, find a job, or search for far away planets, against impossible odds. No matter how fucked up your life gets or how little you have to work with, you can always keep trying. Even if you fail a hundred times, you can always try again. I mean, here he is, talking about these 1235 new planets–what a triumph, what an utter victory! That moment is like solid gold, you can put that in a museum, in a spotlight on top of a Greek column. He’ll be getting a steady stream of congratulations in the mail as the months go by, and even if they never hear his name, people for millennia will look back on the time when we started discovering exoplanets as one pivot point in the enlightenment of the scientific & astronomical communities. A pivot point in the awakening of our species to our place in the cosmos. Maybe someday there will be a Geoff Marcy Space Telescope.

    And to think it all goes back to that one moment in the shower, when he was wracked with despair that, maybe this whole pipe-dream of being a scientist just wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I’m just not good enough, he thought. And then another part of him said, ok, look, maybe there are these other people with their unreachable masterpieces, who will always look down on the smallness of what I am trying to do. Maybe I can never join those ranks. But I’ve GOT to keep TRYING to do my thing.

    I wish the telescope could be named after whatever voice in that man’s mind told him that. The voice that says hey, even if your life’s work amounts to little more than some footnote in the annals of much more important discourse, that’s still something. And you should do that little something. I kinda got a bit emotional when I read those quotes, because it’s such a meaningful discovery–what that number of planets signifies about our own world’s role in the historical canon of the larger universe–and it had such humble, awkward beginnings. He was just a nut, some loony youngster trying to do something only a fool would devote their time to. Well who looks stupid now?

    The whole thing kind of underscores the nature of our collective quest to gain understanding of who we are in the cosmos. Those people who devote their lives to helping answer the biggest of questions are looked on like oddballs on some idiotic quest. What’s the point of spending our tax money on this stuff, most people ask? So you found some planets. I could’ve told you they were out there. We gotta pay for these fighter jets and build new churches. That’s the important stuff, needs them dollars today.

    It is an embarrassment, how unable we are to muster resources toward figuring out the big questions. All cynicism aside, maybe it’s just a problem of inadequate education about the wonder of the universe, or the inherent difficultly in succinctly communicating how this immediately affects us all, here today….  maybe it’s time I made a SETI donation.

    The Spiritual Uplift of Infinity


    2011 - 01.30

    Part one: Immensity

    One of the most endlessly fascinating human concepts is the idea of infinity. It’s a concept that is referenced often, but seldom do we get the occasion to sit and deeply contemplate the idea. There are so many ways in which infinity is a breathtaking thought. Let’s delve into it!

    The marvel which immediately comes to mind is the size of it. I think of a hundred as a big number. If I have 100 blueberry muffins, I’ve got more breakfast food than I could possibly eat. The refrigerator is going to be full, and even then, some of these things are probably winding up in the garbage. As much as I hate to see anything go to waste, and as much as I love eating a fluffy blueberry muffin, I simply cannot eat 100 of them. So 100 is a lot.

    Stepping up one order of magnitude, if I had 1000 muffins, now I would have to start giving them away. There would be boxes everywhere. Definitely not enough space in the fridge and freezer combined, and now I think I never want to eat another muffin again. Even the ones with the sweet crunchy tops. Iew. If I had 10,000, now we’re dealing with a disaster. The landlord is incensed with the gargantuan piles spilling out all the doors, and there’s probably not much room to walk through the house. At 100,000 muffins, I would probably get killed. Squeezed to death by the immense force needed to cram so many into one house. Even when you compress all the air out of that fluffy goodness, we’re looking at some dangerous volumes.

    But to a lot of people 100,000 is still not that big of a number. What about a million? That number gets tossed around like nothing. A million bucks for a mansion. A million oranges in a large plantation. 310 million people living in the United States. It’s a big country. But there’s almost 7 BILLION people living on planet Earth. 310 million US residents is not a lot of people compared to the 7 billion world population. We’re only 1/22nd of the total amount.

    A billion, now that’s a really big number. The sun and the earth both formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The universe itself is estimated to be 13.75 billion years old, with a visible size of 46 billion light years. So big, you can no longer grasp how large that is. There’s easily over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. That’s more galaxies than even the widest, boldest mind can imagine. But there are bigger numbers still. And yet, the sizes of all these things are insignificant next to the size of infinity. A hundred billion is exactly the same distance from infinity as the number one. That’s the wonder of infinity!

    Just for fun, let’s keep going. The number of bits available for storage on my 1.5TB hard drive, 12 trillion. The US national debt is currently 13.75 trillion. A hundred dollars for every year in the age of the universe! The number of neural connections in the human brain is over 10^14. There’s over 70 sextillion stars in the observable universe. That’s 70×10^21. 10^80 elemental particles present in the observable universe. Google, now a household word, is an alternate spelling of googol, which is the number 10^100. Written out, that’s:

    Ten followed by a hundred zeros. But there’s even bigger numbers still! A googolplex is 10^10^100. In a scene from Cosmos, Carl Sagan humorously shows how it’s not possible to write out a googolplex because it’s simply too big–it wouldn’t fit inside our universe! Those 10^80 particles are simply insufficient for the task, even if one particle was used to represent one zero. And still, there are even larger numbers than the googolplex. Even dramatically larger numbers. But still, the idea persists that even the largest number conceivable is precisely the same distance from infinity as the number one.

    Pt.2: Park it wherever you like

    I’d like to talk a little bit about another fascinating property of infinity that gives me a lot of optimism and joy. When we think about infinity, my mind at least goes straight to the large: the vastness of the cosmos and the unending progression of time. But for all the giant spaces infinity implies, there are implicit minuscule ones as well. When we count from 1 to 2, we think of that as a finite interval. It’s easy to see, if I have one apple and you give me a second one, now I have two, a finite number of apples. I definitely don’t have infinite apples. (Although I wish I did.)

    But for every number you can name between one and two, I can give you a number that’s halfway between your number and one. You say 1.5, I say 1.25. You say 1.1, I say 1.05. You say okay wiseguy, how about 1.000001? I reply 1.0000005. We can start using scientific notation and continue this volley–until forever. And just like that, we’ve slid down the chasm into infinity, INSIDE the space between one and two. Infinity can exist inside of finite boundaries, because of the idea that in addition to being endlessly large, infinity is also endlessly small.

    This idea has tremendous philosophical ramifications. When we lay outside under the stars at night and gaze out upon the universe, the sheer scale of ourselves, compared to it, can really seem bewildering. Stupefying. Daunting. Maybe even a bit disheartening. We realize how utterly tiny we are. And how the vast spaces beyond our planet will never know our names, our histories, or the fruits of our lives work. The collective plight of our entire species will likely be a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a blink in the scale of our own galaxy alone, nevermind the cosmos. We glimpse the scope of the large infinity and all the treasure we hold special suddenly seems not just petty, but outright laughable. When our train of thought goes so far down that track, infinity seems to be a source of despair, pointlessness.

    It is in this moment we need to remind ourselves that the grandiose richness of detail, subtlety, and surprise that large infinities encompass is also fully present within the infinities of the small. And these infinities of the small reside within our familiar finite spaces. Holding two apples, one in each hand, you can hold the entire cosmos between your fingertips. That same infinity up in the sky at night is right here, literally in our hands, available to be reshaped, to be studied, played with, laughed about, and to reshape us with its own, bottomless insight. This idea of infinity, so breathtaking in immensity, is right here with us, a trove of eternal possibilities for inquisition.

    It’s a mathematical proof for the idea of interconnectedness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Buddhist, eloquently muses upon the idea of oneness using a single tree within the larger world:

    A tree is very beautiful. A tree to me is as beautiful as a cathedral. Even more beautiful.
    I look into the tree and I saw the whole cosmos in it.
    I saw the sunshine in the tree. Can you see the sunshine in the tree?

    Yeah, because without the sunshine, no tree can grow.
    I see a cloud in the tree. Can you see? Without a cloud there can be no rain, no tree.

    I see the Earth in the tree–I see everything in the tree.
    So the tree is where everything in the cosmos… come into.
    And the cosmos reveals itself to me through a tree.

    Therefore a tree, to me, is a cathedral.

    It inspires me so very deeply to think that infinity can be bounded within a finite space. It inspires me to think that the potential for limitlessness is anywhere you look. The comprehensive vast ‘everything’ is right here. All around us, within our hands, and inside of us. Exactly like Thich Nhat’s tree, we can look into ourselves, we can look between our hands, we can look…wherever we want, and see the whole cosmos.

    Putting things in perspective: Neat!


    2011 - 01.24

    So I was flipping through the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book tonight and decided to stop on the comets page while I ate my dinner.  I read over the text and checked out the photos, saving the captions for last.  There’s a large (read: 17″x14″) full page image of a comet that is quite a nice shot, which I admired it for a while as I finished up my sandwich.  I read over the captions for the other 5 comets pictured, which had orbital periods ranging from 5.5 years (Comet Tempel, the target of the Deep Impact Spacecraft) up to 76 years (Halley’s Comet).  Cool.  Then moved over to read the caption for the full page image.  It’s name (awesomely) is Comet “Neat”! Hah!  Here is the photo:

    Then I read the caption.  Orbital period for this comet?  THIRTY-SEVEN-THOUSAND YEARS.  I had to double check the number–did that really say 37,000 years?… oh.  I guess that’s right.

    That’s wild.   The last time this thing plunged into the inner solar system, mankind had just migrated to Australia and Europe for the first time.  And we were at the Cro-Magnon stage in our evolution.  The next time this comet will return to our inner solar system?  Humans will have long ago evolved into something new.  Thirty Seven Thousand is such a bafflingly large timescale.

    How many historical figures can you name from over a thousand years ago?   Three thousand?  Five?  Fifteen?  In 37,000 years, us, and everyone we ever met will be completely forgotten about, and the particles which made up our bodies will long ago have decayed and been recycled into Earth, possibly even having been incorporated into several new organisms by then.  If there are some descendants of today’s homo sapiens that have survived, they wont’ call it the year 39,xxx AD–today’s popular mythologies will all have died out long ago.  Just like today’s date is not measured in years related to Zeus, Odin, or Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god.  I wonder what gods the Cro-Magnons worshiped?

    Check out NASA’s site with this cool interactive ‘orbit diagram’ that shows the positions all the planets and the comet as it traveled through space.  If you line up the solar system on it’s axis and hit play to watch the comet slide by, you’ll notice that it doesn’t even pass through the orbits of any planet.  In it’s moment closest to the sun it picks up a lot of speed for a brief moment too.  We should’ve gone all ‘deep-impact’ and launched a satellite to travel to the comet… it could have landed and rode along for the ride out to the oort cloud.  What a journey?!

    Wave goodbye kids!

    “oh, by the way”


    2011 - 01.14

    The 1750s brought the advent of the “Island Universe” hypothesis. Real science for the acceptance of this theory began building in 1912. The debate was heated, until the 1920s when Edwin Hubble, with the aid of the world’s largest telescope, proved the existence of “Island Universes”. The central epiphany of this theory? That there are other galaxies outside our own.

    It has still been less than a single century since we began to grasp our own position in space.

    I’ve been slowly working my way through the gigantic book Cosmos: A Field Guide which I got for christmas. As a source of stimuli, it’s provoked a lot of thought and given me inspiration to write about the resulting ideas here on this blog. It continues to be a wellspring of mind-bogglement. There’s the images within it, which are worthy of staring at for a long time and letting your mind wander, and there’s also the text which has an almost-humorous way of slipping in wild information in a matter-of-fact tone.

    Maybe to the people who would write such a book, the facts it contains would be concepts taken for granted. Like the previously mentioned quote:

    Just think about that one. Really think about what that means. If that doesn’t blow your mind entirely, I have no idea what could.

    And these incredible revelations are inserted randomly, almost like throwaway anecdotes or afterthoughts to the images. A little, “oh, by the way” slipped in. Oh by the way, there’s more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way. I was going to just keep quiet and let you enjoy the pictures, but this little trivial factoid came to mind so I thought I’d let you know. Pffft.

    I came upon another doozy last night: When naming places in space, there are conventions which are typically followed, to differentiate between categories. Below is an image of a place called “47 Tucanae” which was so named because in the day it was first cataloged, it was believed to be a single star. In time, better telescopes revealed that this point of light was not a single star, but a globular cluster; possibly the ancient remains of a galaxy that once was. It’s composed of over a million stars.

    Over a MILLION. The first time we saw it, we thought it was only one star. One. Turns out it’s a million of them. At least. That’s six orders of magnitude larger. A million is a number which is hard to visualize. It’s far, far too large for someone to count these stars by hand. No doubt the number was calculated by mass computations, image analyzing software, or some other novel method. It’s comical how wrong that first assessment was. And not that the man with the inadequate telescope wasn’t trying–far from it–he simply didn’t have the vision to see.

    But this little observational mistake meaningfully captures something for me; it’s emblematic of the vastness of the universe, of our smallness within it, and most of all, of our feeble ability to see it for what it truly is. The Earth, which we once thought to be flat, is most definitely round. The heavens, which were once thought to orbit around the Earth, have entirely independent trajectories. And a place that we once thought was a single star turns out to be over a million stars.

    It’s a zen reminder that for all the mountaintops we climb, there are even loftier peaks beyond, obscured by the slopes we have yet to conquer.

    Surfing the nebulae


    2011 - 01.09

    Today I was checking out some hubble images at spacetelescope.org. This website just… boggles my brain every time I go. If the writings on this blog interest you at all, you owe it to yourself to go look at the 100 best images. Each one of them is worthy of poring over intensely.
    The Hubble telescope captured a display of starlight, glowing gas, and silhouetted dark clouds of interstellar dust in this 4-foot-by-8-foot image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300. NGC 1300 is considered to be prototypical of barred spiral galaxies. Barred spirals differ from normal spiral galaxies in that the arms of the galaxy do not spiral all the way into the center, but are connected to the two ends of a straight bar of stars containing the nucleus at its center.

    While looking at the above image of this barred spiral galaxy, I was daydreaming about what might be there. Even with the great detail in the picture, it’s quite difficult to make out individual stars. Most of the ones that do shine bright enough to distinguish are not likely the most interesting stars in this galaxy–it’s the sun-like yellow stars which blend into the background, invisible to our eye, which probably have the most planets, the densely populated orbits, and timescales conducive to the arising of intelligent life.

    When I look at a picture like that, there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt, that this galaxy, like our own, must certainly be chock full of interstellar travelers. Highly evolved forms of life plying the minerals of barren moons, trading with other species. Vibrant commerce. Nuanced cultures. Storied histories. As I stare into the clouds of stars swirling around, a multitude of emotions arises thinking about what might be there. Lament, knowing that I’ll never get to know or explore these places, even if only from the glow of a computer screen. Humility, at the fraction of an iota that is our world. Bewilderment, at the inconceivable scale of this one picture.

    Frustration at my fellow man, that we haven’t made exploration a priority, or for the many centuries that we slacked on science while imbibing the drug of religion. Or for the perennial refrain of ‘we need to fix our problems here first’.  I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that is a day which shall never come.  And besides, some of the answers to our problems will be discovered along the way into space.

    But I also feel more optimistic trains of thought when I look at these pictures. Wonder, at the vast unknown of what might be. Wild and deep wonder. Pride, that we have discovered this much, that we have these images to inspire us in the first place. And hope that someday our distant, distant descendants will someday begin their charting of the stars, drawing new maps of what’s out there and filling endless encyclopedias with their discoveries. And it’s also a bit reassuring to think that there are surely many races and civilizations out there already doing it. Surfing the nebulae. Circumnavigating the Milky Way. Having races, just for fun, around the obstacle courses of our cosmos.

    Oh how great it would be to join in such voyages.

    tastemaking in our little corner of the galaxy


    2011 - 01.04

    This quote from the beginning of Cosmos; I’ve been thinking about it often.  I completed watching the series some months ago now, and boy how I wish there were more.  Now all that remains is to go back and rewatch the episodes, a ritual that certainly gleans satisfaction, if lacking a bit in that smack across the face of resounding freshness that accompanies the first viewing.  Seeing it again, there are little hidden facets which reveal themselves, a secret kept from the new inductees.

    And there’s the pleasure of watching Mr. Sagan in action.  Through this series, I have arrived at a state of unmitigated admiration for this man.  Carl’s magnetically eloquent language, masterful comprehension of science, and retainment of such rapturous wonder at the beauty which surrounds us are a model to aspire toward.  There is something about his persona, the emphasis in his oratory, which imbues him with the overwhelming zest of a virtuoso at the peak of their form.  I would say that Carl is to the scientific world what the Beatles were to the music world.  Both were tastemakers who popularized complex ideas, making them accessible to people who might not otherwise enjoy 7/8 time, traditional Indian music, abstract lyricism, unconventional chord changes and recording methods.  Or in Carl’s case, the concept that heavy elements (and the ones that we are made of!) come from the insides of stars, the sheer vastness of the universe we exist within, and the towering influence of our understanding of the cosmos upon our ultimate fate.  And in both cases, these people were admired not just by outsiders who had only rudimentary grasps of their work, but rather they were both looked up to by generation after generation of experts and even geniuses within their respective fields.  In the recent NASA press conference concerning the arsenic-based bacteria, they invoked Carl three times (along with Stephen Hawking once, and Neil deGrasse Tyson once, to put it in perspective).

    At the same time that Carl is an archetype, he is very much a man, somewhat laughable in his dryness, but adorable in his sincerity.  Clad in his favorite orange coat, sitting in this overly-ornamental fake time machine, he looks a bit ridiculous, and I can’t help but giggle a bit.  But I love him for ‘going for it’ so unabashedly.

    I sort of wonder when I watch Cosmos, if they recorded the very beginning of it last, after the whole of the series was done.  When Carl gives that opening oratory, it feels to me as if it is the conclusion, the glorious end-result of his wanderings, disguised as the beginning.

    All Your Aliens Are LAME.


    2011 - 01.03

    My biggest beef with almost all the science fiction out there: the unimaginative portrayal of alien life.  And I’ll be especially harsh on Star Trek here–for being the series that is lauded as one of the more “realistic” (ie. it tries to obey physics), all the aliens (Klingons, Vulcans, borg, etc) all look an awful lot like Homo Sapiens.  I think the Cantina scene in the original Star Wars comes a lot closer to imagining what breadth of life must be out there.

    Given a completely different set of circumstances, the process of evolution will take a completely different path.  This recent NASA study which, essentially through forced evolution, bred a bacteria that eats arsenic and uses it in place of phosphorus as the backbone of its DNA structure, is a breakthrough.  It changes the parameter of where we should be searching for life.  And more importantly, it expands the boundaries of where life might arise.  That’s huge.

    I would also posit that this discovery is only one of many discoveries to come that will expand our narrow thinking on the possibilities of life.  I would bet anything that there are chemistries which proliferate life with far more exotic elements than the replacement of a single building block using the Earth-life formula.  The study of extremophiles here on Earth is important work to understand life.  Earth, after all, is just one set of pressure, temperature, gravity, atmosphere, and soil that’s out there.

    It really bothers me how human-centric alien life is always portrayed.  If an organism grew on a completely different world, with a different set of parameters as listed above, it would probably be absolutely nothing like us.  Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth?  Probably not.  This is how our evolutionary tree began, millennia ago, and because of those early parameters, nearly all the life around us follows the formula.  Who’s to say that on different planets, starting from scratch, life wouldn’t evolve with ears on the back of their knees? Or eyes that perceived with radio waves, or infrared.  Their “eyes” probably wouldn’t even look like what we call “eyes”.  Maybe these creatures would evolve to be able to emit and manipulate electromagnetic waves–that ability would have many advantages…

    Other structures that we completely take for granted might not be present whatsoever.  A leg, for example.  Of course, legs are a good solution to the problem of how to get around, but why not rolling wheels or something similar to treads, or why not glide around on a layer of slippery goo like a snail?  Maybe alien life would hop from place to place like on pogo sticks?  In low gravity environments, that would be a very efficient way to travel.  Why walk and get bogged down in all that expenditure of energy with friction against the ground when you can just bounce gracefully across it all?  Boom, you just got beaten in the evolutionary contest, alien with legs! As much as I strain my mind to come up with oddities which might arise, I feel limited by my Earthbound bias.  What if alien life is REEEEEEALY different?  There must be creatures and civilizations out there that have endured for billions of years.  Their evolution probably started like ours as a chemical process driven by the right building blocks and the infusion of electromagnetism.  These creatures evolved to intelligence, built a society, discovered science and technology, began to guide their own evolution.

    They eliminated genetic flaws, squashed weaknesses to disease, augmented their intelligence and information storage.  At a certain point, their technology and their physical beings became indistinguishable.  They learned how to preserve their minds indefinitely and how to network them for instantaneous telepathy.  For some, physical existence became more like an afterthought.  For others, connection with the collective muted the possibility of discovery out in the wilds of the cosmos.

    They developed means to travel the galaxy, cataloging other life in the pursuit of advancing their own.  The optimum way to do this probably involved zero interference with these other, less advanced lifeforms.  Studying their natural growth patterns was more fruitful than attempting to conquer, plunder, or exploit–irrelevant, pointless ideas when much larger questions and goals awaited.  Perhaps these creatures developed ways to transport their consciousness via electromagnetic waves, reconstituting physical forms at will, only for sporadic observation where things got interesting.  By this point, a physical appearance would be whatever manifestation would best suit the situation.

    What would such a highly developed species choose to look like?  I find it fascinating to think about.  What would their goals become?

    What would their leisure pursuits be? In the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book I read the fact that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.  This is an astounding, stupefying fact that I will probably repeat later, for the sheer difficultly of being able to wrap one’s head around it.

    To me, the most thought-provoking aspect of it is that where the probability of life is simply anything other than zero, the vastness of this universe implies an explosively bountiful cornucopia of every imaginable tree-branch of life, including the existence of such ancient and advanced races as we theorized about above.

    Riffin on the Ice Cube / Space books


    2011 - 01.02

    I was at half price books about a month ago and I found this eye-popping hardcover book called “Superstructures In Space” for just $10.  It’s chock full of gorgeous photos taken by spacecraft and of spacecraft, detailing all the major human forays into space.  I’ve learned a lot reading it.  Chiefly that there are way more space missions going on than I realized.  There’s a probe on it’s way to Pluto (it’ll get there in 2015!), and another one inserting into orbit around Mercury in March of next year.  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is an ongoing mission that has returned 3 times more data than the last 5 missions to mars COMBINED.  It’s mapped mars with a greater resolution than available on Google Earth.  The Deep Impact spacecraft was a super sweet mission in which they shot this projectile into an asteroid to observe what kinds of elements would be present in the resulting debris.  There’s just a ton of amazing things going on in space that I wasn’t even aware of.

    Just as I thought my interest/obsession was plateauing, for Christmas my girl gave me an even more gigantic book (see comparison below; literally GIGANTIC at 17×14 inches!) by called “Cosmos: A Field Guide”.  It’s not related to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” in the literal sense (although they do invoke “star stuff”, a well-worn Saganism), but it goes through everything we’ve observed in the universe, from satellites looking at Earth, all the other planets, the outer solar system, Oort Cloud and Kupier Belt, the Milky Way, other galaxies, and the boundaries of what we can see in our universe.  The book is pure space porn, filled with breathtaking pictures of every type of celestial body imaginable.  The one shown here is the remnants of a supernova.  There aren’t really words that convey the size or the grandeur of what’s been discovered out beyond our planet.  I’m totally enraptured by these ideas at this moment in life…

    So against that backdrop I was reading about the neutrino observatory at the South Pole.  As silly as it may sound, the fact that we got a dude down there at the coldest place on the planet, measuring and counting neutrinos hoping to figure out some piece of our universe–it gives me hope that humans might be able to make it.  These are the biggest questions for us to answer: what is the universe made of, how did it form, can we trace its lineage?  In the words of Carl:

    What he’s getting at is the fact that these questions go beyond nations, races, generations, or any other divisions among us.  And our quest to answer them is tied inseparably to technology that will allow human civilization to make an ultimately essential leap–spreading to other worlds.  The universe is unfathomably vast and we humans, despite all our progress, are still at a most infantile age.  Whether we end up destroyed by nuclear weapons, avian flu, asteroids, or the greenhouse effect, one way or another Earth isn’t going to be safe forever.  Our ability to get out there (and get out there fast!), I believe is going to be THE pivot point on whether the genus “homo” ends with “sapiens”, or lives on to continue further.

    A thought that keeps running through my mind is “we live in a primitive time”.  I imagine a far away age where our distant descendants roam the galaxy in search of resources to mine, lifeforms to chronicle and trade with, picturesque worlds to settle upon, and maybe sightseeing by watching stars being born in nearby nebula.  These are the actions of an advanced civilization.  By comparison, we are living in far more primitive times than the stone age!  We still use rockets to launch spacecraft.  Rockets!  How un-elegant.  The knowledge that there are other galaxies besides our own is less than a century old.  That fact astounds me.  What utter ignorance we have begun to climb from.  The idea of an earth-centric universe seems embarrassingly laughable.  Like a little kid who thinks he knows how babies are made; “when the man pees inside the woman”.  Hahahaha, how naïve and clueless we were!

    I suspect that even such ideas as popular today as “dark matter” will one day be as antiquated as the concepts of ether or the crystalline spheres of the geocentric model.  Our galaxy-traversing descendants will look back through the history books and chuckle about what ideas once passed as science.  But that is the beauty of science–it is always refining itself, self-correcting, and disowning the baggage that no longer applies.  The neutrino observatory is an awesome step in refining our search for matter, understanding cosmic ray sources, and general surveying of the universe.  No doubt it will place us one step closer to the answers to those ‘big questions’.  How big of a step, only time can tell!