Archive for the ‘Space Exploration’ Category
Diffuse Interstellar Bands. (DIBS) What are they? No one knows. Where are they? In deep space. Were they the inspiration for Pink Floyd? I seriously doubt it. What am I talking about? Diffuse Interstellar Bands. Sheesh, pay attention.
OK, let’s start at the beginning, the early 20th century to be exact. Scientists by then were studying the light of stars. A spectrum is the light emitted by a star or bright object passed through a prism. Molecules in and near a star will block some of the spectrum, making dark stripes as seen above, these are called absorption or spectral lines. Thus scientists can tell what a star is made of. It even works with reflected light, this is how they tell what planets and asteroids are made of. This is all of course terribly simplified, because I have a very dim grasp of it all myself. All well and good until 1922, scientists happily studied what stars were made of. However, in 1922 astronomer Mary Lea Heger discovered some absorption lines that were much more diffuse than the typical lines in a star’s spectrum. She also found that the lines were associated with the galactic interstellar medium, not stars.
This was a head scratcher. People commonly think that space is a perfect vacuum. It isn’t, it varies widely, but one atom per cubic centimetre is the “average” density of interstellar space. It was thought this matter was so diffuse that while it might dim an entire spectrum slightly, it wouldn’t make lines. Well, sciencists were wrong, some molecules in interstellar space were apparently common enough to cause absorption lines. Mary discovered a few such lines, and by 1975 about 25 had been discovered. By 1994 when the first conference on DIBs was held, about 50 were known. Today about 300 have been discovered, illustrated above. The reason it’s a head scratcher is because no one knows exactly what molecules are creating these lines. Despite scientist’s best efforts, they have not been able to replicate the lines experimentally, or even come up with a theoretical calculation that explains the lines.
This is a major scientific mystery and has been for decades. For reasons I don’t understand, let alone can explain, it does seem pretty certain that the lines are caused by molecules, not single atoms. And it also is clear that numerous different molecules are involved, a single type of molecule couldn’t produce over 300 DIBs. The best guess is that they are being caused by long chain molecules. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, long carbon-chain molecules, and fullerenes are all strong suspects. And that’s that. Somehow our galaxy contains dust or gas of unknown origin or composition, what it is and how it is created is still a complete mystery.
Is this important? In a practical sense, no, figuring this out isn’t going to change our lives. Not figuring it out will have the same effect. It’s important though to understand that there are plenty of complete mysteries in our scientific understanding of the Universe. A lot of people, especially certain religious types, don’t seem to understand that. Science can’t currently explain everything, and there doesn’t appear to be any chance that it will ever explain everything. This isn’t a failure of science, th0ough it is oft presented as such by science-deniers, it is one of science’s greatest strengths. So whenever I stumble across an unsolved scientific mystery, I am impressed by the mystery itself, and I’m impressed by the fact that science even uncovered the mystery. Is there any chance that the solution to DIBs will force a re-examination of other aspects of science? Possibly, but I don’t know how possible. When it comes right down to it, our understanding of the cosmos is still in its infancy.
One last little observation is that I am always curious that science deniers miss things like this. If one was going to construct logical sounding attacks on science, mysteries like this would be a great place to start. Instead, the science deniers seem to make very little effort to find new arguments, and simply recycle old arguments. Some of the “objections” raised about evolution date from the nineteenth century for God’s sake. And while some of them were valid concerns then, a hundred years later they have long been laid to rest. I suppose it’s further evidence that science deniers are in actual denial about science, since few of them seem to take the time to even understand it well enough to construct modern arguments against it. Or it could mean that when people study science hard enough they realize its true, they are converted to science and reason?
Pause for laughter. Beats me. The older I get the more I find people and their motivations both painfully predictable … and painfully puzzling. It’s a conundrum it is.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. I got it off of Wikipedia so it’s safe to say that non-commercial use of the image is OK. And I left the copyright information on the image itself. Next a furniture history post, or a post about the recent discovery that the Universe is flat.)
Interesting, nu? I got a lot of guesses on Facebook. A new planet, water going down a drain, a newly discovered galaxy, and my favourite: a cake mix gone horribly wrong. No, it’s not a cake mix gone horribly wrong. Many people did guess it was some sort of astronomy photo, and they were on track. The white things are indeed clouds, this is the surface of a planet photographed from space. Not Earth though, in fact six Earths could fit inside the hexagon. This is one of the gas giant planets, Saturn. It’s the clouds surrounding the North pole of Saturn. Note the hexagon shaped cloud, what’s up with that?
No one knows. It was first observed when Voyager went by Saturn in 1980 and 1981. No one had a clue then. In 2004, more than 20 years later, the hexagon was still there when the Cassini Probe arrived at Saturn. So it’s a persistent feature. And nothing else like it has been observed anywhere else in the Solar System. Scientists think the hexagon cloud formation is created by a jet stream whipping along at over 200 mph. The hexagon formation rotates with the planet, and its latitude doesn’t change either. Yes, a permanent, or at least remarkably stable, hexagon shaped torrent of wind whipping around Saturn’s pole. Cassini recently has been getting much better pictures of the hexagon lately as Saturn’s northern hemisphere has moved into sunlight, so scientists hope to begin to unravel the mystery soon.
Why so interesting? (Honestly, any reader thinking that has likely long ago abandoned my blog of scientific and historical weirdness in search of blogs about “The Shove.”) The hexagon is interesting from a number of perspectives. Scientists are interested in it because they can’t yet explain it. That’s kind of the whole point of science. Looking at stuff and figuring out why it is so. This hexagon is one of the big mysteries of the Solar System. It’s an example of no matter how much we know, we are always finding things no one expected or predicted. That’s one of the beauties of the scientific method, knowledge is never complete, and it always has to be modified or expanded in light of new discoveries. Kinda the opposite of most philosophies and religions, that for the most part start with a conclusion and then shoehorn new discoveries into it. That’s getting pretty ridiculous now considering some of these religions started in the Bronze Age. Science put man on the Moon, religion put man on a cross.
Philosophical concerns aside, study of Saturn’s hexagon could prove valuable insights about Earth. This is because the hexagon is a weather and climatic phenomena, and studying how weather and climate works on other planets can prove an interesting comparison to how it works on Earth. And of all the things scientists study, weather and climate are certainly near the top when it comes to practical application. When it comes right down to it, scientific investigation of any topic can yield valuable and practical insights about the world around us. That’s one of the silliest and destructive myths about scientists, that many of them study obscure stuff of no use to anyone. Scientists are studying reality, and everyone is connected to reality. How much more practical can it get?
Personally I just think space exploration is the shiznit. I loved exploring as a kid, and never outgrew it. Go somewhere one hasn’t been, see something one hasn’t seen before. And space exploration is the ultimate place to go and see stuff no one has seen before. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Granted that’s questionable grammar and not exactly a feminist way of phrasing it, but fun none the less. And who knew Leonard Nimoy could play the guitar anyhow? OK, it’s been a long hard week and this is devolving into gibberish. Enough.
Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law. Well, pretty much so, it’s a NASA image and can’t be used in such a way that indicates NASA supports or endorses the party that uses the image. NASA in no way, shape, or form supports or endorses Doug’s Darkworld. Only my miserable day job does that. On the plus side it keeps me in the right downbeat mood to keep blogging.)
This argument that has been repeated endlessly since at least 1961. Anyone who has any interest in space exploration and science generally is so familiar with it that for all practical purposes it is a matter of faith. Even such luminaries as Neil Degrasse Tyson, famous astrophysicist and science communicator, has uttered a version of it, helpfully illustrated above. Myself, I get tired of hearing it repeated uncritically. And there’s no question, it is repeated uncritically by many people, most of whom have no idea where the argument originated, and are often vague as to what the idea really means. The original Drake Equation was about intelligent tool-using life such as humans, ET as it were. The above is about life in general. Let me restate the argument in a way that is easier to parse:
“Considering the vast size of the Universe, with at least 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, statistically speaking, Earth cannot be the only planet where life evolved.”
That, in a nutshell, is the oft repeated sentiment that aliens must be out there somewhere. The problem I have with this argument is that it is neither scientific nor logical. There are other other problems with how Mr Tyson chose to word his argument above, but I degrasse. (You were warned about my sense of humor.)
The big flaw, in fact fatal flaw, in the argument is this. We don’t know how likely the formation of life is from natural ambient chemistry. We’ve never seen Abiogenesis in the wild, we’ve never achieved it in the lab. We have a lot of theories, and we know about the creation of self-replicating molecules, and we certainly haven’t come up with any good reason why DNA life couldn’t have evolved in some primordial soup. We know it happened once, because here we are. However, in any scientific, statistical, or logical sense, one data point is the equivalent of zero data points. If the creation of DNA life is unlikely enough, it may have only happened once. No matter how big the Universe is, there is also no end to how low the odds on an event occurring are.
The typing monkeys demonstrate this. How likely is it that a monkey sitting at a keyboard randomly hitting the keys will type Hamlet by chance? Essentially zero of course. However, if we convert all mass in the Universe into typing monkeys, typing for the lifetime of the Universe, how likely is it that one of them will type Hamlet by chance? Still, for all practical purposes, zero. Is the creation of life as likely as a monkey typing Hamlet by chance? No one knows. And until we have a definitive answer to this question, speculating about life elsewhere is just that, speculation. Note I’m not saying there isn’t other life out there, I’m just saying that the affirmation that there must be other life out there is wrong.
And when it comes to intelligent language using life such as ourselves, the situation gets worse. First, the odds clearly have dropped. Of the as many as 40 billion species that have evolved on Earth, only one has evolved tool-using, language, and intelligence. So humans may have been an unlikely fluke. Secondly, we don’t even know if our kind of intelligence is a good idea or not. Humans do seem to have some very self-destructive tendencies, and our species has only been around an eye-blink of time, maybe species such as ours quickly destroy themselves? Human intelligence may be an evolutionary dead end, until we find others like us that have been around awhile, or we last a few million years, we simply can’t say.
Lastly there’s the science of it all. Again, bad news, SETI has come up with nothing so far. And despite Mr Tyson’s pronouncement above, SETI has covered a lot of territory at this point. If there are beings like us out there, no evidence of their existence has been found. Granted SETI has a lot of ground to cover still, and some excellent new ideas have been proposed recently, but at the very least the 1950s idea that the galaxy was teeming with intelligent aliens is now wishful thinking at best. Worse, we are starting to get a good picture of solar systems around other planets, and it turns out our solar system and Earth itself seem to be unusual. Again, a blow to the 1950s, Star Trek, and all that follows:
Picard: “We’ve entered the system Data, what do you see?”
Data: “Two hot Jupiters, and two giant super hot Earths.”
Picard: “Any sign of life?”
Data: “No Captain, another sterile system, like the previous 8,792.”
Picard: “If we don’t find life soon, even a slime mold, I’m going to snap.”
Data: “Sixteen other Star Fleet captains have been relieved of duty this year because they suffered psychological breakdowns due to boredom.”
Picard: “Worf, toss Data out the airlock.”
It kinda gets even worse if one steps back a bit further. What if DNA life isn’t really life? What if DNA was invented by real life for information storage, real life which we haven’t ever encountered? We’re just a lab spill that didn’t get cleaned up? Or in the analogy above, we examine a cup of water from the ocean that a scuba diver dropped his watch into, will that watch teach us anything about the ecology and biology of life in the sea? Mr Tyson, and people who make this argument, are in essence saying they can use the cup of water to prove their theory about what is or isn’t in the rest of the ocean, but other people’s theories make no sense. Excuse me? The bottom line is we don’t know how life appeared on Earth, so speculation about what is out there is just that, speculation. Speculation is never certainty.
I rest my case.
(The above image was lifted from Facebook and falls into a category that’s probably years or decades behind the law. I’m claiming it as Fair Use, and am in no way making commercial use of the image, and will remove it instantly if the original copyright holder asks. Many of the other things Mr Tyson says are right on, so no one should take this as an attack on him. In fact the guy is pretty smart, and his statement above is a beautifully crafted edifice of false arguments, so I wonder if he did it deliberately wondering if someone would call him on it?)
May 11th, 1950. on a farm about nine miles from McMinnville, Oregon. Evelyn and Paul Trent saw a strange object flying in the sky. Mr Trent retrieved his camera and took the two photographs above. Click on them for the full size version, and I do mean full size version. The pictures eventually went public and became well known, being published in LIFE magazine. The Trents grew old and died, but the case lives on. It’s one of the most well known UFO cases of the 1950s, just behind Roswell. It even has its own annual gathering of UFO buffs, again, just like Roswell. So what did the Trents see and photograph that morning? No one knows. See, quick post, Merry Christmas everyone!
OK, the photographs have been analyzed seven ways from Sunday. The negatives have been analyzed. They all concluded the same thing. They are real pictures of real objects in the sky. Alien spacecraft, a top secret military prototype, or a truck rear view mirror. Basically so little is known about the shooting conditions, camera settings, and weather that people can come to any conclusion they want. It’s safe to say that no one has discovered anything definitive in the pictures that proves or disproves them. The Trents have also been extensively analyzed. There’s nothing that screams hoax, but there’s nothing that rules it out either.
Basically, people who believe in UFOs find the Trent case to be one of the best UFO cases. People who don’t believe in UFOs think it’s a hoax. It’s not so much of a debate, as it is people searching for evidence that supports their assumption. IE the UFO believers interpret it all as support for their belief, the skeptics find aspects of it to be skeptical about. If the gentle reader wants to get into the nuts and bolts of it, a good place to start is the Wikipedia article. Personally I think the pictures are the best bet to go on. They are certainly the only solid evidence. That’s why I uploaded the huge versions above, so people can see for themselves. I couldn’t see anything, but granted I only spent a few minutes peering at them and comparing them.
OK, my analysis, intellectually dishonest as it is apparently: My first question, could they be faked? Hmm, toss a disk shaped object into the air, photograph it. Take two pictures for verisimilitude. Piece of cake. I don’t see how this is debatable. However, I don’t see how the idea that the Twin Towers collapsed as a result of aircraft impact and fires is a possibility is debatable, but some vociferously disagree with me. Could the photographs be real? Absolutely. No one has come up with a definitive argument proving its a hoax. “UFOs aren’t real, therefore it’s a hoax” is not an argument, it’s just circular reasoning. Maybe it was another hoaxer flying a UFO shaped balloon. Maybe it was a military experimental aircraft. Maybe it was an extra-terrestrial probe. In other words, examining the possibilities has gotten us nowhere.
In other words, examining the nuts and bolts of this case is fruitless. Let’s step back and look at it as part of a bigger picture. In context as it were. And this is where I’m troubled. This isn’t just “another” UFO sighting. This was a golden age for UFO sightings. The Kenneth Arnold sighting in 1947, the sighting that propelled the idea of flying saucers into the national consciousness, was just three years before the Trent sighting. UFOs were big news, the still famous Mariana UFO incident was in August of 1950, just a few months earlier. Lots of flying saucers were seen in those years. Many were photographed, some were hoaxes. Were there any flying saucer sightings and photos before the Arnold flap in 1947? No. How long did people see them afterwards? About a decade. Do people still see and photograph them today? No.
This leaves two possibilities. There were flying saucer type objects of unknown genesis flying around the earth in the 1950s (the UFO flap spread world wide,) or this was all a mass social and cultural phenomena. People saw what they were primed to see, and plenty of people were happy to provide “proof.” Since no further evidence has surfaced that would support the flying saucer idea, I think the second possibility is by far the stronger explanation. It’s by no means definitive, but I think a strong argument can me made from the historical context, that of course the Trent photos were a hoax. It’s the simplest explanation that explains the evidence.
I’d be happy to be proved wrong. I think the future of SETI lies in analyzing the surface of the Moon and Mars, not old photos from the 1950s. Merry Christmas everyone!
(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They are not being used for profit, are central to illustrating the post, and are arguably historically important images. Credit and copyright: Paul Trent. By fair means or foul, I don’t know, the Trents are historical figures, a thousand years from now images of them and their story may still be around. Who would have thunk it?)
Another week gone by. Two more days to the last and final debate between Romney and Obama. Both sides are pulling out all the stops. I’m more bored by the day. What’s this, the tenth election in a row billed as “the most important election ever?” I don’t think so. Might be the most screwed up election ever. Now that “both sides” have convinced their base that the only thing that matters is their narrow ideological stand on a handful of of social issues, there is zero chance that any of the real issues facing this country will be addressed. Climate change? What’s that? Our endless overseas wars? Don’t go there. Our every expanding security state? Fracking? GMOs? Forget about it. Nope, just legions of people who thinking they are saving babies or saving women by their respective vote for a dyed-in-the-wool agent of the 1%. Like in the previous election, I’m hoping that the Republican wins, because it might breath new life into the antiwar left, which Obama has effectively driven into a lobotomized coma. Yes, Obama has succeeded where Nixon and his generation only dreamed, he destroyed the antiwar movement. In any event, a few random notes on recent events, in no particular order:
A huge US led anti-mine drill in the Persian Gulf was a disaster. It was called the single largest naval drill in history, with more than 30 nations participating. Twenty nine simulated mines had been planted, the whole point of the exercise was to demonstrate the West’s effectiveness to find mines and keep the Straight of Hormuz open. Reportedly the drill was an abject failure, with less than half of the simulated mines being found. Not exactly sure what this signifies. I can’t see why the US would lie about something like this, maybe they want to encourage the Iranians to do something rash? Seems like sowing international doubt about our ability to keep the straight open wouldn’t be worth the damage it would do to the US’s credibility and efforts to prevent diplomacy with Iran. It’s certainly possible that we’re just that bad, a huge amount of military spending the past few decades has been about enriching the arms manufacturers, with limited attention paid to whether equipment will actually work under real world conditions. Who knows, curious though.
An interesting poll was just taken in Egypt. Apparently there is a trend towards support for Iran and Egypt acquiring nuclear weapons. And the military is still the most trusted institution in the country. Interesting for a number of reasons. I think it’s a good thing that Egyptians are turning away from the USA and the west and more interested in hewing their own path. It’s painfully clear at this point that the USA doesn’t give as rat’s a** about the people of the Middle East, and is only trying to maintain western and Israeli hegemony in the region. And it’s also painfully clear that the nuclear powers, declared and undeclared (cough Israel cough) have no intention of giving up nuclear weapons and are perfectly happy to have the current situation perpetuated forever. It was also interesting some of the reaction to the poll in the west. They saw it as a sign of the rise of extremism in Egypt. Yerp, people deciding they know what’s best for their countries and not wanting to be a satrap of the USA is extremism. The US and Israel keep reaping what they sow, and there seems like no end in sight.
Scientists have decided to send a paddle boat into space. Those crazy scientists, what will they think of next? OK, not space exactly, they want to send a paddle boat to Titan, a moon of Saturn. It’s actually a good idea, it will get to sample both the lakes and the atmosphere of Titan, and move around a bit to get more varied data. The plan is for it to last for six months to a year. The last Titan lander lasted 90 minutes. Considering it’s nearly 300F below zero that’s a tall order. I’m assuming it will be nuclear powered. In other space news someone stitched together the above panorama from shots taken by the new Curiosity rover on Mars. I love pics like this, really shows it as the surface of a planet; add a few juniper bushes and it could have been taken in Nevada.
I have a number of dedicated posts I have been chipping away on. Hopefully I will get some of them out in the next week. Another week where I have a lot of work. that’s good, the wolves have been pushed back out the door at least. I hope everyone had a good weekend!
(The above image is public Domain under US copyright law. Credit and copyright: NASA. For the readers of coarser tastes so to speak, a stone penis was also recently discovered on Mars. I don’t think it’s going to give the Face on Mars a run for its money.)
It’s been awhile since I wrote a “Through Thick and Thin” post. The phrase still and likely always will appeal to me. Partly because it’s a reminder of a more bucolic era, it is an old phrase. Partly because I like running around in the woods and fields myself. I don’t do as much of it as I used to. Moving right along, a lot has been happening lately, so why not comment on several trending events?
Chick-Fil-A. Sigh. This has gone off on so many tangents it’s gotten truly bizarre. Note above image. Conservative black churches tend to be very anti-LGTB. So we have people who in living memory were a terribly discriminated against minority … actively advocating continued discrimination against another minority. It’s images like this that explain why the aliens haven’t contacted us yet. While I respect people’s right to oppose gay marriage, I won’t dignify their opinion by referring to it as a “defence of marriage.” Marriage is not under attack, it needs no defence. In fact, if marriage is such a good thing, why shouldn’t any two adults be allowed to get married? So much silliness though. Tortured explanations from the left as to why it’s OK to use the power of the state to discriminate against Chik-Fil-A. I still don’t think so. Claims by Chick-Fil-A’s defender that this is a freedom of speech issue. No, aside from some rhetoric, no one’s freedom of speech has been threatened. Yet. I’ve seen a mangled Lincoln quote trotted out by LGBT defenders to bolster their cause. Yeah, adopting Faux News tactics doesn’t impress me.
Granted, some of the groups that Chick-Fil-A has been funding (it’s not just their owners, the corporation itself is a big donor) have been designated as hate groups. I find the appellation “hate group” as annoying as “terrorist group.” It’s a label to demonize a group and their opinions. Neither terrorism nor hate is an ideology, so when it comes right down to it, as a descriptive label its misleading as best. It’s an attempt to frame the discussion in such a way that the other side’s concerns can be ignored. That’s not really a good way to resolve an issue. Lastly, after defending Chick-Fil-A’s right to donate to whoever they please, let me say this. They are donating to some groups that are spreading the most horrific lies and falsehoods about homosexuals. Groups that are advocating the death sentence for gays in Africa. Not cool, not cool at all. I won’t be patronizing Chick-Fil-A, and I heartily encourage others not to do so.
Syria. Sigh. I’m writing a post about it, but it’s complicated. Kofi Annan is quitting as UN-Arab League envoy for the Syria conflict at the end of the month, he claims foreign meddling by both sides is making his job impossible. How the UN ever got involved in an internal, not international, dispute is not mentioned. China and Russia support the Assad regime. The USA and the west are supporting and arming the Islamist revolutionaries. Yes dear readers, China and Russia are supporting the secular government of Syria, while the USA is arming Islamist rebels, including Al-Qaeda linked groups. The people who we call terrorists when they are fighting us. As my more astute readers know, supporting Islamist rebels was such a great idea in Afghanistan, how could it go wrong in Syria?
The Mars Curiosity Rover sets down on Mars this weekend. Hopefully. It’s the most amazing rover ever deployed, jam-packed with whiz-bang experimental gear. If it lands OK and functions OK, it will be like the Hubble on Mars. If they forgot to convert English measurements into American measurements, or installed something backwards, it will be a waste of over 2 billion dollars. This is what the old folks called “putting all of your eggs in one basket.” I still think that at a dozen cheaper rovers based on the wildly successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers would have been a better option. I hope I’m wrong.
The Aurora shooting … conspiracy theories abound! This is priceless. Yes, it looks like this will be as good as the Truthers or the Birthers, or maybe it will be a flash in the pan, who knows. It’s a fascinating how some events can trigger conspiracy theories. Scientists are no doubt gathering data and examining this as I type, this is like seeing a supernovae. So much can be learned about the psychology and sociology of conspiracy theories if one watches one actually spring forth. In this case, the current Holmes version is that this was some sort of false-flag government operation to act as an excuse for gun control. And that the person being tried isn’t actually Holmes. Pass the popcorn.
Australia refuses US carrier base. Yes, Australia in no uncertain terms said they saw no need to have a US naval base in Australia. No doubt the USA will punish them for their refusal in some way, but it’s nice to see a bit of sanity in the world. WTF does Australia need with a US base, and all the attendant problems that go with it? World War Two is long over, there is no threat to Australia that requires the presence of an American carrier task force. And why does the USA want a naval base in western Australia? It’s all part of the militarization of the world, apparently we are going to be the world’s policemen now. I’m not kidding, Marine units are now being trained to act as world policemen. There’s so much wrong with this I don’t know where to start, so likely there will be a post on it in the future.
Lastly, a bonus image to share. This made me laugh. Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above two images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Both have gone viral on Facebook, so I think they are pretty much public domain, I have no idea who to credit them too. Heck, I could make an entire blog just from the interesting images that crop up on Facebook daily, I’ll certainly try to post more of them here in the future.)
This was a question posted on Yahoo Answers today, in the Astronomy & Space category. I strongly suspect it was posted as a joke, considering what I know of typical behaviour in Yahoo Answers. The replies to it pretty much bore that out, every reply was some variation of “the first human that gazed up into the sky.” I thought this was fascinating on several levels. Fascinating because all of the people who answered that were full of shit, even though they thought they were making sense. And secondly, because it is an interesting question, do we know who the first person was who realized that the night sky was something akin to what modern science knows it to be?
First, why were the people who thought cavemen discovered space full of it? Simple, cavemen didn’t have our modern knowledge of the Universe, so when they looked up at the night sky, they didn’t have the faintest idea what they were looking at. And they certainly didn’t imagine that the points of light they were seeing were planets or other versions of the Sun, why would they? When learned men started trying to understand what they were looking at, they came up with celestial spheres. These were spheres encircling the Earth with lights embedded in them. They did notice that the planets in the sky moved against the background of other stars, so they decided there were spheres nested inside spheres.
Yet so many people who answered the question assumed that cavemen looked up and comprehended the vast void of space that we now know we are looking at. To me this is a wonderful example of one of human’s greatest weaknesses, people simply assume that other people see the world through their eyes. Most people make this assumption on such an implicit level that they don’t even realize they are doing it. I would actually be curious to know what the people who answered would say if they knew I thought they were full of shit. I would hope that some would agree, and realize they hadn’t thought it through or knew they were giving a flippant answer. Some though would no doubt defend their answer, by one tiresome means or another. What is it with people who can’t admit they are wrong?
Moving right along, who did “discover space?” Copernicus would be one possible answer, he is in fact the fellow that realized that the Sun was at the centre, not the Earth. That’s as far as he got though, Copernicus still thought that the heavens were transparent spheres with lights embedded in them. It may sound silly in to us, but one has to remember than these were people who sincerely believed that there was a creator, a creator who had set this all up for our benefit. So the scientists of the day weren’t so much as looking for naturalistic explanations, they were just trying to understand God’s creation. Tycho Brahe is another one who realized there was a problem with the celestial spheres, he observed that comets apparently passed through them on their journeys to and from the Sun. Still, that’s as far as he got.
No, the real answer is an obscure astronomer named Thomas Digges (1546 – 24 August 1595). He was the first to realize that there were no spheres at all, or at least there was no outermost sphere, that the points in the sky we were seeing were spread throughout a near infinite void. And I mean near infinite, he also realized that what we were seeing in the sky was proof that the Universe was not infinite. How the hell did he come up what that? He reasoned that if the universe was infinite, that any direction we looked there would eventually be a star, and the night sky would be as bright as the daytime sky. It’s called the dark night sky paradox, one of humanity’s first stabs at defining the scope of the cosmos.
In other words, until 1600 or so, people gazing at the night sky might have been amazed at what they were seeing, but they had no clue what they were looking at. They assumed that whatever it was, it was just set and setting for the Earth, a God given backdrop to the play that was humanity. Thomas Digges was apparently the first to grasp that what we were seeing in the night sky was far grander than humans had ever imagined. So the next time the gentle reader is staring up at the night sky and wondering at the vastness of it all, it was Thomas Digges who led the way more than 400 years ago.
An eye blink in human history. Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image is public domain under US copyright law. It’s actually the work of the esteemed Mr Digges, not only the first translation of Copernicus into English, but the first illustration of the stars as scattered in a void. We don’t apparently have an image of him, but his life’s work lives on. I drink to his vision and his memory, skol Mr Digges!)
Well, I was disappointed that no one identified the image on the first post. How are we supposed to defend ourselves against aliens if we can’t even identify the fictional threats? Oh well. OK, this is the post about why I don’t think the first explorers the stars should be allowed to return home. It sounds harsh, but as I said before, they could bring home something much worse than syphilis.
What could be worse than syphilis? Who knows. That’s my first point, when experimenting with one’s only habitable planet, some experiments shouldn’t be performed. Like pumping the atmosphere full of CO2 and methane, but I digress. And in the early stages of exploring nearby stars, why take the risk that a sample return could be malignant? Humans have done terrible damage to isolated ecosystems on Earth through accidental biological contamination, and Earth in a galactic sense is definitely an isolated ecosystem. It’s not had to imagine that some alien organism or bacteria could wreak havoc on Earth, as countless sci-fi movies and books attest.
It’s easy to imagine pests such as we have on Earth, and that alone is sufficient reason to be very cautious about anyone coming home from the stars. Then of course there is the alien invader and/or parasite genre. The former is not likely to happen, the later seems very unlikely. Still, why take the chance? We are talking about the human race and Earth here. There’s no harm done if no one comes home from the stars. As for invaders, the idea is so anthropomorphic that it hardly bears mentioning. A superior intelligence could destroy humanity without going to all the trouble to sending in invading armies, and an alien race capable of actually infiltrating human society is again pretty much by definition one we would be helpless against.
There’s some more exotic possibilities. In fact, considering that everywhere we look in the Universe we find stuff we never expected, it’s pretty safe to say that we will find exotic hazards out there. An idea I have been toying with, what if what we think of as “life” isn’t really life? Or maybe more accurately, maybe there is a form of life out there so radially different than us and so radically superior to us that we can’t imagine it. Maybe DNA based life is an evolutionary dead end, and will be quickly supplanted if it ever encounters other life. Only our isolation in a star system has kept our primitive form of life around. We may be no more than the Lord Howe Stick Insects of the galaxy.
Lastly there are the unknown psychological effects of star travel. For all we know there is something about the Solar System that makes us uniquely human, and that leaving the Solar System will do something totally unpredictable to the human psyche. Granted that seems unlikely, but the truth is that “unlikely” is a judgment call based on our common experience. While it is certainly scientific to assume that the conditions for healthy human psychology are universal, it’s an assumption that should be tested without putting Earth at risk.
Frankly I think the same case can be made for the first human visitors to Mars, but I think many would consider that paranoid. In most cases I would agree that minimizing the risks is the way to go, but when the consequences might be devastating to life on Earth, there’s no harm in shooting for zero risk. Fortunately the hurdles of getting the first explorers back from the stars are so large that the problem is unlikely to come up, if ever.
Then again, I’ve often thought: If aliens exist and the hurdles of interstellar travel are surmountable … they are already here.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s from The Outer Limits, credit and copyright: ABC. I am not making a profit from it, and I urge everyone to go out and buy the DVD. It’s the episode where some alien poison gas spewing plants are brought back to earth and begin to multiply out of control. Finally a rainstorm destroys them. So many aliens are destroyed by water, from Triffids to the Wicked Witch of the West. Sadly the real deal will not be so vulnerable.)
The title is one of those jokes that makes me laugh no matter how often I hear it, I think it’s the autistic in me. It’s recursive, for lack of a better word, IE it sets up a dynamic that can never get resolved. Or maybe I’m just crazy. However, moving right along, this is the long awaited, little heralded post on travel to nearby stars. This is going to be completely off-the-cuff, no Internet research, speculation on my part. In other words, just for fun.
First off, is human travel to nearby stars possible? Absolutely. Sometimes people will quote the speed of the Pioneer Spacecraft and claim it would take thousands of years, so is thus impossible. And they are correct to a point, the Pioneers are the fastest moving star probes ever built. How this means that humans can’t build anything faster is never stated. I’ve got good news, while a warp drive is science fiction, mainstream engineering studies say that there’s no reason we can’t build something that can travel at 12% of the speed of light. So that’s assumption one, we can indeed build really fast spaceships.
OK, this means flight times to nearby stars of 50-100 years. Relativity would shave a bit off of that, but not much. This I think rules out sending astronauts to explore nearby star systems, so assumption two is that the first ships sent will be unmanned probes. Yes, it will take them a long time to get there, but the beauty of it is, once they are there they can send back information to us in just a few years. So assumption three is that probes are sent to dozens of nearby stars, with the hopes that within 50-100 years one of them will find a planet worth sending people too.
So OK, we find a planet within ten light years that looks like people could live there. Maybe by probes, maybe by remote sensing, humans discover a target planet for humans. This will be decades from now, won’t we be able to build faster spaceships? Well, maybe. The way relatively works is that the faster one goes, the more energy it takes to accelerate even faster. So there’s certain limits imposed simply by the nature of reality. So I’m assuming (number 4) that no magic answer will be found to get humans to nearby stars faster any time soon.
So we send really young crews and hope a few of them make it? If the trip time was fifty years, that would sort of work. Septuagenarian Star Trek crews exploring a nearby planet would make for some interesting story lines if nothing else. I think it’s safer to say that small crews will be sent and encouraged to let nature take its course. Hopefully there would still be a few Earth born to help explore the new world. Most of the crew would have been born en route. Is this how we will do it? Off hand I think that what we know of human psychology in small isolated groups is not pretty. Sooner or later the men start killing each other over the women. Among other problems.
Maybe humans will spread to the stars in arks like this, all such expeditions would be one way. The one possible work around I can think of is human hibernation. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why not, and there is at least one observed example. If people spent 99% of the trip asleep they would only age a year or two, and the trip would be entirely doable.
So in conclusion, one way or the other, there is no practical reason why we can’t send out starships full of people to colonize nearby worlds in the next few centuries. It would be a high risk venture, and the costs would be enormous, but there’s at least one massive human money stream that could be diverted into this far more productive endeavour.
And heck, if we discover practical hibernation or some such, two way travel will be possible! Woohoo! Wait, no, I meant … no fucking way! I think with a little thought people will conclude that these ships be sent out so that there was absolutely no way they could be sent back. Columbus brought home syphilis, the AIDS of its day. There could be something out there that is not only more evil than we imagine, but it is more evil than we can imagine. Try not to think about that.
I think I’ll go look at the stars. Sleep tight!
(The image above does appear to be from Wikipedia, so I’m hoping it’s reasonably public domain. If the gentle reader knows what it is without looking it up, I’m impressed. If not, trust me, they are bad news. That will be the topic of my next post, bad news from the stars.)