Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Science: Haberdasher of Hope

Hey, get this, I met a writer the other day. Like an actual sci-fi/fantasy novelist called Charlie Jane Anders, she happened to be at the place that I work signing copies of her book, All the Birds in the Sky, which is excellent and should be read by you. Anyway, I accused her of crushing my dreams, which she was surprisingly cool about, but we'll get to that.
Where do I work? An author came in to sign copies
of her book...so, um...a hat store. I work in a hat store.
Waffles, planet-spotting, I mean, is there
anything Belgians aren't awesome at?*
So first a good news bad news thing. The good news is that Belgian space scientists have discovered three, count'em three totally new planets. And they orbit a red dwarf star, which is apparently totally unexpected. And they fit some of the criteria for supporting life-also unexpected. And they're only 40 light years away which, yeah, kind of expected. The bad news is, of course, that we'll never actually go there as we are but meaningless, fragile beings adrift in an incomprehensibly vast and hostile universe. Science: kind of a kick in the face.

Anyway, the team from the University of Liรจge spotted them last December. It's pretty early to tell, but they believe the planets are in the star's habitable zone and are tidally locked. This means that one side always faces the star and is a parched and fiery hellscape, while the other side faces away and is an unforgiving perpetually frozen wasteland. Imagine an entire planet that's half Arizona and half Chicago.
I propose we name it Chicagizona Prime, and then never visit.
I suppose we can leave the universal
translators at home on this one.
Despite this, the astronomers still think this star system might be a swell place to search for extraterrestrial life. Here on Earth, extremophiles can exist in super-inhospitable places like dry lake beds and in volcanic vents on the ocean floor, so maybe we'll find evidence of something like that on one of these planets, living on the line between dayside and nightside...you know, or something equally unexciting that just sits there being plankton. Alien life, sure, but not something that's going to ask us about this human emotion we call: 'love.' Small steps I guess.

It's a common scientific term
meaning 'not bloody likely.'
Very small steps. Tiny, infinitesimal steps down an essentially endless path towards a destination that neither we nor our remote descendants will likely ever reach thanks to the cold slap of scientific reality. Yeah, so not only are we talking about simple, mono-cellular shower drain gunk that may, or may not live on one of these exoplanets, the mathematical likelihood of us ever beaming down to take a disappointing sensor reading is exactly centaur according to astrophysicists. Which, I suppose we kind of knew, but still...

To be clear, this novelist is not
responsible for the untraversable
distances between stars. 
So back to the dream crushing, last week I read this article on sci-fi/sci-not-fi nerd site, io9. It was was about how if we're ever going to travel to an exosolar planet, we're going to have use cryonic tubes or download our minds into robots because space is just too damn big and warp drive is impossible. Shortly after reading this I ran into the author, the aforementioned Charlie Jane Anders, and got to nerd out with her for a few minutes about her article and geekery. She was delightful and gave me a t-shirt and I forgave her for crushing my hopes for an FTL drive.

"Existence is random and meaningless
and there's no afterlife. You're welcome."

But the fact remains that science loves to tell us how impossible this is while at the same time teasing us with exoplanets and the potentiality of a universe filled with life. Like, behold this thing on BBC about how light speed is the fastest anything can possibly go and we'll never build anything that can go that fast because science is a cold, open handed slap of math. There wasn't a new study or discovery or anything, the BBC just wanted to remind us that space travel is a preposterous fantasy. Which, ok science isn't there to make us feel good, it's there to be science, no matter how much of a bummer that can be sometimes.

But if it helps things are often impossible until they're not. That's the indomitable American sprit of optimism, right? We cling to hope even when things look grim, like mathematically grim, sticking with it until the bitter, contested end no matter how bad it looks or ultimately how damaging a prolonged-huh? No, I'm just talking about astrophysics...
Above: an unrelated photo of Bernie Sanders here for no reason.

*Yes, there is one thing Belgium isn't awesome at, World War II. They were like France's broken screen door, but still, thanks for the waffles.

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