Archive | December 2011

you die too

“What is it like when you lose someone you love?” Jane asked.
“You die too,” I said. “And you wait around for your body to catch up.”

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

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december reading list and on tap

I’m going to post my monthly reading list (as of the beginning of the month). Sometimes I feel like reading/re-reading other stuff and usually do so at will, thus my reading list has serious ADD. Feel free to drop any suggestions in the comment section (especially if you’re a human version of the iTunes Genius for books), but here’s the plan:

Alloy of Law – Brandon Sanderson

Gypsies – Robert Charles Wilson

The Harvest – Robert Charles Wilson

A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke

Great Sky River – Gregory Benford

On tap:

– Review of Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin trilogy.
– Thoughts on Childish Gambino’s album, Camp.
– Whatever pertinent news pops up or inanity my mind can conceive in between.

we are areoformed

“We are areoformed as we terraform Mars.”

Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

(New feature. Thought I’d start with a timely one.)

unambiguous evidence that mars once had water

Incontestable proof:

Credit: Wikipedia

The Mars rover Opportunity discovered a vein of gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate), a soft mineral that can only be deposited by water. The discovery was made a few months ago, but the announcement was made on December 7th.  There is a substantial body of evidence that supports water on ancient Mars — land formations that are congruent with shorelines, lake beds, other mineral deposits, and waterways. The presence of gypsum is the most conclusive so far, and the kicker is that gypsum is deposited by water with an acidity level that is more favorable for life than previously discovered minerals. (h/t Wired)

This is interesting news, but I’m personally waiting to see proof of water on modern Mars. It barely got a blip on the radar because of the summer government debt showdown nonsense, but back in August, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena presented images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealing the seasonal appearance of what look to be water rivulets running down-slope at key points on the planet’s surface (GIF below). A study was concurrently published in Science.

Credit: NASA

While that evidence isn’t conclusive, it’s certainly supported by the fact that the water appears during the Martian summer (when surface temperatures swing from -10 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The locations of the streaks, near the equator, rather than the frozen poles, also adds plausibility.

Kim Stanley Robinson is probably loving this.

kepler-22b

While much remains unknown about the planet Kepler-22b, discovered on December 5, 2011, it has already captured the public’s imagination in the way reserved for truly monumental scientific discoveries. 

A quick breakdown of what know two days after the discovery was announced:

  • It is approximately 2.4x the size of Earth.
  • It is 600 light years away from Earth.
  • The planet resides in the “Goldilocks” zone – the distance from its sun makes it not too hot, not too cold.

What we don’t know:

  • Surface composition – could be liquid, gas, or solid at this point.
  • Mass/density – with an Earth-like density, it could have the mass of 13 Earths.
  • Atmosphere – this is nearly a deal-breaker. Estimates of surface temperatures go from 22 degrees C to -11 degrees C depending on whether or not an atmosphere is present to create a greenhouse effect.
  • Life — we don’t know whether the planet can support life, much less whether it has life on it. The list goes on and on from this point– we just do not know that much.

Regardless of what we know or don’t know, you need only to run a Google news search to see the varied headlines and reactions to the potential of another habitable world. Everything from speculation on the planet’s composition to speculation on what type of life may exist there. Me? I’m afraid to get my hopes up. But in spite of myself, I’m fairly excited by the prospects regardless. 

Stephen Hawking once remarked that the biggest threat to humanity is also one that nobody really bothers or likes to think about — we have all our eggs in one planetary basket. It’s not keeping me up at night, but it’s a valid concern. It’s not like our planet hasn’t been the venue for a massive cataclysmic event caused by extra-planetary actor before. If life and sentience in this universe is as rare as our (minimal) foray into implies, you’d think one of our priorities would focus on its preservation. Yet the space agenda  has simply been downsized over the past couple of decades. It simply hasn’t been paying dividends in our short-term perspectives.

My partial cynicism comes from a childhood sureness that I would be a part of the generation that put it all aside to focus on what’s important on the cosmic scale. To out-do those damn baby boomers and step foot on a planet we could eventually call home. That didn’t happen, and while I’m still relatively young, I doubt any significant progress is made in my lifetime towards humanity’s colonization of the stars. Fortunately, I also bear doubt I’ll see some kind of extinction event; I’ll go to the grave just believing it’ll eventually happen, and my descendants may be caught with their pants down.

All of this leads me to think, so what? We are discovering potentially habitable planets that are (at this point) too far to technically reach. Great. Who’s going to pour billions into the research and development to actually make a serious attempt for study and exploration? What’s going to galvanize and energize a serious effort before it’s too late? We’ve got “real” problems to deal with, politicians to tear down, and sex scandals to occupy our fruit fly attention spans. I realize it’s supremely pessimistic of somebody who admittedly is a giant sucker for speculative thought, but call it a defense mechanism.