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Archive for December, 2011

2012: Little Chickens Are Crying Wolf Again

WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!

You know, eventually. That’s the natural order of things. Most of us will survive 2012, though, in spite of everything the latest doomsday prophets claim. There are seven billion humans on Earth, after all. Writers, have you ever tried to kill off that many people in one story? It’s quite a lot of work, even in fiction, and much harder in real life. It’s not impossible, but according to the latest doomsday scientists, there’s no quantifiable indication that our end times are impending.

Let’s break it down for a little perspective:

Of all the different avenues along which people enjoy speculating about the apocalypse, most are at least tangentially political in nature. The nuclear holocaust is so overdone that it’s been rendered cliché. Pandemics are also in jeopardy of losing their social impact through overuse in media and other fiction. We’ll probably say the same about anthropogenic climate change in a few decades, even as we adapt to its environmental and economic ravages.

None of those political plot devices is likely to annihilate our species in 2012, but any of them is far more likely bring about our ignominious end than the equally tired religious mechanisms for the demise of human civilization. The second coming and the rapture? Ragnarok? The end of the Maya long count?

Actually, that last is the most absurd. You know what happens when we reach the end of the Maya long count? The same thing that happens when we reach the end of every other calendar invented since humans started measuring time in large units: We throw a big party, and we get a new calendar. Woo-hoo!

There are still a few arguably non-political tropes abused in doomsday prophesies. Polar shift, for example, which would certainly cause mass-extinctions if it was possible. However, in order to experience a polar shift in 2012, Earth would have to be on a collision course with an object so large that we’d be able to observe it with the naked eye by now. Our planet hasn’t had an experience like that since it acquired the moon a few billion years ago. Anyway, the term ‘polar shift’ is actually a red herring for a far more common event properly known as geomagnetic reversal. And that’s about as menacing as a slow-motion Y2K.

What about supervolcanoes? There’ve been an awful lot of earthquakes and eruptions lately, right? Eh, no. Earth is actually pretty quiet right now, on the scale of geologic time. Specifically, there is no indication that a supervolcano will erupt in our lifetimes, never mind in 2012. Specifically, there’s nothing about the Yellowstone caldera – the current favorite of geologic apocalypse-mongers – that suggests it’s going to do anything out of the ordinary any time soon. Even if it did, a supervolcanic eruption probably would not bring about human extinction, and it certainly couldn’t end the world.

Last and least, whenever anyone hears the term ‘Planet X,’ they should dissolve into peals of laughter on the spot. Really. In its proper context, Planet X is something out of a Daffy Duck cartoon, and that’s always worth a chuckle. Outside of its proper context, Planet X doesn’t exist. Anyone otherwise convinced is a fool easily parted from their money.

None of the catastrophes mentioned above are going to occur in 2012, but you can safely bet they and other variations on the apocalyptic theme will happen repeatedly in literature. Alas, not even that will end in 2012. The good news is that when it comes to making the most of flimsy premises and tired dread, fiction bests reality much of the time. After all, dystopia is practically its own genre, nowadays.

Entering the Unknown (Or, What Happens When Timmy Falls Down a Black Hole)

When I think about black holes in science fiction, I can’t help but think of that old Disney movie The Black Hole.  I was five years old (or maybe seven) when I saw it, so all I really remember is an uneasy glance passing between two astronauts as their space shuttle hurtles into a black hole.  At the time, this was scary – hey, I was five (or seven).  But it could have been so much scarier.

Black Hole

Since that movie came out in 1979, public perception of black holes has changed a bit.  The director of a Hollywood remake might be aware that astronauts can’t just fly calmly, or anxiously for that matter, into the very center of a black hole.  Strong gravity would pull an astronaut apart as they approach the singularity, starting with the nearest body part.  Let’s say an astronaut, we’ll call him Timmy, falls into a black hole feet first.  His feet will stretch toward the singularity.  His head will stretch too, but by a lesser amount.  He might even have a moment or two to examine the lengthening of his body before he is stretched into a thin strip of spaghetti and slurped into the singularity.  There is a technical term for Timmy’s experience: spaghettification.

Spaghettification

Spaghettification is a better explanation than what Disney came up with, but it doesn’t tell quite the whole story.  It’s true that once inside a black hole, Timmy would stretch tidally toward the singularity.  But as Timmy becomes taller and skinnier, the curvature of space itself changes.  The stretching quickly becomes so extreme, it produces its own gravitational field.  Turns out, gravity as Einstein thought of it is not the gravity we know and love.  Near something as extreme as a singularity, gravity becomes non-linear, meaning that gravity begets gravity.  So once Timmy starts stretching, all bets are off – as soon as he stretches one way, he induces an extreme curvature of space that reverses the stretch.  The oscillations will speed up as Timmy approaches the singularity, kneading him like dough one way then the other.  Theorists, not without a sense of humor, call this “Mixmaster dynamics,” named after the dough-kneading machine.  (By the way, in the simulation below, the blob stretches by a factor of 6.  Timmy, however, would stretch by a factor of 10^14.  For those not inclined to scientific notation, that’s a one followed by 14 zeroes…in other words, many times more than my measly brain can imagine.)

Mixmaster dynamics

Gravity begets gravity, and so the bread-making begins.

Lucky for Timmy, the mixing doesn’t last long.  As soon as Timmy enters the singularity, he ceases to exist, his mass and energy converted to the energy of the black hole’s gravitational field.  At the singularity, matter no longer matters.  We might think of black holes as gaining mass as they swallow gas, stars, and little boys and their dogs, but really there is no mass at all, just a self-generating gravitational field.

Of course, the story for Timmy could end differently.  Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity describes gravity, but is limited to the world of Big Things.  Small Things, like atoms and electrons, are governed instead by quantum mechanics.  Singularities, being very small objects with extreme gravity, must be governed by both, but theorists have yet to understand how these two vastly different ideas might mesh together.  I bet Timmy can’t wait to find out.

Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— William Butler Yeats, “Second Coming”

The last few years have been heady for planet hunters. First the hot Jupiters; then the will-o’-the-wisp Glieslings and their cousins; and in the last year, the results from the Kepler mission which detected planetary systems in the low thousands; one of these is Kepler 22.

Kepler 22 is a G5 type star (our sun is G2, about 10% bigger and hotter) 600 light years away with a planetary entourage. For anyone who was in a sequestered jury room or a silently running nuclear submarine, what got splashed across the news media on December 5 was the confirmation that one of the Keplerings is a super-Earth (2.4 times the radius of our planet) that is solidly within the habitable zone of its primary – habitable defined as the region where water can remain liquid. It circles its primary in 289 days and its estimated average temperature is a balmy 22 C/75 F if (big if) it has an atmosphere thick enough for a mild greenhouse effect.

That’s what we know, and it’s important and exciting enough. Here’s what we don’t know, which makes the exclamations of “Twin Earth!” annoying: we don’t know its mass (though the wobble velocity puts an upper limit of 36 Earth masses on it), its composition, the composition of its atmosphere or if it has any moons. Equally annoying are the suggestions to name it The Christmas Planet or the barely less mawkish Hope, right down there with the naming of putative Gliese 581g something like Betty (not even Elizabeth, which at least would celebrate an unforgettable historic figure, plus several literary ones).

The Kepler findings are pinning down the still-loose middle terms of the Drake equation by strongly indicating that most suns have planetary systems, and most planets are of the small rocky variety. Of the approximately 2,000 systems Kepler tentatively identified, about fifty have planets within the habitable zone, of which perhaps ten are “Earth-like” (loosely defined).

Half a percent may not sound like much. But given the quarter trillion suns in our galaxy, the numbers mount up quickly. Plus, of course, the size and location of the newcomer inevitably raises expectations: if Kepler 22b is rocky and has decent amounts of water and a reasonably thick atmosphere, the probability of life moves into the “likely” zone. So it’s not surprising that the Allen Array turned its dishes in the direction of Kepler 22 (no requests for Warren Zevon yet, but the night is still young) – or that the concept art is coming in thick and fast.

It is a great pity that Kepler 22b is so far. Even expeditions with quasi-exotic propulsion systems (or exceptionally nice humans in flawless arkships) would take a long time to reach it. But the lengthening list of not-quite-Earths is a powerful enticement not to abandon the faltering beacon of space exploration. Once again, I will close with what I said about Gliese 581g:

“Whether [Kepler 22b] is so hospitable that we could live there or so hostile that we could only visit it vicariously through robotic orbiters and rovers, if it harbors life — even bacterial life, often mistakenly labeled “simple” — the impact of such a discovery will exceed that of most other discoveries combined. Unless supremely advanced Kardashev III level aliens seeded the galaxy like the Hainish in Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen, this life will be an independent genesis, enabling biologists to define which requirements for life are universal and which are parochial.

At this point, we cannot determine if [Kepler 22b] has an atmosphere, let alone life signatures. If it has non-technological life, without a doubt it will be so different that we may not recognize it. Nor is it a given, despite our fond dreaming in science fiction, that we will be able to communicate with it if it is sentient. In practical terms, a second life sample may exist much closer to home — on Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus. But those who are enthusiastic about this discovery articulate something beyond its potential seismic impact on biology and culture: the desire of humanity for companions among the sea of stars, a potent myth and an equally potent engine for exploration.”

Image: 1st, one of the four Kepler 22b imaginings by space artist Ron Miller. 2nd, comparison of Sol and Kepler 22 (NASA/Ames/JPL).

Postscript: Immediately after my discussion of Kepler 22b, Christopher Jones interviewed me for Trek.fm. He asked me many interesting questions about the 100-Year Starship symposium, long-generation starships and the future of humanity on- and off-earth. You can hear the interview here.

Sixth Sense

Everyone’s aware of the five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing, but did you know you have a sixth sense? And, although you can’t see dead people with it, this sixth sense does involve the subject of ghosts. No, this isn’t a over bloated movie review for M. Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis, this is the fascinating world of proprioception.

Proprioception is a form of sensory perception that assists and enhances the other five senses and yet it is, in itself, a sense in its own right. Proprioception gives the body a sense of context, it manages spatial relationships, allowing you to close your eyes and touch your nose. If you miss, you’re probably drunk.

Proprioception is the sense that allows you to walk through a dark room without stumbling over your own feet. Teenagers, experiencing rapid growth, are clumsy not because they’re lazy and inattentive (as some of us dad’s may assume), but rather because their sense of proprioception is lagging behind their physical growth. They need to mentally grow into their new limbs. In the same way, someone that has had a limb amputated will often feel a “ghost” limb. They may feel a sense of twitching or even a desire to itch a limb that no longer exists.

Based on these examples, you may think that proprioception is simply an extension of touch, but it influences all the other senses. Coming from New Zealand, my family would often visit Rotorua during the holidays. Rotorua is a land of geysers and thermal springs. When driving into the city, you’re invariably met with the overwhelming smell of sulphur or, as the kids call it, rotten eggs and farts. After light-heartedly blaming each other for the smell for a few minutes, the smell fades away. In reality, the smell is still there but our sense of proprioception has masked it, subconsciously moving it into the background. Remarkably, this suppression does not affect the overall sense of smell. Stop to smell some roses or stop by a bakery and smell some freshly baked cookies, and you’ll find you enjoy the scent even though the sulphur is still hanging in the air.

Proprioception allows us to listen to a single person talking in a crowded bar, separating their voice out from all the overlapping noise and confusion, something impossible to replicate with a microphone. As a tinnitus sufferer, I can’t help but wonder if proprioception is coming into play here as well. The phantom ringing a tinnitus sufferer hears appears be due to proprioception compensating for the physical loss of auditory input in the high ranges. As actual hearing loss occurs, the brain compensates by supplying the missing frequencies. Much to my dislike, it seems tinnitus is my mind trying to help me out. Thanks, mind :)

If someone loses there sense of proprioception the results can be quite disastrous. Simple tasks, like walking, become extremely difficult and require immense concentration. With retraining, the problem can be reduced, but they’ll never be able to cartwheel again. Extreme cases, known as the Dr. Strangelove syndrome or the alien hand syndrome, can be quite distressing for the patient and quite incredulous to those around them.

It shouldn’t be that surprising to us that we have more than five senses. In fact, wikipedia lists ten! It’s just that seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting are so dominate we miss the subtleties associated with the others. Other animals, like fish, can sense electrical and magnetic fields in addition to these. It makes one wonder what senses an alien species might have after evolving somewhere other than this terrestrial orb.

You can test your sense of proprioception with some simple tricks that are great fun for kids and adults alike.

  • Stand in an open doorway with your hands by your side and push outward on the door frame with your wrists for twenty seconds. Step out of the doorway and relax your arms and they should feel light and tend to float upward
  • Grab a basketball and press it hard between your two hands for twenty seconds. Then place your hand on a flat surface and the tabletop will feel curved

OK, so they don’t work quite so well for everyone, but this is your sixth sense, your ability to be aware of spatial relationships in relation to your body.

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Peter Cawdron is the author of the acclaimed hard science fiction novel, Anomaly.