Revert to Normal

Studying astronomy, one of the facts that becomes apparent is the universality of death. More than anything else, the universe is empty space. Of the parts that have matter, it’s mostly stuff that can’t make planets or anything solid—hydrogen and helium. Of the parts that are made of solid stuff, most are inhospitable hellscapes or deserts dry in ways beyond our normal experience—on Mars, for example, any liquid water dumped on the surface would boil away in an instant, despite being cold enough to snow here on Earth.

This contrasts our normal experience, where rampant life is the norm. Everything decays, and in its own way, “returns to nature.” Anything left alone too long is consumed by decomposers. Abandoned buildings crumble with plants penetrating their hollowed walls. Ivy over time, almost as if by magic, climbs buildings. Dead trees sprout fungi and rot. Dirt left alone springs grass of its own. Passing places undergoing these processes over time, we watch life render much to chaos throughout our lives. It gives life an apparent inevitability, the appearance that nothing will stop its relentless crawl throughout the planet.

This apparent inevitability of life on earth is a visceral part of our experience. Life as we know it thrives so vibrantly that it must be pushed back consistently: lawns mowed, fields plowed, bushes trimmed. It’s difficult to comprehend, if a good portion of your life has been spent pushing back life, that life really isn’t so relentless after all.

But most of the universe is not that way. When you realize death is the norm, it becomes apparent how singular Earth is. This is the only place in the universe we know of where life can thrive. Likely, there is life elsewhere, but of completely different forms and adaptations. This is likely the only place in the universe where this life can thrive: the plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi that human existence depends on.

“Mars,” some cry out, “we’ll move to Mars.” Not only does liquid water boil there at below freezing temperatures, the soil is a toxic rust powder and the atmosphere is little but a thin veil of carbon dioxide without gravitational and magnetic fields strong enough to retain it. The idea we can just show up, make an ocean, and have a barbecue in no time is applying this old idea that life is relentless to Mars—an idea that only works on Earth.

To the astronomer, the changes we’ve made to the climate could revert Earth toward normalcy—toward being completely inhospitable, like everything else in the universe. It’s not so much that we change the climate with every ounce of effort—rather, it’s that we disturb a delicate balance that makes Earth no longer exceptional, an exceptionality that we depend on for survival.

When this terror sets in, it becomes clear that climate change is the only issue that matters in the long run. No matter what you’re fighting for, it won’t matter what rights you have when there’s no one left to have them.

Buzz in the Flesh: A Microcosm for Science in America

I had the opportunity a few months ago, largely thanks to @sociolinguista, to see Buzz Aldrin speak. It was pretty cool; even at 85, he’s still charming and sharp. Now-a-days, he’s mostly advocates for Martian exploration and colonization, and this comprised the bulk of the discussion. The session was part interview–done by Aldrin’s own son–part Q&A.

Before Buzz came out, a video explained his grand plan to reach Mars. Then, Buzz talked about optimal plans, etc. putting stations at L1, and choices for transfer orbits and hyperbolic intersects.

As much as I respect Buzz’s plans, I wonder what good they do. After all, the problem isn’t having a science plan. Planning is fun; there are entire video games where you plan and complete space missions. The problem is money and public interest. We have a public that doesn’t know or care, and as a result, there’s no money for the program.

As someone who studied physics (and has played enough KSP that it’s unhealthy), I understood what he was going on about. I don’t know that the majority of people in the audience did. There’s ways he could have helped, but didn’t bother, either by replacing jargon with a few extra words, or just taking a moment to explain some key concept briefly. A few extra words can go a long way.

Scientists have a duty, both to do honest science, but also to explain that science to others. That’s been done rather poorly over the last 50 years, and now we’ve got a significant segment of the public actively ignoring us, because no one really explained to them what’s going on in a way they could understand. It’s not that they can’t understand, it’s that we have to do a better job in helping them to do so.


The Context of the Gold Record

Voyager 1 and 2 were two robotic probes launched into the outer solar system in 1977.  Their timing was impeccable, launched in a rare window where a single vehicle could encounter all four gas giants without requiring any course corrections aside from gravity assists. To this day, Voyager 2’s pictures of Uranus and Neptune are the highest resolution available.


Attached to each probe was a gold record. They contain a variety of images and sounds of Earth, from music to rain, to “hello” in a number of languages. As a kid, when I first heard about this, I took the idea of the messages for granted; aliens could pick it up and know who we are and stuff, maybe drop in and say hello.

The deeper meaning of the records wasn’t abundantly clear until I remembered the context of the 1970’s; it’s striking how different things are now than they were then.

These days, I can pull up any song I want, any time I want. I can rip it, copy it, and aside from the opinions of a few douche-canoes at the RIAA, distribute it to whomever I want at no apparent cost except that of the electricity to run my computer.

At the time, though, music was etched into plastic–not with lasers but with needles–worn down with each precious play. Data was transmitted on physical media. The existence of that physical world was punctuated each waking moment with the impending doom of nuclear war. Carl Sagan–in large part responsible for arranging the record–comes back to the theme of nuclear war throughout his multi-part television series Cosmos, often noting the precarious position of humanity in the 20th century. Impending nuclear war comes across as quaint–at least it did when I first was dwelling on this–but it was a possible ending to his–and our–world.

Sagan and others suggested future humans may be able to pick up the gold record. Aside from being a novel object–a one of a kind artifact–it was unclear why this was meaningful. However, in the context of atomic bombs blowing the living hell out of every city on earth, it was far more obvious. The plastic records of human civilization would have melted away, perhaps further lost through strife of war, revolution, or change.

The gold record carried the idea that some how, by some means, our culture had endured. Something else–distant ancestors or life alien–could pick the sounds of us up, decipher our message, and know us–know what we heard and what we felt, to know Johnny B Goode and “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” It wasn’t just a message to aliens, but to the post-apocalyptic humans who would have had no way to know us, with our cities and records reduced to glass and ash. Through the gold records, in some way, even if we failed to create peace on earth and lost ourselves, we had endured in eternal memory of anyone, human or otherwise, that could have come after us.