Today marks not one but two milestones in planetary exploration. It is the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flight past Neptune, the most distant planet ever seen up close. It is also the exact day that the New Horizons spacecraft is crossing Neptune’s orbit on its way to Pluto, the mysterious world that marks the boundary between the solar system we know and the one we don’t.
The known solar system has planets that come in three well-studied varieties: rocky (like Earth), gas giant (like Jupiter), and ice giant (like Neptune). Beyond Neptune, things get complicated and confusing. There’s Pluto, but there’s also the whole Kuiper Belt, a vast collection of other, related objects. Most are the size of small planetary moons, but a few are roughly the size of Pluto and some, yet unseen, might be even bigger. Beyond that is a region called the “scattered disk,” where recurring comets come from. And beyond that comes the really shadowy territory: The Oort Cloud, an inferred swarm of dormant comets stretching almost halfway to the next star.
Physicist John Baez has another, more colorful word to describe the spate of recent reports about a breakthrough space engine that produces thrust without any propellant. The word starts with “bull–.” I won’t finish it, this being a family-friendly web site and all. Baez himself has softened his tone and now calls it “baloney,” though his sentiment remains the same: The laws of physics remain intact, and the “impossible” space drive is, as far as anyone can tell, actually impossible.
The story begins several years back with a British inventor named Roger Shawyer and his EmDrive, a prototype rocket engine which he claimed generated thrust by bouncing microwaves around in an enclosed metal funnel. Since no mass or energy emerged from the engine, Shawyer’s claim was another way of saying that he’d found a way to violate the conservation of momentum. In Baez’s words, “this is about as plausible as powering a spaceship by having the crew push on it from the inside.” Shawyer argued that he was exploiting a loophole within general relativity. Baez calls his explanation “mumbo jumbo.”
Everything in science is open to questioning, of course, but nobody is going to throw out all the textbooks on the say-so of a single inventor trying to raise money for his company, SPR Ltd. Conservation of momentum is one of the most fundamental and thoroughly confirmed principles in physics. The EmDrive therefore got little notice outside of the “weird science” web sites. Last year, a Chinese group reported success with a similar device, prompting another blip of fringe coverage but little more.
Then Guido Fetta (a self-described “sales and marketing executive with more than 20 years of experience in the chemical, pharmaceutical and food ingredient industries”) built a third version of the EmDrive, renamed the Cannae Drive. Fetta convinced a sympathetic group of researchers at the Eagleworks Laboratories, part of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to give it a test. The results were maybe, tentatively, a little bit encouraging. And that is when the nonexistent propellant really hit the fan.
Noisy revolutions often emerge from quiet beginnings. So it was with the revolution of the Space Age. Forty five years ago today, a Saturn V rocket roared off from Cape Kennedy and carried the first humans to the moon; Buzz Aldrin and many others are marking the anniversary with live and virtual reminiscences (NASA has some information here, or you can find a lot using the #Apollo45 tag on Twitter). Lost in these worthy celebrations of Apollo 11’s achievement, though, is the simultaneous centennial of the much less tumultuous event that helped make it all possible.
One hundred years ago this week, Robert H. Goddard received a pioneering patent for a liquid-fueled rocket–just like the one that took Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins to the moon. It was the one small step that led to one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
The patents marked a crucial turning point in the life of Goddard, as he transformed his early musings about rocketry and space exploration into concrete schemes. In 1913 he had come down with tuberculosis so severe that his doctors were unsure he would ever recover. He made the best of his long period of convalescence and, as his health slowly improved, drew up his first two rocketry patents. The first, for a multi-stage solid fuel rocket was granted on July 7, 1914. The second, for the liquid-fueled rocket, was approved a week later on July 14. (You can view the former patent here, and the landmark liquid-fuel rocket patent here.)
That is the question that a colleague of mine posed in response to the horrific events unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Burma, and many other places that have been pushed out of the headlines in the hierarchy of bad news). In essence she was saying: “Time for some perspective. Stories about space sails and black holes are fun, but there comes a time when you have to focus on the real problems right here on Earth.”
I agree, and I disagree completely.
I’ve thought a lot about this question, since it comes up often in my life. I report extensively on topics in physics, space, and astronomy. The people I write about rely heavily on university and government support. They are well aware that, in most cases, their research has no immediate, hard practical benefits, yet they care passionately about their work. I do, too. The reason I feel so strongly is that I agree about the need for perspective, but I think this kind of big-picture science offers exactly the kind of perspective people need–especially in times of trouble.
Over the years, Planet of the Apes has been many things: a satirical French novel, a landmark science fiction movie, a series of uneven sequels, a disastrous Tim Burton reboot. But ever since the book hit the screen, the most memorable thing about the franchise has been the effects. (OK, Charlton Heston’s ripe line readings are pretty memorable, too.) The latex masks of the original 1968 movie were revolutionary at the time, and are still remarkably effective, but they’re nothing compared to the digital wizardry of the latest series Apes movies, which began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continues this weekend with the powerful new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
I checked in with Joe Letteri, the visual effects supervisor for both Rise and Dawn and director of Weta Digital, to find out how he created the film’s remarkably detailed world. Letteri’s long resume also includes key work on Avatar and the Lord of the Rings movies. His answers led into a deep, thoughtful exploration of the technology of modern movie-making, along with the unexpected connections between digital effects and zoology, medicine, and even particle physics. I had originally expected I would just quote Letteri in my story, but he proved such an engaging interview that I’m sharing his comments in full.
Years ago I had an opportunity to visit the historic Grucci fireworks factory on Long Island. Artisan chemists there were hard at work crafting reactions that would detonate with just the right color and just the right shape; the whole place was surrounded by a high berm to contain any accidental explosions. Yet I couldn’t help thinking–the universe creates even more spectacular colors, on a far grander scale, with no guidance and no effort. All we have to do is look in the right location.
So yes, I’m planning to gather with my family tonight and watch traditional 4th of July fireworks, but I’m also holding on to that bigger thought. There are images of the cosmos that are far more stunning than anything Macy’s can launch into the sky. These marvels celebrate the greatest kind of freedom, the one that allows the human mind to break free of this world and reach into the far depths of space and time. Here, then, a few of my favorite celestial pyrotechnics, many of them not yet widely seen. (If you enjoy this collection you can follow me on Twitter, where I pass along new science images all the time as they come in: @coreyspowell)
If there is any superhero who qualifies as a nerd icon, it is Spider-Man and his alter ego, Peter Parker. His powers depend one half on scientific experimentation, one half on his own research and innovation. But unlike other comic-book inventors like Batman or Iron Man, he has no personal wealth or corporate connections to draw on. Unlike hero teams like the X-Men or Avengers, he has no support network of colleagues. He is an intellectual and emotional outlier, a character who could have been lifted straight from the psychological profile of The Drama of the Gifted Child.
At least, that is how I see the character, and that is how a lot of others do, too. Now I know the actors and producers behind the latest series of Spider-Man movies feel the same way.
I recently participated in a set of roundtable interviews with key members of the team, including Andrew Garfield (who plays Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy, Peter’s oft-estranged girlfriend), Marc Webb (director), and Avi Arad and Matthew Tolmach (producers). I got to ask them pointed questions about the scientific spirit behind The Amazing Spider Man 2; they had genuinely thoughtful answers, including insights into their own interests in science and technology. It’s enough to make me forget–almost–a key plot point revolving around the nonsense concept that a magnetized nail can hold a limitless amount of electric charge.
As the human mind and human senses reach ever-farther out into space, we keep encountering new things that require new objects that require new names. Some of these have ancient origins; some (like “black hole”) have effectively crossed over into modern pop culture. But even those of us who, like myself, use them all the time rarely stop to think about where the terms come from.
Today I’m taking a step back, looking at the people and stories behind the cosmic buzzwords. For those of you who enjoy reading about the universe–or those of you who are encountering the buzzwords through the popular Cosmos television show–this is a chance to join me in a walk through the history of science.
Astronomy. Let’s start all the way at the beginning. Honestly, I never thought much about the meaning of “astronomy,” assuming it simply means “study of the stars.” Close, but no cigar. It comes from the Greek words astron and nomos, which literally mean “law of the stars” or “custom of the stars.” The distinction is significant. Originally the purpose of astronomy was not to understand the construction of the universe, but to make sense of the ways that the stars affected life here on Earth. Astrology was not recognized as a separate term until the 14th century; until then, astronomy and astrology were one and the same.
Tonight when you look up at the sky—and I strongly urge you to do so—you can participate in three different kinds of amazing alignments.
One will produce a total lunar eclipse, as Earth’s shadow sweeps across the moon. One will produce the best view of Mars in more than 6 years, as the Red Planet makes its closest approach to Earth (technically that moment happened at 8:53AM EDT, but you couldn’t have seen Mars then anyway). Both of these are beautiful celestial events with some unusual details.
But there is also a third kind of alignment at work, one unlike any that has happened before. An alignment that does not depend on nice weather, clear skies, or any kind of specialized equipment. More on that in a moment.
The new Cosmos show is doing an inspirational job bringing the wonders of science to a mass audience. There was one segment of the first episode where I thought the writers went off-track, however. In an earlier post I described my concern about how that episode depicts philosopher Giordano Bruno and his role in the discovery of the infinite universe. My column prompted a reply from Cosmos co-writer Steven Soter, along with my further thoughts.
Now, the third and final round: Soter offers some closing commentary on the matter, which appear below.
Inevitably, this dialogue has grown increasingly detailed, focused on the thoughts and actions of men who lived more than 400 years ago. To some readers the whole discussion may seem like nitpicking (a few have said as much in the comments), but I think it is greatly important. It offers a rare opportunity to debate the evolving relationship between science and religion. It is a window into the dramatic ways our conception of the universe has changed in modern times. And I must say, it is a tribute to Soter–and the whole Cosmos project–that he is taking the time to respond and share these ideas with the whole world.