Once or twice before I’ve made a case for diversity as a hallmark of good science fiction. Regardless of one’s present political affiliations, we like our sci-fi casts to be a plurality of uncanny and unfamiliar characters. The future of our species is, in part, dependent upon how well we get along with other forms of sentient life. So which stellar explorers would earn the stamp of approval from the Rainbow Coalition of the 24½th Century? After weeding out (most) all-human crews (sorry BSG!) and some of the less well-known teams (sorry Bucky O’Hare!), I’ve come up with a top five list. We’ve got genetic mutants, alcoholic robots, holograms, bisexual aliens, snarky A.I., clones, cryonauts, cyborgs, and every variant of human being imaginable. Did I leave anyone out?
A few weeks back I blogged about SETICon, the first-ever conference held around the central theme of the search for intelligent life “out there” — not quite a science conference, but not really a sci-fi convention either. SETICon was not only unique, but it was also a blast. Bring on SETICon II!
Despite years of searching, Klingons and Asgard, Daleks and Vorlons are still firmly entrenched within the realm of science fiction — for not only do we know of no intelligent life in our galaxy outside of that on Earth, we know of no life period. Finding even a microbe would be huge. (The find would be huge, the microbe would be small — hence the “micro” portion of the word. We have no expectation of finding gargantuan Martian astronaut-sucking amoebae, as in Angry Red Planet.)
While we may have to look to the stars for signs of intelligence, the search for life is a somewhat different — though obviously related — matter and we shouldn’t forget that there are many potential abodes of life within our own Solar System. Surprisingly many are in the outer solar system, and receive only a faint glimmer of Sol’s life-giving radiation. Given the diversity of extremophile organisms discovered in the depths of Earth’s oceans (like the tube worms at right) — as well as other places that would initially seem counter-intuitive — organisms that live their entire lives never seeing a single photon from the Sun, it appears that the presence of liquid water is much more of a requirement for life than is sunlight.
Planetary scientists now have strong evidence to support the presence of oceans of liquid water under the icy crusts of outer Solar System moons like Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede orbiting Jupiter, as well as Saturn’s Titan. For large Jovian moons, subsurface oceans seen to be the rule, rather than the exception.
Cross Section of Titan. Image credit: NASA
Titan, in particular, raises eyebrows. The moon is slightly larger than Mercury, and the instant Gerard Kuiper confirmed that this moon had a methane-rich atmosphere back in 1944, Titan became a leading candidate for harboring life within the Solar System.
In his 1944 paper, Kuiper wrote that the spectrometry from his telescopic observations suggested that Titan was orange (8th paragraph). So there was an expectation of “oranginess” when the twin Voyager spacecraft flew past in 1981. The observations of Voyager allowed scientists to determine 1) the depth of Titan’s atmosphere; and related to that 2) Titan was slightly smaller than Ganymede, because Titan’s atmospheric depth had been underestimated; and 3) a temperature/pressure profile for Titan’s atmosphere.
Scientists determined that the temperature at the surface of Titan was a chilly 94 Kelvins (about -280 Fahrenheit). Well, so much for life on Titan. Life is based upon chemical processes and, in general, chemical processes proceed faster at higher temperatures. Not only was 94 Kelvins too low a temperature for life-sustaining processes as we know them, most chemicals (chiefly water) important to life as we know it are frozen at that temperature.
So under the category of “potential abodes of life,” Titan was relegated to the category of “also ran.” Titan was referred to as similar to a “pre-biotic” (pre-life) Earth, or like the “Early Earth in a deep freeze.” Even bolder claims were made that Titan may have its day as a habitable abode in a few billion years when our Sun swells to become a red giant.
Enter Cassini/Huygens. Since arriving at the Saturn system in July 2004, the Cassini and Huygens spacecraft have been imaging, sniffing, and landing on Titan, rewriting the textbook on this moon in the process (and I did a podcast on this very subject for “365 Days of Astronomy” last November 12th). In fact, this past June 21st, Cassini had its closest flyby of the moon Titan that it will have during the entire mission.
Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.
In the past six years we’ve still learned enough about Titan not to rule out the presence of life. In addition to that subsurface ocean previously mentioned, there appears to be cryovolcanism on Titan’s surface — in one instance Cassini may have imaged an actual eruption. If Titan’s surface rocks are composed of ice, and magma is melted rock, and hydrocarbons like ethane and methane are common on Titan, then it’s not too big of a stretch to imagine that magma chambers in Titan’s subsurface could be life-sustaining cauldrons of hydrocarbon-laced water. Microbes surviving in a magma chamber on a moon of Saturn is a concept that would have been the purview of science fiction only a few years ago, now it’s a real consideration.
Life on Titan? I guarantee that we’ve not heard the last on this subject.
First, in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, it was a T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego munching on house pets. Now aliens have stealthily invaded the San Diego Air & Space Museum. This particular invasion, however, was invited–the Air & Space Museum is hosting the Science of Aliens traveling exhibit: a fun mix of science and science fiction.
The exhibit is broken down into four areas:
The alien fiction section was small, and had a collection of movie props, videos, and sections devoted to Roswell and the Alien Autopsy video. Interestingly the content in the Roswell section was donated by the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, so I felt it was slightly skewed in favor of the object that crashed at Roswell being of an extraterrestrial nature, while the content provided for the Alien Autopsy video practically screamed “THIS WAS A HOAX!”
Climate scientists predict an above-average number of hurricanes for 2010 (so far we’re well below normal, but hurricane season isn’t over). Hurricanes, with their 75+ mile per hour winds, torrential rains, and associated tornado activity are frigthening. For Earth.
The recent storms that have brought such devastating floods to China and the Iowa, as well as storms depicted in cinema like Twister, The Perfect Storm, and The Day After Tomorrow–all based upon real events (well, 2 out of 3 anyway)– reveal Nature’s fury at its full force, right? Absolutely! For Earth.
There are, however, places in the Solar System where Earth’s most violent maelstroms would be considered puny, and whose most violent wind would be a gentle breeze. The Great Red Spot of Jupiter, for example, is a hurricane-like storm roughly 2 1/2 times the size of the planet Earth that has been raging with winds up to 400 mph, and was first seen by Galileo. In recent years, Jupiter has developed a second red spot (nicknamed “Little Red”) that began as a “perfect storm” where three jovian storms collided back in 2000, and turned red in 2006.
The jovian planets of the outer Solar System are where one truly can view the full force of Nature’s climatic fury. Recent observations of Saturn reveal superstorms (at right) and mega lightning bolts –even a giant blizzard— that put the terrestrial equivalents to shame.
As we explore planets in other star systems, particularly the “hot Jupiters“, we may find superstorms in their atmospheres so huge and violent that they make those in the jovian planets the Solar System as puny in comparison as the storm of Earth are relative to those on, say, Saturn.
Meeting the press during a recent visit to Tokyo, NASA Astronaut Alan Poindexter — Commander of recent Discovery ISS resupply mission STS-131 — was asked if there had been sex in space. His reply was succinct and left no room for ambiguity (though this photo does look pretty chummy):
We are a group of professionals. We treat each other with respect and we have a great working relationship. Personal relationships are not … an issue. We don’t have them and we won’t.
Hang on a second. I’m not sure that the concepts of “sex in space” and “professional” are mutually exclusive. I’m sure that, given what we’ve learned about human physiology because of spaceflight, that there are any number of cardiologists, internists, endocrinologists, OB/GYNs, and a whole host of other health-care professionals and researchers who would love to have physiological data taken of a couple before, during, and after a union in a microgravity environment. These researchers would be the Masters and Johsons, Kinseys, and perhaps even the Shere Hites of their time.
Science fiction without science is merely fiction. There are gray levels in how well the science is portrayed in television and cinema, however. For the third straight year, Discover Magazine and the National Academy’s Science and Enterainment Exchange hosted a science-of-science-fiction panel at San Diego Comic-Con, and this year’s theme was “Abusing Science in Science Fiction.” Each panelist provided two video clips from sci-fi television or cinema: one of science done right, and one where the science, well, wasn’t done right.
I’ve always maintained that in science fiction TV and cinema good science should be jettisoned in deference to drama as a last resort only–and then when you have all your other ducks in a row. If the science is solid in the large bulk of your work, we’ll make the leap with you when you get a bit more… speculative. Some works stick to grounded science well, some do not.
Therefore, for my clips, I chose two instances of the same type of event–the impact of a comet/asteroid with Earth — one done well (Deep Impact), one that could have been done better (Armageddon).
Ray Bradbury is the last living of the great early titans of science fiction, now that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke have passed. He said he’s attended every Comic-Con since the first one, when he went to the El Cortez Hotel and spoke to a few of the 300 attendees that year. These days, 125,000 people turn out for Comic-Con every year, and I had to wait 30 minutes to get in to see Bradbury speak. He’ll be 90 in August, and he’s hard of hearing, but he’s still sharp, and he’s forgotten nothing.
The Bradbury panel featured Bradbury talking to his biographer, Sam Weller. I’m just going to share select quotes from his remarks. These are in order, but incomplete.
“The Internet to me is a great big goddamn stupid bore.”
“I got a call from a man who wanted to publish my books on the Internet. I told him, prick up your ears and go to hell.”
[Bradbury has met most, if not all, of the Apollo and Gemini astronauts.]
“All those astronauts had read the Martian Chronicles. When they were young men, they read my books and decided they wanted to become astronauts.”
One of the marvels of Comic-Con is that when a panelist asks the people in the room whether they’d be willing to risk a fatal mechanical failure for the chance to go into space, everyone raised their hands. It’s the kind of place where nerds roam free, geeks can be both predator and prey, and the answer to the question, “How about going to space?” is foreordained.
The panel I’m referring to focused on the question of whether private companies are better suited to taking humanity into space, or whether NASA is doing awesome work and we, as a society, should just keep on keepin’ on. To help answer the question, the panel featured Mark Street (from XCOR), John Hunter (Quicklaunch), Chris Radcliff (San Diego Space Society), Dave Rankin (The Mars Society), Molly McCormick (Orbital Outfitters) and was moderated by Jeff Berkwits (editor and writer).
It’s a case of actual science passing into the realm of myth. What began as an amazing astronomical affair is now an annoying astronomical aftermath. It’s the “Opposition of Mars this coming August 27th.” Perhaps you got the email? Well the situation is like this…
Every 26 months Mars and Earth are in opposition, meaning that you could draw a (nearly) straight line between the Sun, Earth, and Mars. Although Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle, if you could see one entire orbit, traced out over an entire year, you would be hard-pressed to tell that it wasn’t a perfect circle. The same can not be said for Mars. Mars has a nontrivial orbital eccentricity — where the term “eccentricity” is a measure of how “out-of-round” an orbit is. So if you could see the orbits of both Earth and Mars traced out, it would look a little like a hard-boiled egg cut down its long axis.
It isn’t a sci-fi convention, but it isn’t quite a scientific conference either. Sponsored by the SETI Institute, it’s SETICon, a convention where the overarching theme is exploration of the question, “Are we alone in the Universe?” While many science fiction conventions (Dragon*Con comes to mind here) have space, science, and/or skeptics programming, SETICon is less a sci-fi convention, and more a science convention.
The con’s website bills it as:
A “con” unlike any you’ve ever attended. Scientists, celebrities and sci-fi writers in a mind-meld of entertainment and scientific exploration. Panels, presentations, and face-time with some of your favorite researchers. If you only attend one ‘con’ this year, SETIcon should be it!