By space the universe encompasses and swallows me as an atom; by thought I comprehend the world.
PENUMBRAUMBRA IS MOVING!
As the old, factually incorrect saying goes, everything must evolve or die. Which is why I leave these childish roots behind and move forwards, to my own domain, to a place with commenting capabilities, fully equipped with capital letters and readable fonts.
Enjoy, dear readers… okay, reader.
Que sera sera. It was meant to be. It will happen when it happens. It will all work out in the end.
Especially in times of great stress, humans are determinism loving little creatures. And who can blame us? It’s a big, scary world out there and we only know slightly more than we did when Australopithecus afarensis was busy growing brains and learning to walk upright. Sure, I can flush my excrement down this toilet, but why am I so fucking sad?
And yet, the one thing humans hate being deterministic about is The End. Love the drum solo, hate the concept. For humans, there is no End; there is only endless, infinite space and just as many niches for each of us to leave our mark. We are all Special Snowflakes, right? Even in a billion years, long after we (and our future ancestors) are dead, there will still be something, some kind of sentient being, traversing through space and time, searching for evidence of us. At least, that’s the dream. That ultimately we will leave our mark somehow, that someone will notice we were here, that we can stave off the dark, black depths of nothingness by the creation of this thing that will exist long after we are gone.
Well, psych! Sorry, humans. Even if we manage to survive another few million years (which in itself is pretty doubtful), if we leave Earth before our sun gets super fat and goes supernova, even if we find the most remote, secluded corner of the universe to hide in - there is one outcome that will not change. What’s up, genuine determinism?! The creation and destruction dyad that is the Big Bang and the Ultimate End mean that the former informs the latter, that the fate of our entire universe has been ineluctably decided long before our existence. That this life, this universe, is a chain reaction set in motion from that first explosion of conception, and it will ultimately determine our universe’s demise.
There are several theories over how and when the universe will end, but currently only two that really matter. Big bounce, big rip - big boring. (Just kidding, nothing about space is boring. But I won’t go into them here.) First what’s important to know is this: as Gozer says, “choose the form the destructor”, our universe’s destructor depends on its density. Or, as astrophysicists call it (what hams!) - the Critical Density. Luckily for us, Ray had the foresight to think of a giant marshmallow instead. (Speaking in terms of entertainment only. We’re stuck with Critical Density IRL.)
The Big Freeze and/or The Heat Death
If the density of the universe is below that critical point, the universe will simply continue to expand. What’s so bad about that? More space for everyone! Well, yes. But as we all know, the universe tends toward chaos. Metal rusts, water evaporates, child stars go insane - all this is essentially a bastardization of the second law of thermodynamics. And because entropy is constantly increasing, it will ultimately reach a maximum value where energy will be evenly distributed throughout space. At this point, mechanical motion within the system of the universe will be impossible. Motion needs gradients! Think of it this way - entropy provides the power (gradients) that drives the mechanical motion. No power, no motion. There’s math we can all get behind.
This, known as the Heat Death, is thought to exist in tandem with the Big Freeze. (It could actually exist with several of the Ultimate End theories.) In this scenario, the universe spreads so far apart that matter can no longer interact. Basically it keeps expanding forever, tap tap tapping at the asymptote of absolute zero. Buy a parka; prepare for loneliness.
The Big Crunch
If the density of the universe is higher than our old friend Critical Point, then my favorite scenario is a possibility. The universe expands to a point, and then gravity pulls it back inwards until all the matter smashes together, coalescing in a reverse of the Big Bang. I like this scenario because, like Michelle Obama’s hair, high-waisted pants and right-wing conservatism, it is cyclic. It posits that the universe is oscillatory, that there have been many Big Bangs throughout eternity, each creating a different combination of matter and energy, building a new set of words from all the old letters. I could write a whole post on those previous iterations of the universe and what they might have looked like, but it would actually be infinite and you guys have a tough time reading more than 500 words. (So I’m told!)
Both these scenarios, however, depend on the assumption that the universe is a closed system. In thermodynamics, this refers to a system where matter does not transfer either inside or outside of the boundaries. What’s outside of the universe? Well, fuck. You got me. Assume away, astrophysicists.
Hope you’re all feeling pretty depressed! Next time we’ll turn that nihilism right around when we talk about a little creation out of all this destruction, and I tell you the auspicious story of the BIG BANG. BOOM!
If you are interested in the fate of the universe, take my internet blogging with a grain of salt and check this out. It’s a presentation by a real, grown-up astrophysicist and there’s pretty much nothing else to be said, ever again, on the subject.
(my favorite, the big crunch)
In lieu of NASA’s “Rose” image released yesterday…
Think back to the summer of 2007. Umbrella was bumping everywhere, Transformers - the first! Or rather, the first one by Michael Bay! - came out, and at some point, you probably walked out of Spiderman 3. The Universe debuted to approximately one million stoned college kids with their proverbial gauntlet “THE SUN”, which led us all down a confusing rabbit hole beginning with exultation for our breathtaking universe and ending in total existential crisis over our inevitable demise.
I, for one, met my first NASA employee working the cash register at an overcrowded Cosi in downtown Philly (yes, the one near the methadone clinic). As I expect is common to all NASA employees, he had a bunch of space shit on his credit card, which is obviously how I recognized him. Lucky for you, I held up the line for five precious minutes in the middle of a lunch rush to ask him whether or not Hubble shot in color or black and white.
Why is this important? For starters, Hubble has shot some of the singularly most spectacular images that have ever been seen, anywhere, in the history of earth. Not only that, but hubble has actually allowed astrophysicists to make incredibly precise estimates of the expansion rate of the universe. But how much of these images are entirely fabricated by NASA employees hoping to get a little more funding before they’re all out of a job? Are these overwhelmingly beautiful colors just a fucking marketing tool, NASA guy trying to buy coffee??
As the bureaucratic nightmare as old as time goes, Hubble was funded in the 70s, a launch proposed in the 80s, stymied by funding/technical/Challenger/etc. problems until the 90s, sent up to space with a broken mirror that was repaired in 1993 - and voila. Hubble astounds. It astounds, and astounds again. Hubble proves itself to be one of the most prodigious achievements in human history.
So, what did NASA guy say? Basically (and I’m paraphrasing a little here), he said this: human beings perceive objects in specific ways because they have evolved as such. (He was obviously a very Nietzschean NASA guy.) What we see as a rock or a box of Kleenex is, strictly speaking, interactions between particles and a lot of empty space. We see it as a rock or a Kleenex box because it is advantageous for us to do so. Thus, the images we see from the Hubble telescope are specifically tailored to homo sapiens - the way we engineered the telescope, how we transmit images, how our brain interprets those images we do see - this whittles away at our stick of perception until it is a fine point by which we can see this. And so technically, Hubble does shoot in black and white - through several different filters. Humans on earth then use the filters to create extremely realistic depictions of how these phenomena would appear to us earthlings, should we ever have the chance to travel millions of light years. So the answer, as always, is yes, and it is no - depending on your brand of metaphysics.
So what does a galaxy really look like? What does a building? In other words, who cares? Humans have molded and meddled and chipped and whittled - we put ourselves and an enormous telescope in space. Not only can we restructure the framework through which we view our existence (hint: it’s smaller), but we are party to some of the most absolutely jaw-droppingly insane stuff that probably nothing else in all of space and time can see like we do. Holla, humans!
okay, okay, here it is: the “false color” image released this week by NASA of saturn’s north pole (“the rose”), taken by the cassini spacecraft
“‘It’s gonna blow!’ is used so many times, I wonder if every single writer used it once, and then sat back from his word processor with a contented smile on his face, another day’s work done.”
It’s been a long time, readers (reader?). In fact, it’s been over a year. In honor of this momentous(ly boring) occasion, I’ve made the decision to stop all this wasteful “working” and “studying” I’ve been doing and show my space blog some el oh vee ee by writing a good old-fashioned tl;dr. But - what should we talk about? Quasars, pulsars, nebula, dark matter, anti-matter, asteroids, russians, gravity, anti-gravity, strings, gender imbalance in the sciences, dimensions, what???
Lest we get carried away… the point is, having a blog about space is probably the best thing to have a blog about, since it affords me a totally infinite supply of mind-blowing blog fodder, kind of like how Gawker does with stupid people. But - but! - it has been a year, so let’s all ease back into these cold, murky waters slowly, together. Let’s start with NASA’s plan to appropriate the plot of Armageddon by snagging an asteroid and dragging it over to the moon. The good old drag-and-drop (TM, Apple). (Spoiler alert: I will spend the rest of this post making mixed metaphors using the plots of Armageddon and Deep Impact.)
So, I’ve put together a little FAQ for those of you thinking of utilizing similar maneuvers in your daily lives, like when your roommate throws you a beer from the fridge or an enormous rock weighing roughly 60 million metric tons is hurtling towards your home planet, or like, whatever else could happen. Who knows? Things get crazy here on Earth!
1. So… what’s the point?
NASA’s “asteroid retrieval and utilization mission” (way to be relatable) entails slingshotting an unmaned spacecraft around the moon, grabbing an asteroid, and hauling it back. Thanks for this, Michael Bay. As for the point… well, it seems pretty unclear. Buzz phrases like “telling my grandkids we’re almost there” and “unprecidented technological feat” have been thrown around, but it looks like this boils down to three things:
- In the event that an asteroid is discovered with the potential to harm Earth (mass extinction, etc.) by hitting us Deep Impact style, we could change its trajectory with actual science instead of a posse of insane macho oil digger weirdos. (In the immortal words of Roger Ebert, RIP, “No matter what they’re charging you to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”)
- Because pushing ourselves to create new technologies often affords us unintended benefits. Like, for example, the microwave from the moon mission.
- As a possible stepping stone for future missions to Mars.
Sadly, all three of these scenarios don’t change the fact that we have to live on a planet with Elijah Wood but hey, at least we have a quick and easy way to heat up our leftovers.
2. Okay, seems reasonable enough. How do they actually plan to do this?
Well, here’s where our big old human brains get wild (brainz gone wild!!). First of all, NASA is totally jumping on board with this whole “environmental sustainability” thing by creating an asteroid probe with advanced solar electric propulsion technologies. (What about my Dodge Caravan, you ask? Let’s not get too crazy.) So, retrofitted probe travels towards moon for 2.2 years, slingshots around moon for added propulsion (TM, Michael Bay), travels another 1.7 years towards asteroid, captures asteroid inside giant bag, cruises back towards earth for 2-6 years, places asteroid in stable orbit around moon. Easy peasy!
3. Wait, they’re capturing the asteroid in a bag?
Yeah, but this isn’t your mom’s sandwich bag. For starters, it doesn’t fold over at the top in that annoying way that makes it hard to get your sandwich out. NASA doesn’t cut corners on bags like your mom! This is a 50 foot capture bag (bag-like snare, to be exact) with multiple “draw strings” that would snap shut in order to procure the asteroid. To get back to the beer-throwing scenario I made up earlier, this would be tantamount to you catching it in an opened grocery bag to avoid injury/cold hands/minimize impact. Don’t ask me what it’s made of, because I have no fucking clue. Polytarp? Dacron? Elijah Wood’s skin? (Perchance to dream…)
4. Okay, so it’s in orbit around the moon. Now what?
Well now, the possibilities are endless. Sort of. Mostly, the manned Orion crew can get to it, walk on it, and do some tests, possibly confirm/deny this whole “the building blocks of life came to earth from an asteroid” thing biologists have been chatting about for a few decades now.
So, there it is. Everything you ever needed to know but probably didn’t want to about NASA’s asteroid retrieval plan. All joking aside, I think it’s exciting to see our country set aside somewhat substantial funds for scientific pursuits, even when they seem superfluous or exclusive to Michael Bay movies. From what I know about science (very little), it’s the trying that leads to the great discoveries, not the “being right”. Trying opens up the possibility of making mistakes, which pave the way for real breakthroughs. As I’ve said before, the first cause of genetic variation is mutation; this is as true for us as it is for what we create. Sometimes this so-called mutation gives us hemophilia or kills elephants with LSD; sometimes it gives us heterochromia or penicillin. And all you need is human ingenuity (stupidity?) and something to mutate!
Now that we’re submersed in this cold, murky pond, I think we’ll talk about something with a little more meat to its bones next time - possibly the multiverse, if y’all can handle it…. th-th-that’s all, folks!
(astronauts open the exciting asteroid bag!)