Yet Another Defense of Interstellar

The Golden Globes were last night. Interstellar was not even on the radar, which I consider a crime.

There is a peculiar amount of dislike for Interestellar. It had a profoundly mixed reception from fans of science fiction and I feel like it’s unjustified. Most of this dislike appears to focus on the crazy deus ex machina ending. First of all, I do actually like Christopher Nolan in general, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanboy. I am certainly not going to make the claim that he is anywhere near the caliber of Stanley Kubrick, though I do intend to draw some comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is widely regarded as a flawless movie.

Some people think it’s slow, a perception that I do not agree with or even understand. I frequently fall asleep during movies. Even action packed thrillers. But something about this movie (and it was kind of long, wasn’t it?) had me rivetted from beginning to end. There was not a moment when my attention wandered. This film sank its hooks into me with a ferocity that I had not expected. It had everything. The realistic portrayal of a family torn apart by forces beyond their control. Indeed, it’s a story that has been told many times. It’s the father going off to war. It’s the father killed in a car accident. In this case, it’s the father who’s going off to save the entire human race. It is maybe a bit of a stretch, this “only pilot that can drive this thing” scenario. But I can defend it on the grounds that this is a world where nobody looks to the skies anymore. No one flies planes anymore. The things that are flying are unmanned drones and such. This is a world that has lost its ability to imagine what could be. And so perhaps it is convenient that he happens to live next to NASA’s secret headquarters, but it is established that he is an engineer of no small skill and it is also established that he has ties to the people that run NASA, so I don’t feel that it’s a completely unreasonable plot element. It’s a bit cliche, but I feel that it works.

The tesseract at the ending is the primary beef that people seem to have with it. There was this air of the fantastical to it that maybe broke some people’s suspension of disbelief. I feel sorry for people who had this experience, because the whole thing blew me away. Here is where I’m drawing the comparison to 2001. When Dave Bowman is transported across the space and time via the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, the viewer is treated to a hallucinatory vision as Dave is transformed into the Star Child which now gazes down upon the earth.

Here’s what Kubrick is doing. 2001, like the novel it is adapted from, is hard science fiction, all the way to very end, after which, it branches off very much into the speculative. The fanciful. But I argue that it does not become actualy fantasy. “Here is what we think science is actually capable of acheiving” says 2001 through most of the movie. Here are the things that, given our current knowledge, we think it’s actually possible to acheive in a reasonable timeline.

The end, however, is a speculation of what might be possible if we could continue to develop unhindered by whatever forces hold us back. Here is a pure imagining, a chance to say, “What if,” a moment of pure speculation. Dave Bowman is reborn as a higher form of life. We might make the mistaken assumption that 2001 is just “crazy” at the end, but if we approach the filmwith the assumption that everything that happens is entirely comprehensible to a being of sufficient intelligence and insight, we can surmise that Dave has encountered some greater being(s) which have elevated him, allowed him to transcend his mortal self to become the higher being.

Nolan does the exact same thing in Interstellar. He builds a fantastically tense scenario all thoroughly grounded in science (some admittedly still theoretical, but soundly theoretical), and it is only at the end where he departs from what we know about the universe and begins to speculate about what might be possible if only we could find a way to tap it. It’s a conceit to be sure, but it’s the kind of conceit that we should be willing to indulge. It’s the kind of conceit that we need today. It dares us to dream about what might be possible if we can only be as clever as we like to think we are.

And maybe the whole tesseract inside the black hold is impossible. Sure, maybe. But remember the black holes present a paradox in which they seem to violate some laws of physics; namely there is the black hole information paradox, which states that information disappearing inside a black hole must somehow not be irretrievably lost (through some mechanism or other).

So the whole disappearing inside the black hole and actually managing to get a message out is not irretriavably stupid. Especially if we can play with the idea of a hyper advanced race of beings (possibly even hyper evolved humans), instigating it, building the tesseract in the first place, and shunting him off into this new place where time appears like a spatial dimension.

It’s not that it’s something we think it’s possible. It’s a sort of what-if. It’s not the “power of love” that saves the human race here. It’s the power of the imagination. Imagination is, as cheesy as it sounds, the most critical ingredient of science. Asking the question “What if?” is the most fundamental part of science. It’s the formation of the hypothesis, the first step of the scientific method.

The thing is, it is science fiction’s job to inspire the next generation of scientists, and I believe truly that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar does this more than most doomsday scenario movies which discourage inquiry and cause fear of what sorts of disasters scientists might bring on us in their hubris. And it does a heck of a lot more than the glut of superhero action flicks too (which are also designed to appeal to the dreamer/fantasizer demographic). I think in the future, we will see a whole crop of new astronomers and physicists who will list movies Interstellar and people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson as their inspiration, just as the last was inspired by 2001 and Carl Sagan.

A Matter Darkly

A hard limit on the mass of dark matter has been set.  So that’s cool, right?

There are a couple things that I like about this story.  First, consider that this hard limit is set at 40 giga-electron volts.  This is a unit of measurement so tasty and geeky that it makes my brain noodles just tingle with excitement.  It’s like the ultimate in nerd speak because fewer than 1% of the world’s population actually know what it means.  They are the 1%.

Next, consider the following passage:

“The observational measurements are important because they cast doubt on recent results from dark matter collaborations that have reported detecting the elusive particle in underground experiments. Those collaborations — DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT and CRESST — say they found dark matter with masses ranging from 7 to 12 GeV, less than the limit determined by the Brown physicists.”

There are two ways that you can read this, depending on how you define the word “underground.”  On the one hand, there is my basic assumption that we have a whole subculture of scientists who wear baggy pants and like to skateboard. Not to mention, they are making all sorts of frankly audacious claims about the mass of WIMPS.  It makes DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT, and CRESST sound like the names of gangs. 7-12 GeV?  Those damned kids and their crazy ideas.

Indeed, this is how I initially read the article.  And then I realized that they were probably just referring to the fact that these experiments took place underground.  As in, in a cave.  The 40 GeV result is from data collected from outerspace.  That dichotomy makes a lot more sense.  But still, it’s an important lesson about the ambiguity of language.

But perhaps the most important lesson here is in the numbers themselves.  A frequently overlooked issue surrounding Dark Matter is the actual source of its mystery.  It does not interact except with its gravity.  As we all know, gravity is by far the weakest of the forces.  Dark Matter neither reflects nor emits electromagnetic radiation of any kind.  It is only detectable by its gravitational effects.

And yet, it accounts for around 23 percent of the universe.  Ordinary matter, the stuff we deal with on a day to day basis, the stuff we have wars over and have sex with, only makes up 4%.  Dark Energy, a far more mysterious substance which is responsible for the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, accounts for the rest of the universe.  Over 70%.

So, what to make of this?  There are two ways you can look at it.  On the one hand, you can relish the mystery that the majority of the universe is made up of something completely intangible and possibly unknowable.  This is admirable.  It is the source of all sorts of sci-fi tropes and wild flights of fancy.

But two important facts needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to Dark Stuff, which accounts for some 96% of reality: they don’t do anything and they are the rule, rather than the exception.  Put another way, ordinary matter is the exception, the exciting stuff.  Dark Stuff is mundane and ordinary.

Indeed, the vast majority of the interesting things that happen in the universe happen as a result of interactions of ordinary matter.  Dark Stuff doesn’t do squat.

If I were a powerful scientist with a lot of clout, I might even be inclined re-label these things.  Dark Stuff–once it’s determined just what, exactly, it is–would be better renamed Mundane.  Ordinary matter, rather than being labeled as merely “ordinary” is actually the exciting stuff.  It might be far more appropriately termed “Bright Matter” and “Bright Energy.”  It is tiny in proportion, but it packs a hell of a kick.

I am a fan of Bright Matter.  I am made of it.  My body is star dust made flesh.

Ich bin aber Sternenstaub.

Bill Nye is Awesome.

It brings joy to my heart whenever people really go out of their way to stick up for what they really believe in. Especially when the target of their ire is someone so decadent and depraved and downright evil as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Too much?

I grew up watching Bill Nye. He may actually be responsible, in large part, for my interest in science. Here’s the thing: Bill Nye is not flashy. He is not conceited. He is not pretentious. His show was entertaining, to be sure, but that’s because he is very good at presenting the material in a way that kids can relate to, it’s also because science is really, really cool stuff. He never, ever talks down to his audience. I recently watched one of the new science shows for kids and, while I can’t remember what it is called, I found it very appalling because it was full of jump cuts, an idiotic host, and lots and lots of flash. They were doctoring up science to make it entertaining without realizing that science is interesting in and of itself, but above all, they seemed to be assuming that children are idiots, which is a huge mistake. And this is why Bill Nye is so awesome.

So what is Bill Nye up to these days? Still being awesome, I should think. But specifically, in case you didn’t click through to the aforelinked material, he is getting booed by the people of Waco, TX. That’s right: Bill Nye was booed. Not Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, or Scott Walker. Bill Nye. The Science Guy.

Was he booed because he said that global warming is a real issue that must be addressed? No. Was he booed for saying that evolution is the crux of all of modern biology? Nope. What was he booed for, then? He was booed for saying that the moon reflects light from the sun.

Let’s do that again, because I don’t think even I got it. He was booed for saying that the moon is not a source of light, but rather reflects light from the sun.

This is something that anyone with half an elementary school education knows for fact. Shocked? Confounded? Confused? You’re not alone. So let’s take this thing apart and examine it from all angles because there might be something we’re missing. It is important to note that the source article from the Waco Tribune (I’m having a hard time not typing “wacko,” so just so you know, every time I type “Waco,” that’s what I’m thinking), has been taken down. You can still access it in their archives, but it requires a subscription. Whatever.

Also, we should be aware that he also gave lectures concerning global warming, Mars exploration, and energy consumption. Yeah, I know, what a liberal, right? But for whatever reason, the audience was more annoyed when he spoke on the topic of the moon. Yeah, that moon. The one that rolls around in Earth’s gravity well like an overexcited chihuahua.

What’s the problem? The article at thinkatheist.com seems to imply that he mentioned a bible verse. Specifically, Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.” And then he went on to say that the biblical account is not entirely forthcoming, mentioning that the moon is not actually a light, but instead a giant reflector. This was not received well. So I wonder, what was the source of all the anger toward this particular aspect of his lecture.

As a brief aside, I would like to dissect the verse in question myself a little. In light of modern astronomy and astrophysics, I think it’s interesting to note how the verse downplays the creation of the stars. This is perfectly understandable given the source material and when it was written. In fact, the entire verse is totally forgivable as a myth. The sun is the greatest light in the sky because it’s the brightest. The moon comes in second and all of the tiny stars are generally inconsequential little twinkles sparkling away on the celestial sphere. We know now that the stars are all basically like our sun and some are far more enormous and they are scattered across distances so vast that the human mind cannot fathom them. And so, in a way, the creation of all the stars is the more impressive feat, but this does not matter because to the writers of genesis (or the speakers of the original oral tradition) were not aware of the true nature of the stars.

What becomes problematic is people in the 21st century objecting to someone pointing out that the bible verse cannot be taken literally. It is not disproven, necessarily, by the science, but it’s certainly clarified by the science.

It is entirely possible that Bill Nye was a dick about it, but I find this hard to believe based upon all of this evidence. It is also possible that this was near the end of his lecture after numerous mentions of other bible verses that are inaccurate. What I mean is, this particular instance may have been the last straw for the people of Waco, TX. There is no transcript of the lecture, so we cannot be sure.

Here is what I hypothesize: The people of Waco, TX are, by and large, conservative, creationist, and underinformed about science and the sorts of things that it does. They did not actually listen to the words that Bill Nye was saying, hearing instead, “Here’s a bible verse that is wrong, and here’s why it’s wrong and why anyone who believes in the bible is an idiot.” It doesn’t matter if that’s what he said. It is my suspicion that this is how they heard it. I know this because I used to be a Christian (OH!! Feels so good to get that off my chest!). Whenever a hard-lined, conservative Christian hears even a tiny bit of criticism of the bible, they almost always take it as a personal attack. And so they boo.

It is my sincere hope that Mr. Nye will not judge the people of Waco, TX too harshly. Forgive them, for they know not why they boo.

Sie haben Sterne in deinen Augen

Can the solar system become polluted?

The image is not of the Vesta asteroid. There weren’t any good false-color images of Vesta, so I used Eros instead.

So, the Dawn spacecraft is going through its warm-up routine on its way to Vesta and then on to Ceres. I am pretty excited to see the images that it sends back. The asteroid belt is one of the least studied regions of our solar system and there’s really no telling what might be there.

One can only imagine what could possibly be harvested from them. Both in knowledge and resources. So the question is, assuming the technology can be developed to exploit natural resources in asteroids and on other planets (say, Mars) what would our responsibility be with respect to environmental concerns. Certainly the safety and health of workers would be vital. Space is pretty harsh and unforgiving. But what about, say, emissions? Is there any concern whatsoever that venting noxious fumes into space could ever become a problem?

The reason I wonder is the fact that in the early twentieth century, when gasoline was pennies for the gallon and largely unregulated (they put lead in the stuff), we had no idea what the possible ramifications that massive use of fossil fuels might be. And of course, there are still holdouts. The thing of it is, it still took a long time before people realized the possible problems associated with it. 1975 was the first year that catalytic converters were installed in motor vehicles on a regular basis. And it wasn’t until the nineties before the trend of global warming was even noticed.

And so the question: what are our environmental responsibilities when it comes to outer space? I use the Koch Brothers as a prime example of environmental irresponsibility, but they are not the only major offenders. The first consideration would be size. Space is a hell of a lot bigger than our atmosphere. If we were to pump out billions of tons of CO2 directly into the the deep of space, it would disperse pretty quickly and become nearly undetectable in very short order. But does this fact absolve us of responsibility?

We know that the immediate area around our planet has become pretty crowded with like a bajillion satellites and the odd space station. Indeed, it is increasingly becoming a problem.

But when it comes to space as a whole? I mean, the Earth itself (and the space around it) could fit inside the sun about a million times. The distance between the Earth and the sun is like 198 million miles. We are talking about unimaginably vast distances just in our own stellar neighborhood. At first glance, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that our insignificant species cannot possibly fill that up with pollution.

However, the universe being what it is, it is nearly impossible to predict the future. We cannot predict with any reasonable amount of certainty what sorts of technology might be developed. What sorts of knowledge we might uncover. Let’s say, for instance, that a real warp drive technology were developed. It’s not that far-fetched. Indeed, it’s theoretically possible. Developments are being made all the time when it comes to methods of warping space. At least for very small particles.

But what if the theory could be made reality on a larger scale. We have no idea what the result of common usage of such technology might be. Space is elastic, we know, but the elastic bands on any pair of boxer shorts eventually wears out. We don’t know if the same is true of space’s elasticity.

And then, perhaps we might consider the remote possibility that humans manage to harness a realistic and affordable form of faster-than-light travel and begin to colonize solar systems other than our own. Let’s say we find earth-like, habitable planets out there and begin to build cities on them. These planets would not be our home and we would, for all intents and purposes, be defined as an invasive species. What are our responsibilities when it comes to environmental concerns on extraterrestrial colonies where there is actually an ecosystem.

Space might be too big for us to affect in any real way, but we have shown that we are very good at changing the face of a single planet. What sorts of aliens are we likely to be? Are we the peaceful aliens who expand and inhabit but do not destroy, like in Star Trek? Or are we the destroyers, using resources and casting entire worlds aside as soon as they are spent, like in Independence Day?

Guten Tag.

On Rescuing Reporters and Accurate Language in Astronomy

clinton_vs_kim_jong

I imagine the recent negotiations to have gone something like this. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I like to imagine that Uncle Bill threatened Kim Jong Il with a Roman spatha.

I for one am glad that Bill Clinton gets a little attention. He gets to be the goddamned hero for once. And you know what? Despite everything that anyone says, the right thing happened. Two innocent women were freed from a very bleak future.

This is vitally important. It is not possible to see this as a bad thing unless you are a terrible person.

So anyway, NASA has released an image that was captured by the Spitzer telescope. I like Spitzer and I am a huge fan of the things that we get to see because of Spitzer. And this new image is not a disappointment. It’s an interesting spiral galaxy with a strange eye-shaped structure at its center. I think the most notable feature, however, is smaller galaxy that appears to caught up in orbit around the larger galaxy’s nucleus. It makes a lot of sense from a physics standpoint. The moon orbits Earth which orbits the sun which orbits our own galactic center. Why not have larger, binary galaxies? All around pretty sweet.

The thing that I wanted to focus on, however, is not the image itself, but rather, the language used to describe the image. And exerpt:

  • “The ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy is causing the ring to light up with new stars.”

I know that I’m not the first person to point this out, but if we want to be perfectly accurate with our language and consider that this galaxy in the image is about 50-million light-years away, shouldn’t the above quotation be phrased more like this:

  • “The ring around the black hole was bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy was causing the ring to light up with new stars.”

I mean, really. The image is of the state of that galaxy fifty million years ago. I’m not an astronomer, but I am a linguist. When astronomers discuss these things, do they use past-tense language? I’m really curious about this, because it seems to me that by using simpler language to ease communication, then some information is lost in the discussion. By using present tense, you must make the (to be fair, usually accurate) assumption that the reader understands that “is” actually means “was the case fifty million years ago.”

On the one hand, I’m curious about the type of language that professional astronomers use. On the other, I feel like I ought to lobby for the use of accurate language when describing celestial objects like distant galaxies.

Perhaps the most viable solution would be to take Rush Limbaugh, freeze him, stick him in a pod and launch him to that other galaxy so that he can report back to us about what it’s doing. With any luck, we’ll miss and he’ll be lost in the inconceivably vast void between galaxies forever.

Would it be easier to just send him to North Korea where he would be forced to do hard labor for ten years?

Singen Sie mich adieu.