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.

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.

Too Young for the Old Folks’ Home

A week or so ago, Republican Representative Martin Harty, a nonagenarian from New Hampshire (!) said something that might have been funny if it had been said by a drunken college student being ironic at a house party or at a bar. However, I’m fairly certain that a sober phone conversation with a constituent is not the proper forum to suggest that sending “defective” people to Siberia is a good idea. And, of course, to later refuse to apologize for such comments is even more hilarious. And forget morals for a second. Would Russia even approve of this? Is it even plausible fiscally? Logistically? We could just as easily stick all the defectives in a huge freezer or grind them up into soylent green patties. It seriously is the ramblings of an old cranky bastard that has no business playing at politics. He really needs to just get back to his penny candy and his Price is Right.

But it got me thinking. Not about eugenics. But about Mars exploration. I think it was back in November that a couple of scientists suggested the money-saving space exploration strategy of sending astronauts in their sixties to Mars on a one-way trip. The logic is fairly straightforward. A one-way trip would cut costs by something like 80%. The idea of sending older folks to Mars is the fact that a mission to colonize Mars would almost certainly dramatically reduce a person’s life expectancy. Therefore, goes the argument, the only logical thing to do is to send fit, healthy and sane folks in their sixties. These are fogies who have theoretically had a full and happy life.

The thing of it is, people will want to do this. You will never be short on volunteers for something like this. Even after you filter out the crazies, you’re still going to have a fairly sizable pool from which to draw colonists from. It’s interesting because word on the street is that this is NASA’s idea. This is not NASA’s idea. NASA is not endorsing this idea and is not planning on utilizing this idea. At least for the time being.

Honestly, I don’t understand what the holdup is. Here’s my problem: Kennedy lit a fire under our collective asses with his address challenging us to put a man on the moon. America’s best and brightest teamed up to not just win the space race, but to annihilate the competition. Kennedy threw down the gauntlet in 1961. There were human footprints on the fucking moon in 1969.

Since then, NASA has become an agglomeration of bureaucrats. The adventurous spirit is lost and little by little the US has lost her resolve to do anything even remotely as badass as walking on the moon. I mean, seriously. Obama’s “Sputnik Moment” is just to, what? Get everyone internet access? Really? I’ve had internet access since 1995 (ish). This is not a Sputnik Moment, nor an analogous Apollo Response. It is just a pledge to invest in the infrastructure of a (very possibly) doomed planet.

The question that I think is vital here is essentially this: When is the US going to do something boner-inducing again?

And I know that there are people out there who will claim that we simply don’t have the money. Well, I’m here to tell you that we do have the money. Oodles of it. And there’s one easy way to get our hands on it.

And so, here’s my thinking: we have to get to Mars because it’s the coolest thing imaginable at this point in time. The only way to do it and make it affordable is to turn Mars into Shady Acres Retirement Village. So let’s do it. Let’s embrace this idea wholeheartedly. I mean, if this is a moral imperative (which I would argue it is, what with the precarious situation of having all our eggs in, you know, just the one basket), and there is only one way to accomplish it, then why wouldn’t we just do that thing?

Oldsters on Mars. Hell, you don’t need eccentric billionaires to fund the damned thing. You just need hidden cameras and a distribution deal with MTV. This would be the most brilliant reality TV ever. Watching a handful of old fogies slip inexorably toward dementia and how the others deal with that (on Mars!!) would be like the TV event of…well…forever.

I’d start a petition to get this thing going, but what’s the point?

Also, in the picture, can you guess who the old man with the gun is? That’s right. It’s William S. Burroughs.

Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft

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.

Why Going to the Moon is Awesome

obama_moon

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am, in fact, totally pumped that we’re finally getting back into legitimate space exploration. The thing is, there are perfectly justifiable reasons for going to the moon aside from the obvious intrinsic merit–the “cool” factor that I’ve talked about in the past.

It’s all a test. If we as a species wish to survive more than a few thousand more years, we need to get off this planet. The only way to do that is to learn how to survive in the absolute harshest of situations: the moon. If we can establish a permanent base on the moon, Mars should be a breeze. If we can do Mars, then I don’t see any reason why future technologies like the “ark” ships of science fiction aren’t reasonable.

What I’m talking about is pushing the limits of what humans are capable of.

Athletes are interesting because they push the limits of what a single individual can do. Tremendous feats of physical prowess. Competing over hundredths (thousandths) of a second. Scholars, poets, writers, and intellectuals push human thought to its extreme limits. They tear apart the tiniest ideas and expose their inner workings, oftentimes giving us insights into the world and ourselves that we never thought of before.

The great monuments of the world are testaments to what the combined human effort is capable of. Nobody considers what the Colosseum cost to build. Or the pyramids. The cathedrals scattered about Europe. We value these things beyond their price tags.

The Apollo program was a testament to what combined human effort is capable of and maybe, to this day, stands as perhaps the greatest human achievement outside of art. And so going back is a matter of course. We must go back to the moon because if we don’t, we are, in essence, stuck in a rut. Absorbed in our consumerism, our trite and meaningless wars, we can look at our current world situation as a symptom of a sort of species-wide depression. We did something amazing 1969 and it didn’t last long. And it’s over. And we’ve been trying to best it since then. We’ve discovered incredible new things, but we haven’t taken the next step. We haven’t gone to the next level.

My only problem is, as I’ve said in the past, just how damned slow it all happens. I’m just glad that something’s happening. I’ll be even more excited if they find the ice they’re looking for.

On the plus side, sun spots are back!

Au revoir.