Twenty Years Ago

Today I noticed this tweet by way of a blog post by SJ O’Hart that gave me pause.

Could it really be that 1997 was twenty years ago? By the bountiful bowels of Bacchus… I feel so old. In spring of that year, I was a scrawny beanpole of a high school freshman, shy around others yet a little too blathery within my circle of friends. How can part of my life simultaneously seem so recent, yet feel a whole lifetime distant?

Mise-en-scène: a suburban brick house in North Carolina. Temperature is a mild 74° Fahrenheit. Humidity is low, and the winds are pushing an unbroken layer of clouds out of the WNW. (Thank you, WUnderground.) Outside, a mockingbird sings.

Inside, a family is cleaning up after dinner. Perhaps they just finished watching Jeopardy on the tiny black-and-white TV in the kitchen. And while the parents intend to continue their CBS experience with an all-new episode of Diagnosis: Murder (spoiler: Dick Van Dyke solves the case), the teenager retires to his room.

There I find him, the eo-ego, my twenty-years-younger self. His thoughts are on… what? School? I struggle to remember what classes I might have been enrolled in for spring semester. Girls? Everything this kid knows about girls couldn’t even fill an awkward lull in the conversation. He has no plans for college, nor any particular ambition: I doubt he can seriously think farther into the future than next week.

No personal computer and no internet in 1997. Our first dial-up connection came a year later. What does he do? He seems as alien to me as I must seem to him.

If I wanted to blow his mind, I could just hand him my smartphone. If I wanted to live a life of luxury, I could tell him to invest in Apple stock. If I wanted to be a hero, I could tell him what happens on a September morning four years from now.

I do none of those things: he and I have both read enough science fiction to imagine a butterfly effect of negative consequences that any such revelation might bring. Still, I must say something.

“Y’know… The college you eventually go to has a motto: Think and Do.” No spoilers here. My 1997 self accepts college as a foregone conclusion, but it would be several more years before he recognizes that motto.

“Both are important. But if you have to choose one… choose to do.”

In the bedroom of the suburban brick home, the time traveler from 2017 vanishes in a puff of smoke, leaving a clueless, socially awkward sci-fi junkie student to wonder what to make of this cryptic message.

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5 Places in the Solar System Where Life Might Be Found

5. Mars

Mars has been home to extraterrestrial life in our imaginations since the earliest days of science fiction. Percival Lowell believed that the canali described by Schiaparelli were canals built by an advanced Martian civilization. H.G. Wells wrote of a Martian invasion of Victorian England.

Although the Viking landers showed us an apparently lifeless Martian surface, it is possible that Mars once supported life, and may yet do so. After all, it possesses a (thin) atmosphere, essential nutrients, and fairly abundant solar energy. There is evidence that water ice is abundant, and that liquid water once flowed across the surface. Might there be Martian microorganisms hiding beneath the surface, protected from the harsh chemicals and UV radiation?

4. Titan

pia20713-titan-saturnmoon-labeledfeaturesiau-june2015

After Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan may be one of the most popular places in the solar system for speculation about alien life over the past several decades. Observed by Pioneer 11 and Voyager 1 only as a hazy world surrounded by an opaque atmosphere, the Cassini probe and Huygens lander provided much more information about Titan.

Though too cold for liquid water, Titan’s surface is covered by lakes of hydrocarbons. Its atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, along with methane and other hydrocarbons. This has led astrobiologists to speculate about life forms not based on water, but instead using methane or ethane as a solvent.

3. Europa

europa-moon

This moon of Jupiter possesses a subsurface ocean, kept liquid by the heat from tidal forces exerted by Jupiter. This same tidal flexing could create undersea hydrothermal vents, and there is evidence to suggest that the ocean is in contact with a rocky surface. The presence of a liquid ocean, coupled with an energy source in the form of undersea vents, and a rocky undersea surface as a source of minerals, suggests that Europa is a place that could support life.

Proposals have been made for exploration of the Europan ocean, but the high-radiation environment around Jupiter, difficulties involved in boring down to the ocean, and concerns about contaminating the moon with Earth life have prevented such a mission so far.

2. Pluto

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Yes, the poor non-planet at the edge of our solar system could potentially support life.

Pluto possesses a very thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide, and though it was once thought that the atmosphere would freeze when Pluto was farthest from the sun, scientists now believe that it remains gaseous throughout Pluto’s orbit.

Additionally, the New Horizons probe revealed the existence of tholins, a type of organic compound, on the surface of Pluto. If the extreme conditions of the surface make it uninhabitable, life might still exist deep beneath the surface, in a possible sub-surface ocean.

It should not be surprising, then, that science fiction writers have from time to time picked Pluto as a potentially life-supporting world.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Venus – Once imagined as a lush jungle world, we know now that our sister planet suffers from a stifling atmosphere with clouds of sulfuric acid and surface temperatures that can melt lead. Still, extremophiles do exist on Earth, and some speculate that life might survive high in the atmosphere of Venus.
  2. Ganymede – Another of Jupiter’s moons, Ganymede is suspected to harbor a subsurface ocean with more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. Might something be swimming beneath the surface of this largest Galilean satellite?
  3. Jupiter – Hard as it might be to imagine life on a planet with no solid surface, Carl Sagan speculated that balloon-like organisms might float on the Jovian breezes, consuming microorganisms likewise swept around by the gale-force winds. Concept art was even created for his legendary Cosmos series.
  4. Earth. Ok, this one is a cheat. Not only does the third rock from the Sun support life, we’re also fairly certain that there’s intelligent life to be found here. Somewhere. If you’re searching for life in the solar system, Earth is your safest bet.

1. Enceladus

pia17202_-_approaching_enceladus

En-what? Enceladus, one of the larger moons of Saturn, is yet another world possessing a subsurface ocean. Observations by the Cassini spacecraft suggest a geologically active world, with geysers containing hydrocarbon compounds and indicating the presence of a high-pH ocean.

Though highly alkaline and buried deep within the moon, scientists speculate that this ocean may provide the energy sources and support the complex chemical reactions needed for life to form. Life on Enceladus may be powered by chemosynthesis, with hydrothermal vents being a source of chemical energy for the Enceladan microbes.

Incidentally, if you are ever uncertain about pronunciation, Space.com has a handy guide for pronouncing the names of all the planets and moons in our solar system. Yes, even the eighth planet…

In Memoriam: Harrelson Hall

For over fifty years, Harrelson Hall stood on the NC State University campus like a tacky alien mothership hovering over the brickyard (with apologies to the late Douglas Adams) in much the same way that bricks do.

Image of Harrelson Hall
Harrelson Hall, on the NC State University brickyard. By Cgb628 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After five decades, the much-hated building is well into the process of demolition. Most articles will tell you (using as many circle puns as possible) that Harrelson Hall was the first circular building built on a college campus, and has been roundly criticized (sorry) for most of its existence.

Continue reading “In Memoriam: Harrelson Hall”

Resonant Cavity Thrusters

EmDrive. Q drive. Cannae drive. All of these are a class of devices known as resonant cavity thrusters, and for the past few years they’ve been popping up in the media from time to time.

What’s the big idea?

Take an ordinary household magnetron (you’ll find one in every microwave oven). Use it to pump microwave radiation into a resonant chamber of a certain shape (a metal box that’s wide at one end and narrow at the other.)

Turn it on and voilà: even though nothing is emitted from the system, you’ll detect a very small anomalous force pushing the chamber.

Continue reading “Resonant Cavity Thrusters”

Burning House, Cam – Flash Jukebox

Note: Are you looking for the meaning of Cam’s “Burning House”?

Flash fiction has a lot in common with songs. What can be learned by reading song lyrics as flash fiction? Let’s take a look at “Burning House,” by Cam. If you’re unfamiliar with the song, the lyric video is embedded below.

Continue reading “Burning House, Cam – Flash Jukebox”

Yocto- to Yotta-

Years ago, when I was a young American engineering student, I was taught to believe that the metric system is some kinda filthy hippie Euro-commie anti-freedom plot. Sorta like water fluoridation, the JFK assassination, and Crocs.

One thing I always liked about the metric system (or technically SI, the Système International d'Unités) was its usage of prefixes to scale its base units up or down. The addition of a simple prefix can scale the base meter down to a millimeter or up to a kilometer.

I spell it as meter rather than metre because… well… America.

But prefixes have their limits, which is why God invented scientific notation. (Ok, scientific notation was probably developed by a person, but Google wouldn’t give me a name.) So what are the limits of the metric prefixes?

The smallest accepted metric prefix is yocto-, which is a scaling by 10-24. A yoctometer is a pretty small distance. It’s nine orders of magnitude smaller than a proton, and unless you’re a particle physicist, you probably don’t consider a proton to be huge.

On the other hand, a yoctometer is still a hundred billion times larger than the Planck length, the scale where a theory of quantum gravity becomes necessary. The SI system would need four more prefixes to get down to this scale.

And yes, “SI system” is as redundant as “PIN number” and “ATM machine”.

At the opposite end of the scale is the yotta- prefix, which is a scaling by 1024. Forget stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters: a yottameter is about the radius of an entire supercluster of galaxies. That’s a whole yotta meters.

I apologize for that lame pun.

On the other hand, (how many other hands do I have, anyway?) the universe is very, very, very, very, very big. How big? Possibly infinite. I can’t think of anything bigger than that.

How about a distance that’s pretty big, but not infinite? If (among other assumptions) the universe is infinite, then by traveling far enough, you would eventually come upon a region of space identical to our own observable universe. This is similar to the Poincaré recurrence theorem, but for space rather than time.

So how far would you need to travel? 10^10^115 meters. There’s no metric prefix remotely close to this number: it dwarfs the number of grains of sands in all the beaches, and all the atoms in the entire observable universe. You won’t get there anytime soon.

And there you have it. Yocto and yotta: two prefixes that allow the humble meter to remain relevant from scales smaller than subatomic particles, to scales larger than galactic superclusters.