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Space: Stars, Solar Systems, Galaxies, and Such

I had been mulling over making a post on this topic when I saw this story in my Facebook newsfeed.  A new galaxy, tiny and dim, has been discovered orbiting our own.  That was a fascinating piece of news, and it confirmed my intention to write about the topic of space.  More specifically, I want to discuss how the structure or layout of space seems to be widely misunderstood, even by some writers of science fiction.  In this regard, this post is a sort of follow up to this one and this one.  Thus, let us now boldly go into space and see what we’ll find there!

Since October 4th, 1957, with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be sent by humans into Earth orbit, we have lived in the Space Age.  Press coverage of space and space travel seemed wall-to-wall throughout the 1960’s and into the early 70’s.  Space figured largely in pop culture, too, with the 60’s giving us Star Trek and the monumental 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  With time, the allure wore thin and the extraordinary became humdrum.  Still, over sixty years later, we are more deeply connected to the inventions of the space program than ever before.  Cell phone signals, Internet transmissions, and GPS all depend on satellites to function.  Many of us get satellite TV as a matter of course.  There has even been a resurgence of interest in space in both pop culture and reality.  In the former, the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, after periods of dormancy, have re-started.  In the latter, Elon Musk is making plans for manned travel to Mars, while various government sources have spoken of returning to the moon and of founding a military “space force”.

Given all this, one would assume a certain amount of science literacy regarding space.  Certainly in the beginning of the Space Age, there was a strong push towards what we’d now call STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, out of fear of the head start of the Soviet Union in space.  With space more integrated into our lives than ever, a permanent international space station in orbit, and the aforementioned space exploration plans, it would seem more imperative than ever that we have a good grasp of science and terminology of space.  Most particularly, one would expect such science literacy from the writers of science fiction, which is perhaps the most characteristic genre of our age.  Alas, that seems to be far from the case.  Thus, along the lines of previous posts of mine which detail areas in which sf writers often fall short, I want in this post to look at some of the basics of space.

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The Disenchantment of the World, Part 4: The Enlightenment


On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism.  Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition.  Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome.  What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.  It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning.  The Enlightenment was characterized by

  1. An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
  2. A focus on science and the scientific method.
  3. A call for political and social equality:  that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
  4. A call for political and religious liberty:  Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
  5. A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
  6. An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
  7. A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
  8. Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.

I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview.  It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.

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Quote for the Week


If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

–Carl Sagan, Cosmos


What Is Needed for Good Science Fiction

This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion.  There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind.  It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.

Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots.  I watched Star Trek:  The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged.  I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov.  Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references).  Certainly, Asimov knew better.  The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created.  It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us.  The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.

The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right.  This leads to the topic I want to talk about here:  What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy?  That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.

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Aliens, Robots, and Perpetual Motion

About three years ago I read an SF (science fiction) novel in which one of the protagonists suspects that the other is either an alien or a robot (or perhaps a bit of both, and thus in effect a cyborg, though that term was never used).  I enjoyed the novel, actually, but I noticed a trope that I’ve encountered before in SF.  The first tip-off about the possibly non-human nature of the second protagonist is when she is observed not breathing.  In a sequel novel, it is made explicit that the second protagonist is indeed a technologically-augmented alien (and thus, as noted, a cyborg) and that she does not need to breathe, eat, or sleep, although she chooses to do all three in order to blend in to human society, and also because she’s developed a liking for those actions.  Additionally, I should point out, she doesn’t need to go the bathroom, either.  Yes, the second novel went there….  I still liked it, though, which may say something about me.

Robots (and their variant, androids) don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep, either, though some can eat.  It is made explicit in Star Trek:  The Next Generation that Data, the resident android, is capable of eating and drinking, though he doesn’t need to.  In fact, one humorous vignette in the first TNG movie, Generations, is this:

In the process of testing out his emotion chip, Data drinks the liquor that Guinan offers him.  He hates it, and orders another–but the point is that he is indeed capable of drinking it in the first place.

Another thing about robots is that they are immortal and seem never to need repair or recharging.  In the TNG two-part episode “Time’s Arrow”, the crew find Data’s head in an archeological dig in a cave in San Francisco.  It has apparently been there since the 19th Century–thus nearly half a millennium.  Later in the show, Data’s head is blown off, and his body is recovered.  His “future” head is reattached, and it works perfectly, while his “past” head is left in San Francisco, to be found in the 24th Century.

Similarly, in the Stephen Spielberg movie A. I. Artificial Intelligence, the boy android David spends two thousand years underwater, awaiting the granting of his wish by the Blue Fairy (you’ll have to see the movie if you want an explanation of the plot point!), until the future Mecha (sapient robots that have replaced the now-extinct human race) rescue him and restore him to the surface.  He is after two millennia fully functional.  In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Marvin the Paranoid Android is functional after 576,000,003,579 years (he counted!) in the radio series, and “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself” in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, though there it is noted that he has had ongoing repairs.

So what am I getting at with all this?  Read on!

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Quote for the Week

I think that with all the emphasis on achievement, careers and competitiveness, science education has become — with notable bright spots to be sure — a joyless, alienating and frustrating experience for millions and millions of kids.  There are those science-fair-winner types and then there’s the rest of the class, not grooving on the material and hence, they find out, doomed to mediocre futures. Seems like ambivalence and hostility aren’t such surprising responses to such a message. … I think things might go better if the narrative of our scientific understandings of nature — what some are calling “Big History” — were told early and often, capturing the interest and imagination of students from a young age. They might then be eager to learn the problem-solving, evidence-based process of scientific inquiry that has led to these understandings.

–Ursula Goodenough, “It’s Time For A New Narrative; It’s Time For ‘Big History'”, in 13.7: Cosmos & Culture (10 February 2011); courtesy of Wikiquote

Quote for the Week


Most physicists use quantum mechanics every day in their working lives without needing to worry about the fundamental problem of its interpretation. Being sensible people with very little time to follow up all the ideas and data in their own specialties and not having to worry about this fundamental problem, they do not worry about it. A year or so ago, while Philip Candelas (of the physics department at Texas) and I were waiting for an elevator, our conversation turned to a young theorist who had been quite promising as a graduate student and who had then dropped out of sight. I asked Phil what had interfered with the ex-student’s research. Phil shook his head sadly and said, “He tried to understand quantum mechanics.”
So irrelevant is the philosophy of quantum mechanics to its use, that one begins to suspect that all the deep questions about the meaning of measurement are really empty, forced on us by our language, a language that evolved in a world governed very nearly by classical physics. But I admit to some discomfort in working all my life in a theoretical framework that no one fully understands. And we really do need to understand quantum mechanics better in quantum cosmology, the application of quantum mechanics to the whole universe, where no outside observer is even imaginable. The universe is much too large now for quantum mechanics to make much difference, but according to the big-bang theory there was a time in the past when the particles were so close together that quantum effects must have been important. No one today knows even the rules for applying quantum mechanics in this context.

–Steven Weinberg, Dreams of the Final Theory (2011), Ch. 4. Quantum Mechanics and Its Discontents

My 2020th Post, Legends of the Fall, and Blogging: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

My 2000th blog post went up on 15 December.  Lots of things were going on, including taking care of a sick child, so I did nothing special for that occasion.  I have had in mind a post that I’ve wanted to do for some time, and since I didn’t do anything marking post 2000, I’ll make the post now as post 2020.  I used to like the old cartoon Sealab 2020 way back when, so that’s an interesting synch, anyway.  What the heck.

I had never thought to get into blogging.  Being of the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I was well into my adulthood before the Internet started to become the phenomenon it is now.  I had had some experience with intranet BB’s and such in college, but not that much.  Even though I was a math major, at my university we still were doing things mostly the old fashioned way.  It wasn’t until the mid 90’s that I got an email address (long since defunct), and in the late 90’s that I started spending lots of time in cyberspace.

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Quote for the Week


Cum ergo audimus, Deum omnia facere, nil aliud debemus intelligere, quam Deum in omnibus esse, hoc est, essentiam omnium subsistere.

When we are told that God is the maker of all things, we are simply to understand that God is in all things – that He is the substantial essence of all things.

–John Scotus Eriugena, De Divisione Naturae, Bk. 1, ch. 72; translation from Hugh Fraser Stewart Boethius: An Essay (London: William Blackwood, 1891) p. 255; courtesy of Wikiquote.

A Nature Documentary for Thursday Morning: The Magical Forest