Monday, January 17, 2011
Captain's Log: Kepler 10b, Anti-Matter on Earth and the Very Lonely Future
First the discovery of a planet orbiting another star. Then progressively smaller planets, closer to Earth size. Then planets in their solar system zone that scientists deem most likely to allow life to develop. Now the latest in those discoveries, announced by NASA scientists at the annual American Astronomical Society convention: Kepler 10b, only 1.4 times the size of Earth, and rocky--that is, not entirely gaseous.
Like other exoplanets, Kepler 10b has been scientifically inferred rather than observed, so the three illustrations of it above are artist's conceptions. The first is a kind of close-up, the second is the view from its surface of its sun, Kepler, and the third a portrait of Kepler 10b in space. As the second illustration suggests, the planet is too close to its sun to harbor life as we know it.
Still... "A pioneer of the hunt for exoplanets, Geoffrey Marcy, from the University of California Berkeley, said that Kepler 10b represented "a planetary missing link, a bridge between the gas giant planets we've been finding and the Earth itself, a transition... between what we've been finding and what we're hoping to find. This report... will be marked as among the most profound scientific discoveries in human history."
Anti-Matter Near You
You might expect to find anti-matter in your starship's warp engines, but how about in the clouds above your backyard? "To the great surprise of physicists and meteorologists alike, NASA's orbiting Fermi gamma-ray observatory has discovered that thunderstorms are emitting powerful bursts of antimatter into space."
"Antimatter is a mirror image of normal matter with unusual properties" the LA Times story notes. "It was created in equal abundance to normal matter at the beginning of the universe, but was destroyed when it came in contact with the normal matter and is now primarily the subject of fiction: the material that powers the starship Enterprise..." Although scientists have spent a lot of time and money trying to create some in particle accelerators, they were shocked to find that the Fermi orbiter discovered some already on earth--in lightning. And not just a little.
Though this finding is brand new (announced at that same Astronomical Society convention), it's causing scientists to look harder at the tremendous power in lightning, when electrons are accelerated to near the speed of light. Maybe warp drive visionaries should leave the nice warm lab and go out into the rain.
The Dark Future
Anti-matter and so-called Dark Matter and Dark Energy are among those concepts and realities that science doesn't really know enough about. (Not that they know a whole lot more about, say, water.) But Brian Greene's recent essay in the New York Times is a nice narrative of the road so far leading to today's pressing questions: "If there is a diffuse, invisible energy permeating space, where did it come from? Is this dark energy (to use modern parlance) a permanent fixture of space, or might its strength change over time? Perhaps most perplexing of all is a question of quantitative detail. The most refined attempts to calculate the amount of dark energy suffusing space miss the measured value by a gargantuan factor of 10123 (that is, a 1 followed by 123 zeroes) — the single greatest mismatch between theory and observation in the history of science."
Greene then focuses on one possible implication: that if dark energy doesn't degrade over time, space will continue to expand and distant galaxies will move away from ours faster and faster--for only space itself, Greene writes, can move faster than the speed of light. (Which is in a sense is part of warp drive theory. It isn't really a faster engine--it's a way to warp space.) But one result for Earth is that in the very far distant future, the night sky will be much emptier, as the rest of the universe disappears into the cosmic distance. Of course, residents of Earth's big cities might not even notice. They can't see anything up there now.
Well, back to the present: when Time Magazine summarizes the current efforts of corporations to take humans into space, starring SpaceX founder Elon Musk, a name that not even sci-fi could invent. And as for Star Trek in the present, there's Tuesday's PBS Pioneers of Television focus on science-fiction, and the original Star Trek in particular. Trek Movie has some interview excerpts featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols. We'll see if there's anything new to see or say.
Update: There wasn't. Considering the previous PBS series on the history of television, my expectations were pretty low, but this Pioneers of Television hour ostensibly about science fiction was just about the worst piece of TV on the subject I've ever seen: rambling, pointless and a near total waste of a great opportunity. They didn't even mention the actual pioneers of science fiction on television (Captain Video, Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Science Fiction Theater etc.) and they even libelled s/f in the movies, reducing everything in the 50s and 60s to cheap monster movies. Instead they focused on three 1960s series, mostly Star Trek and Lost in Space. There was something of a storyline there at least--their contrast and network competition--but not a terribly interesting storyline to hang an hour on. I haven't checked any of the boards but I'm sure their version of Star Trek history is getting lambasted by knowledgeable fans. The interviews with Shatner, Nimoy and Nichelle didn't reveal anything new, nor could they be expected to after all these years. The Twilight Zone was practically an afterthought. Very disappointing.