Tuesday, August 30, 2016

News From Out There

 Relative sizes and distances of Alpha/Proxima Centuari stars from the sun
For as long as I could, I resisted the temptation to jump on the Proxima b bandwagon and start waxing poetical about habitable planets in light of recent news. A week or so isn't really all that long, but given the alignment of heavenly bodies in my particular cosmos, that's probably long enough. I could not, however, resist at all the inclusion of the rather wonderful artist's interpretation of what the planet might look like, even though it means noting the European Southern Observatory's requirement to credit ESO/Kornmesser as the source:

One reason I felt compelled to mark this moment is that twenty years ago I discovered a terrific novel about Jesuits in space by Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow, which takes place on a planet called Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system. (For Russell's take on the coincidence, see this article on her website.) The book, and its sequel, Children of God, was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the discovery of Proxima b.

The little red circle under the star on the left marks the location
of Proxima Centauri in relation to the other two. 

As if to punctuate this coincidence, my bi-weekly pilgrimage to Half Price Books netted a novel by Stephen Baxter called Proxima (2013), and then New Scientist featured a cover story on the discovery on 27 August. I'm still wandering around on Green Mars (I'm rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy because I can't really remember much about it), so I haven't had time to get into the Baxter book. Quite frankly Baxter's been knocking novels out so quickly that I can't keep up. I've got two or three others on my shelves that I haven't even looked at. At any rate, it now goes to the top of the heap under Blue Mars. (For movies that have used the Alpha Centauri region as a remote--ahem--location see this post on the Discover magazine blog, Dbrief: Alpha Centauri, The Hollywood Star System.)

And then there's the new Coursera MOOC I started a month ago, "Imagining Other Earths" taught by Dr. David Spergel out of Princeton's astronomy department. This one's twenty-four weeks long and is described in its blurb thus: "Are we alone? This course introduces core concepts in astronomy, biology, and planetary science that enable the student to speculate scientifically about this profound question and invent their own solar systems" (the grammar isn't mine). I thought it would be a good idea to get better at the science if I'm going to keep working on stories about old bats in space. So far I've learned tons, and it's helping me keep my invented planets straight.

Then, as if all that weren't enough, a message comes through the SETI board to look out for media blather about a "Candidate SETI SIGNAL DETECTED by Russians from star HD 164595 by virtue of RATAN-600 radio telescope." The board moderator/SETI project scientist Eric Korpela poked a hole in that balloon, noting that "of course, it's been announced to the media" and that reporters "won't have the background to know it's not interesting." So even though folks are looking at it, it's not coming from the constellation Centaurus, and thus it's probably not worth calling up the Father General of the Society of Jesus to see if he can arrange to buy a hollowed out asteroid to use to mount an expedition.

Good thing, too, since humans would probably screw it up.

As expected, however, my science fiction feeds on Flipboard were full of announcements about "interesting" signals, and I imagine that the less skeptical among space-fans will be glued to the interwebs for a while. Meanwhile, there's more substantial fare available at The Pale Red Dot, and a nice article on EarthSky by Larry Sessions on the composition of the Alpha Centauri system.

I do so love this stuff.

The reason I enjoy this sort of thing quite as much as I do is because "outer space" is the ultimate "nowhere"--the ou (no) topos (place), with the potential to be the eu (good) topos. When Thomas More made this marvelous pun in the sixteenth century, he tapped into a human longing that goes back to ideas of Eden in the Judaeo-christian tradition, or of a golden age imagined in classical antiquity. Nowadays, of course, modern technology invites us to look for "nowheres" that at one time would have been inconceivable except as fantasy. Most of us with any science background at all know that living on other planets still belongs in the realm of fantasy, but every little frisson of hope implied by a nearby habitable planet (or even a more habitable moon or Mars) where we could do a better job of living with each other than we do now is potential nectar to the hopeful. And I think hope really is the underlying impulse among utopians.

Especially now, when we increasingly seem to be on the verge of dystopia, at the hands of the greedy, the willfully ignorant, the misguided, the bigoted, the fanatic, the atavistic--essentially all of the enemies of ideals like tolerance, wisdom, and justice that utopias are built on.

Of course, even in fictional "noplaces," things don't always turn out well. It almost seems that whenever we try to imagine something better, the reality of who we are and have been creeps in and muddles things up.

And still we dream on. I'm not sure what all that dreaming means, but it does keep me from falling on my sword, and provides me with a reason to get up every morning, take the dog for a walk, and get back to the business of wondering what it would take to actually make things work.

Image credits: "Pale Red Dot" (J. Mencisom) and Alpha Centauri region image (Guy Vandegrift) from Wikimedia Commons. "Artist's Impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri" ESO/M.Kornmesser, originally found on Wikimedia Commons.

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