The Turning Test

A friend and I were playing with the auto-complete functions on our phones.  This comic is inspired by one of our auto-completed text messages.

Wisdom of Sci-Fi: The Light Brigade

This weekend, I finished reading a book called The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley. The story is set in a futuristic war where soldiers are teleported to and from the battlefield.  Except the teleporters don’t always work right. For Private Dietz, this means she keeps getting teleported through space and time, and thus she ends up experiencing the whole war in the wrong order.

I loved this book.  Highly recommended!  There’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff.  Today I’d like to zero in on just one passage among the many that resonated with me:

Did you know those who are mildly depressed see the world more accurately?  Yet they don’t live as long as optimists. Aren’t as successful.  It turns out that being able to perceive actual reality has very little long-term benefits.  It’s those who believe in something larger than themselves of thrive.  We all seem to need a little bit of delusion to function in the world.

Is that too cynical?  Maybe.  Private Dietz is something of a cynical woman.  But that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.

To put it another way, I think pessimism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  People who give up hope tend to stop trying, to stop fighting for anything better.  Maybe optimism is a survival mechanism, almost like an evolutionary advantage that keeps some people going when others would rather give up.

But being an optimist is not so easy.  Sometimes you have to make a conscious choice to believe things will work out okay.  You have to stubbornly insist that there’s still hope despite what seems like pretty compelling evidence to the contrary.

At least that’s been my experience, and (spoiler warning, sort of) somewhere in her personal timeline, maybe Private Dietz learned that lesson as well.

Sciency Words: The Rio Scale

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE RIO SCALE

The Rio Scale is a classification system used by SETI scientists.  Let’s say someone’s detected possible evidence of an alien intelligence.  How significant is this discovery?  How seriously should we take that news?  The Rio Scale is a tool to help answer those questions.

The Rio Scale was created in the year 2000 at the International Astronomical Congress, which was held that year in Rio de Janerio. Mathematically speaking, the Rio Scale is expressed as:

(Q1 + Q2 + Q3) * ∂

You have to look through a chart in order to plug numbers into those variables.  I’m not going to reproduce that whole chart here, but if you’re interested here’s a Rio Scale calculator where you can learn more.

The quick version is that Q1 is the “what” of what we’ve discovered.  Q2 represents how we discovered it, and Q3 represents how far away from Earth it is.  So as an example, let’s say aliens are transmitting a message straight at Earth.  Let’s say the message was detected by a radio telescope and confirmed by subsequent SETI observations.  And let’s say the message is coming from Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to our own Sun.  This scenario would score very well on the Rio Scale.

As another example, let’s say we find some anomalous infrared radiation, the possible heat signature of an alien megastructure. Let’s say this was found in archival data from the 1970’s.  And let’s say this anomalous radiation came from the Triangulum Galaxy. This scenario would score rather poorly on the Rio Scale.

Lastly, before I forget, let’s talk about ∂.  That variable is a credibility factor. If information about a possible extraterrestrial signal is presented in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, ∂ will be a fairly high number.  If it’s just a press release, ∂ will be lower.  And if the information is coming from some weirdo on the Internet, ∂ equals zero.

Given the chance, I’m sure SETI scientists would like to follow up on every possible detection of extraterrestrial intelligence.  But SETI research does not have infinite resources.

In my opinion, the Rio Scale doesn’t sound like the most scientifically objective system; however, I imagine it does help when comparing and contrasting different possible discoveries.  That way, given the limited resources available to them, SETI scientists can better judge which detections are worth further investigation and which can probably be ignored.

A Mars Meteorite by Any Other Name

You remember that meteorite from Mars?  The one that purportedly had fossilized Martian microorganisms inside it? The controversy over that meteorite has never been fully settled.  And now, it’s not just one meteorite.  Now there are two of them.

That original meteorite was named ALH-84001. Names are important.  You can learn a lot simply by understanding where a name came from.  The name ALH-84001 tells us a bit about this particular meteorite’s history. It was found in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica (ALH) during a 1984 scientific expedition (84), and it was the first meteorite found by that expedition (001).

This new meteorite is named ALH-77005, so right there you know some important things about it.  It was found in the same region of Antarctica, a few years before ALH-84001. And like ALH-84001, ALH-77005 sat in storage for a while before anyone got around to examining it.  In fact, it sounds like ALH-77005 has been sitting in storage for a whole lot longer than ALH-84001 did.

When I first heard about ALH-77005 and the surprises that were found inside it, my initial reaction was enthusiastic.  Surely this would bolster the Martian fossil hypothesis for ALH-84001, I thought.  But after some of the research and having some time to think, I don’t think this new evidence actually changes anything.

It’s still possible that something happened to ALH-84001 once it landed here on Earth.  For example, maybe Earthly microorganisms somehow wormed their way inside the rock.  If so, the exact same thing may have happened to ALH-77005.  So have we found new evidence of life on Mars, or new evidence of life in Allan Hills?  There’s still no way to tell for sure.

But it does make you wonder: how many more meteorites are just sitting in storage, waiting to be opened up?

Sciency Words: Euphotic Zones

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

EUPHOTIC ZONES

Based on what Google ngrams has to tell me, it looks like “euphotic” and “euphotic zone” entered the English lexicon right at the start of the 20th Century, then really caught on circa 1940.

The word euphotic is a combination of Greek words and means something like “good lighting” or “well lit.”  In the field of marine biology, the euphotic zone refers to the topmost layer of the ocean, or any body of water, where there’s still enough sunlight for photosynthesis to occur.

My first encounter with this term was in this paper by astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter.  Sagan and Salpeter sort of co-opted this term from marine biologists and applied it to the layer of Jupiter’s atmosphere where—hypothetically speaking—Jupiterian life might exist.

I don’t see any reason why the term could not also by used for other planets as well.  There’s a euphotic zone just above the cloud tops of Venus.  The same could be said about Saturn or Uranus.  Or maybe if the ice is thin enough, we may find euphotic zones right beneath the surfaces of Europa or Enceladus.

Of course just because a planet has a euphotic zone, that doesn’t mean photosynthetic organisms are living there.  And also there are plenty of ecosystems here on Earth that do not depend on photosynthesis and that don’t exist anywhere near a euphotic zone.

Still, I’m very glad to have picked up this term.  The concept of euphotic zones can be very helpful in any discussion of where alien life may or may not be hiding.

Meet Miranda, a Moon of Uranus

Miranda has been called the Frankenstein’s monster of the Solar System.  There’s just such a jumbled mismatch of landscapes.  You’d almost believe a mad scientist took pieces of several different moons and stitched them together.

Apparently this is a result of sporadic global resurfacing events.  At least that’s the conclusion of this 2014 paper entitled “Global Resurfacing of Uranus’s Moon Miranda by Convection.”  Due to a paywall, I haven’t been able to read that paper in full, but the research is summarized in articles here, here, and here.

Apparently Miranda used to have a more eccentric (non-circular) orbit than she does today.  Thus, the gravitational pull of Uranus would sometimes be stronger, sometimes weaker, causing Miranda to repeatedly compress and relax.  Imagine Uranus using Miranda like a stress ball and you’ll get a sense of what Miranda must’ve felt like.

All that squeezing and unsqueezing created friction and heat in Miranda’s interior.  Miranda’s internal ices got melty.  Convection cells formed underground, much like they do here on Earth, and some sort of tectonic and/or volcanic activity got started on the surface.

Something similar happens on Europa, a moon of Jupiter. As a result, Europa has the smoothest, youngest-looking surface in the whole Solar System.  So how did Europa turn out looking so beautifully smooth while Miranda turned into Frankenstein’s moon?

Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like Miranda’s orbit changed.  Uranus stopped squeezing Miranda like a stress ball, Miranda’s interior cooled off, and the resurfacing process came to a halt.  What we see today is a moon that is only half transformed by global resurfacing.

Personally, after studying reference photos of Miranda, learning about what happened to her, and drawing her portrait myself, I no longer feel comfortable with the whole Frankenstein’s monster thing.

I’d like to suggest a new metaphor: Miranda is the Picasso painting of the Solar System. Miranda does have a weird mishmash of surface features that don’t make a lot of sense together (much like a Picasso painting), but that doesn’t make Miranda monstrous.  It gives her her own strange, confusing beauty.

So yes, Miranda, to answer your question: I do think you’re beautiful.

Is This the End of the Great Red Spot?

I have sad news.  Right now, we may be witnessing the final death throes of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

For those of you who may not know, the Great Red Spot is an enormous storm that’s been raging on Jupiter for centuries.  It was visible to the telescope as far back as Galileo’s time, and it’s surely been around much longer than that.

But over the last few decades, the notorious G.R.S. has been slowly shrinking.  Recently, the rate of shrinkage has accelerated.  According to spaceweather.com, the storm is 20% smaller than it was a month ago.  In the time lapse animation below, you can actually see giant blobs of red break free of the Great Red Spot and then disperse into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Courtesy: spaceweather.com

Has the Great Red Spot suddenly reached a point where it can no longer sustain itself?  Or will the storm resurge and start to grow once more?  I don’t know.  At this point, I don’t think anyone knows.

But I would like to take this opportunity to pontificate a little on the value of space exploration.  Space exploration is expensive, and to many people it seems like a colossal waste of money.  Shouldn’t we be spending all that money trying to solve the problems we have here on Earth?

The thing is space exploration does help us solve our problems here on Earth.  Our ability to compare and contrast Earth with other planets has taught us so much!  Even Jupiter—about as un-Earth-like a planet as there can be—has added to our knowledge of how weather patterns form, sustain themselves, and change over time.

Whatever is happening to the Great Red Spot, this is an opportunity for us to learn.  I have no idea what we’re going to learn, but we’re going to learn something.  We’re going to know a little more about storms in general, which will help us refine our models about storms on Earth in particular.

Weather forecasts will improve.  Maybe we’ll be a little better at predicting hurricanes, and that, in turn, will save lives. All thanks to the space program and the Great Red Spot.

Sciency Words: Sinkers, Floaters, and Hunters

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

SINKERS, FLOATERS, and HUNTERS

In the 1970’s, Carl Sagan and fellow astrophysicist Edwin Salpeter were curious about the orangey-red coloration seen on certain parts of Jupiter.  That sort of orangey-red color is frequently associated with organic chemistry (see my post on tholin).

So in this 1976 technical report for NASA, Sagan and Salpeter hypothesize that we really are seeing organic compounds in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  They then go on to imagine what kind of life might develop on a planet like Jupiter.  As a frame of reference, they start by describing one specific example of life here on Earth:

The best analogy seems to be the surface of the sea.  Oceanic phytoplankton inhabit a euphotic zone near the ocean surface where photosynthesis is possible.  They are slightly denser than seawater and passively sink out of the euphotic zone and die.  But such organisms reproduce as they sink, return some daughter cells to the euphotic zone through turbulent mixing, and in this way maintain a steady state population.

So if microorganisms exist on Jupiter, perhaps they follow a similar lifecycle.

Sagan and Salpeter name these hypothetical microorganisms “sinkers,” since sinking is pretty much the defining characteristic of their lifecycles.  But if these sinkers really do exist, then Jupiter may be able to support other, more complex forms of life as well.

Sagan and Salpeter go on to describe “floaters.” Floaters would be giant organisms, perhaps several kilometers in radius.  In order to remain buoyant, they’d have to have very thin skin and be filled with a lifting gas like hydrogen.  Floaters would drift aimlessly through the skies of Jupiter, feeding on the rising and falling swarms of sinkers.

And then there would be “hunters,” as Sagan and Salpeter call them, though that term may be misleading.  Hunters would be able to maneuver deliberately through the air, “hunting” for other organisms.  But these hunters would not eat their prey, at least not in the way we understand eating.  Instead, through a process called “coalescence,” the hunter and the hunted would merge together as one giant super-organism.

Personally, I think Sagan and Salpeter let their imaginations run a little too wild in this paper.  Could life exist on Jupiter?  Sure.  The universe is full of possibilities.  Can we predict with any specificity what life on Jupiter would be like?  I doubt it.

Still, the Jovian ecosystem that Sagan and Salpeter described seems plausible enough.  For the purposes of science fiction, it deserves some attention, and it inspired the short story I posted on Monday.  However, if you haven’t read that story yet, I have to confess (spoiler warning): it turns out the planet in that story is not Jupiter.

#IWSG: Being a Writer is Soooo Boring!

Welcome to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group!  If you’re a writer, and if you feel in anyway insecure about your writing life, click here to learn more about this awesome group!

I, J.S. Pailly, stand accused of being a boring person.  Or at least that’s what a few well-meaning friends and acquaintences seem to think.  You see, all I ever do is write and read and do research.  Then I do more research, which is followed up with more writing.

Most people are willing to concede that all the art I do might be fun.  But otherwise my life is soooo boring.  Boring, boring, boring.  I need to get out more, travel, go to loud parties, eat at popular restaurants… or other stuff like that, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve been accused of being boring.  So in my defense, I’m going to talk about something that I find really interesting: space.  And perhaps the story I’m about to tell will serve as a nice little allegory about what it means to be boring or interesting.

In 1986, the Voyager 2 spacecraft became the first—and thus far the only—spacecraft to visit the planet Uranus.  As I’m sure you’re already aware (you may already be giggling), Uranus is a much-maligned planet, because of its name.  Voyager 2’s visit gave us yet another reason to malign our poor seventh planet.

Uranus turned out to be a featureless cyan-blue orb.  There was nothing like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot or Saturn’s polar hexagon.  There were no atmospheric zones or belts.  There was nothing interesting to look at at all! What a boring planet, scientists said.

But of course, this was only true from our limited human perspective.  Our eyes can only see a range of approximately 400 to 700 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum (which we perceive as the colors violet to red).

If you observe Uranus only in this 400 to 700 nm range, there’s not much to see.  Switch to ultraviolet, however, and you’ll find a complex and dynamic atmosphere that’s every bit as interesting as Jupiter or Saturn’s.

Whether we’re talking about planets or people, what is boring versus what is interesting is all a matter of perspective.  Will this little anecdote change anybody’s mind?  I’m not sure.  I suspect if you already think I’m a boring person, me talking about sciency stuff only reinforces that belief. But I hope the rest of you get what I’m trying to say.

P.S.: Fun fact!  If you’ve ever wondered why Uranus got stuck with its giggle-inducing name, it’s because the guy who picked the name was German, and he probably didn’t realize what it would sound like in English.

Beneath the Blue-Green Clouds

It would have been the most celebrated discovery in human history: life on another world.  But the press and the late night comedians soon turned what should have been an auspicious occasion into one great big joke.

In February of 2050, NASA’s Herschel spacecraft released a small probe, one of many such probes designed to penetrate the atmospheres of gas giants.  We had learned much about the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn in this manner, but the Herschel mission would be a first, in more ways than one.

Among its many scientific instruments, the Herschel probe included a camera.  We expected to see a tranquil layer of blue-green clouds, with a layer of storms underneath.  If we were lucky, we thought we might even see methane ice crystals falling like snow.

But then, in a forty-three second sequence of images, we saw them.  They were giant, shadowy forms lurking in the dark, occasionally backlit by lightning.  They were enormous, easily the size of whales, and there were swarms of smaller organisms all around them, like the krill whales feed upon.

The krill-like life forms are difficult to make out in any detail, but the whales are clearly held aloft by gas bladders, filled with hydrogen, perhaps; and they have fin-like wings which they must use to maneuver. A great multitude of tentacles dangle from their underbellies, tentacles which seem to be writhing violently from one photo to the next, very much as though these animals were busily feeding.

Of all the places in the Solar System, this was the last place we expected to find alien life.  How could these creatures have evolved?  How could such a complex ecosystem sustain itself in the cold, far reaches of the Solar System?  These will have to be questions for some future mission, assuming Congress and the general public will take this seriously enough to support a future mission.

But unfortunately these mysterious and majestic creatures have become the laughing stock of the world, all because of one minor circumstance. All because of the planet where they happen to live.  All because of that planet’s name.

Although, truth be told, who wouldn’t laugh a little when the top headline on every newspaper reads: “Alien life discovered in Uranus.”