Does Evolution Want You to “Become Crab”?

Hello, friends!

So as far back as the mid-to-late 1800’s, scientists noticed that crab-like animals were oddly commonplace.  It seems that, for one reason or another, evolution favors crab-like body structures over other crustacean body types.  Well, maybe “favors” is the wrong word.  I wouldn’t want to imply that evolution plays favorites or that evolution has any sort of intended outcome.  That would be misleading.

When I read articles in the popular press about carcinization (the surprisingly common process of evolving a crab-like body), I feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding at work, not just about carcinization itself but about evolution in general.  Evolution doesn’t “prefer” this and it certainly doesn’t “intend” that.  There is no end-goal to the evolutionary process.

Evolution works by trial and error.  Organisms have problems, problems like “how do I find food?” or “how do I avoid becoming food?”  Some organisms manage to solve these sorts of problems; others do not.  The ones who solve their problems get to live, and they have the opportunity to pass their genes on to the next generation; the others?  They do not get to do that.

There are a surprising number of crab-like animals out there.  That must mean that being a crab helps you solve certain problems.  It does not mean that you’re evolution’s favorite, that evolution “wants” to create more crab-like creatures like you, or that being a crab is some sort of evolutionary end-goal.

All that being said, I have to admit it’s hard to avoid anthropomorphizing the concept of evolution just a little bit.  I mean, look at the stuff I do on this blog.  I anthropomorphize everything from atoms and molecules to planets and stars.  I imbue all sorts of things with wants and needs and strange personality quirks.  It’s only natural for me to say evolution “wants” this or “prefers” that, and I totally understand why so many other science writers fall into a similar trap.

So I guess what I’m saying is this: whenever you hear people talk about evolution’s “preferences” or “intentions,” bear in mind that those words are really just shorthand for something else.

Our Place in Space: The Great Red Spot

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, G is for…

THE GREAT RED SPOT

Humanity is struggling right now.  There’s war and bigotry.  There’s disease and poverty and climate change.  Despite these problems, I still have tremendous hope for the future.  I still believe that we can work past our current problems and build a better future for ourselves and for our planet.  But when I think of this better and brighter future, there’s still one thing I worry about.  It’s a minor thing, but still… I worry: what’s going to happen to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot?  Will it still be there in the future, or will it slowly fade away and disappear?

In the late 1800’s, the Great Red Spot was observed to be approximately 50,000 kilometers wide.  For comparison, the entire Earth is only 13,000 kilometers in diameter.  But by 1979, when NASA’s Voyager space probes arrived at Jupiter, the Great Red Spot had shrunk to a mere 23,000 kilometers in width.  It was less than half the size it once was!  And today, it’s only 16,000 kilometers wide.  You see now why I’m worried.

I get a bit frustrated with news reports declaring that the Great Red Spot is certain to disappear.  I also get annoyed with news reports saying it’s certain not to disappear.  The popular press goes back and forth on this.  It’s sort of like those news reports you’ll hear about whether or not eggs are good for you.  First they’re good, then they’re bad, then they’re good if you cook them this way, then they’re still bad no matter how you cook them.  In a similar way, first the Great Red Spot is disappearing, then it isn’t, then it is again, and so on.

I think the popular press just doesn’t understand what it means when scientific research gets published.  Published research is best understood as part of an ongoing conversation.  One group of astronomers says they believe the Great Red Spot is disappearing for reasons X, Y, and Z.  Then another group of astronomers say they think it will endure for reasons A, B, and C.  Then maybe another group will contribute reasons J, K, and L to the discussion.  This back and forth discussion continues on and on in the pages of scientific journals, until some sort of scientific consensus is reached (or until the Great Red Spot actually disappears—that would also settle the debate).

But the popular press always seems to latch onto one published paper and present it to the general public as if it is the final word on the matter, as if it is a proclamation of scientifically proven fact.  That is until they latch onto the next published paper and present that as the final word.

So what’s really going to happen to the Great Red Spot?  Well, it’s undeniable that it has shrunk significantly over that last century or so.  Maybe it will keep shrinking until it’s gone, or maybe it’ll pick up steam again and start to expand once more.  Maybe the Great Red Spot goes through century-long phases of shrinking and expanding.  Maybe we just haven’t been observing it long enough to know that. Scientists are still studying this issue, comparing and contrasting their findings, and debating what it all means.  That’s often the way with science (and I hope you’ll keep that in mind the next time you see a news report that begins with the words “According to a new scientific study…”).

Even without the Great Red Spot, Jupiter would be an awe-inspiring sight.  I do hope, though, that it will still be there for all those future colonists on Callisto to see and enjoy.

Want to Learn More?

I found a few relatively recent articles that talk about the Great Red Spot and why it might or might not disappear.  These articles are, in my opinion, more responsible in how they present their information than other articles I’ve seen.

Our Place in Space: The Aldrin Cycler

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, A is for…

THE ALDRIN CYCLER

Even in the future, space travel will be expensive.  True, new technologies should make it less expensive than it is today, but there’s one problem that will never go away, no matter how advanced our technology gets: gravity.

Anywhere you want to go in space, you’re going to have to fight against gravity to get there: Earth’s gravity, the Sun’s gravity, the gravity of other planets and moons—at some point on your journey, you’re going to have to fight against any or all of these gravitational forces.  And fighting gravity uses up fuel.  Lots and lots and lots of fuel.

And yet, despite the unforgiving and unrelenting force of gravity, human civilization will eventually spread out across the Solar System.  I’m not going to tell you it will happen in the next twenty years.  I won’t tell you it will happen in the next century, even.  But someday, it will happen.  I’m sure of it!  And so today, I want to talk a little about what the future transportation infrastructure of the Solar System might be like.

American astronaut Buzz Aldrin is, of course, most famous for being the second person to set foot on the Moon.  Aldrin is also a highly accomplished scientist and engineer.  In 1985, he did some math and discovered a very special orbital trajectory that would make traveling from Earth to Mars (and also from Mars back to Earth) far more fuel efficient.

The term “Aldrin cycler” refers to that very special orbital trajectory Aldrin discovered.  The term can also be used to describe a spacecraft traveling along that special orbital trajectory.  The initial investment to build an Aldrin cycler (the spacecraft, I mean) would be really high.  We’d probably want to build a rather large spacecraft for this, and once it’s built, maneuvering the thing into the proper trajectory would require a stupendous amount of fuel.

However, once we’ve done all that, the cycler will cycle back and forth between Earth and Mars, over and over again, pretty much forever.  Traveling to Mars would be a little like catching a train.

I was going to have the Aldrin cycler make a “choo-choo” sound, like I train, but then I realized that would be silly.  Things don’t make sounds in outer space.

Passengers would board the cycler as it flew past Earth; about five months later, they’d disembark and head down to the surface of Mars.  The cycler would then take a long journey (about twenty months) looping around the Sun before flying past Earth once more; then the “cycle” would begin again.

The trip from Earth up to the cycler would still require some amount of fuel.  So would the trip from the cycler down to the surface of Mars.   The cycler itself would also require a little bit of fuel for maneuvering thrusters; otherwise, over time, the ship could start to drift ever so slightly off course.

Obviously this is not a cost-free form of space travel, but I’m sure you can see how this could help keep the cost of space travel down.  And so I imagine in the distant future, the Aldrin cycler (or something very much like it) will be a key part of the Solar System’s infrastructure, just as trains are an important part of our modern day infrastructure here on Earth.

Want to Learn More?

Click here to see a short animation of the Aldrin cycler orbital trajectory, showing several cycles worth of Earth-to-Mars and Mars-to-Earth journeys.

I’d also recommend Buzz Aldrin’s book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, where Aldrin describes the Aldrin cycler (and other cool Mars related things) in more detail. Click here to see the book’s listing on Amazon.