Quest for a New Earth



If our civilization survives for another decade or two, we may get our first glimpse of a planet remarkably like Earth. The red dwarf star Gliese 581 is about 20.5 light years away, practically next door. Last year, two planets were discovered orbiting it. Both are giant worlds like Jupiter, detected by the subtle wobble they produced in their “sun” as they tug it slightly to and fro with their gravitational fields. Last month, astronomers announced the discovery of a third planet, dubbed GL 581 c. Two things about it are intriguing: Its mass is only about 5 times greater than Earth’s (as opposed to Jupiter’s 300 times greater heft), making it one of the smallest extrasolar planets yet detected. If it is made of rocky material like earth, it would be only about 75 percent larger than our world. The second interesting thing is its orbit, which places it squarely in its parent star’s “Goldilocks Zone,” where it is neither too hot nor too cold to sustain liquid water. This is the first planet we’ve found that could conceivably look something like Earth, with white swirling clouds and vast oceans.

We should be reluctant to draw a graph using two data points, however, and all we know about this world is its mass and orbit. Be cautioned that all that follows is speculation. Gliese 581 shines with only 1.3 percent of the Sun’s luminosity, so a planet would have to orbit 14 times closer than Earth orbits the Sun in order to receive the same amount of heat. GL 581 c does this, in fact, giving it a “year” that is only 13 earth-days long. In such a close orbit Gliese 851c has probably become tidally locked, so that its rotation period matches its orbital period. This means that the same hemisphere would always be turned toward its star. Our own moon does this, so that we see only one side of it.

Such a situation could make for an interesting climate. Any ocean in the subsolar region of GL 581 c might simmer under a perpetual hood of steam. If the atmosphere is dense enough, convection might carry heat away to the dark side, possibly preventing it from freezing in its eternal night. The most habitable place might be the “Twilight Zone” near the boundary between night and day. Any creatures living in this temperate band would see their sun as a bloated orange orb — a dozen times larger than our sun looks to us — poised always on the horizon. Plants, questing for light, would tumble over themselves, trying to grow ever-sunward. I imagined a situation like this back in 1980, and have updated my painting of this “Marching Forest” to suit the GL 581 c scenario.

So far, no telescope has been able to photograph a planet orbiting another star, but with any luck, sophisticated satellites planned for the next decade may obtain spectrographic data that could tell us something about the compositions of the atmospheres of these distant worlds. GL 581 c is close enough that, should its atmosphere contain oxygen — almost certainly proof of life because it is so unlikely to remain unbound for long — we would have the first evidence that earthlike worlds abound.

Whether that realisation does anything to improve behavior on this planet is anyone’s guess. A sense that there is still wonder and mystery in the universe might kindle hope in those parts of the world where there currently doesn’t seem to be much, this side of Paradise.

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Theological Implications of Time Travel

The usual plaintive queries regarding God’s whereabouts have followed the Virginia Tech massacre. How could a loving God permit such horror and injustice? The standard answers are offered: God has a plan, the victims are in heaven now, and we need better gun control. Such bromides provide little comfort and less illumination. Far greater intellects than those given voice in the mainstream media have confronted the problem of evil, or theodicy, for centuries, and the best answer they’ve come up with is this: God has granted us free will. Interference by God would restrict our freedom to choose between right and wrong. For whatever reason, this is how the universe is designed.

This answer may not be comforting, but it is logical. The argument that God should intervene to prevent evil begs a multitude of questions. Should God prevent all violence? How about suicide? How about bungee jumping and mountain climbing — activities that can harm not only voluntary practitioners but their innocent friends and families as well? Should we be guaranteed a peaceful death in our sleep on our 75th birthday? The notion of God as a cosmic crossing guard seems a bit ridiculous.

To be sure, many religious folks are willing to give God credit for an occasional intervention: the vest pocket Bible that stops a bullet; the serendipitous ledge that stops the climber’s fall; the spontaneous remission of illness. Folks even pray for such interventions. They are called miracles, and perhaps they happen, but such events occur so inconsistently that they are indistinguishable from dumb luck. The fact remains that the Virginia Tech killer was permitted to accomplish exactly what he set out to do. His guns didn’t jam and he did not keel over suddenly from a brain embolism. Innocents died.

So what does this have to do with time travel?

The recent movie Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington, explores the issue of free will in an action/adventure format. (Warning: mild plot spoilers follow). Washington plays an ATF agent named Doug Carlin who is dispatched to investigate a terrorist bombing of a ferry in New Orleans. Carlin is teamed with other government agents who are ostensibly using a plethora of remote sensing satellite data streams to reconstruct events that transpired four days in the past (that being the fastest the data can be integrated). Inconsistencies in the information lead Carlin to discover that they are actually looking into the past via an Einstein-Rosen bridge, or wormhole, and that there may be a possibility of influencing past events to prevent the disaster. He has himself sent back in time.

The usual time-travel paradoxes are dealt with in an amusing fashion; Carlin receives messages from an alternate version of himself and battles against the forces of destiny with apparent futility. One of the scientists says that Carlin’s efforts to change the past are analogous to changing the course of the Mississippi, and the protagonist’s struggles seem exactly that hopeless. It’s an exciting story, once you buy the premise.

After watching the video, my wife and kids tried to untangle the plot and explain apparent holes in it. I pointed out that time travel will probably never be invented because of the apparent dearth of time traveling tourists. Dramatic historical events, such as the JFK assassination or 911, should have attracted huge, popcorn-crunching crowds, including folks from the far future with large, bald heads and six fingers. One of my kids suggested that perhaps time-travel is carefully regulated to restrict tourism. Another pointed out the impracticality of such regulation being consistently enforced for millions of years. My wife, ever logical, pointed out another possibility: time travel may not have time to be invented. Our civilization — and perhaps our species — may not survive long enough. Even if another intelligent species were to arise 100 million years down the line, they would be unlikely to either know or care about our historical turning points.

This cast a pall over the conversation, and we went to bed. It got me to thinking, though. The absence of time travel is perfectly consistent with consensus theodicy. Just as intervention by God would restrict free will, so would time travel.

Does the absence of time travelers suggest that God exists, or that the future doesn’t?

NOTE (posted July 9, 2007) — I just stumbled on an interesting debate between Philip E. Graves of the Department of Economics at the University of Colorado and a devout atheist named Vexen Crabtree in the U.K. that touches on many of these points.

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R.I.P. Oriana Fallaci

One of the most passionate and eloquent defenders of Western civilization has died. She fought against the dhimmitude of her fellow Europeans until the very end. She was a great lady and will be missed.

Oriana Fallaci 1929-2006

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Reading Between the Lines on 9/11/2006

There are 1.3 billion Muslims. The fellow holding the sign, we are assured, is not typical. More likely, he illustrates the downside of encouraging cousins to marry for a few dozen generations. Polls suggest that only about 100 million Muslims are medieval fanatics. The remaining 1.2 billion are ordinary folks who want to live and let live— right?

They’ve been so quiet about the atrocities committed by their co-religionists because, well…they’re busy, you know? They’ve got lives. It’s not like they’ve just been standing on the sidelines waiting to see who wins, is it?If Catholic fanatics were blowing up innocent people we wouldn’t expect the average Catholic to protest, would we? It isn’t as if Catholics have reacted to Church leaders’ complicity in protecting pederasts with a significant drop in church attendance. Oh, wait…they have. Must be a cultural thing. Catholics get upset when innocent people are victimized. Muslims don’t, apparently, although groups like CAIR get terribly upset if anyone dares criticize Muslims for shrugging off evil. That’s a kind of empathy, I guess. They do have feelings, after all. God forbid that anyone should publish a cartoon featuring Mohammed. You’ll see some serious umbrage then.

Right-thinking folks are careful to remind us that not all Muslims are terrorists, even if nearly all terrorists are Muslim. But the hard reality is that the global jihad will end only when moderate Muslims become sufficiently inconvenienced. Pogroms. Mosque burnings. Daily Muslim-only flights — that sort of thing. Then they might be motivated to rein in their more impetuous brethren. Such a sea change would require a truly hideous provocation and an even more horrific response. Nobody (except perhaps the 100 million nutjobs) wants that.

After five years, it’s hard to find cause for optimism. The crazies still bomb and behead. The Islamic majority shrug. The few remaining defenders of Western civilization half-heartedly prosecute the Warn Terr without ever quite daring to name the real enemy (although President Bush has of late used the remarkably un-PC term “Islamic fascists”). The press barely mentions a terrorist attack in Seattle but spends days analyzing Mel Gibson’s drunken rantings, and utterly ignores the discovery of two improperly-assembled suitcase bombs on trains in Germany — a country one would think an unlikely object of Islamic ire. We’re maybe one more exploding shampoo scare away from having to fly everywhere in our skivvies.

And the Left sits up nights worrying about the weather and George Bush.

God help us. Or Allah. These days, one can’t be picky.

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Al Gore, Chicken Little, and Other Famous Hysterics

Dennis Prager explains why liberals fear global warming more than conservatives do…

…After all, if the science is as conclusive as Al Gore, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and virtually every other spokesman of the Left says it is, conservatives are just as likely to be scorched and drowned and otherwise done in by global warming as liberals will. So why aren’t non-leftists nearly as exercised as leftists are? Do conservatives handle heat better? Are libertarians better swimmers? Do religious people love their children less? (more)

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Another Reason to Avoid Movie Theaters

Victor Davis Hanson has some comments about Hollywood’s chronic infatuation with moral relativism…

Actors, producers, screenwriters and directors of Southern California live in a bubble, where coast, climate and plentiful capital shield the film industry from the harsh world. In their good intentions, these tanned utopians can afford to dream away fascist killers and instead rail at Western bogeymen — even in the midst of a global war against Middle East jihadists who wish to trump what they wrought at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

If Hollywood wants to know why attendance is down, it is not just the misdemeanor sin of warping reality, but the artistic felony that it does so in such a predictable manner. (more)

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Defenders of the Faith

Paul Campos offers some interesting observations on the latest skirmish between religious and secular fundamentalists…

A sure sign that a belief system has triumphed over its opponents is that it stops thinking of itself as a belief system at all. Instead it becomes “what every rational person knows to be the case,” or “simple common sense,” or, more concisely still, “the truth.” (more)

Given the politically-correct camels that school boards swallow routinely, the mild incarnation of Intelligent Design that proponents tried to introduce in Pennsylvania seems a fairly harmless gnat to strain from the curriculum. Although there is immense evidence that evolution happens, it is not obviously absurd to suggest that it may not be the only thing that happens. Just as physicists may invoke a strong or weak Anthropic Principle to explain the apparent fine-tuning of nature’s laws, a weak Intelligent Design principle at least addresses — if it doesn’t explain — the fact that the universe seems to be amazingly self-organizing and that we don’t have the remotest idea how a birdsong, let alone a symphony, can be “emergently” encoded in DNA molecules. If nothing else, I.D. may serve as a challenging memetic placeholder to remind us that we don’t have all the answers.

Contrary to the assertions of the scientific establishment, I.D. is a falsifiable theory; its opposite —the quest for a Theory of Everything — is a de facto attempt to falsify the notion that any natural process may be the result of unknown, and perhaps unknowable, forces. Darwinian evolution may indeed be able to build brains from quarks in a mere 14 billion years, but physicists who assert that we inhabit a universe capable of such feats because — (A) that is the only kind of universe we could live in, or (B) that we just happen to inhabit one of the few perfectly-adjusted universes in an infinitude of parallel universes — might reasonably be accused of embracing non-falsifiable hypotheses themselves, particularly when the most promising new physics models postulate the existence of entities and events of such microscopic size and duration that they cannot ever be observed, even in theory. The scientific establishment has constructed its own glass house. Its occupants should be reticent to throw stones.

Quashing unfashionable theories by government fiat is hardly an effective way to sort out the truth. Chemistry texts have been able to mention the abandoned theory of phlogiston without producing a glut of alchemists. Medical students learn that disease was once thought to have been produced by imbalanced bodily humours. Economics majors are even exposed to Marxism. Why can’t biology students be advised that some people find evolution far-fetched, even today? How would students be harmed by exposure to, for example, competing textbook sidebars excerpting essays by Fred Hoyle and Richard Dawkins; the former arguing evolution’s improbability and the latter its inevitability? The few students in each class capable of creative thought might actually be inspired to ponder the issue and learn more.

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Dramatic Evidence For Global Warming

Many concerned climatologists have pointed to the retreat of glaciers over the past several decades as evidence that Earth’s climate is indeed growing warmer. The animated image at left, created by Malin Space Systems, shows a region of the south polar cap photographed on the same date during three consecutive years. The shrinkage is obvious.

What is not obvious is that this is not Earth, but Mars as photographed by the Mars Global Surveyor, which has been observing the Red Planet in exquisite detail since 1999. The ice is frozen carbon dioxide, which is very cold stuff, but it is apparently getting warmer for some reason.

If this region of Mars is indeed warming up, what could be the cause? Increased solar activity? We don’t know, but the concentration in Greenland ice cores of Beryllium 10, created by cosmic rays in lower abundance when solar activity increases, suggests that the sun has indeed been running hotter for the past 60 years. While the observed warming of earth may be due in some degree to the greenhouse gases that we are pumping into the atmosphere, the fact that something similar is happening on another planet should give us pause. We clearly don’t have all the answers.

ADDENDUM, December 10, 2005. Since this was posted, a number of environmental websites have published articles dismissing evidence of Martian global warming as irrelevant. The writers commonly use a rather tautological argument — that we’ve not been able to take data with sufficient resolution for a long enough period to establish that this is anything more than a minor fluctuation in Mars’s climate, and that we have only evidence of recent warming on Mars. Obviously, since we have been able to make these observations only since 1999, we cannot say anything at all about the recentness of the warming. We have only recent data, for heaven’s sake! But climate-change experts are only too happy to cite a mere 50 years of direct measurements to prove that solar flux is invariable — as if it might not take centuries for a planet to respond to a slight variation in solar output.

I really don’t have a huge axe to grind. Do I think that many so-called environmentalists are misanthropic Marxists and pagans? Yep. Do I think that Greenpeace and the Green Party have a tad more than their fair share of hysterical ignoramuses? You bet. Do I think that scientists are not necessarily wise and noble seekers of truth, but are in fact ordinarily self-interested human beings who are perfectly willing to embrace fads in their quest for funding and tenure? Yeah, I’m afraid so. The scientific method has amply demonstrated its efficacy, but as far as the “scientific community” goes, I’ve worked with some of the smartest scientists on the planet, and have found that most of them are, of necessity, so specialized that that they end up knowing a great deal about very little — and many do not hesitate to shovel manure to fill the lacunae.

Nevertheless, I’m rather fond of this planet and I want it to remain beautiful for my kids. To help make that possible, I contribute royalties to the Nature Conservancy, an organization that employs an incredibly radical strategy to preserve wilderness areas: it buys them. The Conservancy seems to do a good job and has, so far, eschewed the Chicken Little approach that has discredited much of the environmental movement.

Environmentalists were happy to promote Venus as an example of greenhouse warming run amok. Why dismiss data from Mars that does not fit a political agenda? If we are to be responsible stewards of our world, should we not welcome any information that may further understanding of these very complex processes?

ADDENDUM; August 14, 2007. In reviewing this I came upon a report from last April that attributes Martian warming to excessive dust in the atmosphere. The  mechanism sounds plausible. Of course, if earth’s atmosphere were found to be unusually dusty, it would be instantly attributed to man-made global warming. You can’t lose when you play this game.

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The Awful Truth About the Jedi

Ever since the final scene of the original “Star Wars,” when Luke and his buddies were presented with gold medals in a ceremony that looked suspiciously like it could have been held at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, I’ve had a queasy feeling about the Jedi Knights. George Turner has posted a brilliant analysis that should be studied by every high school English class as an excellent example of persuasive argument.

..Lucas takes the truth and twists it, using music and lighting to color your perceptions. He’s so skilled at it that he could make you want to marry a camel with one beautifully lit slow motion gallop scene. Don’t be fooled by Hollywood trickery. Don’t fall for Jedi lies. Anakin didn’t, being strong in the Force, the truth finally flowing through him, the lies and deception washed away, exposing the perfidity and treachery of the Jedi Council…

The essay is very funny, and immensely clever.


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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Mini review

In space, no one can hear you yawn….

Douglas Adam’s books were witty, ironic, inventive, and funny. The radio adaptation was amusing. The movie version of “Hitchhiker” is so jaw-droppingly tedious, stupid and amateurish that halfway through, I decided to request a refund on my ticket. This is the second-worst movie I’ve ever half-seen. (The worst was “Legally Blonde 2” — which I three-quarters saw).

The movie (at least the first half of it) is badly written, badly acted, and idiotically edited, with scenes that go on much too long and desperately repetitive jokes that don’t work.

What in hell were the filmmakers smoking? We can only hope that, should anyone be so misguided as to produce any future project they might conceive, that they at least opt to purchase a higher grade of it.

What a waste of time, money, and good material.

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