Saturday, December 4, 2010

NASA, Arsenic and Cthulhu

NASA, we need to have a talk.

Listen, I know you’ve had a pretty good run so far. That whole Apollo program? That was great.  It might be the coolest thing any government has ever done, when taken in full. I mean, you combined the following elements:

  • Rockets
  • Fighter pilots
  • Space suits
  • Good old American know-how
  • Sticking it to the communists
  • Parachutes
  • Atmospheric re-entry
  • Harmless jingoism

And you put them on the moon. Even Apollo 13 rocked, and it almost blew up not even halfway there. I’m not here to question your expertise at accomplishing cool shit.

But NASA. Guys. You really have to be better about how you announce your new discoveries.

Let’s take this one, previewed last month:

“Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have found evidence of the youngest black hole known to exist in our cosmic neighborhood. The 30-year-old black hole provides a unique opportunity to watch this type of object develop from infancy.”

I’ve bolded the problem in that press release. Space is really, really big. You and I know that “cosmic neighborhood” could mean a lot of things. In this case, said black hole is 50 million light years away, which is far enough that it won’t, say, suck the Earth into its event horizon, thereby ending all life as we know it and bringing on the apocalypse. You and I know that.

Journalists don’t know that, guys! I know! I used to be one. When it comes to science, we can be selectively quite stupid. We see some loaded term like “black hole” and we have visions of screaming headlines in eighty-point font. Or … would have visions of screaming headlines in eighty-point font, if newspapers could afford to print something that big anymore. Which they can’t. A paper I worked for once had me write an “advertorial” for a used-car lot, which is several steps away from Woodward and Bernstein-type stuff. They’re hurting for money, is what I’m saying.

We can always put the headlines on the internet, though. You still have to worry about it.

So, when you put out another press release worded thusly:

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”

Well, you can just imagine what comes to mind! Aliens, guys. Everyone thought it was aliens. For my own part, I figured it was either a single-celled organism on a moon of Jupiter, microbes in the ice caps of Mars, or the dark lord Cthulhu, come out of the void-pits of an elder galaxy to claim the Earth as his billion-year feast.


The first two would have been cool, if a bit underwhelming, while Cthulhu would have been cool, if a bit of an inducement to claw out your eyes. Either way: aliens!

Instead, it turned out that the discovery was of a type of microbe that uses arsenic instead of phosphorous as one of its fundamental building blocks – which is really cool news. It rearranges our understanding of the nature of life, will provoke a number of new research angles, and will allow us to expand our search for extraterrestrial life. That’s where the astrobiology angle comes in.

A discovery like this shouldn’t be a disappointment. It should be a celebration! The story seems like it was more about what wasn’t discovered rather than what was.

Next time, guys, leave astrobiology out of it. You don’t have to cater to the stupids, but you don’t have to get their hopes up …

…or MINE. Do you REALIZE how long I’ve been praying for Cthulhu to show up? Just last week, I sacrificed five … well, it’s not important to publish WHAT I sacrificed, but the point is, they weren’t easy to acquire, and the cleanup was just beastly. I saw your press release, and I figured my prayers were answered. No longer would I have to carve Cthulhu’s holy symbol on the small of my back, or perform daily rituals in a language that most humans can’t pronounce (the surgery on my tongue was absurdly expensive). Finally, my dark lord would arrive, and I’d be able to spend eternity in the glorious, maddening embrace of his ten million stomachs.

But no. Fucking arsenic microbes. Big Cthulhu-damned deal. I’m going to go spend some time alone in my secret Cthulhu shrine. The moon’s going to be dark tomorrow, and I need to summon some eldritch horrors. Thanks a whole lot, NASA.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanatos, Part III

In yet another example of how our minds scatter the particulars of our memories, it turns out that my recollection of my grandmother raising her arms to the ceiling was inaccurate. It did happen, but it happened the day prior to her death. She was essentially unconscious, never again to wake, when my cousin Leila tried to talk to her. Whatever Leila said must have cut through the death haze in which my grandmother was lost, because that was when she lifted her arms. Perhaps she was trying to find a way out.

I’m tempted to pass this off as an attempt to solve a mystery that doesn’t exist, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s just less dramatic this way. There was no gesture to mark my grandmother’s passing – simply a failed attempt to breath, a ceasing of function, and an end. That’s just from the outside, however – my grandmother must have had a final thought or impulse. What form it took is the mystery.

Most aspects of our existence have, over the course of our history, been given human form in our minds.  Egyptians looked into the eyes of their household cats and gave the perceptive intelligence they saw the name Bast. Norsemen heard the sky flash and erupt and called it Thor. Greeks tracked the motion of the sun across the sky and imagined it to be the wheel of Apollo’s chariot as he made his daily rounds. Death is no different, and may in fact be the only one that’s ubiquitous. The Grim Reaper. The fourth Horseman. An angel with outstretched black wings. Hades. Nergal. Orcus. Izanami. Anubis and Osiris. Hel.


Indiscriminate and unrelenting. The only true certainty. Is it any wonder that nearly every human culture has anthropomorphized something so terrifying? It’s easier to rage against nonexistence if it has a face, or a name, or a personality. Something you can talk to. Hades can be bargained with. You can play chess with the Reaper. Thanatos can be tricked – although he’ll get you in the end.

He got my grandmother. He got her mother. He’ll get you, and me, and all of us,  unless someone like Aubrey de Grey takes the aging process apart and reforms it into a pure, unbroken golden circle.  The supply of oxygen to our brains will be cut off, either gradually or without warning, and we’ll evaporate. End of the line.

What comes after death is a mystery to us, but the inevitability of it, though shocking, is not surprising. We’ve spent our entire lives reminded of it, whether through the death of a loved one or the spectre of Thanatos flitting across our culture. I may not be prepared for death, but my subconscious has been training for it since Day One.

Have you ever had a dream that seemed to last for days? Our brains can play around with time in the proper context. I mentioned before that the brain does strange things in the instant before death. Maybe it’s working overtime to find a way to keep us from the looming terror. Maybe we live forever, in our heads, in that final moment.

That’s a pleasant thought. I tend to doubt it, however. What good does wishful thinking do except mire us in our delusions? When dealing with death, it’s best not to fantasize.

That won’t help with answering the question of what my grandmother saw, somewhere between raising her hands and turning off her mind. If you’ll allow me one more moment of pure speculation …

… maybe she saw whatever she wanted.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Thanatos, Part II

Christopher Hitchens has cancer. His particular kind manifested itself in his esophagus, which is unsurprising given his near-legendary reputation as a smoker and drinker. He’s 61 and, should he survive another five years, says he will be surprised.

He’s taken to writing about his disease. Hitchens is a brutally eloquent writer, sparing very little time for sentiment and chronically incapable of pulling a punch. It’s a quality that makes him adept at eviscerating a cause he disagrees with or an argument he finds wanting.* For reference, he once wrote a pamphlet criticizing Mother Teresa as a charlatan and a fraud, which he titled The Missionary Position.

*Arguing with the man must be absolutely terrifying.  He’s essentially memorized the entire Western philosophical canon and will deploy it like a howitzer at the slightest provocation. Generally erudite to a fault, he’s not above a bit of vulgarity –when discussing the death of Jerry Falwell in this clip, he gets a bit irritated at Sean Hannity’s attempt to talk over him, and delivers this gem:

If you gave Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.” Exceptional. Incidentally, this also demonstrates the best way to combat someone who tries to interrupt you or talk over you – keep talking. Don’t break your rhythm or even acknowledge that they’ve said anything; finish what you’ve said and it’ll throw them off almost every time.

You may have gathered from that clip that Hitchens is an atheist – perhaps the most famous one alive. He describes himself as more of an anti-theist. Much of the latter part of his life has been dedicated to opposing religion in all its forms. Needless to say, he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and actually considers the idea of heaven as it’s described in Christian theology as something of a “celestial North Korea”, where all sing their praises to the leader every day for eternity. Hitchens has said, in fact, that heaven would be worse than North Korea, because in North Korea, you can die. You’re stuck in heaven forever.

In confronting his mortality, Hitchens has had to grapple with forever’s opposite – that is, nonexistence. Both seem equally horrifying. Forever means that your burdens will never be lain down.  Far from arranging themselves as the catalogue of your life, your memories will pile in your brain like a heap of trash. You’ll run out of room before long, so important things like your first kiss or your first pet’s name will be ejected from your head like foam from an overflowing glass of beer. As people age, they succumb to a phenomenon where the years appear to pass by faster and faster – this is because each subsequent year represents a proportionally smaller portion of our lives. A 13-year-old wakes up every day to new information and new experiences. An 80-year-old has seen it all before. Could you imagine what kind of creature you’d be like at 500? A thousand? Some meaninglessly large number off in the distance? It barely seems like living.

But then, nonexistence. Your silver cord cut and your story ended. It’s less than a comforting thought. I’ve heard it suggested that the idea of death (apart from the process, which can range from somewhat pleasant to hellish) is not to be feared, because you’ve already experienced a near-infinity of nonexistence – where were you before you were born? Persuasive, perhaps, but before you were born, you were not. Death means the end of something you were. I’m rather enamored with living, you know? Hitchens is too.  There was a catch in his voice when he discussed the concept of nonexistence during an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic a few months back. A shudder. The awful prelude to a death rattle.

The brain does all kinds of strange things in the last second, as it shuts down nonessential things like taste and hearing in a vain attempt to keep its body alive. Studies have shown that terminal patients, in the moments before they die, will experience a surge of brain activity all out of proportion to their state of mind beforehand. If the priests and prophets are right, and Christopher Hitchens is wrong, then death is to be followed by an eternal afterlife – whether it’s in the lake of fire, or through the Pearly Gates, or some other variant of forever. If Hitchens is right – and, to be frank, I suspect that he is – it’s followed by nothing.

There’s something there, though, on the cliff’s boundary. My grandmother’s brain surged, her arms raised, and there was something.

Next: The conclusion, in more ways than one.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thanatos, Part I

I promise this isn’t a personal story. Not entirely.

My grandmother died on a weekday morning in the summer of 2006, the victim of a cancer that began in the colon but (as cancers often do) quickly extended itself to whichever organ its idiot reach could embrace. She was diagnosed in November and died in July, which gave us a bare eight months to say goodbye. None of them were pretty – she withered quickly and drastically from various bouts of chemotherapy and other necessarily toxic remedies, although she curiously never lost her hair. By the end, she lacked the strength to lift herself from her bed, which was set up in the family room of the house she and my grandfather had inhabited since coming over from Italy after the Second World War.

My family was scattered in and around that house when I finally arrived, each mourning in their own way. My youngest aunt sat on some steps among the grapevines and apple trees in the backyard, her own personal retreat since childhood. My brother was outside on the path leading to the house, and as he embraced me I saw that he was crying.  I hadn’t seen him cry since childhood; as we had aged it had become unthinkable for either of us to shed tears. 

When I saw my grandfather, I knew what had caused my brother to lose his composure.  It’s often been said that death is hardest on the living – the dead are beyond any earthly suffering, but those left behind are constantly confronted with their ghosts. Their loss lingers in the bare facts of their absence. You’ll smell them on their empty clothes when you open the closet, long after the scent has faded. You’ll wake up expecting to be next to someone and despair at the no-one who has taken her place. For my grandfather, this was the first time he had been without my grandmother in almost fifty years. He sat on a plastic chair outside the back door, seeing nothing.  I’ve never asked him, but I don’t think he really remembers any of that morning. His life was on hold at the time.

My mother and another aunt were standing vigil over my grandmother’s body when I finally made it into the house.  She’d spent much of the past few months confined to a hospital bed in her living room, and hadn’t truly moved from it in several weeks. I stopped a few feet short of where she lay. Her eyes were wide open. She almost looked surprised. As my mother told me it was OK for me to come closer, I flashed back to something she’d told me earlier that morning, when she woke me up to tell me about my grandmother’s death.

“She opened her eyes and raised her hands towards the ceiling,” my mother had said, sitting on the corner of my bed, her tears not quite spent.  “Then she was gone.”

There it is, then. My grandmother, in the fading moments before lapsing into impermanence, saw something so compelling that she attempted to touch it. Whether she tried to embrace it or hold it off is lost to me forever – until, at least, years from now, it comes for me as well. This question, skirting about the corners of my consciousness, has haunted me ever since.

What did she see?

 Next: Other peoples’ opinions.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Cameras are every damn where these days, a consequence of the long, slow march we’ve made toward eliminating the basic concept of privacy. Still, they’ve got their moments. Take this, for example:

That’s a meteor burning up in the atmosphere, so brilliant that it washes out the camera entirely. This particular one was probably no more than a foot or so across and wasn’t moving particularly fast, so it disintegrated without actually impacting anything. There’s another video out there where a cop stops his car short after seeing the meteor through his front windshield. You have to wonder what he thought as his patrol was interrupted by the heavens.

This, on the other hand, is a meteor that is decidedly more than a foot across. Its speed is unmentioned but, at this scale, irrelevant.

Wha-bam! Now, doesn’t that make you feel secure? This is a rather extreme example of a meteor impact – I’m fairly certain that evil-looking rock is moon-sized – and the fact that the Earth’s crust is peeled like a big blue apple is probably an exaggeration of the real thing, but the basic point is that meteors are bad news, kids.

How bad? Observe this handy chart:

Friends, that is the Torino Scale, a device for classifying space objects according to their danger to us. Essentially, the larger an object is, and the more likely it is to hit the Earth, the higher rating it gets. Therefore, a very small object with a high chance to hit the Earth gets the same rating as a very large object with very little chance to hit Earth*. In this case, that rating would be “1”; it’s not a big deal, we should probably keep monitoring it, but there’s not all that much to worry about.

*Why aren’t we entirely certain of an asteroid’s exact path? You try working out the calculations needed to predict where a 20-meter long space rock will be thirty years from now. Remember to include every possible gravitational effect it could experience in those thirty years. Math is hard.

Everything above that, however, gets progressively worse.

Certain collisions are rated in on the right-most part of the graph, in red. An object around twenty meters across would, upon impact with the Earth, release up to one megaton of energy. By comparison, the bomb released over Hiroshima had a yield of 15 kilotons. As our theoretical space rock finally terminated its long orbit by smashing headlong into our planet, it would produce roughly the energy equivalent of 66.67* early nuclear bombs.

*Oooooh. Spooky! If only we didn’t round off repeating numbers, this would be biblical.

Bear in mind, that’s the low end of the scale.

The largest nuclear weapon ever developed is the “Tsar Bomba”. One of the more interesting relics of the Cold War, the Tsar Bomba has a theoretical yield of 100 megatons, dwarfing our 20 meter asteroid’s output significantly. Here’s a video of its first and only test, a 50-megaton blast.

I suspect that camera was rather far from the blast site. Consult the following map, stolen blatantly from Wikipedia and then hackishly edited by a man with no visual intelligence.

This fucking thing is kind of a circular argument against the continued justification of our existence. The only reason it was never introduced into active service is that the fireball alone was almost five miles wide and almost destroyed the plane that released it. We* made a weapon so powerful that it would kill whoever used it, which is all that a nuke is anyways, so the irony kind' of lines up.

*By “we”, I mean “humanity as a whole, considered as a single species with immense capability for self-destruction”. Not “America”.

Anyways, the Tsar Bomba is at the low end of the nine scale. A meteor 100 meters across could accomplish an equivalent level of devastation.

You can see, then, that even the smallest meteors, because of their velocity upon impacting the Earth, would cause substantial damage—wiping out a city, for starters. They’re why you should never be entirely comfortable looking up at the night sky, and why it’s important that we research both asteroid-detection and –deflection strategies*. Our entire existence might depend on it.

*I bet you think the only thing we can do is blow up an oncoming asteroid, eh? If so, thanks for reading The Toy Cannon, Michael Bay! There are actually several much more elegant solutions we could implement, not limited to the following: parking a satellite next to it so the extra gravitational force alters the asteroid’s path very slightly; attaching a solar sail to the asteroid; attaching a mining robot to the asteroid to eject material from it into space, propelling it in that manner, and so on. Given our general attitude as a species, however, we’ll probably just try to hammer the thing with as many nukes as possible.

The problem with that, however, is that as Carl Sagan pointed out, any method that can deflect an asteroid away from us can be used to deflect it toward us. We’re obviously a ways away from being able to do this with any degree of accuracy, but if you think your average government wouldn’t want such a destructive and unstoppable weapon, then you didn’t watch that Tsar Bomba video above. We are capable of great empathy and grace, but if you gave us a chance to go back to our caveman roots and once again throw rocks at our enemies, we’d do so in a half a second.



One aspect of this that I haven’t brought up yet is how it proves that every science fiction movie you’ve ever watched has lied to you.

We’ve already seen that a small meteor can come down on the Earth like a hammer. Such asteroids are moving at a very high rate of speed – say, 20 kilometers per second. Anyone who’s ever played baseball from childhood can tell you that the same ball moving at 30 miles per hour hurts a lot more when it’s humming in there at 80 miles per hour.

Let’s take that same meteor and accelerate it to a slightly higher rate of speed. Say … 20 km/second to a little bit slower than 300,000 km/second (which is, not coincidentally, the speed of light). How big do you think it would have to be to do the same amount of damage as an asteroid at the small end of the Torino Scale?

About that big.

Nothing in the universe moves that fast, obviously (except for light itself), so we’re in the clear for now.

If we ever encounter another sentient species, however, we’d be in for a spot of bother. Most science-fiction universes begin with the concept that faster-than-light travel has been discovered and is commonplace. That stretches believability as-is, but the real question is this; why even bother to have a Death Star or anything of the sort? If you want to destroy a planet, all you really need to do is strap a big-enough engine to a big-enough asteroid, point it at where your target will be by the time your asteroid gets there, and turn it on. Boom! No more planet. Because the asteroid (by now known as a relativistic kill vehicle, or RKV) is ostensibly moving at or past the speed of light, it’ll actually be impossible to track; you won’t be able to see it until it hits you. Nothing we know of now or can even conceive of would be able to track or deflect such a monstrous device.

Given what we know of the history of first contact between two peoples of vastly different technological levels, I wouldn’t bet on our first meeting with an alien species being peaceful. Rather, it might come in the form of thousands of super-fast bullets, blasting the Earth to pieces before we even know what’s happened.

It might be best to put off meeting the neighbors for a while.

At least until we’ve got bigger rocks.