Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.
Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.
And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.
Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.
If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.
Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…
With only a dozen days remaining of my self-imposed sentence in this asylum of perpetual prose, I am scootching toward the realization that there are some topics I will never get to. The hidden subtext within the dialogue of each Misfits of Science episode will remain unexplored, and I’m afraid the sacred ghost notes that elevate the percussive harrumph of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” and Toto’s “Rosanna” will fail to make the kilograph cut.
Instead I must devote these dog-yawn final days to loftier, more resonant subjects – yesterday’s investigation into Mozart’s poop jokes notwithstanding. And so I look to the moon – that luminous gob of celestial spittle, that pearlesque voyeur who knows all of our funkiest sins, the swiveling muse of the incurable drunkard. The moon pours elbow grease on our tides and provides an alibi when we need one for our meandering sanity. And before we had the cognitive wherewithal to stack our chips on science, the moon provided the palette for some of our strangest superstitions.
The moon puts on a nightly spectacle; what earth-bound broadcast can compare to the thrill of a clump of rock bigger than our entire continent dangling in the air over our heads? And even with Neil Armstrong’s size 9½ prints on her cheeks, she still retains an exotic air of mystery.
Before Georges Méliès stabbed it with a wayward rocket ship, the man in the moon had a starring role in olde-timey mythology. In the biblical Book of Numbers, one of the more cynical stories tells of a man who was sentenced by God to death by stoning for the heinous crime of gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Early Christian lore suggested that the man in the moon was that very man. Another tradition claims the man is Abel’s blood-bro Cain, forever doomed to circle the Earth. Read more…
Even for those of us who don’t hang their spiritual hats upon the rack of organized religion, there exists the very real possibility that we are cosmically intertwined with forces and energies mightier (and invisiblier) than our own. Some of these forces – gravity, aging, the uncontestable craving for pizza after a night of drinking – have been proven. Others are clearly ridiculous (if you think you’re more of an aggressive driver because of your astrology sign, you’re wrong; you might just be an asshole). Still others are open to interpretation.
I have had this discussion with my wife so often, it’s almost like watching a rerun whenever the topic comes up. She is a teacher, spending her days surrounded by squalid little junior-high germ-buckets whose behaviors are subject to hormonal whim and hyperactive attention spans that could frustrate a housefly. She is convinced that when the moon is full, her students become more unruly, more emotionally explosive. A walk past our kitchen calendar can send a telegraph of dread up her spine.
Ever the cynic, the skeptic, the buzz-kill (her descriptor, not mine), I disagree. The moon is hovering in the sky, some sixty-five billion miles (give or take a lot) from these children’s fluttery brains. How could a slab of grey rock minding its business in our orbit possibly transform these grub-balls into more manic grub-balls? It’s time to do some really quick and sloppy research and settle this once and for all.
If there’s one concession I’ll grant my wife’s argument it’s that she has buckets of history on her side. Aristotle and Pliny the Elder observed that full moons would spark psychotic episodes among those who were susceptible to such things. Right through the 1700’s, actual doctors believed that the moon phase would have an impact on epileptic seizures, rheumatism and fevers. Hell, even the Latin word for moon, ‘luna’, forms the root of the word ‘lunatic’. This is not a recent superstition.
Are we hornier at a full moon? Do women’s reproductive systems tend to spurt out babies when our sky is lit up by a perfect white circle? Do our veins bleed more on that one day of every month? Read more…
If you haven’t read the article or seen the t-shirt, you’re probably nevertheless aware that our ninth planet, Pluto, was demoted in 2006 to the meager status of dwarf planet, a lower classification that for whatever reason enraged pockets of the populace. I suspect a chunk of that outrage had to do with one of our ingrained snippets of knowledge – the names of our solar system’s planets – that we remember from elementary school being altered. It’s fundamental, like the names of our Canadian provinces (which has changed) or the five senses (though actually there are several others).
But amid all this weird hype over a remote ice-rock and whether it still gets invited to the same imaginary shindigs as Saturn or Venus, we forgot to celebrate little Ceres. Ceres was also tossed into the dwarf planet class along with Pluto and three others, but for Ceres it was a promotion. Where once she was just a passenger amid the rush-hour gridlock of the asteroid belt, now she reigned supreme.
And as much as we all have Pluto’s name etched in our brains as the last fuelling post before the great black expanse of deep space, we know almost nothing about Ceres. And her secrets might be among the most interesting in our little corner of the cosmos.
Much like the grainy footage of Bigfoot, this is all we’ve got of Ceres: a blur, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope. We know surprisingly little about this chunk of rock, though NASA is aiming to change that when the Dawn spacecraft pays Ceres a visit early in 2015. Ceres was discovered due to math, which means that I’ll be covering this portion of the story using the most vague and non-researched terms possible. Read more…
A scientist looks at a problem and asks, “How?” A skeptic looks at a problem and asks, “Why?” A caribou looks at a problem and just keeps on moseying along because a caribou has no damn problems. When faced with the dilemma of constructing a viable and dependable space elevator, the caribou will show no interest, exhibit no signs of stress, and simply carry on eating whatever it is that a caribou eats (I’m guessing raccoons?).
But humankind didn’t get where it is by giving up and eating. No, we packed that food into a quickly-consumable paste of protein and insulating chemicals, threw on our paisley thinking-vests, and addressed the issue with imagination, innovation, and ridiculously difficult math.
Certainly if we can transplant one’s butt hair to one’s head, if we can process cheese into shiny, single-wrapped squares, if we can teach a frog to play “The Rainbow Connection” on the banjo, we can figure out how to build an elevator into space. How hard can it be?
That crazy-looking Russian is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, scientist, theorist, and professional crazy-looking Russian. His work in astronomic theory paved the way for all those people-packed tubes of steel we’ve tossed beyond the sky. One day, Konstantin was checking out the newly-minted Eiffel Tower and he thought, “Hey… why can’t we build another one of these, except bigger? Like, all the way to outer space?” Read more…
Yesterday I penned a touching tribute to those plucky little furry heroes, the unsung monkeys who ventured into space at the hands of American scientists, who were hungry for a forward step in their ever-mounting space race with the Soviet Union. Well, back then the Russians were doing a lot more than imprisoning dissenters and passing hate-filled bigotry legislation. Back then, they were matching America in the race for the sky.
So what about the Russian monkeys? Were there any Russian monkeys? Do they even have monkeys in Russia? I really should do more research before writing these things.
Okay, it turns out they do have monkeys in Russia, and a handful of them took that fanciful voyage to the stars. But that all happened in the 1980’s and 90’s, not back when America was claiming its triumph in the field of orbital primates. So what were the Soviets doing during that time, if not launching monkeys? Well, depending on how far you’re willing to yank on the thread of conspiracy, they may have been lobbing humans up there before we knew anything about it. Long lost humans. Long lost cosmonauts.
In the 1950’s, while the Americans were looking for the closest equivalent to little hairy humans to send into orbit, the Soviets were content to fire anything up there. And since dogs were more abundant than monkeys, that was their focus. Dezek and Tsygan were the first noble pooches to soar above the 100km line where space begins, and they both lived to tell the tale. And by ‘tell the tale’, I assume that means when other dogs sniffed Dezek and Tsygan’s butts, those other dogs instinctively understood what happened. Read more…
Poor, poor Pluto. For many people, the demotion of Pluto from the ranks of the Elite Nine backing vocalists to the Sun’s great whizzbang show was nothing short of a tragedy. Rallies were held, people marched through the streets with pale orange warpaint smeared across their sweaty faces, and supporters across the globe lit their local Laundromats on fire in a misguided act of defiance. Myself, I refuse to acknowledge Micronesia as a nation until we can once again call Pluto a planet.
Well, bad news everyone. As much as we’d like to cling to the security blanket of our childhood science lessons – the few we remember, anyway – Pluto is not technically a planet. Nor is it sentient, nor is it even aware that it has been demoted. That chunk of ice-rock has had a brief flicker in the window of our awareness, and its ‘status’ has shifted a lot more often than this most recent re-classification.
Oh, and technically Micronesia is a region; the Federated States of Micronesia is a country. So my protest may have been in vain.
Back in the 1840’s, a suave fellow named Urbain Le Verrier noticed there were some quirky wiggles in Uranus’s orbit. ‘Quirky Wiggles’ is not the scientific term – in fact, it would be a great name for a clown at a kid’s party – but the point is, Uranus was acting a little wonky. Using what he learned from Isaac Newton’s lessons on mechanics (which is clearly more than I have learned from them), Le Verrier pinpointed where another planet might be. That planet turned out to be Neptune. Read more…