Monday, October 19, 2009

size matters

ok, i'm calling bullshit on this story about spoilsports from the future screwing with our expensive new supercollider ... because production delays never happen to big projects. riiiight. talk about your lame excuses for failure!

now, i don't really need to call bs on this story in particular, since the reporter, who describes the storytellers as "otherwise distinguished physicists", sounds like he's already serving up his article on a platter of tongue, stuffed delicately in cheek.

still, it's shameless headline-grabbing stories like these, often the bastard child of some scientist's impish poke-in-the-eye and some journalist's laziness and gullibility, that continue to warp john and jane q. walmart's already rudimentary understanding of just what is and isn't possible in this universe. they've been left fat, lazy and loopy by a steady diet of star trek and star wars.


now don't get me wrong: i'm a huge fan of "trek wars" and science fiction in general (you should see my library) and i wouldn't be the armchair geek i am without their inspiration. on the other hand, i'm also a big fan of superhero comics. but the same folks who can generally grok that humans can't fly or deflect bullets or shoot lasers from their eyes, will tell you with no effort of thought that they believe the three great fictions of modern sci-fi: that aliens have or will visit the earth; that we'll return the courtesy after figuring out faster-than-light travel; that time-travel into the past is possible.

each of these fictions has already consumed more ink than i can practically devote to them, so i'm going to keep things short and sweet. today's rant covers alien races. there'll be no messy details, math, no greek and no quiz. i just want certain hard realities to sink in for once.

in the colorful dramasphere "trek wars" inhabits, the universe is as crowded as calcutta with intelligent races. here's a poem i once read in the philly weekly many years ago:

the only
aliens
we like
are the ones
on star trek
'cause
they all
speak
english

— martin espada, "gov. wilson of ca talks in his sleep"


ok, it's obvious that's a joke, but still, it's a big universe, right? we can't be the only ones here, can we?

most likely not. the ginormous size of the universe, its ginormous age and the ginormous number of stars in it make it pretty hard to argue against the universe performing multiple encores. in our own galaxy, one among 100 billion galaxies, people paid to study these things estimate 100 million suns like our own, which is considered pretty run-of-the-mill in size and age. that's 100 million rolls of the dice, which we know already hit the jackpot at least once. we're likely surrounded by extraterrestrials.


but there's a catch. (you knew there'd be a catch, didn't you?)

alas, the very same factors which make alien neighbors a virtual certainty — the ginormous size and age of the universe — make it impossible for any of us to ever meet. most folks hear the numbers and dumbly acknowledge them without attempting to truly appreciate their ginormous scale. others, like young earth creationists, simply refuse to accept them. the numbers are stupefying and, like a curt cabbie, they simply drop our tiny brains off with a terse "end o' the line, mac". creationists jumped out the ride after only 6,000 years.

in our own galaxy, those 100 million candidate suns are on average about 15,000 light years apart. we're about one million light years from our nearest neighboring galaxies and everybody's moving even further apart due to the continued expansion of the universe. these distances are inconceivably vast, beyond even the paid imaginations of the writers of "trek wars", who would have viewers believe that texting between the stars will be no more inconvenient than picking up your communicator and that traveling between them no more inconvenient than shuttling from boston to burbank.

but it's not so much a problem that the universe is "too big" per se: the real problem is that our lives are waaay too short! to appreciate the dilemma from a different perspective, consider the lowly housefly. it lives only a few weeks — what's the likelihood that a boston fly will ever meet a burbank fly, especially if neither knows the other exists or quite where to look? it's the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack — times gazillion! and even if both knew where to go, they'd be dead long before they could meet even halfway.

oh, and did i point out the ginormous age of the universe? 14 billions years and counting makes it unlikely that the lifespans of different alien civilizations will overlap during a period when they might be capable of communicating with each other. with your nearest neighbor just 15,000 light years away, you'll have to wait only 30,000 years for a reply. talk about a dull conversation!

remember, in the 4 billion years that life has thrived on earth, 3 billion of that stretch of time was dominated by mute, deaf and blind one-celled microbes, and of the last billion, over 99.99% had to elapse before we became capable of sending signals, much less leaving the planet. if earthlings are typical of the intelligent races in the galaxy, the law of averages eliminates half our prospective neighbors as too young to join the "trek wars" fan club, since they're still too busy pulling themselves out of the ooze. and the other half, sadly, may already be dead.

next rant: space travel

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