“Take Me To Kepler!”: The Exobiology of HZ Worlds

Drafted: 27 June; Revised: 29 June 2014

The search for exoplanets continues...
The search for exoplanets continues…

“Earth size planets  can and do exist in the HZ ‘s of other stars” – Doud Hudgins, Exoplanet Exploration Program.

Following on from the theme of last week’s Post, the oft-discussed topic of finding habitable worlds in the solar system is never far away. As technology advances, and astronomy becomes a more vital discipline, then the search for such worlds – and their possible inhabitants – gathers even greater pace, with a recent (March 2014) news story excitedly reporting the discovery of exoplanets “by the bus load,” with 1,692 confirmed and 3,845 suspect candidates, bringing the total to over 5,500.

 Incredible, when you consider that the first exoplanet, orbiting within its HZ (habitable zone) – a region around a sun where liquid could be present on the surface, and could contain the elements to support life – was detected only in 1995! The latest: Kepler 186f could be the most probable contender for supporting life due to it being similar in size to Earth; it orbits a red dwarf star 500 light years away.

In addition, two other worlds – 70 Virginis, in the Virgo constellation, & 47 UMa, in Ursa Major, could possess the credentials to support the formation of life, and they are only 35 light years away.

Sorry, but this is what aliens are most likely to resemble...
Sorry, but this is what aliens are most likely to resemble…

“There is nothing special about Earth. If life can arise on one planet around one star in one galaxy, then it could happen on billions of such planets” – Tim Radford.  

The quest for extraterrestrial life has bamboozled terrestrial science (and philosophy) since time immemorial. Lucretius, the Roman philosopher wote about the “seeds of life” floating through space in his: De Rerum Naturae. This concept became known as “Panspermia” and was later discussed by Svante Arhenius (a Swedish Nobel prize-winner) and Sir Fred Hoyle ( a British astronomer). Thomas Jefferson, founding father and president of the United States, speculated about life on other planets, but only about whether they “had souls to be saved.”

Then, with H G Wells, there were aliens – from Mars, our nearest neighbour – but they did not come in peace. In the last century, as science fiction has rocketed (sorry), there has been all sorts of long and short, green and blue, bug-eyed and three-fingered “visitors” from a vast array of weird and wonderful alien worlds.

Everyone is familiar with the five-year mission objective of the original (endearingly daft) Star Trek series but nothing in my vast reams of research can elucidate why so much of that “strange new life” (predominantly carbon-based, of course) had to have weird knobs, crests, and even trilobytes stuck to their foreheads. Gene Roddenberry certainly moved in mysterious ways…

We are finding exoplanets "by the bus load" now
We are finding exoplanets “by the bus load” now

“If there are creatures there they are going to be short and fat, not long and thin like us. They will be more like crabs than sheep and would move by scuttling sideways” – Dr Paul Murdin, British National Space Centre.

Humanoid aliens are so common (not just because of limitations of cheap sfx) but because eyes, mouths and limbs are essential components of any (not all) living organisms. Yet modern exobiologists recognise that carbon, hydrogen and oxygen don’t need to be mandatory building blocks for life; silicon could be vital as well.   

Unfortunately, Science presents us with a less exciting image of aliens. Extraterrestrials – if they are to be found at all – would have to adapt to massive gravity, be of small and very flat shape, with a protective carapace, very much like a limpet. The conditions for complex chemicals to turn into complex self-replicating proteins and then cells have to be precise.

But what triggers those conditions? And where can we find them?  

On a final note, there was an amusing two-page story in Mystery in Space comic (1981) in which first contact is made on a distant planet by three Earth astronauts with a race of green, long-necked tortoise-like creatures. The translator is opened (on all frequencies, of course) and the Commander greets them. No reply; not even a sound. The aliens just ignore them, trudging along the streets of their great city. Dejected, the humans pack up and leave. As their spaceship blasts back into the heavens, one alien turns to his chum and says:

” Thank Drok! I thought they’d never leave!”   

The second alien replies: “Yeah, blasted tourists, who needs ’em?”

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Kraken Mare: The Largest Lake of Titan

Posted: 20 June 2014

 

An artist's impression of Kraken Mare on Titan.
An artist’s impression of Kraken Mare on Titan.

“Below the thunders of the upper deep, Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea, His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep, The Kraken sleepeth”  – Tennyson.

Below the piercing orange sky, the massive alien sea gleams. Kraken Mare – named after the fabled monster of Norse legend – is the first stable body of surface liquid discovered off-Earth, and one of the most distinctive awe-inspiring me geographical features of Saturn’s largest moon: Titan.

Having concentrated on science fiction for my previous Posts, here is an irresistible opportunity to cover this distant geological phenomenon. Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, (named after one of the Sirens of Greek mythology), and Punga Mare, (named after the Maori ancestor of sharks and lizards) all cluster around Titan’s North Pole.

Aeons ago, a Stars and Planets book (then) reliably informed me that TEN moons orbited Saturn; now, with the amazing advances in astro-exploration and observation, the total, as of this month – stands at a staggering SIXTY TWO! As one of the most amazing wonders of the universe, two other subjects were dropped in order to accommodate this as the main topic of my latest Post.

 

A diagram showing the layout of lakes at Titan's North Pole.
A diagram showing the layout of lakes at Titan’s North Pole.

“…An exotic chemistry that could illuminate the origins of life. Titan could hardly be a more alluring destination. Surely we should be launching a boat to explore its distant shores?” – New Scientist 24 May 2014.

This intriguing episode of interstellar exploration began in March 1997, when the Huygens probe – named after Christiaan Huygens, the 17th century Dutch astronomer who discovered Saturn’s largest moon – was launched on a seven-year voyage to Titan. When Cassini reached Titan in 2004, hopes of finding reflected sunlight from the surfaces of suspected hydrocarbon lakes faded fast. Actually, at the south polar region, a dark expansive feature, which came to be known as Ontario Lacus, was the first lake of Titan to be recognised as such.

The Huygens probe landed near Titan’s equator on 14 January 2005. Although it detected no areas of liquid, a report said it “strongly indicated the presence of liquids in the recent past.” Following analysis of the moon’s surface by a penetrometer, it can be described as a “sand made of ice grains.”

On 22 July 2006, passing over the northern hemisphere, Cassini discovered a collection of large smooth areas covering the surface near the North Pole. The definitive evidence for methane-filled lakes on Titan was announced in January 2007. On 8 July 2009, the Visual & Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) picked up a dramatic specular reflection of what has been identified as Kraken Mare’s southern shoreline. 

In a photo taken in July 2009, sunlight glints off the surface of Kraken Mare
In a photo taken in July 2009, sunlight glints off the surface of Kraken Mare

“Don’t make your surfing vacation reservations for Titan just yet” – Dr Jason Barnes.

Another awesome geographical feature of saturn’s larget moon is known as the “Throat of Kraken”; it forms a narrow strait, similar in scale to the Strait of Gibraltar. With gravity much lower compared to our Earth, and the liquid less dense, the tidal current could cause whirlpools. This is apt, considering the feared Kraken’s reputation for creating whirlpools and devouring whole ships. Yet radar results reveal that Ligeia Mare is “smooth as silk” suggesting that the real Seas of Tranquility are to be found in this sector of the solar system.   

There are plans for a submersible craft to explore the geology, and the chemistry of these lakes; it would be designed to search for organic molecules and measure the isotopic mix of its chemical composition to compile data on how Titan formed and evolved.

In a more poignant twist to this astronomical tale, scientists announced on 13 February 2008, that these polar lakes contains hundreds of times more natural gas and other liquid hydrocarbons than all the oil and natural gas reserves on Earth put together. In addition, they could hold 300 times the volume of Earth’s known oil reserves. This instantly brings to mind a wild SF scenario of mega-companies racing to extract their share of the riches of Titan!

On a final note, we have to wonder how long – or how soonboundless time, money and resources will be swiftly made available to make this science fiction become science fact!

 

The Rough Guide to Dystopia

Posted: 7 June 2014

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“We shall shortly be landing in Dystopia. Please fasten your seatbelts and put your seats back in the upright position, thank you”  

One of the most enduring subgenres of modern SF is Dystopia. The definition refers to a bleak future while the name itself is derived from a classical past, i.e. Ancient Greece. “Topos” is place, while “dis” is bad – thus, we are alluding to a “bad place” (as opposed to a “utopia” which is a good place).  One of the solutions to avoid an impending dystopia – as divulged in countless SF tales – is an evacuation from Earth to colonise a planet compatible with ours.

Among the leading proponents of this view include: The Space Merchants (1953) by Frederik Pohl and Foundation (1951) and End of Eternity (1955), both by Isaac Asimov. On the big screen, this idea was last used in Oblivion.

The main problem with dystopian movies now concerns not only their monotonous rate of production, but their contents have lost their shock value; with mass unemployment, debt, climate change and a whole host of other assorted crises, Dystopia is a fast encroaching reality.

The Dystopia is already upon us
The Dystopia is already upon us

“Few writers can take much satisfaction in unrelenting pessimism, and only the most embittered have been content to paint the future utterly black… but many people have tried to map escape-routes from Dystopia” – Brian Stableford.  

One cannot help but be reminded of the scene in Blade Runner (1982) where skyships blurt out: “the chance to start again” with “opportunity and adventure.” That sounds even more tempting now; stop the world, this bunny wants to escape to those “Off-World Colonies”Eerily enough, we’re only five years shy of the date in which Syd Mead’s rain-soaked neon-lit futurescape is brilliantly realised; and we can see with the utmost dread that this Dystopia (once as far-off as it was doom-laden) looks too darned accurate.

Another way to avoid a dystopian outcome would be to forsake modern technology and all the addictive urges which it creates. You’re telling me! Having to deal with superslow and unreliable software has undoubtedly been the bane of my work, as of late, and the reason why this particular Post was not published last Friday. Grrrr…   

Yet during the post-war regeneration, the acceleration of technology was greeted by social analysts as one of the factors in attaining a better life. This might be the case for the majority of the now-gen who seemingly cannot exist without a smartphone, but for this older hack, the urge to lob this laptop outta the window appeals… 

Donald Sutherland: "I have huge admiration for President Snow" Do you embrace the dystopian vision as well, Mr S?
Donald Sutherland: “I have huge admiration for President Snow” Do you embrace the dystopian vision as well, Mr S?

“… If you take from it what I hope you will take from it, it will make you think a little more pungently about the political environment you live in and not be complacent” – Donald Sutherland (on The Hunger Games).  

A Post on this particular subject would not be complete without mentioning the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games. As Followers of this Blog will know, (part of) this movie was viewed only during a long-distance flight and it did not make for pleasant viewing. Once past the utterly absurd and pessimistic premise, the turgid script and the lame lead actors detracted my attention; left glum and disenchanted, the Off button has rarely felt so good. All circus, and no bread.

At first glance, it seems perplexing as to how and why so many teens embrace this stuff. Actually, the concept of brutal factionalised worlds governed by authoritarian entities is basically high school, opined one critic. The mash of Dystopia and oppressed younglings has been a literary combination, long before it became a twinkle in Suzanne Collins’ eye.

Donald Sutherland, the veteran star who played President Coriolanus Snow, described in one article as “a tyrant’s tyrant, with basilisk malevolence,”  viewed The Hunger Games as essentially politically allegorical, offering a “coded commentary” on inequality, power and hope.

In conclusion, despite the fast and frenetic rate of technological development, instead of creating a greater, more fulfilling, society, we suddenly find ourselves nestled in the glum dystopia of our own misguided making.   

That’s enough depressing futures for now – a preferable alternative would be to spend the rest of the evening on Youtube watching cute bunnies falling over.

Goodnight, sleep tight.

For now, "but they'll be back and in greater numbers..."
For now, “but they’ll be back and in greater numbers…”

A Wretched Hive: Those Dire and Despicable Trends of Modern Sci-Fi

Posted: 2 June 2014

 

No, Mr Cruise, that cap-n-boots combo does NOT work...
No, Mr Cruise, that cap-n-boots combo does NOT work…

“Now you see eighty people listed doing the same things I was doing by myself” – Ray Harryhausen.

Having already produced a reasonably light and mildly frothy Post about personal sci-fi faves, many of you have been wondering what annoys Bradscribe the most about the modern manifestation of the genre. Only too happy to oblige, friends!

Time to let rip and rant against those spurious and slovenly aspects that have stained and shamed SF’s good name in recent years. So, what is deterring this bunny from hopping down to his local picture-house?

Well, the first problem that springs to mind (actually it strikes me like a well-aimed Katniss arrow to the head), is Tom Cruise. No seriously, how can this inanely-grinning couch-hopping imp be allowed to inflict so many BIG yet bland movies upon us poor working people?   

For every Days of Future Past it seems we have to be inflicted with an Edge of Tomorrow… or two of them. Looking at stills from the latter, a strange sense of deja vu took hold. It seemed like this particular brand of tedium had been unleashed upon us just months before. It had, only then it masqueraded as the unfortunately-monickered Oblivion, a “solemn” & “lugubrious” late -21st century dystopian dirge. Bombarded by the double-whammy of Mr. Top Gun and a slew of unfavourable reviews, this blogger chose not to sit through it. 

A quich glance (or in this case: wince) at current & forthcoming titles suggests that the sci-fi movie outlook seems just as sparse, harsh and uninviting as the glum terrain depicted in Oblivion.  

 

Barsoom Blues: Nice aliens, shame about the humans...
Barsoom Blues: Nice aliens, shame about the humans…

“We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now” – Ray Bradbury.

There can be no more secrets in the world of movie project development; with the proliferation of the worldwide web, and all the news.com and entertainment.com sites we can eat, it is impossible, alas, to get excited by a Forthcoming Attraction anymore.

One factor which illustrates the paucity of quality in present sci-fi is the lack of decent movie stars with the charisma to pull off ambitious popcorn-fodder. A particularly damning reason why the recent John Carter fared so underwhelmingly lay in the lame non-entity chosen to play the titular protagonist; for the moment his name escapes me – not surprisingly, this bunny ain’t gonna hopalong to Google and look it up…

It does seem slightly disturbing that weak sci-fi produced around 30 years ago looks more technically adroit – certainly more entertaining – than some of the bilge churned out nowadays with notably less flair but a heckuvalot-more dollars.

There was always something more appealing about the stop-motion animation, models and visual effects of that period. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) held the SFX monopoly, offering the thrill-factor, oodles of awe and that irresistible “how-did-they-do-that?!” quality. None of the CGI currently (over)used can offer any of that appeal ‘cos we know it’s all computer-generated.

There is nothing special about these effects…

 

Don't get caught behind...
Don’t get caught behind…

“…Ever since the movies began, film makers have not been left alone by the corporations who provide the cash to make them. Film making is an art and craft – leave it to the artists and craftsmen” – Phil Edwards (1982).

Last, and by all means least, it now comes down to… this.

To make movies from comicbooks is one thing (luckily you can count me as a fan), but to derive a blockbuster franchise from… a range of toys?! Come on! That’s just nuts…

Transformers – and all its wretched sequels – must stand as the most blatant and nauseating representation of the all-important teenage boy demographic, with its copious dollops of hi-def SFX, dizzying action, and Shiz Le Beef (or whatever he’s called) – great, sci-fi’s been lumbered with yet another charmless nerk…

Hang on: Issur Danielovitch had to change his name to Kirk Douglas to get ahead, but Shia doesn’t need to? What gives? State of the movie industry today, eh? Sheesh…

In the end, of course, we are left with this cynical fact: chuck quality out the window – it’s all about putting bums on seats by offering larger & louder (flaccid & forgettable?) extravaganzas. More bang fer yer buck as it were; business is business.

…and that’s it.

What chance will my cerebral and engaging scripts get to reach the big screen? Maybe that uncomfortable compromise has to be made: better get crackin’ on that draft for Transformers VI…*

end

* No worries: Brad ain’t gonna sell out that easily, bud!