Review: The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the UniverseThe Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surprisingly trim and concise history on the period of time between Le Verrier’s discovery of Neptune and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In that interim period, a planet named Vulcan was born, lived in the minds of many, and then faded into obscurity before finally being decisively put down by Einstein many years later.

Considering the heavy topics this book covers (Newton’s theories, the discovery of Neptune, Einstein’s work, etc.), you’ll get the feeling that author Thomas Levenson is moving through the subject at warp speed. Compared to “Chasing Venus,” a book by Andrea Wulf about the early efforts to measure the transit of Venus across the sun, the effort to identify a planet between Mercury and the sun seem almost benign in comparison to that other exhaustively detailed effort. And before we’ve even had more than a few moments to consider that observational evidence wasn’t coming in, we’re jumping ahead in history to Einstein and the coup de grace.

Despite all that, it’s a great pop sci book. The existence of hypothetical planets is a fascinating topic on its own (how many people have ever even heard of such a thing as a hypothetical planet, let alone one that orbited the sun closer than Mercury?) and it’s especially relevant given astronomer Mike Brown’s announcement that there is a true ninth planet out beyond Pluto. At the moment, the Ninth Planet exists only on paper and in equations, and this book is an object lesson on all that this means; for while Neptune was discovered via the power of math and logic, so too was Vulcan inferred. Which will the Ninth Planet be? I can’t wait to find out and that’s what makes this book a great read. It’s one thing to go back and look at an interesting bit of scientific history; it’s ever so much more thrilling when you realize that we’re living through our own period of intense astronomical discovery.

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We’re Going To Mars!

I actually can’t believe this story is from four days ago and I haven’t heard anyone talking about it yet: NASA recently unveiled its timeline for the (actual) human exploration of Mars. A permenant human presence on the Red Planet! How is that not awesome?

Here’s the basic timeline: It begins with phasing out the Earth Reliant aspect of space travel, which is where we are now. The International Space Station mission will be winding down in the next few years, which is somewhat sad, but the installation is certainly getting old (it was originally launched in 1998!) and ending the ISS mission will free up NASA’s resources to focus on Mars.

After the Earth Reliant phase ends, NASA will transition to the Deep Space, and, quote, “NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples.” Redirecting an asteroid is perhaps the most metal thing I’ve read all month.

And finally, in the 2030s, NASA should be ready to send humans to Mars. We’re really going. The Orion program will take us back to the stars. (Well, figuratively speaking; the actual stars are still a long ways away).

I’m excited. This news is exciting to me and not just because, holy shit, The Martian will only be science-fiction for a few more decades (and then it will just be regular fiction). I’m excited that I’ll (hopefully) be around to see the next great achievements in human exploration. I’m excited because this feels like a real investment in spreading human life beyond our planet, a mission which will hopefully provide us with the means to spread to the rest of our solar system. In short, it’s the future that science fiction has been tantalizing us with. We’re finally going there.

A lot could happen, of course. A complete conservative takeover of the government could see NASA’s budget gutted, which would scrub the mission. But my hope is that the desire to explore the stars transcends ideological barriers. Space exploration has produced some of the country’s greatest heroes. What conservative doesn’t respect the sheer bad-ass-itude of the astronauts of the Apollo program? What progressive doesn’t savor the idea of pushing our scientific understanding to a new limit? There’s so much for us to learn out there!

I hope people start talking about this more. I hope folks get excited. Because the technology is within our reach and will only get closer, so long as we maintain the desire and the collective willpower. In 1969, we went to the moon. Let’s do something cool like that again, and let’s do it together.

Personal aside: I am 100% certain that it’s not an accident this announcement was timed to come after the success of The Martian and the announcement of water being discovered on Mars. Space is cool again!

To The (Potential) Spacefish Of Titan; Alas, We Hardly Knew Ye

Titan is my favorite moon. Well, okay, aside from our moon. There’s a lot to appreciate about our moon. It’s very pretty to look at and we do sort of owe it our existence as terrestial-based lifeforms, what with its role in creating the tides and all. So I do owe the moon quite a bit, as much as one can “owe” a celestial body.

But there are other moons in our solar system and of those non-Earth moons, Titan is my favorite.

It’s a moon with its own atmosphere! It has lakes of liquid methane on its surface! Its particular combination of dense atmosphere and low gravity means that a human on the surface of Titan could strap on a pair of wings to one’s arm and fly. You know, assuming the intense cold and/or toxic atmosphere wasn’t instantly fatal.

It’s also the most distant object we’ve ever landed a man-made object on! We have a picture of its surface!

The surface of Titan, courtesy of the Cassini-Huygens lander.

Admittedly, this is not the most impressive picture ever taken. It’s downright lame when you consider the beautiful shots that the Curiosity Rover is posting to its Twitter account!  This picture kinda sucks . . . unless you consider what it really represents.

This isn’t Mars. This is a moon in the outer solar system. It might be smudgy, it might be low res, it might be a picture of a field of rocks but this is the most distant land we’ve ever laid eyes on.

When talking about moons, the hot topic these days is the potential for life. We know that moons like Europa (around Jupiter) and Enceladus (around Saturn) have sub-surface oceans that might be just suitable to support life.

I’ve always held out hope that Titan, which also is believed to have a giant sub-surface ocean, might end up being the one, the first place in the solar system outside of Earth where we encounter life.

If I’m very, very, very honest and I admit that I’m allowing myself to dream, we’ll land a rover and find little spacefish. I realize that it’s much more likely the first definitive proof of alien life will be little microbes.

It seems a new report may have knocked Titan out of the running as a candidate for life, much to my dismay:

New research casts doubt on the possibility of finding life as we know it on Saturn’s moon, Titan. The giant ocean believed to exist below the moon’s surface has long been thought a place where life could exist . . . In a paper published earlier this month, NASA researchers say they have found evidence that the ocean could be “as salty as Earth’s Dead Sea.”

It’s possible that Titan might have had life in the past and there will be cool remains to discover. Even if there isn’t any life to be found, it’s still an endlessly fascinating place.

But if it’s as salty as the Dead Sea? There’s a reason why we call it that, after all.

And yes, I realize that even the Dead Sea does have trace amounts of microbial life. It’s still not the same. I want Titan’s oceans to be filled with crazy spacefish and weird star-plants!

The New Dwarf Planet And The Arizona Daily Star

It’s possible to be right about something and still manage to get it completely wrong. For evidence of this fascinating phenomenon, let’s look at yesterdays’s front page stories on the Arizona Daily Star. “Say hello to huge, new planet — or not:”


Forget Pluto.

A dwarf planet recently discovered at the far edge of our solar system adds evidence for the existence of a much larger body, possibly 10 times the size of Earth, orbiting far from the sun but still in our solar system.

If astronomers can track it down, we could become a nine-planet solar system once again.

The planet is theoretical for now, inferred from the influence it seems to have on this new dwarf planet and others in its vicinity.

To understand how the Daily Star got it wrong, even though the article is technically correct, we need to look at how this story is constructed.

First, what’s the actual noteworthy piece of information? A new dwarf planet was discovered in the solar system. Neat! Despite how many people denigrate dwarf planets ever since Pluto’s demotion (even the terminology looks down on dwarf planets), I think that dwarf planets are pretty cool.

For one thing, they add a lot more ladies to our celestial neighborhood. Sedna, Eris, and Haumea bring three more goddesses to the ranks of the celestial bodies, not to mention dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt. Sure, it’d be nice if we could name a few more full fledged planets after goddesses to even out the decidedly masculine solar system, but that ship may have already sailed. Maybe the first named exoplanet can be a goddess?

So the news article is about the discovery of a new dwarf planet. Very cool. The problem is that the article and the headline both make it sound like this dwarf planet is somehow confirming the existence of a huge planet out there in the black, which is something that’s been speculated on for years. From the same Daily Star article:

What’s most interesting to the astronomers is that previously found objects and some they have since discovered are equally eccentric.

They point to the influence of a giant planet that perturbed the orbits of the objects being found and then either flew off into space — or is still hiding out there somewhere.

“The evidence for it is circumstantial,” Sheppard said in a phone interview from Chile, where he is observing again on the Blanco DECam at the Cerro Tololo International Observatory.

Bold emphasis is mine. Despite the general tone of the article, despite the headline, despite the fact that the discovery of a dwarf planet is still cool science news, the article insists on making it seem like we’re actually on the verge of discovering Planet X even though the only real information on that point is a single quote that describes the evidence as circumstantial.

Here’s what Phil Plait, he of the legendary Bad Astronomy blog has to say about the possibility of a large planet lurking out there:

It’s possible that a bigger object—a proper planet-sized thing—could be out there in the Oort cloud, hundreds of AU away from the Sun, that could be affecting the orbits of these objects. If it were a giant planet like Jupiter or Saturn we would have detected it by now, so it would have to be something smaller and colder. An object the size of the Earth (or even somewhat bigger) would fit the bill. It’s an idea that’s been around for a while now.

Mind you, the evidence here is pretty thin, and as much as I’d love for there to be another planet lurking out there for us to find and study, we just don’t have enough data here to say anything either way. It’s small number statistics; we’ve found two objects with odd orbits, but it could be coincidence. We need to find a lot more OCOs like Sedna and VP113 so that the gaps in our understanding of their orbits can be filled in.

I love science news and astronomy in particular is one of my favorite subjects. It’s always been an unfortunate aspect of the real world that so much of astronomy is based in mathematics and that I’m very bad at math. My love for the stars will forever be the love experienced by the laity. Regardless, I think it’s a disservice to cover up an actual bit of interesting scientific news with this wild speculation.

I’d also like to point out that, purely for the sake of accuracy, there is one particular fact that the Daily Star article gets wrong. The article claims the new dwarf planet is:

“It is the farthest orbiting object ever detected, beating out Sedna, found in 2003 by a team led by Mike Brown of Caltech, which included Trujillo.

But that’s not accurate. As Phil Plait explains:

Let me point out that Sedna actually gets much farther from the Sun than VP113 ever does, but at their closest points VP113 is farther away. Sedna has a perihelion distance of 76 AU, VP113 is about 80.

But that’s a much more forgivable mistake, in my opinion, than the misleading headline and subsequent article. Call this one a nitpick.

Do I hope that there is a giant, Earth-sized planet lurking out there in the edge of the solar system? Absolutely! That would make for some very exciting news, to be sure. But I also believe it’s important to temper one’s speculation and focus on what’s there. Speculation is fun and fine, but it shouldn’t be the headline of the article.

This Week In Terrifying Theoretical Science

If you ever need something to cause you to reflect on the futility of life, look up “fate of the Universe” on Google and do a bit of reading. The Big Freeze, the Big Rip, the Big Crunch . . . there aren’t too many scenarios in which the Universe makes it out alive at the end of time. Even the most optimistic scenario, the Big Bounce, still ends with this universe dying so a new one can take its place.

But that’s deep time. The Big Freeze will be about 10^100 years from now, which is an unimaginably vast length of time. Even the soonest possible fate, the Big Rip, will still take 22 billion years. Nothing for us to worry about, right?

Except that maybe we won’t have to wait that long. Turns out the Universe could collapse at any moment:

Danish scientists say an expanding bubble of existential doom could crush the Universe into a tiny ball. And crazily, the odds of this collapse is higher than previously thought.

This theory isn’t actually new. But the scientists who conducted the new study say previous calculations were incomplete. Their new, more precise calculations, now show that (1) the universe will probably collapse, and (2) a collapse is even more likely than the old calculations predicted.

You can check out the article for the how and what for what a Universal collapse would actually mean, but practically speaking, it’s The End. Of everything.

That’s not the scary part. We already knew the Universe is going to die someday; current physics do not allow for a scenario in which the Universe survives forever, as mentioned before.

The scary part is that it could be happening right now:

“The phase transition will start somewhere in the universe and spread from there,” says Jens Frederik Colding Krog, PhD student at the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology (CP3) and co-author of an article on the subject that appears in the Journal of High Energy Physics. “Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe. Maybe a collapse is starting right now, right here. Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years. We do not know.”

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that if a Universal collapse is happening right now on the other side of the Universe, it would travel at the speed of light, meaning that it would take a while to reach us. On the other hand, we’d probably know about it juuuust long enough to panic and contemplate our coming demise.

So, you know, there’s that.

Actually, there is other good news; all it would take is the existence of other, currently unknown elementary particles to call the whole model of collapse into question.

Hopefully you’re out there somewhere, little particles. I rather like existing and would hate to see all of reality buckle in on itself. It would seem a rather ignominious end.


A message posted to Twitter earlier today: “I’m thinking tonight should be a movie night. Been wanting to see Gravity. Anybody interested in joining me?”

It doesn’t seem like much, just one more social invitation in a digital world that is already overflowing with events, shares, likes, and retweets. And yet it was also something else; to me, it was the attempt to continue a small, personal tradition that had gone unbroken for as long as I can remember. That tradition was this: I never go to the movie theater alone.

I’ve gone to restaurants alone. Bars. Museums. Hikes. Motorcycle rides. So many things. I am an introvert, no matter what my ability to be both loud and gregarious may indicate otherwise. Being alone is my preference most of the time. It’s easier to think when you’re alone.

Movies, however.

There was something about going to the movies that seemed to me a requirement that it be a social event. Part of it was habit; I have a little brother, which means that until a certain age, you always go to the movies with somebody else. Later on, it was one girlfriend or another, because going to movies was what one did on dates, especially in the age before legal drinking was an option.

Even after that, there are so many movies that encourage going with friends. With a comedy, it’s practically a requirement, but even a good epic sci fi or fantasy film is better when viewed with a friend.

I think it was the social component of going to a movie that made it different than watching a DVD. After the movie, there was drinks at a nearby pub or bar. There was a discussion of the movie, assuming it had enough content worth discussing. If not, there was other discussion.

My tweet was an attempt to continue a tradition. It didn’t work. If tonight was to be a “movie night” and not a “Netflix-or-Red-Box” night, I would be breaking my little streak and going it solo.

I’m glad that I did.

Gravity is a movie about being alone. It’s a movie about the powerful inexorability of the most fundamental forces of life and how they absolutely do not give a shit about our existence. Momentum doesn’t care about us. Newton’s laws don’t care about us. You get the idea. Human desire and will doesn’t matter. In space, there is only the ironclad certainty of physics.

Unless (tiny spoiler warning) you’re clever enough to bring Chekov’s gun, or in this case, Chekov’s fire extinguisher. Then you can argue with physics a little bit.

Gravity is a beautiful movie. It may or may not be a satisfyingly feminist movie; our heroine requires rescue early on, although by the end, she’s taking care of herself. It didn’t feel particularly patriarchal to me. It felt real. Others may disagree, which is fair.

More than anything, though, Gravity is a movie about being alone. Alone in space. Alone, helpless, adrift. Sometimes life feels that way, too. Not always, but sometimes.

This is a movie to see by yourself. It’s a movie that you should think about on your way back to the car. On your drive home, without music or cell phone. It’s almost impossible to find silence in today’s world and yet silence is as much the core of Gravity’s theme as solitude and desolation are.

Gravity doesn’t lend itself well to a rousing post-theater discussion over beers at the bar. It’s a movie that needs time to think and reflect: on life, on the laws of the universe, and on being alone.

Is it worth seeing?

Yes, I believe it absolutely is, although keep in mind this endorsement is coming from a guy who loves 127 Hours and gets choked up on almost any survival story. In my opinion, however, it’s worth your time, though, and your consideration.

See it by yourself, if you can. I think it’ll be better that way. And if you feel the need to talk about it, as I do, maybe write it down. Even if it’s a blog post, writing is still the most lonely form of communication we have. For this, I think that’s fitting.

Impending Galactic Collision? It’s More Likely Than You Think

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the impending collision between our galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy? Well, why not? Are you aware, sir or madame, that our two galaxies are rushing towards one another at speeds of no less than 110 kilometers per second? We’re caught on a speeding train that’s on the same track as another speeding train, except that we’re on the littler of the two trains and we’re certainly going to die. EVERYBODY PANIC.

Well, except for the fact that Andromeda is 2.5 million light-years away. But 110 kilometers a second is still pretty fast, right? It seems fast.

And it is pretty fast; at the current rate of speed, we only have 4.5 billion years to figure out how to avoid this galactic collision. That’s barely enough time for a star to form, a solar system to organize, a planet to evolve life, that life to evolve more complex life, and that complex life to develop intelligence, and that intelligence to develop the Internet. How could we possibly have enough time to figure out how to avoid this impending apocalypse?

Assuming it’s even apocalyptic, of course, since galaxies are mostly empty space and even though we use the phrase “galactic collision” and collision implies the hitting of things on other things, the reality is that the odds of any two stars physically colliding are tiny. Really, really tiny.

So, really, we don’t have anything to worry about. In 4.5 billion years, we’re going to have a kick-ass new galaxy that’s way bigger than all those other, lamer galaxies.

Assuming we aren’t all killed by a gamma-ray burst first. Space is awesome like that.

Thinking About Fermi

I’ve been thinking about the Fermi Paradox lately. Here’s the short version, if you didn’t click the link to do the background reading:

According to this line of thinking, the Earth should have already been colonized, or at least visited. But no convincing evidence of this exists. Furthermore, no confirmed signs of intelligence elsewhere have been spotted, either in our galaxy or the more than 80 billion other galaxies of the observable universe. Hence Fermi’s question, “Where is everybody?

There are a lot of possible answers to this question, some of which are more compelling to me than others. One possibility is that there’s nobody else out there, but that seems unlikely. Current evidence suggests that planets like our own are not rare; odds are good there are enough candidates out there for life.

Although it’s not the most logically compelling argument, I admit to liking the idea that we will be the first ones to the stars and that we’ll be the first to visit other worlds and other species. We haven’t heard from aliens because we’ll be the first to discover them.

A lot of speculation has been made about ancient astronauts visiting our world and guiding our technological development, but I’ve always found this idea somewhat disappointing; it strikes me as something of an insult to suggest that we couldn’t have figured out any of this shit without help from a higher power.

My admittedly flimsy justification for believing that humans might be the first intelligent species to arise in our galaxy comes from the apparent frequency of extinction events; we’ve had more than our fair share and if they’re common enough, they could explain why the clock has been reset on intelligence enough times such that nobody has beat us to the punch. Of course, that line of thinking falls into the same trap as all speculation of this sort does; we cannot assume that the conditions we experienced in our planetary history are common. We need a larger sample size before we can draw any kind of inference.

Anyway, it’s an interest thing to kick around for a while if you don’t have anything more pressing on your mind and you’re able to assess the question of “where are the aliens” in a reasonable, non-conspiratorial manner. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts; I’d love to have a discussion about this.

The Writer’s Desk: Before And After

Yesterday, I talked about my affinity for looking at other writers’ desks. I also worried about the fact that my desk was so very cluttered and messy, and what this said about the state of my brain. I resolved to clean up my work space and photograph the before and after so you can see the improvement. Well, the cleaning is done and the results are in. As promised, I took some before and after shots to chronicle the event. This will be an picture-heavy post so I’m including a page break. More below.

Continue reading “The Writer’s Desk: Before And After”