20 September 2006


I found myself at an astrobiology conference last night. Now, this is such a regular occurence in my life that it hardly bears mentioning, but it ties in somewhat with something else I stumbled across on the great big internet, and anyways I worry sometimes that people aren't sufficiently depressed.

The conference in question is Pale Blue Dot, an irregular workship series dedicated to sussing out new means of finding intelligent life in the universe, in particular the relationship of astrophysics and biological evolution. Last night, however, was mostly about how we're all going to die.

Dr. David Morrison of NASA opened with a lecture on "Cosmic Impacts and Evolution," which had a little bit to do with how asteroids killed the dinosaurs and led to the possibility for mammals to develop, and a whole lot to do with how scientists are trying to figure out how to prevent the same thing from happening to us, only they can't get the money for it. He was later joined on a panel by Dr. Jill Tarter of SETI, Dr. J. Craig Wheeler of UT-Austin and Dr. David Grinspoon of Colorado, nominally to talk about life developing as a result of cosmic turbulence, but actually to talk about how royally fucked we all are. The only thing missing was this video. (A really fascinating video, by the way, even though it is needlessly hyperbolic, with it's city-sized asteroid).

What strikes me is that nothing I heard was new to me. And I'm hardly a specialist. So I can't imagine what the actual scientists in the audience must have thought. Although I've since learned that the workshop is aimed not just at science professionals but also, even primarily, at journalists, and that makes it all a little more sensible: science reporters are remarkably stupid people, at least to judge from the vast sum of science journalism dedicated to burning questions such as "Evolution - is there any real evidence?" and "Do scientists get kicked out for believing in God?"

The panel, in a nutshell:
-Big things are out there.
-So are little things.
-It's the little things that are scary.
-I, Jill Tarter, inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in Contact, feel that science education is lacking.
-We need money to find the little things.
-Surely our quantitative findings will convince the governments of the world to get together and sing "Kumbaya" and provide all the funding we could ever want.

It's that last point that just about made me laugh. As was pointed out and ignored, we currently have a world-threatening disaster looming, with plenty of quantitative evidence, and we're ignoring the holy crap out of it. And that brings me to the other depressing thing I read yesterday, via Billmon:
Our global furnace is out of control. By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon will become a desert, and the forests of Siberia will burn and release more methane and plagues will return.
This from an interview with James Lovelock, whose previous credits include the discovery of the ozone hole. It all feels very Chicken Little-ish, but so did the ozone hole 40 years ago; the whole thing is at the Washington Post, and it's very interesting in a miserably unpleasant way.


Jack said...

Did at any point
the lyrics from William Shatner's "You'll have time"
go floating across your mind? Becuase this happened like three times to me in the two hours we spent there. And, dude, you don't want to get on Dr. Arroway's, uh, Jill Tarter's bad side. Though I think her idea about designing an entire science cirriculum around SETI, dinosaurs and explosions is great.

In all truth it's not the "little things" that are gonna kill us, it's the medium sized, a kinda cosmic catastrophe sweet spot, that poses the biggest risk... 90% of which they claimed to have eliminated by the current monitoring programs. The kinds of repeated all-sky surveys they're talking about doing with the Large Binocular Telescope, etc. which would identify lots of these smaller asteroids are also really exciting for several other facets of Astronomy, he just didn't mention any of that.

Jack said...

Thanks for that article link. I don't at all like how the Gaia hypothesis was stated in that article... sounded very much like the very unscientific and unenlightening anthropic principle.

To me it's still basically the self-evident observation that life maintains suitable conditions for life to sustain itself. It seems somewhat straightforward consequence of evolutionary theory. It's also quite self-evident that we've had very little experience with non-equilibrium bio-spheres, so if you phrase the Gaia hypothesis the right way it seems quite testable. Though it's not a test I'd want to do with us in the near future.

I also have to take umbridge with the line about having "too much delight in the mysteries of the universe to call himself an atheist." (How did you miss this Tim?) Any rational person would not be so foolish as to argue that taking away God takes away the mysteries of the universe, would they?

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

Is the consensus now that an asteroid IS what killed the dinosaurs? Because if so, it's mighty fortunate for my band, as we just recorded a song sung by that selfsame asteroid.

It's sort of carribbean.

Jack said...

The Dinosaur Love song is great. When are we gonna get to hear the rest of this album?

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

Well, as of now, Mike is recording an actual girl to sing the role of Janet, after which I'd guess there'll be one Saturday (or something) where we do one batch of recording (specifically the eight-part choral finale to the trial sequence and any additional brass choirs we decide to throw in), and then it's just mixing it down.

But it's all very exciting, if for no other reason that I go out of my way to rhyme "slander us" and "gerrymander us." I also combine specific factual flaws with inside jokes for paleontologists. It should be out by Christmas... I'll make a lot of noise when we get there.