Archive for July 5th, 2005

Cometary

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PASADENA,
California — It sounded like science fiction — NASA scientists used
a space probe to chase down a speeding comet 83 million miles away and
slammed it into the frozen ball of dirty ice and debris in a mission
to learn how the solar system was formed.

The unmanned probe of the Deep Impact mission collided with Tempel 1, a
pickle-shaped comet half the size of Manhattan, late Sunday as thousands
of people across the country fixed their eyes to the southwestern sky for
a glimpse.

The impact at 10:52 p.m. PDT was cause for celebration not only to scientists
at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, but also for the more than 10,000
people camped out at Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach to watch it on a giant movie screen.

"It’s almost like one of those science fiction movies," said Steve
Lin, a
Honolulu physician.

from Wired News

It’s more like the hundreds and hundreds of Amazing science-fiction
stories and grafted twofer novels (each novel had its own cover,
which was the back of the other; when you finished the first one you
would turn the whole thing over and
upside down, and start the other) the Dowbrigade read as a kid. Only,
in most of those stories the blasting and mining took place in the asteroid
belt, as a kind of logical extension of the quest for natural resources
which has been eating up the earth since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

The idea that scientists would be blasting into the
core or a comet to see what it was made of is almost as fantastic as
the idea of solar sails pushing spacecraft to speeds in excess of those
achievable with internal combustion rockets, and with no need for fuel.
As someone who spent much of his adolescence wondering which of these
marvels we would see in our lifetime, we rated those two in the slim
to none category. We were convinced we would see humanoid robots and
flying cars first.  So much for our powers of prognostication.

On yet another level, the foray into comet excavation
before asteroid mining is promisingly symbolic. It signifies the triumph
of pure science (the comet experiment) over commercial exploitation of
outer space (asteroid mining). Of course, in the future there is space
for both, but it is nice to see what we consider the correct ordering
of priorities on the part of the government for a change.

The fact that the solar sail experiment apparently
failed and the comet cannonball gambit succeeded may be testimony to
the soundness of the underlying science or the difficulty of
a successful effort in space by anything short of a major post-industrial
national government. The days of the Wright Brothers in their bicycle
shop are gone forever.

Meanwhile, the hope behind the comet experiment seems
to be not only the hope of catching a glimpse at the infancy of the universe,
but a tantalizing clue to nothing less than the origin
of life on earth
.
For decades scientists and science fiction writers have hypothesized
that the frozen cores of the incandescent comets could be ice chests
for the propagation and delivery of the prototypical molecules and amino
acids imprinted with molecular blueprints for the development of organic
life.

In this we find ourselves, however uncomfortably, in
the camp of advocates of "intelligent design" to explain the seemingly
unique flowering of life on this planet, although rather than attributing
the grad design to a Supreme Being. Despite recent advances in origin-of-life
research, creating complex amino acids in the laboratory from the ingredients
present in the popular primordial soup hypothesis, and developing promising
theories on how the first enclosing membranes could have formed, creating
conditions necessary for the evolution of cells, the appearance of DNA
or similar information carrying structures remains a mystery.

It is not hard for us to imagine some far more ancient
and advanced, but decidedly mortal, intelligent life in some other part
of the universe seeded the galaxy with comets containing the basic building
blocks of life, knowing that most of them would wander endlessly through
the vast interstellar spaces, but that some would inevitably crash into
planets with the necessary chemical and climatologic conditions to support
the development of life.

Given the immense age of the universe, and the billions
of stars in our galaxy alone, it is more difficult for us to believe
that we are alone in the universe than to believe in the existence of
a species of intelligence as far above ours as we are to a mongoose.
As the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It seems eminently
reasonable to the Dowbrigade, among numerous others, the the magic of
life on this planet was the direct result of indirect extraterrestrial
intervention.

Why would a superior species even care about our benighted
backwater of a planet? Maybe they were lonely, and seeded the stars so
that they would have somebody to talk to in a few hundred million years.  Maybe
they belong to some weird religion that believes that life is sacred
and spreading it through the universe is the highest calling a being
can aspire to. Maybe they were bored and just wanted to see what would
happen.

Although it may be morally offensive to consider that
we may be some ET High School science project gone awry, it would explain
a lot. Whether the miraculous unfolding of life on this planet is the
work of a divine architect or of some alien artisan may have profound
theological implications, but do probably not matter much on a practical
level. Both scenarios allow for short-sighted humans to destroy their
starter-planet before they spread any further, and commit specieal suicide
fast or slow, hot or cold, pick your poison. They also both have built-in
provisions for outside interventions, either from a disappointed and
vengeful God ready to wipe the slate clean again, or from an E.T. clean-up
squad, sent around to sterilize the unsuccessful experiments before they
are allowed to spread and infect larger swaths of the spaceways.

So count us among those who hold that the idea of "intelligent
design" should be included in the scholastic curriculum – but without
any prejudicial mention of who or what that intelligence might be. And
please, no bullshit about the earth being 3,000 years old.  Only
theories which sync with the fossil record need apply. Those who hold
that the entire evolutionary sequence is the happenstance result of arbitrary
factors, a sort of evolutionary million monkeys at a million typewriters
concept, are the dreamers, godless communists probably, adrift on the
sea of science with nary a moral compass between them to navigate their
way out of the essential paradox of science; the more problems it solves,
the more problems it creates.

Still, we always wanted to be an asteroid miner…..

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