On the Astronomical Genius of Goldilocks

In honor of social distancing, I was going to begin this post with all of the letters separated by six feet, but I figured I’d lose your attention pretty quickly. That’ll probably happen anyway. Let’s jump right to it, shall we? The Drake equation:

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

In this equation, 

  • N is the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy
  • R* is the rate at which new stars are created in our galaxy
  • fp is the fraction of stars that have planets
  • ne is the average number of planets per star that might support life
  • fl is the fraction of life-supporting planets that actually develop life
  • fi is the fraction of developed life that becomes intelligent
  • fc is the the fraction of intelligent life that sends signals into space
  • L is how long a signal-sending civilization survives and sends those signals

In the first post, we decided R* = 2 Sun-like stars added to the Milky Way galaxy per year. In the second post, we set fp = 0.99 to reflect our understanding that nearly all stars probably have one or more planets. Now we are on ne, the average number of planets per star that might support life. The little e stands for Earth, owing to that particular planet being the only one we know of that supports life.

We might consider ourselves very lucky to be on a world that supports life. But if you think about it, if Earth didn’t support life, we wouldn’t be here to be unlucky about it. Let that twist your noggin for a bit.

So how is Earth so conducive to life? To begin, let’s start with our distance from the Sun. Earth’s orbit is directly surrounded by the orbits of two other worlds: Mars and Venus. Mars is about 142 million miles from the Sun, Venus 67, and Earth 93. That difference alone is enough to lead, at least in part, to entirely different outcomes on these three planets. Mars is sufficiently farther away that it is much colder than Earth – and Venus is sufficiently closer that it is much hotter. In both cases, the situation has been exacerbated to an extreme. Mars has lost most of its atmosphere from being pummeled by solar radiation and particles – because in addition to being colder than Earth, it doesn’t have the protective magnetic field that Earth has. Meanwhile, Venus developed a runaway greenhouse effect (see this post for more on that phenomenon), leading to a surface temperature of well over 800 degrees Fahrenheit, and making it hotter than Mercury, the innermost planet (which doesn’t have an atmosphere at all).

To paraphrase the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, porridge on Venus is too hot, porridge on Mars is too cold, and porridge on Earth is just right. Our region of the solar system has therefore come to be known as the Goldilocks zone. Outside the zone, based on our understanding of the conditions necessary for life as we know it to develop, it can’t. So how big is this zone? The distance from Earth to the Sun (about 93 million miles) has come to be known as an Astronomical Unit (AU). Latest estimates suggest the Goldilocks zone for our Sun stretches from 0.99 AU to 1.7 AU. Had the Earth been formed in an orbit outside that range, we wouldn’t be here to lament it. And look at just how close we were to not being in the Goldilocks zone – about 1 percent closer to the Sun would have made the Earth too hot for life as we know it to survive. Also, doing the math, Mars is actually in the Goldilocks zone. And sure enough, there is still some reasonable debate over how much atmosphere and water Mars may have had in its past – and even whether it might at one point have harbored some form of life. But whatever happened there in the past, it has long since turned far too cold.

The single biggest reason that temperature determines whether a planet can support life is that temperature determines whether a planet can have liquid water – which is the substance within which life probably arose on Earth, and also the substance within which our cellular activities take place. By weight, most of your body is made of water. There are a handful of other major ingredients of life as we know it on Earth – and it seems the key to life forming here was that these other elements (carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur, as examples) were colocated with the liquid form of water, where they could dissolve and interact at their leisure over a period of many millions of years. There are two general types of planets: smaller, denser, rockier ones like Earth; and larger gas giants like Jupiter. It is much easier to get liquid water and other life-essential elements together on a rocky world like Earth than on a gas giant like Jupiter. So Earth has two things going for it: a good temperature to support liquid water and a nice rocky surface on which the magic of life can commence.

How many worlds have this good juju? Without looking any farther than our solar system, we could hazard a somewhat defensible guess that the average number of potentially habitable planets per solar system is 1. That would essentially be saying that our solar system is typical. But just how typical is it? For one thing, in our solar system, all of the denser, rockier planets ended up in the orbits closest to the Sun, increasing the likelihood that if a planet was going to be in the Goldilocks zone, it was also going to be a rocky planet. Is this common? There’s a line of thinking that denser planets with heavier elements are more likely to end up closer to a star as it forms, since gravity would tend to pull the heavier atoms closer to the star. But even a gas giant like Jupiter may have a rocky core at its center, and that core might still be bigger than Earth. And as far as we can tell, the arrangement of planets around other stars is all over the map.

For most of the exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) that we have discovered, our most important tool has been NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which operated in orbit from 2009 to 2018. For more information on Kepler and exoplanets in general, you should definitely have a look at exoplanets.nasa.gov. Kepler confirmed over 2600 planets, and based on those observations, it is likely that 20 to 50 percent of the stars in our galaxy have rocky planets in the Goldilocks zone. Let’s split the difference and call that 35 percent, which means we are going to say that ne = 0.35. Now, ne was supposed to tell us how many habitable planets there are around a given star, and of course you can’t have 35 percent of a planet orbiting a star. But what this math tells us is that your chance of finding a habitable planet around a given star is 35 percent – or that a little over 1 in every 3 stars has such a world in its domain.

There’s one additional complicating factor that I didn’t take into account here. We’ve only been talking about planets that could support life. But a couple of the planets in our solar system have fairly large moons which might also be able to support life – Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Titan are good examples. Europa is covered in ice, and there are indications that a vast ocean of liquid water could lie underneath. Titan looks a lot like what we think the early Earth might have. Because of its potential internal ocean, Europa looks like the stronger candidate at the moment – and if we were to make the incredible discovery of life there at some point, it would be an exception to the Goldilocks zone rule – although the fundamental reasoning behind the Goldilocks zone still applies – the formation of life is best served when liquid water can interact with other elements. Our 35 percent estimate for ne therefore might be a bit low – but we need to learn more about Europa, and NASA is planning the Europa Clipper mission to do just that sometime later in this decade. So for now, let’s leave our estimate for ne to be 0.35.

And thus progresses our version of the Drake equation:

N = 2 × 0.99 × 0.35 × fl × fi × fc × L

In the next post, we’ll dig into fl, the fraction of habitable worlds that actually harbor life. Up until now, we’ve had some pretty solid observations on a pretty grand scale to support our calculations. Since our world is the only one we know of where life has actually arisen, everything from here on out will be much more speculative. But taking a step back at what we’ve discussed so far, the chance for extraterrestrial life is looking pretty good – a couple of new stars a year, nearly all of which have planets, and a third of which have planets on which life could form. The early numbers are encouraging, as they say. “They” possibly being aliens.

Is the galaxy littered with these?

Brave New World

As society crumbles around us, we obliviously continue our tour of the Drake equation (which ironically makes more sense if you are wearing a mask):

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

In this equation, 

  • N is the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy
  • R* is the rate at which new stars are created in our galaxy
  • fp is the fraction of stars that have planets
  • ne is the average number of planets per star that might support life
  • fl is the fraction of life-supporting planets that actually develop life
  • fi is the fraction of developed life that becomes intelligent
  • fc is the the fraction of intelligent life that sends signals into space
  • L is how long a signal-sending civilization survives and sends those signals

In the last post, after much rumination and hearty chortling, we decided R* = 2 Sun-like stars added to the Milky Way galaxy per year. Now we turn our attention to fp, the fraction of stars that have planets.

Planets are among the most effective ways to illustrate how bull-headed the human race can be. Most people have heard of Copernicus – more completely, Nicolaus Copernicus, who in the 16th century advanced the notion that the Earth and all the other planets in our solar system revolve around the Sun. Up until that time, the prevailing view espoused by Ptolemy all the way back around the year 150 A.D. – the idea that everything revolves around the Earth. Now – first of all, of course we all happily accepted the notion that everything revolves around us. We are dumb that way. But also of course, one of the driving points of this series of blog posts is to illustrate just how ordinary we are, and it turns out the universe agrees – so the Earth and all the other planets in our solar system revolve around the Sun. It wasn’t just that we hadn’t thought of such a scenario, either. Aristarchus of Samos – in the 3rd century *B.C.* – had already figured out how things really work. But it just doesn’t stroke the human ego enough, and so yada yada yada, Roman Empire rises and falls, Dark Ages, witch burnings, and boom, Copernicus re-figured it out almost two millennia later.

Regardless of our abject confusion about what they revolve around, we’ve known since ancient times that the planets are different from all those other points of light we call stars. The stars are ridiculously far away, and so even though they are in fact traveling at breakneck speeds through space, they look like they are standing still during the extent of any human lifetime. But the planets in our solar system – even though they are many millions of miles away – are far closer than the stars, and so we can actually see them move. We are also moving, being on a planet of our own – and the end result of all that motion is that the planets appear to wander about the sky from our perspective – and in fact that is exactly what the word “planet” means – wanderer.

Five planets can be seen with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. We have therefore been watching these little critters for quite some time. After Copernicus literally changed the world, the brilliant astronomer Galileo Galilei took the next steps – building not just on Copernican theory but also on the work of a Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey who designed the first telescope. After creating his own telescope, Galileo showed us illustrations of the planets we had never seen, making them real worlds in our view for the first time. As telescopes advanced, more planets were discovered – Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

In the 1960’s, not long after we had first sent spacecraft into Earth orbit, we began sending them to the other planets in our solar system. In the 1970’s, we landed a couple on Mars (the Viking missions). In the 1980’s, the two Voyager probes toured the giant outer planets on their way to interstellar space. In the 1990’s, we began to detect planets around other stars – and since then, we have discovered over four thousand of them. We have quickly gone from wondering if other stars had planets to realizing that most of them probably do.

In fact we have also discovered a vast array of other small worlds that orbit our Sun. We’ve known for some time about the asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter – and some of them are quite large. But there is also an unthinkably large (and sparse) cloud of little planetoids orbiting far beyond Pluto. The sum result of these findings, as well as the discovery of Pluto’s moon Charon which is not much smaller than Pluto itself, led to the demotion of Pluto to the status of “dwarf planet” in the 2000’s. This upset a lot of people, of course (and probably had no effect whatsoever on Pluto) – but the point really should be this: the solar system is simply loaded with large objects, many more of which are planet-sized than we had ever known. The discovery of thousands of planets beyond our solar system only underscores the point: worlds are probably quite common in our galaxy. So how does that come to be?

Thanks for asking. When we last left our fledgling star in the previous post, it had just achieved a state of zen, where gravity was causing it to collapse on itself, but nuclear fusion was generating enough energy to push back. We had been viewing the whole process as a shrinking ball of gas, but things are always a bit more complicated than that. The atoms that steady accumulate in the formation of a star aren’t all headed toward its center when they first start to get pulled in – they’re generally moving in all kinds of directions, which leads to a big swirling mess. Over time, just as gravity is pulling the star in on itself, it steadily kneads and flattens the swirl into a disk of material spinning around a single axis. You know how Saturn looks, right, with those rings spinning around a big ball? Well, most infant solar systems probably look something like that too – although the disk is spread out over a far greater distance than Saturn’s rings – so imagine huge rings spinning around a tiny ball. Eventually, just as the clumpy universe led to the star, clumps in the disk often accumulate into planets, until the planets eat up just about all of the disk, and you never knew there was a disk in the first place.

We understand this process fairly well – and now that we’ve seen thousands of worlds out there… wait a second, how do we know there are thousands of worlds out there? Well – there are a few ways to find them. In 1992, the first planet outside our solar system (also known as an exoplanet) was discovered orbiting a pulsar. Pulsars are the remnants of incredibly massive stars that ended their lives in equally massive explosions called supernovas. During those final death throes, these stars collapse at an incredible rate – and just as Carl Sagan so eloquently explained in his Cosmos series, like a figure skater pulling her arms in and spinning ever faster, these stars do the same thing, until they are spinning many times a second. As they spin, they emit pulses of radiation that we can detect on Earth – leading to their ingenious moniker “pulsar”. Pulsars spin at a constant rate, but in 1992, we noticed some subtle deviations in that rate for the pulsar affectionately named PSR B1257+12 (which I believe is also the name of Elon Musk’s next child). Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail determined that the deviations were caused by one or more planets orbiting the star. It turns out this particular pulsar has three planets – and since then only four other planets have been found around pulsars. The rest have been found around relatively more “normal” stars. The dominant methods for detecting planets include the transit method – where the star’s light dims ever so slightly as a planet crosses in between the star and Earth – and the radial velocity method (or “wobble” method), where astronomer’s look for Doppler shifts in the star’s light (similar to the shift in sound that causes a train to seemingly drop pitch as it races by).

Ok – so we understand quite well how planetary systems form around stars, and we have observed thousands of them over the course of just a couple of decades. So it would seem that the piece of the equation we are after here – the fraction of stars that have planets – is probably pretty high. Multiple studies have suggested there are exoplanets around every star and/or that there is at least one planet for every star in the galaxy. So it is probably fair to say that fp is very nearly 100% (also known as a fraction of 1). Let’s go ahead and account for those lonely stars that may pop up here and there with nary a planet to be seen – and conservatively say that fp = 0.99. We have made yet another baby step of progress on our equation:

N = 2 × 0.99 × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

In the next post, we will take a closer look at ne – a guess at how many of all these planets are capable of supporting life. In the mean time, a toast to all you crazy planets out there – may you never stop spinning.

Here’s looking at you, orb.

A Star is Born

Welcome to the first stop on our tour of the Drake equation, one way to estimate how many extraterrestrial civilizations might be out there and able to communicate with us. To sum up from a couple of posts ago:

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

In this equation,

  • N is the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy
  • R* is the rate at which new stars are created in our galaxy
  • fp is the fraction of stars that have planets
  • ne is the average number of planets per star that might support life
  • fl is the fraction of life-supporting planets that actually develop life
  • fi is the fraction of developed life that becomes intelligent
  • fc is the the fraction of intelligent life that sends signals into space
  • L is how long a signal-sending civilization survives and sends those signals

The jury is still out on whether we are intelligent, but we have managed to send detectable signals into space, so we know N is at least 1.

Today, we discuss R*, the rate at which new stars are created in our galaxy.

Our Sun seems like a constant, and for all practical purposes, to a human being, it is. During the time between your first and last breaths, nothing that you experience of our Sun changes in any appreciable way. It’s bright, it’s hot, and it has what appears to be an immutable daily routine. But it does also have a lifetime of its own, and that includes a tumultuous birth around five billion years ago. All stars are born from a combination of gravity and nuclear fusion, and the vast majority of their lifespans consist of a delicate balance between the two. So how does it all begin?

To start, our universe is clumpy. This may sound vague or even slightly insulting, but while a less clumpy universe would have been far more elegant, it would also have been far less interesting. Because the universe is clumpy, atoms will occasionally get close enough together to attract each other through a mutual pull that we call gravity. The mutual part is an important thing to remember when you’re thinking about gravity (and I know you do that all the time) – gravity is a mutual attraction between any two objects with mass (“stuff”). So you are pulling on the Earth just as surely as the Earth is pulling on you. It’s just that the Earth is a tad bit bigger, so our perception is that the Earth is doing all the pulling.

In the case of atoms in space, if gravity brings them close together, their combined mass pulls harder on everything around them, which in turn creates a larger mass, which attracts more atoms, and I presume you get the picture. It’s kind of like the way beaches were before the pandemic, or the way beaches are for idiots during the pandemic. The more there are, the more there are. Eventually, you get a huge collection of atoms pulling each other closer, and increasingly more likely to run into each other, and the resulting energy of those collisions makes them go faster, and then they run into each other some more, and that is essentially the definition of a rising temperature.

So now you’ve got this ball of gas – usually overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen, getting denser and hotter and collapsing upon itself. Gravity doesn’t stop no matter how close two objects get to each other, so if there were no other forces at play, this ball of gas would just continue shrinking upon itself until it vanished into an infinitely dense point, known in nerd circles as a singularity. And again, that would be rather elegant and simple, but also not conducive to an interesting universe.

Fortunately for us, there are other forces at play. At the heart of every atom is a nucleus – some combination of protons and neutrons. Most hydrogen atoms are composed of only a single proton, but some atoms of hydrogen and all atoms of any other substance are composed of two or more protons and/or neutrons. They are held together by what physicists call the strong force. You have to push protons and neutrons very close together to get that force to kick in, but once it does, it overpowers all other forces of nature. So, as a ball of hydrogen gas shrinks upon itself, eventually the atoms get close enough to each other that the strong nuclear force takes hold, and the protons and neutrons fuse together. When this happens, they release a tremendous amount of energy, further heating the shrinking ball of gas. At a certain point, the energy released by the fusion of atoms creates a temperature so high that it balances the force of gravity that caused the shrinking in the first place, and the ball of gas stops shrinking. Nuclear fusion also makes the ball of gas so hot that it radiates visible light, and with that, a star is born.

Now that you’re an expert on star formation, all we have left to do is figure out how frequently this happens in our modern age. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t know where to begin. Fortunately, there are people who do this kind of thing for a living, combining observations of the stars we can see with our maturing physical understanding of how stars are born, how long they survive, and how they eventually die. When you put it all together, the estimates seem fairly consistent: an average star like our Sun is born somewhere in our galaxy between one and three times each year.

I can’t put “between one and three” in an equation. Fortunately, there’s a thing between one and three known as two – and so we’re going to use that. R* = 2. Anytime you can replace a letter in an equation with a number, you’ve made some progress. So let’s kick back, crack open an ice cold beverage, and take in the view of our slightly less ambiguous calculation for intelligent life in the Galaxy:

N = 2 × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

The next post will zero in on fp – the fraction of stars that have planets. But for now, it’s kind of cool to think about the notion that a couple of times each year, a star is born somewhere in our galaxy. Combine that with our current life expectancy, and the majority of Americans can rest assured that over a hundred stars will be born during their lifetimes in our galaxy alone. The numbers become insane when you extrapolate to other galaxies, but the nearest major one of those is two million light years away, meaning any signal we might receive from there was sent long before human beings existed as a species. So it’s probably ok to keep our focus on the Milky Way for now. Even doing that – once or twice a year, somewhere in our galaxy, a star like our Sun ignites into existence, with the potential for planets, life, intelligence, technology, and blogs.

Damn, that’s a lot of blogs.

Aren’t they cute?

Virtual Facepalm

Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the search for extraterrestrial life soon here at the machine. But first, to quote Inigo Montoya, “lemme splain… no, there’s no time, lemme sum up…”

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard someone say about this little coronavirus situation, “there’s just so many different stories out there, I don’t know who to believe.” First, lemme translate: “I don’t want to believe that this is as bad as everyone is saying, so I’m going to eat it up from people that are telling me what I want to hear.”

Second: all of us are guilty from time to time and to varying extents of listening to something from one media outlet or another, and drawing our own conclusions without checking anywhere else. And if we go to the effort of hearing a competing outlet’s story, it’s likely to be quite different, to say the least. So let’s just say there really are people out there that are confused about who to trust. If I wanted to get reliable information about diseases and how best to control their spread, where would I want to go? If only there were a national center devoted to such a thing, employing people who have spent years learning about diseases and how they spread. If I were President, I would establish such a center for times just like these, and I’d call it… let’s see… maybe something like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oh wait…

The notion that people who have devoted their lives to a certain trade will tend to become better at it than people who haven’t devoted their lives to that same trade is not exactly mind-stretching. If you want your hair cut, do you go to someone who’s trained for that, or do you ask a dentist to do it? When people on TV talk about the economic impacts of COVID-19, don’t their opinions usually hold more water with you when they are economists or successful business leaders? If you were going to have open heart surgery, would you want a trained surgeon who’d done it before, or some random person who posts “nobody knows what the hell is going on” on Facebook? So why do we not trust an agency dedicated to the control and prevention of diseases to have some of the better ideas about the control and prevention of COVID-19 than, say, a talking head? Yeah – funny how we trust the experts *sometimes* but not *all* the time.

Last year, when the President took a Sharpie to our weather enterprise, I recommended he might be better off delegating that responsibility to folks who, I don’t know, studied atmospheric physics at some point in life. This is no different. When I want to know what’s real and what’s not regarding our latest understanding of the COVID-19 crisis, I’m not going to listen to a press briefing – or frankly any politician or news outlet. I’m going to visit the CDC website and read it from people who’ve forgotten more about disease control since breakfast than I’ve learned my entire life. The only reason not to is to think they are part of some conspiracy.

And therein lies the embarkation point for far too many of us. I don’t like what I’m hearing, so not only am I going to put it on equal ground with arguments that don’t hold anywhere near as much water, I’m going to drown it out with a blanket dismissal, along with everything else that doesn’t match my expectations or my world view. Such a view of the world is sufficiently encased in stone that I will not be able to sway its subscribers, no matter what I say. So in lieu of advancing the conversation in any way, all I can ask is that we all show some semblance of respect for people everywhere doing what they do best, and focus our individual efforts on whatever best applies our individual talents. Mine is ending blog posts with pictures that someone else drew or took.


The Search for Intelligent Life

This is not a coronavirus post. You’ve seen and heard enough of that by now. I’ve seen and heard enough of that by now. So I thought I’d abruptly change the subject to one of the most fundamental questions of human existence: are we alone in the universe? I suppose social distancing might be making some of us feel that way. Sorry, I promised this would not be a coronavirus post.

There are really two levels to the question of whether life exists elsewhere. The first level is whether it exists at all elsewhere – even if it’s entirely confined to bacteria and algae. Of course, the most powerful living thing on Earth right now is not even a living thing, it’s a virus. Sorry, I keep forgetting this is not a coronavirus post.

The second level of the question is whether intelligent life exists elsewhere – meaning life that has become self aware, able to communicate amongst its individual beings, and possibly even able to communicate or travel beyond its home planet. I’ve generally been uncertain about whether intelligent life actually exists here, on Earth. Recent events have convinced me it generally does not. If it did, people would not be saying things like “this is no different from the flu” and “I just realized in early April that it can spread from people with no symptoms”. Dammit, there I go again.

Fine. It’s a coronavirus post. One thing I was hoping would happen amidst this pandemic is that it would bring our polarized world closer together as we fight a common enemy. Unfortunately, it has done just the opposite. In particular, red and blue states have never been redder or bluer. Put more directly, rural and urban have never been more rural or urban. The way viruses spread is a very big reason: there are more people in urban areas, and more of them are also closer together more often. That means it’s going to do its worst damage in cities, leaving many people who live in suburbia or on a farm to wonder what the big deal is.

So I was wondering, what would it take to bring us all together against a common enemy? And then I thought, what if a hostile alien civilization attacked our planet? For certainly that would be indiscriminate enough to convince us that we shouldn’t be attacking each other anymore. Nor should we be wasting our time looking for reasons to ignore the threat. Yet as the idea gained momentum in my mind, I thought about it a little more, and suddenly I couldn’t get “Independence Day” out of my head, where the invaders attack all the major cities first, so people in Montana would probably – again – be wondering what the big deal is, and now I’m back to square one on this post. Or am I? But maybe the most important point to all of this is that I started each sentence in this paragraph with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions.

If that doesn’t set me up for a Pulitzer, then the whole system is rigged.

Ok back to the search for intelligent life, and why it’s more important to humans than we might think. At this very moment, I am remembering all the way back to Sunday evenings in my childhood, when I first heard Carl Sagan talk about the search for intelligent life as part of the “Cosmos” series. The point of it all wasn’t some philosophical discussion – nor was it a way to gauge our fear of being attacked. It was about hope. Not hope of meeting another species in and of itself, but hope that we can get through this ourselves. The coronavirus is just the latest threat to our species as a whole. The virus alone won’t extinguish us, but you can probably see that if societies don’t deal with it properly, they could break down to the point where we find another way to go off the rails. And imagine if an even more lethal disease like Ebola were to become as infectious as COVID-19.

More broadly speaking, viruses are just one kind of threat that can rise to a global scale. Nuclear war and climate change are some wonderful man-made examples. But we could do everything right, and still be wiped out by a gamma ray burst or a hurtling rock from the depths of space. Or a hostile alien race could arrive and discover that Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, Randy Quaid, and Bill Pullman are no longer able to protect us quite as well as they could in the mid 90’s.

So it’s fair to wonder, not only is there life elsewhere, and not only has that life become intelligent, but has it managed to survive all these threats? And this is where we turn to Drake.

No, the other one.

I’m talking about Frank Drake, an American astronomer and astrophysicist who created a mathematical equation in 1961 that has spurred rigorous debate ever since. The Drake equation is a framework for debating the likelihood that other civilizations exist in the galaxy with a sufficient level of technology that they could communicate with us (and others).

Here is the equation in all of its glory:

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

In this equation, N represents the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. Since we have been transmitting television signals into space for many decades now, we are one of those civilizations. So we know N is at least 1. To determine if it is any higher than that, we have to calculate and multiply all of the other items to the right of the equal sign. The next several posts on this blog will go through each of those items in detail, but for now, here is what they are:

R* is the rate at which new stars are created in our galaxy

fp is the fraction of stars that have planets

ne is the average number of planets per star that might support life

fl is the fraction of life-supporting planets that actually develop life

fi is the fraction of developed life that becomes intelligent

fc is the the fraction of intelligent life that sends signals into space

L is how long a signal-sending civilization survives and sends those signals

There are a number of criteria one could develop to determine if a civilization is intelligent. It is difficult to imagine an intelligent civilization not being able to do math. So it is fitting that we can use math to determine just how many intelligent civilizations there might be. Math can be quite scary, as those who have actually done the math for COVID-19 have discovered. But math can also give us hope. In either case, it makes us more aware, and that’s certainly a start.

Seems straightforward to me.

What Would You Say

First of all, before I get to the real subject of this blog post, let’s all agree on one thing. “What Would You Say” is one of the best songs EVER. Of the thousands of songs in my purchased music library, there are only a few where I NEVER skip to the next song when they start playing. This gem by the Dave Matthews Band is one of those songs. If you don’t agree with me, then I think maybe we can’t be friends. Some things are simply too important.

Do those last couple of sentences sound like our modern world of politics? Of course they do. Seemingly every day, we find a new way to explode into further division, and all too often, our President is the one to light the match. The latest such incident occurred when NBC reporter Peter Alexander asked a question that, prior to 2016, would have been considered a softball by anyone on either side of the aisle:

“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?”

This is what the President said (I listened to the clip and wrote it down):

“I say that you are a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re sending out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism.”

So first, analyst of all things that I am, let’s break that down. The President said he would say to Americans that we are all terrible reporters. Well that makes me feel like he’s talking right over my head – I’m not a reporter at all, although I’m sure if I were, I’d be a terrible one. The bad signal thing, I’m not really sure where to start with that – perhaps someone cut off the Presidential limo on the way to the press conference after signaling they were turning the other way.

But then there’s the second to the last sentence, and that’s the one that intrigues me the most. It’s basically restating what Mr. Alexander was getting at in the first place. Many of us ARE scared (even if YOU aren’t), and many of us ARE looking for answers and for hope. So what would YOU say to THOSE people?

Let me rewrite that a second so it’s now clear that I am speaking directly to you, the reader of this blog post: what would YOU say to those people?

What if I asked every adult American with the ability to speak, what would he or she say to scared Americans right now? I would fully expect millions of unique takes on that. But how many would answer with “you’re a terrible reporter”? Is that how YOU would answer? And to be fair, think back to before the actual question was even asked and the actual response was even given – before it would have even occurred to you to respond with “you’re a terrible reporter”. If I were President – a truly horrifying concept for everyone involved, here is how it might have gone down:

“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now, who are scared?”

“I would say that this virus has offered us an opportunity to do something that seemingly nothing else could – a chance to break through our divisions and recognize we are all Americans, and we are all fighting this common foe. And I would say we have a long way to go before we win this fight – but we will win it. I want the American people to know that their Government is doing everything it can to protect them from this threat, and that it will continue to do so until the threat has been mitigated. We have the greatest health care workers in the world, the strongest medical research community in the world, and the most resilient people in the world. We will prevail, because we are the greatest nation on Earth.”

I even threw a couple of “Murica” sentences in there at the end, because dammit, that’s what many of us want to hear right now. Don’t make us promises nobody can keep, don’t give us specifics nobody can predict, just tell us we’re awesome and we’ll get through this. If ever there was a time for rah-rah speeches devoid of real content, that time is now.

What would YOU say?

Here’s what Dave Matthews would say:

“I don’t understand at best. I cannot speak for all the rest. Every dog has its day. Every day has its way of being forgotten. Rip away the tears. Drink a hope for happy years. And you may find a lifetime’s passed you by. Everyone goes in the end. Don’t cut my life line.”

What would YOU say?

If you a monkey on a string?

That’s a thick string but you get the point.

Ma Ma Ma My Coronavirus

So here I am again, apologizing for not having posted in a while. I’d love to say it’s because my day job is interfering again. But actually what happened is I contracted the coronavirus and succumbed to it. I was THIS close to figuring out what that bright light was, and then I realized I forgot to turn off the iron, and by the time I took care of that, the dimensional rift was closed, and so here I am. Again.

Disclaimer: I did not contract the coronavirus (that I know of), and I did not die (that I know of), and I did not resurrect (no deity would ever agree to that, so I’m certain of that one). I did, however, forget to turn off the iron. Fortunately it has an auto-shutoff feature.

Everybody else is talking about the coronavirus, so I figured I might as well get in on the action. Before I proceed, I need to remind you to take the necessary precautions. Since the coronavirus is all over this article, please wash your eyes thoroughly before reading. Please also disinfect the mouse pointer and individually scrub each pixel on your screen. Please do not let the words in this blog post gather in a public space, and if you’re drinking a martini while reading, please make sure that it is fist bumped, not shaken.

Our world was polarized before this virus hit. And only in such a world could a virus get politicized. There could not be a more apolitical organism (can I even call it that?) than a virus. It will hijack the reproductive machinery of any cell, with no discernment for political party, gender, religion, or predisposition toward pineapple on pizza (boom).

I’ve heard and even made the argument that this virus is no worse than the flu, which has admittedly killed far more people. But the flu is already far more widespread and has had far more time to do its dirty work. I’ve also heard and even made the argument about only 2% of us actually being as risk – primarily the elderly and people with existing health conditions. But therein lies another difference between the coronavirus and the flu: the coronavirus kills a lot more at-risk people. And that alone ought to be enough to convince you that health organizations are not going overboard at all in response to this virus. I had tickets to the Frozen Four College hockey tournament in Detroit, which has now been closed to fans. So yeah, I’m disappointed. But I also have an 89-year-old mother who would probably not survive the coronavirus. Which should be more important? And why should the answer change when we raise it to the level of our entire society? We all know and love somebody in the 2%.

Meanwhile the President is telling us Europe and Mexico are the reasons we have any specks of coronavirus in America.

Instead of lashing out and looking for an enemy to blame (like we do in response to just about everything we don’t like), we should take this opportunity to recognize the real lesson from all of this: our perception of ourselves as the dominant species on Earth is arrogance at its extreme.

In 1897, H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” was published. You will have difficulty finding a more incredible literary response to two (at the time) fairly recent developments in our understanding of the universe around us: the first detailed map of the planet Mars, and newfound insight into how vulnerable we are to creatures too small to be seen with the naked eye. Wells’ Martian invaders were profoundly more advanced than us, and they quickly pushed us to the point of extinction before falling prey to microscopic warriors.

Viruses are the ultimate suicide bombers. Not only do they not care, they don’t even not care. They’re not even alive. In fact, for something that small and uncaring and unalive, they are remarkably accomplished. I don’t think viruses get enough credit for the impact they’ve had on the world. Perhaps this latest virus is just the embodiment of a protest.

This is nothing new, either. We have routinely fallen prey to things without brains, throughout our history, at rates that make wars look like child’s play. The Black Death. The Spanish Flu. Tide Pods. We like to think we are all that. But we are not even some of this.

And so it shall pass, that we will survive the coronavirus, and eventually even our economies will fully recover, and life will return to its arrogant equilibrium. And then an asteroid will smash us to pieces.

Is that a virus or a rock?

Zeroes and Ones

The smallest possible bit of information about the world is known as, well, a bit. Computers are based entirely on that fundamental notion – that the entirety of anything we need to do can be built upon a series of yes/no questions and answers. A bit can have one of two values – zero or one. It’s equivalent to on or off, up or down, left or right, pineapple on pizza or no pineapple on pizza (yes I’m going to continue to use that one until far beyond when I should).

Each of the characters in the sentence I am typing is composed of eight bits – eight sets of on/off settings. If you do the math, that leads to 256 possible values, which is more than enough to cover the number of letters and numbers that can be selected in an English language blog post, as well as all the necessary punctuation.

The way we view the world should be at least as expressive, and yet it is not. Imagine if we each had even just eight sets of yes/no questions that defined our political views, the combinations of which would lead to 256 different political “parties”. And yet we only have two such parties, and the answer to that one yes/no question automatically defines the answers to the other seven, whether we like it or not.

As I type this, the impeachment trial is underway for President Trump. But I already know the outcome, as do you and anyone else that pays attention to American politics. The same could be said for the House vote to impeach him in the first place. Everything goes along party lines. The only choices are zeroes and ones. Oh sure, there are exceptions. A few Democrats voted against impeachment, for example. But that was not for some noble cause to broaden our minds. It was because those lawmakers were afraid of the singular opposing party voting them out of office. If any Republicans vote to remove Trump from office, it will ultimately be for the same reason. And the fact that Trump is President at all owes to the same foundation – at the end of the day, people vote for one party or the other.

Look back at every election in recent memory. Both candidates get over 40% of the vote even in a “landslide”. That means a good 90% of the election was decided before the primaries – whoever was going to be the Democrat was going to get 40+% and whoever was going to be the Republican was going to get 40+%. The election itself then gets routinely decided by what we call “battleground” states, whose apparent distinction from the rest of the country is that their truly independent voters can’t get the fence post out of their backsides until the morning of the election.

Think about this for a second. A President who said as a candidate that he could shoot somebody and still get the votes was completely right. There is no threshold beyond which a party-line voter won’t vote for their candidate. And 90% of us are party-line voters. Why do we even have debates? Why is the election cycle so ridiculously long when 90% of it is set in stone? Couldn’t this all be done in the course of a couple of weeks at most? We like to pretend that there is some noble process of confronting the issues of the day and whittling down to the two best choices we can possibly make, but let’s face it – any two people will do for 90% of us.

The other 10% of us are, to be sure, intriguing people. Perhaps they really do try to employ the full eight bits of information and calculate where they stand. But because there are relatively so few of them, the end result of those people’s choices end up looking completely random against the backdrop of the other 90%. And then there are the equivalent of greater than 100% that don’t even vote. Do they view the world in eight bits? And if so, what have they discovered that convinces them they should leave the election to the one-bit voters that pick our President every damned time?

As we careen toward the inevitable conclusion of the impeachment trial and the 2020 election cycle that follows, let’s stop pretending, if only for a moment, that American politics is anything more than zeroes and ones. Who knows, you might find it opens the door to a whole universe of new ways to waste your time.

A listing of the first 45 Presidents of the United States.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The Question of the Year

So – yeah, day job siphoned away my free time again this past month – sorry about that. But now that Christmas is fading into the rear view mirror, and as we count down the final days of the decade, I thought it would be good to…

Wait a second, back up a bit. Are we counting down the final days of the decade? Work with me on this.

It seems fairly obvious to most of us that we’re counting down the final days of the decade. On January 1, it would seem safe to say that the 2020’s will begin. The last time we had some Twenties, we decided they were Roaring. Will these next Twenties roar? Maybe. But do they really start on January 1, 2020? Let’s follow that thread for a moment.

If the 2020’s begin on this coming January 1, then the 2010’s began on January 1, 2010. And the 2000’s began on January 1, 2000. And so on and so forth through the past centuries, until you get nearly all the way back to the beginning of the years A.D. So the 10’s started on January 1, 10. But that would mean the 0’s started on January 1, 0. And now we have a problem. There was no year 0. The last year B.C. was 1 B.C., and the first year A.D. was 1 A.D. That means if the next decade starts on January 1, 2020, then by extrapolation the first decade A.D. only had nine years in it (years 1 through 9) – basically a complete failure as a decade. Ergo, the 2020’s have no choice but to officially start on January 1, 2021.

If you don’t like that, centuries are even worse. The first century started in the year 1, and having 100 years in it like any good century should, ended on December 31, 100. The second century started on January 1, 101. Extrapolating forward, the 20th century started on January 1, 1901, and the 21st century started on January 1, 2001.

If you don’t like that, millennia are worse still. Despite all the fanfare and hoopla we put into New Year’s Eve in 1999, we were basically a year early in our celebration of the new millennium, which didn’t start until January 1, 2001.

All of this, of course, roots back to our decision at some point to establish the transition point from B.C. to A.D., and at this point I need to clarify “our” refers to Western Christian-centric civilization and its associated calendar system. Astronomical, Buddhist, and Hindu calendars are all examples of systems that do in fact have a year 0. So why did those calendars have a year 0 while “ours” doesn’t? A big part of the reason is that the whole A.D. thing was introduced when Roman culture still had a significant influence on the world, and there is no zero in Roman numerals. The history of zero even as a concept is a fascinating subject all its own, and maybe that’ll be the subject of a future post here. But for the purposes of this post, in 525, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus established that it had been 525 years since the birth of Christ, and the world effectively shrugged its shoulders, and that’s what our nation and many others accept to this day when keeping time.

Fortunately, we have not had occasion as yet to worry about when the first ten thousand years A.D. have elapsed. There is no official term in the English language for that number of years, but the Japanese have a word for it: banzai. And one day, thousands of years from now, assuming we haven’t exterminated ourselves as a species, I am fairly certain our descendants will all wrongly celebrate the beginning of the second banzai on January 1, 10000.

Cheers! Can’t believe it’s only a year and change until the next decade starts.

Why on Earth Not

First, apologies for the delay in getting this post out. To my great dismay, I am not yet making enough money off this blog to quit my day job, which decided to consume a bit more of my time in recent weeks. But enough excuses, here we go. In the past six posts, we’ve basically gone over the following…

Everything can absorb energy in the form of photons, and therefore heat up to some degree (no pun intended). Everything with a temperature above absolute also emits energy in the form of photons, which can in turn be absorbed by other things. Air is a thing, so it absorbs and emits photons too, making our Earth warmer than if it didn’t have an atmosphere. Clouds reflect some of the Sun’s photons but also absorb the ones emitted by you and me, arriving at some sort of balance in the grand scheme of things. Liquid water absorbs a lot of photons and heats up, but ice reflects a lot of them and stays relatively cool. But if you float a piece of ice in water that’s getting warmer and warmer, the ice will melt, and the resulting water will absorb more photons and heat up accordingly. When we dig into the ice that hasn’t melted yet, we find strong evidence the Earth has been warming rapidly in the last couple of centuries, and other ways of measuring Earth’s temperature over the past several decades have confirmed that. The warming is strongly correlated with the concurrent rise in concentrations of gases that we have been pouring into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. Changes in global sea level from melting ice in the polar regions further confirm these trends. Our best and brightest minds have created sophisticated models that accurately predict the present from the past, and are therefore reasonably reliable about predicting the future from the present. And if we continue to burn fossils fuels at our current rate, the models all agree the consequences will be severe.

That’s climate change in one paragraph.

Suppose you don’t believe the models, even though there’s no reason to doubt them on general trends. You still have to contend with a planet that’s getting warmer. Suppose you don’t believe it’s getting warmer, even though it clearly is. Well, the most reliable force in the universe – the desire to make money – disagrees with you. As just one of countless examples you can find with minimal Googling, consider the winemaking industry. Grapes like a little bit of Sun, but they don’t like scorching heat. As temperatures rise at lower latitudes, the conditions become less ideal for growing top quality grapes. One solution to this problem is to start growing them at higher latitudes – and that is exactly what French winemakers have been doing for years now – buying up land in southern England. Assuming that’s not just a precursor to a future invasion, the French would not be spending their money doing this if climate change wasn’t real. It’s not just money either – the French have a great deal of national pride, so why on Earth would they make themselves more dependent on England if they didn’t feel overwhelmingly compelled to do so?

Suppose the climate wasn’t changing at all, even though it is. Let’s talk about the energy industry, which is often (and sometimes rightfully) blamed for slowing acceptance of reality. First, if I may digress (of course I may, this is my friggin’ blog), why are some people so opposed to advancement only when it comes to how we generate energy? We all happily lap up the advances in computing technology that have converted powerful computers from room-filling mainframes to PCs to phones to smart watches. But a sizeable chunk of us are perfectly content to accept that the only way to generate energy is by burning stuff. Meanwhile, a vastly more efficient resource visits us on a daily basis – literally like clockwork. The Sun has been churning out the energy required to keep Earth warm and livable for billions of years. Solar radiation itself – in the form of those pesky little photons – provides a direct source of energy, but the Sun also heats our atmosphere to drive the wind. Meanwhile, the technology to harness solar and wind energy has advanced tremendously in recent years, to where it makes just as much economic sense to the energy companies to make the switch as it does for consumers. And in fact energy companies have been major players in advancing those technologies. Why on Earth would they be investing in solar and wind if it didn’t make them money in return?

Suppose continuing to burn stuff was the best way to go, even though it isn’t. Here’s the problem: there are no more dinosaurs. Normally that’s not a problem, but in this case it is. All the dinosaurs that were ever going to die and turn into fossil fuels have done so. And sure, eventually other animals (including us) will turn into fossil fuels – but that will take millions of years. So for every dinosaur-equivalent of fossil fuels we burn, there are exactly zero available to take its place. Meaning we will run out at some point. I’m sure you can think of all kinds of things you use up at home. Do you just assume you will magically never run out? Of course not. So why on Earth would we make that ridiculous assumption as a species?

The climate change debate has been steered by myopic interests toward the same questions for decades now: is the Earth really getting warmer? Are we responsible? Will things go very badly if we don’t change anything? Should we do something about it? The answers to the first three questions are yes, most likely, and sure looks like it. Meanwhile, the answer to that last question is the same answer not just to climate change, but also to becoming more efficient, saving more money, and avoiding an energy crisis. It’s an answer best phrased as a question.

Why on Earth not?

The future should be so bright.