Twenty Five for Twenty Five

In the last post, we talked about the staggering notion that every four years, a mere quarter or so – twenty five percent – of eligible voters decide who will be the most consequential chief executive on Earth for the next four years. In honor of those twenty five percent, and with hope the percentage gets a little higher this time around, for the next twenty five days (through Election Day), the Machine will deliver a new post each day. Here’s the fun part – each post will be at least, exactly, and no more than twenty five words. This introductory paragraph does not count. And so, without further ado (how else can one describe this introductory paragraph),…

Coming soon to a ballot near you: the Electoral College, mathematically brought to you by the creators of such classics as the Three Fifths Compromise.

Drawn and Quartered

The impending November election was already a poop festival before the events of this week. It has now become a diarrheic extravaganza. Mere days after the worst debate in the history of debates, we now have no idea about the true status of one of the candidates after he completely unshockingly tested positive for COVID-19. Talking heads everywhere are now scrambling to dish out their takes on all of this. To paraphrase the real Talking Heads, well, how did we get here?

The answer begins with a trip back in time, to November 2016. On an otherwise ho-hum Tuesday of that month, the Democratic candidate for President received more votes than the Republican candidate for the sixth time in the past seven elections. For the second time in the past five elections, that meant nothing, as the Republican candidate won the day in the steaming pile of dung that is the Electoral College (are you sensing a theme in this blog? I really had no such intention going in…). But no, the fact that Clinton got more votes but lost is not the point here. Not today. The point is this: both Clinton and Trump each received votes from a little over a quarter of the eligible voting population. Over 40% of eligible voters didn’t cast a vote for anyone – not Clinton, not Trump, not even a third party candidate, not even Mickey Mouse, not even Kanye West.

This is nothing new in our can’t-be-bothered republic. It’s a good year if we crack 60% participation. There is a fair amount of evidence that some of this is due to voter suppression efforts, but that’s not the point either. Not today. For today, suffice it to say that there is no way 40% of voters are being suppressed. So why the hell can’t (or rather won’t) people exercise quite possibly the most important thing American soldiers have died for over the past 244 years? Why can’t we be like Belgium, which saw a voter turnout near 90% in 2014? Do we need to eat more mussels and drink more Stella Artois?

It seems the single biggest reason for not casting a vote boils down to a lack of enthusiasm. Every election, I hear multiple people tell me the choice is between two bad options. The story goes that nobody ever votes for somebody, they only vote against somebody else. For myself, I can tell you I have voted for my candidate far more than against the other in at least the last three elections. But I can also tell you that the motivation to vote against the other candidate would have been enough to get me to the polls in most of the elections in which I’ve participated – which by the way is all of them since I was old enough to vote. Did that sound like I was tooting my own horn? If it did, that’s part of the point too – voting shouldn’t be such an achievement that it could even remotely be interpreted that way.

At first blush, the (un)Presidential debate can’t possibly have helped this situation. Most of the reaction I have seen suggests a further dampening of enthusiasm for voting, and for those who were swayed one direction or another… wait a second, who the hell didn’t know what choice to make before the debate? Even if you consider yourself a centrist, smack dab precisely in between the two extremes of American politics, it’s highly unlikely you don’t lean one direction or another. And if you truly detest both candidates that much, there are always third and fourth party candidates. And while it’s tempting to assert (as I do) that running for President as a third party candidate is essentially public masturbation, these candidates have had a significant effect on a number of recent elections. Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Jill Stein have all done their share to determine who has ended up in the White House.

So why should somebody who is typically not inclined to vote have a change of heart in 2020? Maybe we need to redefine the nature of voting. In the Amendment posts, we saw how many Amendments were part of the ongoing struggle to expand the right to vote. We’ve spent so much energy on that as a nation that perhaps we have forgotten voting is a duty just as much as it is a right. As critically important as it is to fight voter suppression tactics so people CAN vote, it is equally important for people who CAN vote to fucking DO IT.

That would have been a perfectly good way to end this post, but I’ll add three more statements:

1) If you don’t vote, then by definition you voted for the winner.

2) If you don’t vote, you are helping to leave the future course of the nation to a quarter of the rest of us.

3) If you don’t vote, you get what you deserve. And for whatever it means, what you got right now is 2020.

An intricate diagram of the complicated process of voting. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Getting to Know Your Neighbor

So first of all – apologies for the down time – or maybe you didn’t miss these posts at all. The reality is, every time I’ve sat down to write something more about this Mars thread, I’ve been sidetracked by the desire to write about some other topic of the day – like why people are surprised more than one cause gets written on a death certificate.

The reality is, more and more of those kinds of topics are going to pop up between now and the end of the year. So I’m going to bang this last Mars post out, and then return to Earth for the zaniness to come.

In the last few posts, we’ve summarized the history of our observations, reconnaissance, and initial explorations of Mars. So what have we learned about our planetary neighbor?

It’s interesting to start with the similarities to Earth. A Martian day is only around forty minutes longer than a day on Earth. Mars’ axis of rotation is also tilted at a very similar angle to that of Earth’s, so Mars experiences a similar cycle of seasons. And, while Mars is quite a bit smaller than Earth, it has a similar amount of land (on Earth, the oceans take up the majority of the surface). And, yeah, so that’s where things start to diverge…

While Earth is very near the inner edge of the Goldilocks zone, Mars is near the outer edge. The Martian year is about twice as long as a year on Earth. Gravity on Mars is about a third what it is on Earth. But these are still modest differences – now to the big stuff, which starts with something we don’t think much about in our daily lives – the Earth’s magnetic field.

Our Earth is composed of multiple layers. The outermost layer – our home — is the crust, which is relatively thin compared to the other layers, and is composed of a collection of floating plates. Under the crust lies the mantle, which is much thicker and is the source of the lava that spews out of volcanoes. The mantle is also the “ocean” of liquid rock on which the plates float, and when those plates grind against each other, we get earthquakes. Below the mantle are the outer and inner core. The outer core is also liquid, heated by the radioactive decay of its constituent elements. That heat causes convective motion in the liquid rock and metal, and that combined with Earth’s rotation lead to a dynamo effect – the outer core creates a magnetic field around our planet. Without that magnetic field, we would not be here. It shields our world from a hostile shower of energetic particles and radiation careening from our Sun, as well as from the depths of space. More directly, it shields our atmosphere, which in turn provides the retention of heat that allows for liquid water, which provided the most likely harbor for the development of life, which in turn has developed a delicate ecosystem in concert with the atmosphere itself.

In contrast with Earth, at some point, Mars lost its magnetic field. This allowed energetic particles and radiation from the Sun and the depths of space to decimate the Martian atmosphere, which in turn became thin enough that it didn’t provide enough warming of the surface to liquify whatever water might have been there. So – as far as we can tell – no magnetic field, very little atmosphere, no liquid water, no life. We do continue to explore Mars for any signs of life, whether in the present or in the past. But unless the current outlook changes, it would appear that we can ethically ask the question: what if we tried to colonize Mars and make it a second planetary home? This is the dream of Elon Musk, who seems determined and capable of at least getting us on that road. Musk’s reasoning is that we need a second home in case we or some natural disaster wrecks our primary home. But settling Mars would be a lengthy process to say the least.

For starters, we couldn’t live there today. The air is mostly carbon dioxide (you know, the stuff we exhale), the temperatures are typically far below zero, radiation rains down at lethal levels, and there is no water or vegetation to serve as the basis for human sustainment. There are two levels of dealing with that: setting up bases on Mars, and truly settling the red planet. The former would consist of some number of safe habitats (think of the movie “The Martian”), and any venturing from those would require a space suit. Even if we eventually settled on Mars, it would have to begin that way.

For human life to be even remotely close to normal on Mars, we would truly have to terraform it – make it into another Earth for all practical purposes. That would require thickening the atmosphere and infusing enough oxygen for us to breath – a thicker atmosphere would also make Mars warmer, which would melt the water from the polar ice caps – and as Carl Sagan elegantly noted in “Cosmos”, we could use canals to get the water to lower latitudes – exactly what Percival Lowell and others thought was happening over a hundred years ago. You can imagine a process of this scale would take a very long time – likely multiple human lifetimes. But I also wonder what we’d do about the lack of magnetic field – it wouldn’t do any good to build an atmosphere only to have our uncaring Sun tear it to shreds again.

I do think we need to better understand our planetary neighbor. And I also think humans will one day live there – if we survive long enough to go. And therein lies the conundrum – I think the biggest threats to our survival as a species are peaking right now, and we will have to confront and overcome them right now, or else we won’t ever colonize another world. Mars can’t be our savior, but it can be a reward for us saving ourselves.

Maybe someday. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay