Our Place in the Universe, or How We’re Not-So Not-So-Special

nerdalert_091412So I promised, a while back, a two-part post about astronomy and sci-fi.  I’m finally following through on that promise!

This post is — finally! — the first part of that “series.”

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I am an astronomy nerd.  Hell, I just bought a couple of new college textbooks solely because my old ones are getting somewhat out-of-date.  By the way, if you want a little light reading before bedtime, hit the chapter on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.  You should probably leave the excitement of the section about dark energy for some afternoon reading, however…

Anyway, I wanted to tackle a bit of “Our Place in the Universe” before I got into the second post, the one about how I try to include that in my sci-fi writing.

First off, a bit of background that I’ll call the “Nothin’ Special Principle.” Most astronomers hold and adhere to the idea that neither the Earth, nor the Solar system itself, is special in any way.  They look at our little neighborhood as completely “average,” and build theories and assumptions from that starting point.

The problem is, that principle is looking less and less true.  There are a number of “special” things about our system, and about Earth itself.  Now, before I list those things, there is the one big thought/question that comes to mind: are we here because of those “special” things, or in spite of them?  The answer to that one is out of my paygrade, by the way…

Okay, so to the “specialness” that kinda, sorta sets us apart…

First off, it’s the age of our Sun.  In order to have complex life — let alone intelligence and development — you have to have metals*, and a lot of them.  You have to have things like carbon and oxygen and iron and copper and potassium and the all the other crap we take for granted.  Hell, even before we got around to using those metals to make tools, we had to have them as integral parts of our biology.  And the only way in the universe you get elements heavier than hydrogen and helium is through the life cycles of large stars (birth – rapid growth – death by supernova).

*A quick explanation: words in astronomy are generally different than they are in chemistry or, indeed, in real life.  In astronomy, any element heavier than helium is a “metal”.

Our Sun is either a 4th or 5th generation star (thoughts and opinions differ on precisely which).  That’s pretty normal, by the way, for a mid-sized, main sequence star.  But, the simple fact is that we as a species needed those previous generations of stars in order to have the planet and solar system that we call home.  No first generation star still exists (long, different story on that), and the 2nd-3rd generation ones that are still around just don’t show the metals required for life.

The important deduction from that is that any star that is able to support the development and evolution of life has to be around the same generation star as our own in order to have a sufficient level of “metallicity.”  Now, our Sun is currently about 4.5 billion years old — pretty much middle-aged for it’s size, generation and composition — and the Earth is something like 4 billion.  If we guess that similar stars/planets are about the same, or younger, that would put any intelligent aliens in another system at about the same level of development as us (give or take a few millennia).  We might, when you get right down to it, be the first — or among the first — example of intelligent life in the entire galaxy…or even the entire universe.

Okay, so that’s the “specialness” of the Sun.  What about our solar system itself?  We used to think it was pretty much normal and average….then we started discovering planets and systems around other stars.  The more planetary systems we find, the more we understand that there really ain’t no such thing as “normal.”  In fact, our system is looking more and more like an unusual outlier than the norm.

Four billion years ago, when the Earth still had that new-planet smell, the solar system was a very different place.  Most of the planets’ orbits were different, and there were something like 4-5 times as many planets and bodies running around.  It was also a shooting-gallery, with all those bodies smacking into each other on a regular basis.

Why does that matter?

Two reasons: the gas giants, and Earth itself.  Jupiter and Saturn were, back then, in resonant, mutually supporting orbits that kept either of them from migrating closer to the Sun through the inner solar system and, well, screwing everything else up.  Those two also “adjusted” the orbits of the other planets into the stability we see today, along with either eating or ejecting from the solar system an awful lot of “extra” bodies.

As for the Earth itself…well…one very specific part of that shooting gallery made all the difference.  The Earth, Mars and Venus really aren’t all that different, when you get right down to it.  Similar sizes, similar compositions, and roughly similar orbits.  So why is Venus a hellscape, and Mars cold and dead, while the Earth is what it is?  Why is the iron core of the Earth almost twice as big (in relation to overall planet size) as the cores of the other two?  Why do we have a moon that is almost a quarter of our own size, when they have none (Mars’ two tiny captured asteroids don’t really count).  Why?

Because we got smacked.

We got smacked hard….and it made all the difference.

Not too long after the Earth formed, another planet — about the same size as Mars — hit us.  Now, getting hit by another planet would usually be considered a “bad thing,” but this one hit us just right.  It hit at an angle shallow enough that it didn’t just shatter the shit out everything, but deep enough to merge the two bodies together…and to create our helpfully large moon in the process.

The real key to that merger is that the Earth kept the other planet’s core, in addition to our own.  That “second” core gave us a natural magnetic field that is much stronger than we “should” have.  That stronger field is why we still have an atmosphere, where Mars has almost none remaining (about 1% of ours).  No extra-large core, and very, very likely there is no life on Earth bigger than bacteria…if we even got that much.

And the water we have…  Oh, the water…  We have too much.  Okay, so it’s not really all that much, not when compared with places like Ganymede and Europa, but it should have all boiled away while the sun was still an angry teenager and flaring like mad.  It probably did boil away, in fact, but we got more…and no one is sure how.  Asteroids and comets, most likely, but no one really agrees on any one mechanism for that.

So, it all worked out for the best in the end, but do you have any idea of the odds against all that working out?  The right amount of metal…two gas giants not doing what most of the other giants we can see have done…a collision that added rather than destroyed…oceans and lakes for swimming and boating and, oh yeah, growing life…

We beat the odds as a species — and that’s pretty damned cool — but there is just no way in hell you can argue that we are average.  We kinda need to consider the possibility that Our Place in the Universe, or at least Our Place in the Milky Way, comes down to one word: alone.  We might be it, we might be all there is when it comes to intelligent life.

That thought is depressing as hell.

Okay, okay…if you want a bit of hope that the entire freaking Universe is NOT culminating in Trump, Pelosi and the Kardashians, here it is: there are something like 300-400 BILLION stars in our galaxy, and something like 300-400 BILLION galaxies in the observable universe.  That is roughly an astronomical shit-ton of stars.  Out of all those stars, there has to be at least one that also beat the odds!

On Hiatuses, And Creatures of Habit

Okay, look…I know I haven’t posted in a while. I also know that I’ve failed to fulfill the semi-promise I made in the last IWSG post to have several posts queued up…

I mean, shit, even my freaking MOM got on me for slacking on my blogging!

Okay, so, I’ll ritually drown myself in beer in abject humiliation, if that will make you feel better*.

*It sure as hell will make ME feel better!

When you get right down to it, the bottom line is that I kinda needed a break from blog writing. I enjoy the hell out of writing from my seat at the bar, but sometimes…well…sometimes it can start to feel a whole lot like homework. And, to be honest, I’ve always pretty much sucked at homework — I was always that kid madly scribbling away on an assignment five minutes before it was due. Thank God for a certain gift for extemporaneous bullshit with which I have been, err, “blessed”…

Ahem…that’s enough of that, thank you very much.

It wasn’t all about taking a break, however.

Nope, there were — as usual — other forces at play.

In a lot of ways, I am one of those people who likes to just make shit up…and I’m not talking about my stories, I’m talking about life in general. When I travel solo, my detailed itinerary looks a whole lot like:

1) Get off the plane
2) Do random shit
3) Return home

Crap…if you’ll recall, I am that random idiot who just up and moved to Yellowstone on nothing more than a momentary whim…

But that is just part of me. That is the personal me.  When it comes to work — especially when it comes to writing — I am very much a creature of habit. I like to have the same schedule every day. I like to go to the same places to do the same things. I like the rhythm that predictability brings, and the (surprising) freedom.

But…

But

BUT, those habits can turn me to the Dark Side, too. Yet another recollection for you: I took a job a few months ago, to help make ends meet. Err…well…it was mostly to temporarily use and abuse my employer for the health insurance, actually, but they’re abusing the shit out of me, so we’re about even I’d say.

The problem with that job is that I (far too easily) fall into it’s rhythm, rather than my own. That job’s obnoxious, creativity-killing rhythm, in fact, is the main reason why I left working for other people in the first damned place!

But, for the moment, I work my forty hours…and I get into the habit and rhythms of that schedule. Sadly, that rhythm makes it all too easy to forget that writing is supposed to be Job One. I don’t generally have the time to go to the coffee shop as much as I’d like…and I certainly don’t have the time/energy to go the taproom as much as I’d like — let alone as much as I need in order to truly keep up my writing.

I’ve mentioned before that writing for me is a thing of momentum and regularity. I need to be producing scenes & stories regularly in order to keep up that momentum. When it breaks? Yeah, when it breaks it’s not just one step back, it’s “go back to Start and begin again.”

Sigh.

The ghosts, by the way…

The ghosts that are my characters and stories…

The ghosts are fluttering.

Actually, they’re not so much fluttering as punching me in the face in order to get my attention.

Shit, let’s be honest here: the ghosts won’t leave me the fuck alone.  And the only way I have to exorcise them is to write them…shitty-job rhythm and habits be damned.

Remember what I said way back when? Writing is not what I do, it’s who I am.

Keeping the Demons at Bay

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the Month: How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

Do you know, I almost forgot it was time to post for IWSG? My head has been “out of the game” for a couple of weeks now, and a certain passive shrug of acceptance has set in. Acceptance of fatigue, acceptance of frustration, and — worst of all — acceptance of my struggle to find the energy and time to write.

Oh, the words are still there, but lately it’s been harder and harder to crack through all the bullshit to get at them…

I was sitting around today, not doing much of anything. I was tired, I was bored, and I had no intention of doing anything. Finally, I forced myself out for a short hike. Now, keep in mind that where I live is not…err…civilized. Hell, the closest thing to civilization is an hour’s drive away. When I want to get lost, when I want to recover, all I really have to do is walk five minutes out the back door.

Rocks and trees, wind and sun…all the greys and greens of the Colorado mountains, broken only by knots of gold as the aspens huddle together, holding on to the last of their leaves.

I needed that hike.

I wrote before, when I was still living up in Yellowstone, about how getting out into the wilds is (usually) enough to renew my failing balance and energy. That hasn’t changed. A hike — even a short one, like today — is enough to get me in touch again with those words that can sometimes seem so far away.

It also helps me to hold the demons at bay. When frustration and bitterness begin to turn to depression — as they always, always do for me — one of the only sure answers is to hike my way out.

Which brings me to the IWSG question I listed above. There really is only one other way out, for me. Only one other way to keep at bay the demon of depression, and that is to write my way out.

“Has writing ever helped you through something?” the question asks.

Every single day.

I’ve lived with my personal ghosts and demons for so long, I don’t even notice them anymore. Until I start writing, that is. It is only through writing that I can truly recognize them, and only through writing that I can (temporarily) exorcise them.

Expressing my thoughts and emotions through my fingers — whether on a keyboard or with a pen — has helped me through more shit than I care to really talk about. I don’t care to talk about it, but I will write about it.

Writing has helped me through the suicides of close friends, through the destruction of my soul and the hardening of my heart, through the worst times of my life…it has helped me, even, through my own dancing flirtations with suicide.

Take away writing, and I lose all those fights.

Take away writing, and I wouldn’t be here.

When I was young, I would lose myself in the stories I read. In the machinations of the court of Amber, in the adventures of Pug and Tomas, in the interplay of Garion and Belgarath and Polgara, in millions of words by thousands of authors. But never — even in the worst of times, even when I needed escape the most — never did I lose myself like I can in the fluttering ghosts of my own characters, and in the words of my own stories…

Addendum:  As ever, there’s a song for that (in my world): https://youtu.be/D6-EUSvJchI

Well, shit…

Now, remember…I’m a video game nerd. I’ve played thousands of ‘em, to the point where I seriously hesitate to add up just how many hours I’ve spent in various games. Even more, in the past I’ve taken a professional role in the industry: some of the first freelance writing jobs I ever landed were for video games.

All of which is a long-winded way of leading into my favorite quote of all time*: “Well, shit.”

*Game, movie, book, you name it…

I fully realize that I…err…”missed” posting twice last week. There are a lot of things I could claim as an excuse for that, but let’s just say that I don’t want to bore you with all of my personal crap and leave it at that, shall we? We can all just assume that I was, err, distracted and leave it at that.

I did, however, watch the news last week.

Hooooo, boy, did I watch the news.

I didn’t actually want to watch the news, by the way, and I definitely didn’t try to, but how the hell do you MISS all the bullshit going on in DC last week?!

Okay, so…I watched the news…

Well, shit.

Last week was that specific moment that future generations will look back on and say, “Oh yeah, they were screwed.”

But…oh…is the screwage is just getting started, my friends…

Never mind. We don’t particularly need to dive into my specific brand of prognostication-cynicism at this point.  As much as I love politics in general, I hate modern US politics. I also hate writing (openly) about them.

Look, I’m a libertarian, yet one of my best friends is a died-in-the-wool communist. And you know what? I just don’t care.

Others ask, “how can you be friends with him, with someone like that?”

I can be friends with him because I like him…and because I base my opinion of a person’s value as a human being on what they do more than what they profess to believe. And — honestly — if there is no room in this universe for different opinions*, and different types of people, then we truly are screwed…not just as a society, but as a species.

*Err…except for Nazis. And true racists. And assholes. And cat-lovers.

_MG_2344pUmm…track…hello? Where are you? I seem to have lost you?

Ahem.

Do you have any idea how long it has been since I actually drunk-blogged a post? Yeah, it’s been that long…

But — and let’s be honest here — did you really think there was any other way I would touch on the Kavanaugh hearings?! I may have my own opinion about the DC circus, but I’m not going to presume that my take has any more importance or validity than anything already out there…and I’m certainly not going to dive into that particular briar patch!

I will admit, however, to having played my own personal drinking game during the 9+ hours of testimony last week: every time a party talking point came up (Team R or Team D), I had to drink.

I was, ahem, pretty much gone by 9:00am…and it just got worse from there.

In other “news”, I do have a 2-part post planned for later this week…or maybe for next week. The first part is a long-delayed astronomy-nerd post, then the second is intended to take that into the realm of how reality affects writing sci-fi.  I am also working up a microfiction piece that is decidedly NOT flash fiction…