Okay, so I write sci-fi (for the moment)…
This, apparently, makes me an “expert” to some folks. Now, I do know a lot of shit about a lot of things, but that’s mostly because I read…and because I love to learn. Hell, I once had to learn the actual math behind orbital mechanics — it made the nerd in me tingle with excitement, and the historian go out and get drunk.
None of this means, however, that I have a PhD in Astrophysics…
I still get the questions, though.
“What’s this stuff about habitable Earths around other stars? Does that mean people, too?”
“Why can’t we just build bigger rockets and go to the next star to meet them?”
“Why go to [insert planet/moon here]? There are no cities or people, so why go all that way just to find some algae?”
Want to know about the political nature of the various priesthoods under the Roman Republic? Or maybe get a breakdown of the Social War and its role in the rise of the Empire? Maybe even learn a bit about Marius and Sulla?
Most of the sci-fi-ish questions I get arise from a couple of problems:
- Folks don’t learn the basics — specifically, the basics of physics and how the universe works, and so don’t know what to question, let alone how. They learn “everything they need” from stories in the news, which leads to…
- Reporters are idiots. Take relatively simple, easy-to-communicate facts and they will still dumb them down into complete uselessness.
So, a few (bitter, snarky) answers:
All of the “Earths” we have discovered so far are not. Not “Earths,” I mean. They are potentially rocky planets in something like the right orbit to potentially have liquid water. That’s it. That’s as “Earthy” as they get.
Let’s take the potential earth-like planet “found” orbiting Proxima Centauri. Hey, it’s the closest star! We have neighbors!
It’s a potential rock orbiting a red dwarf, for fuck’s sake! In order to be in the “Goldilocks zone” where liquid water can exist, it orbits all of 7.5 million kilometers from the star. Earth, by comparison, is twenty times farther from the Sun…hell, even Mercury is something like five times farther out! You could go boil your head in a microwave for the next thousand years and not absorb a tenth of the radiation that cooks this rock every single “day”. If it does have “intelligent” life, those folks will look a whole lot like reporters…
Ahem, never mind.
And, before anyone asks: No. Just no. We cannot go there at the moment. Oh, there are all kinds of theoretical engines that could get us there in…well…in a century or two. But none of them actually exist at the moment.
Don’t get me wrong, some of those technologies and theoretical engines are fascinating — but that is all they are: theoretical. Even if we could build a sufficiently powerful, practical VASIMR engine right now, do you know how much fuel you would need to accelerate to (and decelerate from) anything resembling a useful interstellar speed?
Even if we perfected the perpetually-fifty-years-away technology of nuclear fusion, you would still need loads of deuterium or tritium for the reactor. And that fuel for your reactor does not include the (exponentially worse) metric-shit-ton of reaction mass you would need for your thrusters on the ride.
And, please, don’t even get me started on the pipe-dreams of “solar sails” and “laser-powered” craft. For the former: take a sheet of paper and hold it on your finger tips…that is roughly the amount of thrust you would get from a square kilometer of solar sail in our inner system. In interstellar space? Yeah, your dog could fart you to Proxima Centauri faster. And “laser-powered”? Just pure sci-fantasy bullshit. Those designers read “Mote In God’s Eye” way too many times…
Look, I’m not shitting on the legitimate excitement of these discoveries…nor on the dreams of exploration. We need those dreams. We need to continue to stretch and reach beyond our grasp, or we will stagnate and die.
But, for the love of God, could we please do so with a modicum of common sense?
There are “new earths” out there. The odds are there is intelligent life out there. But, in all honesty, these things are a century or more from mere confirmation, let alone direct interaction.
No, what should really excite us right now are the wonders, and discoveries, on our own doorstep. I agree 100% with manned missions to Mars…if only for the dream of discovery. But that’s not the truly exciting stuff. No, what really floats my boat is more of a reach…and more of a dream:
Missions to Titan, and to Europa, and Enceladus…places that are the most likely of all to have life. No, it won’t be “intelligent”, but it will be different. Different DNA, different evolution. Crap, what more could you ask for? Do you know how much we could learn just from some freaking algae?!
Missions to Uranus, and Neptune, and Pluto. These planets (and their moons) are things about which we still know next-to-nothing…
And let’s not forget the practical: asteroid mining, orbital research and manufacturing…
No, we have more than enough to keep us busy at home, thank you very much. Dream big — always dream big — but act small.