Thursday, September 17, 2020

The best news on Earth is not on Earth

This year has been one of the worst, and most bizarre, in decades. Certainly of my lifetime. Democracy is crumbling, fascism seems ascendant, climate change is causing catastrophes and of course there's the pandemic, which... well, we all know how bad that is.

Maybe that's why the news that leaked--and then gushed--out earlier this week felt so important. Signs of life on Venus! Right next door! Closer than Mars, even! The details of the announcement, that scientists had found in Venus' atmosphere phosphine, a gas that is only naturally produced by organisms, made it all the more exciting. They had worked hard to rule out other explanations, and made their observations at different times using different equipment. The most likely explanation for what they were seeing, they said, was life.

Venus. Not pictured: atmospheric microbes.

When methane was found on Mars a few years ago, it felt more interesting than exciting. Like phosphine, methane is unstable and most often is produced by living organisms. The amounts detected on Mars shouldn't exist unless it is being continually produced, or released from deep under the planet's surface. The methane still hasn't been explained (or biological origins ruled out) but I guess that caveat felt pretty big.

With the Venus news, the chances that it wasn't a sign of life seem much smaller. It would need to be an observation error, or the phosphine would have to be caused by some undiscovered natural process.

That's cool on its own. But what makes it even more moving, for lack of a better word, is what it says about the universe. Venus is inhospitable in every sense. Heat, pressure, corrosive substances. Like the song says, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Life on Venus, even microorganisms, sure seems to imply that it is likely to exist on some of the other billions of planets in just our galaxy.

Handy neighborhood map.

So while we're wallowing through 2020, it's nice to think that at least we might not be doing it alone.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Happy America Day!

This is probably the weirdest 4th of July in my lifetime, but even so... hard to beat the Muppets.


Here's to everything being better, and more normal, next year. But still with Muppets.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Things are weird

I've said this, in different ways, to many people in recent days. And it's true: this is an unprecedentedly bizarre time.

I'm watching most everything unfold from some distance, tucked away in Singapore, whose authoritarianism is problematic in every circumstance except, it seems, a viral pandemic. Things are mostly normal here! Very few masks, very few disruptions, very few cases of SARS-CoV-2. And that makes it even more bizarre to see everything unravel back home.

It's all so worrying. By now, enough scientists have studied the virus that they can confidently project its effects on the global population. There's nothing good about what they found. Doing nothing is catastrophic. Mitigation will still lead to great loss of life. Suppression will have wide-ranging societal and economic effects. No easy answers. You can read it here.

The fact that so much of the catastrophe is occurring in slow motion makes it all the more surreal. This isn't a meteor impact or a nuclear war. And, tragically, if governments--I'm looking at you, "it's a hoax" White House--had taken it seriously sooner (and not dismantled key elements of government that deal with situations like this) we might not be facing such stark choices. But here we are, facing stark choices.

In America, at least, the social safety net is made out of tissue paper. People who lose their jobs will fall back on almost nothing. They will have no access to free health care. That suffering was also avoidable.

Staying home, washing hands, not touching our faces--these things will all help limit the damage. If you aren't sick (with anything), please don't waste a mask that someone on the front lines could actually use. Be kind. Don't be racist. Don't say "I'm an American, I can do what I want." Definitely don't assume that because you're young, you're going to be fine. There are millions of people older than you with perfectly good lives who want to continue living them; walking around with an "I'm bulletproof" attitude will help get them killed.

Until there is a vaccine, this is just going to be how it is. Eventually the dust will settle. I don't think life will get back to normal, not in any real sense. But even though the other side of this looks far away, it will come.

See you there.



Tuesday, December 24, 2019

It's Christmas Eve, babe

... and this year, as always, I hope you've avoided the drunk tank. (Here in Singapore that would be an expensive proposition in many ways.)



Here's hoping that the new year brings us all dreams we can build around.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Airplanes! Tom Cruise! Footage!

So this is the best trivial thing that's happened in a year of non-trivial bad things: Top Gun 2 is upon us. And it has airplanes (plus, somehow, shirtless volleyball again).



A few observations:

-I was surprised at first that the Department of Defense didn't insist that the movie use the F-35 instead of the F-18. If there's any aircraft in need of good P.R., it's the F-35.

Image result for f-35
The poor, misunderstood, Lightning II.

But then it hit me: there's no two-seat version of the F-35, which means they can't create any footage of Tom Cruise in an actual jet. So the Super Hornet won by default, the most glorious way of winning.

-Why is Maverick wearing a pressure suit?

Image result for maverick pressure suit
Under pressure.

This is different from a regular flight suit in that, as you might expect, it's pressurized. That allows pilots to work at extremely high altitudes where the air pressure is essentially meaningless in terms of breathability. But the only aircraft the U.S. flies right now that requires that type of gear is the U-2, which flies (without Bono) at altitudes up to 85,000 feet. So what's the deal, is Mav flying a Cold War-era spy plane at some point?

-Maverick is a terminal captain. In the exchange with Ed Harris (Tom Skerritt is 85, which is even by Hollywood standards I guess too old to play an active duty Navy officer), we learn that Mav will never get promoted--the rank of captain is where he will end his career. I guess they had to build that in somehow, otherwise how exciting would a movie about "Admiral Pete Mitchell" be?

Anyway, I'm sure it will be a bad movie but I'm equally sure I will see it and react exactly like this as I walk out of the theater:


I feel the need....

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Turn up the radio

In recent years, astronomers have discovered new faraway planets, gotten close looks at distant objects like asteroids and comets, and driven lots of robots around Mars.

All of this is in service of exploring the physical universe and learning more about why things are the way they are, basically. That's exciting! But there is also this sort of deeper human need to find out whether we're all there is in terms of intelligent life. Scientists and philosophers argue about the odds--on the one hand, they're infinitesimal because shouldn't we have seen something by now given how old the universe is? On the other hand, they're quite good because the universe is as vast as it is old... that's a lot of planets.

Anyhoo, there's not much evidence to go on in that regard. There's the WOW! signal, which no one ever really figured out. And lately there have been "fast radio bursts," which are also mostly unexplained. This week, more of those bursts were announced, including an unprecedented repeating burst.

“When these bursts happen once only, it’s really hard to figure out what created them,” Cherry Ng, a radio astronomer at the University of Toronto and lead author on the paper about the repeating FRB, tells The Verge. “Now we’re showing, no, at least one other repeats.”

I've always felt like this is the way we'd get evidence of "other life out there"--something pretty inscrutable and outwardly mundane, as opposed to in the movies where detailed messages or even space ships arrive.

what will the aliens' morning drive zoo crews sound like?

To be clear, these bursts are almost certainly caused by natural (if distant) phenomena. That doesn't make them any less fascinating... it's a new physical mystery to unravel.

But it's sure fun to think about the tiny chance they're more than that.

It's been a rough few years for this planet, and finding life on another one would somehow make that feel more bearable.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Year

It hit me last week that the last two posts on this blog were tradition--Fourth of July Muppets and the Pogues on Christmas Eve. Not much in between. And by "not much," mean nothing.

Part of that is because I'm dealing with a lot more words at work than I ever have before. Part of that is that the world outside work is crazier than it has ever been. I don't think that's an exaggeration. I've been alive for [REDACTED] years, but I can safely say that even in the tense closing years of the Cold War I never felt like everything was teetering so close to the edge.

We also moved to a new city-state with a new imaginary mascot, the merlion:

RAaaarrgurgle

Singapore presents its own unique challenges, such as schools with Cordon Bleu-trained chefs and a price tag to match, and an equatorial sun that will burn the health right out of your skin.

But for all that, there is much to be thankful for in 2018. Health and happiness. Good food. Loving family. A Chiefs quarterback that can do this...


... and is only like 19 years old.

No one can say what 2019 will bring. I suspect there will be many moments of global instability and wackiness, and if the two years since November 2016 have taught us anything, it's that expecting things to return to normalcy and stability on their own is... not a great plan.

So here's to hope, and action, and for good things in the year ahead.