Archive for January, 2011
Recently I had the pleasure of dropping by The Paper Machete in Chicago. Here’s a transcript of my piece on our race to colonize space. Enjoy!
In 2011 our steaming, teeming planet will reach a world population of seven billion people. It’s predicted that by the year 2045 we might be nine billion strong.1 Forget the portent filled birds falling from the sky this week, the truest “end days” sign we have is each other. If there are too many of us, the Earth quits. And if the Earth quits, if it suddenly grinds to a halt and shows Ayn Rand how it’s really done, then all we seven billion ladies and gentlemen floating in space will be hurled off, like water droplets from an angry dog. Scary, but more appealing than the human race choking on itself.
There are a number of people trying to address human population control, with varied approaches. China’s male population is taking one for the team and smoking more cigarettes than ever.2 Churches in Egypt are being blown up by Muslims, Christians, Jews, or the US military, depending on who you ask. And, homosexuals continue to not get each other pregnant.
And still others, who hear Carl Sagan whispering in their hearts that the sky calls to us, incline their necks, and pray we can hold out on destroying ourselves for just a little while longer. Just long enough for them to venture to the stars.3
The Romantic scientists theorized that travel through the cosmos was possible. Perhaps we might hop from comet to comet. This was before the understanding that the sun would set on the British Empire, or that enough oxygen is not a given. They also thought we might find new homes or neighbors close by. We know now that there is liquid water on Mars, but no little green men. In fact, within our own solar system Earth is the only planet we could possibly inhabit. Air, water, heat, but not too much heat. We’ve got it made. For now.
The search for an extrasolar planet that we might inhabit is ongoing. We’re looking for what’s called “Goldilocks planets”. We’re shopping around at inconceivable distances, which makes it hard to tell whether the air on a planet is good, or if the water’s cool and yielding, but we can tell whether it’s possible for a planet to be friendly, based on its distance from the nearest major star. Too far away, and the planet will be inhospitably cold. Too close, and the heat of the star would turn any humans to cinders. A Goldilocks planet lies just far enough from and close enough to its nearest star. It is “just right” for we thieving children to sleep there.
And, in the waning days of 2010, we found one.
Gliese 581g is the sixth planet around the red dwarf Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra. It is 20 light years away from us. Its sun is a third the size of our own. It is, itself, 3 to 4 times larger than Earth, which means its equator is between 75 and 100,000 miles long. It keeps the same face to its dim sun at all times.4 You would have to travel to change from day to night or night to day. A year’s orbit on Gliese 581g would be 37 days. That’s what we know. Precious little, but the imagination fires. We think of the other planets we’ve imagined and the changes we’ve wrought from our own. Does Gliese 581g have the deep red grass of Gallifrey? Do the sightless beats of Ixchel roam? Is it Caladan, covered in oceans? Is it Arrakis, covered in sand? Are there lemon yellow mountains five times the size of Everest, or blood red canyons that travel though its core and out the other side? No one in this room will see it.
At least, not with our current technology. 20 light years away, using our present tools, cannot be traversed. It would take 300,000 years. The Cubs stand a better chance. Again, like crafty apes, we’re trying to troubleshoot. Maybe we could create a huge spaceship with the capabilities to sustain life for 300,000 years. We pick 50 men and 50 women willing to live their entire lives in a spaceship, and to birth generation upon generation that will live their entire lives in the same spaceship (sounds horrible, but we’re basically doing the same thing now, we just don’t notice the walls). It raises issues. How do we pick these people? Who picks these people? Would there be law on the journey? If they did reach Gliese what would they be when they did? It’s problematic. Scientists are pursuing other avenues. Hyperspace might be conquered by the Department of Energy’s Z Machine, bending space and time to our will and allowing us to play hopscotch over to Gliese. But even that technology is decades or centuries away and 2045 promises nine billion people and yesterday a thousand turtle doves fell dead onto a piazza in Ravenna, Italy and Sir Pete Postlewaite is no more and Carl Sagan called it when he said “the universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition”.
There will be much talk of the end of days between now and December 12, 2012, we ought just get ready for the conversation. It’s nothing new, there has always been much talk of the end of days, and there will be until the actual end of days, whenever that might occur. I was 15 in 1999, when the Y2K panic set in. At the time, I was located in a small Southern town with a number of K-Marts, Wal-Marts, and Big Lots. I saw some crazy shit purchased in advance of the apocalypse. And 2000 came and went and all was not well but we were still around to see it. We might very well be around long enough to make it to Gliese, or some other lovely marble. But the fact of the matter is, that even if we succeed in surviving, this Earth has plans of its own. There will be another ice age. One day the constellations will no longer be visible. The continents long to reunite and never, ever break apart again. No one in this room will see it, but one day the sun will burst and trickle. If we are to be around in a billion years, whatever the human race might be at that point, we must be elsewhere. Colonization isn’t an option. It’s what must be. We will wander in the woods until we come to a shelter. If, upon entering, we are not killed by the environment or its denizens, we will appropriate it for ourselves. It’s our way. If we are around long enough to do so, whatever we’ve become, we must remember to extend our new terra firma more courtesy than the last.
But no one in this room will see it.
1Rauhala, Emily. “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”. Time Magazine January, 7, 2011
2Burkitt, Laurie. “Chinese Smokers Get Dire Warning”. Wall Street Journal January 7, 2001
3 The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars. – Carl Sagan
4Overbye, Dennis. “New Planet May Be Able to Nurture Organisms”. New York Times September 29, 2010
This past week I had the pleasure of performing in Chicago’s The Encyclopedia Show. This month’s topic was brains, and I was given the topic of toxoplasmosis. Here’s my piece. Enjoy!
A small parasite, one found primarily in cat feces, enters your blood stream and makes its way ’round. No major damage, should you have an excellent immune system. But to those who don’t, toxoplasmosis can mean swollen glands, encephalitis, schizophrenia, or, worst of all, Cat Lady Conundrum.
Czechoslovakian scientist Jaroslav Flegr, the foremost researcher into whether or not a mere proximity to cats can cause sad lady-itis, believes toxoplasmosis may be domesticated cats’ way of convincing the human brain that it wants to be eaten by cats. Passive aggressive? Absolutely. Cats are dicks. And they have a plan.
It’s our own fault for domesticating them. We turned wild beasts into mere mousers, and expected them to take it lying down. They did. But cats do not play checkers. Cats play chess. And the long game goes on.
History’s first known victim is a 9,500 year old Neolithic corpse found buried in Cyprus with an eight month old cat. Neolithic cat lady, let’s call her Angie, was perhaps one of the first humans to roll with a domesticated cat. Angie’s flesh has disappeared for the most part, making it difficult for archaeologists to know conclusively what killed her. What we do know is that Angie died alone in her cave. As she kept to herself for the most part, her body was not found for days, leaving plenty of time for her newly domesticated cat to feed upon her. And choke.
Gertrude of Nivelles was a medieval nun, who later became the Catholic patron saint of cats. At the age of ten she declared that she would marry no one except her Lord Jesus Christ (which is God-speak for being forever alone). Gertrude was already displaying signs of Cat Lady Conundrum, having attended several dinners wearing three day old pajamas, serving her kitten diet Coke from a teacup and ham straight from the plastic wrap. By the will of God, she was later devoured by cats.
During the middle ages, we humans began to sense the threat that cats posed to future generations. We began the mass extermination of cats, throwing them off roofs or burning them alive as witches’ familiars. While this was an excellent impulse, the sudden cat decrease allowed the rat population to run rampant, and the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. However, almost no one during this time was eaten by a cat. For a moment, we held toxoplasbastard at bay.
The next great cat lady on record is Joan of Arc. During her crusades in France she was accompanied by four tomcats. She’d found them in a Paris alleyway, smoking black cigarettes and looking so cool. After adopting Jean, Paul, Georges, et Ringo, Joan began hearing divine voices and bells ordering her to free France from the English. She was burned at the stake for her efforts, her four tomcat sentinels sitting coyly below and relishing the thought of a cooked meal. It’s said that Joan’s heart would not burn. But it was sure as hell devoured by four tomcats.
There have been more. Marie Antoinette. Mary Todd Lincoln. Marilyn Monroe.
Marlene Danielle, a dancer, performed in the entire eighteen year Broadway run of CATS. Her career was devoured by cats.
But who would suspect a conspiracy so insidious, or ridiculous? And therein lies its brilliance. And when poor, sad, beige Jennifer Anniston is found with chunks bitten out of her sinewy upper arms, two Siamese queens curled atop her corpse, bearing collars that read “Ghost” and “Darkness”, no one will think twice. Except, perhaps, for a policewoman on the scene. Let’s call her Angie. Even weeks later Angie’s brain will warm, and itch, and she will delight that she took those poor cats home.