Tuesday, 6 December 2011

NASA's Milking Way

 The discovery of new "earth-like" planets by NASA proceeds according to a well-established law: the more the space budgets get trimmed, the more frequent and sensational the "breakthroughs" will be. Lately, what with the axing of the shuttle program and the Mars expedition on hold, the folks at Two Independence Square are on a veritable roll of finding brave new worlds. But the character and perhaps even the existence of these "exoplanets" is conjectural at best, sheer fantasy at worst. For heaven' sake, these geniuses can't even convincingly describe the surface of Ceres, sitting a virtual stone's throw from earth, but they can pinpoint a planet light years beyond the range of an optical telescope, and even narrow its temperature down to a degree or two. Breakthrough? Gimme a break!
        Based on nothing more than inferential conclusions drawn from highly iffy infrared data, these speculations get full indulgence from journalists who wouldn't know a peer review from a peer into the blue. An rf perturbation here, a twinkle in the spectra there, and voila! a brand new world where we can all decamp when the big freeze finally hits home. The same perturbations and twinkles could be read any number of ways, of course, so why not read them in the most dramatic way possible, a reading contrived to capture the public imagination and maybe the public purse to boot? The media loves this stuff, and routinely glosses the science with science fiction-like "artist's conceptions" of our distant future home. It's a feel good story all the way - to the bank. Congress, turn on the taps, because Milky Way, we're on our way!
        Too bad the story must end in no way: no way would anyone mount a full fledged colonization to these exoplanets based on such flimsy evidence. No way would any rational human want to travel to such a conjectural paradise after hibernating for a few thousand years like a bug in the ice. No way could a ship even begin to approach the speeds that would materially shorten the time required to get there. And no way could the human organism even withstand the rigors of such a prolonged time in space, since muscle tissue degenerates irremediably in weightlessness. 
       Of course, recent research involving worms in space offers some hope that a way might be found around the last objection. On the other hand it might only underscore the fact that if God had intended man for intergalactic flight then he would have given him rings!

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