The idea of writing a letter to the moon is not a new one and it came to me when listening to an item yesterday morning, Pacific Time, broadcast by the BBC on Radio 4. The item was the news that Elon Musk has announced that:
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has unveiled the first private passenger it plans to fly around the Moon.
Japanese billionaire and online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa, 42, announced: “I choose to go to the Moon.”
The mission is planned for 2023, and would be the first lunar journey by humans since 1972.
On September 18, 1977, as it headed toward the outer solar system, Voyager 1 looked back and acquired a stunning image of our Earth and moon.
You will surely remember that first image taken of the Planet Earth and your good self in the same frame.
Now here we are some 41 years later and, my, how things have changed.
But something, dear Mr. Moon, has never changed for you. That is the sight of our most beautiful planet. Plus, I would go so far as to venture that what makes our planet such a beautiful sight, one that has captivated us humans when we have gone into space and looked back at home, is the magic of our atmosphere.
It is akin to the thinness of the skin of an onion.
In fact, Mr. Moon, that layer that we earthlings call the troposphere, the layer closest to Earth’s surface varies from just 4 miles to 12 miles (7 to 20 km) thick. It contains half of our planet’s atmosphere!
Everything that sustains the life of air-breathing creatures, human and otherwise, depends on the health of this narrow layer of atmosphere above our heads. Now the thickness of that layer varies depending on the season and the temperature of the air. But let’s use an average thickness of 8 miles (say, 13 km) because I want to explore in my letter to you some comparisons.
You will also have seen from your lofty vantage point the growth of both CO2 levels in the planet’s atmosphere and the average land-ocean temperature. Forgive me quoting something at you, but:
OBSERVABLE CHANGES IN THE EARTH
SINCE THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
While politicians have been busy debating the merits of climate science, the physical symptoms of climate change have become increasingly apparent: since the industrial revolution, sea level has grown by 0.9 inches, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen to unprecedented levels, average global temperatures have increased by about 1.0 degree Celsius and, to top it off, the global population has jumped by nearly 600 percent; 15 of the 16 hottest years on record occurred in the 21st century, and 2016 is likely to be the warmest year ever recorded.
Now the Industrial Revolution was all but over back in 1840 and the last 178 years have seen an explosion in the way we use energy, in all its forms. Plus we have to accept that back then the global population was around 1 billion persons. It is now over 7 billion.
Between 1900 and 2000, the increase in world population was three times greater than during the entire previous history of humanity—an increase from 1.5 to 6.1 billion in just 100 years.
So on to my comparisons.
The radius of our beautiful planet is about 3,959 miles (6,371 km). The average thickness of the troposphere is 8 miles (13 km).
Thus the ratio of thickness of our liveable atmosphere to the radius of the planet is 8 divided by 3,959. That is a figure of 0.002! Our atmosphere is 1/1000th of the size of the radius of our planet.
Hang on that figure for a moment.
In the last 178 years humanity has transformed our consumption of energy and especially carbon-based fuels. H. sapiens has been around for 315,000 years.
Thus the ratio of these present ‘modern’ times (the last 178 years) to the arrival of us back then (315,000 years ago) is 178 divided by 315,000. That is a (rounded) figure of 0.0006. Our modern times are just 1/10,000th of the time that so-called modern man has been on this planet.
So, dear Mr. Moon, you must despair that in so short a number of years, proportionally ten times smaller than the ratio of the troposphere to the radius of our planet, we funny creatures have done so much damage to what we all depend on to stay alive – clean air!
Or maybe, my dear companion of the night sky, because you are celebrating your 4.1 billionth year of existence, what we humans are doing is all a bit of a yawn.
This old Brit living in Oregon.
My dear friends (and I’m now speaking to you dear reader, not the moon!) when you reflect on the fragility of our atmosphere, well the layer we depend on for life, you realise without doubt that each and every one of us must make this pledge.
“I promise to do everything possible to reduce my own personal CO2 output and to ensure that both to my near friends and my political representatives I make it clear that we must turn back – and turn back now!”
Or, as George Monbiot writes in closing a recent essay (that I am republishing tomorrow): “Defending the planet means changing the world.”
The second, and last, episode of the BBC Clouds Lab programme offers an intriguing message.
On Monday, I published a post under the title of The clouds above us. The second episode demonstrated that even in atmospheric conditions of near vacuum, intense cold and very low humidity, conditions that would kill a human in seconds, there was microscopic bacteriological material to be found.
Exploring the troposphere
The troposphere is a turbulent layer of air that begins at the Earth’s surface and ranges from 23,000-65,000 feet above sea level, depending on the latitude, season and the time of day. Its name originates from the Greek word tropos, meaning change. It’s now known that bacteria actually exists in clouds and scientists believe that it plays a significant part in the creation of rain but little is known about life higher up. Microbiologist Dr Chris Van Tulleken has discovered that living bacteria can exist well above 10,000ft in a hostile environment with low pressure, increased UV radiation, freezing temperatures, high winds and no oxygen or water.
What I took away from watching the programme was that the minimum conditions necessary for living bacteria were far more harsh than one might expect. In other words, finding living bacteria in other solar systems might not be such a science-fiction idea.
With that in mind, I’m republishing an essay that Patrice Ayme wrote in 2013. I’m grateful for his permission to so do.
40 Billion Earths? Yes & No.
Up to twenty years ago, a reasonable opinion among scientists was that there might be just one solar system. Ours. Scientists like to project gravitas; having little green men all over didn’t look serious.
However, studying delicately the lights of stars, how they vary, how they doppler-shift, more than 1,000 planets have been found. Solar systems seem ubiquitous. Astronomers reported in 2013 that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable Earth-size planets in the galaxy. However, consider this:
Yes, that’s the center of a galaxy, and it has experienced a galactic size explosion from its central black hole.
One out of every five sun-like stars in our galaxy has a planet the size of Earth circling it in the Goldilocks zone, it seems — not too hot, not too cold — with surface temperatures compatible with liquid water. Yet, we have a monster black hole at the center of our giant galaxy, just like the one exploding above.
We are talking here about explosions potentially stronger than the strongest supernova by many orders of magnitude (depending upon the size of what’s falling into Sagittarius. By the way, a cloud is just heading that way).
Such galactic drama has a potential impact on the presence of advanced life. The richer the galaxy gets in various feature the situation looks, the harder it looks to compute the probability of advanced life.
The profusion of habitable planets is all the more remarkable, as the primitive methods used so far require the planet to pass between us and its star.
(The research, started on the ground in Europe, expanded with dedicated satellites, the French Corot and NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.). Sun-like stars are “yellow dwarves”. They live ten billion years.
From that, confusing “habitable” and “inhabitated”, the New York Times deduced: “The known odds of something — or someone — living far, far away from Earth improved beyond astronomers’ boldest dreams on Monday. “
However, it’s not that simple.
Primitive bacterial life is probably frequent. However advanced life (animals) is probably very rare, as many are the potential catastrophes. And one needs billions of years to go from primitive life to animals.
After life forms making oxygen on Earth appeared, the atmosphere went from reducing (full of strong greenhouse methane) to oxidizing (full of oxygen). As methane mostly disappeared, so did the greenhouse. Earth froze, all the way down to the equator:
Yet volcanoes kept on belching CO2 through the ice. That CO2 built up above the ice, caused a strong greenhouse, and the ice melted. Life had survived. Mighty volcanism has saved the Earth, just in time.
That “snowball Earth” catastrophe repeated a few times before the Earth oxygen based system became stable. Catastrophe had been engaged, several times, but the disappearance of oxygen creating life forms had been avoided, just barely.
Many are the other catastrophes we have become aware of, that could wipe out advanced life: proximal supernovas or gamma ray explosions.
Cataclysmic eruption of the central galactic black hole happen frequently. The lobes from the last one are still visible, perpendicularly high off the galactic plane. The radiation is still making the Magellanic Stream simmer, 200,000 light years away. Such explosions have got to have sterilized a good part of the galaxy.
In 2014 when part of the huge gas cloud known as G2 falls into Sagittarius A*, we will learn better how inhospitable the central galaxy is for advanced life.
Many of the star systems revealed out there have surprising feature: heavy planets (“super Jupiters“) grazing their own stars. It’s unlikely those giants were formed where they are. They probably swept their entire systems, destroying all the rocky planets in their giant way. We don’t understand these cataclysmic dynamics, but they seem frequent.
Solar energy received on Earth fluctuated and changed a lot, maybe from one (long ago) to four (now). But, as it turned out just so that Earthly life could survive. Also the inner nuclear reactor with its convective magma and tectonic plates was able to keep the carbon dioxide up in the air, just so.
The Goldilocks zones astronomers presently consider seem to be all too large to allow life to evolve over billions of years. They have to be much narrower and not just with red dwarves (the most frequent and long living stars).
One of our Goldilocks, Mars, started well, but lost its CO2 and became too cold. The other Goldilocks, Venus, suffered the opposite major technical malfunction: a runaway CO2 greenhouse.
Mars’ axis of rotation tilts on the solar system’s plane enormously: by 60 degrees, over millions of years. So Mars experiences considerable climatic variations over the eons, as it goes through slow super winters and super summers (it’s imaginable that, as the poles melt, Mars is much more habitable during super summers; thus life underground, hibernating is also imaginable there).
Earth’s Moon prevents this sort of crazy hyper seasons. While, differently from Venus, Earth rotates at reasonable clip, homogenizing the temperatures. Venus takes 243 days to rotate.
It is startling that, of the four inner and only rocky planets, just one, Earth has a rotation compatible with the long term evolution of advanced life.
Earth has also two striking characteristics: it has a very large moon that store much of the angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system. Without Moon, the Earth would rotate on itself once every 8 hours (after 5 billion years of braking by Solar tides).
The Moon used to hover at least ten times closer than now, when earth’s days were at most 6 hours long.
The tidal force is the difference between gravitational attraction in two closely separated places, so it’s the differential of said attraction (which is proportional to 1/dd; d being the distance). Hence the tidal force is inversely proportional to the cube of the distance.
Thus on early Earth tides a kilometer high were common, washing back and forth every three hours. a hyper super tsunami every three hours, going deep inside the continents. Not exactly conditions you expect all over the universe.
Hence biological material fabricated on the continental margins in shallow pools would get mixed with the oceans readily. That would guarantee accelerated launch of life (and indeed we know life started on Earth very fast).
The theory of formation of the Moon is wobbly (recent detailed computations of the simplest impact theory do not work). All we know for sure, thanks to the Moon rocks from Apollo, is that the Moon is made of Earth mantle materials.
Somehow the two planets split in two. (Fission. Get it? It maybe a hint.)
Another thing we know for sure is that Earth has, at its core, a giant nuclear fission reactor, keeping Earth’s core hotter than the surface of the sun. An unimaginable liquid ocean of liquid iron deep down inside below our feet undergoes iron weather. Hell itself, the old fashion way, pales in comparison.
Could the Moon and the giant nuclear reactor have the same origin? This is my provocative question of the day. The Moon, our life giver, could well have formed from giant nuclear explosions, of another of our life givers, what became the nuke at the core. I can already hear herds of ecologists yelp in the distance. I present the facts, you pseudo-ecologists don’t decide upon them. It’s clear that nuclear fission is not in Drake equation: if nothing else, it’s too politically incorrect.
All the preceding makes this clear:
Many are the inhabitable planets, yet few will be inhabitated by serious denizens.
This means that the cosmos is all for our taking. The only question is how to get there. The closest stars in the Proxima, Beta and Alpha Centauri system are not attainable, for a human crew, with existing technology.
However, if we mastered clean colossal energy production, of the order of the entire present energy production of humanity, we could get a colony there (only presently imaginable technology would be fusion).
Giordano Bruno, professor, astronomer, and priest suggested that there were many other inhabitated systems around the stars. That insult against Islam meant Christianity was punished the hard way: the Vatican, the famous terrorist organization of god crazies, put a device in Giordano’s mouth that pierced his palate, and having made sure that way that he could not tell the truth, the terrorists then burned him alive. After seven years of torture.
The horror of truth was unbearable to theo-plutocrats.
Now we face something even worse: everywhere out there is very primitive life. It is likely gracing 40 billion worlds. But, if one has to duplicate the succession of miracles and improbabilities that made Earth, to earn advanced life, it may be just here that civilization ever rose to contemplate them.
Congratulations to India for launching yesterday a mission to Mars ostensibly to find out if there is life there (by finding CH4; while life is presently unlikely, Mars has much to teach, including whether it started there). That’s the spirit!
The spirit is to have minds go where even imagination itself did not go before.
If we sit back, and look at the universe we have now, from Dark Matter, to Dark Energy, to Sagittarius, to the nuclear reactor below, to billions of Earths, to a strange Higgs, to Non Aristotelian logic, we see a wealth, an opulence of possibilities inconceivable twenty years ago.
Progress is not just about doing better what was done yesterday. It’s also about previously inconceivable blossoms of entirely new mental universes.