Wednesday Good Reads: SETI, El Faro, and Labor

 

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“Go to the one about organized labor, Madison

 

A few good reads from the last few days. What’s stopping you? You have nothing to lose, and everything (or, well, three things) to gain.

Searching the Skies for Alien Laser Beams, Marina Koren, The Atlantic

Some scientists believe that the best way to find alien life is to look for pulses of laser beams shot out across the dark eons. While SETI doesn’t always get priority for telescope use (understandably), researchers have found a workaround: poring through data collected by other observations and looking for anomalies. Of course, this presupposes that aliens have seen our planet, want to send some form of contact, and have also decided that laser pulses are the best way, but that makes some sense. It’s easier than sending, like an expedition, and it isn’t really committal (“Oh, jeez, sorry, we were sending that to Rigel 7.”), but there’s something very romantic about it. It’s like being at camp and blinking your flashlight across the lake, wondering if there were campers over there, wondering if you were somehow making a connection through the darkness.

(Granted, I doubt the aliens are hoping, as we campers did, just to make contact with girls, but the general principle holds.)

Democrats and Labor: Frenemies Forever, Erik Loomis, Boston Review

I don’t think there is anyone concerned with labor and with unions (the only thing that can bring back any form of rough economic equality) that isn’t frustrated with the Democrats. Even a very pro-labor government like Obama’s saw labor decline. But as Loomis argues, deciding the abandon the Democrats is ridiculous. A labor-driven third party can’t work, and the Republicans are fully committed to destroying what’s left of unions.

Loomis diagnosis how, oddly, the grassroots/progressive liberal wing helped to strip unions of their power, which accelerated the Democrats no longer needing them as much for votes, and relying on small donors/huge corporate cash, which pushed them toward unfettered free trade, which helped destroy the unions. It’s a complicated story where good guy/bad guy is pretty blurry, but there are ways to get back. The alliances that shattered unions can be used to build them back up.

Other unions have embraced grassroots activism to elect liberal and friendly Democrats. The latter is unions’ best answer if combined with committing as many resources as possible to organizing. Because, paradoxically, unions have little choice but to continue tying their fate to the Democratic Party. Indeed it is even more important now than five decades ago. Even though Democrats have helped create their demise, unions’ only chance against a full-on war with the Republican Party is a moderately favorable relationship with the Democrats acting as a kind of political bulwark.

The whole thing is worth the read.

‘I’m a Goner’: El Faro’s Last Hours as Ship Sails Into StormJason Dearen, AP

The El Faro was nearly 800 feet long and could carry 31,000 tons. It wasn’t one of the neo-Panamax megaliners that are transforming global shipping, but it was a beast. It also had bad boilers which could hurt its engine, and old-fashioned lifeboats that were essentially useless in a big storm. On Oct 1st, 2015, it

On Oct 1st, 2015, it rushed headlong into a big storm. Hurrican Jaoquin, near the Bahamas, a Category 3 with winds up to 130 mph. Battered by waves, unable to turn, the ship broke up and sank, taking its crew of 33 with it to the bottom.

In the AP, Jason Dearen crafts a story out of transcripts recorded on the bridge, and they tell a harrowing story of calm professionalism over growing terror. The list of things that went wrong is terrifying and maddening. The ship listed a bit, which meant the parts that brough oil to the engines didn’t quite reach the reserves, which made the pumps not work, which brought on more water. It couldn’t steer into the waves, and so was pummeled by them, hundreds of feet high. They couldn’t even call for help, since the company that owned the boat (the one that signed off on the boilers and the lifeboats) had an answering service set up after hours. There was no way to contact them directly (though it might not have mattered in the face of a hurricane, that’s still pretty cold).

They do their jobs and try to figure it out. But eventually, there is no way out. The ship is sinking. Some panic, some try to just find the next way to survive. None do. It’s a terrible story, written with a modest and removed reserve, which heightens the true natural terror. And that boat, that human immensity, carrying with it the dreams and memories of dozens, disappears, swallowed unremarkably by a roiling sea.

 

Enceladus Discoveries Demonstrate That Life (Almost Certainly) Exists

 

The caption as the NASA site reads, blandly and beautifully, “Color image of icy Enceladus.” It sounds like the beginning of a poem that somehow explains everything. Someone write it. 

 

Eeee!

Could there be life under the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

NASA announced on Thursday that its Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn has gathered new evidence that there’s a chemical reaction taking place under the moon’s icy surface that could provide conditions for life. They described their findings in the journal Science.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge.

Don’t let the last paragraph get you down. Thrill, instead, at the possibilities. And thrill, even more, at the certainties. Because while Enceladus might not have life, the last sentence contains within it the seeds of a glorious “yet”, and with that, the possibilities explode like the limitless universe.

Let’s just take Enceladus, and assume that its youth has left it so far lifeless. But the idea that life could develop there, given time, expands our perceptions in both directions. Think of the idea that there could have once been life on Mars, or even on Venus, even just the merest microbes that were entirely annihilated with the slightest shift in orbit.  Life developed over millions and billions of years, while the earth was lifeless, or as the first microbes emerged from a chemical sludge, and then disappeared. Entirely. Our centuries seem so vain compared to that eonic drama.

And then go forward: after we’ve wiped ourselves out and the earth starts to rebuild from our folly, maybe life will slowly bloom on Enceladus. It might not happen, but it might. It might spark to life and then fizzle out, unsuccessful. That has probably happened billions of times across the universe.

But the point is, it has happened. One of this blogs secondary yammering points has been that we’re past the point where any reasonable person could think there isn’t life outside of earth, or that there hasn’t been, or that there never will be. Mars once had water. Enceladus has the primary conditions for life. There are seven nearby planets that are the right distance from their star to contain life.  There are40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way.” Just the Milky Way! There are two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more things than can be contained in even our most outsized vanities.

The universe is far too big, and far too weird (look how weird Pluto is), to think we’re the only place this has happened. But that’s not so bad. We’re probably the only place where that weird chemical sludge whorled and zapped up the exact combinations that led to sequoias and dinosaurs and tree sloths and Tilda Swinton, and that’s awesome. We get to have Warren Zevon and playoff hockey. Neat!

None of this is to say that, given the size of the universe, and the certainty that we aren’t alone, that our problems are lessened. Because, functionally, we are alone. It’s not like any jerkass Enceladusian microbes are going to FedEx us a care package, much less a solution to our crippling frailties. The fact that we know that life certainly started in other places, even in our solar system, and was wiped out, a fate that will absolutely befall earth, should be enough to dim our self-destructiveness and work to make better the time we have. One would hope, anyway.

I’ve argued that since we are past the point where life in the universe can plausibly be doubted, even without definitive proof, something will slowly alter in our morals. It won’t happen overnight. It will be a generational thing, much like the Copernican “discoveries” began the slow erosion of Popish authority. Our perceptions of ourselves will change. And I think it could be for the better.

We might realize that far from being special, we’re lucky. We’re enormously lucky to be here, as a planet, as a species, and as individuals. Stretch back to the beginning of time and trace the events that led to your parents meeting. It’s impossible. So much could not have happened, and so much didn’t happen to other potential beings, other potential species. A wrong turn on a Sunday means your great-grandparents never chanced into each other or that you were just too far away from the sun to be warm, and so you’re a lifeless void.

It’s wild, these possibilities created by an endless universe. Maybe if we recognize that, if we recognize this glorious chance that lets us drink champagne with the ones we love, we won’t be so vainly self-destructive. If only we have time.

(Note: for a good scientific explanation of Enceladus, read Calla Cofield’s piece at Space.com)

Water Wednesday: Wisconsin’s Walker Woes and Things That Don’t Begin With W. Like Lake Erie

 

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I’m sure there’s a metaphor here somewhere, but my first thought is: whoa! A deer in Lake Erie? What the hell? Image (and explanation) from Cleveland Scene

A quick rundown of some top water stories, which remind us that while we can impact nature, we’re really not in charge. 

I realize that there is a weird-seeming contradiction in saying that we can bring great change to nature, but that we’re still at its mercy. But when we say “great change”, we don’t mean permanent. The earth will eventually repair itself, and time will smooth over our cataclysms. We just won’t be here. But you want the real image? Imagine a 7-yr-old jamming a hatpin into his mother’s ankle. He can do that, and cause great damage, but really, the storm will redound upon him.

So let’s start this week’s “hey, who cares about clean water?” news with Wisconsin.

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