Thursday, September 17, 2009

One from the Archives: Once Again, Reality Fails Science Fiction

We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. - Anais Nin

If you're like me, you're bitterly disappointed that human society continues to lack food replicators, artificial gravity, and computers that take less than 10 minutes to boot up. You also like to have vodka and Doritos for dinner but almost always regret it later. What I'm trying to say is, if you're like me, I'm sorry.

The point is, the future as we see it today sure isn't what we thought it would be in the past. For decades, science fiction has conditioned us to expect a certain pace of technological evolution. The Russians sent up the first man-made satellite in 1957, and by the 23rd century Earthlings were supposed to be masters of interstellar travel and battling Gorn on rocky, Los Angeles-like planets in far-flung galaxies. Presumably the years in between would feature a linear progression of advancement in the field of...well, everything.

As it turns out, linear progression is not an area in which we humans excel. The whole of our history is characterized by periods of stunning accomplishment - by some, for some, in some ways. Inevitably we create such insupportable disparity in our path of progress that it all, or partly, or in some aspects, falls down around us and we have to start over. Like framing the Constitution as the blueprint of modern democracy but leaving women and non-whites out. Or creating the Internet and using it primarily for porn and Twitter. Enlightenment comes disappointingly in fits and starts. We proudly declare, "The future is here," then we look around and say, "Oh, shit, where's my jet pack?"

That was pretty much my reaction to the latest news from the world of science. The European Space Agency recently announced that it has discovered a new planet, CoRoT-7b, orbiting a star in the constellation Monoceros, about 500 light years from Earth. It's roughly twice the size of our planet, circumnavigates its sun at an extrememly fast rate, and has a rocky surface approximately the same as that of Earth. In fact, it's the first planet ever discovered outside our solar system with a so-called Earthlike composition.

Whoa. Wait a minute, there. Back up. Read that again. The first planet ever discovered outside our solar system with a rocky, Earthlike surface. Something like 350 "extrasolar" planets have been glimpsed around the cosmos since the very first one was discovered orbiting star 51 Pegasi back in 1995. (I knew that off the top of my head. OK, I didn't. Research is a good thing.) Until now, they've all been gaseous. As in, no one is going to be setting down a landing craft and planting a flag in their non-existent soil anytime soon. Or, more likely, ever.

So much for seeking out new life and new civilizations. We've been duped. We see scientists creating life in a petri dish and doctors creating new techniques to save lives and Steve Jobs creating whatever the hell exactly an iTouch is (I'm not an Apple person, I'm afraid), and we're awed by advances that most of us couldn't even imagine before they became realities before our eyes. And we've assumed that progress in an area that is intimately familiar to anyone who has read a book or watched a movie in the last hundred years - going forth into the universe to encounter alien civilizations perhaps more advanced than our own - has been proceeding apace.

And now we find out that, far from cataloging Class M planets right and left, astronomers are thrilled to discover a single world 500 light years away that potentially has a surface you could set a flat-screen TV on - that is, if it weren't so close to the sun that it would melt your remote before you could even program the DVR. There's no possibility that CoRoT-7b contains life, and even finding water on its dark side isn't a sure bet. Yet scientists all over the world are high-fiving as if they've just discovered the Pleasure Domes on Regulus IV. This is disappointing news for those of us who were saving up for our first interstellar vacation.

Fortunately, the 400 bucks I'd already set aside will probably grow to about three trillion dollars with interest in the time it will take to find an actual habitable planet outside our solar system. That may cover the cost of the trip for my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. If they fly economy and don't bring any extra bags. That whole evolving-beyond-money-in-the-future thing? I'm not going to count on that one, either.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You're thinking it, you may as well type it. The only comments you'll regret are the ones you don't leave. Also, replies to threads make puppies grow big and strong.