by Raju Peddada
For my father, December 7, 2007, the day he left his house forever.
This terror, then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only Nature's aspect and her law,
Which, teaching us, hath this exordium:
Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.
—Lucretius (99BC-55BC), Of the Nature of Things
"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."
—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
[Author's preface: As I see it, "hope," is not some arbitrary concept, or some bombastic spiritual proclamation from a prophet or a rabbi, who have, over the ages, gleefully hijacked it for the propagation of their ideology. Hope, inexplicably, is embedded in all of the 92 natural elements like: hydrogen, calcium, oxygen, carbon, mercury, sodium, nitrogen, sulfur and others, which are the building blocks of the universe, and life. So, when astrophysicists at JPL-NASA got excited about the discovery of another earth like planet, albeit 600 light years away, it became the manifest manifestation of hope.]
(Swans - January 2, 2012) In 1997, I had the overwhelming pleasure of tracking the "Hale-Bopp Comet" for the whole summer, in the western skies, which I had shared with my ten-year-old daughter. Last summer, I went out every night with my boys to look at Mars. It was this big ochre star, occasionally mistaken for a flying object, rising every night in the eastern sky, to string a huge parabola to the southwestern horizon, keeping pace with the moon, as if in its orbit. Interestingly, I seldom look at the sky during the daytime unless it is stormy, but nighttime is another matter. I stare, for hours on end at the deep blackness, with the pinpricks of light, in childish fascination -- looking at something that had been calculated to be over 13 billion years old. It would require another five pages to elucidate my cogitation, and my agitation, when looking up; suffice it to say that imagination is the faculty of getting beyond our ignorance of the here and now.
Astrophysics: the study of physical properties of the celestial bodies, and the interior interaction between matter and radiation within these bodies in interstellar space, is the unequivocal vector for hope, as improbable as it may sound. Let us indulge, in some cosmic conjecture, about hope since all our year-end reviews have been turned in. Did hope follow life, or was it life that followed hope? Is hope an abstract concept, which dawned on us after we became bipedal, or was it something that was discovered, like electricity, by the ancient epistemologists? It is an incontrovertible fact that physics now has displaced philosophy, as the scanner, used in search of the truth, by the scientific community. I'm afraid to bring up such a "boring" issue, like "the nature of reality," when we have more serious matters to contend with, especially now, like making sure that your gift of the handbag matches the knee-high boots she has.
All kinds of questions stream in at light speed, heading for the nose, when I am out there. Queries such as "space-time warp," which physicists theorize as how matter and energy bend time and cause the time dimension to blend with the space dimensions. No, I am not ready for the sanatorium yet, but this is what happens when you look at the night sky regularly, and read Richard Feynman. You get curious, at your own curiosity, which always leads to looking up... in hope. For that matter, why do we instinctively look up, hoping? It just might be OK to look up, and hope, as more of it is there, in that black infinity, than our raped planet. Hope, I am convinced, is not an arbitrary concoction of a prophet, as an exclusive gift to his followers, at the xenophobic exclusion of others. Hope is "real and material," intrinsically egalitarian and altruistic, thereby rendering all ideological claims of ownership utterly vacuous and imbecilic.
What is the ultimate goal of an astrophysicist? Not astoundingly, to provide us with hope, in elemental galactic truths. Today, many notions, theories, and postulations in science, especially astrophysics, may seem hell bent on the annihilation of common sense. But, common sense is based on our terrestrial experiences, and not on intergalactic space, revealed through sciences, and its technologies. What we ask in our terrestrial experiences is the explanation of our immediate reality; but, when we look up into that profound blackness, called space, we are hoping to find the truth, with the help of physics. Hope is integral to truth (facts), as both actually are intertwined cosmic elements.
Truth is not white, it is pitch black, inscrutable, stoic, and mysteriously eternal. And hope, intrinsic to truth, always rides camouflaged on the back of it, in that utter blackness that surrounds the orb we dwell on. Hope came from that black infinity, as imploding and exploding matter, dispersing with elements needed to ignite life. Ironically, hope is erroneously represented by vivid colors, it is actually black, as it materializes from that scary profundity. In fact they both, truth and hope, are binary elements that infuse life with its purpose, which is perpetuation. Even as a terrestrial metaphor, African Americans suffered the "pure whiteness" for almost 400 years, till they started to rely on their own stoic "blackness" looking for hope, through some of the most soul-consuming music.
Hope ultimately means extension -- expansion of life, from the single-celled to the multi-cellular species, into the distant future. Again, it is not an intangible concept, but manifestly elemental biological alchemy that propels us to proliferate. Hope is multiplication, the universal fact. You can see hope manifest itself, with unavoidable and undeniable lucidity, and ferocity in the wild. The exigency to extend oneself, the dances of the bird-of-paradise in hope of attracting its own eternity, the aboriginal gyrations around fire, hoping for that permanence, and the plant life, emblematic of health and longevity, put out hope, with astounding schemes to disperse their future. Amazing, if you have the time to stop and think. At this point you may ask: where is this all leading to?
Before I unwittingly expend all my energy, I want to corral myself against drifting on the main issue: Kepler-22B as hope. We must comprehend, and contemplate on this conversion table, to understand the hope a planet like the earth represents, somewhere "nearby" -- especially for a species, on the brink of self-destruction.
1 Kilometer (km) = 0.621 mile (mi)
1 Astronomical unit (AU) = 149,598,000 km = 93 million mi
1 AU = 8.3 light-minutes
1 Light-year (ly) = 63, 241 AU = 9.46 trillion km
1 ly = 5.87 trillion mi
"I admit the moon has seas."
—Johannes Kepler, 1571-1630, from a conversation with Galileo's Sidereal Messenger.
In March of 2009, NASA launched the "Kepler mission," named in honor of the 17th century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler. It was an American Space Observatory equipped with a powerful telescope and other instruments to discover earth like planets in the orbits of other suns in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The perspicaciously-conceived mission parameters entailed observation of stars through an instrument called a "photometer." This instrument is able to monitor the brightness of over 145,000 "main sequence stars"; in other words, continuous and distinctive bands of stars that are plotted for color versus brightness. What they monitored were the "periodic fluctuations in light" emitted by a star(s) that indicated the presence of "extrasolar planets" that are in the process of orbiting the face of their suns. On February 2, 2011, the Kepler mission team released some understated yet profound data that proved their hypothesis accurate. They had found 1,235 planetary bodies circling 997 host stars, or suns.
On the third day of the Kepler mission's scientific operations, in mid 2009, they discovered what appeared to be a planet with "earthly conditions," and called it Kepler-22B. I cannot begin to fathom the kind of data and calculations necessary to ascertain the conditions of an orbiting body that far, and to release that information in amazing detail is nothing short of spelling hope. The mind-numbing press release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) offered this: Kepler-22B had a radius 2.4 times that of the earth, and was 600 light years away, which meant that it was 3,522 trillion miles away. The composition and structure are unknown, but it could contain 13.8 earth masses, and if watered like the earth, it would field a surface gravity of 0.43 times that of earth. Kepler-22B's host planet is 15% less hot than our sun, and this satellite planet is also 15% closer to its host than the sun is to the earth. This means that the combination of shorter distance and the star's luminosity is consistent with moderate surface temperature, calculated at 22 degrees centigrade, around 70-plus degrees Fahrenheit.
Why get excited over a planet that is a few billion lifetimes away? All these numbers are intimidating, overwhelming, and to a great extent surreal, but it has a galactic scale impact on our psyche. It gives us hope in the incredible prospect of finding one in our neighborhood. Isn't that what this is all about? You think crossing the North Sea and the Atlantic for Leif Ericson, over a thousand years ago, was a breeze? Nevertheless, some generation, in the future, would probably become the "Ericson Mission" to cross the great blackness, at light speed, to arrive and survive on a new planet.
We are rapidly exhausting or destroying our irreplaceable resources. In the biological sphere, small life forms move on and migrate to another food source to exploit after they are done with the present one, like the ants, or the bees, or the butterflies; but larger forms of life find it difficult to move on, and they become extinct. Is that our fate? Humans will soon be on a barren planet, of their making, and will have no place to go. This brings me to the other contentious issue: what is the present budget for NASA and JPL? The answer: an invisible pittance, at $18.724 billion for fiscal year 2011! In fact, the National Football League, and the Major League Baseball TV deals are more than that... and this is no game we are talking about.
NASA and JPL are constituted of teams, with selectively brilliant and ingenious scientists who have been charged with a gargantuan task of giving us hope at $62.42 per head ($18.72 billion divided by 300 million people). At that price, you can't even afford a one-night stand. If we had continued our funding for the NASA's manned missions, after that awesome Apollo program, we would have been on the Mars by the late '80s, and probably servicing a colony out there. If you have any doubts, I suggest you read Dr. Robert Zubrin's "The Case for Mars." If NASA got funded with $500 billion over the next few years, I am certain that we could develop faster and more powerful renewable energy systems based on atomic fusion or alternative energy sources that could power and cover the galactic space in speeds necessary to make a difference within the human life span. Consider this: it took 500 years from Da Vinci's dreams of flight to the Wright Brothers' Flyer, then it took a mere 66 years to be on the moon, and after that, what?
Here is what we did instead: the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the trillion dollar bailouts for businesses with dying business models, and corrupt banks, and worst of all, two wars in the Middle East, with a price tag of another trillion dollars. Now we are getting ready for China. We have bailed out everything but ourselves as a species. Hey Mr. President... how about giving us some hope... by funding it?!
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)