Kepler 70b: The Coolest Exoplanet

Finding Other Worlds

In today’s movies we see advanced alien civilizations all the time. The existence of some other intelligent beings on some faraway planet of a distant galaxy is not as far-fetched as it once seemed. Granted, we still have a long way to go before we’re casually visiting any galactic neighbors, but the simple prospect of life existing on a planet besides ours is completely within the scientific scope of our time. That is why we are searching. We are searching the skies, using a variety of detection methods. And for the most part, what we are attempting to detect is exoplanets. Based on our current understanding of life in the universe, exoplanets, specifically Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars, present the most likely environment in which life would arise separately from our planet. So far, a few thousand exoplanets have been discovered (but many not yet confirmed) using several different methods of detection, some more common than others. The majority of exoplanets right now are discovered using radial velocity and planetary transits, but other methods include gravitational microlensing, which uses the magnification of light due to gravity as a planetary litmus test, and pulsar timing, which picks up changes in the orbit of neutron star pulsars due to the effects of orbiting planets. While all methods of detection are effective, some, like transits, are more reliable, easier, and more valuable as far as the information we can gain. This is why in March 2009, NASA launched the Kepler telescope to find Earth-like planets using planetary transits. The telescope uses a

Figure 1- This shows how perceived brightness changes as a planet transits a star. Credit: CNES

Figure 1-
This shows how perceived brightness changes as a planet transits a star. Credit: CNES

photometer to monitor the apparent brightness of tens of thousands of stars within a 102 degree section of sky. Periodic dips in a star’s brightness can indicate the presence of an exoplanet. In the diagram above [1], the light curve shows the dip in brightness as the planet passes in front of the star. Variations in this type of light curve can provide information about the mass, speed, size, and orbit of the planet. But there are also other explanations for dips in brightness, such as “sunspots” on the surface of the star or, although less likely, passing asteroids. In order to confirm the existence of an exoplanet, the photometer’s data must show three regular transits in front of the star, indicating that the object is indeed orbiting. For any planet within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star, these three orbits should take no more than 7.5 years, this being the time that it takes Mars (at the outer boundary of our habitable zone) to complete four orbits. This was also the planned duration of Kepler’s mission, although damages to components on the craft now endanger its completion. Up to this point though, Kepler has discovered 134 confirmed exoplanets and over 3000 unconfirmed planets, giving us at least more information than we had before on the nature and number of planetary systems in the Milky Way Galaxy.

A Planet With A History

One of these systems, discovered by the Kepler telescope on December 22, 2011, is a small planetary system in the Cygnus constellation orbiting a subdwarf B star called Kepler 70. Although discovered by the Kepler telescope, the actual method of discovery of the exoplanets Kepler 70b and 70c was the reflection of starlight by the planets, rather than the blocking of it. The planet that is of particular interest, mainly due to its more extreme conditions, is Kepler 70b.

Millions of years ago, Kepler 70 was a main sequence star, but a little before 18.4 million years ago, it went through it’s red giant stage, engulfing the two orbiting gas giants (Kepler 70b and 70c). The diagram below[2] shows how a red giant might pull its satellites into closer orbits before moving to the subdwarf stage.

Figure 2- This shows planetary engulfment during the red giant stage leading to a subdwarf star. This is what is speculated to have occurred in the Kepler 70 system. Credit: Kempton

Figure 2- This shows planetary engulfment during the red giant stage leading to a subdwarf star. This is what is speculated to have occurred in the Kepler 70 system. Credit: Kempton

It is unclear how these planets actually survived being dragged into the red giant envelope of their star and whether their disruption altered the evolution of their host star, but there they remain, as two hot planetary cores, closely orbiting their host star, stripped of any atmosphere they might have once had. The host star, Kepler 70, is currently a subdwarf, meaning that it is a post-red giant fusing helium that will contract to a white dwarf once fusion ceases after about 100 million years. The majority of the time, subdwarf stars are part of a binary star system in which one of the stars somehow strips off the outer layers, leaving only a thin layer of hydrogen and mostly helium. That is the theory anyway. In the case of Kepler 70, the same appears to have happened, but with orbiting planets, rather than another star. This branch off of the typical Hertzprung-Russell diagram can be seen below[3] as the dark blue band on the left of the diagram. Like white dwarves, the subdwarf Kepler 70 is incredibly hot, with a surface temperature of 27, 730 K (almost five times hotter than our Sun), but it is also still very luminous, with a luminosity of 18.9 solar lumens, likely due to the fact that it is still undergoing fusion. This intensely hot and luminous star, coupled with Kepler 70b’s 0.006 AU 5.7 hour orbit, makes the planet an unlikely candidate for life, to say the least, despite its “coolness factor”.

Figure 3- The extended Hertzprung- Russell diagram of star types, which plots the temperature of stars (K) against the mass and luminosity. Kepler 70 would fall under the dark blue band on the left of the diagram representing subdwarf stars. Credit: Heber (2009, ARAA, 47, 211)

Figure 3- The extended Hertzprung- Russell diagram of star types, which plots the temperature of stars (K) against the mass and luminosity. Kepler 70 would fall under the dark blue band on the left of the diagram representing subdwarf stars. Credit: Heber (2009, ARAA, 47, 211)

 

Not Exactly A Hotbed For Life

When looking at the statistics for Kepler 70b, it does not take much to figure out that it is certainly not a habitable planet. The first indicator should be that it is much too close to its host star to be anywhere near the habitable zone. The habitable zone for Kepler 70 can be roughly estimated using eq. {1}, where our Sun’s habitable zone is used for Router and Rinner, the inner and outer radial boundaries of our habitable zone (.95 AU and 1.4 AU respectively) and L is the luminosity (L/L¤) of Kepler 70:

R_hz=R_inner(sq root(L))- R_outer(sq root(L))

In order to do this though, first the luminosity of Kepler 70 must be calculated using eq. {2}, where σ is the Stefan-Boltzman constant (5.67×10-8Wm-2K4), r is the radius of the star, and T is the temperature of the star.

L=4pi(r)^2(sigma) T^4

When the luminosity is calculated, using the scorching 27,730 K surface temperature of Kepler 70 and the star’s radius of 1.4×108m, it comes out to be 18.9 solar luminosities (L/L¤), or 18.9 times more luminous than our sun. This number can then be used in eq. {1} to calculate the habitable zone of Kepler 70, which comes out to be 4.13-6.08 AU (using the conservative estimate for our Sun; .95-1.4), or 3.65-7.39 AU (using the optimistic estimate; .84-1.7). No matter which estimate is used though, Kepler 70b orbits at a distance of 0.006 AU from its host star, where it receives extreme radiation. It is not even close to being inside the habitable zone. Although the width of the habitable zone for Kepler 70 is about 5 times wider than that of our Sun, it does no good if the planets are not within it.

What being so far inside of the habitable zone means for Kepler 70b, is that it is hot, and not just “planet hot.” Kepler 70b is hotter than the surface of our Sun. Taking the luminosity found in eq. {2}, the equilibrium temperature can be calculated in eq. {3}, where A is the albedo of the planet, D is the distance to the star, Lstar is the luminosity of the star, and Lnow is the luminosity of our Sun in its current state (1 L¤). This equation shows the surface temperature of the planet due solely to stellar radiation, assuming no atmosphere. And since Kepler 70b has no atmosphere, because it was evaporated during Kepler 70’s red giant phase, in which the planet was engulfed, this temperature calculation is relatively true to the actual surface temperature on the planet.

T(eq)=278KxL^1/4x(1-A)^1/4/(sq root(D))

So, using the luminosity of 18.9 L¤ from eq. {2}, the distance of 0.006 AU to the host star, and an estimated albedo of 0.1, the equilibrium temperature comes out to roughly 7300 K, about 2000 K hotter than the surface of the Sun. There is no doubt that liquid water, or any liquid solvent for life, is impossible on Kepler 70b. Therein lies the irony in that Kepler 70b is the coolest exoplanet.

While there are more factors that contribute to the habitability of a planet, the ones already discussed will, for the most part, ensure that no life can exist. As far as our current understanding leads us to believe, if a planet is not within the habitable zone, it is extremely unlikely to harbor life. It will either be too hot or too cold, and will have too much or too little atmosphere. And given the history of Kepler 70b, it seems unlikely to contain life anyway. At one point, during the star’s main sequence life, it could have been possible that Kepler 70b was in a better proximity for life to arise, being a gas giant with an atmosphere. But now it’s really only a burned up planet core hurtling all too close to a dying star. It has no atmosphere, no water, and no prospects for life. Even if life were somehow possible there, through means that we do not have the science to explain or understand, what kind of life form would want to live there?

What If…

This now marks the departure into sci-fi. Clearly, life is not possible on a planet as hot and barren as Kepler 70b. At over 7000 K one would be hard pressed to find any kind of liquid, especially with such low pressure, since the mass of Kepler 70b is only 0.44 Earth masses. The only kind of life that it seems remotely reasonable to expect would be some kind of thermophile bacteria, but something unlike anything we have ever seen. But that would make for a very boring planet…

COME ONE, COME ALL! CALLING ALL HYPERTHERMOPHILES! THIS COULD BE JUST THE LIFE CHANGING VACATION YOU HAVE NEEDED.

I have no idea know how many times in the last month I have heard from desperate inhabitants of Altair and Canopus looking to escape the summer heat of their home stars. And this could just be the perfect solution.  I am talking about Kepler 70b; and boasting temperatures as low as 7300 K, it is the perfect summer getaway. Due to its close proximity to its sun, you will feel just like you are at home, but with the exotic ambiance of a semi terrestrial world. If you love the extreme, then come try the orbital experience, traveling at over 950,000 km/h! Come experience the natural plasma hot springs! And with only 5 ½ hour days, beautiful sunsets and sunrises are all the more abundant. Here on Kepler 70b, paradise awaits.

 

Life Might Not Find A Way…

Back in reality, there is really no chance that life could exist on Kepler 70b. The hallmark of habitability is liquid water. Although we have found organisms on Earth that appear to survive without it, it seems unlikely that life could arise in its absence. The habitable zone around our Sun marks the area in which the equilibrium temperature allows for abundant liquid water, given the right atmospheric conditions, as does the habitable zone around the subdwarf Kepler 70. But that zone is from roughly 4 AU away from the star to 6 AU away. If Kepler 70b were within this range, then, given an appropriate atmosphere, it would be possible to have liquid water and theoretically life. But it is not. So the fact that it has no atmosphere is irrelevant. None of the other parameters for habitability matter if the planet is too hot for a liquid solvent for life. That is why, despite their entertainment factor, planets like this one are not prime targets in the search for life. What we are looking for is Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars, because that is what we know. But that is not to say that there is nothing to be learned from systems like Kepler 70, only that the search for extraterrestrial life is going to have to search elsewhere.

Bibliography:

Barlow, Brad N. “Brad Newton Barlow.” Research. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

Bennett, Jeffrey O., and G. Seth. Shostak. Life in the Universe. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Pearson Addison-Wesley, 2012. Print.

Charpinet, S., G. Fontaine, P. Brassard, E. M. Green, V. Van Grootel, S. K. Randall, R. Silvotti, A. S. Baran, R. H. Ostensen, S. D. Kawaler, and J. H. Telting. “A Compact System of Small Planets around a Former Red-giant Star.”Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

“Exoplanet.eu.” The Extrasolar Planet Encyclopaedia — KOI-55 B. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

“Kepler (spacecraft).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

“Kepler-70.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

“Kepler-70b.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

Images:

 

[1] http://www.cornellcollege.edu/physics/courses/phy312/student-projects/extra-solar-planets/extra-solar-planets.html

[2] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v480/n7378/fig_tab/480460a_F1.html

[3] http://physics.highpoint.edu/~bbarlow/subdwarfs.html

JR diagram

Untitled

This diagram shows the expected, but nonetheless interesting, correlation between the wealth of countries and the number of successful ascents of Mount Everest from that country. Clearly this is because countries where there is more wealth are more likely to have more people willing to pay the tens of thousands of dollars that it costs to be guided up Everest. These more “representatives” on the mountain means that more people from those countries are likely to summit. But it also reveals some trends that could have deeper implications about certain countries and societies. Now, this does bring up the whole issue of the commercialization of Everest and how it has become a non-climbers mountain in many ways, and I could rant on this topic for hours, but I’ll refrain from that for now because it isn’t essential to explaining the diagram.

“The Main Sequence”

For the most part, countries fall into a moderately strong direct relationship between GDP per capita and the number of ascents on Everest. In this majority relationship, one sees countries like the United States at the very top, with a very high GDP (~50,000) and a very high number of ascents (536). The United States is a perfect example of this relationship, a very high income, and therefore a very high number of people willing to pay to “live their dream” and climb Everest. And on the other end of the main sequence, there are countries like Egypt and Armenia, both with one ascent each, and both with very low GDP’s (in the 6,000 range). Everywhere between there are countries with moderate GDP’s and a moderate number of ascents, filling out the main relationship.

“The Outliers”

While most countries fit into the “main sequence”, there are a few that fall to either side. One that stands out is Nepal, and to a lesser extent China. Both of these countries have very low GDP’s. Yet, they have high numbers of ascents (China with 299, and Nepal with the highest number: 2264). This deviation from the rest of countries can be largely attributed to proximity, Everest being on the border between Nepal and Tibet, and culture. For as long as humans have been climbing Everest, the Sherpa culture of Nepal has been a part of it, acting as guides and porters. Due to this, Nepal has a disproportionately high number of ascents when you look at their wealth. The same goes for China, although to a lesser extent. This shows that, although it has become a big part of the expedition climbing culture, money is not the only thing that matters.

The other outlier group is the countries with very high GDP’s but low numbers of ascents, like Norway and Singapore. Theoretically, there should be lots of ascents from these countries due to their wealth, but there aren’t. This raises the question of how much interest and culture play a role in Everest pursuits. For many, there is a strong desire to conquer and shoot for the highest heights, like for example the United States. That is a deeply engrained part of our culture. But perhaps that isn’t so for every nation.

 

Data From:

http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/everest/

“List of Countries by GDP (PPP) per Capita.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013. (

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita#cite_note-3)

The Ethics of Climate Change?

Although difficult to express  in this medium, that title should be accompanied by quite a bit of sarcasm and cynicism. I recently read an article entitled “The Ethics of Climate Change” which discussed largely the economic and business ethics side of global climate change. And I can’t say I agreed with it. In fact it annoyed me quite a lot. In the article, the author talks about weighing the potential costs against the potential benefits. But when this is the kind of thinking that we are employing  on an issue like this, especially when we are pouring literally billions each year into destroying this planet (people and all), then something needs to change.

Now, of course I realize that businesses are most likely to make a big change in climate change efforts in this country. Where the money is is always where the major players are. And what they’re most likely to listen to, most of the time, is how dumping money into climate change efforts is going to effect them, in which case the previously mentioned article might be on the right track. But this is not how it should be. The fact that our planet is slowly dying should be enough to give them pause. So should the fact that an estimated 5 million people die each year due to the effects of climate change and fossil fuels.

5 million.

7.6 million is the number of people killed by cancer each year.

climmapsmall0906

If that isn’t enough to get through to anybody, then it might be a lost cause… As of now, this is the only planet that we have that is habitable. And as far as we know, we are the only life, let alone intelligent life, in the universe. So it seems irresponsible, if not downright idiotic, to just “let the next generation deal with it”. It shouldn’t matter what is going on in the world, what war we’ve gotten ourselves in to, or what economic throes we are currently in. You can’t put a cost/ benefit analysis on the longevity of the human race. No one can just ignore the death of future generations. And perhaps this is because they don’t have to. They aren’t even made aware of it.

The other major problem with climate change philosophy is public awareness. Compared to other countries, the effort to fight climate change in the United States is just sad. The people who are actually aware of the seriousness of the issue generally don’t have the power or voice to make enough of an impact. The ones who do for some reason like to keep it a secret and ignore its existence. (Remember the whole climate change is a myth thing…) And to me, this just doesn’t make sense.

What I do think is that we need a complete overhaul of how we view climate change and what we are doing about it. If we don’t, we will never make any real progress.

Prehistoric Pollen

A current study out of the Paleontological Institute and Museum at the University of Zurich has documented “plant-like pollen” dating back 100 million years prior to the previously believed origin of flowering flora. This shifted the origin of flowering plants to the early to mid Triassic, rather than the Cretaceous. This fossilized pollen was discovered in two drilling cores from northern Switzerland, about 3000 km south of the site of a previous study in which a different plant like pollen fossil was discovered. This helped to solidify the belief that flowering plant life arose long before previously thought. While we don’t yet know what these plants may have looked like or the exact nature of their life and existence, this discovery acts as a reminder that we still have much to learn about the nature and history of life on Earth, and that before we become too focused in our search for extraterrestrial life, we should allow ourselves to become better acquainted with the life right here on our planet.

Gallery_Image_10913

 

The Immortal Microbe

Researchers at Harvard University and The Max-Planck Institute have just published a very interesting discovery about one of the most studied microorganisms on Earth. Their studies appear to suggest that S. pombe yeast does not grow old when placed under favorable conditions;  it is immortal. While this might seem unlikely when we think back to the requirements for life, including growth, development, and aging, this discovery is based in the manner in which yeast reproduces. When most asexual microorganisms reproduce, they divide themselves into one mother cell that inherits all of the damage to the cell and continues to age and one daughter cell which is “fully rejuvenated”. So over generations of cells, there is a clear decrease in the generational turnover time as cells become more and more damaged. This is not, however, what occurs with S. pombe.  In yeast, the damage in the cell appears to be divided between the two daughter cells so that each one takes an equal portion of the damage to the mother cell, but both have less overall damage than the mother cell. “If the cell grows and divides fast enough, the damage is diluted with each division. And provided that the total amount of damage does not overcome a certain death threshold, the cells can in theory divide indefinitely (Miguel Coehlo, first author of the paper).”

 

S. pombe

S. pombe

So what does this have to do with the origin of life, or life on other planets? Well, perhaps not a whole lot. But what this does tell us is that we still have a lot to learn about the inner workings of life on our own planet. We are far from understanding exactly how life works. So in the search for life on other planets, we must keep an open mind. It is quite likely that, even if we were to discover life outside of Earth, in the seas of Europa or the ice of Enceladus, we might not recognize it. While life shares many characteristics, there is also inherently an incredible amount of diversity in the development and existence of life. We have a relatively good footing in the definition of life, but we are still at a loss when it comes to the big picture of how and why we are alive. And given that we barely understand our own existence, it seems like we should perhaps broaden our expectations in looking for life in the universe. We never know, after all, what form it will take on and whether it will even remotely resemble the life that we are accustomed to.

deepfield

 

 

Bontemps, Johnny. “A Microbe’s Fountain of Youth.” A Microbe’s Fountain of Youth. Astrobiology Magazine, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.

Images:

http://adoubtersramblings.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/07-14-2010-a-fine-tuned-universe/

http://www.astrobio.net/exclusive/5722/a-microbes-fountain-of-youth

 

Alone in the Universe? Or Not?

The field of astrobiology addresses the issues of life and habitability in the universe. While there is still no conclusive evidence that points towards life outside of Earth, there is certainly evidence that suggests habitability on other planets and moons. Given that advanced life already exists on Earth though, there are important considerations (social, religious, individual) regarding the discovery, or lack of discovery, of life.

First of all, if we never discover any signs of current life, or any life for that matter (which seems increasingly unlikely as more discoveries are made), this will impart a significant impact upon human life. This would mean that we are the only living beings in the universe. Although it is quite doubtful that we would ever have the capability to confirm this, the prospect of solitude within the universe, considering its absolute vastness, would be staggering. In addition to a sense of loneliness, knowing that there are no alien brethren out there, this raises questions of purpose. If we truly are the only life in the universe, one has to ask why. Is it possible that there is some reason behind our creation, evolution, and development, that life here, on Earth, has some higher meaning than just a chain of coincidental chemical reactions. Is perhaps our meaning in existence to make it to the point in evolved thought and interpretation that we can understand why and how we came about, chemically and biologically, in our world, such as aspects of the anthropic principle might imply. Or is there some religious truth to our existence, some higher meaning to life and a higher being who oversees it. While it is also unlikely that we will ever discover a “meaning of life”, it is certain that there are many interpretations of our meaning as living beings, and while some are scientifically unlikely, none of them are necessarily wrong. This, in and of itself, gives a bright tint to our dark and lonely existence, the idea that individuals are independent in how they view our purpose on Earth and free to act upon those views however they see fit.

The other possibility is that life is plentiful in the universe, that it is a rather common occurrence, and that our existence on Earth is really nothing special. Given the sheer number of galaxies in the universe containing stars just like our sun, and likely planets just like ours, it seems increasingly doubtful that we are alone in the universe. Now, it is true that we have not found concrete evidence suggesting life that is currently in existence outside of Earth. But this is no reason not to believe that, at some point during the universe’s 4.6 billion year existence, in some corner of its hundreds of billions of galaxies, life has arisen. It seems almost foolish to think that we are truly the only life around. So, if (and I do believe when…) we discover life elsewhere in the universe, there are also some implications for humans. This possibility for life in the universe makes our existence seem far less significant. There is probably no higher meaning or purpose for human life, a potentially large blow to the religious interest on life in the universe. It implies that humans are just another creation of the right combination of planetary conditions. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that life on Earth is pointless and insignificant. While we have no idea if there may be much further evolved societies out among the stars, the things that we humans have accomplished as a race during our time on Earth, in addition to all of the living organisms on Earth, are an incredible feat and a definite “success story” for life in the universe.

So right now, we don’t really know what to think. While there is plentiful evidence suggesting potential life, or at least the necessary conditions for it, we have no definitive evidence for life outside of our home planet. Only time and continued research will tell whether we are the sole inhabitants of the universe, or just another creation of coincidence. No matter what we discover though, the societal impacts here on Earth will be felt.

The Largest Aquifer On Earth

At the edge of a remote Mid-Atlantic ocean ridge, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) is using a  470-foot drill to take scientific samples of the ocean crust. Recent discoveries have shown that the deep ocean, once thought lifeless, is actually a hotbed for microbial ecosystems, collectively known as the “deep biosphere”. Using this drill, scientists are able to extract and analyze sediment cores to look at oxygen consumption and other factors that give insight into the survival of these microbial ecosystems. Findings using this drill have revealed that oxygen is “disappearing from seawater circulating through deep oceanic crust.” These findings seem to suggest that the microbes living within the oceanic crust, literally “buried alive”, are utilizing the oxygen in the deep ocean. Although this is just a first step, it provides concrete evidence for ideas that have been suspected for a long time. With this evidence, scientists can begin to quantify the metabolism of the deep biosphere, and to better understand how this ecosystem functions. This type of knowledge will, in turn, help us to better understand chemical cycling and the nature of life and existence on Earth. This could be big for the search for extraterrestrial life because it gives us a better understanding of biological and chemical processes here on Earth. The amount of life that is contained within the deep ocean crust is vast, and a better understanding of the inner workings of this ecosystem will only aid in the search for livable conditions outside of our planet, as well as life itself.

How Free is Freewill?

How Free is Freewill?

 

“…a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.” (Wells 201)

 

A Call for Reflection

Originally published in 1901, H. G. Wells’ The First Men In the Moon presents a space travel voyage not quite up to par with the modern technicality of today’s science fiction. But despite the unlikely science, the social and political commentary springing from the final crossing of earthly and lunar worlds makes for a very different and spectacular kind of science fiction story. It is a story in which the idea of biologically engineering organisms from birth challenges the proclivity of humanity’s striving for independence. The concepts of inner differentiation between people and war between brothers drive a need to question our ways. The shock of the beings encountered on the moon upon hearing of the nature of Earth seeks to question our tendency towards the haven of choice and freewill, but ultimately to reassure us that it is the right direction.

 

A Journey Into Worlds

The novel begins with the mischance convergence of two very different people, Cavor, the classic professor and scientist, and Bedford, the capitalistic businessman and writer. They meet in the village of Lympne, in England, where each is working on what they individually deem the projects of their lives. Bedford is writing a play, which helps to develop the idea that he is on the far end of the social spectrum from the scientist. Cavor is working on a new compound, although unsuccessfully until coming together with Bedford, which is opaque to gravity. In essence, it is a compound that can defy gravity. Soon after the first synthesis of this compound, which they call Cavorite, Cavor becomes fixed on the idea of going to the moon using this new substance. All of the creation of Cavorite and the sphere in which they travel is then followed by a questionably smooth journey from Earth to the Moon. Soon after their arrival on an apparently barren and frozen Moon, the lunar sunrise gives life to all manner of exotic flora that grow at an incredible rate. “Darting shrubs, swelling cacti, creeping lichens,” and “interminable thickets of scrub” (71, 77) quickly overtake the two men, and their sphere. Lost, panicked, and hungry, the explorers stumble upon what appears to be an entrance into the interior of the Moon where they discover, and inevitably are captured by, a race of creatures, deemed Selenites after the moon goddess Selene. While Cavor tries to make some sort of communication of intelligence to the uncomprehending Selenites, Bedford’s efforts result in the discovery that the moon creatures are quite fragile due to the lower gravity of the moon. The men also discover that the crowbar-like tools that the Selenites are using are made of pure gold, which is apparently abundant inside of the moon. Using these tools as weapons the two men escape with their lives, and of course, two solid gold crowbars that Bedford plans to return to Earth with. Despite their aggressive evasion of captivity, Cavor and Bedford are still left with the problem of finding the sphere, their ride home. They decide to leave a flag as a waypoint at the center of the crater they are in and split up to try to find the sphere. This invariably leads to Bedford’s discovery of the sphere and Cavor’s disappearance when Bedford goes looking for him. Rationalizing that Cavor is lost, and with the fatal lunar night approaching, Bedford returns to the sphere and then to Earth, again quite easily. After landing conveniently back in England, Bedford stays in a small village where he learns of a man named Mr. Wendigee who has been receiving messages in fragmented English from somewhere on the Moon.

In the finale of the novel, we hear Bedford’s narrative of Cavor’s messages. After Cavor’s capture, he is brought to the interior of the Moon, to the great sea. He discovers that the Selenites are conditioned from birth to fulfill a certain role in society. They become extremely suited to that role both mentally and physically, and the aspects of their beings that are not necessary to that role shrivel and fade. Eventually, Cavor is brought before the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the Selenites, who is essentially a giant brain and consciousness. This is where we see the stark contrast between worlds, the intrigue, and sometimes horror, of the Selenites as Cavor shares his world with them. He tells them of the nature of Earth, of life on the surface, the atmosphere, architecture, democracy, independence, nations, and war, all things curious and disturbing to the Grand Lunar. The topic of war brings an abrupt end to the discourse. The Grand Lunar begins to ask, “but why should there be a need…” (217) But he stops. And no answer is given. Just as with the rest of the symbolic differences between humans and Selenites, the reader is left to ponder.

 

Our Place in the Universe

In a society that constantly moves further and further into an age of independence and individuality, Wells implores us, through Cavor’s intra-lunar experiences, to consider the implications of a world in which mindless efficiency rules. In the Moon, beings are given neither choice, nor freewill. They are biologically engineered from birth to fulfill a position in society.

In the moon, every citizen knows his place. He is born to that place, and the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it. (197)

For some, this means overdeveloped hands, or olfactory senses. The glass blowers have incredible lungs, while the rest of their body starves. For the thinkers though, for the leaders and the Grand Lunar, this means incredible intelligence. During the meeting between Cavor and the Grand Lunar, there are “learned heads… Not a thing in lunar science, not a point of view or a method of thinking” is excluded from the beings’ minds. (205) The Selenites are the highest level of specialists. Their society is efficient and unified. Although at times it is grotesque, it is ultimately peaceful. This presentation of a societal alternative challenges the idea that humanity is as profoundly successful as we often make it out to be. Oftentimes, humans will wander through life, without goals, without purpose, and without a place in society. The independence of choice that is such a hallmark of modern human existence is not perfect and will often lead to failure, outcast, and conflict. But it is that same independence and freewill that makes humanity great, that makes it such an incredible avenue of existence. Although the Selenite society might be perfect, perfection is not what makes a society great. What makes a society great is its character, its imperfection. It is the knowledge that we can make mistakes and fail, and that those mistakes will make society stronger. Without failure, society is stagnant. It will never move and it will never progress. We can see society within the main characters, Cavor and Bedford. They are wildly different personalities with their own intentions, thoughts, and opinions, and yet they can make this journey together and feel some sort of companionship. Upon his return to Earth, we also see a change in the initially cold and greedy Bedford. He is concerned about the fate of Cavor and seems to be willing to toss aside his life to try to help find a way to bring him back from the Moon. Both characters make mistakes along the way, and both change as a result. And in the end, despite their respective fates, they are better for it. Wells’ vision of a perfectly engineered society is one that humans could never live in, because humans need failure. Humans need independence. As Cavor tells the Grand Lunar, “Some [are] thinkers and some officials; some [hunt]; some [are] mechanics, some artists, some toilers… but all rule.” (214) The independence of humanity means that complete efficiency is impossible, for humans are not mindless, and they thrive on the idea that the entire world is a work in progress.

It is the customs of Earth and humanity themselves, and the contrast they present against those of the Moon that are used to ask us to think about the way in which this world has developed. The Selenite society beneath the cratered surface of the Moon can be seen as highly utopic. There is no error in their world. Each and every person has a place that they are perfectly suited to, so there is no reason for anything to go wrong. There is no war, no strife between people who are essentially the same. But this society is a far cry from our convoluted, secretive, human society. Upon hearing of this strange humanity, the Selenites are shocked and in awe that our world can continue at such an advanced level while it is clearly primitive in so many ways. When Cavor describes to them the idea of democracy, they wonder if people all do the same thing. Since there is not the physical differentiation as there is on the Moon, and everyone has a voice in society, they assume that people are very similar. To this Cavor responds, “Perhaps if one could see the minds and souls of men they would be as varied and unequal as the Selenites.” (214) While in the eyes of the lunar beings our world is strange and imperfect, it is the ability for its inhabitants to have so much in common, yet be so varied and beautifully diverse that makes it the exact opposite. The kind of diversity presented in the Moon may be perfect in some ways, but it brings up many other problems, and certainly is not as utopic as it might seem. But then there is war. The climax of the exchange between Cavor and the Grand Lunar comes with the topic of war.

[The Grand Lunar] was at first perplexed and incredulous. ‘You mean to say,’ he asked, seeking confirmation,’ that you run about over the surface of your world—this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape—killing one another for beasts to eat?’

I told him that was perfectly correct. (216)

The violent obsession that circles our world, everything that the Grand Lunar inquires about, is a direct result of our freewill. But there is no doubt, despite this causation, that a world in which there is no freewill, in which the lives and fates of individuals are predetermined, is no better alternative to ours. And while war is terrible and is something that no society should have to experience, it is a necessary and integral part of the world that we have built. War means an exercise of our freewill, of our independence, and not only our decision to choose, but also our ability to. On the Moon, most individuals are not even aware of the option of freewill, let alone its practice. There is no conflict, because there is barely a society to disagree. There are barely individuals; the Moon is a world of drones. The diversity and individuality of humans, although mostly interior, is the reason for war. And though it can be seen as a downfall of society, it can also be seen as beautiful when you are comparing our world to that of the Moon. War gives hope to the continuing freewill of humans. It is a beacon for the humanity we know and love. A terrible, bloody beacon. But a beacon nonetheless. When the Grand Lunar asks why should there be a need, it is because it proves that our society is still alive. There is not necessarily a need, but it shows that our world still has a pulse.

Where Do We Go Now?

Although with ambiguous intention, the ideas presented in The First Men In the Moon questions, but ultimately commends, the efficiency and success of freewill and independence in society. The strange society of beings encountered within the moon is shocked by the ways of Earth and of humans. They find it hard to believe that a society in which people have choice and freewill, and in which war and violence exist, could ever be successful, let alone thrive. But the Selenites, in their sheltered, mechanized society do not understand that the same characteristics that give them doubts about humans are also those that make them great. It is the independence, freewill, choice, and individuality of the human race that makes it all that it is, with its successes, its failures, and its overall sense of humanity on both sides of the spectrum. That said, there are aspects of the Selenite society that, alone, are superior to ours. By presenting a society with positive aspects, but that is ultimately worse off, thoughts arise about what human society could truly benefit from, what changes might need to be made in order to truly make this society everything it can be. This novel leaves many questions and issues unanswered. But as to how free freewill is on a societal scale; it is as free as it gets.

 

 

Works Cited:

Wells, H. G. The First Men In the Moon. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.

“The First Men in the Moon.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

Maddox, David. “The SF Site Featured Review: The First Men in the Moon.” The SF Site Featured Review: The First Men in the Moon. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

Mechanical Bugs?

Well, kind of…

This week, scientists at the University of Cambridge have released their discovery of naturally occurring mechanical gears in a living organism. That’s right, as awesome as bikes and trains are, nature beat us to the punch. This observation was made in the juvenile Issus coleoptratus, a small, jumping insect found very commonly in gardens throughout Europe, and represents the first discovery of mechanical gearing in a living organism.

burrows5HR

Juvenile Issus coleoptratus

Juvenile Issus coleoptratus

Just looking at the Issus, it doesn’t look like much, and it’s easy to wonder why no one thought much of it in the past. But this news marks the discovery of a truly incredible feat of evolution. The aforementioned mechanical gear structure is found in the hind legs of the Issus, and is used to bring the movement of the legs during a leap into perfect synchronicity.  The reason for this mechanical synchronicity is that the nervous system alone does not actually possess the precision to move both legs at the exact same time and rate, and a difference in motion of even a few microseconds can cause the Issus to fly out of control. This almost seems shocking given the established power that the nervous system has in living organisms, but it is equally amazing to think of the speed of movement that is required to exceed the brains ability to send synchronized nerve impulses to both legs.

What is also interesting is that these structures appear only in juvenile stage of the insect, perhaps due to the fact that the nervous system is still developing to a point where absolute synchronicity of movement is possible without mechanical assistance. At this point, scientists are unsure about connections between the juvenile and adult stages and the potential role of the structures later in life. No matter what though, this discovery highlights the incredible power of evolution on Earth, and the feats that is capable of. As the co-author Gregory Sutton states: “These gears are not designed; they are evolved…”

Sources:

Burrows, Malcolm, and Gregory Sutton. “Mechanical Gears Seen for the First Time in Nature.” Mechanical Gears Seen for the First Time in Nature. Bristol University, 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.

Images:

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2013/09/this-insect-has-the-only-mechanical-gears-ever-found-in-nature/

http://jjsphotographicblog.blogspot.com/2012/08/hopping-mad-down-in-kent.html

How the H*#@ Did That Happen?

Red Rocks Park

Red Rocks Park

If I had to choose one activity that gives Red Rocks Park in South Burlington, VT its fame, it would be cliff jumping, with cliffs ranging from 5 to 76 feet and deep water to land in. And undoubtedly, speaking from personal experience, that is the main draw to this beautiful natural area on Lake Champlain. But most people don’t take much time to stop and admire the amazing stratified quartize jutting diagonally out of the water that makes up this cliff jumping “funpark”. Furthermore, few people stop and wonder how that amazing rock actually got there. This is Vermont we are talking about after all, and rock formations like Red Rocks is a pretty rare occurrence for most of the state.

cliff

To answer the question of how Red Rocks came to be, first we have to look at plate tectonics and an early, developing Earth. Roughly 500 million years ago, Vermont was near the equator and South Burlington was part of a sand beach on the coast of the Lapetus Ocean, a precursor to the Atlantic. The sand on this beach gradually deposited and solidified into the strata of sandstone that would eventually make up Red Rocks. Then, roughly 450 million years ago, there was a collision between the coast of Vermont and a small island chain. This collision caused the Green Mountains that the state is known for to form, as well as the creation of the current quartzite cliffs due to the heat and pressure of the collision with the layers of sandstone. As continents continued to move and shape, mile-deep glaciers formed over what is now Vermont and Lake Champlain. Even when these finally receded though (roughly 13,000 years ago), Red Rocks was still under a few hundred feet of water. Only as more time passed, and the then Champlain Sea receded into the current day Lake Champlain, were the current cliffs revealed and shaped through erosion. And now, we casually jump off these cliffs without any thought about the millions of years of geological  processes that went into their creation.

Sources:

Geological history: Mazowita, Sophie. “Red Rocks Park” Rep. N.p.: n.p., 2013. Print.

 Video: “75 Foot Cliff Jump. Burlington, VT” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFWPeuD62ik