Saturday, November 11, 2017

News from Enceladus

 My interest in ancient history first developed while I was taking Western Civilization in high school. The textbook was a remarkable work that both introduced the subject and spurred me on to further reading. Because nothing so utterly labels a clumsy, shy teenager a nerd like going to the library looking for a book on the real reasons for the Trojan War. Say “Trojan” to average high school-aged male and the only thing he thinks about is that item wrapped in a foil package hiding in his wallet.

More importantly it was a truly incredible teacher by the name of Mr. Ron Edgerton that created my sense of amazement of the ancient world and the people that lived during those times. Given that I was in his class about the same time as the first version of Cosmos aired on PBS, I feel fully justied to compare him to the amazing Carl Sagan. Like Dr. Sagan, Mr Edgerton's lectures were not only intensely engaging but almost lyrical in how he presented the subject. Like Carl Sagan appearing on his version of the television show Cosmos, I came away upset when Mr. Edgerton's class was over.

When a person is first introduced to a subject certain basic questions develop for which there is no simple answer. This happened to me as I slowly came to an understanding on why ancient civilizations never sent out fleets of ships dedicated to the exploration of the world. Yes, I now know that many did, well sort of, but bear with me for a minute or two as I explain my mistaken reasoning.

It was during one of Mr. Edgerton's lectures concerning the period when the Roman Empire stood at the pinnacle of its power and influence. The Romans owned the world centered around the Mediterranean Sea, their power touched the North Sea and the entire northern coast of Africa from Egypt to what is now Morocco. And likewise, from the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula in the west to a large chunk of the Black Sea in the east. I simply couldn't fathom why the Romans didn't have fleets venturing out exploring the African coastline or Lewis and Clark-like expeditions pushing eastward.

Before I get into the meat of my semi-coherent point, in an effort for full disclosure I have to write that both the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians did in fact do a good bit of exploring. Both of those peoples established colonies all through the Mediterranean when the city of Rome was nothing but a small collection of mud huts inhabited by the ancient version of illiterate rednecks. And there are two stories, which as far as I know could be the same expedition, of Phoenicians trying to circumnavigate the entire continent of Africa strictly to see what was out there.

But as far as the Romans are concerned, I know that basically the reason they stayed largely at home revolved around the fact that they did know a little about these often desolate regions and simply saw no value in them. Of course, there was also the fact that many of the people living in those mysterious lands were quite hostile. But one component that can't be ignored is that, like many other mighty civilizations, they thought their little chunk of the world was the most special and they had everything they needed so there was no reason to go exploring.

Along those lines, China had a brief period of pure exploration during the early Ming Dynasty when they sent out the incredible Zheng He on voyages that would take him and his crew all the way to eastern Africa. What really blows the mind was that fact that his ships dwarfed anything the Europeans could build in both size and sophistication. If you could have placed one of Zheng He's ships next the best the Europeans could build at that time, it is often remarked that it would have been like placing a modern cruise ship beside a leaky rowboat.

You want to ponder “what ifs,” consider the impact if China hadn't turned inward during that time when it was truly the most powerful nation on the planet. What would the puny Europeans have done if Zheng He had sailed his fleet into the Mediterranean and visited Rome or Venice?

But the emperor that supported such expeditions died, and was replaced by a loser that probably uttered something to the effect of we shouldn't waste money such stupid projects and then went on to say he wanted to make China Great Again. This let the nations of Europe to continue their insanely slow development allowing them to build their own exploration fleets and eventually come to dominate the planet. Because of its inward looking and close-mindedness, China, once the most powerful and wealthy nation, stagnated and became the abused plaything of European countries and Japan. Just shows you how that “Making something Great Again” truly plays out in the end.

Yes, I know there are always other factors whenever some momentarily intrepid nation decides to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” For the Phoenicians, if the story I've read was correct an Egyptian pharaoh hired them to circumnavigate Africa because he wanted to claim the entire landmass. And as for the Zheng He, it was to show off the the glories of China to all the barbarians, which they considered everyone else in the world. The same is true for the Apollo Project back in the 1960's and early 1970s. We wanted to beat the Russians to the moon strictly to prove we were the baddest dudes on the planet. Pure science and discovery were just convenient passengers during the worst of the Cold War.

For us though, over time though using the space program for nationalistic purposes had taken a backseat to dedicated research. And because of that funding has dried up compared to the good old days of the Cold War, but that's not my point. What hasn't changed is the shortsighted nature of many who refuse to understand history and stupidly feel that we've discovered all that's important and are happy to spend the rest of their lives in front of a television bitching about their tax dollars being wasted.

It should be obvious to the most simple minded that just when a person, company, empire, or nation thinks they've figured everything out and can hold back change, something comes along and destroys that paradigm. This results in the creation of a new king of the proverbial mountain in the form of a new dominate empire or nation.

This all leads up to the era we find ourselves now. I could describe how certain narrow minded individuals just can't accept that the dominance of fossil fuels is now ending. Not just because our species has fraked the planetary climate, but because technology has progressed to the point that alternate sources of generating electricity now exceed oil and coal fired plants. I could mention how American car companies became complacent and in an effort to maximize profits began building crap to the point Japan came in with a better product and kicked their asses.

Ever since the Voyager space probes passed by the planets Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, we've come to understand those miniature solar systems were anything but cold and dead places. It is now overwhelming accepted that the bigger moons of both of those gas giants have liquid water oceans underneath steel-hard sheets of ice. And as far as scientists here on Earth understand, what we understand as life loves liquid water. Where Enceladus comes into play is because it has massive geysers along its south polar removing all doubt on the subject.

Recent data now suggests that Enceladus has possessed this global ocean of liquid water for perhaps billions of years. This is because its core is probably made of a porous rocky substance that when combined with the gravitational tugging from Saturn creates more than enough heat to keep the water underneath the ice sheet liquid. If I understand the idea correctly, colder water enters the porous core where it is heated from tidal friction creating a circulation effect. Hot water coming out of the core could also provide nutrients to any life living under the ice, much like ocean vents do here on Earth. In fact, the Cassini probe that until recently was orbiting Saturn flew threw Enceladus' geysers and detected numerous chemicals that are vital for the processes of life as we know it.

Yes, the average Joe Sixpack question going through many minds is just what in the hell does liquid water on Enceladus have to do with me? This circles me back to my main point, right now I admit it's extremely hard to envision some use for really distant moons. But the same could have been said for all those regions the ancient Romans ignored and the Ming Dynasty Chinese thought was beneath their contempt. Both of those empire collapsed and were replaced by other peoples and governments who were creative and dared to imagine possibilities.

In no way am I suggesting that if we put our space program into hyperdrive all our problems would suddenly be solved. Science simply doesn't work that way, if fact it often creates newer problems. What science does all accomplish though is to make humans look at life and the physical universe in a new way. For better or worse, it has created the world we live in now. Polluted and with some living in extreme misery from pissant megalomaniacs of both a political and religious nature, but it has also let us create and explore. Which if humans had to pick a purpose for existence, I would go with them.

The fact that can't be avoided, even after the bean counters and the unimaginative whine, is that we won't know what is out there and what it might teach us unless we go exploring. Only the most stunted individual wouldn't be amazed if we somehow discovered life on another planet or moon. More to the point, given that Mars and even Venus were quite similar to Earth billions of years ago, there is a real possibility that life as we know it originated on those other planets. And was seeded here on Earth after a massive asteroids slammed into one of them sending tons of surface material into space that eventually crashed here allowing evolution to take over. So it's not out of the realm of possibility that someone exploring the surface of Mars might find fossils of our ancient ancestors. Or even weirder, that a group of astronauts enter a Martian cave or deep cavern and find a few of our bacterial cousins just hanging out and occasionally releasing the puffs of methane our orbiting probes detect.

On a side note, I've left Venus out of this equation because its a real life version of running away greenhouse effect hell. If anyone ever finds a way to use it, or just explore the surface the technology involved would be almost Clarke-magical.

Pure speculation on my part but if we find evidence of life on Mars, long dead or some remnant living underground, it's probably going to be related to us. We're just too close to each other with meteorite hunters finding rocks from Mars here on Earth quite often. They can tell those rocks are from Mars from the atmospheric gases trapped inside them.

When it comes to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn possessing liquid oceans, I have a feeling any life we might find would be unique to that environment. That would mean an entirely different form nothing like we have here on Earth. Another way to compare and contrast would to liken life here on Earth to internal combustion cars while life on Enceladus (or Europa or Ganymede, or Callisto or Titan) would be an electric golf cart. Both move but are designed differently but sort of do the same thing. Discovering entirely new forms of life on those moons would mean life is common throughout the galaxy and universe.

Again this brings me back to the old question I had about why the Romans never really ventured far from home. We have a solar system filled with possibilities that could teach us things we've never imagined. Hell, if you need an economic reason there are thousands of asteroids floating between Mars and Jupiter containing all the precious metals you could ever desire. Go ahead and google the monetary value, the conservative side is so high I will not mention it.

But yet, our space program is a tepid affair, and even that is done grudgingly. But the one thing that reassures me is that someone or some group will eventually dare the impossible and take us out to those places we ignore now. Personally, I rather avoid becoming the newest version of the lazy Romans and the snobbish Ming Dynasty Chinese.


Harry Hamid said...

I like your electric golf cart analogy.

I've thought abotu this - often, actually, while watching or reading science fiction. Alien species are often depicted as basically human except maybe with a head that looks a bit like a lobster. Or green. But two legs, similar senses (maybe a couple extras), etc.

If life can only start one way, with similar recipes, that is, then life elsewhere might follow certain rules. Our neighbors might at least be as similar as, say, Venus flytraps and elephants are to each other.

But if it can start different ways, well, then we might not even recognize the other life form as a life form.

sage said...

I agree that it is a shame that we have such a limited space program these days. That said, China would have needed the Suez Canal to have really put pressure on Europe and they were a few centuries too early for that. On the other hand, I want to go to Europa, a planet made popular by Santana :)

Pixel Peeper said...

Well, the current administration isn't going to be in favor of all that scientific nonsense. After all, if you believe the earth is 7,000 years old... Sigh.

Donna said...

Wow--awesomeness! I wish The Amazing Bob was here to read this--we'd be spun off wondering and marveling over universe crap for days and, of course, then end up watching old Star Trek eps for days.