Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Stars are Made of Light (0-968)

                Look up, sometime in the dark of the morning when your night terrors wake you up. Just stop. Look. Observe. Look into the eternal blackness of the galaxy spread out in front of you. Ignore your high school chemistry and astronomy. Remove Heisenberg, Hawking, Einstein and three thousand years of cultural knowledge and understanding. Experience the heavens as your tens-removed great grandparents saw them. Innumerable points of light searing out in the indigo blanket covering the sun.
Relive the wonder you felt as an infant, seeing the amazing show put on, solely for you every evening. Realize that even now, with over a thousand years of accumulated cultural knowledge, a THOUSAND, phrases like nuclear fusion, balanced gas mixture and critical mass have little meaning when looking up in the night. The stars are made of light.
Now, without looking away from this sky-spanning chandelier of light, it’s time to do some basic math. Realize that the naked eye can see anywhere from 5 to 2000 stars from horizon to horizon, depending on how close to your local downtown your bedroom sits, and that there are about 6000 stars visible unaided from the surface of our little spinning rock spaceship. Compare that to the estimated 300 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and the estimated 176 billion galaxies observable from this particular dirtball, the resulting number of stars is a mindboggling number that can only be written in scientific notation (5.28x1022, to be precise). So in comparison, night watchers near LA can see something like 0.0000000000000000000001% of the stars, while those in the country can see a whopping 0.0000000000000000001% of the stars while they look up with you. Finally, the (even more guesstimated) estimates put about 1.4 trillion planets in that visible portion of our galaxy, at the lowest estimation, and if even 1/100 of 1% of those spend enough time in the habitable zone around their star to support life, then there could be as many as 14 million other species out there in the blackness, looking up at the same time as you are. You could be unknowingly looking at each other right now, wondering if anyone else is out there.

This exact though process has been completed on a widespread, cultural level by every spacefaring race, and a generation or less later, they flung their best and brightest out into the void to go find those other watchers.

Enter the warp drive. That’s not what it’s really called, but the proper name has all 10 major engineers’ last names, the project name and the facility name as part of its proper title, and numerous seasons of Star Trek rerun infinitely have enshrined the name “Warp Drive” into the collective consciousness of Earth, so warp drive is what it’s called in conversation. There are only about, well exactly 10 people who really understand how the warp drive works, but the explanation to laymen and world leaders alike goes something like this:
“You know how gravity pulls you back to the ground when you jump, and the opposite poles of magnets attract each other and stick together?”
                “Well, yeah.”
“Okay, it’s doesn’t actually function anything like that, but it feels the same.”
“The warp drive doesn’t use magnetism or gravity to generate faster than light travel, but using the plotting computer, the drive locks on to a sufficiently heavy spatial object, like a star or planet, and is then drawn to it at up to FTL speeds.”
“So what stops the ship from crashing into the object?”
“Warp drive travels from heavy body to heavy body in a spatially straight line, so to decelerate, the computer just locks on to the departure object (the one you just left) and the attempt to draw itself back to that point slows the ship. Then you just unlock at the right moment and have a zero velocity spaceship, positioned right where you want to be, assuming you have a good pilot.”
“What happens if you don’t?”
“You slam into a rock planet, get swallowed up by a gas giant or burn up in the corona of a star.”
“Don’t worry, it’s fine.”
“If you say so. Wait, so what about locking onto something really heavy, like a black hole?”
“We don’t ever talk about what happened to the Their Shadows Deep.”

So there we went, doing what Humanity does best. Taking our best and brightest, encasing them in a shell of advanced polymers and alloys, then slingshotting them directly at some galactic object, and hoping their onboard math is good enough to stop them before they hit it.
Governments, militaries, foundations and concerned citizens all vied for the right to install the equipment they thought most necessary on these early missions into the unknown, with varying degrees of success. Early explorers of Alpha Centauri and Epsilon Erandi left in craft named China-US Time Warner Virgin ”Embark 1” and other such titles, equipped with a dazzling array of licensed broadcasting equipment (provided at no small charge by Time Warner), high-wattage chemical lasers (demanded most strenuously by Chinese and American Admiralty) and pretty paint jobs (sponsored by Coca-Cola, Fig Newton and Rogaine). When they arrived, they found exactly what was expected, Alpha Centauri Bb was in fact a “lava world” unsuitable for any form of habitation and devoid of rare elements, Epsilon Eridani b was a gas giant with an abnormally high concentration of super-dense oxygen, but otherwise unremarkable, and Kepler-22b was indeed a super-Earth, with a median temperature of 72-degrees Farenheight, but with the surface entirely ocean, and an almost entirely predatory carbon cycle, it too was passed on for colonization. So went exploration after exploration, and with countless trillions of dollars seemingly wasted, so the golden age of corporate-sponsored intergalactic travel ended.

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