We Just Got Our ’30s Sci-Fi Plots Back

By now, you’ve heard that seven – count ’em, seven – terrestrial planets have been discovered orbiting the ultra-cool M8 star Trappist-1.  According to the paper that the research team released yesterday, all of them could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, although only three are judged to be good candidates: the authors’ model considers it likely that the three innermost planets have succumbed to a runaway greenhouse effect and that the outermost is too cold.  But that still leaves three potentially habitable planets in a single system.

Those three – Trappist-1e, 1f and 1g – range from .62  to 1.34 estimated Earth masses, and as one would expect from a red-dwarf system, they’re  tidally locked and orbit close to their star with periods of 6 to 12 days.  Their orbits are also very close to each other.  The distance between the orbits of 1e and 1f is .009 AUs – about 830,000 miles – and 1f passes within 750,000 miles of 1g.  This is a system that, even according to its discoverers, shouldn’t exist – their model gives it only an 8.1 percent chance of surviving for a billion years – but as they point out, it obviously does.

There are many more fascinating details about the Trappist-1 system and still more that we have yet to learn.  The discoverers hope that further research, and the launch of the James Webb space telescope next year, will enable them to confirm the details of the planets’ atmospheres and possibly look for biological signatures.  But in the meantime, for those of us who write SF, the discovery of the Trappist-1 system means this: we just got our pulp-era plots back.

We’ve all read stories from the heady days of the 1930s in which the intrepid heroes travel to Mars or Venus in a few days, take off their space suits, breathe the air, encounter exotic life forms and interact with non-human societies.  As we learned more about our solar system, that all got taken away.  The jungles of Venus and the canals of Barsoom have long since been relegated to the realm of nostalgia, and if we want aliens in our stories, we have to cross impossible interstellar distances to find them.

But now, there’s a system where all that can happen!  Three habitable worlds with orbits less than a million miles apart, Hohmann transfers that can be done in a few weeks with inspired 1950s tech – we’ve got the ingredients for interplanetary travel that’s almost as easy as pulp writers imagined it.  And a citizen of Trappist-1f might actually find that Old Venus jungle world one planet in and an arid Old Mars one planet out, and generations of its people could watch their neighbors’ fields and cities grow and dream of one day visiting them.  All we need to do to make pulp stories into hard SF again is move them 40 light years.

All right, we’d need to do a little more than that.  The planets are tidally locked – and with zero eccentricity, they don’t have libration-generated twilight zones – so we’d need to model the day-side and night-side weather.  We’d need to account for the tidal and geological effects of so many worlds so close together, and the atmosphere had better have plenty of ozone to protect against UV and X-ray emissions.  But none of those constraints are deal-breakers, and within them, Weinbaum-punk is suddenly acceptable.

That may not last, of course.  By this time next year, the research team might have found that the Trappist-1 planets have reducing atmospheres or that there’s insufficient protection from stellar radiation or that some other factor makes pulp SF as impossible in that system as in our own.  But right now, it’s wide open to stories of the imagination.  We’ve found one spot in the universe where it’s the Golden Age all over again.

You are more likely to play in the NFL than become an astronaut

Consider playing in the NFL as the epitome of sports – and being an astronaut as the epitome of a STEM career. In both cases, postulate that college is where you can reasonably draw a line for determining basic qualification for application. In the case of the NFL, to reasonably apply to the NFL you must at minimum play NCAA football. In the case of an astronaut, you must at minimum have a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM-related field. Fair enough?

The NFL statistics are summarized in this graphic (via @GatorsScott) –


The relevant numbers are: 15588 NCAA seniors playing football, of which 256 are drafted to the NFL, or 256/15588 = 1.6%. (note, these numbers are from 2013, via a study commissioned by the NCAA.)

This year’s astronaut corps application had a total of 18,300 applications. The minimum education requirements to apply are “a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics. An advanced degree is desirable” (about a third of astronauts have an MS, and a third have PhDs). There will be 8-14 open slots, so lets assume the maximum for best possible probability: 14/18,300 = 0.07%.

Now, this doesn’t disprove the so-called STEM shortage – the evolution of the modern-day disposable academic suffices to do that on its own. It is however a cautionary tale about the rhetoric we use when we tell children to “reach for the stars”. Thats good for *children*, but as advice to college students, it’s terrible. A child should be encouraged to dream, and dream big. A college student is practically an adult and deserves to hear stark realities about the job market because that is precisely the moment in time where they can have to make decisions about the rest of their life – decisions that should be informed by those dreams, but not dictated by them.

There are a lot of astronauts and NFL players who decided from day one that was what they were going to do, and succeeded. And that is amazing. But there just isnt enough room for everyone who is equally capable and has the same amount of sheer determination and talent to do the same. We don’t need 18,300 astronauts, nor do we need 15,588 NFL players drafted every year.

Take me out, to the black

This is just really, really cool – the crew of Endeavour STS-130 awoke this morning to the Ballad of Serenity.

And NASA announced it on Twitter – and is even hosting the mp3 for download. Though you can also get it from the Firefly Wiki.

funny comment from the thread at Whedon’s site: “and then the Space Shuttle program was cancelled. Coincidence?”

here’s the lyrics:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me
There’s no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can’t take the sky from me…

NASA Serenity

NASA rover in the Inaugural parade

This was a cool moment in tonight’s (ongoing) coverage of the Inauguration festivities:

That’s the prototype of NASA’s new electric moon rover under development. It’s not actually due to be launched to the moon for another 12 years and the design might change and we might not even go to the moon if the economy doesn’t get better – but assuming we do, as a nation, avoid some sort of Shoe Event Horizon scenario, then something like this might end up on the moon someday.

Obama’s face was shining when the rover came along. I can’t blame him. It’s the coolest thing in the parade by far.