It’s 2013, Apparently

Posted: January 7, 2013 in New Year
Tags: , ,

Well, the alarm clock assaulted my earholes this morning and for a brief second I thought it was 2013.  Turns out it was! Shit!

In actual fact (as opposed to pretend fact, like creationism) it’s been 2013 for a few days now.  No one told me.  I must have been in denial (although that’s in Egypt – ba-dum, tiss!).  I figure I’d better start acting like a person who is determined to make 2013 the year that stuff happens!  Right, where to begin?  I suppose I’d better begin seven days into the New Year, and by that, I mean today!

I’ll start with a run-down of all the important stuff that happened to me in 2012:

  1. I became a Dad for the first time!

Okay that’s that done then.  There isn’t much, really, that can outshine that one.

I’ve actually written down this year’s goals on a bit of paper, as though seeing them in the magical elixir that is Biro somehow intertwines them into the fabric of fate.  These goals are tenfold (I don’t like calling them resolutions; I’m bettering my life not negotiating with Hamas). I shall reveal only two of them for you, and these two will be the least important.

In chronological order:

5. Learn the harmonica

7. Play more PS3 games

One of the goals that failed to make my list was: Don’t be forty this year, but apparently the magic of the New Year doesn’t quite work that way.  I don’t mind turning forty, though.  In fact I’m quite looking forward to it, life begins… and all that; should be fun.  And I’m glad that I feel so positive about it because if I actually felt the opposite – a deep crippling anxiety regarding the fragility of life and the terrifying thought that I’m about to tip over the crumbling precipice of youth and into a middle-aged plummet towards an inevitable but nonetheless empty and silent death – I’d be fucked!

Obviously, this year is going to be dedicated to my wonderful little boy, and then next year I’m going to get a chinchilla.  Then the year after that he’ll be old enough to look after the chinchilla and I can pick up where I left off on Grand Theft Auto!  I’m a genius!

All joking aside, I’d just like to say to you all that I’m going to get some dinner now, so I’ll wish you a happy 2013 and, seeing as we all like a bit of a knees-up/piss-up at any given moment, I would like to invite you all to celebrate, today, with me, the 403rd anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s discovery of “Three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness” that lay close to Jupiter (January 7th 1610).  These were of course the largest Jovian moons Io, Callisto and Ganymede (Europa was discovered on the 13th), and I think we can all learn something from that.

John

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A favourite book of mine is Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  This is a wonderful and epic tale of human first-contact with an ancient extra-terrestrial race.  I must point out at this juncture, however, that I actually saw the Kubrick film before I read the book; in fact it was the film that spurred me onto reading the book and, indeed, the whole series.

For me, both the book and the film are wonderful examples of that ultimate mystery and intrigue that taps into the archetypal well shared by (most of) humanity: what lies beyond our cosmic shores? But more importantly, who?

I’m a keen advocate of other life existing out there, somewhere in the Universe.  I don’t think that it’s a massive leap of faith to believe this in the same way that some might believe in a God.  We have the definitive proof that life is likely to exist – us!  We exist, we are alive and we have followed a cosmic evolutionary path for billions of years to reach this point.  We are surrounded by life-forms that have evolved in some of the most extreme places on Earth, some of them more alien than even the most creative special effects wizards could imagine.

The Earth is the only inhabited planet in a solar system of eight, orbiting our star (I still miss Pluto).  It is thought that there are between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe (maybe more).  As well as this, the Universe itself is 13.7 billion years old.  We can’t possibly be the only ones, can we?

We know that there are other planets that lie outside of our solar system.  In the last month, scientists discovered a planet that lies within the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” around a Sun-like star called Tau Ceti.  The planet, thought to be between two to six times bigger than the Earth, is circling its star in an orbital region that is “neither too hot nor too cold to allow liquid surface water and, potentially, life”; similar to the orbital region that Earth inhabits.  This discovery and the plethora of other planets discovered by scientists and members of the public alike, show how common these extra-solar systems are.  Scientists even go so far as to predict that practically every star in our galaxy could have multiple planets orbiting them, many of which, potentially habitable.

Astounding stuff, don’t you think?  Real, potential life, beyond the ‘Pale Blue Dot’; it’s the stuff of dreams.  Problem is, we can’t really say for sure that they are inhabited.  We don’t know if life exists there because we can’t actually see the planets.

We know that they are there and we know, roughly, their size, simply by observing the effect that they have on their parent stars.  But, sadly, despite our wondrous advancement, the technology is many years away from reaching a sophistication whereby we could actually physically observe them.  Could we visit?  Not anytime soon.  Despite being a mere 12 light years away, Tau Ceti is still much too far for any possible human mission at our current stage of space travel.

Fear not, though, young space-farers.  Our journey to an extra-terrestrial domain may be sooner, and closer, than you think.

The title of this blog refers to the last words the fictional astronaut Dave Bowman speaks before he disappears into the monolith/star gate at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is an inspiring and breath-taking moment.  As he travels through to an unknown star system, he sees the remnants of ancient civilisations and bizarre objects that appear to be life-forms, travelling across the surfaces of a binary star system “like salmon moving upstream”.

In the second instalment of the series, 2010: Odyssey II, there is a further moment of wonder, when the ancient aliens relay a message to all humankind:

“ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS – EXCEPT EUROPA.  ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.”

The reason behind this explicit instruction is that the aliens have discovered primitive, aquatic life-forms living in the liquid water beneath the icy surface of this Jovian moon; and they deem this life to have evolutionary potential.

But this is a work of fiction, surely?  How can this have any relevance to the actual discovery of extra-terrestrial life?

Well, the possibility of life existing on the Jovian moon of Europa may be a little nearer to the truth than you might imagine.

In fact, scientists now think that several moons within our solar system could have the potential for life: the moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto that orbit Jupiter; and the moons Titan and Enceladus that orbit Saturn.

These moons all have subsurface oceans, each of which may contain more water than is found in all of the oceans on Earth, with depths that are ten times greater than the deepest ocean: and the belief is that these oceans could harbour life.  Perhaps not the enormous, alien-dinosaur creatures that may immediately swim out of your imagination; but maybe this life could be plant-like, maybe simple and microbial, maybe resembling insects, crustaceans, cephalopods; maybe there’s nothing there.  Who knows?  But within a vast, liquid water ocean, tidally heated and left to ferment and brew for billions of years, the possibilities are breath-taking.

Moreover, these worlds are within our reach.  Enceladus is one billion miles away, Europa, just half that distance, so compared to Tau Ceti’s twelve light years, they’re practically just around the corner.

And go we shall.  The European Space Agency has a planned mission to explore the icy moons of Jupiter.  The Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) will make a grand tour of the three Jovian moons and take samples for study.  We may have to wait a while for the incontrovertible proof that we might not be alone, as JUICE doesn’t launch until 2022 and won’t arrive at Jupiter until 2030, but provided we are all still around by then it should offer us invaluable insights into “what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life, and how does the Solar System work?”

There can be little doubt that life is a wonderful and astonishing thing, but is it unique to this dark and insignificant corner of one galaxy, or is it ubiquitous throughout the cosmos.

The author of the Odyssey series Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”  I would certainly find the latter equally exhilarating.

John

Sources: http://news.discovery.com/space/extraterrestrial-oceans-may-offer-best-chance-for-finding-genesis-ii-121227.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/scientists-find-habitable-tau-ceti-planet-8424912.html

http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/object/index.cfm?fobjectid=50321

“This baby thing is a doddle!” I whispered to my wife as we peered into his cot.  Austin was sleeping contently with his arms and legs stretched out like a starfish, damned if he was going to share this comfy space with anyone.

He’s the epitome of a bundle of joy.  A glowing, gurgling, laughing, crying, crapping, snotty, dribbling, gummy bundle of joy!

I don’t feel that there has been any colossal upheaval in our lives.  On the contrary, things, so far, seem pretty blissful.

Our animals are beginning to piss me off, though!

Now, that sounds a bit bad, but it is pretty accurate.

It’s nothing major and is probably more attention seeking than anything else, I mean, Austin does take up quite a bit of our time, but now it’s getting to the point where I think that they’re doing it out of sheer enjoyment and spite.

The dog, for example, has turned up his jealousy dial to 11.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s always exhibited some form of jealous streak: jealous of the cats, jealous of other animals, jealous of house-guests, hell, he even gets jealous of the fridge if you stare in to it for too long.  But it now seems that every moment Austin is sat, bouncing on my knee, like a baby should, the dog forcibly ensconces himself right next to me, and with a face like an RSPCA appeal, all downcast and dejected, drops his pathetic, weather-worn tennis ball at my feet.  I half expect a lonesome violin to start playing Bright Eyes.

Then we have two cats who are a real pair of moggys. One is three and the other thirteen.  We rescued them both as abandoned kittens when it looked like there was no hope for them in this cruel and bleak world.  Despite that, they are ungrateful little shits, the pair of them.  Upon rescuing them, my wife and I appear to have unwittingly submitted ourselves to a life of servitude.  The elder of the two uses a litter tray, which, if she cannot access it, she will use the upstairs carpet as a toilet.  This isn’t because she is elderly and incontinent, oh no, this is because she is a bastard!  Harsh?  Maybe, but it’s not as if she has no access to the outside world, she has a cat-flap for Christ’s sake, plus, the area of upstairs carpet she has chosen to regularly park a turd on is the area in and around my desk!

The most joy we all have together, however, is at meal times.  I feed them all at the same time for my own convenience.  It makes life easier.  Or does it?  If left to their own devices, the younger cat will start to steal the elder cat’s food, then the dog will snaffle both the younger cat’s and elder cat’s food, leaving two very hungry moggys.  Therefore, in the interest of fairness, I have taken it upon myself to police their feeding times.  So, while the rest of the world could be partaking in some exotic carnal jamboree, I’m leant against the sink like a bell-end, ensuring a happy, liberal, democratic kitchen.

Having said all that, I do like them.  They have lovely idiosyncrasies and wonderful, unique personalities.  As well as this, I want to teach Austin that animals are important and deserving of respect, compassion and empathy.  It is widely understood that an individual’s ethics towards non-human animals is correlated to the ethics inherent towards their own conspecifics.  The trouble is, at the moment, Austin is going to grow up thinking that an animal’s place in life is to be shouted at and moved.

So I promise to try harder.  I promise to set a good example for Austin.  I promise not to berate the dog when he releases a “silent but deadly” guff during meal times.  I promise not to kick the cats when they decide to weave a dance through my feet and try to kill me whilst I walk down the stairs with an armful of washing.  I promise!

John

These last few weeks has heralded the welcome return of a dear old friend, and on Guy Fawkes evening I finally got the chance to see him for the first time this year.  As the wispy spectres of dying bonfires hung low in the autumn air, the cold, crisp, cloudless night sky was unveiled in all of its grandeur, and there, standing valiant on the south-western arc of the celestial equator was Orion.

The hunter: his club held high in his right hand, a lion’s skin draped on his left.  Flanked by his hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor he traverses the skies, perpetually battling the charging bull, Taurus (or relentlessly pursuing Lepus the hare, depending on your reading of the myth).

Image   Orion is, by far, the most recognisable constellation in the night sky.  Unlike most of the other constellations, it doesn’t take the amateur stargazer several moments to link point-of-light to point-of-light to uncover the form and shape; he stands out from the others with striking clarity.  The stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka form his almost horizontal belt.  His sword is the home of a beautiful nebula. Upon his feet he wears the stars Rigel and Saiph, and his shoulders carry the stars Bellatrix and Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse is a star of particular interest.  If you were to look at Betelgeuse through a telescope or even with the naked eye you would notice one thing: its colour.  Betelgeuse is red.  It is red because of the type of star that it is: a red supergiant.

Betelgeuse is around twenty times the mass of our Sun, and if it was to replace the Sun at the centre of our Solar System, it would extend out to Jupiter, engulfing us and everything else in its wake.

The other thing of note about Betelgeuse is that it is dying.  This unimaginably vast and beautiful star is entering the final stages of its life.  At only 10 million years old it is still a relatively young star (compared to our sun, which is nearly 5 billion years old with another 5 billion to go), but because of its immense size it has sped through its life.  And when it goes, it will not go quietly.  Betelgeuse will shuffle off this mortal coil as a supernova.  And because it is only around 500 light years away it will present us with quite a show.Image

When Betelgeuse goes supernova, it will shine in our skies as bright as the moon and will probably be visible during the day (although not in a Tatooine binary sun way).  In that single instance of stellar explosion, Betelgeuse will release more energy than our sun will produce in its entire lifetime.  This display will remain in our skies for approximately 2-3 months before dimming.

So, when will this happen?  Well, by current estimations, anytime soon.  But when is ‘soon’?  Well, soon could be anytime from tomorrow morning to the next million years.  Betelgeuse is ready to blow!  However, stellar time scales do not take into account human impatience, or human lifetimes, or even human existence.  Also, let’s not forget that, if tomorrow is S-Day (Supernova) for Betelgeuse, we won’t see the resulting spectacle until sometime around the 25th century due to the distance of the star and the speed of light.  So unless the event happened in and around the 16th century, we might be in for a bit of a wait.

The last supernova visible from Earth occurred in 1604, before the invention of the astronomical telescope.  We should also, theoretically, get at least one supernova per galaxy per century.  But we’ve not had the good fortune to witness such a spectacle on terra firma for over 400 years.

There is another reason why there is great importance in the death of Betelgeuse, or any other star in its final throes, or, for that matter, any other star in the Universe.  They are the origins of life; we were forged in the hearts of dying stars.

Stars, such as our Sun, are fuelled through the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium, which releases vast amounts of energy allowing the star to generate heat and light.  As the star reaches its twilight years and begins to run out of its hydrogen fuel, the battle between nuclear fusion and gravity begins to give way in favour of gravity.  The star then begins to collapse in on itself.  As this happens, the star becomes an alchemist.  Within the increasing heat and density of the collapsing star, nuclear fusion goes beyond simple hydrogen to helium combinations.  More complex atoms begin to fuse together, including carbon and oxygen and many more.  When the star finally gives in to its cataclysmic death, these elements are then violently distributed throughout the universe, forming clouds of dust and gas, clumps of rock, planets, organic material; us.

All living and non-living things with mass are made up of a variety of atoms, and those atoms were forged within the fiery hearts of dying stars.  We are stardust!  It’s a very hippy thing to say, but it’s true.  Although, I think that theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss said it better:

“Forget Jesus!  The stars died so that you could be here today!”

Ever since I was a little biddy boy I have loved the stars, the planets, the universe, and I have always greeted the appearance of Orion with joy.  Orion arrived with the falling of the leaves, the snow and with Christmas; what better friend for a kid!

What better friend for a Universe that has the potential to harbour life than a star that, after eons of lighting up the cosmos, makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to fill the void with the materials for creation.

So next time you see Orion, look at the red twinkle on his right shoulder and give a dying old man a smile.

John

This week marks the 32nd week of our pregnancy.  I am, as you can imagine, basking in the glow of imminent fatherhood, and Sharon is basking in the glow of ongoing heartburn.  But as we attended the latest ultrasound scan and I saw Austin’s little face, with his blinky little eyes, and crab apple cheeks, I pondered about his future; what would the world that he was about to affiliate himself with foist upon him throughout his life?

It was that very morning, after reading the paper, I’d found myself betwixt feelings of concern and foreboding and delight and wonder.

Thursday 26th April 2012: It appears that the country has belly-flopped into a double dip recession from which recovery is certainly no mean feat, particularly with the dip-shit duo – Condom Face and his sidekick Ball-Bag Nose (See Steve Bell cartoons for details) – running the show.  I must apologise to you, Austin.  Apologise for being a member of a society that, somehow, could not prevent this party of infuriating turds from running amok with the political and financial structure of your future.  They dwell within their plush offices, at the heart of power, bending over their Fornasetti Architettura Trumeau desks while big business, bankers and media moguls have their wicked way with them.  All the while, folks like us sit at home contemplating the day when we’ll be existing on a meals of turkey & duck Kit-e-Kat in a Bisto jus, served on a bed of wheelie-bin pasta.

Then we had some monumental fuckwit from ‘Coalition for Marriage’ urging state funded Catholic secondary schools to encourage their students to sign a petition against gay marriage.  Again, Austin, I apologise.  I cannot understand what is wrong with these people.  Religions the world over insist that their way is the way of ‘love’, except when that ‘love’ is one that they don’t like, then they bring out their special brand of ‘hate’ and stamp all over it.

A simple turn of the page, however, found a story that gave me cause for excitement about your future.  A collaboration between British and American scientists has proposed a mission to send a probe on a journey of almost one billion miles to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and once there it will land in its vast methane seas and for three months collect data on extra-terrestrial oceanography.  How wonderful it is to see the human race endeavouring to explore and understand rather than insulate and ignore.  To have witnessed some of these awe-inspiring achievements myself has been astonishing enough, but it fills me with great joy – and some envy – at the scientific wonders that you’ll witness.

Sadly that was the only positive story in the whole paper (well it was the guardian so they have to be balanced), but I concluded that, within the bad, there is many a good thing in life: literature, film, music (not Coldplay), science, nature and, of course, Kaley Cuoco from The Big Bang Theory when she wears those pyjama shorts.  The list is endless!  But you need to have the confidence and the presence of mind to imbibe the good and to gob out the bad.

So I thought I’d compose a list of advice that I hope will set you out on your lifelong odyssey; the 10 commandments of Dad if you like:

  1. Authority does not command respect.  It earns it reciprocally.  Never be afraid to challenge and question authority, and never defer to it.  Being in a position of authority does not make a person better than anyone else.
  2. In matters of faith and religion follow your own path.  Never be swayed or inveigled by anyone (including me) regarding religious beliefs.  That is nobody’s decision but yours.
  3. Never touch my vinyl collection.
  4. Embrace science.  Science is a conduit for understanding and reason.  Science can, and will, explain everything about existence from the quantum to the cosmological within our four dimensional universe and beyond.  Nothing can progress humanity as valiantly and triumphantly as science.
  5. Try not to be quite the grumpy misanthrope your father is.  People, on the whole, are good and amiable.  It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that they have a tendency to irk me when they do particular things such as talk or move.  But you have the opportunity to see the rainbow of potential within them.
  6. Have great respect and compassion for animals.  We share the planet with them and they have the same right to be here as we do.  Those individuals who burble on about ‘animals being put here on Earth for us’ are knob-ends!  Knob-ends who clearly have no concept of prehistory or evolutionary lineage and who occupy a very shallow end of the gene pool.
  7. Oppose capital punishment in all of its guises.  It is barbaric, inhumane and serves no purpose within civilised society; it de-civilises us.  There can be no intellectual or judicial reason for state-sanctioned murder (for possible exceptions see commandment 3).
  8. Prejudice and bigotry are abhorrent.  They do not belong in any society.  Educate yourself on the consequences of prejudice – and, sadly, there are many examples – fight against it and disassociate yourself from prejudiced individuals.
  9. Growing older is inevitable.  Growing up is not.  So don’t!  As a child you will have a spark of wonder within, which society will try to extinguish as you age.  Don’t let them.  Carry and protect that spark throughout your entire life and try to illuminate others with it.
  10. Tracksuits are to be worn only on occasions of sporting prowess.  Under no circumstances must they be worn as casual day-to-day attire.  Burberry caps are forbidden.

John

“What the hell are our neighbours going to think?”  This question was loaded with a genuine and socially awkward concern on my part.  My wife’s thoughts, on the other hand? Well, the nonchalant shoulder-shrug spoke volumes.

“These walls are very thin.” She informed me “And they are going to have to get used to loud, screamy noises!”

To clarify, she was watching a particular television programme that she has become engrossed in due to a particular situation that we have both become embroiled in: we are pregnant!  I say ‘we’, but common-sense should dictate that, clearly, I’m not pregnant – and after watching several episodes of this programme at length, it’s not a situation that I hope medical science ever achieves.

            The programme in question is One Born Every Minute (or OBEM).  This visceral ‘fly-on-the-wall’ docu-serial shows life in a maternity ward with lots of couples having lots of babies in graphic High Definition close-ups and Dolby surround sound screaming.

            My wife absolutely loves the programme!  She excitedly anticipates its scheduling; sitting moist-eyed and engrossed, riding shotgun alongside every mum-to-be as they howl, thrust and gurn their way to parenthood.   I, on the other hand find it a very difficult viewing.  One episode alone can induce such a powerful wincing reflex that, by the end I have the haggard crow’s feet of a ninety year old.  But that minimal level of discomfort is the highest I’m going to feel in relation to the pregnancy compared to my wife (unless I stand, barefoot, on a Lego brick in the maternity ward, because we all know how much that hurts).  She will, in three months, get the full, personal OBEM experience with all of its tears, stretches and evacuations, which makes it all the more puzzling for me as to why she wants to watch it. I once watched a YouTube video of a root canal operation in an attempt to allay my fears regarding an upcoming dental visit; it wasn’t my greatest idea to date.

            Still, this horrific assault on a human body produces an absolutely wonderful conclusion that makes life all the more sweet and colourful.  A bit like twatting your head on the corner of a kitchen cupboard door when you’re looking for a Pot Noodle; it’s gonna hurt like hell, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

John