After we finished watching “Star Trek: The Original Series” a while back, we watched Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” miniseries. Since then, I’ve been reading various books about space exploration.
I finished “The Eerie Silence” by Paul Davies right before I went down to the Gulf for the oil spill, and so I didn’t get a chance to write about it. For a short book, it summarizes neatly the last fifty years of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and outlines some of the challenges ahead. Davies searches for answers to a simple question: if there is intelligent life beyond our solar system, why haven’t we heard from anyone? His suggested answers are reasonable and even-handed, and cover everything from “we are alone” and “we’re not looking in the right places” to “they’re not interested in talking to us” and “they were there 100 million years ago and now they’re gone”. The more I think about his book the better I think it is.
I also borrowed “The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence M. Krause. Krause thinks the known laws of physics can accommodate interstellar travel and a few other of the show’s futurisms. He also thinks the most exotic technology of “Star Trek” is the transporter device. After he’s done describing it, it seems pretty unattainable. I won’t be getting beamed anywhere in my lifetime. He gives “Star Trek” writers a lot of credit for being at least grounded in good science.
“Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach, is an amusing book though the title is misleading. It’s only tangentially about traveling to Mars, and more about dealing with bodily functions in space. A manned mission to Mars would have to meet all the challenges of the Apollo Project or the International Space Station compounded over several years. “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem,” she begins. After detailing a lot of engineering problems like eating, defecating, and bathing in zero gravity, it’s clear that accomplishing a manned Mars mission is a matter of the political will to pay for it.
I’d have to go back to Carl Sagan and “Cosmos” to pull this all together. The three books are about overcoming the technical barriers to exploring space; “Cosmos” is about the inspiration to explore it in the first place. It’s clear Sagan felt space exploration was valuable on its own merits. I wonder if the materialistic, bottom-line worldview we’re adopting will stifle the impulse to acquire knowledge for its own sake, if it hasn’t already. Mary Roach concludes “Packing for Mars” by pointing out that money never goes into the things it should, like schools and hospitals, so if we’re going to waste money we should waste it on something amazing.