Sunday, April 02, 2006

A short distance

I had an interesting train of thought that left from the station of an article I was reading. When I finally hopped off the mental locomotive, surprisingly, it landed me on the next story I read.

I read the brief “Space Auditing” in the Readings section of the April Harper’s. It describes the attempted dilution (free subscription required) of the Big Bang theory by George Deutsch, a political appointee serving in the Press Office.

That got me thinking about the Big Bang and how densely packed all the matter was — everything from the particle board walls of my porch to my own nose.

That made me consider the space between my nose and the wall, which of course is not empty space at all. Where is empty space? It’s kind of in outer space, but that’s filled with all sorts of stuff like cosmic dust and space junk.

I wondered how much of a danger the dust or junk poses to people and objects out in space. Some, it turns out. What would happen if such a fast moving piece of detritus were to hit an astronaut? It seems like twin punctures would appear noiselessly and suddenly on two parts of a suit, something like bullets hitting underwater GIs as they landed at Normandy, as depicted in Saving Private Ryan.

Or something like the small puncture in the glove of Air Force Capt. Joseph Kittinger Jr., who made an early venture into space in a hot air balloon, which Baker mentioned to me the other day. Then Kittinger made a 14-minute, 16-mile, freefall back to Earth, the longest and farthest at the time (maybe still, I’m not sure).

Balloons in space? That took me back to an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which a character in a society roughly equivalent to Earth’s Middle Ages tries to send a message to the mysterious ship in his sky by a small hot-air balloon. In that episode, entitled “Blink of an Eye”, the inhabitants of the planet evolve at a pace of about two days per Voyager second. The crew watches as the planet goes from pre-historic to space-age levels of development in a matter of hours.

That’s about where I quit thinking and went back to reading Harper’s. I had skipped a longer Readings piece, tagged “parable,” to read the shorter “Space Auditing.” I went back a page and read a heretofore-unpublished Robert Louis Stevenson story from 1895 called “The Clockmaker” (not online, find a Harper’s on the Newsstand). The story describes the evolution of life in a forgotten carafe of water and the attendant myths and misguided theories the beings develop to describe their world. The carafe developed life and intelligence in about a week from the standpoint of the room around the carafe. Within the carafe, generations passed. Not quite the same as a temporal division, but the disparity between observed and observer is the same.

Unfortunately, it appears Stevenson was a believer in Intelligent (if inadvertent) Design. While interesting, the story does little to advance the idea. A work of fiction is by it’s nature constructed and can therefore reflect anything the author chooses, including a clever metaphor for our own world. Even the most strident science supporter admits the possibility of Intelligent Design – It’s just unlikely and un-testable.

Later, when I was gathering links, I made a side trip to space elevators, which I’ll note here just because they’re so cool.

I was surprised how my armchair wanderings had brought me back so close to what I was about to read based on what I had just read. Of course, Harper’s placed the two pieces close because of their related content. Still, it was a little twinge of synchronicity.