qatsi: (capaldi)
The moon landings hadn't finished before I was born, but I am way too young to remember them. As a youngster and through my teenage years, though, there was news from time to time about the Voyager probes, and I am nostalgic for the BBC's Horizon documentaries that followed each planetary encounter. Marking the 40th anniversary of their launch is the documentary film The Farthest. It didn't appear in the listings for this term's Reading Film Theatre, so I looked for other options. Working in central London gives you the widest opportunity and I found it was showing at Picturehouse Central, by Piccadilly Circus. Billed as a "no ads" showing, I was getting a bit restless after about 20 minutes of adverts, concerned that maybe I was in fact in the wrong screen, but it turned out all right in the end.

There are some negative points to the film. The music, like some of Murray Gold's work for Doctor Who, was intrusive at times. For whatever reason, the director couldn't resist the unscientific whooshing sound in animations as the spacecraft passes by the point of view of an observer in the vacuum. There seems to be quite an emphasis on the "human-interest" aspect of the Voyager programme, which is I suppose reasonable, but dwells in particular in the early stages of the film on the Golden Record. (It's not without interest; in particular, it's good to see Nick Sagan, one of the child voices on the record, reminiscing about his father).

There is also some politics. The mission was approved by Nixon, initially to cover Jupiter and Saturn only. This was a 1-in-176 year opportunity to visit all four major planets in the outer solar system ("The last person who had the opportunity to make this decision, Mr President, was Thomas Jefferson. He blew it.") Curiously the film doesn't delve into the process whereby funding for the project was extended to Uranus and Neptune, though it does cover the scientific aspects of that decision. (Voyager 1 was given a path for a close fly-by of Titan, which precluded it venturing to the other two planets; had the results of the Titan observation justified Voyager 2 taking the same path, the mission would have ended there).

What's left, then, is the story of the science and the scientists. The many interviews that are spliced together over the course of the film are mostly - though not exclusively - now of old men, itself a sobering thought. The "technology freeze" for the mission was in 1972. The computing power of Voyager is minuscule by today's standards but was leading-edge at the time - the first spacecraft that could be re-programmed en voyage. The revelations of the Jupiter observations in 1979, including its satellites and ring, were followed by the majesty of Saturn in 1981. Problems with the motors on Voyager 2's instrument arms had to be resolved after Saturn. The flyby of Uranus in 1986 unfortunately coincided with the Challenger disaster. Although a success scientifically, the tilted planet was surprisingly bland and un-photogenic. In 1989, Neptune was more spectacular.

In 1990, Voyager 1 took the famous Pale Blue Dot picture, a frippery in scientific terms, inspired, as were many things in the programme, by Carl Sagan. It is the most distant human-produced artefact and is reckoned to have left the solar system in 2012. Both Voyager probes are still in contact with the NASA mission, with light signals taking more than 19 hours between Voyager 1 and Earth. As Lawrence Krauss observes in the film, it's almost certain that the Voyager probes will survive longer than humanity, and also almost certain that no other civilisation will ever encounter them. But there's the Golden Record, just in case.
qatsi: (baker)
Book Review: Reality is not what it seems - The Journey to Quantum Gravity, by Carlo Rovelli
This is a clever and interesting book, but if you struggled with A Brief History of Time, I don't think this book is for you. Rovelli's style is at points florid and pretentious, though this may be a feature of the translation. He first reviews the science of Ancient Greece, before proceeding through Newton and Einstein. After discussing quantum mechanics, it's on to the fundamental purpose of this book: how to resolve the approaches of general relativity and quantum mechanics in describing the universe. They are both experimentally verified to very high standards, yet are incompatible. Rovelli makes the argument (for me, not wholly convincingly) that time does not exist as a fundamental entity; like temperature, or "up" and "down", it is a property that emerges at a macroscopic layer.

There were some new discoveries for me in this book: Rovelli's explanation that spacetime is the field of gravity (rather than that the field of gravity permeates spacetime) is good, and goes beyond many popular science books which simply explain that gravity is "different" when it comes to unifying the fundamental forces. Yet, there is a missed opportunity here: the presented self-referential nature of spacetime and gravity ought to trigger the word "Gödel", but it doesn't, possibly because of a fear that would cause the end of physics, just as it might have been feared to cause the end of mathematics. One would also expect some mention of quantum entanglement, and this is also missing, although in the chapter on information the concept rears its head, unspoken, and again the opportunity is left untaken. Overall I am left with the feeling that this is a good and useful book, but that given its depth it nevertheless has some unexpected limitations.
qatsi: (capaldi)
Book Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude - The Search for Life Among the Stars, by Lee Billings
I picked this up around a year ago at a work book sale. It turned out to be quite a patchy book. There is some interesting science in here, but Billings has chosen to make it more of a human-interest story, which doesn't work as well as it sounds it should, given the subject.

The first chapter starts off with a discussion about the Drake equation, and quite rapidly focuses on the longevity of a technical civilisation as the critical factor. The rest of the book weaves through the advances and discoveries of exoplanets in the past 20 years or so, and also terrestrial evolution, past, present and future geology and chemistry. Depressingly, the other rocky planets in our own solar system show that it is easy for such worlds not to be hospitable to advanced life. However, the book is also a story of planet-hunters, astrobiologists, space scientists, and dreamers; and where humans are involved, politics is not far away, with rival groups within the scientific community arguing over the validity of their techniques and which projects to spend money on, and the US government (the book is essentially US-focused) regularly reprioritising NASA and trimming its budget.

It's speculative that we would recognise signs of life (though we would recognise signs of life sufficiently similar to ourselves); it's speculative that we could detect such signs (though that is probably only a matter of time); and if we did, what then? Dubbing such a world "Earth 2.0" hints at our colonial ambitions, but surely such a world would be already taken. In the mean time, we need to take care of the only world known to support (allegedly) intelligent life.


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