Thursday, December 11, 2008

Drifting a little off the subject

This is a slight – OK, significant – departure from the normal subject of these blogs, but after reading a few articles recently, there’s something inside that’s just compelling me to pass comment. I found the articles in question on the BBC web site – my primary source of news – under the Science category, an occasional destination for me when I see a headline that piques my natural affinity for things extraterrestrial.

You can read the articles in their entirety here:

Now it’s worth pointing out that I have an innate fascination for things related to journeys into space and the search for other worlds “out there”, so my mind is probably more open than most when reports are subject to the personal credibility test. Even so, wandering through the corridors of the BBC’s space reports is like stepping into another world, and they’re always worth the visit. But these three reports took an extraterrestrial step just a little beyond my credibility threshold, and they left me with an overriding question – are they really serious?

The obvious answer is “Of course they are, these people dedicate their lives to their quest,” and I have to admire them for it. But just scanning through the names involved seems to indicate that it’s a kind of club – Shoskar, Gabriel Gatehouse, Oli Madgett, Charkin, McCaughrean … did they change their names when they chose their vocation, or did their professions choose them? I suspect that if I applied for a job at the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, my application would be rejected when they got to “Name”.

Working in these fields also without doubt requires a mind that relishes the prospect of knotting itself into contorted, labyrinthine blobs on a daily basis. Just take the concept of a black hole, for instance. It’s defined as an object whose gravity is so great that nothing – including light – can escape them. Now I have an analytical mind, and like to think that I can occasionally get my head around complex concepts, but this one has my synapses firing off without reply into the very stratosphere where such dark cavities are “found”. Gravity … light … bedfellows … ?

They then go and compound the issue by telling me that the black hole they discovered in our galaxy is four million times heavier than our Sun, which itself – as we all know – weighs a mere two billion billion billion tons, or – more familiarly – 220 duodecillion pounds. Also that it’s 158 thousand, million, million miles from the Earth. Say what now? How heavy and how far? How do they know this, and can I check their calculations? What sort of scale did they use to weigh these things, and what kind of ruler to get the distance? Seems like they rounded off quite heavily there too, immediately raising my suspicions. At least if they’d put it in terms I could relate to – like how many elephants or how many trips to the grocery store, for instance – I might have been able to relate.

Not surprisingly, the observations were made with the Very Scientifically-Named Very Large Telescope – affectionately and curiously known as the “VLT” – in Chile. Apparently the study to find and define the new discovery took 16 years – quick work rate there, I must say, it would take me that long just to type those numbers into my computer. However, what I want to know is – how did they know to look for it? What if, after 16 years, they didn’t find anything – would they continue for another 16, and turn it into a generational thing? And after several generations of “studying” would they eventually be able to make a conclusion – “Nope, there’s no black hole there”? Would they then start looking for another black hole next door?

Thankfully, we don’t need to answer these questions, and we can comfortably move on to the next, particularly satisfying phase of every science study – coining new terms. I’m not sure if coming up with this one to describe the size of this black hole also took 16 years, but they can be confident they came up with a real doozy – “super-massive.” I kid you not. What are they going to call it if they find an even bigger one? Super-duper-massive? Incredibly-mind-bogglingly-huge? So-unbelievably-big-that-it-dwarfs-the-last-one-by-three-duodecillion-times?

Moving on and talking of competitiveness, it seems that the burgeoning social networking movement doesn’t want to be left behind. Either that or they’re on a serious membership drive – they (Bebo) sent out an electronic package to a planet just around the corner, some 20 light years away. According to the report: “Some 501 photos, drawings and text messages were transmitted on Thursday by a giant radio-telescope in Ukraine normally used to track asteroids.” Apparently the message "passed the Moon in 1.7 seconds, Mars in just four minutes and will leave our Solar System before breakfast tomorrow".

Now that’s all very well, but does this planet have PayPal so they can sign up? And do they have a reliable internet connection? After all, it’s only going to reach there in 2029, by which time all Bebo’s members would have solved Saturday night’s date problem, and even if they hadn’t, how could you be sure that the message’s recipients didn’t age badly?

One of the article’s more illuminating quotes suggests that we may not get a reply: “So if anybody's out there and they find that signal, they at least know it that, in the direction of that star system over there, there must be a planet with some pretty clever things on it.” If this quote is any indication of what’s in that electronic package, I suspect that the recipients might make the Very Disruptive Decision to go and colonize a planet a little further away.

One last thing puzzles me too. The target they chose was a planet called Gliese 581C – why? What was wrong with Gliese 581A and B? Or, for that matter, the exoplanet Fomalhaut b or the three that orbit the star HR 8799?

This last option is the subject of the third article, which raises some teasers of its own. First off, who gets to name stars and planets? For example, I wonder how the residents of Formalhout b would take to being named after a fallen angel and a gatekeeper in Italian witchcraft? And not even an A-grade one at that. At least I’d be able to counter their complaints by saying their name has a little more character than the inhabitants of the HR 8799 solar system can claim. After all, if hurricanes – which are a tad more transient than planets, even if they are full of character – get real names, why not stars? At first blush it appears that there are multiple planet- and star-naming committees, some drawing on their passion for folklore, others on their favourite chemical formula, and yet others opting for a dart-in-the-board method. While they’re at it, why not take suggestions, or name the planets after real people – Bart, or Yogi, or Joe, for instance.

One other thing that emerges from the third article is the apparent reversion in planetary science to terms we can relate to. “Super-massive” broke new ground that way. Now there’s “wobble”, which is what an exoplanet induces in its parent star. It would somehow give me a sense of comfort and confidence if I were selected for a manned space mission to search for life in a far-off solar system, knowing that its star had “wobbled” in the telescopes of astronomers some 11 billion miles away.

But I’m taking things out of context here, and the article clearly states that the “wobble” method is passé. Things have moved on since then, and with today’s technology, they’ve been able to detect that Formalhout b is “the coolest, lowest-mass object ever seen outside our own solar neighbourhood.” How about that as an advertisement – cool and low-mass, bound to fill up its social calendar in a heartbeat. Needless to say, personal visits would only be possible for those able to cover those less-than-precisely-calculated 11 billion miles within a reasonable time, not to mention access to a warm wardrobe. You’d also need to have faith in the assertion of the scientists that it is indeed the coolest and lowest-mass, and be sure that they had no ulterior motive in promoting it thus.

Perhaps the most revealing of indications comes from the concluding quote of the third article – astronomers indeed have a sense of humour, or at least a colourful way of expressing themselves to those of us who spend most of our time on terra firma. When reflecting on the fact that not just one, but three exoplanets have recently been detected, astrophysicist Mark McCaughrean had this to say: “It's like a London bus - you've been waiting for one for ages and suddenly four come along at once.”

And it wouldn’t surprise or concern me if sometime in the future they all had the last laugh at the expense of tongue-in-cheek people like me. After all, while Copernicus was encouraged to publish his heliocentric model – placing the sun at the center of our solar system – in the early 16th century, he delayed it, perhaps for fear of the reaction to his claims. Even then, the heliocentric model had been around for over 2,000 years, first emerging in India in the 7th century BC. And a contemporary of Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BC accused him of impiety for “putting the Earth in motion” in his own heliocentric model.

So who knows – maybe London bus number 6222 isn’t only going to King’s Court …

Monday, December 08, 2008

Olive picking

It's olive-picking time. November-December, generally. Last year's crop was poor thanks to the lack of rain. This year's is better due the late rains we got in September-October. Last year, our singular tree - buried as it was by others of different varieties around it - produced a total of four olives! This year it was full.

I've covered the mechanics of the process in a previous blog post (here), so won't go into it now. But a couple of things caught my attention this year, prompting this post.

First, I was struck by the tradition of it when I took my chain-saw for the umpteenth time to the local garden machinery repair man. (In our city days, I used to have a dry-cleaning guy; now I have a chain-saw man.) His father, an ever-present fixture at his workshop, hovers around seeking conversation at every opportunity. A few weeks ago he cornered me as soon as I walked in and asked me if we'd finished picking our olives. No clearance check to even see if we had any olive trees to begin with - he just assumed it. After all, why would you live out here if you didn't have any?

He then proceeded to tell me of all the mishaps he'd heard about - a 70-year-old that fell off his ladder to his death in Macerata, an 80-year-old that broke his arm in Loro Piceno, another anziano (senior citizen) who got badly scratched in a fall. Now this is a wide swath of territory that he's talking about, testimony to the enduring efficiency of the bush telegraph. And it's also a dangerous business too, one that's responsible for its fair share of population culling, it seems.

But more than all that it's a testament to the powerful nature of the cycles that still exist out here in the country. November - olive-picking time. No question, there is nothing else. It's porobably more prevalent and deep-rooted as a tradition for the elders than it is for the merely middle-aged, who see it more as a task than anything. So its gravity may be on the wane, leaving me thankful for the old guy who's genuinely interested in our lonely little olive tree.

Second, we're helping some other neighbours - Teresa and Franco - pick their trees this year. They're both in or near their seventies, and have just a daughter to help them with their task. And it's a big one - they have some 450 trees. That's a lot, when it takes a good twenty minutes to a half-hour to clear just one (moderately-fruited) tree.

Now you can't pick the olives when they're wet, and you can't pick in the dark either, so with the surfeit of precipitation we've had lately - combined with the early hour that the sun takes its leave these days - opportunities to clear those trees have been limited. Once the serious frost arrives, or the last appointment for delivery to the olive press comes and goes (for them it's December 15th), it's all over, and the olives will simply be left to rot on the trees.

That's a real shame in anyone's language, but to Teresa it's more like a tragedy. She's an avid biodynamic farmer - simply put, one who works closely with nature's innate cycles, properties, and spirit to nurture her charges - and so she really cares for her plants and their offspring (even if they're destined for the dinner table). And so these various situational aspects have conspired to add to their stress to get it all done.

Being biodynamic also precludes the use of mechanical devices - or at least automated ones - since they have the potential to bruise the olives and stress the trees. So it must all be done by hand. Luckily their trees are all of a stature that ladders are not required, and some of them are not laden with olives.

But 450 - that's a lot, and so we've been helping. I use the term "we" here more liberally than I should - I've been there three days now, Maria's been there probably more than ten. We're still shy of being two-thirds done, and judging by the speed and the weather, I'm not sure they'll all get harvested. Real pity.

On a crisp, clear early-winter's day, when the sun's shining and the effort eventually prompts the pullover to be discarded, it's a classic pastime. Zen comes immediately to mind - breathe, pick, clear the mind, feel the touch of the silvery-green leaves, the smooth skin of the olives, clear the mind, breathe, pick ... Not to mention the chance to exercise my spotty Italian - neither Teresa nor Franco speak English (Teresa speaks a little, but not really enough for a conversation).

And that's why I have to sign off now - to go and pay homage to this age-old tradition, to exercise my spotty Italian, to get my dose of Zen meditation for the day, and to help out some neighbours. Just another day in the Italian countryside.