Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Gravityscope

The Gravityscope
Mike Reid

September 22, 2017

The biggest day in any person’s life comes only once. Dr. Amanda Thorell knew that for her tomorrow would be that day. Tomorrow she would find out if her decades of work had been worth it or if they had been for naught. Tomorrow would reveal the culmination of her entire career in astrophysics. She was the principle investigator for the most innovative and revolutionary scientific project in history. Tomorrow, an instrument that she had conceived and shepherded into existence and to which she had devoted most of the past thirty years of her life would either bear fruit or fail disastrously. Tomorrow would be everything.

Thirty years ago, when Amanda, or “Mandy” as her friends and colleagues called her, had been a young graduate student, she marveled as a team of astronomers made one of the most amazing discoveries ever—a discovery that would captivate the world and become her life-long obsession. Humanity had learned that the Sun was not a singleton star. It had a companion and that mysterious companion was many times more massive than itself. It was enormous, but no one had ever actually seen it. The astronomers had inferred its existence from the trajectories of comets that originated in the Oort Cloud, that mindbogglingly vast and frozen realm of trillions of tiny, icy bodies that surrounds the Solar System like the shell of a colossal cosmic onion. The Oort Cloud is distant. The mean distance from the Earth to the Sun is about 150 million kilometers or, by definition, one astronomical unit (AU). The Oort Cloud begins at about five thousand times that distance and stretches out for about a lightyear. No spacecraft had ever travelled that far and those few that humans had sent hurling out of the Solar System to date would be long dead before they reached it. The Oort Cloud is the source of the long-term comets that sometimes fall toward the inner Solar System and occasionally come close enough to the Sun that their icy bodies warm and ablate to produce spectacular, long, vaporous tails that are sometimes visible to the marveling denizens of Earth. To ancient peoples, the appearance of a comet in the sky was a terrifying omen of impending calamity. To modern peoples informed by modern science, such an event had long been reduced to a mere passing curiosity. But now, comets had gained a renewed status among humans as the messengers of their Sun’s mysterious and invisible sibling.

Professor William Kosten had dedicated his long astronomical career to studying the Oort Cloud and the comets that it spawned. His decades of meticulously analyzing the data from thousands of observations of comets going back more than a century had led him to an astonishing conclusion: one could explain the motion of many of them only by postulating the presence of an object of stellar mass lurking somewhere in the outermost reaches of the Solar System between the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. No such object had ever been detected and if it were any sort of star it surely would have been long ago. This mysterious object could be only one thing, a black hole. Black holes emit no light or other radiation. They are absolutely black and thus cannot be observed directly. They are detectable only by the effects that they have on neighboring objects. A black hole that is near a visible object will give away its presence by the affect that its gravitational pull has on the motion of its companion. If it is very close to a star, it can pull material from the star which will brilliantly radiate as it superheats and spirals into oblivion. Astronomers can see these. But if the black hole is traveling alone through space, no one will know it is there.

Amanda was fascinated by Kosten’s postulated black hole. She wanted to find it. After finishing her PhD in astronomy, she joined his team as a postdoctoral fellow. Under his mentorship and building on his calculations of cometary trajectories, she narrowed down the location of this elusive object to an elliptical region of the sky in the constellation Cygnus about three degrees of arc across, a length equivalent to about six times the diameter of a full Moon. This reduced the search area immensely, but it was still a big chunk of sky for a distant object to hide in. Furthermore, what would she look for? If this thing were indeed a black hole with no nearby object to influence, there would be nothing to see. It would be just a black spot indistinguishable from empty space. But young Mandy had an idea. Thanks to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, she knew that a massive object such as the black hole would bend the fabric of the surrounding space and time such that light from even more distant objects passing through it would be altered as if it had just passed through a gigantic magnifying lens. Astronomers knew of this phenomenon, called “gravity lensing,” and had observed it with the old Hubble Space Telescope. Gravity lenses created by immensely distant galaxy clusters magnified the light from even more distant galaxies that would otherwise lie beyond the great telescope's range and allowed it to image them. Unfortunately, gravity lenses highly distort the images that they magnify. Strongly lensed objects appear, not as tidy images, but as smeared, fragmented, and duplicated arcs of light, known as Einstein-Chwolson rings, surrounding the lensing mass.

Amanda decided to try and locate the Sun’s companion black hole through gravity lensing. She would look for stars in that patch of the sky whose images, both in the visible and radio frequency parts of the spectrum, had been smeared away from a point source. This would only work if the black hole by chance happened to pass directly through the line-of-sight between Earth and a distant background star. This would not happen often. Professor Kosten had only been able to approximate the mass of the black hole, so Amanda could only make an educated guess as to the size of the surrounding patch of space that would be affected by lensing. Even though the black hole was massive, its event horizon would likely be only a few tens of thousands of kilometers across and would lens an area of space spanning only a few arcseconds as seen from Earth. This was less than the apparent separation between many double stars or the apparent size of some craters on the Moon as seen from Earth. Amanda knew that finding the black hole by this method would be a long shot and would require patience and a lot of luck. She would also need to get some time on the largest telescopes. Given the competition among astronomers for time on these valuable instruments, that too would be a challenge. Fortunately, she also had images of that part of the sky taken by telescopes over the course of the past century. Starting with those, she set to work. She developed and published a complex mathematical model that predicted how gravity lensing would distort the image of an object behind it as seen from an observer in its line-of-site. That made her name in the astrophysics community and landed her a steady job at a major research laboratory in Maryland. She wrote a computer program based on that model that analyzed star images for signs of the expected optical smearing. She then gathered all of the archival data of that area of the sky, much of it collected by astronomers decades prior, and ran them through her program. This task took nearly two years. Her program had detected about two thousand stars whose images had been distorted in a way that might be attributable to gravity lensing. She knew that the great majority of these distortions would turn out to be due to other optical effects or flaws in the instruments. But just maybe, a few of them would be due to a gravity lens surrounding a traveling black hole.

Professor Kosten and other researchers estimated the current distance of the postulated black hole from the Sun at around twelve-hundred astronomical units. That was a distance of more than 24 times the maximum distance of Pluto from the Sun. At that immense distance, the Sun and the black hole did not orbit each other in the way that the Earth orbits the Sun. Rather, a faint tether of gravity loosely bound them as they travelled together around the center of the galaxy in a complicated gravitational minuet. Their joint paths through interstellar space resembled an intertwined braid in which they would at times come nearer to each other and then move away. In their eternal dance, the two celestial bodies would come as close as about a thousand AUs and as far apart as seven thousand. Each cycle of approach and recession would take a million years. Currently, the black hole and the Sun were near a closest approach.

Amanda’s friend, colleague, and one-time lover, the geologist John Raston, discovered that at least two of the past times when the Sun and the black hole had approached each other coincided with mass extinction events on Earth, the Permian extinction which occurred about 251 million years ago and the Cretaceous extinction which occurred about 65 million years ago. The former was the largest extinction of animal-type life ever and the latter is famous for wiping out the dinosaurs. Did the black hole stir up comets in the Oort Cloud and send enough of them careening into the inner Solar System such that some of them hit Earth and wreaked havoc? Maybe this great astronomical discovery also solved one of the great mysteries of the Earth sciences, the causes of mass extinctions. John was looking for more evidence of this in Earth’s fossil record.

With persistence, Amanda had finally secured time on the big telescopes to investigate the stars in the smeared images. Most of the distortions were indeed the result of known effects, but after another two years, countless late nights, bleary eyes, and what seemed like enough coffee to float the Titanic, she had identified a dozen star images that were candidates for distortion due to gravitational lensing. The black hole would have moved in the years since those stars were photographed and the light from the star would no longer be distorted. At its distance, the black hole's apparent motion would be small, but measurable. With much work and a lot of math, Amanda was able to further narrow down the location of the black hole and determine the direction that it was traveling.

Amanda’s obsession with finding the black hole had dominated most of her adult life, but not to the exclusion of everything else. She had never married or had children, but she certainly could have had she wanted to. Plenty of men had been interested in her. She enjoyed the company of men and had slept with many, but never saw a reason to settle down with anyone in particular. Why should she? She had a good life. She rode a motorcycle. She rock climbed. She scuba dived. She loved wine and drank a lot of it. She attended science fiction conventions and engaged in cosplay. She had a tattoo on her shoulder that most people would see as nothing but a strange collection of overlapping circles. Only a true sci-fi aficionado would recognize it as the phrase, “Reach for the stars”—written in Gallifreyan, the language of the fictional alien race from the long-running British TV series Dr. Who. She got involved in political and social causes that she cared about. She travelled to Central America to protect nesting sea turtles from poachers and was roughed up for it. The next winter, she nearly got frostbite when she joined a group of Native Americans who were camped out in the freezing cold of North Dakota trying to protect their ancestral lands from oil drilling. She even got arrested once while protesting bare-breasted with a group of other likewise unclad women on the grounds of the state capital building demanding the right for women to go topless wherever a man could. All of these had involved some pain on her part, but she regretted none of them and would unhesitatingly do them all again. The last of these had actually been quite fun—until a policeman handcuffed her and dragged her off to jail after she angrily refused his order to cover herself. For a while, she had used the mugshot from her arrest as her profile picture on social media sites. She was now in middle age, but had no intention of slowing down. She liked her life. Why muck it up with something as banal as a romantic relationship, at least one that lasted for more than a few ribald nights?

After years of work, Amanda had a pretty good idea of where the black hole was and its path across the sky. Late one night, while she was in her lab trying to keep herself awake with a fourth cup of coffee, her computer chimed. A program that she had been running for weeks had finally found what she had been looking for. It predicted that the black hole, if it indeed existed, would pass directly in front of a faint and distant star in the constellation Cygnus in exactly 87 days. Amanda was ecstatic. She would need to get a good image of that star before the occultation and then be waiting with a powerful telescope to image it again on the day that it happened. She contacted a colleague who worked with NASA’s James Webb space telescope and arranged for it to take a picture of the star. At the moment that she predicted the black hole would pass in front of the star, the mighty space telescope imaged it again. She paused and held her breath. “Okay, let’s do this.” she nervously whispered to herself. She compared the two images. Bingo! The earlier image of the star was a typical point source of light. The image taken at the moment of the occultation showed a smeared ring of light. The black hole was found!

Amanda published papers. She was interviewed on TV. Soon, she became a minor celebrity. With her scientific reputation soaring, she would no longer have to beg for grant money in order to continue working. She supervised her own postdocs who studied the black hole and refined its parameters. Further imaging of lensed stars allowed Amanda to calculate the mass and diameter of the black hole. It was far more massive than the Sun, but only had a diameter about that of Neptune. She regretted that her late mentor Will Kosten, who had had first postulated its existence decades before, had not lived to see this. Armed with this information and her burgeoning reputation, she could now put into action a plan that she had been quietly formulating since she was a postdoc.

Amanda calculated that the gravity lens surrounding the black hole would refract light onto a focal plane that would cut through the Solar System at a distance from the Sun just a bit past the orbit of Saturn. Any image carried in light passing through it would be magnified by a factor of millions. Amanda made a proposal to NASA. She proposed that they construct an astronomical instrument unlike anything built before and many orders of magnitude more powerful. It would not be a single, cohesive device, but rather a set of detached, but interconnected components. Six identical spacecraft, each equipped with an optical imager, an X-ray imager, and a radio telescope would be launched into highly elliptical orbits around the Sun. These would constitute one component of the instrument. A recently developed quantum computer running specialized software would be another. The final component of the instrument would be the black hole itself. The years-long orbits of the spacecraft would take them through the focal plane near their aphelions. During those brief periods when they passed through it, they would point their instruments at astronomical objects in the line-of-sight beyond them and the black hole. The system would in effect form an enormous and immensely powerful telescope. The gravity lens around the black hole would serve as the telescope's primary lens and the spacecraft as eyepieces. The raw images produced by this instrument would be bright images of distant objects refracted into rings. Because they were captured at a lens focal point, they would be resolvable. The powerful quantum computer back on Earth would use Amanda's model to perform the thousands of calculations that would reconstruct the original images from the raw, smeared rings of light. The result would be a fully resolved image. Amanda called her unique instrument the “Gravityscope.”

Amanda estimated that if it worked, the Gravityscope would be able to resolve a feature the size of Manhattan Island on an extrasolar planet a thousand light years away. This seemed incredible, but the peer reviewers of her paper concurred. Unlike a conventional telescope, one could not point the Gravityscope at a target. Instead, the mission planners would have to precisely position the eyepiece spacecraft such that they passed through a focal point of the gravity lens that coincided with a target object being in the line-of-sight of the black hole as viewed from the Solar System. As it traveled slowly across the sky, the black hole would twist only a tiny patch of the surrounding space-time along its path into a lens. Therefore, the Gravityscope could only view objects that per chance happened to fall within that narrow swath and then only for a short time before the black hole moved past. Objects would come into view only once. Still, space is deep and thousands of stars in our own galaxy and many galaxies beyond would be observable.

Years of work went by. Proposals were submitted, funding obtained, spacecraft built and launched, a quantum supercomputer procured, hundreds of thousands of lines of custom software code written, and a mission operations center or “MOC” constructed at the Lab. It took several more years for the spacecraft to reach their designed orbits around the Sun. After all this work and all this time, the day had finally arrived. All of the pieces were in place. Tomorrow one of the eyepiece spacecraft would pass through the focal plane and observe a distant star that was about to be occulted by the black hole.

The night before the big day, Amanda was alone and fidgeting in her small apartment in Maryland. She lived by herself and liked it that way. Well, she did have a cat for company whom she had named Hubble. It was late and she really should get some sleep, but how could she? The most important event in her life would happen tomorrow! If the Gravityscope worked as she predicted, she and others would see things tomorrow that no human had ever seen before. Amazing things. If it did not work, years of her life and billions of dollars of the government's money will have been wasted. 

“What can I do tonight to keep from going crazy?” she said to herself as she nervously paced back and forth while sipping a glass of wine. “I could watch some brain rot TV or I could just get sloshed on wine.” The latter option had some appeal, but no. 

“I need to be on my A-game tomorrow. I can’t crawl into the MOC in the morning with a hangover.” She quickly scanned the TV channels, but found nothing of interest. 

She next considered inviting one of her male “friends-with-benefits” to come over for the night. Sex would be a good distraction. She hesitatingly picked up her phone as she was deciding which of them to call. On second thought, again no. She put the phone down. Not tonight, she needed to sleep. She drained the last drops of the wonderful red liquid from her glass and crawled into bed. Her cat jumped onto the bed and eagerly snuggled up against her. She reflexively started petting the contented animal and he let out a low, rolling purr. 

“Maybe this is what I need right now, kitty therapy!” With help from the cat’s soft, vibrant susurration and the half a bottle of wine she had imbibed over the evening, she drifted off to sleep.

Amanda awoke early in the morning with Hubble blissfully sprawled out on top of her head. “Now Hubbs, how can that possibly be comfortable?” she mumbled while spitting cat fur out of her mouth. “Well, I guess a cat can sleep anywhere.” 

She decided to get up and head to the Lab even though they would not receive a signal from the eyepiece spacecraft until the afternoon. Hubble blurted out a meow of protest at being disturbed from his comfortable feline repose as his human pillow stumbled out of bed and headed to her kitchen to make coffee. For Amanda, the mixture of excitement and anxiety was almost unbearable. The cat sensed that something was up and followed, darting about her feet as she walked, nearly tripping her. Trembling with nervous excitement, Amanda spilled some of the hot coffee on herself and let out a loud scream of pain followed by a louder stream of profanity. No matter. Today was the day!

She arrived at the Lab's MOC hours before she really needed to be there. Today, an obscure and barely cataloged star about three thousand lightyears away would be visible to the Gravityscope. As the day went on, the MOC became a bustling place. Mission operators, managers, scientists, and VIPs filled the room. Amanda was uncomfortable with the crowd, but that's the way it would be for the next several hours. In minutes, the rotation of the Earth would position a giant dish antenna located outside Madrid, Spain in view of the spacecraft. Operators in Madrid would point the big dish at the spot in the sky were the spacecraft was, or more precisely, where it had been when it started transmitting more than an hour ago. It was time. The room went quiet. 

“Station lock,” said the Mission Operations Manager or “MOM” as she was called, her eyes transfixed on her monitor. Communication was established halfway across the world between the MOC in Maryland and the receiving station in Spain. “We have a carrier signal from the spacecraft,” said MOM in her monotone, professional voice tinged with just a touch of excitement. “We have telemetry!” she exclaimed this time with emotion as her screen lit up with scrolling data. 

The first few agonizingly long minutes of telemetry would be just status data indicating the health of the spacecraft and its instruments. Finally, an image began to form on a big screen mounted on the wall. Slowly, it formed into a colorful ring of light. Amanda shrieked with joy. To most of the people in the room, the diffracted and magnified light from the distant star did not look like anything except a broken, rainbow-like ring. They had been told what to expect, but for them it was still a bit of a letdown. But to Amanda and her scientific colleagues, it was gold. This was clearly an Einstein-Chwolson ring, the result of gravity lensing. Once the telemetry downlink from the spacecraft completed, Amanda immediately fed the wonderful raw data to the quantum supercomputer, nicknamed “Big Q,” which would perform the millions of computations necessary to reconstruct the original images from the raw light. Inside the bowels of the computer, the compiled code of Amanda's lensing model did its work. It took only two hours, but to Amanda and everyone else, it seemed like an eternity. Finally, mercifully, it was done. With a touch to her monitor, Amanda brought the finished product up on the big screen. There was a gasp from around the room. Amanda felt a tingling wave of emotion unlike anything she had experienced before surge through the entire length of her body. On the screen was the clear, disk-shaped image of a star with a family of planets. After a tense and bewildered silence, the room erupted with wild cheers and clapping. Her Gravityscope worked!

Later study would show that one of the planets was partially covered by clouds and had what looked like small seas and landforms. Over the next year, the data would be processed further such that they were able to see polar caps and mountain ranges on the planet. The scientists did not see clear evidence of life, but they did see a world that could potentially be colonized by humans in the unlikely event that they were ever to find a way to travel there.

As the months went by, each of the other eyepiece spacecraft crossed through the focal plane of the black hole in turn. Each had been carefully positioned such that the spacecraft and the black hole would be in the precise line-of-sight of an object of interest. Eventually and by an incredible stroke of luck, one of Amanda's priority targets came within view of its massive eye. 

The Gravityscope would be able to image the bizarre star “KIC 8462852,” better known as “Tabby’s Star,” after the astronomer who had studied it decades earlier. Tabby’s Star is truly bizarre. Its luminosity varies wildly in a manner that is not readily explainable with known stellar physics. 

Amanda was eagerly waiting when Big Q finally reconstructed the lensed images. “What the f**k?!!” Amanda reflexively blurted out when she looked at the image. 

Her team member who had programmed Big Q, Lester Washington, let out a short laugh. “Hasn’t that been the star's other nickname all along?” 

Amanda was so engrossed in the image that she barely heard him. Tabby’s Star was surrounded by globs of swirling, glowing particles. They looked rather like tightly bunched swarms of fireflies. 

“So, are these blobs of whatever they are just floating around the star and causing the fluctuations in its luminosity?” asked Lester. 

“Apparently,” replied Amanda, “But the laws of physics won’t allow them to maintain their structure for long. Bodies orbit a center of mass at different speeds proportional to their distance from it. The closer objects in the swarm are orbiting faster than the ones further out. Over time, they should either form ring-like structures around the star or disperse. Somehow, they are being reformed into globs. I have no idea what's going on there. Incredible!” It seemed that star KIC 8462852 would retain its other longstanding nickname, “The ‘WTF’ Star,” for a while longer. Lester wondered how many doctoral dissertations would be written about it in the coming years, many, he surmised.

A red giant star got its turn under the Gravityscope. There was a clear gas giant planet orbiting it at about 5 AUs out and much closer in was a smaller rocky planet about the size of the Earth. The smaller planet even had a respectably-sized moon. The huge star now scorched them. Amanda wondered what the planet had been like billions of years ago before the Main Sequence star that its sun had once been expanded into the huge red giant that it was now, nearly engulfing it. At that time, the then much smaller and more distant star would have just comfortably warmed the planet. It would have been within the star’s habitable zone. Had liquid water had once flowed on its surface? Had it hosted life before its sun swelled and burned it all away? No one would never know, but Earth would share its fate one day.

The tiny eyepiece spacecraft took turns passing through the focal plane. Dozens of targets were imaged and analyzed. Every one of them was unique and amazing. One even showed a black hole pulling material out of a nearby star. The mass of hot, glowing stellar gas robbed from the star could be seen swirling into the black hole like water going down a drain.

The scientists imaged a galaxy that was 9 billion lightyears away. When the light that carried that image left, the universe was young. The Earth and Sun did not yet exist. At that distance, resolving the stars beyond point sources was beyond the ability even of this awesome instrument, but it could make out individual stars and the structures they collectively formed within their primordial galaxy. Another image showed a quasar also billions of lightyears away and therefore it looked as it had that many years ago. The quasar looked like a regular disk-shaped galaxy surrounded by strange, radio-bright nebulae, but with two opposite jets of material shooting out for thousands of lightyears from its nucleus perpendicular to its galactic plane. The quasar was even more spectacular in the radio and X-ray parts of the spectrum. These were the tell-tale signs of a supermassive and very active black hole. 

“There’s another two dozen doctoral dissertations,” quipped Lester. Amanda wondered if the quasar was still active today. No one would ever know. During the first two years of the Gravityscope's operation, humanity learned more about the universe than it had in all its prior history and all from just a tiny swath of sky in the constellation Cygnus. And the discoveries kept coming.

The most interesting discovery so far came when the “eye” of the Gravityscope fell upon a small Sun-like star. The scientists saw a large gas giant planet in the star's system. The gas giant had a moon about the size of the planet Mercury with a dense atmosphere. The moon was covered by an ocean with only a few patches of dry land. It was a water world. As exciting as those visual discoveries were, the most spectacular find came from spectroscopic analysis of the moon's atmosphere. It revealed an abundance of molecular oxygen—a clear sign of life. The moon's seas were even greenish in color. Long suspected, but never proven until now, life did indeed exist beyond Earth! Much to the disappointment of nearly everyone, meticulous analysis showed no evidence of any advanced life. It seemed that only microbial life existed on the moon. Simple photosynthesizing organisms may be the most advanced living things there, but they were producing oxygen. John took the lead on investigating this little world and concluded that it was going through a stage analogous to the Proterozoic Eon on Earth that began about two and a half billion years ago. During that time, newly evolved photosynthetic cyanobacteria took over the oceans and radically changed the character of our planet's biosphere. The molecular oxygen these newcomers pumped into the young Earth's atmosphere poisoned most of the more primitive and oxygen-intolerant anaerobic organisms. On this distant little world, they were seeing a replay of a long-past transformative phase in Earth’s history. John spent most of the next year writing scientific papers on it.

With the spectacular success of the Gravityscope, Amanda was now receiving daily invitations to appear on TV programs and requests for interviews from journalists from every country. She turned down most of these. She wrote a book for the general public. The royalties from its sale provided a nice supplement to her income. For the first time in her life, she could afford to buy her own home. She moved out of the small, rented apartment that she and her cat had lived in for years and into a townhouse near the Lab. She also bought the hot new Ducati “crotch rocket” motorcycle that she had been eyeing for several years, but could never before afford. Amanda relished the respect that she now garnered from her professional colleagues, but she did not relish the celebrity. She did not want to be famous. She did not want to be recognized when she walked down the street. She just wanted to do science and marvel at the next wonder that her amazing Gravityscope would unveil. John was happy to bask in the public limelight and Amanda was happy to let him. The Gravityscope revealed wonder after wonder, but it had not found that one thing everyone most wanted to find, until one day…

It was the middle of the night and Amanda was at home lying awake in bed. Asleep next to her was a considerably younger man, one of her friends-with-benefits. Amanda smiled wryly at him and rather pleased with herself whispered, “Ha! Kiddo, I’m nearly old enough to be your mother and I still wore you out!” She considered waking him for another round, but decided to first check her email. 

Big Q should have just finished processing the data from that interesting little Earth-sized planet orbiting that yellow spectral class G star. She picked up her tablet. The expected automated email message from the computer was there. She logged into the system and looked at the processed results. 

“Holy freaking shit!” She shook her lover awake. She leaped out of bed and quickly dressed and told him to do the same. The man, barely awake, naked, and confused, staggered out of bed. 

“But, but Mandy?” 

“Please don’t take this personally! It’s not you, but there's something I have to do right now! I'll make it up to you later. Promise!” With a quick kiss and a gentle smack on his behind, she shooed the disconcerted young man out the door. 

Amanda grabbed her phone and called Raston forgetting that it was the middle of the night and not caring anyway. He answered the phone with a groggy “Uh, hello?” 

“John, it’s Mandy. You need to look at the data from 971 Cyg right now!” 

“Um, Mandy, do you know what time it is?” 

“John, just look at it! Now!” In the background, she recognized the sleepy voice of John’s awakened wife, “Who the hell is calling you at this hour?” Amanda rushed out the door, leaped onto her Ducati, and raced to the Lab.

The planet orbiting the star 971 Cygni had oceans and continents, but most interesting of all, it exhibited linear features that did not look natural. Although they could not be resolved fully, there were geometric structures on the continents that contained too many straight lines and smooth arcs to be the result of natural geomorphic processes. There were box-like features hundreds of meters across. These could only be artificial structures. The Gravityscope had found its aliens.

John called Amanda back after about an hour bursting with excitement. “Mandy, those are artificial! I’m analyzing the atmosphere now and there’s oxygen!” As Big Q spewed out more and more processed data a civilization revealed itself. The inhabitants of 971 Cygni b, whoever and whatever they were, clearly had the intelligence and the technology to construct massive structures. These were visible all over the planet. However, something was amiss on this distant world. There were no artificial lights visible anywhere and no radio signals other than natural noise were coming from the system. Over the next weeks, John determined that sediment was covering much of the structures. It also seemed that the coastlines had once been further back. They could see what appeared to be inundated “cities.” John thought that it looked like only natural processes were now actively shaping the surface of the planet, not intelligent beings. Nature seemed to be reclaiming its world. Was this civilization dead? Maybe its inhabitants were long extinct and these structures were just the slowly fading monuments to their past existence. What had happened to these beings and how long ago? These questions would occupy scientists for generations.

Amanda and her wonderful instrument had just made the discovery of all discoveries. She had now been awake for three days straight. She had been studying data and answering phone calls from journalists, colleagues, prime ministers, and presidents. She was exhausted. Finally, she left the news media to John and went home to the delight of her cat who had not seen her since the discovery. Thank modern technology for automatic pet feeders. Every cell in her body craved sleep. Her bed was the most inviting thing in the world to her right now. She crawled into the welcoming sheets and Hubble jumped on and snuggled up to her. Just as she was about to fall asleep, her phone rang again. 

“Ugh!” She was tempted to just let it ring, but reluctantly picked it up. “H-hello?” 

An exuberant voice on the other end said, “Dr. Thorell, it is my pleasure to inform you that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics!” 

Amanda said nothing for a long moment. “Um, that’s nice. Thanks.” she slumberously replied dropping the phone as she drifted off to sleep. Her bed and her cuddly cat were all that mattered to her right now. The Nobel Prize would still be there tomorrow.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter

In August of 2016, I visited the infamous Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Kentucky. I wrote an essay about it. It's here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why I Never Supported Bernie Sanders

By Mike Reid

Originally written in July 23, 2016
Updated November 9, 2016
Most of my friends are politically liberal and some are fervent Bernie Sanders supporters. Some of them have tried to get me to jump on the Bernie bandwagon and are frustrated that they could not persuade me to do so. I’m supporting Hillary Clinton. She’s not my ideal presidential candidate, far from it, but she is competent, qualified, disciplined, rational, and understands national and global politics. And at her worst, she would still be an infinitely better president than any of the Republican candidates would be, particularly their nominee. So what about Bernie Sanders? He’s genuine, passioned, and stands up to the ruling elites. These are laudable qualities, but I have never regarded him as a viable general election candidate. And even if by some miracle he were to win the White House, I believe he would be an ineffective president.

First of all, he’s unelectable. “Wait!” you say. “Polls taken during the Spring of 2016 have shown Sanders beating Trump by double digits in a hypothetical general election. He does substantially better against him than Hillary does. He would be the stronger candidate!” Yes, polls have shown that. And no, they do not indicate that Sanders would be the stronger candidate against the orange buffoon. Those polls, frankly, don’t mean anything. We know from past experience, that polls taken more than a few months before an election are not predictive of the eventual outcome and in this election, there’s even less reason to give any credence to those polls. Here’s why:

We have to start with an unfortunate reality: most Americans are politically clueless and pay little attention to politics until the final weeks before a presidential election. I know this seems incredible, but a very high percentage of the American electorate still knows little or nothing about Bernie Sanders. They don’t know that he’s a “socialist” and they don’t know what a “democratic socialist” is. To them, he’s just some obscure politician (or something) from some little state somewhere. In contrast, Hillary Clinton and The Donald have been public figures for many years and are both well-known even to the politically disengaged general public. Both are deeply unpopular. (In my opinion, the antipathy that so many Americans hold towards Hillary Clinton is mostly undeserved, but that’s another matter.) When the pollsters called a broad swath of the American people and asked them whom they preferred as a presidential candidate, Clinton, Trump, or Sanders, many of the people they called simply reacted negatively to the names that they knew, those of Clinton and Trump. To them, Sanders was the “none-of-the-above” option. They were not expressing support for him. They were expressing distaste for their two other choices. They simply didn’t know much about him and didn’t have a strong opinion about him one way or the other. To him, he was “the other guy”. I believe that this is why in those polls, he seemed to be the more popular candidate.

Sanders’ supporters often say, “But I went to a Bernie rally and the venue was packed! Haven’t you seen how many are supporting him on social media? Just about everyone I know is supporting him! That shows how super popular he is!” Um, no. Sorry, Bernie supporter, but it doesn’t. The community of people with whom you interact, both in person and on-line are a self-selected subset of the country. This community may be large, but it is still a selected group. This group does not in any way represent a statistically meaningful cross-sampling of the voting population at large. Yes, millions of Americans support Bernie Sanders, but there are tens of millions of voters. Trump’s supporters also look around within their in-person and on-line communities and see that nearly everyone they know is enthusiastically supporting Trump. This has convinced many of them that the only way Trump could lose is if the election is rigged. Like many Sanders supporters, they are mistaking depth of support for breadth of support.

An even larger problem is that Sanders has never faced the full scrutiny of the news media like Clinton and Trump have. His political skeletons, and he does have some, have not yet been brought out of the closet. Those political skeletons include his past flirtations around the edges of Marxism, his expressed sympathy for some very anti-American leftist regimes, and some very un-politique lifestyle comments. The fact that he honeymooned in the Soviet Union is another. You might look at those and say, “So what? Those were all decades ago. He’s grown up since then!” I don't disagree. That was then and this is now. He may well have matured as a person and as a politician. I give him the benefit of the doubt on that. However, regardless of whether you or I think these old malefactions are relevant today, you can bet that the news media will dredge them up and have a field day with them. These as of yet unexploited vulnerabilities will hurt Sanders deeply with middle America when they become widely known.

Now, let’s turn to his biggest problem of all. The Right Wing Attack Machine (RWAM) has never turned their guns on him. I define the RWAM as the collection of right-wing media such as Fox “News”, Breitbart, Drudge, etc., conservative political organizations, and the Republican Party attack dogs. In my opinion, the primary reason Hillary is so unpopular is that she has been subjected to the full wrath of the RWAM for a quarter century. She has endured a relentless and continuous barrage of negative propaganda from right-wing media and an unending parade of frivolous and politically motivated, hyperpartisan Congressional “investigations” of phony, manufactured “scandals.” Every successful propagandist knows that old axiom, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” And the RWAM has no scruples about repeating lies. Where there's smoke there's fire or if there is no fire, create a lot of smoke and people will assume there's fire. No one, no matter how honest, could withstand the withering character assassination campaign that Hillary Clinton has been subjected to and emerge with his or her reputation intact, not even Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton has survived these ruthless and often sexist attacks, but they have drawn blood and left scars.

Were Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee, the media would drag his old leftist peccadilloes out of the closet and the RWAM would go after him in full force. These forces would shape the opinions of that half of America who now knows little about him. The RWAM would paint him as a tax-and-spend raging Marxist. Many Americans will confuse Sanders’ European-style democratic socialism with old Soviet socialism. Yes, I know the difference, but many Americans don’t and the RWAM would deliberately reinforce their confusion. To most Americans who came of age during the Cold War, those of us over age 45, the very word “socialist” is toxic. To them socialism is un-American and emblematic of government tyranny. And this demographic is the one that has the highest voter turnout. Well-crafted propaganda labels can stick. Do you remember the infamous and deeply deceptive “Willie Horton” ad of the 1988 campaign targeted at Michael Dukakis or the mendacious “Swift Boat” ads of 2004 targeted at John Kerry? Both ads were preposterous and slanderous, but they were effective. Expect much more of that in 2016. Sanders would be deeply vulnerable to these.

“But Bernie is inspiring younger people to vote! They finally have someone to vote for!” It’s true that Sanders has his greatest support among younger voters and they have been enthusiastically packing his rallies. However that enthusiasm has not translated into actual votes. If you look at the polls by demographic, younger voters have not been turning out to vote in the Democratic primaries in extraordinary numbers. Their turn out rate is no better than it was in 2008 when Obama ran the first time. They express support for him when called by pollsters, but apparently that support is not enough to motivate them to actually get off of their apathetic butts and vote. Primary election turnout data show that the enthusiastic young Americans packing his rallies are a minority within their demographic. Sanders is very popular among that subset of the younger demographic that is politically engaged, but he is not enlarging it. Repeat after me: Depth of support does not necessarily indicate breadth of support. The larger part of their cohort are as apathetic as ever. This election, like all before, will be decided largely by middle-aged and older white voters. When this demographic, my demographic, hears the word “socialist”, most of us panic and run for the hills — or to the Republicans.

The next factor to be considered is campaign contributions. It is said that “Money is the lifeblood of politics.” This old aphorism sounds cynical, but there is a lot of truth in it. Campaign funds come primarily from wealthy individuals and economic interest groups. Most of these donors dislike Donald Trump and few of them are donating to his campaign. Many of them don’t like Hillary Clinton either, but they see her as someone they could stomach if they had to. So, many of the big political donors are simply sitting out this election or focusing on down-ballot races. However, they could not stomach Sanders. He wants to greatly raise their taxes, regulate their industries, raise the minimum wage, and he opposes their beloved international free trade agreements. I fear that many of them would hold their noses, but still come out and donate millions of dollars to Trump just to keep “the socialist" out of the White House and out of their pockets. With their money, they could buy a lot propaganda and the election. Unfortunately, the American public writ large is undereducated, unsophisticated and can be swayed by well-financed propaganda.

The polls that showed Bernie Sanders leading do not reflect these factors and should not be viewed as being at all predictive of how a general election would turn out.  Were he the nominee, these factors would come into play and his standing in the polls would collapse. Experienced political operatives, such as the people who get to be superdelegates, know this, which I think is why they have largely not supported him. For these reasons, I do not believe those polls are meaningful and I believe that Bernie Sanders would lose to Donald Trump in the general election.

Let’s suppose that by some miracle, Bernie Sanders did win and become president. The POTUS is not a dictator and cannot enact major initiatives on his own. Exactly what is he going to accomplish without support in Congress? He’s been in Congress for a long time, why hasn’t he pushed his progressive agenda from the Senate floor? Perhaps he has tried, but we haven’t heard much about it. This is because his agenda has so little support from his colleagues that any such bills never even make it out of committee. And as president, he would run into the same stone wall of Republican obstructionism that President Obama has. Even the purple state Democrats would keep their distance. Congress would enact none of his progressive agenda — none of it! His agenda would be dead on arrival. Without Congress, there would be no $15 per hour federal minimum wage, no universal health coverage, and no free public colleges, even if Sanders were elected President. He surely knows this, which makes me wonder what his agenda really is.

We do need honesty and sincerity in our government, but those qualities alone do not a successful president make. A successful president projects gravitas in public and a ruthless political craftiness behind the scenes. Jimmy Carter may have been the most honest and well-intentioned man ever to sit in the Oval Office, but he lacked those qualities and was a weak and feckless president. The Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt was his only memorable accomplishment and that success was largely due to the fact that he could proceed with it without Congress. President Carter simply lacked the gravitas, public salesmanship, and behind the scenes political skills needed to advance an agenda. Even with his own party in control of both houses of Congress, he accomplished little. And at that time, their was still a sane and moderate wing to the Republican Party that was much more willing to compromise. By the end of President Carter’s term, many people even in his own party saw him as in over his head. Unlike most incumbent presidents running for reelection, he faced a serious challenger for his own party’s nomination and after barely surviving that, failed to win reelection. Jimmy Carter is a truly good person, but he was not a good president. I expect that we would see a replay of this with a President Sanders.

Hillary Clinton’s many haters on the Right see her as a corrupt near Marxist who will turn our country into the old Soviet Union and hand it over to the Islamic Caliphate or whatever enemy du jour. Her haters on the left see her as a corrupt, bought-and-paid-for corporate shill who cares little about the working classes. You can choose to believe one of these two contradictory portraitures of her if you wish, but there is a third option which I think is closer to reality. Hillary Clinton is neither. She’s actually a centrist career politician who has mostly progressive views that are tempered by a keen understanding of political reality. Single-payer national health insurance, free or inexpensive college, and a $15 per hour minimum wage like what most of the rest of the First World countries have and what Sanders is advocating would be wonderful. They are also politically infeasible in the United States today. Clinton knows this and unlike Sanders, is not making promises that she knows she would not be able to deliver on. Perhaps in a generation from now America will be ready for such ideals, but it is not yet.

As for Hillary Clinton’s integrity, she’s no Jimmy Carter. But I don't think that she’s the she-devil that haters on both the right and the far left portray her to be either. I don’t know her personally and neither do any but a tiny fraction of the Americans who hold strong opinions of her. I think that her reputation for untrustworthiness and dishonesty is more a reflection of the aforementioned decades-long character assassination campaign which the RWAM and a sensationalist media have directed at her rather than of her actual character or anything that she’s done.

Yes, Hillary Clinton is a consummate political insider and she has ties to many segments of American society, including the corporate one. But that’s not inherently a bad thing. Sure, she supports her campaign contributors, but any effective politician has to do that. She’s not the progressive firebrand that Bernie Sanders is and she has been late to the game when it comes to supporting social issues like LGBT rights. She works from the political center and out of political expediency, but that’s what effective politicians do in a democracy. I think that deep down, she is mostly progressive, but is restrained by an acceptance of political reality. This country is moving forward, albeit slowly. At least a President Hillary Clinton would keep us moving in that direction, in fits and starts perhaps, and inevitably with a few stumbles along the way, but still forward. I believe that the nomination of Bernie Sanders would result in a landslide Republican victory in November. Even if he were to be elected, an overreaching President Sanders would become mired in political intransigence and would take us nowhere. He would be a failed one-term president. A President Trump would be a disaster.

I certainly don’t agree with everything Hillary Clinton stands for. I have a particular problem with her hawkish and interventionist foreign policy, but no politician is perfect. And please let us not pretend that third party candidates are an option. They are relevant only when they act as spoilers who siphon votes away from one of the two major party candidates. The nature our first-past-the-post voting system and the Electoral College make it nearly impossible for any third candidate to be elected. Sorry, but in our electoral system, a third-party protest vote really is a vote thrown away. Hillary Clinton is not be an ideal presidential candidate, but unlike Sanders, she is electable and has a realistic political agenda. This year we are in a particularly dangerous situation. Never in American history has one of our two major political parties nominated for President of the United States a person who is as monumentally unfit for the office as Donald Trump is. He must not ascend to that office! This is why I have been supporting Hillary Clinton all along and look forward to watching her take the presidential Oath of Office in January.

UPDATE Nov., 9, 2016: Trump won. This is bad, really bad.

Opposing Religious Themed War Memorials

This post was originally written in August 2015.

I just read this article about the American Humanist Association's (AHA) failed suit to remove a Maryland war memorial because it's in the shape of a cross. I've been a member and supporter of the AHA for many years and will continue to be, but I have mixed feelings about their position on this issue.

Sure, that cross is clearly a Christian religious symbol. One can make a solid legal argument, as the AHA did, that it should not be on public land as that can be construed as government endorsement of a particular religion. However, I'm wondering if challenging a decades-old war memorial is really a good idea. This memorial has been there for nearly a century and commemorates World War I soldiers. How many people passing by even notice it let alone fixate on its Christian symbolism?

I fear that challenging monuments erected decades ago, particularly those honoring war dead, makes us secularists look petty, trite and mean-spirited. These monuments have become part of the history of the communities in which they stand and frankly, I don't have a problem with them.

I think we should challenge the construction of any new monuments on public lands or with public funds that contain religious imagery because they violate the values of our time, but we should not challenge ones that were erected in a different era. They reflect the values and social norms of their time, outdated as those values and norms may now be. I think that we should avoid aggravating people over small, historical things like this and focus on the bigger matters of today. Issues such as protecting reproductive rights, fighting religious discrimination, keeping religious doctrine out of politics and public institutions, defending science, etc. are crucially important in the here and now. A local and little-known 90 year old war memorial is not.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lamenting the Death of Intellectual Conservatism in the USA

I used to be a Republican. It's hard to believe now, but it's true. That was back in the days when the Republican Party still had a pragmatic, responsible, secular, and intellectually sophisticated moderate wing. Sadly, those days are gone. Over the past two decades, the party's ant-intellectual, jingoistic, anti-environmental, theocratic, fiscally-reckless, wing-nut fringe took over the party.

I was a Republican because I believed in a limited role for the federal government, state's rights, fiscal responsibility, free market economics, and the need for a strong defense (this was when the USSR was still around). But I also believed (and still do) in the absolute separation of church and state, respect for science, abortion rights, environmental protection, that tax cuts must be accompanied by commensurate spending cuts, and that liberals were equally patriotic countrymen and colleagues who deserved our respect and with whom we could amicably disagree. The Democrats were the other major American political party, they were NEVER the enemy. Back then, these views were not seen as incompatible with mainstream Republicanism. Sadly, there is no place in today's Republican Party for people like me. I and many others left the party. Or more accurately, the Republican Party left us!

Now, the wing-nut fringe of the Republican Party is its base. To be a Republican now, you have to disrespect science, be religious, oppose abortion rights, believe in a militaristic foreign policy, support tax cuts with no regard to their impact on the Government's fiscal solvency, disrespect the separation of church and state, not care about the environment, and think that anyone who disagrees with you is a communist! I'm appalled at the absence of intellect in the Republican party of today. It's downright scary that Republican members of Congress and state governors feel that they have to cow-tow to a loud-mouthed and intellectually bereft buffoon like Rush Limbaugh and that the party's recent presidential nominee selected the risibly unqualified Sarah Palin as his vice presidential choice in order to appeal to its unsophisticated base voters.

It really infuriates me that these superstitious nincompoops think that they are the guardians of national morality. Bill Clinton lied about his reckless and inappropriate, but otherwise harmless personal behavior and got impeached for it. George W. Bush lied in order to sell an unnecessary and unjustified war in Iraq that costs thousands of American lives and many more Iraqi lives and got reelected! Do they have their moralistic priorities just slightly out of order?

Because I believe in science, the rule of law, support diplomacy over militarism, am non-religious, support gay rights and same-sex marriage, care deeply about the environment and want to protect it, believe in balanced budgets, and believe that America is and should be part of the world, today's conservatives consider people like me to be communists (or Nazis, they can't seem to make up their minds) and view me as someone who "hates America." These people are so fanatical and their beliefs are so lacking in intellectual content that we have utterly nothing in common. It's so bizarre that believing in the Bill of Rights and in the due process of law makes you a communist of a Nazi. I wonder what sane Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller would say if they could see what their party has degenerated into.

I left the Republican Party years ago and am now a registered Democrat. I now consider myself a political liberal, even though my views have not changed much over the years. I still harbor some hopes that the moderate wing of the party will resurrect itself, but I'm not holding my breath.