Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Revenge of Sci-Fi

Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and stars, to know what causes trees to bud and what changes darkness into light? But if you talk like that people call you crazy... ~ Henry Frankenstein, Frankenstein" (1932)

So, there I was, providing my commentary about the unfair denigration of science fiction, when sci-fi had it's own little say in the matter.

For example, Dr. Chris Stanley, with London's Natural History Museum has identified an ordinary-looking mineral as having the chemical formula sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide. For dedicated Superman fans, this is the very formula that appears on a case of rock in Lex Luthor's possession, a box containing kryptonite.

Now, Dr. Stanley's mineral is white and harmless, while the kryptonite most people think about is green, but it is amazing to find the same formula occurring in one of the most venerable sci-fi series. By the way, for the Superman purists, it should be noted that, over the years of the original Superman comics, kryptonite turned up in a veritable rainbow of colors including red, gold, and, yes, white.

Sadly, by the naming rules for minerals, Dr. Stanley's rock can't be called kryptonite because it contains no krypton.

Of course, Superman's kryptonite was meteoritic remains of his home world Krypton, which apparently arrived in truckloads on Earth soon after Kal-el did. As one wag once put it in a letter to a comic book, "This stuff must be sold in candy stores the way you scatter it around in the hands of crooks." Krypton was a planet that was larger than Earth (hence providing some of Superman's powers through Earth's lower gravity) and circled a red sun (thus providing the remainder of the Man of Steel's powers, thanks to our yellow sun).

Guess what astronomers have located?

A team of European astronomers have discovered a planet about five times the mass of the Earth circling a red star known by the prosaic name of Gliese 581. Equally interesting is that the planet has a mean temperature between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius (32 to 102 degrees F for the metrically challenged). That means that liquid water could be found on this rock, which means that life could possibly be found there, too.

Then there's this.

Years ago, I read a story (sorry, I can't recollect the author or title) written in the 1930's or 1940's that had the premise that one day Earth's population woke up exponentially smarter. Thanks to their now advanced intellect, they were able to determine that the solar system, in its orbit of the Milky Way, had come out of some sort of galactic cloud that had inhibited intelligence. The story went on to deal with the effects of such a boost in thinking power (including the travails of those who couldn't deal with it). It turns out that there may be such an effect, though not one that affects intellect.

Some time ago, some scientists had determined that the numbers of different species on the planet seemed to go up and down on a 62-million-year cycle. Now, some University of Kansas researchers have provided a theory that the motion of the sun through the galactic plane is the cause of this biodiversity change.

The sun (and we on Earth) orbit the galactic center, but the sun (and we) are also doing a sort of merry-go-round oscillation that takes us in and out of the galactic plane. It turns out that this occurs on a 64-million-year cycle. When we bob out of the plane, we have lost some of the protection provided by being within the plane and the galactic magnetic field. That field, like the sun's and the Earth's, deflects some of the cosmic rays that fill space. Cosmic rays are generally regarded as having an impact in mutation (and in causing clouds, according to some new theories). When we pop out of the plane, we get a bigger dose of cosmic rays and more mutations.

Who knows? Maybe cosmic rays make us smarter, too.

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