Sunday, May 15, 2016

Extra-terrestrial intelligence?

Last week, a group of scientists announced that they had identified more than 1,000 new "exo-planets" — planets orbiting stars other than our sun. The discovery of more than 2,000 such planets over the past few years has excited a lot of people who see these planets as harboring intelligent life or a livable environment for earthly humans to colonize after Earth has been depleted.

It appears that solar systems like our own are the norm for all of the billions of stars throughout our Milky Way galaxy and, presumably, among all the trillions of start in other galaxies. With so many planets orbiting so many stars, surely there are thousands, if not millions of exo-planets with life like our own planet's.

That's the thinking behind the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Both learned scientists and somewhat knowledgeable laymen dream of contacting intelligent beings on other worlds and even visiting and studying those other creatures populating our universe.

This thinking comes with a major "BUT ..." BUT ... any forms of life out there are so far away that we can never expect to visit them and probably can never hold a conversation with them. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is estimated to be 100,000 to 120,000 light years across. A light year (the distance light travels in one year) is 6 trillion miles. The light we see in the night sky is light that is tens of years, even hundreds of years old. The light we cannot see (because it is too faint) is even older — many thousands of years old.

And that presents a problem for our goal of conversing with extra-terrestrial intelligent beings. Radio waves travel at the speed of light. If we were successful at discovering radio signals from our nearest neighbors outside our solar system, the radio message would be 4 to 10 years old upon arrival on Earth. Our SETI reply would take another 4 to 10 years to reach the other world. If no intelligent life was found around the first dozen (or hundred) closest stars, the search would continue on to worlds that are within dozens or hundreds of light years away and then to those thousands of light years away. Communication would be, at best, an inter-generational effort.

As for direct contact — traveling to distant worlds — just visiting planets within our solar system requires interplanetary travel lasting years. No one knows whether humans can endure such a trip either physically or psychologically. Would you take on a mission to Jupiter's moons, for example, knowing that you (and your family and friends) would have aged 20 years or more on the trip, even if you dodged the solar radiation and small asteroids that could destroy your space ship?

Travel to planets outside our solar system would be totally unfeasible, despite the dreams of "Star Trek" and other science fiction. "Star Trek" imagines vehicles that travel faster than the speed of light. Einstein theorized that nothing can travel faster than light, and no scientist has found a way around Einstein's barrier. Inter-galactic travel cannot be done.

So why are we so intent on finding extra-terrestrial intelligence? We're a curious species and want to know. But any discovery is likely to be a disappointment, perhaps a signal originated from a distant world whose inhabitants have gone extinct or whose world has been swallowed by a dying star.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Red roses on Mother's Day

Each Mother's Day when I was growing up, my mother would perform her last task of that Sunday morning by walking outside and snipping red roses from the scraggly rosebush outside her bedroom window. She would pin a rose on the shirt or dress of each of her five children, making them ready for church. Dutifully we wore the red roses, signifying that we were honoring our mother, and all the other children at Sunday school would have their red roses, too. A few adults would wear white roses in memory of their deceased mothers. By the time I was 12, both my parents were wearing white roses, too, but I cannot remember where those roses came from; not from our yard.

We had but one rosebush in our yard, and it got no attend throughout the year except for that second Sunday in May when our mother would take five cuttings from the sickly shrub and pin each one on a child's bodice. Our little rosebuds were not large or fancy or even brightly colored. The rosebush whence they came was not properly pruned, fertilized or sprayed for pests, so its flowers were not the best.

And only once a year, on the second Sunday of May, would anyone give any thought to that dull shrub. If it produced five or seven passable rosebuds once a year, it had fulfilled its mission.

By early afternoon of Mother's Day, our rosebuds would look bedraggled; petals would be missing, having fallen away or having been plucked by curious fingers. But it didn't matter; the red roses had been seen. We children had acknowledged our allegiance and gratitude for the woman who gave us life and made sure we had a rose to wear once a year.

A decade ago, I graduated to white roses, to memory rather than honor, and our yard, far away from the little house with the rosebush outside the bedroom window, boasts three rose bushes, two bearing red roses and one with an avalanche of whitish-pink blooms. This Sunday, I won't wear a rose on my lapel; I will skip church to see my wife and my daughter run in a race called "Run Like a Mother" and celebrate the lives of all those mothers in my life and my memory.

Friday, May 6, 2016

North Carolina's bathroom law

I have refrained from any comment on North Carolina's new "bathroom law," but since former Gov. Jim Martin expressed his reasonable and moderate concerns about the law in an essay this week, I thought I could also express an opinion.

Generally, I agree with Martin. This bill, which could cost the state billions of dollars in federal funds, as well as huge sums in court and attorney costs to defend the ill-conceived bill, not to mention the millions of dollars in tourism revenue and new jobs because people and corporations don't want to come to North Carolina with its bathroom law.

I have to confess that I don't really understand the whole "transgender" thing. I grew up in a world where boys were boys and girls were girls, and no one ever got confused over gender identity, although there were certainly tomboyish girls and effeminate boys. But no one thought it was a big deal. Your gender was determined when the doctor lifted you from the birth canal and examined your groin.

But things have changed in ways my generation could have never imagined. Even the federal laws that are shaping Washington's reaction to this law are not what we thought they were. Title IX, for example, was thought of as a mandate for colleges and high schools to offer as many athletic opportunities (i.e., sports teams) for girls as they do for boys. At the time, that seemed like a pretty far-fetched concept for generations of boys who thought of girls as dainty and sweet and boys as muscular, aggressive and unemotional.

Now Title IX is being used to require that transgender students be allowed to choose the bathroom or locker room they prefer, regardless of their physical anatomy. I doubt that any of the members of Congress who voted for Title IX ever imagined that the law would be used in the manner it is being used today.

Proponents of North Carolina's House Bill 2 have attempted to stir up concerns over young girls being exposed to men slinking into women's bathrooms for their own perverted reasons. Although no one can cite an example of a pedophile or sexual predator posing as a transgender woman to gain access to the ladies' room, the possibility of such an incident frightens parents and sexual assault victims. As Governor Martin says, we've probably had transgender folks using the "wrong" restroom for years, and no one had noticed.

Frankly, I don't really want to know whether the person next to me has the "correct" anatomy.

The one concern that might legitimately worry parents of young girls is not about bathrooms (which have private stalls) but locker rooms and showers. I have been a 14-year-old boy, and I know boys of that age would be gleeful at the idea of gaining access to the girls' locker room. Having a boy ogling your daughter as she showers after gym class and changes into school clothes makes fathers' blood boil.

HB2 was said to address this possibility, but apparently the feds are interpreting Title IX to require transgender students equal access. A Virginia student was offered a separate, private changing room, but the feds considered that inadequate and demanded that the transgender student be given the very same access that other students have.

HB2 was an unnecessary piece of legislation, passed and signed in haste for no other reason than hopes of gaining a political advantage in this election year. Undoing the damage from this unexamined legislative idea will be difficult and may take years.