Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dark energy and SETI: things that matter more than a lot of people think

Right off the bat I'll mention we haven't worked on our little movie in a while. All I can say is that's been a relief. We probably won't be working on it this weekend either, which means things have more or less returned to normal lately. Honestly, making a movie can suck. It takes far too much time from my writing... and, uh, video games.

a primer on dark energy

Our little movie also means I don't always get to catch Science Friday, but I just listened to the May 10th episode. The show features Saul Perlmutter, a Nobel Prize-winning authority on dark energy (not to be confused with dark matter, dark energy is the force that's responsible for the increasing speed at which our universe expands... or in other words the stuff that makes my most cherished science fiction novel of my teenage years slightly obsolete). Perlmutter joins Jill Tarter, the SETI astronomer Carl Sagan used as a basis for the main character in Contact. 

Point #1 of this post: If you have a young daughter you can't find many role models better suited than Tarter. She says when she was a kid she wanted to be an engineer because all the engineers she knew of were men. Hell, even if you have a son you can't find many role models better than that.

I love it when scientists from two different fields come together (see: NDT and Richard Dawkins ask each other fundamentally simple questions). At one point Tarter suggests dark energy itself could be the result of some extraterrestrial technology. Perlmutter's reaction to this is surprising because he actually agrees. I should point out that he quickly says he wouldn't bet on it though; Tarter gets a kick out of this.

The scientists touch on something I've been thinking about a lot lately: a lot of people (and politicians) don't understand the return value of curiosity-based research. I've always found time dilation to be the most amazing fact in the universe, but there are probably millions of people who think it's "just a theory" (by my count this is the most irritating, ignorant combination of words in the English language) that doesn't have a practical application. Perlmutter points out that without Einstein's research entire industries wouldn't exist, not least of which is global positioning systems, because they make practical use of things that travel at the speed of light. Tarter then hypothesizes about the existence of zeta rays, partly tongue-in-cheek, to point out that whatever we need to detect extraterrestrial life maybe hasn't even been invented in our society yet. She says it's going to be guys like Perlmutter and research in things like dark matter that will bring those technologies to us. 

Again, here's the link to the segment: Exploring an Ever-Expanding Universe. It's a damn good listen.

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