As Douglas Adams has famously pointed out, the universe is big. Really, very, incredibly, biggly. This is common knowledge today, but we only learned this fact about 100 years ago. We named the coolest scientific instrument ever invented after the discoverer: Hubble. We actually have no idea how big the universe is. It could go on forever. The universe we can see is at least 25 billion light years across. Even though the universe might be finite in size, fear not, there is no chance of falling off the edge. Just like the spherical Earth, there is no edge. This idea of “the ends of the Earth” edge persisted despite the fact the Greeks knew the Earth was roughly spherical since about 300 BC.
Light is the universal speed limit. Practically all of physics relies on this fact. Certainly the physics of the very large (big stars and stuff) and the very small (atoms) are peppered with references to “c”, the symbol for that speed. (It is a curious fact that the speed of light has almost no influence at our scale. About the only time you might be aware of it is during live satellite communications due to the substantial distances involved.)
For the record, that speed is 300,000,000 meters per second. Very large distances are often measured using the time it would take for light to make the journey. Hence the previously mentioned “light-year”. There is absolutely no reason to believe that this speed can ever be exceeded. UFO fans often believe otherwise. They are misinformed. Kip Thorne (who just won the Nobel for physics), in his book Time Warps and Black Holes, speculates on how the cosmic speed limit might be beaten. It usually involves getting from point A to point B without going through the intervening space. He speculates that this might be possible, but his speculations rest on fantastically exotic and largely hypothetical forms of matter and energy. To master such forces would require machinery built on a god-like scale. I discount these fanciful ideas for the same reason that I do not believe in god.
While the actual universe is fantastically large, our bit of it is relatively small. We live in the Milky Way galaxy. The nearest galaxy to us is around two million light years away. Two million years is much longer than the time homo Sapiens have even been talking to each other (about 40 times larger). It is hard to imagine us ever talking to beings in another galaxy, the distances being so huge. Just to “hello” and get an answer would take 4 million years. Ordering Andromeda take-out is out of the question.
Our galaxy is still pretty big though. One hundred thousand (100,000) light years across and includes 100 billion plus stars. This is still a daunting size. The fastest object we have ever launched—Voyager— is moving at around 60,000 km/h. This is only one 18,000th of the speed of light. The nearest exo-planet to the Earth that we know of is about 10 light-years away, making it about 180,000 years away at Voyager speed. Of course, we could launch faster vehicles if we want, but it isn’t cheap and we would need a good reason to do so.
It is a classic first year physics problem to calculate the energy required to move a man on a spaceship from a standing start near Earth to close orbit around the nearest star. The trip must be at one gee all the way, thus making for a comfortable ride for the astronaut. One gee of acceleration for the first half of the trip and one gee of deceleration to come to a stop near the target star. One Earth gravity, or one gee, means going about 10 meters per second faster, for every second. After just one day, the ship will be going more than 900 km per second… much faster than Voyager. Making ridiculously generous additional assumptions (infinite supply of weightless fuel, weightless engines and so on) it would still take all the power mankind can master, or ever has mustered to pull this trip off. In other words, if we add up all the wood, coal, oil, A-bombs, hydro, nuclear reactors, etc ever used throughout history, it would still not be enough energy to do the job. And when we get there, we would probably find nothing.
The upshot of all this is that if we ever expect to find company in the universe, we had better use light (or rather, radio waves) moving at the fastest speed there is, but even then, the conversation will be excruciatingly slow.
How far away could the hypothetical exo-civilization be in theory? It depends. If the conversation were one way only, it could be quite far away. As long as the signal from the other civilization was bright enough, we could listen in. If the other civilization’s “ears” were really, really sensitive, they might be able to listen in on us. But how about chit-chat with a civilization just like ours? I did a back-of-envelope calculation on this subject. It involves a unit of electromagnetic flux called a Jansky. If the other civilization’s “ears” (actually huge radio telescopes) are equivalent to ours, they would have to be within about 400 light years of Earth for us to both chit and chat. This is essentially our back yard…. less than 1% across the galaxy. IMHO, it is unlikely that this relatively small bunch of stars and planets contain such a civilization. We have recently discovered that many stars have planets. We always suspected as much but confirmation has only come in the last few years. That is the good news. The bad news is that it is becoming more and more apparent that planets come in many shapes and sizes… and most of them are nasty. The Earth’s characteristics, like being in the Goldilocks zone (see below), are rare. How rare we do not know yet. Even being in the zone is no guarantee. Venus is much like Earth, and in the zone, and it is a hell hole.
Aside: The “Goldilocks zone” is the distance from the star one should be to allow for water to be in all three forms on a planet: liquid, gas and solid. It is just one of many criteria that are thought to be necessary for life.
If we were to find a civilization similar to ours inside this sphere, it would be truly amazing. The conversation would be slow, and perilous: we cannot say if “they” are friendly. But the conversation would be possible, and we would know that we are not alone. In fact, if we found one that close to us, it would not be a huge leap to imagine a galaxy riddled with life and intelligence… a la Star Trek. I love the idea, but again, I suspect it unlikely.
So get used to loneliness. The universe may be crowded. In fact, I think it must be. Even at one civilization per galaxy, we have a universe with billions of intelligent species. But our ability to talk with them is constrained by the cosmic speed limit, and those constraints make it unlikely that we will find a sister civilization anytime soon. Another curious fact is that the cosmic speed limit actually opens the door to sight-seeing the universe because of something called “time dilation”. But that is another topic.
Carl Sagan had it right. Our Pale Blue Dot is it. We can toodle about the Solar System all we want, and no doubt we will, but our only home is on the Earth, and if we want to be here for a while longer, we had better take care of it.
Guadalcanal (GC), neither a canal nor guadal, sits at the south east end of the Solomons, a collection of Islands near New Guinea and Australia. The Solomon chain of islands run from the south east to the north west, with Japanese held New Ireland and New Britain at the western end. In between is a collection of islands that create a sea lane called "The Slot", with Iron Bottom Sound just off Savo Island (the site of two major engagements) and GC at the east end. It is not hard to imagine how Iron Bottom Sound got its name.
If you are a movie buff, you will recall They Were Expendable w/John Wayne and PT 109, the true story of President JFK in the Solomons. You also might remember Black Sheep Squadron (also based on a true story), the TV series with Robert Conrad.
The conventional wisdom was that the Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war. Not so. It halted the Japanese north of the equator, but the real turning "point" was GC. I put quotes around "point" because the fight for GC lasted 6 months starting in August 1942. There were many bloody battles for islands of the Pacific, Iwo Jima and Tarawa being the worst, but none were as protracted as GC. This was due in large part to the US focusing its attention on Europe and Hitler.
Why GC? Mostly because the Japanese were building an airstrip on GC and the Americans wanted it. GC is more than 5,000 sq. kms, about 80- km long and 60 wide. The Americans attacked and took the airstrip quite easily. The airstrip was renamed Henderson Field. The subsequent fighting went on for 6 months.
There were five major naval engagements, daily air battles, and a protracted fight on the GC ground during all of it.
The five naval battles were B/o Savo Island, B/o Eastern Solomons; B/o GC ; B/o Cape Esperance; and the B/o Santa Cruz. The Americans lost the carriers Wasp and Hornet (which famously launched the Dolittle Raid), leaving just the Enterprise alone in the Pacific for some time. All these battles were roughly a draw. The Japanese's secret weapon was the Long Lance torpedo, which they used to great effect at Pearl Harbor. By contrast, the American torpedo was a piece of junk. It would often hit its target and then simply fail to explode. The American secret weapon was radar, something they did not fully appreciate during the fight for GC..
The air battle was on-going throughout, and was also roughly a draw.
The land battle also went the duration. The Americans, stretched thin with a war on two fronts, resupplied GC from the east as they could. The Japanese did the same from the west, using destroyers and submarines at night. This re-supply chain was known as the Tokyo Express. The Americans managed to stay ahead of their material demands, but the small payloads of destroyers and submarines could not keep up for the Japanese.
The Japanese had not tasted defeat on the ground before GC. Many horrific battle were fought on the island between the ever-stronger Marines divisions facing off against the slowly starving Japanese. When the island was finally abandoned by the Japanese, many were at death's door for lack of food.
Henderson Field was the big prize and it still surprises me how easily the Japanese gave it up. Once the Americans had it, they never let go despite daily bombing raids. There were two things that helped the Americans enormously in the air battle: radar and coast watchers. This gave the Americans what they needed to keep the field.
Once GC fell, the island-hopping campaign that characterized the rest of the war on the Pacific got started in earnest.
This was a long book, long on detail. The ebb and flow of war is fascinating. One piece of good data, one lucky guess, one unexpected storm, or one good shot, could change a naval battle from a tie to a rout. By this time in the war, both sides understood the importance of air power to a navy. This was true for GC. But GC also featured 5 battles of a type that did not repeat again during the war: battles of ship on ship, gun on gun. In the largest naval battle in history at Leyte Gulf, no ship ever came within sight of the enemy on the water. Like Midway, the fight was in the air.
One amusing moment happen during ship-on-ship action when an American ship's radar was knocked out. A quick thinking officer climbed the radar mast and affected repairs. Radar antennae in the day were large structures that rotated. When the repairs were done, the over anxious radar crews fired it up immediately before the sailor could detach from his safety cord. He took a dozen turns around the mast in a wide arch before anyone heard his cries to stop.
GC was the Pacific turning point of the war. It is worth noting that during the course of the 6 month conflict, the US commissioned a heavy carrier, a light carrier, a battleship, 4 cruisers, 18 subs and 62 destroyers. During the same period, the Japanese commissioned 7 destroyers and 14 subs. During 1942, the Americans built 50,000 planes vs. 9,000 from the Japanese. In the long run, the Japanese never really stood a chance.
Lots of detail from research on both sides of the battle.
Reviews of 'The God Con'
As a committed atheist of many years standing I have read quite a lot on the puzzling subject of belief in God(s) and found Lee Moller’s “The God Con” to be a refreshing and hard-hitting survey of religion - and mystical - related issues. Lee is not at all reticent to express his views and covers a broad range of fraud-tinged subjects going well beyond just religion. The book is sprinkled with quotations from various sources and I found those to be particularly amusing and edifying. I would suggest this book as a worthwhile introduction for anyone interested in a sweeping view of the subject.
Henry J R (Hank) Reiner Q C
Well worth the read. Lee Moller’s take on religion is unique and captivating, with his no-holds-barred attack on the irrationality and absurdity of faith as a way of settling questions about why we are here and why it matters. The book strays from the main theme that religion is a con to pursue insights such as why eternal life wouldn’t be all it’s cracked up to be, and therefore one of the major offering points of religion is not only unproved but not worth as much as is claimed. So it only establishes its claim that religion is a con in the vernacular sense of something harmful to you if you get caught up in it, and doesn’t distinguish between L. Ron Hubbard’s intentional deceptions in Scientology and the local minister’s fumbling explanations of the things he has no clue about. Nevertheless, it’s time well spent.
23.4 -- More Comments from a Space Nerd
The Earth has been in a nearly circular orbit around the sun for billions of years. Each year, our planet carves out an ellipse with the Sun nearly at the center. That circle defines a mathematical plane called the “plane of the ecliptic”.
The Earth also spins on its axis once a day. The Earth’s huge angular momentum keeps the axis of the Earth’s rotation pointing in the same direction – towards Polaris in the north -- exactly like an enormous gyroscope. (Actually, the axis itself wobbles over a period of 41,000 of years. In a few thousand years, Polaris will no longer be the “pole star”. )
This has been a banner year for exploration of our solar system, and it starts me thinking about our Earth and its unique characteristics. So WTF is 23.4? It is the angle that the Earth’s axis of rotation makes with the axis of the plane of the Earth’s orbit, called the “obliquity of the ecliptic”… 23.4 degrees. This number has had a huge impact on us, and we would not be here to talk about it if it were dramatically different from that value.
Take a look at any decent globe of the Earth. They are all mounted on a stand that tips the Earth 23.4 degrees. The Arctic and Antarctic circles are the northern and southern-most latitudes where the sun disappears completely for at least one day. The Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are the northern and southern-most latitudes at which the sun appears directly overhead (at noon of course) for at least one day of the year. The Tropics are 23.4 four degrees off the equator. And the Arctic and Antarctic circles are 23.4 degrees of the poles.
What would happen if this number – 23.4 degrees – were much different? How would the Earth be different? What if it were zero, or 90 degrees?
At zero degrees, the Earth’s weather would be much different. There would be no seasons. I suspect that the Earth would probably have bands of weather similar to those on Jupiter. The seasons have large consequences on evolution and it is certain those changes would affect us. Uranus is at 82 degrees, but is so far from the sun that it doesn’t make a lot of difference to its weather. Pluto is at 57 degrees. Jupiter’s is close to zero.
Aside: We would generally expect the planets to have near zero obliquity unless an event knocked the planet off kilter. This is because most of the material that accreted into the planets would also have had momentum that must be conserved… and that momentum was generally circular about the sun in the plain of the ecliptic. In the case of the Earth, it was a huge impact with a Mars-sized object that tipped the planet axis of rotation, and created our moon. Because the moon is so large compared to the Earth, the Earth-Moon system is actually a double planet and the only one in the solar system.
At ninety degrees, things on Earth would be much worse. For large parts of the year, the north and south poles would alternate between never ending sunshine and heat for half the year, and absolute darkness and cold for the other half (I assume no moon). At the equinoxes, and if you lived on the equator, you would see a sort of normal day, with a rising and setting sun. However, life on Earth would be very different from what we know.
There is nothing special about the number 23.4 degrees (as I said, it actually changes over the years) but it does seem to strike a happy median between the two extremes of zero and ninety degrees. It dictates where and when the sun and stars will rise and set and their path through the evening sky. It has a profound effect on the history of human kind, both from an evolutionary perspective and from a historical one. The first priests were priests because they were to first to codify the drum-beat of the seasons. And civilization started with agriculture.
The Ameri-Cain receives a new captain, Lt. Cmdr Queeg (played by Donald Trump). Queeg turns out to be an irrational idiot. He streamed over his own reality show line and tried to turn the Ameri-Cain into a reality show line as well. This earned Queeg the nick name “Old Orange Stain”. Maryk (General Kelly) tries to control the chaos created by Keefer (Steve Bannon, in a sure-fired Oscar winning performance) and the out of control Congress boys. The hapless Ens. Keith is played, of course, by Jarod Kushner, proving nepotism has no place on the Ameri-Cain. Finally, after losing it during several hurricanes, Queeg finds himself facing tough lawyer Barney Greenwald (Robert Meuller) who reduces Queeg to jelly, where upon Queeg delivers his famous monolog:
“They were all against me, the Senate, the Congress Boys...”said Queeg, as his took two golf balls out of his pockets and rolled them incessantly. “They had the keys to the legal system and the disloyal and very, very, very not loyal… officers… but the crew loved me… well most of them… I gave them 10% off coupons for Mar-a-Lago t-shirts… … .. officers arranged for some of the forward-stationed crew to ran aft and vote an incredible number of times… Why doesn’t JAG look into that? …. And I had worked out how… with mathematical precision…, that only I, and I alone, could save the Ameri-Cain, but the previous captain had ruined the ship. And now you have this fake investigation of me… Say are you Mexican?”
Terrific, incredible (i.e.: inspires terror and is not believable) said DJT calling it the best movie ever made and gave his own performance 10 out of 10.
he subtitle of this book about says it all: A true Story of Finance, Murder and one Man's Fight for Justice. As you know, I do not read fiction these days. This a is true story about Russia and business and intrigue. It reads like John Grisham, except that it is actually plausible. Most of the upshot of the affair is part of the public record, largely in or form of the Magnitsky Act in the US and Europe. Magnitsky was an idealistic young tax lawyer in Russia. Good advice: keep your money out of Russia.
One tiny example: In Russia, if you physically steal the seal of a company, you can use that to transfer the company to someone else. And that is what they did. Raid the business; steal the seal; steal the business.
If you, like me, occasionally look south and shake your head at the messed up country that is the USA, then take solace... it aint Russia.
The book eye-opening, and a fast and engrossing read. If you get lost in the Russian names, there is a good index. If you want a glimpse into how a 3rd rate KGB operative became the richest man in the world, this book delivers. Hint: he stole it from the Russian people. Bill Browder recently appeared on The National discussing Russian issues.
The Magnitsky Act has turned out to be an enormous thorn in the side of Russia, and is partly responsible for Russia's interference in the US election of 2016.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.