Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Thoughts Turn To Space.

I recently took in the movie Sunshine, which, as I noted previously, promised to be a thinking-man's sci-fi picture that devolved in the last half-hour to a disappointing monster flick. However, because of the thinking-man's aspects of the film, I decided to revisit a couple of thinking-man's science fiction classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1972 Tarkovsky version of Solaris, widely considered a masterpiece, and Steven Soderbergh's 2002 update of the same picture.

It's interesting to me to consider the effect Star Wars had on the science fiction industry. When it was released, 2001 predated not just the Star Wars pictures, but also the moon landing. It was contemplative, in love with imagery, and eerily prescient (Roger Ebert notes that the moon in the film looks pretty much like the actual moon landing would a year later). In the same way, the '72 Solaris is contemplative (bordering on dull), in love with imagery, and full of unresolved ideas about the nature of humanity. Suddenly, along comes Star Wars five years later, and now all the space stuff is just a backdrop for a lot of swashbuckling and cool effects.

Soderbergh's Solaris was an attempt to revive that contemplative sort of sci-fi. It has no action sequences, no overwhelming mythology, no bludgeoning of the viewer's senses with ornate setpieces that feature thousands of extras (or computer-simulated extras). It's a wonderful character piece that grapples with the same themes as the original Solaris, and, unsurprisingly, it was a box office dud. Teenagers don't pay money on Friday night to see thought-provoking character pieces that, unfortunately, cost a fortune ($47 million) to produce.

All this to say, I'm starting to think more and more about the cosmos, and the human's role in it. Consider this little bit of information, lifted from, of all things, a column that appears weekly on

Recently, astronomers from Middlebury College discovered one of the fastest-moving large objects ever observed, a neutron star, designated RX J0822-4300, which appears to have been hurled away from a supernova that exploded about 3,700 years ago. Using the Chandra X-ray telescope in orbit around Earth, the astronomers calculated that the neutron star is moving about 3 million miles per hour and will, over the course of time, exit the Milky Way, hurtling into the intergalactic void. The incredible speed of RX J0822-4300 offers an opportunity to put cosmic velocity and distance into perspective. Since light moves at about 671 million miles per hour, the star is traveling at slightly under one-half of 1 percent of light speed. That means the star has traversed about 20 light-years since Hammurabi was king of Babylonia. It would take the star 20 million years to cross our galaxy from one end to the other, another 350 million years to reach the next-closest galaxy to ours.

Observation of this star tells us it is physically possible to accelerate a very heavy object to a measurable fraction of light speed; some physicists had contended that might always be impossible. Now that we know it can be done, we should assume humanity someday will accomplish this artificially. So let's suppose humanity someday builds a spaceship capable of one-half of 1 percent of light speed. (The fastest manmade object so far, the New Horizons space probe currently bound for Pluto, had a peak velocity of .007 percent of light speed, meaning the neutron star is moving about 75 times faster.) If humanity someday builds a spaceship capable of moving as fast as the neutron star, such technology would open up the solar system to every conceivable shenanigan. A ship moving at half of 1 percent of the speed of light could reach Mars in about 10 hours and be at Saturn in about a day. But a spaceship moving at half of 1 percent of light speed would still be a rowboat compared with cosmic distances -- requiring 800 years to reach the nearest star to our sun and 6 million years to reach the galactic center.

This thing is big, y'all. Much bigger than our limited vision, of science fiction genre films, of humanity.

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