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The Astrophysics of Donald Trump

[Side note: for the first time, I also posted this piece on Medium, which I may do for longer think pieces in the future.  The creative stuff will always live here.]

If any other political outsider was gaining delegates in a primary at the rate Donald J. Trump is racking them up, we’d be calling him or her a rising star of the Republican party — but that has never been the narrative around Trump. Trump is too much of an outsider to be a rising star; he’s a meteor, hurtling out of the dark depths of space with zero warning. And now, if we don’t send Bruce Willis to nuke him soon, he’s liable to crash straight into Washington, D.C. and leave nothing of our political process behind but a scorched crater and a pile of cheap red hats.

Maybe you think that’s a good thing, and maybe you think that’s a bad thing. But whatever you think, we can agree that something is different this year. Because out of all of Trump’s boasts, brags, exaggerations, and aggrandizements, there is one that is certainly true: he is not a career politician. He is not a Republican insider. And if it’s Trump that is the conservative movement’s rising star, then the Republican party is a dying star. I call this the red giant theory of red-state politics — strap yourselves in.


A red giant is a star on the brink of death. A star like our sun will spend billions and billions of years crushing hydrogen atoms in its core together to form helium, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. But eventually — and we’re talking five or six billion years down the road here for our sun, so no worries — the hydrogen fuel is exhausted. Fusing hydrogen into helium is the only thing that keeps the forces of gravity at bay, and when the core’s hydrogen dries up the star will begin to collapse under its own weight, its mass falling in on itself like a deflating basketball. As more and more mass is drawn into the heart of the star, the hydrogen that had been floating around the outer layers is brought to a place where it, too, can fuse, and the engine is kickstarted again. The stellar core gets hotter and hotter as more burning hydrogen is pulled closer and closer together, and the hotter the star gets the faster the fusion of this previously-inaccessible hydrogen occurs. The energy of this astral furnace pushes the outer layers of the star back out, and the star swells, expanding to massive size and swallowing the planets that orbit around it like tic tacs. This process continues — the core getting denser and denser, hotter and hotter, as the star inflates — until it is so unbelievably hot that not only is hydrogen fusing together to form helium, but the helium itself is being transformed, destroyed and reknit into carbon atoms.

This is not a gentle process.

The gradual emergence of a red giant from a normal star is a festering growth, like a tumor that emerges over millions and millions of years to slowly engulf its host. But a helium flash, as this final stage is called, is violent in the extreme. Once the red giant reaches its critical temperature, the entirety of the helium fusion reaction in the star happens almost at once, and for a few seconds the star outputs one hundred billion times as much energy as it would normally. The outer layers of the star are ejected into space, drifting away in wisps of smoke and cloud that we call nebulae.

At the end, after the thunder and fire is spent and silence has taken their place, all that is left of the giant red star is a smoking core: a white dwarf.


Is the GOP on the brink of stellar death? Maybe. Like everything in politics, it’s probably a matter of considerable opinion. But consider the situation Republican faithfuls find themselves in: the party began its life as a champion of justice and equality — the party of Lincoln, as so many current candidates are fond of reminding us. But I’m not sure Lincoln would recognize the GOP in its current state. It has become bloated and swollen with ranks of people who, like any two hydrogen atoms, may not necessarily agree with each other on very much. The force of the Party pushes them together, crushes them into a cohesive whole that doesn’t really make much sense at an ideological level.

I feel — and this is my personal opinion here, so feel free to disagree — that politics in America is largely a back-and-forth conflict between the concepts of freedom and equality. Both of these are important, critical ideals for a democracy. The United States was founded on principles of both. Yet I can’t help but feel that at their extremes, the two ideas are fundamentally set in opposition to each other. If everyone is given identical, equal healthcare, they lose their freedom to choose a healthcare plan. If everyone is given the freedom to choose a healthcare plan, those that can afford to pay more for more services will, and those that can’t will suffer from the inequality this creates. This is a gross oversimplification, but hopefully it gets my point across: America is about striking the balance between freedom and equality for all.

I firmly believe that the modern Democratic party (and here, I feel like I need to admit, myself) is rooted in the principle of equality. I put more value into ensuring that all citizens of the United States — regardless of race, gender, age, income, sexual orientation, boxer-or-brief preference — are given fair and equal treatment than into ensuring that those citizens can be free from government interference. In some cases, I want the government to interfere, to strike out against intolerance and injustice when it’s found. I want to pay taxes to build roads and dams. I want to see the government dole out healthcare to the entire country.

But I realize this is not what everyone holds most valuable — and that’s okay. That’s the cool thing about democracy in the first place. I feel that my friends who are conservative — and they should feel free to challenge or correct me — care more about individual liberty and freedom than about using the power of the government to enforce equality. And it’s not that they don’t want equality between, say, men and women or white Americans and black Americans. We just disagree on the best way to ensure that equality.

Here’s the thing: I do feel that, for the most part, liberals have a unified, ideologically consistent champion in the Democratic party. Go down the party platform, and you can check off the boxes relating to equality: Universal healthcare? Check. Higher minimum wage? Check. Legalized same-sex marriage? Check.

I do not think the same thing is true about the modern Republican party. It’s a hodgepodge of backgrounds and ideas, some drawn from the well of freedom and others from… well, I’m not sure. Slash taxes? Freedom. Gun rights? Freedom. Mandatory sentencing for marijuana possession? Um, not exactly freedom. Restricted access to abortion? Definitely not freedom.

So this is why I see the GOP as a crucible. These differing viewpoints — conservatives, neocons, evangelicals, libertarians — are all fused together into a party that doesn’t seem to match the beliefs of any one of them that well. Nothing has illustrated that more than this year’s fractious and fragmented Republican primaries. Over the last eight years, we’ve seen the core of the GOP go dry, the fuel that propelled it since the days of the Civil War all but exhausted. It spiraled in on itself in 2008 — Sarah Palin for vice president is a pretty desperate gambit — and anger in the party grew hotter and hotter until it found new material to burn: the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party grew and grew until it boiled over like so much bubbling chamomile, spilling onto the national stage and engulfing the 2010 election. The Republican party expanded and expanded, racking up wins in midterm elections and taking control of the House and Senate, but the core of the GOP was being devoured, all that new hydrogen pushing and jostling in the ever-denser heart of the party.

Now, suddenly, the GOP finds that it has awoken one day and — almost instantaneously — its core is being transformed. This helium flash has a name: Donald J. Trump.

Trump has seized the malcontent of the party and run with it, run farther and faster than anyone thought the reality TV star with the weird hair could have ever possibly gone. To me, an outside observer peering through my telescope, it seems like the end of the red giant. The unity of the party is fractured; Trump is carving out the white dwarf core and leaving the remainder scattered to the stellar wind in a faint, drifting nebula that has yet to coalesce around anyone or anything.

There’s nowhere in this morass for anyone who’s not ultra-conservative to go. If you hold liberal — or even just non-draconian — views on immigration, Trump’s not your guy. Cruz is a constitutional fundamentalist who doesn’t even oppose same-sex marriage, he opposes civil unions. Rubio has won just a single state. Kasich hasn’t won any. Carson may as well be in outer space.

That drifting nebula has a lot of unhappy people in it (see #NeverTrump), and eventually it may solidify into a new star. But until then, the white dwarf of Donald Trump is shoving its way through the dust.


Ironically enough, if Trump was running for the Democratic nomination, this would be way less of an existential crisis. This is because of two features the Democrats have that Republicans don’t — and they’re some of the least egalitarian aspects of American politics, in my opinion.

The first is kind of technical, so excuse me while I get into the nitty-gritty of some electoral procedure. In Democratic caucuses, voters at a polling place divide themselves into groups based on which candidate they support. But after this initial division, any group that doesn’t have a critical mass of supporters is forced to either abstain or divide themselves among the more popular candidates. Republicans — reflecting the totally correct idea that anyone should be able to vote for anyone they damn well want to — don’t have this at all. Their caucus divides itself up into groups, and that’s that. This means in Iowa, if the Republican caucus had followed the Democrat’s rules, all of those candidates pulling single-digit support numbers (Fiorina, Santorum, Huckabee, Paul… it’s a long list), would have been forced to divvy up their support. I can’t find data to back up this assertion, but I’m hard-pressed to believe that Trump was anyone’s second choice. He’s a polarizing figure, and you love him or hate him — no one second-choice-likes him. If all those caucus-voters had been forced to vote for their second choice, Trump’s margin of loss could have possibly been a lot bigger, halting much of his momentum. Who knows.

The second item that Democrats have that is missing from the Republican nomination process is superdelegates. What’s a superdelegate, you ask? Well, a superdelegate is the difference between the graph on the left and the graph on the right:

The left graph is a comparison of Hillary and Bernie’s current delegate counts when superdelegates are included (2383 delegates are needed to win). The right graph is the same tally if only delegates awarded from actual votes — not superdelegates — are included. It’s a much closer race. Still looks pretty good for Hils, but definitely closer.

Formally, superdelegates are members of the Democratic party that the party’s national committee chooses and sends to the nominating convention. They are given a vote in the nomination procedure that they can cast for any candidate they choose (the vast majority of them — 457 to 22, with 235 still up for grabs — have pledged to vote for Clinton rather than Sanders). Superdelegates are not bound to the will of the voters, they are not obligated to vote for the leading candidate, and they are definitely not representative democracy. They were started in 1984 explicitly as a way to give the party some additional control over the nomination procedure.

I don’t like the way the Democratic party handles this… but I have to admit that it’s a pretty good firewall against someone like Trump. If the Republicans were able to just throw 20% more delegates at, say, Rubio, it suddenly becomes much, much easier for him to hit 50% of the votes for the party’s nomination.

So here’s the crux of the my problem: for the first time in my life, I’m torn about pure power-of-the-people democracy, in the sense that I’m thinking superdelegates may actually be a good thing.


The two things that make me most upset about social media during election years are pretty opposite: in one corner, we have apathy; in the other, antipathy.

I see, from people across the political spectrum, refusal to vote because “it doesn’t matter.” This absolutely infuriates me. Your vote is the only thing that matters. There’s the Kantian categorical imperative argument here (I’m paraphrasing, but: only act in a way such that, if everyone acted that way, the world would be a better place), though that’s a tad too… metaphysical. I prefer the simple fact that if you’re living in the U.S., someone in your family, somewhere up in the branches of your family tree, made the choice to leave their home and come here. Probably against all odds, in the face of danger or death or destitution, they took everything they had ever known and set course for democracy. You owe it to them to vote. You also owe it to yourself, because you live in this place and deserve to have a say in how it’s run.

Then I also see, again from people on both ends of the spectrum, casual jokes about disenfranchisement. In 2012, it was my conservative friends posting jokes like “special polls for Obama voters are open on Friday lulz”; now, the pendulum has swung the other way and it’s my liberal friends imploring Trump supporters to miss their primary dates. They both stem from a deep dislike of the other party’s candidate, one that implies mass deprivation of the right to vote would be better than the wrong candidate winning.

I will never find these jokes funny.

And I will never find them funny for pretty much the reasons enumerated above: that I really do think this one-person-one-vote thing is pretty sacrosanct, and that it’s the defining feature of democracy, the one that we need to hold onto above all others.

This is why I find superdelegates so vexing, and now feel so conflicted when I find myself wishing for them on the GOP side of things. Ultimately, though, I think disenfranchisement cannot be the answer. The answer, as always, has to be conversation and education.

So here goes nothing.


To return to the stellar metaphor from earlier, Donald Trump is a reality show star. To put that more bluntly, he’s an entertainer. A showman. A demagogue.

If you’re a Trump supporter and somehow you’ve found this, somehow you’ve read this far, waded through my admittedly biased and unapologetically liberal argument to this point, then please read a couple more paragraphs, because this is where I’m going to try to convince you to change your mind. If you’re not a Trump supporter, which — let’s be honest about my audience— is more likely, then this is the part that I give you full permission to copy-paste at will and as needed.

Let me start by saying this: you have a right to vote for whoever you choose. And you have a right to be angry with the current political process. I’m not asking you to vote for Hillary. I am asking you to please not let your anger cloud your judgment about the key principle that America was founded on:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal

At his core, I don’t think we know what Donald J. Trump believes. But he knows what we, the American people, want to hear, and he’s off to the races with it. People are scared of terrorism abroad and domestically, and that’s legitimate. People are resentful of perceived government overstepping, and that’s legitimate. People are tired of watching jobs leave the country faster than Bernie’s supporters after a Trump inauguration, and that’s legitimate, too. But to address these problems, the Republican party needs — deserves — a candidate who can present real policy ideas, real solutions. These problems are real, but they are not solved by personal attacks. They are not solved by forsaking the ideals of our nation’s founding fathers. They are solved by sticking to the principles of the Constitution — and yes, I know it’s hard to believe that coming from a lefty-pinko-tax-loving-Democrat, but I mean it.

So far all that I’ve heard from Trump is bluster and blame: bluster that builds up his personal brand, and blame targeted at minorities that don’t merit his spite. He’s grandstanding in every sense of the word when he talks about how great his businesses are, how vast his wealth his. He’s advocating religious persecution when he says we should ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. (I will point out here that it was religious persecution like this that forced the Pilgrims out of England and started their immigration to the New World… but I digress). He’s advocating racism when he drops stereotypes into his speeches. He’s advocating WAR GODDAMN CRIMES when he calls for attacking the families of terrorists, or something “worse than waterboarding.”

But maybe the most insidious things, and therefore the most dangerous, are the aspects of Trump’s personality that he’d bring to the presidency. Trump is divisive, not inclusive. He is thin-skinned, not tough. He is petulant and childish, not strong-willed and bold. None of his qualities are anything I want in a future leader of the free world.

Three examples that didn’t seem to get tons of media attention:

  • When Trump finally got around to denouncing David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan leader who endorsed him, he blamed the fact that he didn’t immediately condemn the guy because he couldn’t hear the question due to a faulty earpiece. I can’t possibly believe that’s true, but Trump refuses to admit he was wrong — that he didn’t know who Duke was, or that he made a mistake not writing him off immediately. Instead, he’s hiding behind the dog-ate-my-homework of CNN interview excuses.
  • The whole small hands thing is really weird. But weirdest to me is that Trump won’t let it go. He even went so far as to say people always tell him how beautiful his hands are — which I just simply can’t believe is true. Not because Trump’s hands are ugly, but because who the hell goes around telling people that? There’s just no way Trump or any other human being on Earth consistently gets complimented for the loveliness of their hands. (One notable exception.) It’s a harmless lie from Trump, but belies a person who cannot admit anything about him is imperfect and is entirely intolerant of anyone pointing out his flaws or mistakes. Is that who you want running the military? Someone who won’t listen when he’s wrong and won’t take advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
  • During the last Republican debate, Trump was repeatedly asked to release his tax returns, but said he wouldn’t because he was being audited, as he has been for every year for the last decade. Fine, that’s his choice and I don’t have an issue with it. But after the debate a reporter asked him why he thought he was audited so frequently, and Trumpclaimed religious persecution. This is totally outrageous for two reasons: one, I cannot believe Donald “Two Corinthians” Trump is a truly devout Christian. I’ve been to about a hundred bar mitzvahs and I know that’s not how you pronounce that one. And secondly, who really thinks the United States’ IRS is going after Christians? The answer is simple: conspiracy theorists. Trump was, after all, a leader of the birther movement that demanded President Obama’s birth certificate — something, by the way, that I don’t think he’s even asked for from Ted Cruz, who was ACTUALLY BORN IN CANADA. A president of the United States must make decisions based on facts and evidence, not hearsay and chain emails.

When it comes down to it, I want a president who, yes, is aligned with me on my political views. But I also want a president who is presidential: who is diplomatic, not derisive; reasoned, not rash; strong, not strident. Even — mystery Trump supporter who’s somehow stuck with me this far — even if you agree with Trump’s politics, can you honestly believe the world will be a safer place with his finger on the nuclear trigger, ready to turn a city into a burnt slab of glass when someone calls his fingers stubby?


When our own sun starts to die, many ages from now, it will grow, like any other new red giant. It will grow and grow, moving inexorably towards our home. The dying sun may swallow up the earth; it may just grow so large and so hot that all the water on Earth boils off into space, leaving it a barren, lifeless rock — there are all sorts of joyful possibilities for the end of our sun’s life. But no matter what, after it burns off all of its astral fuel, the sun will be split asunder. Half the mass of the sun will be spun off into a sparkling, iridescent nebula, a beautiful shroud of color and memory that celebrates the life of the sun, paints the history of the solar system in vibrant color against the black backdrop of the galaxy.

The other half of the sun’s mass will remain behind, sulking, a sputtering white dwarf that will sag against the fabric of space until finally it, too, grows cold and dead and fades to black.

The choice of which half to follow is yours.

NASAing of Teeth

Buckle up, boys and girls, because it’s three weeks into 2015 and I am already fucking livid.

I know that I’ve gone off before on science in politics — or, agonizingly predictably, lack thereof — but I have to do it one more time.  I have to, really, because we just put Ted Cruz in charge of NASA.

Okay, so not exactly in charge.  To be precise, the midterm election turnover in the Senate means Cruz now chairs the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness (Oxford comma officially omitted, but added here out of compunction), which oversees NASA, the NIST, the NSF, the OSTP, and apparently about 30% of all acronyms.

Why is this bad news?  By all accounts, Ted Cruz is a smart dude.  He was his high school valedictorian, went to Princeton and Harvard Law.  He should be the best of the best of what America can offer up, the upper crust of elite erudition that decides to apply itself to solving the country’s problems and propelling it into the next generation stronger, smarter, better than it was before.

Instead, Ted Cruz says shit like this:

My view of climate science is the same as that of many climate scientists.  We need a much better understanding of the climate before making policy choices that would impose substantial economic costs on our Nation.

Hi, Ted?  I have NASA on the line here.  You know, that science agency you’re about to be responsible for.  Lots of glasses and calculators and pocket protectors and weird-looking mohawks.  Anyway, they just wanted to make sure you’re aware that NINETY-FUCKING-SEVEN PERCENT OF ALL CLIMATE SCIENTISTS believe they have a handle on what’s going on, and that we need to do something about it.

Oh, but “[the] data are not supporting what the advocates are arguing”?  For a guy who knows how to use “data” correctly in a sentence, that’s not a very smart thing to say.  Here’s this thing we scientists like to call a “graph”:

I JUST.  CAN’T.  EVEN.

So the truculent Ted Cruz, who is either so brilliant he knows something the rest of us don’t or so willfully ignorant he refuses to acknowledge something the rest of us see as self-evident, is going to watch over our nation’s science policy.  I feel about as comfortable with that as I do leaving my future children at Mikey Jackson’s Daycare Center and Used Needle Emporium.

I realize that it’s maybe unfair of me to extend Cruz’s views on climate change to the rest of his scientific thinking.  But I have to.  I have to, really, because you don’t trust heart surgery to someone who believes in the healing power of leeching.  You don’t trust bridge building to someone who doesn’t know a truss from a trull.  You don’t trust polymer science to someone who believes in alchemy.

So why — why — are we trusting the future of scientific research to someone who doesn’t believe in scientific research about the future?

And I know these are criticisms that have been leveled against Cruz before; I’m not unique in my fulmination.  But I have to fulminate.  I have to, really, because 2014 was, unsurprisingly, the hottest year we’ve ever experienced — and that’s not a reference to any Kardashianic attempts to break the internet.  Just our species’ repeated attempts to break the planet.

Yet the people with guiding hands in our scientific policies choose to ignore that.  I’m not just talking about Cruz, though he makes an exceptional example.  His colleague Marco Rubio, who once said of climate change “I don’t think there’s the scientific evidence to justify it”, will be taking over leadership of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard.

OCEANS.

ATMOSPHERE.

FISHERIES.

AND THE GODDAMN COAST GUARD.

Rubio, who refuses to acknowledge that climate change, anthropogenic or not, could have catastrophic effects on the oceans and atmosphere (ironically threatening the Rubio’s hand-battered fish taco especial) is now presiding over the agencies responsible for the oceans and atmosphere.  How is this supposed to give me faith in the government’s ability to safeguard our country’s natural resources?  Our planet’s?

I can only point out the absurdity of the whole situation — no, I have to point out the absurdity of the whole situation.  I have to.  Really.  Because our country’s scientists deserve better than overseers who deny basic science.

The United States of America was arguably in the vanguard of every major technical innovation of the twentieth century.  We built, we flew, we coded.  We cracked the atom, conquered the moon, colonized the internet.  And we did these things with the help of our government, with the help of federal research money and the aid of the United States Congress.

What path do we have forward in the twenty-first century if scientific progress is held hostage by non-believers?

The Eagle Has Landed

This weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the first mission that successfully landed human beings on a thing that wasn’t the thing on which every human being ever in the entire history of humanity has lived.

That we as a species pulled this off is still staggering to me.

We put three living humans into a small metal tube perched on six million pounds of concentrated liquid explosion, shot them straight up into the air until they reached a point where they are so high up there is literally no more air, then guided the metal tube to a piece of space rock hurtling through the void almost 240,000 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, and did it with less computing power than I carry around in my pocket today.

(I use that computing power, by the way, to look at cat videos. To reiterate, NASA used it to send three men — three normal, terrestrial people who cannot fly and who must breath air — to THE GODDAMN MOON.)

The sheer audacity of the US space program’s goal — to send living, breathing people to the moon and then bring them back still living and breathing — is incredible. Beyond the technical challenges this had to pose to 1960s-era scientists and engineers who were still marveling at the hand calculator, beyond the funding that had to be found by politicians who had chilly wars to fight, beyond the undoubtedly bowel-loosening terror that had to be faced by the men in the Apollo capsule as they careened wildly through the firmament towards a tiny chunk of rock floating in an endless sea of nothing, one simple fact remains: the moon is really, really, really far away.

A case study: Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando. The closest Taco Bell to Kennedy is 13.2 miles away. The astronauts that left Kennedy to go to the moon could have traveled round-trip to that Taco Bell more than nine thousand times and not covered the same amount of distance. That’s beefy five-layer burritos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for more than eight fucking years.

Or they could have driven from the launch site to Washington, D.C. and back 140 times, a trip that would take 146 days of non-stop driving. Or to San Francisco and back 50 times. To Fairbanks, Alaska and back 25 times. They could have gotten in a plane and circumnavigated the globe almost ten times (no great circles here — I’m talking circumference) before reaching the moon.

My point being the moon is really, really, REALLY far away, guys. It’s cold and it’s alien and it’s distant and we’ve been there. Forty-five years later, the moon landing remains one of the most impressive things accomplished by mankind. It is, of course, a testament to what we can do when we put our minds to it, work together, follow through on some third sports movie cliché, and decide there’s no way those goddamn red-loving commie bastards are getting there first.

In thinking about how to close this post, I was tempted to point to the moon landing as proof that government-sponsored science works, that it’s important, that’s it needs to continue. I believe that’s all true, but I don’t want to use this anniversary to harp on that message too much. Because when it comes down to it, forty-five years ago mankind — essentially a troop of slightly-evolved and overly-opinionated monkeys — shoved three of its own in a can, blasted them into outer space, and took that first small step into the giant universe beyond our world.

And that’s just really, really cool.

Cosmopolitan

I watched the first episode of Fox’s new edition of “Cosmos” this week.  I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t have been — surprised to see such an unapologetic paean to science on primetime American television.  It captured beautifully the power and wonder of the scientific method, of humanity’s quest to explain its place in the universe.  It waxed elegantly about data-driven decision making and hypothesis testing, about critical reasoning and status-quo questioning.  And having Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm didn’t hurt.

I’m always struck by two thoughts, always in the same order, whenever something like “Cosmos” gets me thinking about the universe.  The first is how incalculably small and insignificant I am — how incalculably small and insignificant we all are, here on this warm ball of rock in the cold void of space.  There are galaxies beyond galaxies pressing on the feeble curtain of Earth’s atmosphere, infinities of nothing on our doorstep that swallow the planets and the moons and the stars.  I will never see the Virgo supercluster, let alone the Milky Way.  I’ll see Mars in images and X-ray diffraction patterns.  I won’t even see all of Earth.  The billions of planets in our corner of the universe are still too few, too far between, too spread and scattered through a field of black interstellar velvet, impossible to traverse.  What can anything I hope to do matter, when something like only four percent of the universe is matter?  If I was to conquer the Earth and carve my likeness in every mountain and write my name in every desert and blaze my way into every book and song and poem mankind could concoct — it would still be fleeting and immeasurable when compared to the humming of the planets and the singing of the stars.  There’s just so much space out in space, a kind of cold, insufferable beauty that makes me marvel at the grandness of creation and shrink into my own inconsequence at the same time.  I don’t know if I’ve managed to capture in words here the enormity — the primordiality — of this feeling.  I feel like I’m both adrift and confined, floating unmoored and yet suffocated by the sea.  I feel as if the sheer amounts of nothing surrounding the earth are bearing down on me like a weight, impossibly heavy, and crushing me with the realization that I will die with the mysteries of the universe unknown and gnawing at my soul.  That I will die, and the universe will continue.  That I will die, and in the entirety of my life I will have experienced the smallest fraction of a fraction of what the cosmos have to offer — and I could live a thousand lifetimes more, on a thousand different planets, around a thousand different stars, and the same thought would still be true.

Then, slowly, the second thought boils up from deep within the first.  It starts, usually, by thinking about life instead of death.  About how there must be life out there — somewhere — and how statistics can’t be so wrong that more than a billion billion planets wouldn’t manage to pull off what Earth has done.  I think this, but the thought is usually quashed by Fermi’s paradox, which brings me back out into the unquenchable abyss, into that endless maw of loneliness, spiraling along the spirals of our galaxy until I’ve spun all the way back out into nothing.  And it is here, always here, right at the event horizon before I fall alone into that endless astral gulf, when the second thought blossoms into being:

We live in an infinity of nothings, and yet a universe of everything.

Everything is out there, waiting for us to discover it.  That’s why talking about the scientific method is so important: the joy of discovery.  It’s a primal emotion that has driven mankind onto two legs, across oceans, up to the moon.  We’re not crushed by the realization that there’s too much in the cosmos to comprehend.  We’re driven to comprehend as much of it as possible while we’re around.  “Cosmos” (and, really, anything in the same vein) hit on that joy of discovery in me, and hopefully in millions of other children and young adults throughout the country and the world.  The world needs — and deserves — more thinkers and fewer dogmatists.

But the thought goes deeper than that.  Tyson used a line in that first episode of “Cosmos” that I really liked: that we are made of “star stuff”.  Our bodies’ iron, carbon, calcium — our blood, our flesh, our bones — were formed, unfathomable ages ago, in the heart of a star.  We have the heavens within us, written not in our DNA but in our very molecules and atoms, and we carry this celestial signature about every extraordinary (and every mundane) minute of our lives.  We are the universe.  The universe is us.

If you’ll allow me a tangent that will eventually reconnect with this thought, let me to take you on a journey through time and space, albeit a bit shorter in both dimensions than Tyson’s.  The year is 2007, the place is William S. Hart High School, and I am reading (or am being forced to read, who knows) James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I wish I could tell you I remembered what the book was about at its core, but I really only remember it in slivers and images.  One of those slivers is from the very end of the book, a diary entry where the main character (Stephen Dedalus, the titular Artist as a Young Man) talks about his drive to be great writer/poet/artist/whatever it’s been awhile since I read this.  I apologize for quoting James Joyce for what I promise is the first, last, and only time in this blog:

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

I read this as Dedalus’ desire to bring his own individual perspective into the greater fabric of humanity’s story — how to be great, the artist must be able to turn his or her individual perspective into something universal and beyond oneself, something that speaks to what it means to be human, not what it means to be Stephen Dedalus… though you can’t lose the Stephen Dedalus in the process.

“Cosmos” and Tyson, an innovator (Daedalus?) in his own right, are saying something similar: that we are forged in the smithy of the stars, and this is the conscience of our race.  We are a part of the universe, and it is our nature to question and explore it, but only through our own minds and thoughts and deeds does this cold sea of galactic whorls and stellar eddies have a meaning, a warmth, a light, and a life.  The universe is grand and impressive and will outlast us all, and our goal as a species should be to understand the universe as a whole, not just ourselves.  But all of that tremendous amount of nothing is just that — nothing — without our everything within it.

So keep learning, keep thinking, keep questioning.  It illuminates the darkness, one neuron — one nebula — at a time.

Everything Up Here is Wonderful

[A stab at fiction, based on the MARS-500 mission/simulation that ended last year and a general infatuation with well-spoken astrophysicists.]

**

 

“They think what they are doing is isolating.  This is bullshit.”

Sergei Kholodov is imposing even at eighty-one, his burly six-foot frame filling his small office at the National Research University in Zelenograd.  The office is decorated in an ornate, almost Victorian style—far more lace and filigree than Kholodov’s gravelly voice, Tolstoy beard, and five years of service as a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Defense Forces would suggest.  I haven’t even asked him any questions yet.

“I have been to space.  What they are doing, in that desert, it is not space.”  Kholodov sighs.  He looks tired, and his pale blue eyes—which had been fixed on me intently when he met me in his building’s foyer—are unfocused, staring somewhere far beyond the wall behind me.  “They have put five cosmonauts in a box in the Nevada desert.  And they have made it look like space, feel like space, I know.  But it will not smell like space.  Those cosmonauts know they are not really alone.  They know, one sledgehammer to a cheap wooden wall and they are breathing in Earth’s own oxygen again.”

I’m still scribbling key words in the last sentence down when Kholodov stands up from behind his desk.  “Let’s go for a walk.  In the sun.”  He gestures to the door.  I save my notes and recording on my tablet and head out of Kholodov’s office, but the old lieutenant stops me with a hand on my shoulder.

“I have been to space,” he says, and this time his eyes are boring into mine.  “There is no beauty.  Whatever you are writing, I don’t care.  Just remember what I am saying.  Space is a pit.”

**

Earlier this year, in March, I visited NASA’s simulation site in northeast Nevada.  My guide around the facility—little more than a shantytown of tents surrounding the large geodesic dome that contained the terranauts—was Michael Bloom, a senior NASA communications engineer.  Bloom is slender, with thick-framed glasses and a shaved head, and he was dressed more like an arctic explorer than a laboratory scientist.  There was half an inch of gray, slushy snow on the ground, and a dense sky threatened more overhead.

“I assure you, our five crewmembers are completely isolated,” Bloom said as we walked from my car to the tent that housed all the tools used to communicate with the group inside the dome.  His voice was steady, but he was shivering in the cold.  “We’ve replicated everything.  Everything except weightlessness.  And radiation, but they’re doing that at Ames.”  Bloom opened the flap to the comm tent and ushered me in.

“It’s day two-oh-three, so they’re about forty-five million kilometers out from launch.  Factor in Earth’s orbit and you’re looking at a fifteen, sixteen minute comms delay.  That’s hardwired in—we can’t communicate instantaneously.”  Bloom sat down in a large leather chair in front of a bank of keyboards.  “You can email them from here, but for security we only have them connected to an internal network.  We send them a news digest each week, usually, but nothing too potentially upsetting.  Your emails will, of course, be subject to approval.”  I nodded, and asked about bandwidth, but was assured anything I sent would be fine—if it was text only.  Bloom told me the simulation was scheduled to land in ten days, so I’d better get my questions off to the terranauts quickly.  They were about to get busy.

NASA’s simulation in Nevada is a full mock run of the manned mission planned for five years from now.  Two hundred and thirteen days of travel to the red rock, six months setting up a prefabricated structure on the ersatz Martian surface, and a two hundred day return trip.   If everything goes well, the actual mission gets the green light.  If not, well, back to the drawing board, and NASA once again finds its neck under the sword of senatorial budget subcommittee.  The Nevada dome is designed to mimic the flight completely—the wooden “spaceship” sits on a three-axis motion-simulating carriage, capable of up to four gs to imitate takeoff and landing.  The entire interior of the dome is lined with LED screens depicting where in space the ship should be.  It is, in Bloom’s words, “consummately immersive.”

After Bloom left the comm tent, I sat down to type out my first question to the crew.  The five terranauts consist of one Chinese, one Indian, one Russian, and two American astronauts.  The mission’s captain is Dr. David Ellis, a pilot and aeronautical engineer who’s spent two months onboard China’s space station.  I decided he would be my first target.  My early questions were simple:  Why’d you choose to volunteer?  What’s been the hardest thing so far?  How’s the crew getting along?

An hour later, I had a response from Dr. Ellis—who insisted I call him David.  How could I not volunteer? he wrote, when there’s so much to discover?  David said he was enjoying the mission immensely, though after prodding in future emails he did admit to being upset about missing his daughter’s tenth birthday.  The crew is meshing well, he said.  Yang and Dmitri have taught us how to play Dandu, it’s a good way to spend what we think are Friday nights.

Over the next few hours David and I traded half a dozen messages and a good picture of the captain emerged: affable, sense of humor, and exceedingly excited about the prospect of going to Mars, of moving mankind beyond living on just one planet.  I feel like Columbus, Ericson, Gagarin, he wrote me towards the end of our first exchange.  Sometimes I forget the stars we see in here are lights and nothing more.  But can you imagine?  A completely new world?

**

Kholodov’s usual peregrination through the grounds of the university is strikingly beautiful—tree-lined paths around buildings decorated with imposing soviet cenotaphs.  In early June, it’s warm and sunny with clear blue skies overhead.  Kholodov is quick to point out this was the route the university rector took Supreme Premier Vladimir Putin on when he visited last year, but also quick to point out that he himself was not invited to meet with Putin.  “They told me to stay home,” he chuckles.

When we reach a bench on the outskirts of the cobblestone quad, Kholodov reaches into his coat and produces a small bag of sunflower seeds.  “Zelenograd’s animal symbol is the squirrel.  We will feed the squirrels now.  It is good luck.”

I tell Kholodov about David’s first email.  He smiles slightly and tosses a seed to one of the brown squirrels in the courtyard.  “I know Dr. Ellis.  He is a—how do you say it?—optimist.”  It’s the only time I’ve seen Kholodov struggle for an English word.  “Do you know about Mars-500?  It happened about twenty years ago.  2011.  You must have been in high school.”

Kholodov is referring to an experiment in isolation undertaken by the Russian Academy of Sciences two decades ago, simulating a 520-day voyage to Mars.  Six men from four countries were sealed into a 600 cubic meter plywood box in the basement of the RAS’ Institute of Biomedical Problems—a “big coffin,” according to Kholodov—and observed as they pretended to hurtle through space towards the Red Planet.  There was a simulated landing, but nothing close to the level of simulation going on in Nevada.

When the six men emerged from the capsule in November of 2011 and were declared healthy (and sane), the experiment was quickly declared a success—mankind could survive the isolating nature of space exploration.  But seven months later, the wife of one of the Russian terranauts filed for divorce, claiming the man who came back was not the man she married.  Five months after that, on the anniversary of his departure from the plywood spaceship in the basement of the IBP, the Russian terranaut shot himself in the head with a 9mm Grach pistol.  Plans for a manned Russian mission to Mars in 2025, announced in the months following Mars-500, were put on hold.

“If that man had gone to space…” Kholodov trails off, then chuckles, a raspy noise against the gray hairs of his beard.  “A lot more people would be dead.”

**

The five terranauts in Nevada are all very similar to David.  Kyle Baker is the other American, a young mechanical engineer on leave from Raytheon.  Yang Wu is the oldest at thirty-eight, a member of the team that designed the Ri-Chu space station who is reserved and quiet about everything except space. I get the most exuberant emails from Raj Mangeshkar, the youngest terranaut, but even Dmitri Baranova, a reticent Russian surgeon, has sent me emails about his great duty to explore the space in mind of man.  During my time in Nevada, the five crewmembers seemed eager to talk about their reasons for signing up for NASA’s experiment, if not their day-to-day lives.  I learned far more about them than they did about me—Bloom constantly appeared, hovering over my shoulder, to scan the emails I had written for any sort of “upsetting content,” which usually takes the form of anything that could remind them too much that the outside world is changing: new music, trips I’ve taken, politics.

I argued with Bloom to let me ask Raj and Yang about the rise in Chinese-Indian tensions, but he said they hadn’t been told.  “The Sino-Indian border dispute is completely off-limits,” he told me on one of my last days in Nevada as the two of us hunched over a plate of microwaved beans in the mess tent.  “We’ll brief them on it when they’re done.  Besides, the whole mess should be sorted out by then.”  Bloom snorted into his beans.  “Look, here’s the deal.  We’re going to go dark sometime towards the end of July.  We’re still monitoring on video, of course, but we don’t want to risk anything.”

Bloom meant NASA is planning to cut the terranauts’ communication off while they’re at work setting up the mock Mars base.  Earth and Mars revolve around the sun at vastly different radii, which contribute to different year lengths—one Martian year is almost two Terran years.  For approximately two weeks out of every two years, the positions of Earth and Mars are such that they’re blocked from one another by the Sun, a time referred to as the synodic period.

“It’s a huge problem for Mars settlement,” Bloom said.  “No data in or out for two weeks.  Can you imagine if the U.S. dropped off the face of the earth for two weeks?”  I asked him if there was a way to bounce the signal around the sun.  “Sure there is,” Bloom pushed his beans away, pulled a blue ballpoint pen out of his breast pocket, and started drawing on a napkin.  “You put a relay satellite at the L4 or L5 Lagrange point, here or here.  But that’s a big satellite in an area of high asteroid activity.  You’d be replacing it every three months.”

So dark it is in July—Bloom and his team will pull the plug on the commlink with the terranauts for two weeks starting on July 25.  The crew doesn’t know the exact date, only that their simulation enters the synodic period towards the third week of July.  NASA’s hoping that when the comms go dead, the terranauts just carry on.  Bloom thinks it’s an important step to getting this mission they’re simulating approved.

Bloom’s goal, after all, is ambitious: a space station—on Mars.  Continuously inhabited.  A human colony on a red rock millions of miles away from… anything.

**

When we’ve emptied his bag of sunflower seeds, Kholodov starts his walk again, and motions for me to follow along.

“It would be easier, of course,” he says, “if they were not so concerned with coming back.”  I assume he’s taking the engineering position—less food, less fuel, much less cost—but Kholodov isn’t that simple.  “The kind of man who signs up for a one-way mission to Mars isn’t the kind of man who shoots himself with a Grach.  He is the kind of man who really wants to live forever.  In a way.  And—” Kholodov stops walking midsentence and turns to face me.  “He is the kind of man who does not give a damn about Terran politics.  No culture clash.”

I ask Kholodov several questions after that, but he’s silent or monosyllabic until we get to the main entrance of the university.  It’s a long path lined with ragged trees that leads, eventually, to downtown Zelenograd.

“You know what was here, in Zelenograd, before the city?” Kholodov asks.  “Nothing.  We are here—I am here—because sometime between Laika and Gagarin, Khrushchev decided we should be here.  And the Soviets did it.  Out of nothing.  We are now number one exporter of integrated circuits in all of Russia.  Seventy-nine percent of the residents have college degrees.  Nothing around but forest.  We are a colony.”  I’m picturing the map of Moscow’s districts, jostling one another for position around the Central Okrug’s Red Square.  Zelenograd, deemed a Moscow district by the administrative powers that be, sits alone to the northwest, disconnected from the rest of the map.

“And you know how the Soviets built Zelenograd from the air?”  Kholodov smiles, a slit in the gray beard that appears suddenly and stretches up his face, crinkling the skin by his eyes.  “No dissention.  Zero.  That is the secret to alchemy.  Can NASA and the U.S.A. say that about their science experiment in the desert?  I do not think they comprehend.”  The smile disappears.  “No, I do not think so.  NASA wants to build a Zelenograd on Mars, a scientific Eden.  But I am not in Zelenograd because I choose to be.  I am here because I cannot leave.  You understand?”

I tell Kholodov I understand, and he says he has a lecture to give.  Without another word, he shakes my hand firmly and turns around, walking with long strides back to the crenelated brick buildings.  In the late afternoon light, the lieutenant casts a long shadow on the campus’ stark white tile.

**

I pay a visit to Nevada once more after my trip to Russia.  Michael Bloom greets me at the military checkpoint that marks the entrance to the camp, and escorts me through the swinging gate, flashing his badge to anyone who looks in his direction.

“We upped security a bit,” he mumbles as we walk through the boiling summer desert sun to the communication tent.  “We cut comms in two days, don’t want anything… out of the ordinary happening.”  Bloom has transitioned from arctic explorer to safari vacationer, a lightweight khaki shirt over khaki shorts and birkenstocks.

A blast of cool air rushes out from the comm tent when Bloom opens the flap and ushers me inside.  Bloom steps in and wipes his forehead with his rolled up shirtsleeve, then sits down across from me at a folding table in the center of the tent.

“I heard you went to Russia.”  Bloom’s tone isn’t necessarily accusatory, but it gets the point across.  I figure there’s no point in being coy, so I tell Bloom about my visit with Kholodov, how the old Russian doesn’t think this mission can be done—doesn’t even think this simulation can be done.

Bloom pauses and leans back in his chair.  He wipes his forehead once more and then leans forward again and asks me if I’ve ever been to Star City.  I tell him I haven’t.

“Star City,” Bloom says, “is where Sergei Kholodov would be living if he hadn’t fucked up.”

It’s true, probably.  Star City is a town outside of Moscow, tree-lined and picturesque, a verdurous oasis in hoary Mother Russia.  It’s the home of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, and to the families of Russian cosmonauts past and present—kind of a Beverly Hills for the space-faring Russian elite.  Kholodov has no place there.

“Have you listened to the recording of him during Derbent?”  Bloom is trying to hide a smirk, but isn’t doing a very good job of it.  “The Soviets had to bail his ass out three months early.”

That was, definitively, the end of Lieutenant Sergei Kholodov’s career as a cosmonaut.  Born in 1949, Kholodov was twelve years old when Gagarin floated around the globe in a cramped capsule and became the first human being to see the earth from space.  As his family watched the launch on state television, Kholodov claims to have whispered in his mother’s ear that he was one day going to do the same.

He went to college and studied electrical engineering, enlisted in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, excelled in officer school, and—on paper—was the perfect cosmonaut candidate.  But his chance to walk in Gagarin’s weightless footsteps didn’t come until after the bureaucratic curtain of the Soviet Union fell.  In 1994, at the age of 44, Kholodov boarded the Russian spaceflight mission Soyuz TM-18, call sign “Derbent,” as a research cosmonaut, slated to spend nine months on the now-decommissioned Russian space station Mir.

As the mission progressed, Kholodov spent more and more time each day at the station’s small, circular viewports, gazing not at Earth, but in the opposite direction, into the vast gulf of interstellar distance that separated him from the stars.  After five and a half months, he stopped talking to anyone onboard the station and took to scribbling furiously and almost constantly in a large, leather-bound journal he had brought with him.  Three days before the mission’s six-month mark, Kholodov snapped.

The recording from the space station’s cameras got little coverage in the United States, but played almost pervasively on Russian evening news broadcasts after some Roscosmos engineer leaked it to a news outlet.  In the video, Kholodov can be seen tearing apart his bunk and using one of the metal legs of his fold-out desk to beat the reinforced porthole window over and over and over again, screaming the word “nichego.”  When the other Russians in the station gathered around the small door to his closet-sized quarters, he began brandishing the desk leg and ranting about how mankind was “nothing” and that nothing he could do would change this, would make the universe care that he had existed, that his species had existed, that Earth was “just a blue pebble in an endless black sea.”

“Everything,” Kholodov said and turned to face the camera, “everything, everyone, everything that has ever happened—happened on nothing.”  Dr. Valeri Polyakov can then be seen approaching Kholodov with a syringe before the leaked video cuts to black.

Soyuz TM-18 landed on Earth, with Kholodov aboard, four days later.

“Pretty nuts, right?”  Bloom smiles.

**

I got my last email from David about six hours before the comm shutdown severed his ties with the outside world for two weeks.  He was jovial as ever, joking about an argument between Raj and Yang over the flavor their freeze-dried ice cream was supposed to be imitating and even asking if I had seen the new Superman movie his kids kept raving about.  At the end of the email, he tells me I should pick up a copy of Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, the 20th century physicist.

Everything, David writes, everything we have ever known has happened on that dot.  Sagan calls Earth “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”  It’s beautiful, isn’t it?  That there’s so much of the universe we haven’t seen?  So much to discover, so much mystery?  I think Sagan would like what we’re doing here.  We’re pushing forward, into the unknown.  And the goal, the goal is to push humanity beyond that dot.  To have a rust red dot to match Earth’s blue.

The prefab structure came together, and the air is working, and the crew is happy.  All the experiments are going well.  Mankind can be spacefaring.  We’re showing that.  A universe infinite in scope, ours to explore!

I think it’s wonderful.  Everything up here is wonderful.

I thought about that as I walked out of the comm tent and looked across the encampment to Bloom’s consummately immersive dome. I thought about Earth, suspended in a sunbeam.  Down here, up there—Kholodov would scoff at me and mutter something about prepositions and how everything in the universe is relative.

We’re all up there, in some sense.  There’s beauty in that, and terror—the same terrifying beauty that confronted Kholodov during his orbits around the planet.  But even terrifying things can be wondrous, and after all these millennia of existence, human beings still see magic in the stars.  Because, after all, what are millennia to the stars but wisps of smoke?  Our lives, when whatever evidence of them reaches the stars thousands of light years away, are just a fading echo of our days, our thoughts, our joy, our pain, our laughter, of long-passed loves and long forgotten deeds.

The thought that something could be so far away—could live only in history and never grasp the present—that is the terror.  The wonder lies in our ability to live on this planet, at this moment, to breath its air and see its trees and love its people and not care if the footprint of our life is being whisked away to the edge of the universe, not care that the universe is void and humanity a small light in the darkness, not care that swathes of our galaxy will never be explored, but to realize, finally, that everything up there is beautiful—and everything down here is wonderful.