This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2011
Vacation season is also meeting season, and August 2011 found me at two very different kinds of conferences: the annual Meteoritical Society Meeting, in Greenwich, and the World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno, Nevada. The order of these meetings was particularly useful this year: I had been invited on a panel in Reno to tell science fiction fans about “the year in physics and astronomy” and so I could pass on the hottest news from Greenwich while it was still fresh in mind.
The latest results from the Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta showed a surface completely covered with craters. So far, that’s consistent with our idea of a small planetoid that melted once soon after it was formed, and then has done nothing more than suffer continuous collisions with space debris for the past four and a half billion years. [But in the years since 2011 our understanding of Vesta changed radically… fodder for another column.]
We also heard results from the Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury. A variety of chemical detectors, looking both at the colours of the light reflecting off its surface and the energies of gamma rays emitted from Mercurian rocks, tell us that it is very low in iron oxide, as predicted by our previous theories, and rich in potassium and sulfur – exactly the opposite of what had been expected according to our standard understanding of planetary chemistry. Of course, the light and gamma rays that we detect come only from the topmost millimeters of Mercury’s surface; perhaps that’s been contaminated by the dust of impacting meteorites. Or, perhaps, our theories have to be completely reworked. [Messenger impacted into Mercury on April 30, 2015. We still don’t understand where the potassium and sulfur are coming from.]
I also told my science fiction friends other astronomical news (this time getting my information from the monthly podcast, the “Jodcast,” produced at Jodrell Bank) from the past year. An unusually massive burst of x-rays seen in the center of a small galaxy in Draco, 3.8 billion light years away, has been interpreted as the death scream of a small star ripped apart and consumed by a massive black hole. Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope announced they’d seen the most distant galaxy ever, some 13 billion light years away; since its light left that galaxy 13 billion years ago, we’re seeing a piece of the universe the way it looked less than a billion years after the Big Bang. Closer to home, and more enticing for science fiction storytellers looking for exotic settings, the Kepler spacecraft announced it had spotted 1,235 candidate planets orbiting stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, with more to come. [As of August 2016, more than 2300 planets are confirmed, not just candidates!]
All of these results were fun to tell the fans. None of them, of course, have particularly revolutionized our ideas of how the Universe works. Real science doesn’t happen in “quantum leaps”. Indeed, a “quantum leap” is its a journalistic misnomer: quantum steps in nature are in fact the absolutely smallest changes possible!
And the fact is, the most important things I heard in Greenwich were papers I didn’t even bother talking about in Reno… the first results of some promising theoretical calculations, the odd abundances of rare isotopes found in obscure minerals. My dramatic presentations to the science fiction fans did not echo the long and at times tedious sessions where small bits of data and the tiniest possible advances in our understanding were presented.
Like one’s spiritual life, science only grows if it is nourished daily, and watched patiently. You can’t expect dramatic results by ignoring a field for years and then suddenly throwing people and money at it. And, like one’s spiritual life, sometimes the real scientific truth is gleaned in the small still whisper of an idea that comes while you thought you were listening for something totally different… perhaps while attending a completely unrelated, tedious presentation.