Category Archives: Uncategorized

318. Too Many Exoplanets

trappppIt’s official. The good old days are gone.

About a year ago, I said:

(T)he party is nearly over. We now have the capacity to discover extrasolar planets, and new ones are found every year. Fortunately for latecomers to the planet builders guild, megaplanets are easier to find that Earth sized ones, and NASA keeps cutting funding. Still, it won’t be too many years before you can’t decide for yourself where, within the limits of orbital mechanics, you want the planets of Alpha Centauri or Procyon to be.

Science has a way of getting somewhere a lot faster than you would expect. Manned space exploration doesn’t fit that statement, because it runs on politics, not science.

On February 22, in Nature, it was announced that seven Earth size planets had been discovered circling a single star only thirty-nine light years from Earth. Far more important, all seven orbit within the band of temperature where liquid water is a possibility. By contrast, our system has one such planet, Earth, and maybe Mars for a few minutes on a hot afternoon near the equator in mid-summer – if the ice doesn’t sublimate instead. Seven; its unheard of.

The star is TRAPPIST-1, an M dwarf. 

In fact there has been a mini-revolution in the search for exoplanets. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more that 4700 potential planets. Many of these will no doubt turn out to be false positives, since the techniques of the search are not perfected, but it is still a staggering number. Most of these were found around stars similar to our sun – where else would you look first? Very few of them are both Earth sized and at the right distance from their star to have the possibility of liquid water.

As I said in Cyan, “planets of no use as real estate.”

Since a mechanical failure in 2013 compromised its ability to orient itself, Kepler has concentrated on observing red dwarfs. To eveyone’s surprise, the planet candidates found around these small, dim stars tend to be more Earth sized. And there are a lot of them.

The TRAPPIST-1 discovery, however, was not by NASA but by the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope group operating out of the University of Liège, Belgium. That explains the use of caps; TRAPPIST is an acronym.

If you want details – and of course you do – the best source is here. This page from the University of Liège is in French, but the video which will self-start is in English, and gives enough details to stir the blood of any space or science fiction fan.

It took me about three seconds to start speculating about what kinds of novels could be written about the exploration of the TRAPPIST-1 system. Suppose most or all of the seven planets had some form of life, all evolving independently. Suppose we write about a paleontological mission on a planet which had vertebral life, then lost it; these dwarfs have a solar wind that operates heavily on planets so close in. Suppose at some time in the deep past, a spacefaring civilization arose on one of these planets, colonized the others, and then died out. Or didn’t die. Or seems to have died until our intrepid explorers begin to poke around.

Okay, I was wrong. The golden age is still here.


80. And Don’t Begin With And

yol 8This is the last of eight how-to posts on writing. I haven’t exhausted the subject, but I want to quit before I exhaust my readers.

Your Own Language:
And don’t begin with and

Here is a rule that was strictly enforced in the antediluvian days of my youth. I think today’s teachers have largely given up, and thank goodness. The rule is: Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.

This sentence is acceptable:     “Every morning he saddled his horse carefully, and every evening he wiped him down with equal care.”

According to the rule, this construction is not acceptable:     “Every morning he saddled his horse carefully. And every evening he wiped him down with equal care.”

And yet, this third version is “correct” again.     “Every morning he saddled his horse carefully. Every evening he wiped him down with equal care.”

What? This makes no sense – unless you first accept the fallacy that each sentence should be complete in itself. This is the same completeness fallacy that leads teachers to teach paragraphs in isolation (see yesterday’s post).

In any story, essay, letter, email, or post, the writing flows from the first word to the last. How we break up that writing – where we put periods, commas, paragraphs, dashes, colons, and semicolons – is entirely a matter of pacing.

Whether you prefer eighteenth century novels with sentences a hundred words long and a paragraph break every other page, or something modern with rapid fire, disjointed chattering, every story has to engage the reader at its beginning, then carry through to some reasonable level of closure.

It’s that simple.

Children have no problem with closure in their stories. At the end, the hero wakes up. Hemingway usually had no problem either; at the end of a typical Hemingway novel, the hero dies. But even that isn’t complete closure. When Robert Jordan is lying on the hillside at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the enemy is closing in and there is no doubt he’s about to die. But what will happen to Maria? Will his coming sacrifice save his comrades? We don’t know.

As the holy men told the Prince of Exile, “Every true story ends in death, but no true story ever ends.” Closure is necessary, but never complete.

How much closure do you need? Thomas Anderson has said twice in reviews that the endings of my novels leave him feeling unsatisfied. Fair enough, yet they satisfy me. It is entirely a matter of taste.

Of course, there are limits. I once read a novel by an otherwise reputable author who ended it in mid-sentence because, just as his character has come to understand the meaning of life, he gets hit by a bus. That’s cheating.

There are more novels and blogs yet to write, and that’s closure enough for now.