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Friday, March 25, 2011

Never trust an astronomer with a sinister goatee

Okay! So! This post has been sitting around in my Drafts folder for like four months or something. It is all outdated planetary news by now. What I really want to talk about is TYCHE!!! 'cause OMG TYCHE!!!

But Gliese 581g still matters too, so here it is, the report on the previous go-round of the planetary enthusiasm/disillustionment/enthusiasm carousel:


You know, nowadays I consider myself mostly kind of an eye-rolling jaded sophisticate as far as interstellar settlement goes. While I'm moderately bullish on humans making some interesting use of the rest of our own solar system someday -- God willing -- I scoff at FTL drives and galactic empires, and even managing a quick trip (by biological humans) to Proxima Centauri seems honestly like it's going to be a matter of several millennia from now at best.

I'm not really talking about engineering, here; we know perfectly well how to build something that could push a small craft a few light-years, and do it in under a century. I'm talking economics, and sociology, and technological history, and ecology. (If you want to know my exact reasons for thinking this, you can read the massive essay below, after the cut. I moved it there because that wasn't really going to be the point of this post.) I think that, in all likelihood, we are stuck living in and around Earth for a long while. And we are stuck in this solar system for a long, long while after that.

So we're not going anywhere; and Wittgenstein's Lion says that even if there is someone very complexly made out there, they are unlikely to be broadcasting prime numbers, never mind schemata for cold fusion reactors, on radio frequencies in our direction. Very likely there is somebody out there, for sufficiently broad values of "somebody" -- and very likely those values are so broad that we will have, essentially, nothing to say to each other.

So the issue of life on other worlds is, in the end, a matter of pure academic curiosity. Right?

But [a few months ago, when I originally wrote this blog post], when I read in a news headline that they'd found an earthlike planet, I burst out crying.

Given my jaded sophistication and all, this was quite a surprise.

It turns out I've been waiting my whole life to read those words: earthlike planet found.

And despite all my sophistication, despite my general environmentalist attitude of "let's tidy up here a bit first, shall we?", my first overwhelming thought was: we have to go. Now. We have to go now. I found myself desperately calculating: 20 years, maybe, to build a tiny probe with a massive solar sail and a big laser at L5 to push it? -- or else one of those doohickeys driven by exploding nuclear bombs against a plate? Could we get it up quickly to, what, half the speed of light, and have it do a flyby? That's another 40 years, maybe, and 20 years for the signal to return -- eighty years from now I'll be 121 -- that's doable, right? I could hang on until word came. That we are not alone. That this fragile globe is not our only shot.

(Now, some months later, they are finding so many bushels of extrasolar planets in the right zone, that it is already a little hard to remember how shocking that headline was; which is one reason to blog it now, and mark that historical moment...)

The putative planet, Gliese 581g, is a Goldilocks planet -- the right distance and size from its star for liquid water. We already know there's some water on the Moon, Mars and -- our best bet for finding life larger than a microbe in this solar system -- Europa. Also, with a little patience, Kepler is likely to find earthlike planets actually traversing the surfaces of their stars from our perspective, allowing us to actually look at their atmospheres' spectroscopy for signatures of life. So it's not like Gliese 581g is our only chance. But still.

So it was with consternation that I read a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1320539/Gliese-581g-exist.html">the news that a team in Geneva was unable to find the planet, analyzing (most of) the same data. When I read the article aloud to Noah Sunday morning, I could not help reading the comments of the Swiss team's leader (who does have a sinister goatee) in a leering and menacing Swiss-French supervillain's accent, peppered with scare quotes, italics and ellipses. (Try reading it yourself that way, it's very convincing.)

Come on, Gliese 581g. Hang in there. Exist!

Interstellar-exploraton skepticism after the cut:

Click here to continue reading "Never trust an astronomer with a sinister goatee"
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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Les Belles Infideles

Okay so I have all these writing announcements! And other bloggy things! Which I never seem to actually get around to posting! But now I shall. Starting with this one!

My friend the artist, Ethan Ham, and I have created another collaborative work (third in a series, I guess, after Anthroptic and Tumbarumba). Like Tumbarumba, it's made possible by Turbulence.

The project is called Les Belles Infidèles. Ethan describes it:


Les Belles Infidèles consists of a short story—written specifically for this project by Benjamin Rosenbaum—that has been translated and retranslated by more than 40 translators into 15 languages. The project is an exploration of the story’s compounding mutation as the translators attempt to make it work in different languages and cultures.

The term “les belles infidèles” comes from a 17th century quip by Gilles Ménage in which he compared a set of translations to an acquaintance of his: beautiful but unfaithful. The phrase has come to express the tension between making a translation seem natural in the target language versus keeping it as close as possible to the original text.

Translations were done both in series and in parallel, creating a tree. Each translator only saw the step before them, so that after the first level they were translating translations, then translating translations of translations, without access to the original.

It's fascinating to follow the interaction of translators' choices through the tree, so that, for instance, Sonia Quemener's decision to translate the pun in the title (Wife-eye/Wi-fi) with an equivalent french pun, "Wifi Oui-oui", inspires a German pun in the title Wolfgang Gösweiner's translation of her translation, "Von nun an W-Lan" (Which means "wi-fi from now on"); while other strands preserve her literal meaning, so that Joseph Harfouch's translation into English of Hala Loulou's translation into Arabic of Sonia's translation is entitled "Wi-fi yes yes". There's a translation into ASL -- and one subsequent to that into children's English. One strand has footnotes, which are then translated and carried for, so that Japanese puns are explained in Swahili footnotes.

Anyway, I love that Ethan and I got to do this!

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bike Trip

The kids were off at their grandparents' this weekend, and Esther and I took a two-day bike trip up the Rhein, including a pilgrimage to the site of the last Villa Diodati (well, almost -- we got as far as the cafe in Feldberg), and a really good lunch at a castle. The very last leg took us through the surreal, vast, menacing, unworldly Empire of Novartis across the border of Basel in Huningue, France -- how is it that I never took David Moles there? V. scary.

Home now. I have lots of writing news I am long overdue in posting (before this trip was a lovely trip down to Yverdon with Terri and her kids, and then Fasnacht, so it's been a busy last while) but it will have to come later, I'm exhausted.

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