Tag: astronomy

Carl Sagan and Reflections on the Significance of IR

I was remiss yesterday in failing to note that November 9, 2014 would have been Carl Sagan’s 80th birthday.  For a former astrophysicist such as myself, it is an opportunity for reflection on the significance of what we do in the study and practice of international relations.  Sagan was a masterful communicator of important scientific ideas to the public.  One of the lessons of cosmology he was so effective, and persistent, in communicating was the tenuousness of humanity’s existence.  Earth orbits a nondescript star in the relative hinter regions of a nondescript galaxy, one of more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each one with billions of stars.  Other than water and the right temperature, there is nothing apparently unique about Earth, and there is nothing that protects Earth from the ravages of the universe, both foreign and domestic.  It is a singular lifeboat, and once you start to think about the scale and the nature of the universe, suddenly all the things we take for granted take on renewed significance.

To give a sense of what Sagan was talking about, consider the famous Pale Blue Dot photo, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990, when it was 3.7 billion miles from Earth, or roughly 40 times as far as the Earth is from the Sun.  In it we see Earth as a tiny pixel of blue light surrounded by darkness.


That’s the whole of it.  As far as we know, not just human life, but all life is on that speck of blue.  Sagan put it better than I ever could in his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot:


The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

The relevance for IR is profound, because so many of the problems that might or do threaten the continued existence of human and all life are international and global and thus the stuff of IR scholarship: nuclear proliferation, disease and biological weapons, climate change, environmental degradation and species extinction, industrialized warfare, and so on.  Other problems may not pose a threat to human existence, but despoil the human experience: human trafficking, endemic poverty, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, and so on.  The study and practice of IR is either central or very important for all of these issues and more, and given the stakes riding on the solutions, it is a sobering reminder of just how important the study of international relations is.

As a final note, exobiologists (those who search for extraterrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise) have puzzled for some time over the apparent lack of observable intelligent life in the universe (civilizations capable of emitting radio waves).  With all those stars and all those galaxies, surly the conditions of life exist not just elsewhere, but many, many elsewheres.  So why do we not find any evidence of technological civilizations?  Sagan’s conclusion was and remains a sobering one.  The reason we find no evidence of technological civilizations is because those civilizations end up destroying themselves before they are able to exist long enough to leave much of a trace.


Summer Reading Recommendation, Mithras Edition

The running through of the bulls

Someone asked me the other day whether I had read any books for fun recently. Caught up as I was in compiling the lit review for one project and writing lectures for an introductory class, I couldn’t think of anything–the words “fun” and “reading” at the moment were almost precise antitheses. (Having read large numbers of scholarly treatises is enjoyable. Plowing through large numbers of monographs is tedium.)

And then it struck me that I had in fact read completely unrequired books recently. And that one of them was fantastic–so good, in fact, that it was worth a recommendation to our readership.

Like many people who enjoy history and were raised on Greek and Roman mythology, I have always known that Mithras exists. Yet I knew little about Mithras or Mithraism besides some likely inaccurate assertions of the similarities between the religion and early Christianity. Thus, when the Oxford University Press catalog came by mail a few months ago, I was right in the target demographic for their The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World by David Ulansey, a professor of religion.

The details of Mithras’s origins and Ulansey’s thesis are available elsewhere, for  instance on the Wikipedia page about the mythology, but I won’t link to them here because I think that it gives away the fun. One of the reasons that a lot of us, including myself, were attracted to academia was the notion of learning new things, and after a while we arrive at a place where we are treated to seemingly endless reinterpretations of old facts (Fashoda, the July Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so on). The delight in the Mithras book was both that it was a coherent account of something that I knew absolutely nothing about, even though I knew the setting and many of the characters fairly well, and also that Ulansey has structured the book as something like a murder mystery on a cosmic scale.

Again, without spoilers, the book is in part a reconstruction of how a discovery about the universe–not a mystical one, but one that would have seemed almost so to ancient Greeks–transformed itself into a religion. It is, at the same time, an investigation of how to use that knowledge, and offers insight into how sincere intentions might instantiate themselves as a mystery religion. The book also, inter alia, reminds us that the people of the ancient world were complex and rather well  educated–something that I had known intellectually but is a little hard to recall on an emotional scale.

And, best of all, it’s short–really only about 150 pages.


Name That Planet: Open Thread on “GJ1214b”

WOW. As PTJ reports below, scientists have discovered the first Earth-like exoplanet… and, in accordance with International Astronomical Union convention, promptly named it GJ1214b.

Clearly astronomers need some assistance from readers of the Duck in choosing a planetary moniker that befits this extraordinary discovery and enables breakfast-table conversations with budding young space scientists. Submit your suggestions and ask others to do the same. The results will be passed along helpfully to the graduate student who made the discovery – perhaps he or his senior faculty members can convince the International Astronomical Union to begin giving important planets like this proper names.



I promised myself that I wouldn’t start blogging again until my grades were turned in (by Friday of this week) and my book manuscript was sent off the the publisher (looks like that will happen in early January). But I couldn’t resist calling attention to this. It doesn’t have the most mellifluous name — GJ 1214b — but it is in important ways the most Earth-like extrasolar planet found to date. Lots of important and interesting things about this exoplanet, such as its orbital location placing it in the “habitable zone” surrounding its star, but the most important thing is that the planet appears to be composed of mostly water.

Yes, water. H20. One of the most basic building-blocks of life as we know it. And the density of this particular exoplanet strongly suggests that the planet is 3/4 liquid water, and also has an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. Okay, granted, the atmosphere is like 10x thicker than ours, and the planet is hot and the surface is likely obscured by thick clouds and haze, so it’s not like we’ve found Twin Earth or something. But hey, at only 40 light-years out, it’s practically in our cosmic backyard, and it appears to have many of the elements that current scientific knowledge says are important preconditions for the existence of living beings.

So why does this matter? Setting aside for the moment any specific goals involving GJ 1214b itself (although I would be all for getting some kind of unmanned expedition together — launch it now, and in maybe a century and a half we’ll have some first-hand data on the place!), the real implication here is for something even more exotic: the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The Drake Equation, widely used in exobiology as a way of estimating how many extraterrestrial civilizations there might be, rests on a number of parameters that have only speculative values; the discovery of exoplanets whose composition can be ascertained by observations made by Earth-orbiting telescopes might allow better estimates of some of those parameters. So we might have better estimates of just how likely — or just how unlikely — intelligent life is in the universe.

Either way, there are implications. Either we’re pretty darn unlikely, in which case we probably ought to think seriously about whether we should be continuing to waste our time as a species quarreling about small patches of terrestrial surface or imposing various ideas of the good life on one another at the point of a gun; or we’re pretty likely, in which case we probably ought to think seriously about why the heck we haven’t actually seen irrefutable evidence of extraterrestrial life yet — and my money’s on the zoo hypothesis, the notion that any alien species that detected us would cordon us off until we managed to mature a bit and in some sense demonstrate that we’re worth contacting.

But the point is that we have no way of knowing either way unless we get some better data — and GJ 1214b might be able to give us some. Think of the effect on global politics, on global life, if we were actually able to provide a scientifically respectable answer to the question “are we alone in the universe?” About the closest precedent that we have is the discovery conquest of the “New World”; arguably, that changed basically everything. What kind of changes would be wreaked now? No way of knowing unless we head into that frontier and see what’s out there.

As the Starfleet motto has it: per aspera ad astra. Sometimes we should remember to lift our eyes and look beyond our often dreary political horizons; thanks to the astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, we have yet another exoplanet to dream on. And this one is likely full of liquid water. An ocean of possibilities; can we allow ourselves the conceptual flexibility to take advantage of them?


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