Because the universe isn’t fair, my dad has informed me that Niel deGrasse Tyson recently spoke at my alma mater Bucknell University. In case you’ve been living under a science free rock, Niel deGrasse Tyson is basically the spokesperson for outer space. He is an astrophysicist who specializes in using the general media for science communication. He’s sort of a more serious Bill Nye. And he has a new television series coming out. Well, it’s not new, it’s a reboot of the series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage which was originally hosted by Carl Sagan, former spokesperson for outer space. Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey looks like it’s going to be awesome, and with Neil deGrasse Tyson involved you know it’s going to be informative and easy to understand. Win win! The show will premiere on March 9 on Fox.
And if you want to see Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about his relationship with Carl Sagan and the new series, check out the interview he gave at Bucknell.
We all know gravity is important. It keeps the Earth orbiting around the sun, the Moon orbiting around the Earth, and it keeps all of us from flying off into oblivion. And it turns out that when you’ve been raised on gravity, taking it away can be damaging. And I’m not talking about damaging in the way falling into oblivion would be damaging (which it would be, just ask George Clooney), because even without the threat of oblivion life without gravity is not good for you.
At least, it’s definitely not good for fruit flies. We all know that when astronauts get back to Earth after spending a while in space
they experience a bit of muscle and bone loss. Turns out these aren’t your only problems. Your immune system is likely to suffer too, and now we know why. NASA researchers found that fruit flies raised in space did not develop a normal signalling pathway in the immune system, called the Toll signaling pathway (I couldn’t find any nonsciencey descriptions of this pathway to link to, so just know it activates immune response and is similar in fruit flies and humans). Specifically, they had a hard time developing resistance to fungal infections. In case that wasn’t enough proof gravity is important, they found that mutant flies with no response to gravitational fields (what does a fly that can’t sense gravity look like when it flies?) showed no difference in Toll pathway development.
So take away here: if you can sense gravity, your immune system will not develop properly when you take gravity away. And for those of you who are all like “Well that’s flies. They are simple creatures, weak and easily manipulated. We humans are a much stronger and superior species, we will not succumb as easily as these silly little flies” Wrong. Astronauts and cosmonauts (which, according to wiki answers are just different countries’ way of saying folks who go into space) who spent 6 months in space experienced vision problems, issues with blood circulation, plus sleep loss and other stress related issues.
But it would seem all this unpleasantness is not enough to stop people from thinking space would just be the most super awesome fun place to live. Over 200,000 people volunteered to be the first ones to try to colonize Mars in 2023. It would take two years just to get to Mars. Two years of zero gravity. I can promise you, my name is definitely not on that list.
I’ve had a special place in my heart for one of Saturn’s moons ever since I read Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan in high school. It immediately became my favorite book and still is today. But while I had all these warm fuzzy feelings associated with Titan, I had no scientific knowledge to back it up. I knew nothing about what Titan was actually like, but every time I heard the name I felt like I knew the place on an intimate level.
Since my high school days I have learned a lot more about Titan, and it turns out it is a fascinating place. It is believed conditions on Titan are somewhat similar to those on Earth; it even has an atmosphere (although it is way colder than Earth, around -290°F). Its surface is covered with lakes and seas not made of water, but of liquid methane. In fact, scientists recently announced there are 2,000 cubic miles of methane and ethane on Titan. For a little perspective, Earth has about 332,500,000 cubic miles of water. So even though Titan is a bit smaller than Earth (it’s about half the size), its seas still can’t compete with our magnificent oceans. The lakes on Titan are at the most about as deep as the Great Lakes. Not to mention almost all the water is concentrated around the poles, not all spread out like it is on Earth.
The more I learn about Titan, the more I see why it appealed to Vonnegut as an idyllic far away land. A landscape somewhat similar to Earth but just different enough to not quite feel like home, but rolling dunes and an orange sky are not exactly the Titan Vonnegut described. Still, he managed to capture the idea the Titan is a mysterious place luring us in to discover its secrets.