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Friday, August 13, 2004

Random science-gawking 

My former boss Joe Kissell runs the Interesting Thing of the Day site, a wonderful little concept.

Today's article just happens to be on the Kepler Mission, yet another big-science space-shot that barely registers in the popular culture except among nerds and geeks.

Even I get pretty ho-hum about this sort of thing, but Joe's article is a concise explanation of what Kepler and its interesting successor, the Terrestrial Planet Finder, are supposed to do. Go read the article; I'll wait.

Right. So it's pretty esoteric stuff. Snooping on interstellar neighbours to find out what the neighbourhood is like, and if we might someday want to drop by for a visit to check out the sights. But I just finished reading [WARNING: COMPLETELY CRAP FLASH SITE AHEAD!] Quicksilver a historic-science-fiction novel (a surprisingly popular subgenre), but one that documents with some combination of veracity and poetic license the early days of The Royal Society and Isaac Newton (it's part of a trilogy, so don't blame me if you go reading it only to find out nothing bigger than a kidney stone gets tied up at the end of this volume).

Quicksilver was very good at setting up a sense of wonder at how far into the depths of human understanding the Royal Society (and especially Newton) were able to push into the realm of pure science. You get the impression of a group of pioneers who were figuring out bits and pieces of knowledge that wouldn't really be exploited in any practical fashion for another hundred years, and all in an era when financial concepts we take for granted (loans, banking, reliable currency) were only just forming, and when having a kidney stone meant the devilish choice between an incredibly painful death or an incredibly painful operation that might well lead to death regardless.

Back to the Terrestrial Planet Finder. This little mission doesn't propose the merely insane-making task of detecting Earth-sized planets that orbit distant stars, it intends to check on atmospheric composition.

Perhaps I'm just easily amazed. But I think this is the kind of amazing science that tends to bear fruit in a hundred years. But it's worth doing now: the chain of scientific discovery is such that yesterday's peeking-at-cells tends to lead to today's gene therapy and tomorrow's who-knows-what.

* * *

Oh, but more importantly: my father-in-law has a fruit crusher as well as a wine press! We're making crab apple wine!

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