Dashing dreams of a new Earth

There is just one tiny reason causing reporters to go coy over firing up the old star ship Enterprise and boldly going where no man has gone before. The speed of light. 186,000 miles per second is more than just a good idea. It's the law.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

Colonization of a new planet, in a star system far, far away, has been a staple of science fiction for a century.

Suddenly it seems both possible and necessary.

Possible, because telescopes are regularly bringing new planets into focus.

The latest batch of 11 new "exoplanets" includes one, GJ 1214b, that is "only" 2.7 times larger than Earth and is confirmed to be mostly water. Water, the stuff of life.

One blogger has already compared the new planet to Pandora, as imagined in the James Cameron movie Avatar (now in theaters). Another has suggested it really needs a new name, as though it's a dog that followed the kids home they want to keep.

What these bloggers are implying, but not saying, is they want to go there.

The New York Times, naturally, is putting the kibosh on the deal, calling the new planet "too hot." But others will soon be found it will call "too cold," and finally still others will be found that are just right.

Then there is the fact we may need a new home because we're destroying this one. This is another sci-fi staple.

Orson Scott Card has us forced to leave by climate change in his "="" series"="">. Isaac Asimov has us getting pushed to leave by our robot masters in his future history. (Feel free to add your favorite examples of this device to the comments. Great Christmas reading.)

There is just one teensy problem, one tiny reason these reporters are going sub rosa and coy over firing up the old star ship Enterprise and boldly going where no man has gone before. The picture above is a hint.

The problem is the speed of light. As we used to say in college, "186,000 miles per second isn't just a good idea. It's the law."

Even approaching the speed of light, if such engines could be made, would dramatically impact our sense of time, Einstein said. Even a theoretical way to get beyond the barrier seems impossible.

None of the methods imagined by our 20th century greats -- hyperspace jumps, black holes, hyperdrives -- passes even the theoretical test. Physics, not engineering but the kind of basic science that can be done in your mind, says no to going beyond the solar system.

So what if Einstein is right?

If he is then life forms on GJ  121 4B, perhaps their bloggers, are just as frustrated as we are. Tiny blue exoplanet discovered in yellow star system with gas giants. You can see it with your telescopes, third star to the right and straight on toward morning. It has water. Maybe it can sustain life. True, it's a cold place, you couldn't live there, but we can imagine...

And the GJ Einsteins shake their heads. Sorry, 186,000 miles per second is more than a good idea. Besides, why would anyone want to leave our snug harbor? We've learned how to avoid destroying our climate. Roll your tentacles over and go to sleep, dear.

But a body can dream.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards