It’s always interesting to follow the top science stories and let your imagination run free. For any SF writer, I’d say it’s an essential exercise. Over the past week:
Remember all the fuss in 2006 when Pluto was downgraded from planet status to the new category of “dwarf planet”? That was because other bodies just as large had been discovered beyond Pluto’s orbit (Eris, Haumea, and others) and within the asteroid belt (Ceres). Scientists got their first good look at one called Makemake recently when it passed it front of distant stars. Unlike Pluto, Makemake appears to have no atmosphere, although its covering of methane ice might vaporize when its orbit brings it to its closest approach to the sun. Dwarf planets aren’t exactly hospitable, but they’d be a whole lot more accessible than the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Even the concept of asteroids or dwarf planets being converted into giant luxury resorts isn’t so far-fetched. A continent-sized skating rink, anyone?
Meanwhile, John Grotzinger, project scientist with NASA’s Mars Rover mission told an NPR reporter that a chemistry lab aboard the Curiosity rover had made a discovery that would be one for the history books, but he refused to elaborate until the data has been thoroughly checked. That set off a flurry of speculation—the discovery might be anything from definite signs of life (my own opinion) to proof of space aliens (I really doubt it). Definitive proof of life beyond Earth will finally give science fiction writers license to embody just about any setting we can imagine with exotic species (we do it anyway, but we’d really love to be able to say, “I told you so.”)
A third story involved the hunt for the ultimate sub-atomic particle, the famous Higgs boson, the proposed particle at the very root of physical structure that would complete our picture of why objects have mass. Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland are nearly certain that they’ve found it (or at least confirmed its existence by observing its by-products). Yet there’s been a measure of disappointment in the announcements. The particle appears to behave exactly according to theory, but that’s the problem. If it had been found to have unexpected properties, that would have been a step toward confirming some of the more exotic theories of physics. As it is, the straightforward Higgs boson just adds support to the current model of the universe. So what’s left to discover? To the particle physicists I say, “Don’t worry”—in 1900 Lord Kelvin is reputed to have said, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” It may have been a misquote, but the opinion wasn’t uncommon at the end of the Victorian era. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.
I’m still confident that the universe is as limitless as our imagination.