Goblin and Planet 9, humanity’s cosmic insignificance, Egyptian stripey socks

7 October 2018

My new computer has an irritating thing on it called Cortana that produces pop-up boxes making random suggestions:  it’s just offered to tell me what the weather’s like.  How stupid does Bill Gates think I am?  I can turn round and look out of our windows, I don’t need his.

More proud assertions from politicians this week, including the Education Secretary making it clear that his top priority is to ensure teaching remains an attractive and fulfilling profession.  Since 2012, 43% of newly-qualified teachers in inner London left the profession within five years of their starting teaching.  It’s his use of the verb ‘remain’ that worries me.

At the other end of the scale, the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, a research facility in Washington DC, this week announced the discovery of a chunk of rock and ice out beyond Neptune that they’ve classified as a minor planet and named ‘Goblin’.

It’s been thought for a long time that our solar system could contain a ninth planet, Pluto having been reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.  Pluto was demoted because it’s not alone out there in the Kuiper belt, which is rather like the asteroid belt writ large, a vast belt of comets and chunks of ice and other dwarf planets in roughly the same plane as the other planets.

What has puzzled people (well, astronomers, I’ve not spent a lot of my life worrying about it) is that the orbits of some of the bits and pieces in the Kuiper belt seem anomalous but the existence of a large planet further out might account for this – hence the hypothesis that there is a Planet 9, and the hopes that Goblin, whose orbit is very unusual, could provide the evidence.  All they’ve got to do now is find it …

Further out, thousands of exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) have been discovered and astronomers using NASA telescopes announced this week that they may have discovered an exomoon (a moon orbiting a planet orbiting … you get the idea).

At this point, I begin to wonder about our sense of priorities in the context of our insignificance in the universe.  We think humanity is the bees’ knees, and we have scientific hypotheses for things we don’t understand but, in the grand scheme of things, we are arrivistes.

The life of the earth is about 4.5bn years;  the earliest ancestor of what finally evolved into us lot appeared about 6m years ago.  If we compress the life of the earth into a single day, our first ancestors appeared just after 2 minutes to midnight and Jesus was born less than half a second before midnight.  If you want to retain any sense of mankind’s importance, you have to give Intelligent Design a fair hearing.  (I have and I wasn’t convinced it was the simplest explanation even for earth as it is today so Occam’s razor means I remain a sceptic.)

If we compare what we know now with what we knew as little as 200 years ago, science has changed beyond recognition.  Imagine where it could be in another 200 years.  I’d much rather believe we haven’t yet even scratched the surface.  For example, just imagine that the ‘outlier’ results in experiments aren’t because of a rogue reading but because that particular result was influenced by something we can’t yet even imagine?

For example, a two-dimensional object cannot, by definition, possibly be aware of a third dimension but a three-dimensional object can cast a two-dimensional shadow so, if a three-dimension object is moving, its shadow will move with it and a two-dimensional observer could only be aware that, as the shadow passed, the lights went out.  Imagine an infinitely thin ant minding its own business as you walk past and your shadow passes over it:  all the ant would know is that something had changed briefly but it would have no way of imagining what.

And, despite all these theories about the solar system and the universe, we still can’t predict earthquakes or volcanic eruptions and people die.

But we did learn this week that the ancient Egyptian children wore coloured stripey socks.

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