18 April: Is there anybody out there?
Did you get excited last February, almost to the point of sexual arousal, viewing those images streaming back after Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched and coughed into outer space his cherry-red convertible Tesla Roadster? Me too. “Starman” mannequin astronaut behind the wheel, clad in a functioning SpaceX flight suit, left arm casually slung out the window, wholly unperturbed by the staggering lonesome vastness of space all around him, dashboard screen displaying “DON’T PANIC”, an infinite playback loop blasting David Bowie’s Space Oddity into the heavens for the next several million years the car is expected to sling around the sun in a long elliptical orbit somewhere between Mars and the Asteroid Belt.
Greatest advertising gimmick and, arguably, piece of pop art of all time! GAGOAT! GPOPAOAT!
Today, SpaceX was at it again with another successful launch from Cape Canaveral. This time the payload was the refrigerator-sized Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, fondly dubbed TESS by the eggheads at MIT and NASA who are all, ahem, aTwitter about it. While TESS may sound as eye-wateringly dull as Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel of the same name*, this is some all-in 21st Century shit. TESS’s predecessor, the Kepler Space Telescope currently running out of fuel, was jaw-droppingly successful in identifying 5,000 exoplanets (those outside of our solar system) from a miniscule field of view. Now, over its 2-year mission, TESS will scrutinize an area of sky 400 times greater and is expected to identify a good 20,000 relatively nearby exoplanets within the “habitable zone”, i.e. those where liquid water can exist on the surface and are therefore ripe for life.
For fear of intoning like Carl Sagan, it’s worth remembering that the Hubble Space Telescope has identified more than 200 billion galaxies on top of our own grain-of-sand-on-the-beach Milky Way. Bearing that in mind, it is basically mathematically impossible that extraterrestrial life doesn’t exist elsewhere in the universe. It is basically mathematically impossible that a variety of extraterrestrial life significantly more advanced than ours doesn’t exist elsewhere in the universe. Why then haven’t the aliens popped by, via their local wormhole, with some fireside cautionary tales? Probably because Einstein was right: nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (a snappy 299,792,458 meters per second) and so, even if travel at that speed were possible, it would take centuries if not millennia just to discover a bit of rock with some moss growing on it. For perspective, it would take 20,000 years to travel from one side of the Milky Way to the other at the speed of light. And so, the ever-listening rows of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) radio dishes silhouetted darkly against the hard-blue California sky, like giant stoic sentinels, have so far only ever heard the ancient static buzz of space noise.
What then is the point of even sending TESS out there if the end game is to discover potentially life-supporting worlds that can never be explored? Because we are lonely, I think. At the end of the day, and despite our wretched propensity to mistreat each other upon the least provocation, all 7.6 billion of us collectively feel an impenetrable gloom and lonesomeness to think that we are “It”, adrift and alone on this boundless cosmic sea until we die and the relentless passage of time grinds into space dust everything we ever said or did. And if, against overwhelming mathematical probability, we are “It” surely our existence is proof of God. Then we really do get depressed contemplating our epic failure (or God’s, if it provides you with an emotional salve to think so).
But cheer up! Millions of years after Humankind has been eradicated by an extinction event (perhaps even the current one), it’s time in cosmic terms as fleeting as a spark’s, “Starman” will still be rocking out to David Bowie in his convertible sportscar all ready to greet the aliens on our behalf! But still, the infinite playback loop would perhaps more appropriately have been Roger Waters’ dark haunting voice pleading the inky depths: “Is there anybody out there?”**
*Full name is actually Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. Throw your opiate-based sleeping pills away. One page of this novel will put you into a deep coma you will be unhappy to wake up from three months later.
**From Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Ask your parents and/or have a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQoZsXaEZ4M
20 April: Show me your colon!
Also last February, I endured the misfortune of turning 50. Not long after, and still sulking about it, I had a routine checkup with my GP. She informed me, with an unmistakable glint of malice in her eye, “a man your age should strongly consider getting a colonoscopy.” Suppressing a powerful urge to get up, walk behind her desk, and slap her (especially considering she is a good 10 years older than me), I said through gritted teeth, “A what?”
“A colonoscopy. Men your age can be prone to colon cancer. A man your age should also get his prostate checked.”
“I’m surprised a witch your age hasn’t long retired from the practice of quackery,” I muttered.
“Nothing. I was just thinking to myself that I’m so young, I don’t even know what a colonoscopy is. Please enlighten me, doctor.”
And she did, with not a little relish in her voice. It turns out that a colonoscopy considerably broadens (or lengthens, more accurately) the meaning of taking it in the ass. The procedure involves inserting through the anus a flexible tube upon which is mounted a fiberoptic camera. This aptly named “endoscope” then slithers through the ho-hum rectum before brazenly invading all 1.5 meters of large bowel, i.e. the colon, hungrily searching for potentially precancerous polyps it is equipped to lop off with a laser knife.
“A laser knife!” I bellowed at the witch.
“Oh, and by the way,” she concluded dryly, “during the examination, air will be blown up into your bowel to smooth out its walls.”
Well, this morning, two months later, I was finally coaxed into the American Hospital here in Paris on the understanding the procedure would be performed under general anesthetic.
“Close your eyes and think nice thoughts,” said the kindly old anesthesiologist.
“You mean something other than the fact that masked guy over there is about to anally shiv me with 1.5 meters of laser-armed tubing?”
“Yes, something other than that.”
I closed my eyes and as the eruptions of false, psychedelic colors on the backs of my eyelids slowly turned to black, the last image that went through my mind was a closeup of the monstrous Xenomorph in Alien slowly opening up its double jaws and drooling acidic slime through countless rows of razor-sharp teeth.
All’s well that ends well though! After 30 minutes, I woke up in intensive care to a pleasingly endowed infirmière holding my hand and cooing “Ça va, Monsieur Aandrooo?”
“Am I?” I snarled.
“Pas de polypes! Prostate magnifique!”
“Well, thanks fuck for that.”
Less than an hour after that, I was nursing a beer in my beloved Jardin du Luxembourg, feeling grateful with the sun on my face, but still actively resenting my many friends hovering in and around their mid-thirties. To those of you reading this, if any, you can now pick yourselves up off the floor from all the laughter at my expense because I have news for you: the 15 years between the ages of 35 and 50 will evaporate quicker than winking. It’s not like that eternity between 20 and 35 where you feel so young for so long you may as well be immortal.
No, my flowers, sooner than you can possibly imagine, it will be your turn to face the beast as you confront your now undeniably wilting features each morning in the mirror… and then be asked to assume the position.
22 April: Appetite for Destruction
Nowhere is the untrammeled destruction of the environment, courtesy of reckless human activity, more soberingly apparent than in the massive plastic garbage patches found in the world’s oceans. Most notorious, the Pacific Trash Vortex that grimly roams between California and Hawaii is larger than the state of Texas, dwarfing even the size of the Tweeter-in-Chief’s ego, and growing exponentially each year.
The statistics on our plastic addiction are heart stopping:
- 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the globe with only 14% ever recycled;
- 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans each year;
- 1 million + seabirds are killed each year from plastic entanglement and ingestion;
- 3 billion metric tons is the estimated weight of plastic ever produced;
- 9% is the estimated percentage of plastic ever recycled;
- 450 years is the average time it takes for a plastic bottle to completely degrade in the ocean;
- 2050 is the year in which it is estimated there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
Perhaps with less high-fiving and back-slapping than when they stumbled upon Viagra, scientists were still immensely chuffed when they announced last week they had accidentally created a mutant enzyme (Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, if you must know) that can literally eat polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles. There is cautious optimism that the discovery will revolutionize the recycling industry with even some conjecture that PET-munching bugs might be sprayed on the ocean’s plastic garbage patches to clean them up.
Pretty cool, right? Sure, but I always wonder if announcements such as these provoke us to discard what little restraints we have on our already ravenous and unsustainable consumption. Personally, I’m already feeling less guilty about my Diet Coke addiction even though this promising breakthrough is only in its infancy. We are naturally self-destructive. For example, would a smoker struggling to quit continue to bother if news broke that a serious breakthrough had been made in lung cancer treatment? Don’t we sort of need the urgency of our imminent demise to rein in our baser appetites, even if only a little?
I don’t really know. Does it really matter at the end of the day? I abandoned myself to the pleasure principle at birth and have been known to shout from the rooftops in a bacchanalian frenzy “Long live the id!”
I suppose now I could add to that “Long live Diet Coke!”