Smallest and Innermost

Mercury

Last month, I spent an entire post lavishing love and affection on Earth’s beautiful space neighbor, the planet Venus (see here). I was quick to point out – from Earth – you can occasionally see the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as well. Turns out that list is, ahem, incomplete by at least one planet. Clearly miffed by my post, our solar system’s Mr. Smallest and Innermost – the planet Mercury – decided to speak up this week.

Don’t burn yourself, little one (image courtesy of NASA)

For those of you who missed it, Mercury passed in front of the Sun on Monday.  For five hours or so, Mercury looked like a little black mole on the bright cheek of a much larger creature.  His orbit took him almost directly across the center of the Sun.  You may think Mercury’s show is no big deal; after all, he circles the Sun every 88 Earth days.  However, consider Earth, Mercury, and the Sun must be exactly lined up (put a ruler on it) for humans to witness a Mercury “Sun transit”.  We only get fourteen Mercury transits every Earth century.  The next one won’t happen until 2032.

I missed Monday’s Mercury transit myself, because a) I wasn’t up at sunrise in the Northern Hemisphere (when it happened), and b) I didn’t have the necessary eye protection to give it a direct look.  Instead, I enjoyed the online photos and videos from NASA and the world’s other space agencies (like this one).

Mercury’s the tough little guy on the left

The truth is, you don’t have to wait for a Mercury transit to observe the first rock from the Sun.  On several early mornings last month, you could’ve seen Mercury rising in the east (same as Venus), and you’ll see him again early next year – no telescope required.  Guess I got caught up in the allure of Venus and completely ignored her nearby brother.

If Mercury and Earth were side-by-side

Mercury – like all the planets – has some interesting facts.  He completes three rotations about his axis (days) for his every two orbits of the Sun (years).  Pretty slow for the smallest orbit in the solar system.  He has no moons.  He’s only about a third the size of Earth.  He’s pretty beat up, with the most craters of any planet, and “wrinkles” caused by the cooling and contracting of his iron core.  Only two of Earth’s spacecraft have ever visited Mercury, and even those stayed far away from the surface for obvious reasons (800.6°F on the sunny side; -279.4°F in the shade).

The Roman god for which Mercury is named is a lot “cooler” than the planet itself (ha).  Young Mercury wears a lot of hats, including (god of) financial gain, eloquence, and divination.  (Side note: perhaps Mercury should’ve been my blog mascot.  “Eloquence” was the theme of my very first post).  He also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld. Curiously, all these responsibilities take a back seat to Mercury’s most commonly known role – as speedy messenger to the other gods.  This role explains the naming of the planet, the fastest of the eight to circle the Sun.  Maybe we should also consider Mercury as messenger to the other planets, in case something gets weird with the Sun.  After all, Mercury will be the first to know.

I can’t talk about Mercury without a reference to the late, great Ray Bradbury.  Of all his wonderful science-fiction short stories – and there have been at least a hundred – my Bradbury top five includes “The Golden Apples of the Sun”.  “Apples” followed an exploratory rocket ship heading past Mercury to the Sun.  The crew is tasked with collecting a sample of the Sun’s golden fire.  I can still imagine the ship’s giant scoop as it extends from the hull and grabs a bit of the Sun.  The story’s real drama comes just after the collection, as the ship overheats and the life-support systems begin to shut down.  With respect to Bradbury, I won’t give away the ending.

Well then, enough about Mercury (probably too much).  I’ll conclude with a great tweet from Katie Mack, who was quick to note about Monday’s Mercury transit: “The official song of #TransitOfMercury is, obviously, ‘King of Pain’ by the Police.  But please note that the ‘little black spot on the Sun today’ referenced in the song is a ‘sunspot’, not Mercury, since ‘it’s the same old thing as yesterday,’ and (Mercury) transits only last a few hours.”

Keep on a-circling the Sun, Mercury.  I won’t forget ya next time.

Some content sourced from the BBC.com article, “Planet Mercury passes across the face of the Sun”, the Space-Facts.com article, Mercury Facts – Interesting Facts about Planet Mercury, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

This April, a movie called The Circle will arrive in theaters, and it just might generate enough buzz to displace political headlines.  The previews start innocently enough: a wide-eyed young woman “Mae”, who can’t believe her good fortune at being hired into the thoroughly glamorous Internet company “Circle” (a super-hybrid of Apple, Google, and Facebook).  Predictably, things take a turn for the not-so-good when Mae realizes her new employer seeks a singularly “true” Internet identity for its consumers, revealing all there is to know about a person.

The previews for The Circle intrigued me enough to give the book a try, even though the reviews were mediocre at best.  But no matter; the premise draws me in and keeps me reading.  What resolution can possibly exist in a not-so-distant future where an individual’s “privacy” goes completely out the window?  The Circle proposes an all-knowing (and therefore) all-exploiting Internet service; a corporate version of totalitarianism.  I can’t imagine a happy ending, can you?  As Ray Bradbury would say, something wicked this way comes.

83-prescient

Ray Bradbury authored countless short stories placing believable humans in not-quite-so believable circumstances, yet seeking a peek into a probable future.  “Fahrenheit 451” is perhaps his most famous example, but I have my own favorites, including “The Golden Apples of the Sun”, “A Sound of Thunder”, “Skeleton”, and “The Veldt”.  I own a collection of Bradbury’s “hundred best”, and find them just as compelling as when I first read them forty years ago.  Why?  Because they still aren’t quite believable.  The presumptions and technologies and societies of Bradbury’s stories are still somewhere around the corner of the world of today.  But I have no doubt they’re coming.

The same case can be made for the cult-classic neo-noir film Blade Runner, produced in 1982 but based on a book written decades earlier.  Blade Runner made several far-reaching assumptions about a dystopian Los Angeles of the future: a) climate change, creating an environment dominated by darkness and rain, b) culture change, where its inhabitants, language, and food are decidedly Asian, and c) technological change, where “replicants” (robots) perform the mundane tasks humans no longer care to do.  Blade Runner’s mystique is in the depiction of a familiar place transformed by radical changes; the kind that aren’t so unbelievable.  Not now perhaps, but they’re coming.  (Also coming: a sequel to Blade Runner later this year).

Here’s another example from Hollywood.  Logan’s Run (which was an on-screen disaster just begging to be remade thirty years later), depicted a completely controlled, pleasure-filled world inside a giant, sterile dome – but only until age thirty, when its inhabitants were ceremoniously put to death (to conserve the resources of a supposedly dying planet).  By default, Logan’s world is a society where everything is new and clean, everyone is “young”, and a day in the life is controlled by some behind-the-scenes, largely technological presence.  “Logan 5” and “Jenny 6” (a delightful nod to the loss of individualism) are too dependent on the comforts of their world to ever acknowledge its limitations. Considering how technology shapes our actions and decisions today, perhaps Logan’s world is not so far-fetched anymore.

The appeal of Ray Bradbury, Blade Runner, and Logan’s Run – even today – is stories about worlds that are (still) not believable.  We can enjoy them yet keep them at arm’s length, comforted by the thought “can’t really happen”.  And that’s what makes The Circle a serious conversation piece (even if it’s a box-office flop): a taste of an all-powerful, all-knowing Internet – if governments and corporations let it get that far.  Once we reach that point is there any turning back, or will “drones” more aptly describe humans than cool little flying machines?  Terrifying foresight for sure, but hopefully not prescient thinking.

Okay, you’re done reading now.  Back to your Facebook feed.