The view from a wormhole

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The view from a wormhole


We bade farewell to the year 2014 with relief considering the tragic losses and misfortunes it brought us in the sky, land and especially on the sea. But there was uplifting news from outer space. After spending 10 years in space, the Rosetta - a European Space Agency robotic spaceship that became the first probe to orbit a comet - successfully discharged its land cruiser Philae for the first-ever touchdown on the surface of a comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 67P for short, on Nov. 12, 2014.

The Rosetta space mission has been truly amazing. It flew for 10 years and 8 months after leaving the Earth and crossed 6.4 billion kilometers (3.9 billion miles) in space. The 4.1 kilometer-wide 67P comet rotates the Sun at a maximum velocity of 38 kilometers per second with very little gravity - about one thousandth of the Earth’s. The mother ship Rosetta, which has been chasing the comet, dispatched the kitchen stove-size probe equipped with instruments and sensors onto the surface from 23 kilometers away. After a bumpy landing, the Philae performed landmark scientific missions relying on harpoons to grip the surface, sniffing, hammering, drilling and sending samples for 57 hours before its batteries died. Before it went silent, it sent images and data showing that the chemical signature of water in the comet is unlike that of the Earth’s oceans, debunking the long-held belief that comets delivered water to Earth billions of years ago. Because the probe landed in a shadowy area, the Philae’s solar panel can gather sunlight just an hour and half a day. Its mission can continue to offer clues about the life of a comet once it gathers enough power.

Two films were released in time for the Rosetta’s history-making achievements in space: the documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” on the National Geographic Channel and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” “Cosmos” had been first released as a TV series and book in the 1980s, one of the first TV blockbusters watched by 500 million people in 60 countries. The 13-part series was co-written and presented by Carl Sagan, an American astronomer who popularized the science of space. His doctoral thesis in 1960 led to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of Venus. The 2014 follow-up series was presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse, who had been inspired by Sagan as a student. U.S. President Barack Obama appeared in the introduction of the latest version calling on the young to “open their eyes and imagination” to explore new frontiers.

I once used the original “Cosmos” series for a university lecture. Sagan describes the 1.38 billion-year history of the universe as a single calendar year. The Big Bang happens on Jan. 1, creating the universe. The Sun in the center of our solar system is formed on Aug. 31 and the Earth on Sept. 21. Human civilization begins on Dec. 31 and all of our recorded history begins at 11:59:46. Human history is that insignificant when considering the lifespan of the universe, according to Sagan.

The insignificant species that lives in the “pale blue dot,” as the Earth appears from space, has been exploring the universe for half a century hoping to find life beyond. The scene of an astronaut floating helplessly away in space in the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” was a frightening sight. The epic “Interstellar” by Nolan travels to a faraway galaxy in search of alternative homes for the human race. Kip Thorne, who advised on the film as scientific consultant and executive producer, had been close to Sagan. Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother, studied under Thorne at the California Institute of Technology. He studied the astrophysical implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the so-called wormhole theory, the notion of a tunnel in space time that allows time travel. “Interstellar” is based on a very grand fictional idea of a monstrous black hole called Gargantua. A black hole has a gravitational pull so strong that no particles, even a single light ray, can escape from it. In creating the wormhole or supermassive black hole, Thorne, with his scientific equations and a team of visual and computer effect artists, tried to simulate the experience of being inside a black hole. A phenomenon labeled Cygnus X-1 was identified as the first black hole candidate when it was discovered during a rocket flight in 1964.

Much of the action in the movie revolves around the giant black hole and what it does to the humans and spacecraft that are near it. There are also serious changes in time and how it is experienced on the planets nearest Gargantua. In the climax of the film, Cooper, the pilot of the spacecraft, cracks the puzzle of how to save humanity inside the so-called extra-dimensional tesseract and uses gravity to send the message back to Earth. Even for a piece of cinematic fiction, this part of “Interstellar” raises questions both practical and philosophical. How can anyone send a message from inside a black hole - let alone a spaceship get inside it - without being ripped to pieces? Cooper and his group get to the other galaxy through a wormhole. Is space travel through wormholes possible when their very existence remains unknown? But the movie should not be dismissed because it is based on such bizarre or exotic hypothetical concepts. Many scientific theories were actually inspired by science fiction in the first place. Science stands on the border of the known and unknown. Space exploration is one of the human race’s biggest accomplishments. One complaint about the movie “Interstellar” is its beginning - the human race looks for answers in space after making a mess out of their planet. Should they use their intelligence and technologies to flee Earth for space instead of restoring their planet? In retrospect, the movie had a deeper message: the very value of human existence in the universe and on this planet.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 3, Page 27

*The author is former environment minister and a visiting professor at KAIST Science and Technology Policy Graduate School.

by Kim Myung-ja

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