An astronomer answers your embarrassingly uninformed questions about space


Dear Rick,

Thanks for your letter theorizing that there are cities on Jupiter’s moon Titan. Let me just start off first by saying thank you for setting the scientific community straight on which planet Titan revolves around; we’d thought it was Saturn. Titan orbiting around Jupiter changes things a bit, and we’ll have to recalibrate our understanding of celestial mechanics. How did we miss this? The fuzzy screenshot you enclosed from a website showing vague dark patches on the surface of Titan definitely proves there are cities, probably populated, like you say, by human beings from the future. I don’t see any reason to think those fuzzy areas are patches of liquid methane, like we’d been thinking, especially if Titan isn’t even in orbit around Saturn. I mean, if we were wrong about that, what else were we wrong about?


         Dear Ronald,

In response to your question, yes, I am part of the NASA conspiracy to hide the truth about Mars. So I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that I cannot reveal the truth about Mars. But, boy, would you be amazed at some of the stuff I could tell you if I could tell you, which, of course, I can’t.


         Dear Jordan,

Regarding your idea that the universe is a speck of dust inside a drop of sweat on the end of some humongous alien’s nose, I’ve spoken to Ethan Vishniac, who edits The Astrophysical Journal, and mentioned to him some of your thoughts on this, and he says he’d like to see a paper on it if you’ve got anything written up. If you could, he’d like you to expand on your idea that if the alien sneezed, our whole universe might be destroyed. Ethan also asked me if you’d considered an alternate possibility, though, which is that our universe is a speck of dust inside a drop of sweat on the nose of some other kind of thing that might also sneeze — say a vole or some kind of marsupial, such as a koala. He’d like you to catalogue all the possible sneezing entities that might fit in there and also to extract probabilities for each value of a sneeze, if you could. As for calculating the sneeze force on our universe, you might want to go with Hooke’s law or Young’s modulus, but it’s up to you.


         Dear Reed,

No, we have not yet found the planet Vulcan, where Spock was from, because Spock was a fictitious character originally developed for a TV show from the 1960s.

Or was he?


         Dear Tim,

Your theory that black holes are “just, like, giant single atoms” is intriguing. I’m going to look into this. I was thinking of finishing a paper I was writing on gravitational lensing, but then I said to myself, “Wait a minute, what’s this? Maybe this guy Tim is on to something! Maybe black holes are just, like, giant single atoms.” More soon.


         Dear Tyler,

Just finished your fascinating letter concerning the theory that dark matter is made up largely of the “externalized thoughts of all conscious beings once those beings have passed out of the realm of Rupadhatu.” I don’t know what the realm of Rupadhatu is, but I’m not at all sure that, for theoretical purposes, it’s crucial to your theory that Rupadhatu be rigorously defined. Anyway, fascinating stuff. My only concern when I first thought about the idea was that I couldn’t think of any way to test it. Then it finally hit me. What you should do, Tyler, is go into your bedroom closet and shut the door and sit in the dark for about two weeks. I don’t want you to eat or drink anything during that time. What I want you to do is think very hard about everything you wrote to me, and then I want you to come out of your bedroom closet and write me another letter apologizing for wasting my time with a three-page, single-spaced email about how cows and chickens have something to do with galactic rotation curves.


         Dear Toby,

All right, yes, sure, why not, if you were aboard a spaceship travelling at nearly the speed of light for a long time, when you returned to Earth, chimps might have developed human intelligence like they did in Planet of the Apes. Really, sure, what the hell. As for coming to speak to your junior college astronomy class on the subject of intelligent apes, I don’t think I’ll be able to because most of my time these days is spent hitting myself in the head with the counterweights of a twelve-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain until I’m unconscious.


         Dear Stan,

My four-month period answering questions from the public is almost done here at Caltech, and Dr. Elvers is scheduled to take over the job through December. But I have time for one more email before I head south for the Cerro Tololo Observatory high in the mountains of Chile, bringing a merciful end to answering the public’s questions.

I won’t address your conjectures about UFOs directly, Stan, but I wondered if you’d considered a variable you don’t seem to be taking into account in your email, which is that you might be a moron.

Ask yourself, ‘Have I ever left the nozzle to the gas pump in the gas tank of my car and pulled out of the station and ripped the nozzle out of the pump?’ Or, ‘Am I over the age of twenty-five and own and operate a skateboard with a motor?’ Or, ‘Do I believe President Kennedy was killed because he had ordered a full disclosure from the CIA to NASA regarding UFOs?’

As you can see, that last question is also the very question you posed in your email. Not to get too technical here, but if we wanted to derive a probabilistic correspondence between a particular person — let’s assign that person the variable, oh, I don’t know, S — asking that question about Kennedy and the likelihood that the person asking it is an idiot — let’s call this probability P – then with this particular question we’d have to go with 100 on a linear scale of 0 to 100. This will mean that the reciprocal of the probability — let’s call this Q — that any theory of S’s about UFOs will turn out to be correct is 100P, giving us, in this case, a value of 0 for Q. All that’s left to do now is to solve for S by plugging in your name — Stanley Flacante — and we can see that, because S’s Q value is 0, any theories Stanley Flacante might hold about President Kennedy’s assassination being somehow related to UFOs will also have a probability of 0.

Having thus concluded that you’re a goddamned idiot, we can also conclude, by the law of the excluded middle, that President Kennedy was not assassinated because he had ordered a full disclosure from the CIA to NASA regarding UFOs.

As they say in Latin, Stan, quod erat demonstrandum.

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