Weird Tales: Norman Spinrad on What’s Really Out There

Ann VanderMeer • December 17th, 2007 @ 8:48 am • Culture

Writer: Norman Spinrad
Weird Tales Story: Right You Are If You Say You Are (Issue # 350, May/June)
Writer Bio: Norman Spinrad is the author of more than 20 novels and 60 or so short stories, feature film scripts, TV scripts, songs, and much assorted other stuff. He is a former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and World SF. He is currently working on co-producing a film of his novella Vampire Junkies and writing a novel called Welcome To Your Dreamtime.


It’s seems odd, to say the least, that while the best that NASA can do in the way of a new space ship is the pitifully retro Orion project, basically the Apollo capsule on steroids, and the teaching of so-called “intelligent design” is actually gaining ground in certain quarters, existing astronomical instruments have been overturning our previous understanding of cosmic realities, at least in this little galaxy, and not even science fiction writers, let alone the general public, having been paying much attention to the important news from outer space, let alone its philosophical and religious implications.

In the past decade or so, over two hundred extra-solar planets have been detected and much of our previous assumptions about the orbital mechanics and possibilities of solar systems in general, based as they were on the solar system we find ourselves, have been quite overthrown.

Present instruments are incapable of detecting extra-solar planets much smaller than Uranus, and detecting, not seeing ,is the correct term, because they’re not being imaged but indirectly revealed by their minor effects on the light and movement of their stars. And with present instrumentation, all that can really be discerned is their diameters and masses, and, by extension, their densities.

Even with those limitations, what has been discovered thusfar is amazing and revolutionary enough. If you know an extrasolar planet’s density, you can tell whether it’s a gas giant, and everything that’s been detected thusfar is a gas giant, presumably because what rocky planets there may be are not massive enough to bed detected by currently available methods. But what gas giants! And in what orbits! And around what sorts of stars!

Our particular solar system is several billion years old, with four rocky planets innermost, and the less dense gas giants further out, and everything neatly arranged in fairly circular orbits more or less on an ecliptic plane, as if arranged by a cosmic centrifuge, and it was generally assumed that that in effect was what happened as it and the sun condensed out of a rotating cloud. And that, given the physics of the situation, it was generally assumed that the said physics would produce similar solar systems everywhere.


Very, very wrong.

There are gas giants out there in wildly eccentric orbits. There are gas giants orbiting neutron stars, previously thought quite impossible, gas giants orbiting stars previously assumed to be too young to have evolved solar systems around them. Gas giants in orbits closer to their suns than Mercury is to ours, where simple physics would seem to say they should quickly evaporate.

What’s going on? Astrophysicists are struggling to put together theories that explain the observed data, but none of them sound terribly convincing, at least to me. What we’re looking at is chaotic young solar systems before they settle down, these weird orbits are indeed unstable, and these configurations won’t last, shades of Velikovski’s cosmic pool table. But not all these solar systems are the same age. And the fact of the matter is that what we are actually detecting is “things” of known diameters, known masses, and therefore known densities, in known orbits around their stars, and not much more.

Do they have to be planets? Maybe not. Or at least maybe not all of them. Now, I am not at all saying that this is necessarily true, but a large mass with a density less than water doesn’t have to be a gas giant. It could be…an artifact.
A huge hollow habitat. And it would make sense to put such a habitat in an orbit close to a star in order to capture the maximum amount of solar energy. And, not being a ball of gas, it wouldn’t readily evaporate.

Now I emphasize that I’m not saying this is true. Or not true. But it does seem to explain the data as well as anything else.
But two things we now do know.

Most of the solar systems we’ve discovered, or at least the “gas giant” components thereof which is all we can presently detect are rather chaotic and seemingly unstable. Planets in wildly eccentric orbits and not in a generally flat ecliptic plane. Planets in what seem like unstable orbits. Gas giants in heat zones close to stars where it would seem they can’t survive for long.

But our solar system is not like this. Dense planets inward, less dense gas giants outward, more or less circular orbits in a more or less ecliptic plane. Orderly. Exceptionally orderly. An orderly exception. That much is known. That much is fact.
As if it’s an…artifact itself.

That much is science fiction.

Or is it?

That’s speculation.

Isn’t it?
But give what we now know about the varieties of solar systems in general from over two hundred examples you sure could make a case that this one has been crafted. That it is a work of, uh, intelligent design.

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