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January 16, 2005
More on Titan
As a chemist, I can't help but be fascinated by the photos from Titan. Shorelines, watersheds - uh, make that "ethanesheds"? - pebbles (made of ice) that seem clearly to have been eroded by flow or tumbling. . .it's great stuff. The line I heard about Titan being a huge Urey-Miller experiment that's been running for a billion years seems about right, and that means that there could be all kinds of odd stuff piled up on the surface. Chemistry isn't fast at 180 Kelvin, but a billion years is a mighty long time. I just hope that the rest of the data (the mass spectrometry and so on) comes out soon.
One of the things that's struck me is the additive effect of small details of chemistry and physics. Think about it - if you were given the Earth's atmospheric composition, temperature, axial tilt and other variables, you could deduce a lot. You'd predict oceans and seasons, clouds and rain, and much else besides if you thought about it long enough. But could you predict the fantastic variability of the colors in sunsets and sunrises? The billowing shapes of cumulus clouds piling up into a thunderhead? The hundreds of patterns of frost, or how ice looks forming around the sides of a fast-running stream?
Titan must show the same kind of thing, up close. What do the waves look like in those lakes and swamps, with all our variables changed: lower gravity, higher pressure, lower temperature and with hydrocarbon liquids? What's that fog look like when it rolls in past the cliffs, and what shapes have those cliffs been carved into? Does the acetylene seep into the icy ground, hit thick deposits of ancient alkanes and carve out caves like nothing we've ever seen?
Know what I want? I want some sort of insulated, radioisotope-powered version of the Mars rovers running around down there. The sad part is that it's unlikely that such a thing will happen in my lifetime. Man, do we ever need a cheaper way off this planet. (Try Rand Simberg and his extensive links listing for others who agree with that sentiment.)
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