Archive for February, 2011

Our Next-door Neighbors

Are we alone in this universe?  Certainly not.

Are we alone in this galaxy?  Again, no, though the chances are a miniscule bit higher.

One question that seems to dominate the news about astronomical subjects over the past several years is that of, “Are we alone?”  That is, are we the only intelligent species in this galaxy or in the whole universe?  I was reminded of this when the Associated Press released last Saturday (2/19/2011) a short piece on the number of planets in our galaxy (we know it better as The Milky Way Galaxy), which stemmed from a recent talk given at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C.  The actual number of planets is an estimate based on, first, the average number of planets that have actually been found orbiting stars near Earth, and second, the total number of stars in the galaxy, itself an estimate.  Both these numbers are minimum values, that is, the real number is likely to be higher, but won’t be lower. 

The total number of stars in the galaxy has been estimated to be around 400 billion.   That’s a 4 followed by 11 zeros, and is itself a staggering number.  Many, if not a majority of those are red dwarf stars, stars that barely became a star with just sufficient hydrogen fuel to initiate the fusion reaction that really defines what a star is.  Many other stars are similar to our sun, a sort of middle-of-the-road star, not too big, not too small.  Some are huge red giants, old stars in the last years of their life, plummeting toward oblivion as a supernova. 

But circling around many of these stars, if not most (indeed, if not all) are planets.  How many planets orbiting around each star is hard to figure with the evidence astronomers have come up with, but the consensus estimate now seems to be that there are at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way.  That’s a 5 followed by 10 zeros.

But that’s not all.  The current estimate is that there are at least a hundred billion galaxies out there.  (A 1 followed by 11 zeros.)  So, if we put it all together and assume that other galaxies are similar to ours in stars and planets (and that may not be true), multiplying the number of stars in our galaxy by the number of galaxies, I come up with the number 5 followed by 21 zeros.  In somewhat less obtuse numerical terms, that’s five sextillion planets.  Can you comprehend that?  I can’t.

Okay, so what are the chances we’re alone in this universe?  With that many planets, somewhere, sometime, some place, in some galaxy, life had to develop.  Many times over, too.  The possibility that out of all those planets, no life at all developed is just too staggeringly low to be believable, and I’m limiting my concepts here to life similar to ours on this planet.   We can use the same argument, but limit it to our own galaxy.  With “only” 50 billion planets in our galaxy, life had to develop on one of them.  Again, the chances are just to small for it not too. 

We’re not alone, that much is certain, though we may be alone in this section of the galaxy.  There may not be any stars nearby that contain life, especially lifeforms capable of traveling between stars and visiting us here, but somewhere out there, intelligent life exists.  It’s just waiting for us. 

It probably doesn’t look anything like Mr. Spock, either.

Leave a comment

The Language of Science Fiction

What language is your novel written in?  English?  Mine too.

But I write science fiction, and that brings up a special point.  If a sci-fi novel is written in the near future here on Earth, with characters who live and work in a world that is virtually identical to the world in which we all exist, there’s no problem.  But suppose that your novel, like mine, is set in a vastly different time and place.  On a foreign planet, or in a foreign country.  What language do the characters speak?

Take Star Wars, for example.  The Cantina scene in the first Star Wars movie is a good instance.  (That movie is now called Star Wars IV, A New Hope.)  A hundred characters or more, some humanoid if not truly human (was Luke Skywalker human?), and many non-humanoid.  Yet most spoke English and had no trouble communicating with one another.  (I have no idea what kind of language Chewbacca spoke.)  In fact, most characters in the six Star Wars movies so far speak English, or a reasonable dialect thereof.

You may argue that the characters in these movies spoke English so we, as patrons of the cinema, could understand them.  It wouldn’t do to have them speaking in their native tongue.  That would make the movie practically unintelligible.  Of course, I agree, and I understand that the choice of English was forced on those who made the movie (actors and production personnel) as a default because it is the mother language of most, if not all, who wrote the script.  And that’s precisely my point.

My novels are written in English.  I don’t speak another language well enough to write in a different tongue (Spanish, German, etc.).  But my novels, like Star Wars, are set in a different time and place (though not a distant galaxy).  My characters are not Earthlings; they have their own language and, presumably, speak it among themselves.  Yet it is set down on paper in English.  This creates several problems.  First is the problem of simple translation.  In most cases, I assume that I, as the transcriber of all the dialogue, am simply translating their language into English for the benefit of the reader.  This works well most of the time, but I’ve come up against some questionable words and phrases that don’t go well into English, having to do mostly with objects and concepts that are found on their planet and not on Earth.  This usually requires some explanation and takes a little time.  This is not the biggest problem.

The second problem is the reverse, terms that are found in English but are not in the lexicon of my fictitious characters.  This has given me more trouble.  How, for example, do I explain the color “orange” or “peach” if their civilization has never had any such fruit?  Is it proper to assume that, though they may not have that kind of fruit, they would have a term that describes that color?  Is it appropriate under those circumstances to describe a yellowish color of a sunrise or sunset as “peach” because they understand the color if not the fruit?  I certainly hope so, because that’s the concept I’m using.

A third problem of translating from a fictitious language has to do with the inflections and nuances of their language.  These are hard to do in writing in any language because inflection, nuance, and dialect are auditory, not visual to begin with, and difficult to represent in writing.  Translating from a fictitious language just makes the problem worse, because, on Earth, though we’re familiar with different phrasing and pronunciations (as, for example, a Spanish “accent,” or southern “accent”), we’re not familiar with the subtle accents and refinements of the language of the characters from my fictitious world.  Do you know of any regional or local slang on Chewbacca’s world?

I’m wondering if others have come up against the same problem.  Comments?

Leave a comment