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Because Nobody Else Brings Big Concepts Down To Scale As Well

I don’t know if you noticed, but today humans from the planet Earth (specifically, the European Space Agency) landed a probe the size of a refrigerator on a comet, ten years and literal billions of kilometers after it was launched. In terms of sheer audaciousness, this may out-do landing a semi-autonomous rover the size of an SUV on Mars via rocket-powered sky-crane, in that it’s much harder to miss Mars than a lump of rock the size of Midtown Manhattan in the inky void of space.

Not that hitting Mars is easy, mind you, but at least we’ve done that before. Seriously, look at the course the Rosetta probe took over a decade — somebody had to do the math to figure that path out. Somebody had to figure out how to pack the Philae lander into Rosetta, and program in all the details for landing ahead of time, because human assistance isn’t possible — comet 67P is so far away, radio signals take 28 minutes to travel the distance.

Naturally, this is the sort of thing that calls out for technical explanations and details, and no matter how fancy the graphics and explanations, such approaches only make the technological achievement more distant. It’s so improbable, so detailed, so complicated that you can’t wrap your mind around it. That’s where we lose the sense of pride, mentally file it away as very complex and of little direct bearing on my life and end up forgetting how very, very impressive this is. It needs to be just a little smaller, a little more intimate.

So I guess it’s a good thing that we have Randall Munroe, whose update today has (as of this writing) featured 136 frames, updated whenever something significant has happened. Rosetta and Philae aren’t just blocks of circuits and rockets, they’re worried and brave and wheee! and those of us back on Earth are nervous and anxious and AAAAAAAAA. Oh, and there are whales, because if there are harpoons there have to be whales.

Thanks to Munroe for giving Rosetta and Philae their voices, for making the entire thing a little more personal and comprehensible. It’s a proud day for us all: ESA, probe, lander, whales, and everybody back on Earth.

Spam of the day:

The first was a request to comment on Susskind’s alleged suggestion that we could be at the end of physics in that we are at the “end of the reductionist paradigm”.

We threw a fridge at a comet from ten years away; physics are not ended. It works, bitches.

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