That’s one less car for a man, one long drive for mankind

You know who I like? I like Elon Musk.

Yeah, I know, he’s a car guy who dislikes public transportation. But it’s possible to disagree with and admire someone at the same time. And last week, he did about the coolest thing it’s possible to do with a car: fling it into space.

Musk’s own Tesla roadster, built by his car company, served as the payload for a test of the Falcon Heavy rocket, built by his other company, SpaceX, which hopes to land humans on Mars within the next 20 years. The car will travel in an elliptical orbit that will periodically cross the orbits of Earth and Mars. Buckled into the driver’s seat is a space-suited mannequin named Starman.

If nothing else, it means there’s one less car clogging up traffic on Earth.

The car could remain in space for millions of years. It’s already made the NASA catalogue of near-Earth objects. On the scale of cool, this doesn’t quite rise to the level of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” on the Voyager record, but it’s close.

Test rockets typically carry payloads like concrete or scrap metal, but I admire Musk’s sense of humor and instinct for self-promotion. And beyond the whimsy, the car will serve a real purpose. Perhaps, in the far-off future, commerce between Earth and Mars will be carried out using vessels in similar orbits.

Critics, as always, were quick to pounce. Writing in the U.S. edition of The Guardian, Nathan Robinson called the launch and its attendant publicity “utterly depressing.”

Robinson reaches for all the tropes we’ve heard since the Apollo program. How, he asks, can we justify expensive esoterica like launching a car into space when people all over the world are dying from war, preventable disease, and poverty? Although Musk is using primarily his own money to finance his forays into space, Robinson argues that his wealth is the result of intolerable “social inequalities.” He hauls out a poem titled “Whitey on the Moon,” written in 1970 by Gil-Scott Heron, just to throw race into the mix.

I am as concerned about social injustice as any liberal, but I am not buying this tired argument. What I find particularly loathsome is that it always seems to be singularly directed at space exploration. No one says that we shouldn’t build that new art museum or baseball stadium or interstate highway until we’ve solved the problems of poverty and human suffering. Why should space science have to continually defend itself against these kinds of objections?

When NASA launched the Cassini mission to Saturn in 1997, protesters gathered at the launch site, demanding that it be scrubbed. The reason? Cassini carried a small amount of plutonium, which would power it in the outer solar system. To get to Saturn, the spacecraft would use a “gravity assist” flyby of Earth two years after launch, passing within 720 miles of the surface. Critics worried that a mishap could potentially spill the plutonium into the upper atmosphere. But there was no mishap, and Cassini produced discoveries that vastly increased our knowledge of Saturn and its moons. I think it was worth the risk.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, thousands of their countrymen were dying in our tragic and unnecessary intervention in Vietnam. Yet on that night, billions of people watched the electronic images of human beings walking on another world. The United States was, for that moment and in spite of its faults, an inspiration for the human race. It was possible to be against the war and in favor of going to the moon. Conscience practically demanded it.

If Musk’s car helps to pave the way for human colonization of Mars, even if only as an expensive publicity stunt, it will pay for itself may times over. It will also address, albeit indirectly, many of the problems that seem so vexing today. Space helps us see the world whole, and to realize, in Carl Sagan’s words, that for now, Earth is where we make our stand. Treat each other more kindly, and take care of the planet.

But Musk is also right that our long-term future is as a multi-planet species. And to demonstrate that it can be done, he’s launched his own car into an eternal commute between the orbits of Earth and Mars. That he undertakes the serious business of space with aplomb and élan is all the more reason to cheer him on.

Don’t be like Carl Sagan

Don’t be like Dean Martin, or Carl Sagan, or Benazir Bhutto. Don’t die in the last weeks of the year. You will have already missed the deadline for the Year In Review retrospectives, and you won’t be in them next year, either. History forgets you in a hurry without publicity.

Sagan was just 62 when he died in 1996, four years younger than Tom Petty, whose recent passing seems so premature. I am a member of the Planetary Society, which Sagan co-founded in 1980 (with Bruce Morgan and Louis Friedman) to advocate for space exploration and space science. Sagan was among the first scientists to warn us about the dangers of carbon emissions from motor vehicles and industry, pointing to Venus, where surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, as an example of a “runaway greenhouse effect.”

Stephen Jay Gould was only sixty when he checked out, leaving behind a lifetime of paleontological research, provocative theories, and a trove of extraordinary essays for general audiences. To my everlasting regret, I did not discover the bulk of his writing until after his death in 2002. I could have been one of the thousands of his readers who sent him letters on the astonishing varieties of topics he addressed. These letters, Gould wrote in the introduction to Bully For Brontosaurus, his last published essay collection, gave him faith in the intellectual curiosity of the ordinary citizen.

Like Sagan, Gould had the facility to convey complex concepts in ordinary English. Also like Sagan, he delighted in making connections between seemingly disparate topics. Sagan’s interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life took him deep into anthropology and geopolitics. Gould turned Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak into a meditation on “statistics and mythology,” and the human tendency to impart meaning to random patterns, much as we conjure constellations from the stars in the night sky.

Gould was fond of skewering popular perceptions, especially those with which he had some sympathy. For example, he took the environmental movement to task for the exaggeration that Earth is a fragile planet, threatened by human activity. It is our civilization, he wrote, not the Earth itself, that we endanger:

“We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal organisms on Earth right from the start, and probably will be until the sun explodes); I doubt we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our fragile selves – and our well-buffered Earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so often at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural patterns to the severe detriment of millions.

“Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism – because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly.”*

I’ve always hated the movie Waterworld, because it’s preposterous: if all the ice on Earth melted, sea level would rise by about 250 feet. When Kevin Costner dives on submerged Los Angeles, he would see the San Gabriel Mountains and the foothills from the deck of his ship.

The world’s population of motor vehicles now numbers approximately 1.2 billion. The United States is by far the worst offender, with five vehicles for every six people. If the Chinese owned cars in the same proportion as we do, they would need a billion vehicles just for themselves.

The average weight of a car or light truck is 4,079 pounds. A gas-powered vehicle spews its weight in carbon compounds into the atmosphere each year. That means that our automotive infrastructure is annually pumping 4,894,800,000,000 (4.9 trillion) pounds of greenhouse gases into the clear blue sky. (And that’s not even counting the impact of the trucking industry, the byproducts of road construction, and vehicle manufacturing and disposal.) While these gases won’t turn our planet into Venus, they will continue to contribute to rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, disruption of food supplies, and other life-threatening challenges.

This January marks eleven years since I last owned a car. I am under no delusion that I’m changing the world. But the world is changing, nonetheless.


* from Bully For Brontosaurus, copyright 1991 by Stephen Jay Gould.

I hear that train a-coming…

Amtrak will soon begin test runs to determine the feasibility of seasonal passenger train service to Rockland on the Downeaster, which now has its northern terminus in Brunswick. This is good news for anyone who has ever driven coastal Route 1 in the summer. It’s good news for all of us, really: a small sign that the Late Automobile Age is beginning to morph, however slowly, into something else.

No small city in Maine stands to benefit more from alternatives to the automobile than Rockland. It’s equidistant from almost everywhere. You can get there by car, bus, boat, plane, and until recently, train. If you don’t drive there, you can enjoy the city on foot without having to find a parking place.

The naysayers, predictably, will claim that it costs too much, that train service to Rockland is nothing more than a romantic pipe dream, subsidized by all for the enjoyment of a few. But trains, once established, have proven popular in many parts of the country. Of course trains are subsidized. So is every other form of transportation – cars, trucks, and highways most of all. I wish I didn’t have to keep pointing this out.

Most people drive because the market is rigged in favor of cars and drivers. There is money for parking lots but not train stations, road construction but not additional bus routes. Those of us who seek alternatives to owning a car face a phalanx of obstacles, not the least of which is the misguided view that public transportation is charity, or worse, welfare.

I’ve never seen this as a partisan issue, by the way. I know conservatives who love trains and liberals who love cars. Writers like trains, because you can write on them. The scenery changes every minute, and you can look at it instead of at the car in front of you. It’s a contemplative way to travel. Musicians tend to favor cars, with stereo systems and space for bulky instruments. And how else are you going to get to that Friday night gig in East Podunkville?

But those of us who want to ride a train to Rockland (or Bangor, or Bar Harbor, in the not-too-distant future) aren’t calling for the elimination of cars (except, perhaps, in parts of Acadia National Park, but that’s another argument for another time). Opponents of alternative transportation would force us all into cars. Studies in disparate places around the U.S. and the world have shown that a mixed-use transportation system, rather than a monolithic car-centric approach, is the most functional and cost-effective.

And what’s not to love about a train? Where would country music or American cinema be without trains? They’re woven into our national DNA.

Still, some people will find reasons to oppose just about anything. There were Americans who opposed the moon landing, the greatest thing this country has ever done, because they deemed it too expensive. How could we go to the moon when kids were starving and our cities were in flames and young men were dying in Vietnam? All those concerns were valid, and yet today I’m proud to be part of a civilization that landed on the moon. My parents were proud that their taxes helped pay for it. (If you’re gullible enough to believe the conspiracy theory that all the lunar missions were faked, don’t even talk to me.)

Expanding passenger rail service in Maine, while not on the scale of reaching for the moon, is nonetheless a worthy and doable investment. I don’t expect it to happen all at once, or everywhere I want it to, but Rockland, in both the short and long term, is realistic. I’ll ride that train, and so will a lot of other people. If they build it, we will come.

This Thanksgiving, what am I thankful for?

I’m thankful that I live in Maine, for one thing. I really don’t want to live anywhere else, though you might hear me grumble in the winter. But Maine is beautiful and livable and accessible. The Penobscot River watershed is connected to Penobscot Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the world.

I’m thankful that I’ve been able to carve out a decent life here over the past eleven years without owning an automobile. It’s done wonders for my health, my finances, and my attitude toward Maine winters.

I’m thankful for my lovely girlfriend Lisa, who reads this blog before I unleash it on the world, corrects my phrasing and trims my excesses, and often lends me her car.

I’m thankful to Arlo Guthrie for writing and performing “Alice’s Restaurant.”

I’m thankful for my large family and circle of friends. I’m especially thankful to my mom and stepdad for hosting Thanksgiving dinner annually at their beautiful home in Naskeag – to which we will drive.

I’m thankful to everyone who reads this blog, or shares it on social media, or posts comments and links. I’ve always seen this blog as a pebble tossed into the pond of a conversation we need to have about the larger American car culture. I’m thankful to be a small part of it.

I’m thankful that I no longer watch football.

I’m thankful to the turkeys who gave their lives for our tables, and to the people who did the dirty work of getting them there. I’m not sure I could kill and pluck a turkey, though I have no compunction about fishing to eat, or dunking a lobster’s head into a pot of boiling water. But I’m thankful to live in an industrialized world that spares me the choice of being a butcher or a vegetarian.

And I’m thankful to live in a society that still – for the moment – tolerates small hypocrisies. It’s the easiest thing in the world to accuse somebody of hypocrisy. We’re all hypocrites to some degree. I’m going to drive a car a hundred miles on Thanksgiving, and maybe a rambling song about an adventure with a VW microbus will come on the radio, and I’m going to buy gas and feed the worldwide fossil fuel industry. I’m going to be just like every American car owner – but only for a day.

I’m thankful that the Black Friday phenomenon seems to be losing some steam. I can’t think of much I’d less like to do than drive to a shopping mall and stand in line at oh-dark-thirty the morning after Thanksgiving.

I’m thankful for the University of Maine, where I work, and its ongoing contribution to public transportation in the greater Bangor area. I’m thankful for the Community Connector bus, which gets me to work, and for the voices on the new Bangor City Council advocating for longer bus hours.

I’m thankful that Bob Dylan and William Shatner are still with us.

I’m thankful that I live in interesting times, in a dynamic civilization that put people on the moon and may yet put them on Mars, all in one person’s lifetime. We are the first few generations of humans to escape the bonds of Earth and see it whole. From that vantage point, a global environmental awareness cannot help but emerge. I’m thankful that it’s already started to happen.

We could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve our quality of life in the process, if we would stop building, buying, and driving so many cars. That’s my pebble into the pond. I’ve managed to reduce the American car fleet by one. But I am thankful that there are other people out there, throwing pebbles, too.

A Tale of Two Trips

August was this year’s month for out-of-state travel. First came a solo work trip to Danbury, Connecticut, then, two weeks later, a journey to Missouri with the lovely Lisa to see the total eclipse of the sun.

I decided to do Danbury by bus, because I didn’t want to be one of those armchair liberals who advocates for public transportation while tooling around in a Subaru. I plotted out a trip that would put me on a bus from Bangor at 7 a.m., connecting at Boston’s South Station, with a transfer in Hartford that would get me to Danbury by five that evening.

Little did I know that bridge construction in Boston had sent a ripple effect through bus schedules all over southern New England. My first inkling of trouble came when I looked up from my laptop an hour and fifteen minutes out of South Station to see that we were just passing Fenway Park.

I missed my connection in Hartford. A second bus failed to materialize. I finally got into Danbury around eleven o’clock, sixteen hours after setting out from Bangor. It’s an eight-hour drive.

On the way home, another bus was canceled. I made it, but not without spending a lot of time in bus stations – which is why it’s always advisable to bring a laptop and a good book.

Eclipses happen when they happen. Humans are powerless to postpone them. I’m sorry to disappoint the purists, but we flew to Kansas City and rented a car. We wanted mobility in case clouds moved in – though it’s hard to imagine chasing a shadow moving over the land at 1,400 miles per hour.

Missouri drivers only seem to drive that fast. On Interstate 70, where the speed limit matches the route number, people blew past at 80 or 90. All along the route we saw temporary signs cautioning drivers about the upcoming eclipse. As if anyone could possibly be in the dark about it at this late date.

Kansas City has a ring of hotels surrounding the airport, and a convenient, free shuttle system. We stayed there on the first and last night of our trip, but we saw the eclipse from Jefferson City, the state capital. The path of totality just grazed Kansas City and St. Louis, but Jefferson City enjoyed two and a half minutes of darkness.

Though it’s surrounded by asphalt, the center of Jefferson City is pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with tree-lined streets and parks with views of the Missouri River. There’s a local bus system called JeffTrans. My only complaint concerns the hotel I booked on-line, which advertised itself as “_____ at the Capitol Mall.” Well, the hotel wasn’t “at” anything. It was five miles out of town, and the only thing within walking distance was another hotel, which likewise did not have a bar. To get anywhere, you had to get in a car – and this is, sadly, typical of many places in America, including Danbury, Connecticut.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked Jefferson City, and I was impressed by the welcome we and other visitors received. A Pink Floyd tribute band named Interstellar Overdrive performed “Dark Side of the Moon” in front of the capitol the night before the event. NASA set up shop across the street. Parking fees were waived in the downtown all day (I know, this encourages driving, but eclipses are nothing if not exceptional). The people were unfailingly friendly.

On the night before we returned to Maine, we took in a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Kauffman Stadium is a beautiful ballpark to which television does not do justice. But it’s miles from the city center, at the intersection of two Interstates, and, again, everybody has to drive. Parking is fifteen bucks. Though there’s probably a bus that can take you there, I saw no evidence of it.

The Royals’ starting pitcher, a lefty named Danny Duffy, held the Colorado Rockies hitless through the first five innings. What are the chances, I wondered, of seeing a total eclipse of the sun on one day and a no-hitter on the next? A walk and a two-run homer with two out in the sixth ended that line of wishful thinking. The Royals held on to win, 3-2, and we held on to survive the drive back to the hotel and the plane trip home.

Renting the car enabled us to travel freely within the American Car Culture. But I was glad to leave it behind when the trip was over.

The August Eclipse: Accident or Divine Coincidence?


A total eclipse of the Sun almost makes me believe in God.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be in Missouri on August 21 to see my fifth one of these things, but my first since 1979. A total solar eclipse is, hands down, the most extraordinary natural event I’ve ever witnessed. For a few minutes, you can see where you are in space: on a ball of rock circling a ball of fire, with a smaller ball of rock passing between. That’s you, standing in the shadow it casts.

The shadow is only about 70 miles wide, which explains why solar eclipses, while they occur at least every two years, rarely touch the same spot twice in an average human lifetime. You usually have to make an effort to see one.

We Earthlings are fortunate to see them at all. We live on the only planet in the Solar System – and possibly the galaxy – that puts on this kind of show.

During the few minutes of totality, the disk of the Sun is hidden behind the Moon, but you can see the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, shimmering around it. At this time it is perfectly safe to look at. The danger to your eyes in an eclipse occurs in the moments before and after totality, when you are looking at a sliver of direct sunlight that doesn’t hurt your eyes but can damage them.

Other planets have moons, but they are either too large or too small or too close or too distant to cover the sun exactly. From the surface of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun are the same apparent size. There is no requirement of physics to explain this.

But the distances between Earth and Moon are not constant, because orbiting bodies move in ellipses, not circles. When a solar eclipse occurs near the Moon’s apogee (farthest distance from Earth) and/or Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), the disk of the Moon is not big enough to cover the Sun, resulting in an annular, or ring eclipse, similar to a partial eclipse in that it doesn’t get dark.

Furthermore, the Moon is moving slowly away from Earth. The pace is beyond glacial, but in a few million years, there will be no more total solar eclipses. The concurrence of humanity’s emergence and perfect eclipses troubles some scientists. In his excellent 2011 book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley), John Gribben explains:

“Just now, the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon, so that they look the same size on the sky. At the present moment of cosmic time, during an eclipse, the disc of the Moon almost exactly covers the disk of the Sun. In the past, the Moon would have looked much bigger, and would have completely obscured the Sun during eclipses; in the future, the Moon will look much smaller from Earth and a ring of sunlight will be visible even during an eclipse. Nobody has been able to think of a reason why intelligent beings capable of noticing this oddity should have evolved on Earth just at the time that the coincidence was there to be noticed. It worries me, but most people seem to accept it as just one of those things.”

It doesn’t worry Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University. In a 2012 blog for Scientific American titled The Solar Eclipse Coincidence, he wrote:

“Is there some great significance to the fact that we humans just happen to exist at a time when the Moon and Sun appear almost identically large in our skies? Nope, we’re just landing in a window of opportunity that’s probably about 100 million years wide, nothing obviously special, just rather good luck.”

Do coincidences happen? Probability dictates that they must. California’s Bay Area experienced its biggest earthquake since 1906 in the middle of the only World Series ever played between San Francisco and Oakland, but that doesn’t mean the ballgame caused the quake.

Perhaps we’re here because of an extraordinary run of good luck, akin to flipping a hundred heads in a row, something that might happen only once in the lifetime of the Universe. Our spectacular solar eclipses might be the result of similar luck.

Or just maybe, some ancient intelligence we don’t yet understand placed the Earth, Moon and Sun just so, to nudge a curious species toward contemplating the Cosmos. As though we were meant to reach for the stars, from the start.

Who knows? I certainly don’t.



Cars on Mars: Where a little Global Warming is a Good Thing

The dance of the moon, Venus, and Mars in the western sky after sunset last week had me taking the long view – and not just across the ecliptic plane. For three nights in a row I watched the crescent moon, fat with earthshine, climb past brilliant Venus and fainter, more distant Mars. In my lifetime, human beings and human machines have been to all three places. Little robotic rovers are rambling around on Mars right now.

I wonder now if I’ll live long enough to witness the next giant leap for mankind: a human landing on Mars. It’s a massive undertaking, and it would have to be an international effort. But perhaps it could also be a unifying one.

Mars is an order of magnitude farther away than the moon, and that much harder to get to. It’s also cold, airless, and exposed to harmful radiation from space. But these obstacles could all be overcome in time. The important thing is getting there.

The Earth is now home to more than seven billion people. Collectively, they own and operate some 1.2 billion motor vehicles. Sixty million new cars are built each year, with metals pulled from the planet’s crust and rubber wrenched from its rainforests. Most of them run on fossil fuels, which are probably, at least in the solar system, unique to Earth. There won’t be any fossil fuels on Mars, because there probably weren’t any plants, let alone plant-eating dinosaurs.

The machines we’ve sent to Mars and the other planets come from the same place all those cars do. They are made of Earth-stuff. To go into space, humanity had to first invent heavy industry. Two centuries of heavy industry have begun to change the planetary climate in ways that we are just beginning to see.

But the inner solar system is abundant with materials. And, because of our ability to extract stuff from the earth and turn it into spaceships, we can now get there. Mars is closer to the main body of the asteroid belt, and asteroids are rich in metals. Even the surface of the moon contains usable stuff. The sun provides the energy, which small nuclear reactors could augment. In the future, much of the building material for space missions will come from space itself.

On Mars, if we don’t find any indigenous life, a little man-made global warming might be a good thing. Mars does have an atmosphere, though it’s tenuous and mostly made up of carbon dioxide. But if we could somehow make more air, a small greenhouse effect would take hold and the planet would begin to warm. Subsurface ice would thaw. Lichens and other hardy plants could be introduced alongside industrial sites. Eventually, through a process called terraforming, the air could become breathable – in a thousand or so years.

But what if the process could be sped up by the introduction of cars? From what I’ve seen, a lot of Mars looks like New Mexico, minus the cactus. New Mexico isn’t at all unpleasant to drive through, though it is kind of eerie in its emptiness.

Those places are disappearing on Earth. Seven billion people in more than a billion vehicles can get just about anywhere. But Mars remains largely unexplored. Most of what we know about the place comes from a few friends with wheels: Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity.

The car has beaten humankind to Mars. Perhaps the rovers should bear plaques that read: “We came in peace for vehicles everywhere.”

The last man to drive on a world other than Earth, Eugene Cernan, died in January at the age of 82. He and geologist Harrison Schmidt explored their lunar landing site in a rover that looked like a dune buggy. Cernan had piloted the lunar module to within ten miles of the surface in the dress rehearsal Apollo 10 mission, and returned as commander of Apollo 17. When he stepped into the lunar module for the final time on December 19, 1972, it marked the end of an era. Human beings have not been back to the moon since.

But we sure have manufactured a lot of cars. Imagine if we diverted a quarter of that mass and energy to space. We could build space stations and mining ships. We could ensure our long-term future by inhabiting multiple worlds. We could have walkable cities here on Earth, and introduce industry and motor vehicles to Mars, releasing greenhouse gases on a planet where climate change would be welcome.

Will We Build Metric Highways on Mars?


On Interstate 19 in Arizona, which connects the city of Tucson with the Mexican border at Nogales, the signs are in kilometers. According to CNN, America’s only metric highway is a remnant of the Jimmy Carter era, when the idea of adopting the metric system in the United States was briefly taken seriously.

Every country in the world – almost – uses the metric system. And everyone knows why: the math is easier. All you have to do to convert between units is move the decimal point. It’s the world’s official system of measurement. Our American inch is defined in statute as precisely 2.54 centimeters.

The metric system is the one part of the French Revolution to sweep the world. Today, the only remaining non-metric countries are Liberia (founded by American slaves who returned to Africa), Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and the United States.

My late friend Dave Alvernaz once suggested to me that the metric system hadn’t caught on here because it lacked the conceptual equivalent of a foot. Your foot is always there at the end of your leg, he pointed out, available to stick into a box or pace off a room. Three of them make a yard, and most of us are between five and seven feet tall. It’s a utilitarian measurement, based on the human body.

The metric system is based on the size of the Earth. The original definition of a meter was one ten-millionth (10-7) the distance along a meridian from the equator to the pole. Because not even this distance is constant (Earth bulges in different places), the official definition of a meter has since been tied to the speed of light. This is important to scientists and engineers seeking exact measurements of small distances on the atomic scale and large distances between the planets and stars.

All space missions have used the metric system since the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in November 1999. Designed to orbit Mars and monitor its weather, the ship burned up in the Martian atmosphere. According to Wired magazine: “A NASA review board found that the problem was in the software controlling the orbiter’s thrusters. The software calculated the force the thrusters needed to exert in pounds of force. A separate piece of software took in the data assuming it was in the metric unit: newtons.”

The new National Geographic Network Series Mars, set in the near future, uses entirely metric units. When the crew landed 75 kilometers from base camp, I had to calculate: “Okay, so a little less than fifty miles…”

Based on a decimal fraction of the size of the Earth, the metric system makes no more intrinsic sense on Mars than miles and feet. But it’s the easiest system to use, and it’s already the one in use by a majority of humankind. Perhaps if we had listened to Jimmy Carter 40 years ago, the Mars Climate Orbiter would not have crashed, and I would know my height in centimeters.

Like most Americans, I think in inches, feet and miles. Using the metric system is like learning a new language, something else Americans are notoriously reluctant to do.

The car culture, too, has its own language and patterns of thought, which make it difficult to change. We think of longer distances not in terms of miles but driving times: Bangor is two hours from Portland and four from Boston. It’s assumed that we are not talking about airplanes or bicycles. Car travel is part of our unspoken collective consciousness.

When I stopped using a car as my primary form of transportation, I found that I thought about the pattern of the day differently. How long did it take to walk to the bus stop? What did I need to take with me? How was the weather? When did the last bus leave downtown? What time did the sun set?

I recently saw the film Arrival. It was ostensibly about aliens but it was really about language. With a nod to Kurt Vonnegut, the film postulates that if humans can learn the aliens’ language deeply enough to think in it, they can see the Universe from a different perspective. Language drives perception, as much as vice versa.

I thought about that in the days after watching the film. And I thought that if we could begin to talk about cars and time and distance differently, without all the popular assumptions, we could perhaps begin to conceive of another way to live.