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Jul. 3 2009 - 4:32 pm | 88 views | 1 recommendation | 1,435 comments

If Proust was a neuroscientist, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an astrophysicist

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

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It’s trendy nowadays (and fun) to mine the works of writers and artists and point out cases where their intuitions (or guesses) about natural phenomenon were later corroborated by science. The astronomers of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels predicted not only the existence but the rotational speed of both moons of Mars, and did so a good hundred years before either was discovered with telescopes. And of course we all know Proust was a Neuroscientist.

Now comes Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His poem “Kubla Khan” relates the destruction of a paradisiacal, other-worldly land, Xanadu, by an earthquake. The earthquake also caused a “mighty fountain [to] burst” into the air near Kubla’s palace. The geyser wiped out his home and drown Kubla, eventually freezing over and sealing him below. Coleridge declared it “a miracle of rare device. / A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!” The poem ends with an image of Kubla — “his flashing eyes, his floating hair!” — suspended inside his icy cave for eternity.

Compare this to what astronomers are saying about the Saturnian moon Enceladus. Enceladus is coated in thick sheets of ice that sprays spumes of … well, something into the dead space above it. Scientists suspected (and hoped) the spumes were geysers from an underground ocean blowing up through the surface, since geysers meant liquid water, and liquid water meant a faint possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Last week, though, two teams of astronomers, one using a space-based probe and one a ground-based telescope, came to contradictory conclusions about the geysers in Nature, frustrating efforts to figure out what’s going on. (Their differences seem characteristic of new scientific fields such as astrobiology, which is a hot topic but struggles along with precious little data so far.) One team found good evidence of sodium salt in a subterranean liquid ocean, while the other found no sodium in the geysers, and seemed to question whether the spumes were geysers at all. Unless one (or both) teams are wrong, some novel geological process, one never observed in our galaxy before, is stripping out the sodium before the water sprays up.  What this process would do the surface of Enceladus, and what the moon would look like as a result, no one has any idea.

Except perhaps Coleridge. An essay in Nature accompanying the two articles said scientists need to rethink what Enceladus might be like, and his ideas have eerie echoes in “Kubla Khan”: “Our picture of [Enceladus's] subsurface must now be expanded to include the possibility of misty ice caverns floored with pools and channels of salty water, lurking beneath the tiger stripes [on the surface]. What else may lurk in those salty pools, if they exist, remains to be seen.”

Finding life is a longshot on Enceladus, much less a complex life form suspended in briny pools like poor Kubla. But if someday we found out that Enceladus is creeping with life, Coleridge should get a small slice of credit.


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    I’m a writer living in Washington, D.C. My background is in science and science history, and what really fascinates me isn’t gee-whiz discoveries but what those discoveries say about the messiness, futility, or brilliance of the human condition. Hence, a blog about science, religion, culture, and where they intersect. I define “science” and “religion” pretty broadly, and I’m hoping to move beyond some of tired religion-science stories that get attention in the media.

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    Working on a book, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Forthcoming next summer from Little, Brown.