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Diamond rain, and other incredible things

| Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When I was a kid, I made a spaceship out of a giant cardboard box. It had a steering wheel like a car, and buttons to activate shields and lasers in the case of unfriendly aliens. There was no landing gear — landing would mean getting out of the spaceship, which was not the point of making it. It did have a lot of windows, each looking at a variety of stars and planets drawn in marker, and the windows all had windshield wipers.

To six-year-old me, this all made perfect sense. I don’t know that anyone ever asked about the windshield wipers, but if they did my response was probably something like, “They’re there in case it rains. Duh.”

If space-rain was something I could easily imagine at age six, at twenty one I have a harder time. My mind immediately jumps to the physical impracticalities — rain is an atmospheric event, space does not have an atmosphere, nor does it have water, y etc.

I was reminded of my cardboard spaceship the other day when I read that scientists have confirmed the occurrence of diamond rain on Neptune. I was stunned. I imagined looking up into a sky that was raining diamonds, and it felt like being in an H.G. Wells novel.

It is apparently fairly common, as scientists are now confident that diamonds are raining on four planets – Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus. And the science is surprisingly simple. Uranus and Neptune have high concentrations of hydrocarbons in their atmospheres; as these hydrocarbons fall through layers of incredibly high pressure they are split into hydrogen and carbon molecules, and the carbon is subsequently pressurized into diamonds. Saturn and Jupiter have a slightly flashier method: lightening transforms their atmospheric methane into carbon, which again falls through areas of high pressure, striking the ground — here, an ocean of liquid helium — as diamonds.

If you had asked me a week ago if there was such a thing as diamond rain I would have again have jumped to the physical constraints — diamonds are diamonds and they don’t come from the sky. If you asked six year old me, I would have probably gone and added a diamond-collection-bucket to my spaceship, just in case.

My point here is not that we should return to the good old days of being six. This is not a piece romanticizing the simplicity of childhood, nor is it criticizing the cynicism of adulthood. Rather, my point is to revisit the sense of possibility that existed when I was six. The beginning of a new semester is always exhilarating, as there is a huge sense of opportunity. Yet almost immediately, the opportunities seem to die off — I will take this class, not that one. This club, not the other. Gravity works in this way, economics follows these principles, and essays should be written according to these rules.

Education is undoubtedly liberating, but if we are not careful it can be imprisoning, too. I am often guilty of getting stuck in one way of thinking. Last week a professor told me that some research now indicates people should not finish their entire course of antibiotics, and the biologist in me immediately rejected the idea — but when I read the paper, the science made sense (disclaimer: the study has not been reproduced. Please always finish your antibiotics, until the CDC says otherwise). It was an important lesson that six-year-old me already knew — anything is possible.

It applies to the future, too. Sometimes college feels like four years in which you find out all the things you cannot do — you can’t pass this class, so you can’t be that major. You don’t like this subject, so can’t do that job. I am one of the many fallen soldiers who realized early that a career in medicine would not work for me, and at the time, I was crushed.

Now I know two things: first, that it was very good that I left my medical dreams because I prefer my new ones, and second, that if I really wanted to be doctor, I could have found a way. Classes can always be retaken, connections can always be found. To change the metaphor, ten-year-old me wanted to become an astronaut and knew that meant being good math and science — she also hated math and couldn’t do long division without crying. To her, those things were not contradictory. I wish I had remembered that when my pre-med self was cyring through orgo.

I’m not in the habit of giving advice, but I do like to make myself to-do lists. This year, my senior year, one of those items will be remembering my spaceship windshield wipers. Telling yourself that anything is possible might sound pretty cheesy, but when it creates ideas like space-rain — which, really, how much more implausible is that than diamond rain? — it can be pretty incredible.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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