Space Break with Kate Howells


Jupiter, what a beauty. The curves, swirls, delicate shades of beige and brown. You don’t have to know anything about this planet to see that it’s gorgeous. But what makes Jupiter so beautiful is that it’s a gas planet. You probably learned this in school at some point, but let’s meditate on what it means.

Jupiter is a huge, hulking, round collection of gas, all held together by gravity, spinning through space. It may look serene in pictures, but its surface is a sea of storms. The swirl patterns are made from different gases being blown around at hundreds of kilometers per hour. Each band that you can see is a storm blowing in a different direction, at a different depth. The spots are cyclones.

Search YouTube for “Jupiter cloud timelapse” and you’ll see some next-level, tripped out motion on what you’d have otherwise thought of as a static. Yes, it’s a moving, living surface. The whole planet is made of stuff that is constantly in motion. The Earth, by comparison, is a boring rock with puny storms, and only the occasional movement that causes earthquakes and shapes mountains over millions of years.

Jupiter is a planet of rapid action and change, of unrest. You literally can’t rest on Jupiter. If you send a spacecraft to the Moon or to Mars, it can land on the surface and chill out for a while. But if you sent a craft to Jupiter, you’d just punch through cloud layer after cloud layer, on and on until you were so deep into its core that the weight of the clouds above the spacecraft would crush and destroy you. No landing here, only gradual crushing by gas!

When a meteor hits Jupiter it doesn’t make a crater like it would on Earth. It just swooshes right through the gas and gets absorbed into Jupiter’s mass. By gobbling up rocks, Jupiter actually saves the Earth from countless potential impacts. We don’t need Bruce Willis to stop Armageddon, we’ve got Jupiter! And the reason it’s such a good rock-gobbler is that it’s fucking enormous. Jupiter is bigger than every other planet in the solar system combined. At the edge of Jupiter, its gases get thinner and thinner until eventually there is only empty space. And in its depths, the gases get thicker and thicker until eventually they become liquids. Jupiter is basically just a continuum between absolute nothingness and intense, crushing thingness.

Memorizing in elementary school that there are rock planets, gas planets, and ice planets in our solar system is one thing—it’s a whole other experience to actually think about what it means for a giant planet to be made of gas. I don’t give a shit about memorizing the periodic table or remembering the process for calculating something’s density—simply getting curious about the world is what science is all about. And all it takes is to wonder how or why something works, and look for an answer to the question. And you have access to the total collected knowledge of the world in your phone right now! There’s nothing you can’t know. Get your phone out and Google “how fast does the Earth move through space,” get the answer and contemplate that answer for a second. It’s crazy!

It’s a shame that so many people I meet think of “science” as a thing they were bad at in high school, a series of lists and definitions and sequences to be memorized and regurgitated. Nobody likes that shit! It’s understandable that people get turned away from science because they don’t see themselves fitting the mold of “scientist.” Generally, hardly anybody other than straight, white, cis-dudes see themselves as being the kind of people who do science. There are few visible role models for people outside of that “norm” in the field, and that makes people feel isolated from science as a whole. But the world of inquiry is open to you, now more than ever! You don’t have to be good at anything to learn cool things about the reality you live in. And inviting science/nature/inquiry into your heart doesn’t mean you have to shut out other fun stuff that isn’t scientifically sound; I am a proud Sagittarian, I want to know what my palm says about my future, and I will believe you if you tell me a compelling story about a ghost sighting. And yet here I am, science girl.

It’s important to feel empowered to seek knowledge. They say it all the time but it doesn’t make it less true—knowledge is power. When you take it upon yourself to feed your curiosity, ask questions and really think about the answers, you are developing the super-important skill of critical thinking, and this is enormously empowering. Plus it feels good to contemplate awesome things about nature. For me, at least, it makes existence more magical to know that out there—in real life!—there is a beautiful enormous gas giant.

See this story in print: