Friday, June 25, 2004

Little Worlds


Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince lived on an world so small he could watch a dozen sunsets in a single evening just by moving his chair westward around the circumference of his tiny planet. His planet had a few weeds and three volcanoes, two active, one extinct; the Little Prince kept the active volcanoes placid by periodic cleaning with a Q-tip sort of swab.

Cassini's photo of Saturn's outermost moon Phoebe (see below) reminds me a bit of the Little Prince's world, although Phoebe is rather larger.

It would be cruel to turn the cold eye of science on so charming a tale as that of the Little Prince. So I will not point out that his tiny planet would have too little gravity to retain an atmosphere, or for that matter a Prince. Or that so small a world would have insufficient internal heat to stoke a volcano.

Likewise Phoebe is a cold, stark, airless place, and we must wait till Cassini's Huygens probe descends into the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon Titan before we start fantasizing about possible domiciles for extraterrestrial life.