Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Matt on the Existential Files: Some further thoughts....

A couple of weeks ago, I had an enjoyable chat with Louie Savva and Matthew Smith on the Existential Files podcast.

According to the home page, The Existential Files follows

 "the Rick-and-Morty-esque adventures of Dr Matthew Smith and Dr Louie Savva as they explore the universe. Louie is the Rick-like misanthropic atheist and existential nihilist. Matthew, Morty-esque with his ever so slightly naive take on existence. Together, the two of them delve into parallel dimensions, ask why the universe exists, what the meaning of life is, and generally ask every question under the sun!"

...which is basically the impression I got when appearing on the podcast.

Podcasts are fun, but they can also be a little nerve-wracking. Before, during and after this one I found myself agonising over the points that I was trying to make. I'm a terrible second-guesser. As soon as the words have escaped my mouth I quite often find myself wondering things like, did I really mean that? Is that really what I feel or believe? Did what I just say really, effectively communicate my thoughts? It's, after all, so easy to be misunderstood.

In addition, I'm not one of those people who feel a high degree of certainty about any of my views, on anything. The longer that I live, the more baffled I am by pretty much everything. And as soon as I do settle on one point of view, I tend to start doubting myself. This, I suppose, is probably suspicious and even infuriating to those who profess metaphysical certainty.

As you'll hear, my views on various things differ significantly from Louie in some respects. I think our main bone of contention is over his hardline existentialist worldview.

Back in 1974, the Nobel prize winning biochemist Jacques Monod published a book entitled Chance and Necessity, where he claimed that it was possible to explain everything through a combination of the laws of physics ('necessity') and chance (life as a cosmic accident). To Monod, life is an absurd quirk, and we are alienated beings in a hostile universe:

"Man must wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, as as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings and crimes."

But this world picture seems questionable. What Monod and other writers do is over-inflate the results of evolutionary biology, physics and chemistry, mix in some very cultural biases, and use what are actually rather vague metaphors ('blind chance 'and 'necessity') to explain absolutely everything.

This has long seemed rather suspicious to me. For a start, it's important to distinguish between the very successful and enduring theory of Darwinian natural selection, and this sort of all-encompassing world picture. The facts of science are not the same as the wider world picture that attempts to fit them together. So it is quite possible to accept Darwin's account of evolution (I do, strongly) and to question the wider world picture.

Back in 2012, the philosopher Thomas Nagel rattled a lot of cages by questioning this world-picture, which he termed materialistic reductionism. He did this because of the failure to resolve the more tricky problems of consciousness in conventional, materialist terms. He also reminded us that:

"Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole." He also pointed out that "...our successors will make discoveries and develop forms of understanding of which we have not dreamt." (Mind and Cosmos, Introduction).

This point alone seems to me a very good reason to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have final answers about life, the universe and everything. See this TED discussion of questions no-one knows that answers to, and tell me whether any kind of certainty is justified:

I must admit that I find the widespread acceptance of the 'absurd' Universe a little puzzling. I suspect that many people, having rejected religion and supernatural forces, feel that they have no choice because it's 'scientific.'

However, it's long seemed a very impoverished world picture to me. This is because the primary aim of such a worldview is negative. The intention is to extinguish any traces of the supernatural -- God, or the soul -- from the Universe. But this 'weedkiller' move leaves what the philosopher Mary Midgley has termed an 'existential vacuum,' which seems to me to be a significant contributor to a widespread sense of alienation.

As I said on the podcast, we need to take alienation seriously. Victor Frankl noted that "such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognise the existential vacuum underlying them (Man's Search for Meaning)." He also suggested that "not a few cases of suicide" can be traced back to this vacuum.

For me, anyway, Monod's world picture is actually refuted by Astrobiology. Sure, we're adapted to a relatively tiny portion of the universe, a planetary surface. But modern science shows how intimately we're connected to the universe, and also dependent upon wider, cosmological processes for our very existence. Yes, our existence is temporary, yes it's fragile, and yes, suffering and evil are part of that existence. But the dark side is not the whole story.

It seems to me that a more positive take on the findings of modern science would emphasise our deep connections to the universe, and could go a long way to healing the existential vacuum. This, perhaps would be a more constructive approach than more puritanical forms of existentialism.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Guest Blog on Milford 2

Click here to go to my second Guest Blog for Milford Science Fiction Writers. This one's about keeping the joy in your writing as you develop a professional career. I hope it helps budding authors!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Cambridge Trip

May 25th/26th.
Went up to Cambridge on Thursday to see a writer friend and give her a hand campaigning for the Labour Party. On the train, I read Man of God, Chinua Achebe's Nigerian novel about the impact of British colonialism on traditional culture, told from the viewpoint of an Igbo high priest. The culture seems more alien to me that that featured in many sf stories, and the colonial British come across as obnoxious.

The fens are pretty at this time of year, very green, with plenty of cows and water birds. Ely Cathedral and environs are especially noteworthy on the Cambridge run.

At Ely, too, there was a minute's silence because of the Manchester  bombing.

When I arrived in Cambridge, the weather was still very fine and I saw lots of Labour and Lib dem banners in people's gardens. This is a refreshing change from Lincolnshire's unremitting conservatism, but Cambridge is a bit of a bubble.

When I arrived, Kari told me that Labour had suspended campaigning because of Manchester and anyway, she had a cold. We had a good long chat about politics and the science fiction scene.  This was morale boosting for both of us. I've been feeling very depressed and powerless lately, and it's just good to catch up with someone who is on the same wavelength.

Later that afternoon, Liz Williams and Trevor arrived from Glastonbury. Our simultaneous visit was pretty much a coincidence, and a pleasant surprise. I know Liz from Brighton, and we rarely see each other these days. Trevor I have got to know via the Milford writer's conferences, which Liz helps run. She normally brings Trevor and several dogs along to the conference, including the infamous postmodern artist Lilypup.

Liz competed her doctorate at Cambridge a while back, and was there for Friday night's annual dinner. Trevor, who has membership number 12 at CAMRA, just wanted to go the beer festival.

So we went to the beer festival, queued and got mildly pissed on good quality booze. This was fun and I bought a cowboy hat for professional reasons.

We also met up with some more friends of Liz, Trevor and Kari,  and I got chatting to a pair of guys, one of whom was doing a doctorate in wheat and the other who did programming for a special effects company. Cambridge is a bit like this. It's a hub for interesting (and frighteningly clever) people.

Later, we had the compulsory curry and Kari's partner also joined us.

The next day, not feeling too rough, we continued chats about life in Glastonbury, etc. Liz and Trevor are big on the pagan /occult scene there and run a witchcraft supply shop, a little like the one in Buffy.

This has resulted in the hilarious Diary of a Witchcraft Shop.  I'm currently midway through volume two which has various anecdotes about witty/psychotic/delusional employees and witty/psychotic/delusional customers, as well as stories about the town and their interesting life there.

Partly inspired by this,  I'm planning to make this blog less of a lecture and more of a diary. Although my life is generally less eventful than Liz and Trevor's sounds, it will be more fun for me and the wild Hebridean and his goat who form my readership. (I'm especially grateful to the goat!)

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Argonauts of the Air

King's Lynn
Flying, for me, is an almost shamanic experience. My occasional flights on commercial airliners have often brought home to me the tiny scale of our globe. In 2014, for example, I flew from England to Egypt, via the Mediterranean. The experience of flying over the vast patchwork of continental Europe, the Alps, the Albanian and Greek coasts, and the Greek Islands triggered a shift to a wider consciousness. I fully understand, then, why so many astronauts experience what Frank White terms an 'overview effect,' or cognitive shift in awareness that comes from seeing the whole Earth in space.

This April, I was lucky enough to be taken up in a Cessna for a more modest flight, by a friend who's just received his pilot's license. The flight was from Rutland to Norfolk, but it was enough to get the same sense of this shift in consciousness. I hope that the accompanying photographs are enough to convey some of the wonder of the experience.
The plane

Our flight path was over Spalding, Wisbech, King's Lynn and the Norfolk coast, to Wells-Next-the-Sea. Wells was once the home of my Grandparents, and very familiar to me from childhood holidays. It's a different experience from the Air.
King's Lynn

The Norfolk beaches are wide, and fringed by mudflats that have many arterial river channels carved in them, and they go on for miles.

Viewing the Holkham estate from the air was also a novel experience, very different from the beach and pinewood rambles of my childhood. Afterwards, we followed the Norfolk coast, over the wildlife reserves and past the RAF bombing range over the North Sea.
Wells channel showing the caravan park,
pinewoods and beach.

The Lifeboat station at Wells
Holkham Hall
Mud flats and meanders

It's so easy to take the technological miracles with which we are surrounded for granted. Powered flight, invented less than 120 years ago, has long ago been relegated to the unconscious background of our lives, and yet, for me, in a way, it's a more amazing achievement than the most fancy smartphone. Flying like birds was a wild fantasy for millennia, and it took centuries of serious work to make it happen.

Flight is a nice example of what philosopher Mario Costa called the 'technological sublime.' Suddenly, you're working on a larger scale, as the houses, fields, woods, streets, towns and roads below dwindle in scale and individual people become almost invisible. Because of your increased speed, the cars and trucks on the roads crawl along at a much slower pace, almost as if you're on a relativistic flight.

It's so easy, living inland in England, to forget that you're living on a tiny island in the Atlantic. I think that the wider value of flight is to remind us, subtly, of the larger background on which our little lives play out, of which we are still largely unconscious.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Voting Dilemma

Like a lot of people, I'm feeling extremely politically fatigued, and when Teresa May called an election last Tuesday, I had a fit of horrors. I generally come out as a Left-Wing Libertarian on the political compass, and the thought of a post-EU UK under a possibly perpetual Right Wing Authoritarian government fills me with horror.

It also feels humiliating having to vote in an election when the result almost feels rigged in advance.

So, voting.

I have long had grave doubts about the extent to which elections in the UK can be considered truly 'democratic.' I’ve a lot of sympathy for Rousseau’s caustic comments in The Social Contract:

“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so in fact only during the election of members of parliament; for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains and are nothing. And thus by the use they make of their brief moments of freedom, they deserve to lose it.”

I'm also aware of political philosopher Gordon Graham's arguments that the idea that voting represents the collective 'will of the people' is wrong. 

Graham argues that mass voting dilutes the power of any individual to such a great extent that the will of the individual is never going to be represented in the result.

Elections, Graham claims, only create the illusion of popular power, for the following reason. Some things, like public lighting, will benefit ever wider numbers of people as their use spreads. Democratic power, Graham claims, is not like that.

It’s more like slicing a cake an ever increasing amount of times. The more you slice the cake, the less the recipients benefit from the results. This means that

"the distribution of political power ever more widely results in its annihilation, and the move from autocracy to aristocracy to democracy is not the extension of power that it seems." (quote from the Case Against a Democratic State).

What this implies is that a single voter, in a mass system, has no political power at all. So how to account for electoral results? Graham sees it as a sort of emergent property, but not one that has anything to do with people’s will or intentions. This is because an election result will ‘depend upon a large number of uncoordinated individual choices.’ So the claim that elections are a superior form of government because they allow people to exercise their 'will' to decide who governs them is null and void.

These arguments aside, I'm feeling quite a bit of emotional resistance to voting. This is because I feel damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I don't I'm fated to have to listen to people sneer that if I don't like my current government, then I should have voted. If I do decide to vote, then it's in the knowledge that I live in a Tory safe seat, and so it feels like a futile gesture.

At this moment, I'm probably going to take Bruce Levine's advice. Levine is aware of the dilemma involved in voting and suggests that:

“ for Tweedledum simply because one loathes Tweedledee harms individual self-respect, and is dispiriting and bad for democracy." (Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, energizing the defeated and Battling the Corporate Elite).

He also suggests that a free choice on whether to vote or not is okay. So if voting makes you feel empowered, you should do it, whereas if it makes you feel more disempowered than you were before, then you should avoid it.

He also reminds us that the voting versus nonvoting issue is a just narrow part of democracy, something that Right-Wing Authoritarians like May would probably prefer that most of us forget....

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Guest Blogging for UKSRN

Click here to view my guest blog on the UK SETI research Network Site. Have Zombie Aliens Conquered the Universe? We should be Told....

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight

Being a Cassandra is a risky business. Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, was a prophet who was considered insane, so although she prophesied true things, she was not believed.

Modern day prophets can run the risk of both dismissal and insanity. One of the most sobering books I've read recently is the Utopia Experiment, by an academic named Dylan Evans. The book concerns a disastrous attempt to set up a survivalist community in Scotland. Evans, a specialist in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, became convinced that civilization was highly likely to collapse soon.

As a result, he sold his house and scuppered his academic career in order to start an experiment in simple living. This was to prepare for the inevitable hardships that would come after civilization fell.

The experiment did not end well: the book opens with Evans interned in a psychiatric ward. As a result of these experiences, Evans ended up highly critical of those who believe that disaster is imminent, and strongly supportive of a high-tech civilization.

On top of all this, there have been end of the world prophets throughout history, who have invariably been wrong. However, most of those prophets were acting from personal revelation: today's tend to base their conclusions on a more empirical basis.

In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the dial of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock has been produced each year since 1947, and indicates the probability of a technologically or environmentally produced disaster.

Two and a half minutes is the closest setting to disaster since the early nineteen-eighties, when there was a significant war scare. It's also only thirty seconds away from the record two minutes, which was set in 1953 when the US and the Soviet Union exploded their first thermonuclear devices within months of one another.

Image:Wikipedia, Fastfission.

With the end of the Cold War, the dial moved significantly away from midnight; in 1991, it was at 17 minutes. However, over the next twenty years, it sauntered ever closer to twelve. This has largely been for two reasons: the beginning of a second age of nuclear confrontation, as many nations have gained a capability to strike with atom bombs, and in response to unfolding environmental disasters like global warming.

It should be obvious why the scientists decided to move the clock closer to midnight this January, but it's worth quoting from the report. The full statement can be read here.

"On the big topics that concern the board, world leaders made too little progress in the face of continuing turbulence. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways."

A number of political trouble spots make nuclear war more likely, so it's surprising that this issue isn't commanding more attention in the media. The board notes that the "climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal—but only somewhat." This is because some action has been taken, and because carbon dioxide emissions remained essentially flat in 2016. However, this is no reason for complacency:

"Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris—yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech."

Against this background, the rise of what they term 'strident nationalism' is very worrying. Donald Trump's election is especially concerning because of his commitment to nuclear weapons, and his denial of climate change. I'd include Brexit as a further manifestation.

Nationalism, as Yuval Noah Harari suggested recently, offers no solutions for global problems. In fact, it's making things a lot worse because it's promoting discord between nations. In my view, its resurgence represents a significant failure of governance. As the board noted:

"Last year, and the year before, we warned that world leaders were failing to act with the speed and on the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear war. During the past year, the need for leadership only intensifed—yet inaction and brinksmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth (my emphasis)."

In other words, in becoming preoccupied with distracting and resource-hungry projects like Brexit, our leaders are showing a breathtaking, almost suicidal, level of irresponsibility. Governments and populations who act so recklessly are in effect playing Russian roulette with civilisation.

This issue, by the way, goes beyond the usual tired disputes between the 'left' and 'right.' David Brin seems broadly correct when he suggests that the current significant divide is between those who accept and those who deny the realities of our situation.  I can't put it better than the board:

"Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term."

Maybe we should be listening to Cassandra, after all.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Never Bloody Ending Selfishness of Human Beings

I've been reading the great biologist Edward O. Wilson's new book, Half Earth, where he suggests leaving half the land surface of the Earth to nature. To me, it's an important and exciting idea, very like George Monbiot's proposal for rewilding. However, one chapter made me actually quite cross.

In chapter 9, 'A Most Dangerous Worldview,' Wilson outlines the view of those who call themselves, with no sense of irony, 'new conservationists' who promote what he terms an 'extreme Anthropocene worldview.'

The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the geological epoch in which we now live, the period during which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Traditional conservation sees this impact as devastating. Not only are we responsible for things like global heating and ocean acidification, but also for initiating a sixth mass extinction of species that is accelerating in pace.

Apparently, the 'new conservationists' are not too bothered by this, advising those of us who are upset by, I don't know, the mass holocaust of animals and plants, to wake up and smell the coffee.

Wilson describes this view as follows:

'In this vision of life on Earth, wildernesses no longer exist; all parts of the world, even the most remote, have been adulterated to some degree. Living nature, as it evolved before the coming of man, is dead or dying. Perhaps, extreme advocates believe, this outcome was foreordained by the imperatives of history. If so, the destiny of the planet is to be completely overtaken and ruled by humanity -- pole to pole of, by and for us, the only species at the end of the day that really matters.' 

(Half Earth, p. 71).

This is exactly the self-serving attitude, I'm afraid, that I sense in movements like ecomodernism, which claims that it's possible to reconcile our high-tech, urbanised, consumer culture with effective nature conservation. Although this movement has merits, it's plain when you read the movement's works, that most of its advocates are thinking about conservation in entirely anthropocentric terms.

This attitude is also often apparent in discussions about the future. In Oxford last November, I picked up a copy of a debate on ‘Do Humankind's best days lie ahead?’ between Stephen Pinker and Matt Ridley (pro) and Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell (con).

Pinker and Ridley both argued that, despite doomsayers, the metrics of human material wellbeing had improved very significantly over the last few centuries, and continue to do so today. The future, therefore, should be rosy.

Alain de Botton, opposing this, focussed on human alienation in the modern world, and also the relentless, mindless positivity of our culture.

The narrow parameters of the debate, pro and con, were very revealing. The sixth extinction was barely mentioned, and climate change was discussed only in terms of it being a problem for human beings.

It is unacceptable when the mass extinction of other species gets written off as collateral damage, on the race to a capitalist techno-utopia. Ecological destruction, and the death of species should be considered, as the Pope suggested, major sins.

 Rationalizing unfolding environmental  catastrophes as good things strikes me as the worst kind of apologetics. And how dare we judge other species on whether or not they are any 'use' to us? How useful is a human being to a Duck-bill platypus? (Answer: not very).

I'd suggest that we have a moral imperative, not only to future generations of human beings, but to other life on this planet as well. This means that we stop congratulating ourselves on how wonderful we are and actually start thinking about how we can repair the damage for which we're largely responsible. A little more empathy and consideration for non-human lifeforms would also help.

Only then I think, can human beings count themselves as truly civilized.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Ones who Walked Alone

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far...." (H.P. Lovecraft, the Call of Cthulhu).

I was delighted to discover that the ever wonderful Gollancz has republished two biographies written by L Sprague de Camp; one on H.P. Lovecraft and the other on Robert E. Howard.

I've long had a fascination with both pulp writers. Each was a major contributor to Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s, and each became a major influence in speculative fiction.

Lovecraft mixed horror and science fiction in stories like "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Shadow out of Time" and "At the Mountains of Madness." His brand of cosmic horror was a despairing expression of the infinite vastness and indifference of the vast, ancient universe in which we live.

Howard was the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and the originator of what de Camp terms 'heroic fantasy' (although I prefer Fritz Leiber's term, 'Sword N'Sorcery). In these, the hugely muscled Conan fights villains, apes and monsters, whilst crushing scantily clad women to his side.

All of which probably sounds terribly sexist and cliched to many of today's readers. It's worth also flagging both authors' casual racism, which is sadly typical of the era. This issue was highlighted in 2015, when it was decided, after lobbying, that the World Fantasy Award would not use a representation of Lovecraft as a trophy, because of his racist views.

This issue has become even more acute since 2015, with the rise of far right, white supremacist groups and the legitimation of racist nationalism in politics. So on balance, I feel the decision was the correct one.

However, these issues should not define either authors. One of the things that I like about de Camp's Howard biography is that he celebrates Howard's qualities as well as being honest about his failings. 'The heroic sweep of his narratives,' de Camp suggests, 'the vividness of his imagery, and his ability to convert mood, magic and mystery mark his writing as exceptional.'

In the Conan stories, Howard was able to offer escapist fiction in a raw, unfiltered way that many other authors struggle to match:

"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars...."

In addition, his output and literary legacy were remarkable, considering that he killed himself at the age of thirty. De Camp suggests that his stories should be considered as 'escape literature second to none, save only Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings.' My own views on the Conan stories are offered here.

Literary merits aside, there's another reason why I find both authors compelling. Both were loners who eked out a living writing and who had very troubled lives. The story of Howard's last years, and his relationship with a schoolteacher, Novalyne Price is told in a heartbreaking film titled The Whole Wide World, that I urge you to watch.

Lovecraft lived in poverty for most of his life and died of cancer at the age of forty-seven.

So both authors made much of the time that they had, despite underlying vulnerabilities.

Which brings us back to their somewhat savage political views. It's my experience that a strong hatred of the other is often the product of weakness rather than strength. Another biography of Lovecraft by Michel Hoellenbecq sees his views on race as part of a very negative, life-rejecting philosophy that seems to me to have been the product of misery and alienation.

Similarly, although Howard's suicide was triggered  by his mother's terminal illness, he had within him some very destructive tendencies that were surely exacerbated by the indifference of his local town towards his talents.

So both men should perhaps be admired for producing the stories they did, in spite of their troubled minds. And the positive influence that they had on ensuing generations of fantastic writers should be celebrated.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Looking for Aliens: Day Two

The first talk on day two was given by science fiction writer Stephen Baxter, concerning his new novel, a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897). The sequel is entitled The Massacre of Mankind, and I was especially interested to hear this discussed because I’m a long time fan of Baxter’s work.

Baxter’s talk concerned the fictional Martians of Wells’ novel. In the original, these are described as intelligences ‘vast and cool and unsympathetic’ who ‘regarded this Earth with envious eyes’ and who ‘slowly and surely drew their plans against us.’ The original novel was one of the things that got me excited about SF in the first place, and it was evident that Stephen shared this enthusiasm.

The forms that Wells’ Martians took, giant heads with tentacles, were evolved from humanoid beings. In re-imagining them, Baxter had drawn on Wells’ speculations about our own, distant descendants and upon ideas then current of a dying Mars.

As he did this, Baxter came to feel some sympathy for the invaders, even seeing their positive virtues. He observed that humans shared their main flaw, which was a lack of empathy towards ‘lower’ creatures.

Stephen also delved into the cultural importance of fictional aliens, using the examples of Superman and Doctor Who. Fictional aliens can help us think about problems in SETI: for example, the Time Lord’s doctrine of non-intervention in Doctor Who could be seen as a form of the zoo hypothesis.

Next up was William Edmondson, who discussed his idea of finding a ET signal using pulsars as interstellar beacons. Pulsars are rapidly pulsing radio sources that are thought for be associated with a rotating neutron star. The regular pulses mean they can serve as cosmic lighthouses for any intelligence advanced enough to have radio telescopes.

William’s idea is that we could search for ET signals that are being sent from planets orbiting stars that are in alignment with a pulsar, from a terrestrial point of view.

He thinks that this would help to simplify the search for SETI in a targeted way, being skeptical of what he sees as some of the more outlandish ideas in SETI, such as searching for galaxy-spanning super-civilizations, or technology that’s indistinguishable from magic. Targeted SETI, by contrast, seems to him a more strategic and realistic

Edmondson is currently working with the Breakthrough Listen team, who have helped him get some observing time at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. He’s also analysing older data gathered from the direction of six pulsars in M62, a globular star cluster in the constellation of Ophiuchus, about 22,500 light years distant. Although he hasn’t found a signal yet, it was intriguing to see this theory put to the test.

An especially stimulating talk was also given by Anders Sandberg, of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Anders was looking at the infamous Fermi Paradox, named after the physicist Enrico Fermi who reputedly asked, if aliens exist then, given our assumptions about the universe, why aren’t they here? This paradox has fuelled much speculation in the past, a good spread of which can be found in Stephen Webb’s book Where Is Everybody? (2002).

Anders discussed the Drake Equation, which allows estimates of the number of possible communicating civilizations in the galaxy, and suggested that many past estimates suffered from being highly overoptimistic.

He gave a detailed theoretical analysis to show why we shouldn’t be especially surprised that we haven’t contacted anyone yet. At this stage in our knowledge, it’s a good bet that we don’t live in a Star Wars galaxy, brimming with intelligent aliens. In fact, the most plausible models of the origins of life and the rise of complex forms suggest that intelligence might be quite rare, even if microbial life is common. Quite rare, however, is very different from non-existent, so the search seems justified, given our state of knowledge. So Anders’ analysis implies that Fermi’s paradox was not so paradoxical, after all.

Afterwards, Ian Crawford touched on one more exotic solution to the Fermi paradox, which was that any technological aliens would have shed their biological bodies and uploaded themselves into virtual worlds on computers. This is known at the Singularity, and there is a running debate in future studies on its plausibility.

It’s relevant to the Fermi paradox because uploaded beings, the story goes, might not be interested in contact, preferring to stay cocooned in their presumably idyllic virtual worlds.

Crawford pointed out that, in the terrestrial case, those uploaded would probably be restricted to an elite, and that the bulk of people on Earth would remain as real, physical beings. Then, if our civilization collapsed, and nature is not completely wrecked, new intelligent beings might arise from the animals.

Although I found these arguments entertaining, they seemed to lack plausibility to me. I’m quite sceptical about singularity arguments, for reasons similar to Kim Stanley Robinson. I think that the idea we could simply upload our conscious minds into computers is the result of misreading what the neuroscience is telling us. In addition, I worry that by the time our civilization ends, that the ecosystems might have collapsed beyond the point of evolving a new dominant species in the foreseeable future.

Listening to these talks reminded me of the late philosopher of science John Ziman, and his ideas about reliable versus unreliable knowledge. Ziman pointed out that scientific knowledge remains far from complete, and is not uniformly certain.

The knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun, or that muscles work by sliding filaments, or that bacteria causes disease, can be called reliable because it is supported by mountains of evidence and accords well with the way we think the world works.

Many of the ideas floating about about SETI are not in this category. This is okay, because in frontier areas evidence will naturally be marginal or even non-existent. It is a mistake to suppose that scientists are omnipotent; they are more, as Paul Feyerabend once suggested, like ants crawling across the face of reality, working from the known to the unknown.

The ultimate goal of a science, Ziman claimed, ‘is a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field (Reliable Knowledge, 1978, p. 3).’ This is clearly not currently the case in SETI, where opinions over basic questions like the number of possible ETs still varies considerably, and there seems to be little agreement over search strategies.

However, like astrobiology, the field seems to me to be maturing, with a healthy injection of funding and by efforts to create links with mainstream astronomical work. I’d call SETI a premature science, which was Marcello Truzzi’s term for a discipline that is trying to ask questions for which we don’t, quite, have the capacity to answer yet.

Still, with all those telescopes listening, we might just get lucky….

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Looking for Aliens: Day One

We’ve been looking for aliens for some decades now. SETI – short for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence – began in the 1960s when the astronomer Frank Drake aimed the Green Bank radio telescope at the nearby stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani and listened for signals. Although he heard nothing, this kicked off over half a century’s search for signs of Extra Terrestrial Intelligences.

Last Thursday, the UK SETI Research Network had a symposium at Manchester University to discuss the latest attempts to hear the whispers of intelligences from elsewhere. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been interested in the search since I was a boy, and it was a real honour to be able to attend the meeting, although I was a little nervous because I was also due to give a talk.

The first lecture was by Professor Mike Garrett, the Director of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Jodrell Bank radio telescope, entitled ‘All Sky Radio SETI.’ He began by asking whether SETI was sensible, concluding yes, in terms of the physics of receiving transmissions and also the basic technology.

It was less clear whether there were any signals to detect. He found it a little disturbing that current astronomical data seems to show no apparent sign of ET civilizations at all.  This problem has been termed ‘The Great Silence.’

In addition, a telescope would need to be pointing in the right direction to pick up a transmission at all. This was one of the reasons that finding any aliens might be tricky.

Garrett suggested that since intelligent life took a long time to arise on this planet, it might be very rare and easy to miss, partly due to the limitations of current instruments.

These technical limitations can be seen in the case of a natural phenomenon called Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). FRBs happen all the time, all over the sky, but most get missed because current radio telescopes can only look at a small percentage of the sky at once.

This implies that field of view is important for a SETI signal, and Garrett suggested that multi-beam receivers were needed to widen the view. Multi-Beam Receivers were first suggested by Arthur C Clarke in his novel Imperial Earth. They consist of ‘thousands of little wires,’ and would be suitable instruments for scanning the whole sky.

Next, Duncan Forgan looked at the possibility of using exoplanet transits to find and initiate communications with aliens. This talk brought up another significant problem in SETI: the fact that we have potentially the entire universe to search.

Space, as Douglas Adams once noted, is big. There are between 100 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and about 200 billion galaxies in the universe (and possibly ten times more). Since the scale of the search makes finding a needle in a haystack seem simple, some have been thinking about ways of narrowing that search.

Forgan suggested one method by using what’s known as exoplanet transits. Exoplanets – planets around other stars – can be detected when they pass in front of the face of their parent star. When this happens, there’s a small dip in the light output of the star. The problem is that only a fraction of planets are suitably aligned so that they will pass in front of their star from the point of view of the Earth.

As well as planet detection, this method will soon allow researchers to glean spectrographic data on the composition of planetary atmospheres. If life-signs can be found, this should narrow the search for possible homes of ET civilizations. For example, if we discovered a planet with an oxygen rich atmosphere, then it might be a good place to look.

Transits might also allow different ETs to communicate with one another. If one ET fired a powerful laser in the direction of an observer that they knew was looking for a transiting planet, then the observer would be able to detect the laser light in the spectrographic data that they were picking up from the ETs’ star.

This means that transits could be used for ‘handshakes’ between ET civilizations, and civilizations communicating in this way might create a galaxy spanning network, in time.

The third speaker was Arik Kershenbaum, an expert in animal communications. He was concerned with the difference between communication and language, suggesting that humans are only Earthly species who possess language. One of the problems is actually defining language, which has in the past been seen in terms of semantics, or meaning.

This definition is not useful if you don’t understand a language, and more technical approaches have been suggested, although none are without problems. But as Lawrence Doyle suggested, this issue is important, because ‘how can we expect to talk to aliens if we can’t even talk to dolphins?’

After lunch, Jamie Drew of the Breakthrough Initiatives gave an outline of their mission. Breakthrough Listen is funded by Internet billionaire Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg. Over the next decade, Breakthrough Listen is supplying a large amount of funding for SETI ventures, helping the search to enter the mainstream in a way that has not been possible before.

Drew suggested that private investments might be important in determining ‘the shape of space to come.’ He pointed out the long history in the US of private philanthropists putting money into space exploration. James Lick’s funding of an observatory in 1876 is a good example, but the rocket pioneer Robert Goddard was also helped by private investors in the 1920s. Today, a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are dedicated to putting significant money behind various space ventures.

Drew also suggested that Breakthrough Listen would bring a ‘Silicon Valley ideology’ into SETI. This would include developing the tools to search for signals in the vast datasets that are already being accumulated from radio telescopes. He suggested that a priority would be developing analytical software for this purpose.

Breakthrough Listen will use a number of telescopes, including the Green Bank Telescope, Parkes, the APF at Lick and the new giant Chinese FAST telescope.

My talk on consciousness and SETI was next. My claim was that cognitive science – the science of thinking – had a lot to contribute to SETI. This was because consciousness needs to be seen in terms of the larger picture of cosmic evolution, and as part of evolution of intelligence. It included the serious problem of Zombie Aliens.

Claudio Maccone’s technical talk followed mine, on his mathematical models for how life and civilization arises in the universe. I found this interesting, but I must admit that I struggled with the maths a little bit.

I ended the day feeling relieved that my talk had gone well, but also encouraged by the number of novel approaches that are being suggested to help the search for intelligence elsewhere. The involvement of Breakthrough Listen, in particular, is already giving the field the boost that it probably needs to solve such a difficult, but provocative problem. More next time.

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Joy of Astrobiology

Above: the Kepler Orrery of Exoplanets, NASA.
Currently, I'm immersing myself in astrobiology. This is partly for practical reasons; SETI, the Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, has become a research interest, and after a recent meeting with some scarily bright academics, I realised that I needed to beef up my knowledge somewhat.

The second reason is, simply, the joy of learning. Ever since I was a child, I've always had a burning curiosity about the Universe in which I live. The science of astronomy attracted me early on, partly because I grew up in the country, under dark skies. At school, I even ran an astronomy club for a couple of years.

The question of alien life was an integral part of that obsession. I learned early on about the radio Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, and project Ozma. Even though I was fully aware of the disappointing results from the Viking Mars lander, I still enjoyed H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and Arthur Clarke's The Sands of Mars, both featuring 'martians.'

(These and other SF novels with aliens were powerful triggers to my imagination. I still love the 'first contact' genre, where humans meet aliens for the first time, and would love to write one, one day).

However, by the early nineties, the prospect of finding complex life elsewhere had faded. The 'Rare Earth' theories were being formulated,  which suggest that human existence is the result of a combination of unusual astrophysical and evolutionary circumstances that seem unlikely to be common in the galaxy. It seemed likely, in other words, that we were alone.

This development, along with the usual disillusions associated with growing up, dulled my interest, somewhat. By my late teens and early twenties, my value system was also changing. I was becoming appalled by the cavalier way in which human beings were exploiting the planet, and so protecting life on this world seemed more important than searching for life elsewhere.

However, in 1998, I met Jack Cohen, a reproductive biologist and SF fan, who had many interesting things to say about the forms that ET Life was likely to take. His enthusiasm for biology, and Science Fiction, helped to renew my enthusiasm about the question of life elsewhere. You can read about his ideas in What Does a Martian Look Like.

I also saw that being concerned about life on Earth, and wondering about extraterrestrial life, where by no means mutually exclusive. 'Nature' is not confined to the surface of the Earth. Some authors, like Charles Cockell, even suggest that environmentalism and space exploration have one and the same objective, which is making sure that humanity has a home.

By the early 2000s, too, astrobiology was growing up as a discipline. This has been partly triggered by the ongoing discovery of planets that orbit other stars; as of 1 February 2017, there have been 3,572 of these exoplanets confirmed. And quite a few astrobiologists suspect that Rare Earth theories are probably wrong. Couple this with the discovery of sites within the Solar system that seem good candidates for harbouring life, and the prospects for ETL seem much healthier than they did 30 years ago.

So it's been very funny reading up on recent discoveries, because I get the sense that to some degree, the subject has grown up with me....

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Less Social Media, More Deep Work

Looking back over the last year, it's surprising how much I've tolerated social media in my life. At the time, I accepted the suggestion that the way to be a successful author in the 21st century is to have an active social media presence, and to devote a significant amount of time to internet marketing.

As a result, in 2016, I assigned time to building my number of Twitter followers. This was not something I was actually terribly keen to do, more something that I felt obliged to do. So, after quite a lot of work, I managed to grow my followers from around 60 to more like 260. Not fantastic, I suppose, but an improvement.

At the same time, I was feeling increasingly unhappy with my 'soft addiction' to social media, especially Facebook. It seemed to be a place I went when I was feeling a little anxious about things, or looking for somewhere to expend excess mental jitteriness that had no other obvious outlet.

The trouble was that Facebook and Twitter, like any other addictive substance, were very good at magnifying the anxiety they were purporting to alleviate. Firstly, there was almost always some feed post to get upset about and secondly, and possibly more fundamentally, the act of obsessive checking itself was feeding a general sense of unease.

Even worse was what the internet was doing to my creativity, even though I actually had a very productive year last year. My habit is to do the creative work in a place where there is no wifi access, and only later go online. What I noticed was that the moment I went on line, creativity went out of the window.

 So my New Year's Resolution is to reduce my Twitter and Facebook presence to a bare minimum.

This decision was clinched by the above talk by Cal Newport, where he suggested that the rationalisations that people have for using social media are mostly spurious. He also highlights the purposely addictive nature of social media, describing it as a slot machine on your smartphone.

By contrast, Newport champions deep work. He suggests that as people's attention gets more and more fragmented that paradoxically, there is a demand for people who can concentrate in depth on imaginative, innovative and challenging products. The difficulty is making lifestyle changes that will allow this.

After I saw this, and read his book, I realised that I have a strong preference for deep work over shallow. This is because shallow work winds me up and generates anxiety. It's is also a mimic of truly productive, creative thinking.

There’s another aspect of this that needs highlighting. I think that one of the deleterious effects of social media is that it tends to colonize the head-space that the imagination needs to properly expand. In my experience, the Imagination, which is where stories come from, needs a degree of emptiness and quiet to function properly.

What happens when people constantly fiddle with their smart phones, in every spare second of the day, is that necessary head-space gets jammed with all sorts of commercial junk. You stop being an imaginative human being and, as Newport hints, become little more than a commercial router that is generating wealth for a faceless mega-corporation like Facebook, Amazon or Google.

I do not want this to be my function in life.

So this year, I want to shift my priorities, from winding myself up with social media to cultivating the sort of time and space needed for innovative and more satisfying work.

…And like Sideshow Bob, I’m aware of the irony of appearing on social media in order to decry it, so don’t bother pointing that out….