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.