Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Have Scientists Recovered Fragments of Dinosaur DNA?

November 4, 2021

I found this fascinating little video on Russian science vlogger Anton Petrov’s YouTube channel. Petrov, who characteristically greets his viewers with the phrase, ‘Hello, wonderful person’ usually covers astronomy and space, but frequently branches out into other areas like biology. In this video, he discusses a scientific paper that claims that fragments of DNA have been recovered from a small dinosaur, Caudipteryx. This was a creature about the size and shape of a chicken, and it’s one of the dinosaur fossils found in the Jehol beds of China.

The possibility that dinosaur genetic material may have survived clearly brings us into Jurassic Park territory, and Petrov says that he was so amazed and excited by the movie that it was one of the things that caused him to become a scientist. He originally wanted to be a palaeontologist, and studied a bit of geology and went on digs. He makes a joke about how the viewers will now have to imagine the Jurassic Park music playing in the background. Why can’t they have it for real? Copyright, he sighs, it’s always copyright.

It’s a controversial claim, and one he says will have scientists arguing for some time to come. DNA begins to break down soon after death. It has a half-life of 521 years, meaning that after that period of time, half the DNA in a creature’s remains will have vanished. And all of it will be gone after about 6 million years. However, DNA from Greenland plants has been recovered from 800,000 years ago, showing that the country was warmer and greener than it is now. Fragments of DNA from Neanderthal people have been recovered from 100,000 years ago, showing that DNA can survive quite long periods. In the case of the Caudipteryx dinosaur, some of the DNA may have turned into silicates, which may have preserved the rest. The scientists were able to discover the DNA through using the same process of chemical staining that is used to find it elsewhere. It does seem likely that they have discovered individual cells in the animal’s fossil, which is itself a major advance.

It’s an interesting possibility, but I don’t think we have to be afraid of scientists recreating the dinosaurs to create a new theme park just yet. I think the DNA is far too fragmentary for that. I can remember there being similar controversies about the recovery of Neanderthal DNA, which is far more recent. That said, there are people, who’d like to bring back the mammoths by combining ancient mammoth DNA with modern elephants, and there are considerable ethical and environmental issues about this. Not to mention the scientific problems of finding enough surviving mammoth DNA and being able to combine this successfully with its modern, surviving relative.

Vintage Space on NASA’s Plans for a Worm-Shaped Lunar Rover

October 23, 2021

Vintage Space is a YouTube channel specialising in space history, hosted by Amy Shira Teitel, who has written two books on the subject. One of these is about the two women, who struggled to get women into space. In this video, however, she talks about the plans one of NASA’s contractors, Astraneutics, drew up in the early years of the Moon programme for a lunar rover based on worms and snakes. At the time it was not known what the surface of the Moon was really like, and there were fears that the dust would be too deep to support a conventional vehicle. NASA handed the problem to one of their contractors, who believed that worms and snakes offered the best solution to the problem. These animals are able to move by distributing their weight and so a vehicle shaped like them would be able to move across the surface without sinking into the dust. There was also the advantage that such a rover would have no exterior moving parts. Teitel discusses the various designs for these rovers and the types of locomotion. There were three of these, one involving a simple process of expansion and contraction like a bellows, another walking on ridges around the vehicle and so on. The third type of locomotion was the most efficient, and would have allowed the rover to move at around 5 mph for several hundred miles. It would also contain a habitat for the astronauts. One of the designs therefore looks like a large, white worm with a single enormous eye at the front. The project was cancelled when a probe, Surveyor 4, landed on the Moon and showed that the layer of dust wasn’t very deep and that such eccentric vehicles would not be needed.

It’s an interesting piece of space history, and while I think it would have been difficult and expensive to build the worm rover in practice, as compared to the lunar rover which was used, I’m also a bit disappointed that it wasn’t built. Because artistically, it looks like a great, fun machine. You can imagine what it would have looked like with a number of these crawling slowly across the lunar regolith.

The First Science Fictional UFO Crash: Le Philosophe sans pretention

October 21, 2021

Ufology is full of stories of crashed alien spaceships. The best known is the Roswell UFO crash of 1947, in which the US air force under Hector Quintillana picked up the remains of a flying disc, complete with alien bodies, which came down on Mac Brazel’s ranch. The air force subsequently reversed their statement a day or so later, claiming that what had been recovered was merely a weather balloon, and released a photograph of Major Quintillana with something that certainly looked like the remains of one and not an alien spaceship. Many UFO investigators believe that a real alien spacecraft was recovered, though the late John Keel believed that it was probably a Mogul spy balloon used to gather information on Soviet nuclear tests. There are also stories that a secret autopsy was performed on the alien bodies. This was the basis for the notorious 1990s fake alien autopsy film released by Ray Santilli, and which in turn became the basis for the comedy Alien Autopsy starring Ant and Dec and Omid Djalili, amongst others. But long before the rise of the modern UFO phenomenon, earlier proto-Science Fiction writers were already penning tales of aliens travelling to Earth. One of these was Micromegalas, written by the French philosopher Voltaire. Another French writer, Louis Guillaume de La Follie wrote a similar tale about a scientist from Mercury who invents a spacecraft. This, however, is used by a colleague of the scientist to travel across space before finally crashing on Earth. I found this brief precis of the tale in Frederick I. Ordway’s and Randy Lieberman’s Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press 1992). This is a collection of papers tracing the development of space travel from the ancient world, through the rise of Science Fiction, including the pulp magazines, space art to the development of the rocket and real space vehicles. The passage reads

Some of the characteristics of the modern science fiction novel appeared in a 1775 French workk by Louis Guillaume de La Follie, Le philosophe sans pretention. A strange tale unfolds of Mercurian who arrives on Earth and relates his adventures to one Nadir, an Oriental. It seems that on the planet Mercury an inventor named Scintilla had created a marvelous flying chariot powered by electricity. Amid scorn and ridicule, he proved that his invention would work in an amazing test flight witnessed by members of the Academy. This unleashes a series of events that leads to Mercury’s first spaceflight. Though doubting the practicality of the invention, a colleague named Ormisais nevertheless tries it out and, to his great surprise, the device functions after all. So he flies away to Earth in Scintilla’s electric chariot and, after a fairly standard trip, crash-lands on our world.

There’s also an illustration from the book of the flying chariot, and a caption giving its full title and its English translation: Le philosophe sans pretension ou l’homme rare – The Unpretentious Philosopher or the Unusual Man.

One of the aspects of the UFO phenomenon I find particularly intriguing is the way so much of its resembles Science Fiction and traditional fairy and other supernatural lore. I’m strongly inclined towards the psychosocial view of the phenomenon, which states that it’s an internal, psychological event which uses the imagery and narratives of the wider culture. Thus, while once encounters with the supernatural/ cosmic took the form of the fairies, angels or demons, as society has become more scientific and secular so the experience now has the imagery of aliens and spacecraft. However, John Keel believed that there was a real force outside of our perceptions behind both the fairy and UFO phenomena, which might be using them as a control system for us. See his UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse and Disneyland of the Gods.

Even if the book and its narrative have absolutely no connection to the development of the UFO phenomenon – I doubt outside of a few SF aficionados and literature experts many people have heard of the book, let alone the people who actually witness UFOs – it is a fascinating example of how surprisingly modern the writers of past centuries were in their speculations about space and the inhabitants of other worlds.

Astronomer Percival Lowell’s View of a Peaceful Mars

October 20, 2021

Percival Lowell is the American astronomer most associated with the notorious and unfortunately entirely illusory Martian canals. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli first saw what he called canali in the 19th century, but the Italian can mean both ‘canals’ and ‘channels’. Lowell also believed that they were canals dug by a global Martian civilisation, who used them to bring water from the poles to irrigate their desert planet. For them to achieve this, the highly advanced Martians had finally succeeded in banning war. I found this quotation from the great astronomer in Patrick Moore’s and David A. Hardy’s The New Challenge of the Stars (London: Mitchell Beazley in association with Sidgwick and Jackson Limited 1977), with the authors’ own comments looking forward to a similarly peaceful human colonisation of the Red Planet.

Perhaps we may look back to the words of Percival Lowell, written in 1906. He may have been wrong in his interpretation of the so-called Martian canals, but at least he put forward an idealistic view of the attitude of his ‘Martians’, whom, he believed, had outlawed warfare and had united in order to make the est of their arid world. There could be no conflict upon Mars. In Lowell’s words: ‘War is a survival among us from savage times, and affects now chiefly the boyish and unthinking element of the nation. The wisest realize that there are better ways of practising heroism and more certain ends of ensuring the survival of the fittest. It is something people outgrow.’ Let us hope that we, too, have outgrown it before we set up the first place on the red deserts of Mars.(P. 18).

Okay, the Social Darwinism is grotty, but of its time. And unfortunately humanity has not outgrown its capacity for violence and war, with the 20th century one of the worst periods. But it is an inspiring vision. The late, great comedian Bill Hicks used to end his gigs with a similar vision: If the world spent on peace all the money it now spends on arms, we could end hunger. Not one person would starve, and colonise space in peace forever.

That day can’t come too soon.

Anton Petrov Explains New Advances in Artificial Cells

October 9, 2021

Anton Petrov is a science vlogger on YouTube. Always greetings his viewers with ‘Hello, wonderful person’, he mostly talks about recent advances in space exploration and astronomy. But occasionally he branches out into the other sciences. In this fascinating video, he talks about a recent development in the creation of artificial cells. These are tiny objects that mimic some of the functions of real cells. This new advance is the creation of a process that mimics the energy transfer within real, biological cells. He talks about how artificial cells are formed. They’re microscopically small with a tiny hole. This may allow them to be used as a method for delivering medicines more efficiently into the body. It may also allow them to be used a artificial white blood cells, in which they capture bacteria and viruses through the holes and keep them there.

Of course, we’re a very long way away from that level of technology, but it all reminds me of the artificial humans and animals – replicants – in Ridley Scott’s SF classic Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s also similar to the original robots in Karel Capek’s seminal SF play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. This was the play which introduced the word robot to the English language. It’s Czech for ‘hard work’ or ‘drudgery’. It was also one of the first to portray a robotic revolt. The robots in the play are more like Scott’s replicants than modern robots. They are formed from an artificial substance which mimics biology, so that part of the process in the manufacture of the robots are mills spinning miles of artificial nerves.

A recent item on robots on one of the Beeb’s programmes – it may have been The One Show said that it might be a thousand years before we can create something like a replicant. But watching this video, I do wonder.

Alexander Bogdanov, Soviet SF Writer and Originator of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

September 18, 2021

One of my friends gave me a copy of A.M. Gittlitz’s I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, for which I’m really grateful. It’s fascinating! Posadism is a weird Trotskyite sect, founded by Posadas, the nom-de-guerre of Homero Cristalli, an Argentinian Marxist. They were hardline Marxists, joining other Communist and Trotskyite guerrillas fighting a war against capitalism and Fascist oppression across Latin America and Cuba. From what I remember from an article about them in the Fortean Times, they also looked forward to an apocalyptic nuclear war that would destroy the capitalist nations and allow the workers of the world to seize power. This is frightening, as any such war would have destroyed the planet or at least killed countless billions and sent the survivors hurtling back into the Stone Age. Unfortunately, it was also shared by Chairman Mao, who really couldn’t believe why Khrushchev hadn’t launched a nuclear attack on America during the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev was certainly no angel. During Stalin’s reign he was responsible for organising purges of dissidents in Ukraine and when in power led a brutal crackdown on religion that sent thousands of people of faith, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, shamanists to the gulags. He was also responsible for creating the system of curtained shops which served only members of the Communist party. But in refusing to start a nuclear war, Khrushchev helped save the world and showed himself a far better man than Mao.

But Posadas also had some other, rather more eccentric views. He believed in establishing contact with intelligent aliens and also believed dolphins were another intelligent species with whom we should establish real, meaningful contact and understanding. A college friend of mine told me that they wanted to make contact with aliens because of their belief in the inevitable victory of Marxism. If there were alien civilisations, they reasoned, they would have achieved true, Marxist socialism and could therefore help us do the same. It sound completely bonkers, but they took their views on dolphin intelligence from the scientist and psychologist John Lilley. Many others shared their views. I have a feeling that dolphins feature in several of Larry Niven’s novels as intelligent creatures with whom humans have a relationship as equal species. To help them interact with us, they have been given artificial arms and mobile pods containing the water they need to support them.

There was a brief resurgence of Posadism on the Net in 2016, and the book contains amongst its illustrations a number of memes posted by them. One contrasts the despair and defeatism of capitalism and the mainstream socialist parties with Posadism. It features a grey alien looking on accompanied with slogans like ‘Solidarity with the space comrades’ – not ‘space brothers’, note, like the old-fashioned UFO contactees talked about, but Marxist aliens determined to overthrow capitalism. Other slogans included ‘It’s Communism, Jim, but not a we know it’, clearly a parody of the famous line from Star Trek, ‘It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it’. And there’s also a parody of one of the famous sayings of the Space Prophet himself, Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Posadist meme reworked this as ‘Dialectical Materialism so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.’ They are also in favour of fully automated luxury communism. This is the doctrine, embraced by Yannis Varoufakis amongst others, that mechanisation will make most workers redundant. To prevent the immense harm this will do, the only choice will be for the state to take over industry and run it so that everyone has free access to goods and services. This got reworked in one of the Posadist memes as ‘Fully automated luxury gay communism.’ I have to say this sounds distinctly unappealing. Not because I’m opposed to gay rights, but because it sounds like only gays will be allowed into the new utopia. I hope if it comes, it will benefit everyone, whatever their sexuality.

In fact the idea of fully automated luxury communism and alien contact goes back a long way in Marxist history. Alexander Bogdanov, an early rival to Marx, wrote an SF novel, Red Star. Inspired by Tsiolkovsky, the Russian rocket pioneer, and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, this was about a revolutionary from the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising, who is abducted to Mars. Martian society is advanced both technologically and socially. All the factories are automated, so that goods are plentiful and money is obsolete, as everyone has access to all the goods and services they need or want. As a result, Martians share their possessions. What work remains is entirely voluntary, but done idealistically for the good of society. This includes young Martians donating blood to increase the lives of the elderly. (see page 5 of the above book).

As the Bard says in The Tempest ‘Oh brave new world that hath such people in it!’

Posadas was an eccentric with some extremely dangerous views, but some of his ideas aren’t so daft. If mechanisation proceeds, then I feel that fully automated luxury communism, or something very like it, will have to come into existence. It’s the only humane alternative to the grind mass poverty and despair depicted in dystopian SF stories like 2000 AD’s ‘Judge Dredd’, where 95 per cent of the population of Megacity 1 is unemployed and films like Elysium, where the world’s masses live in shanty towns, workers are exploited and disposable, and the rich live in luxury orbital colonies.

And serious scientists are still looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, following American astronomer Frank Drake and scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan. Interestingly, the book states that Sagan, a Humanist and left-wing activist, denied being a Marxist. But he and his wife Anne Druyan smuggled copies of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, so that Soviet citizens could read its real, suppressed history. I think most SETI scientists believe that real aliens would probably be so different from us that their political and institutions may well be inapplicable to us. Nevertheless advocates of SETI believe that aliens may nevertheless be able to give us vital scientific information, including the cure of disease and how to extend our lifespan. It probably won’t be Marxism, but if the aliens do have something like it or Fascism, then these ideologies will become popular on Earth after contact.

Communist aliens sounds like a ridiculous idea, but until we make contact, we won’t know if there are or aren’t any.

As for the Martian society of Red Star, the absence of a money economy, the abolition of scarcity and work as a purely voluntary activity sound very much like the Federation in Star Trek. Thanks to contact with the Vulcans and other aliens, humans had overcome racism, poverty and starvation. People didn’t need to work, but they did so in order to better themselves. It should be said, though, that the series never openly advocated socialism. It simply said that ‘the economics of the future are different’ and implied that both capitalism and socialism had been transcended. Nevertheless, the parallels are so close that the far right, like Sargon of Gasbag and his fellow Lotus Eaters, have been moaning that Star Trek’s communist. I doubt it, not least because the actress who plays Seven Of Nine is married to a Republican politico. I think Star Trek is broadly liberal and presents an inspiring utopian society. One of the complaints about Star Trek: Picard is that it has now abandoned this utopian optimism in favour of portraying the Federation as a standard SF dystopia and that it’s liberal slant has become too shrill and intolerant at the expense of good stories, plots and characterisation. Utopias are unattainable, but we need them to inspire us, to show us that ‘another world is possible’ and that, in the words of The Style Council, ‘you don’t have to take this crap/ You don’t have to sit back and relax’. Or work yourselves to death to increase the profits of already bloated big business elites.

Apart from this, the book is also a fascinating look at the history of Marxism in Argentina and Latin America, and I intend to review on this blog when I finish it.

As for aliens, well, I’d rather we made contact with benign Space Comrades than the little Grey buggers that haunt our nightmares of UFOs, abductions and malign conspiracies at the moment.

And yes, the title very definitely is taken from the poster of a UFO hanging in Fox Mulder’s office in the X-Files.

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

January 12, 2021

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

The 1920s’ View of the Future

January 10, 2021

I found this fascinating video on the ‘1920s Channel’ on YouTube. It’s about the decades view of the future, taken from the pulp magazine, Science and Invention, founded and edited by Hugo Gernsbach. Gernsbach is one of the major figures in 20th century SF. An immigrant to America from Luxembourg, he was passionately enthusiastic about science and technology and founded the first the first SF pulp magazines. He also wrote an SF novel, Ralph 124C41 + A Romance of the Year 2660, and coined the term ‘scientifiction’ to describe the new genre. This was shortened and altered by his successors and rivals to become the modern term.

The channel’s main man says he’s interested in 1920s futurism because it falls between the ‘Steam Punk’ predictions of the Victorians and the ‘Atom Punk’ of the 1950s and 1960s, although it also has some elements of the ‘Diesel Punk’ of the 1940s. He states that the 1920s and the 1950s were similar decades, in that both followed major wars but were periods of optimism. Most of the illustrations were by Frank R. Paul, Gernsbach’s artist, who is now justly respected as one of the foremost pioneers of SF art. Among the inventions and developments the magazine predicted are massive, skyscraper cities now a staple of SF in such classic films as Metropolis and Blade Runner. But the magazine also predicted underground cities, as well as improved scientific instruments like astronomical telescopes, devices for signalling Mars, bizarre machines for taking care of one’s health, like the ‘sun shower’ and health meter. There are new entertainment media, like television and a cinema with four screens, as well as new musical instruments like the Theremin. This last creates sound through the alteration of a magnetic field by the player’s hands. It’s one of the many instruments played by the hugely talented Bill Bailey. The magazine also looked at the vehicles of the future. These included moving walkways, cars and railways. Cars wouldn’t be confined to the road, but would fly, and the magazine also showed the new aircraft of the future. Humanity would master anti-gravity and fly beyond Earth into space. At the same time, new ships and flying boats would cross the oceans, while people would venture underneath the seas in diving suits that somewhat resemble the metallic suits created to withstand the crushing pressures of the ocean depths. And the magazine also predicted that SF staple, the robot. One of these was to be a ‘police automaton’, like Robocop.

The illustrations are taken from worldradiohistory.com, where they’re available for free, and the video is accompanied by some of the music of the period, so be warned!

Futurism Of The 1920s – YouTube

It’s interesting watching the video to see how much of modern SF was formed in the decade, and to compare its predictions with reality. Most of these predictions haven’t actually become reality. Flying cars are still waiting to happen, we don’t have zeppelin aircraft carriers and skyscraper cities haven’t quite become the dominant urban form. Nor do we have truly intelligent machines and robots. On the other hand, I think the ideas and devices Gernsbach and Paul discussed and portrayed in the magazine still have the power to inspire, and think that they would make a great source of ideas for future, aspiring SF writers.

Radio 4 on the Lunar Eclipse at Christ’s Crucifixion

January 1, 2021

Radio 4 yesterday morning had a piece about eclipses, with the host, who sounded like Melvin Bragg, talking to a group of astronomers, one of whom was a lady solar astronomer. They talked about how exciting eclipses were, how they were inspired in childhood to study them, and how important eclipses were in astronomy. They mostly talked about solar eclipses and how they were originally believed to be a supernatural being eating the Sun. The earliest records of solar eclipses were kept by the ancient Chinese, who believed they were omens from the gods. The Babylonians, however, began to realise that they occurred regularly, and passed this knowledge on to the Greeks. Aristotle realised that the Earth must be circular from watching the Earth’s shadow fall across the Moon during lunar eclipses. The Earth’s shadow was circular, therefore, he reasooned, the Earth itself must also be circular. The astronomers also made the extremely important point that you should never look directly at the Sun. If you were looking at it, you should use special lenses to protect your eyes. Alternatively, you could poke holes through a piece of card to act as a pinhole camera, which would project the Sun’s image.

But what I found really interesting was what they said about eclipses possibly being responsible for the darkness that fell at noon when Christ was crucified. One of the astronomers said that it has been suggested that this darkness was caused by a solar eclipse. However, solar eclipses occur regularly, and there would have been no such eclipse at the time Christ is believed to have been crucified. However, there was an eclipse of the Moon on Friday, 6th April, 33 AD. Which sounds very much like the date of Our Lord’s passion. The astronomers and the host described this as ‘spooky’. It is. If you’re a Christian, it does make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It seems to corroborate somewhat the description of the events of Christ’s death in the Gospels, but it must be said that an eclipse of the Moon wouldn’t cause the darkness earlier in the day. Nevertheless, it does suggest a connection.

The Saturn/Jupiter Conjunction and the Star of Bethlehem

December 30, 2020

One of the interesting pieces of astronomical news this past month was that of a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Conjunctions are when two planets appear next to each other in the sky. This conjunction was particularly interesting, not just because it’s a comparatively rare astronomical event, but also because a similar conjunction 2000 years ago may have been behind the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. In the Bible, the wise men who came to honour Christ at His birth were led to Him by a star. One of the theories that people have devised to explain this is that it may have been another conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred around 3 BC, which many scholars believe is the real date of Christ’s birth. The wise men, magi, were probably mobeds, Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Iran. It’s a dualist faith, holding that the universe was created by two gods, the good god Ahura Mazda or Ormuzd, and Ahriman, the evil god. However, they believe that at the End Time a saviour shall appear, the Saoshyant, who will overcome Ahriman and the forces of evil, Ormuzd will triumph, the Earth will be transformed and new age of eternal peace, justice and goodness will begin. The Zoroastrian priests were also astrologers, and in Babylonian astrology the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn represented the birth of a king. Hence it’s possible that the Persian priests, observing the celestial event, may well have gone westwards seeking the new king it heralded.

That’s one theory. There are others, but this story provided a bit of suitably seasonal material for the media. I don’t know which king’s birth has been announced by this latest conjunction. It certainly isn’t Joe Biden’s, and definitely not Trump, though I don’t doubt that the Orange Generalissimo would have claimed it was had it appeared four years earlier at the start of his term. But Trump is definitely on his way, assuming they can prise him our of the White House. Unfortunately, I see nothing in the stars or anywhere else that suggests we’re going to get a better set of politicians or government in this coming year. Rather the opposite. But still, we live in hope!