Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Muse Go Back to the 80s & 90s with ‘Something Human’

February 20, 2022

Here’s another fun video for those of us, who grew up in the ’80s enjoying some of that decade’s SF and Fantasy movies. I’m a sort of fan of Bournemouth rockers Muse. I like the way their music and videos include science, space and SF themes. ‘Unsustainable’ and ‘Isolated System’, for example, are about the world running out of energy and society collapsing according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that entropy, disorder, in a system only increases as usable energy is expended and transformed into waste heat. Hence, billions of billions of years from the universe will end as a positron-electron plasma just a few degrees above absolute zero. The tracks and the accompanying video are about the possible collapse of society due to an economics centred on growth which uses up all the available resources, a subject of great concern to the ecological movement since the 1970s.

On a lighter note, their video for ‘Something Human’ contains a number of 80s pop SF references., It features one of the band heading out of a city with a population of 213 million plus in a car carrying a video tape. The sign for the city has ‘Infected’ scrawled across it, which might be a reference to either the Resident Evil game and film franchise, or the later Danny Boyle film, 28 Days Later. He’s pursued by the other two, armed with massive guns. As he races down the road he goes back in time, which is surely based on Back to the Future and the time-travelling DeLorean car. Arriving in the past, he finds an abandoned, delapidated video store. His pursuers arrive behind him in an American phone box, which is obviously based on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Then the full moon appears and he turns into a werewolf, which could be based either on Teen Wolf or An American Werewolf in London. After killing his pursuers, he gets back into the car, the moon passes and he becomes human again as he drives back to the future. I’m sure there are other references in there. The big guns could be a reference to the massive weapons sported by the heroes of the various action movies, especially those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But those are the only references I’ve been able to recognise. Still, it’s a bit of fun nostalgia for those of us, who enjoyed 80s movies and the video technology that made the films available to see at home.

A Thorough Critique of Afrocentric Pseudo-History, Psychology, and Science

January 27, 2022

Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso 1998)

This is another excellent book I’ve been reading lately. I first came across in it an excellent review by the Black British writer, Caryl Phillips in the Financial Times at the time it was published, though it’s only now I’ve actually got round to ordering a copy and reading it. Afrocentrism is a set of inter-related, pseudo-academic disciplines based on the claim that the ancient Egyptians were Black and are the unacknowledged source of White western culture, which was stolen from them. Not only were the Egyptians themselves Black, but they may also have derived their culture and achievements in turn from the peoples further to the south, the Nubians and Ethiopians. Some Afrocentrists claim that Greece, Rome and Carthage were originally Black ancient Egyptian colonies and that the original peoples of the British isles were also Black. Some push this claim of Black African primacy even further, claiming that ancient Egyptians travelled to the Americas before Columbus, where they founded the Olmec culture. The ancient peoples of Asia too, the Indians, Thais, Chinese and Japanese were also Black. At the same time ancient Egypt expanded to colonise Africa, where it was also responsible for the major cultural, artistic and architectural achievements. Where these coexisted with alleged brutality and barbarism, as in West Africa, which had a highly sophisticated art alongside human sacrifice, this was due to biological degeneration from the original Egyptian herrenvolk.

Black Americans are held to be part of a single Black race and culture with Black Africans, and Afrocentric scholars are active trying to trace authentic African survivals in the speech, culture and psychology of Black America. There is supposed to be a single Black character and psychology and a distinct Black philosophy. At the same time, ,Afrocentric scholars believe that the Egyptians were masters of political theory and science, which can similarly be grotesquely exaggerated. Some of them claim that the ancient Egyptians knew about quantum physics and gravity and that the Tanzanians had semi-conductors. At the same time they are active researching and promoting various Blacks figures they believe were great scientists. Again, these figures, who could, like Benjamin Banneker, be genuinely impressive in their real lives, and their achievements are often wildly exaggerated.

Unsurprisingly there’s much racism mixed up with this. There’s a bitter hatred of Whites, as well as, Jews and Arabs. One Afrocentric writers claims the latter has been attempting to destroy African civilisation and enslave its peoples for 5,000 years. Which is quite incredible, considering that I think the Muslim Arabs only conquered north Africa in the 7th/8th century AD. There’s also a bitter hatred of homosexuality and strong rejection of feminism. In the early 1960s one Afrocentric group insisted that female members should show their submissiveness by crossing their arms and lowering their heads when one of the men passed them. There’s also an insistence on traditional family structures. At the same time, some believe that Blacks are intellectually and emotionally superior to Whites because of the greater amount of the melanin pigment in their brains.

At their heart, this is an attempt to compensate for the massive racial oppression and disparagement Blacks and their civilisations have suffered over the centuries, far more than any other ethnic group. Yet much Afrocentric scholarship is based on the severely dated writings of 19th and early 20th century European colonial officials and anthropologists, as well as other White writers, who definitely believed that Blacks were inferior. For example, Afrocentric scholars assert that, while Whites and Europeans are logical and rational, Blacks are emotional and intuitive. Which is very much like the old imperialist claim that Blacks were inferior because they weren’t rational and logical. The claim that ancient Egyptians were responsible for the colonisation of Africa and every advance made by the peoples of the continent also derives from 19th and early 20th century White sources. The only difference is that those writers believed that the Egyptians were part of a superior, ‘Hamitic’, White civilisation. And also mixed up with it are various occult, Masonic and New Age ideas. Some of these derive from Albert Churchward, a freemason, who believed that there was a war going on between freemasonry and socialism, and only the former could defend civilisation from the Red Menace. Other figures in the New Age part of the Afrocentric movement include Credo Mutwa, a genuine Zulu shaman, honest guv, and apologist for the South African apartheid state.

Howe’s book traces the history of these ideas, some of which have been around for longer than I thought. I was aware that the claim that the ancient Egyptians were Black and therefore equal to or superior to White civilisation began in the 19th century. I was surprised, however, to find that Black Americans, largely clergymen, were making the claims as early as the 1820s. He carefully distinguishes between those writers, like the Senegalese mathematician and nuclear physicist Cheikh Anta Diop, who, while wrong, nevertheless were diligent researchers and produced significant insights, and others who were far less impressive. Some of the latter can only be described as cranks, like the female Afrocentrist who claims that nearly everything, including Christmas trees, are representations of the Black male genitals. Some of the most virulently anti-White racist material comes from White writers, such as the assertion that Whites are inferior because we’re all descended from the Neanderthals, who are given a whole series of unpleasant traits. Some Afrocentrists seem to have set up their own Stalinist ‘cult of personality’. Molefi Asante, for example, has his own academic department and institute, who members and scholars always pay generous tribute to him for guiding them on their intellectual quest, and largely don’t say anything that wasn’t already said by the master. Quite a number give themselves impressive African names, meaning things like ‘Bearer of Enlightenment’, and a number have also claimed to have been African princes or holy men. Their real identities and backgrounds, however, tend to be much more prosaic. He also notes the connection and major differences with other major figures in Black scholarship and anti-racist campaigning, like Franz Fanon and W.E.B. DuBois, and the French Caribbean Negritude movement.

There are some significant difference between the scholars discussed here. Cheikh Anta Diop believed that ancient Egypt was the source of western culture and I think he wanted Greek and Latin replaced as languages by ancient Egyptian. But while his thinking was highly racialised, he wasn’t a racist. He wanted Blacks to join the global community of peoples as equals. He also believed that civilisation was cyclical, and that as Europeans supposedly took their ideas from Africa, so Africans should now learn from Europeans. Others were definitely racist, such as the speaker at the first Black History Month in 1986 who seemed to advocate shooting Whites, although he couldn’t tell his audience when, where and whom. In the case of Marcus Garvey’s son, this went into pure Black Nazism. When Jamaica celebrated Garvey’s birth in the 1970s, his son called for Garvey’s movement to become a Black National Socialism, because Africa also needs its lebensraum.

Among the researchers and writers examined and critiqued is Martin Bernal, the White author of Black Athena. This caused a major stir when it was published in the 1980s, possibly because, as Bernal himself suggested, he was White. Bernal was able to assemble a massive amount of information and was extensively criticised at the time. But he was also controversial because he believed that ancient Greece was also strongly influenced by the Semitic peoples, specifically the Phoenicians and the Jews. This was in fact based on contemporary Israeli scholarship, and was itself highly controversial. As a result, some of the criticisms of him and his work have a very nasty element of anti-Semitism.

The book is a thorough examination and demolition of Afrocentric scholarship with considerable sympathy for the genuine achievements of Black scholars, some of whom have made very trenchant criticisms. One Ghanaian or Nigerian philosopher lampooned the claim that there is a single, African philosophy based around a transcendent life force. In a spoof article he argued that the English, and therefore all westerners, venerated the mystic force ING, because English verbs often ended in ‘ing’, like ‘doing’ or ‘being’. In fact the claim that there is a single African philosophy comes from Tempels, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, who only researched a single Bantu tribe, and the anthropologist Griaule and his Dogon informant, Ogotommeli. The latter two have become notorious because of their books’ claim that the Dogon had an advanced knowledge of astronomy. They knew that the planets circled the Sun in ellipses, and that Sirius had an invisible companion star. For R.K.G. Temple in the 1970s, it was because they’d been visited by aliens. For the Melanists, it was because they had intuitive knowledge of it through their pineal gland. Howe suggests that Ogotommeli probably knew about it from visiting colonial officials with an interest in the subject, and made the claim that all this was known to the Dogon as a way of pulling this arrogant colonial anthropologist’s leg.

The book also argues that Afrocentric views of Africa are themselves also damaging. They present the continent as a static, unfied culture, which has never suffered war and conflict between its peoples before the advent of Europeans. In fact it’s a continent of many different peoples and cultures. There’s no evidence that it was ever colonised by the ancient Egyptians. Only six ancient Egyptian artefacts have been found outside Egypt and Nubia. And rather than the ancient Egyptians introducing agriculture to the rest of Africa, there is evidence that it was independently discovered in six different places on the continent. As for the assertion that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are the source for various African writing systems, such as the Vai of Liberia, some of these are known to have been invented by specific individuals in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some African peoples are happy to promote the idea that they are descendants of the ancient Egyptians, while others very definitely are not. The problem here is that Afrocentrist claims of Egyptian primacy are obscuring the real achievements of Africa and its peoples.

As for the question of the racial origins of the ancient Egyptians, the book notes that this is a subject of near to Zero interest to professional, mainstream Egyptologists. A number of academics books and journals he surveys make no mention of it. When one does, it is simply to say that it is a distraction from the real issues Egyptologists want to examine. Genetic and craniological examination, however, suggest that the ancient Egyptians were racially identical to other peoples in that part of Africa. They show genetic links to the peoples of Neolithic Europe, the Middle East and India, and lesser genetic connections to the peoples further south. The Egyptian scholars themselves, however, see themselves as racially mixed and there was an argument at a conference in Cairo when the Black Americans insisted that they were Black. I also find some of the Afro-centrists’ concern to establish the racial identity of the Nubians rather odd. One Afrocentric writer hoped that one day science would be able to reconstruct the features of the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa from its skull fragments, and that these would show he was Black. I found this quite puzzling, as I’ve always assumed that the Nubians were Black. In fact I’ve never seen anything said to the contrary. When TV documentaries refer to Egypt’s Black pharaohs, they usually refer to the period when the country was conquered and ruled by Nubian kings. I honestly don’t know who these people are that assert that the Nubians were White, unless it’s some of the White writers the Afro-centrists have discovered in their search for suitable sources.

This pseudo-scholarship is spreading massively. The book notes the large number of university departments teaching it, as well as college and private schools and the torrent of books published, some of them also aimed at schools. It’s alarming that such pseudo-scholarship has become so widespread. And rather than liberating, as Afrocentric scholars believe, he makes the point that the subject is deeply racist, drawing on the same sources as White racists.

But rather than be angered by it, he finds it immensely sad.

Independent: Venus Could Have Completely Alien Lifeforms in Cloud Layer

December 21, 2021

The Independent has published a piece by Adam Smith reporting that scientists at Cardiff University, MIT and Cambridge University have modelled a series of chemical reactions based on a ammonia, which would neutralise sulfuric acid droplets. Venus has a lethal atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, where it rains sulfuric acid, and an atmospheric pressure and temperature much higher than Earth. Probes sent to the planet have lasted only a few minutes after landing because of the immensely harsh conditions. However, as the article states, ammonia has also been detected in its atmosphere, that might indicate that it has life. The article states that this would be ‘unlike anything we’ve seen’, which sounds like there could be large creatures moving around in the planet’s cloud layer. Unfortunately, as the article goes on to say, if life exists it’s going to be microbes, but microbes of a very different biochemistry. The article begins:

‘Researchers believe that there could be potential lifeforms producing ammonia in the clouds of Venus that are “very unlike anything we’ve seen”.

The colourless gas, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, could be indicative of chemical reactions that would make the planet – 47.34 million kilometres from Earth – more habitable to alien life.

On our planet, ammonia is a common left-over waste from aquatic organisms. Its presence in Venus’ upper atmosphere has been puzzling astronomers since the 1970s – with scientists believing that it should not be produced by any known force on the world.

Venus itself is so hot that it is inconceivable to have life forms, and if there is life in the clouds it is likely to be microbes like Earth bacteria – albeit with a chemical composition unlike that we have seen on our planet, or even neighbouring planets like Mars.

This is because life on Mars is more likely to be similar to that on Earth and so scientists have a greater idea of what to expect. Venus, in contrast, is unlike any other planet in the solar system.

In a new study, researchers from Cardiff University, MIT and Cambridge University modelled a set of chemical processes to show that – if ammonia is indeed present – it would set off a cascade of chemical reactions that would neutralize surrounding droplets of sulfuric acid.’


This is interesting, and Venus certainly has the organic chemistry necessary for life, and I think the temperature and pressure in the cloud layer is roughly suitable. But I’m pessimistic about there being life on Venus. We haven’t found it elsewhere in the solar system yet, although it could be preserved in refugia deep in the rocks and artesian wells on Mars or in the subterranean oceans believed to be under Jupiter’s moon Europa. But I’m not confident of its existence there, either. We were disappointed when the Mariner probe got to Mars in the 1960s, and found that instead of being roughly like Earth, it was more like the Moon. Before then, astronomers had observed seasonal changes of colour on the planet, and suggested it was due to changes in vegetation, possibly mosses and lichens. And then, of course, there was speculation about Martian canals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There may yet be life in the solar system. I hope so, but I’m not confident. And the only way to find out is to go there. Until then, we’ll have to wait and see, whatever planet it’s on it.

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.