Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Britain Aims for Communications Contract for Moon Space Station

July 14, 2019

Yesterday’s I, for Saturday 13th July 2019, also carried from encouraging space news in an article page 13, ‘UK seeks to play key mission role’ by Jamie Harris. This reported that Britain is trying to get the communications contract for a space station around the Moon. The article ran

Britain hopes to provide essential communication between the Moon and scientists back on Earth as multinational plans to build a new space station get under way.

The UK Space Agency is bidding for a slice of key activity on the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, which is intended to serve as laboratory and short-term accommodation post for astronauts.

In November, the next round of funding decisions will be determined by the European Space Agency, of which Britain is a member.

Guildford-based SSTL is bidding to be technology provider for communications, allowing astronauts and rovers on the Moon to send data.

Sue Horne, the head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “We’d like to do the communications system and the refuelling element. On the refuelling, it is probably fifty-fifty. We have a much better chance of getting the communications.”

News that the space authorities are considering building a lunar space station were revealed last week by the head of Human Resources for the British Space Agency in Swindon on The One Show. The show was doing an item on women in space, presented by Carol Vorderman. It was part of the season of features celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings. The programme discussed women’s contribution to the American space programme. It was a female engineer, who devised the rocket fuel that allowed the Americans to launch their first space probe, Explorer 1, successfully. It was a female nutritionist, who came up with the idea that astronauts should eat good, nutrious, tasty and varied meals. That’s obviously important, because for people working in isolated, dangerous environments, like the poles, meal times can become the highlight of the day and they’re important in keeping up morale. The programme also mentioned that the number of female employees at NASA has grown from a handful when it began, to 40 per cent now.

The HR head added that the British space programme was set to expand, and stated that there were plans to build a lunar space station. Which is why the British equivalent of NASA, based in Swindon, was expanding. And they were looking for all kinds of people, not just scientists and engineers.

So, with luck, there could be some fascinating and inspiring careers in space research for some people! 

The item did not, however, mention some other instances where women, including those from ethnic minorities, were involved in the American space programme. Like the ladies, who trained as Mercury astronauts before the Agency decided that they weren’t going to send women into space, or the group of Black female mathematicians, who did the calculations for the Moon landings. These ladies must have been absolutely brilliant, because the maths behind space travel can be terrifyingly hard. Let’s face it: it is rocket science! But I guess these pieces were left out as there have already been a number of books and features about them already. There has even been a female about the Black lady mathematicians.

I’m extremely encouraged by the news that humanity is planning to return to the Moon, fifty years after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and co. set foot, and I really hope that this time Britain will be there also in some capacity.

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Brian Cox Reveals Great Cthulhu on Pluto

June 27, 2019

Brian Cox’s astronomy series, The Planets, shown on BBC 2, came to an end on Tuesday. After taking the viewer on a tour of the solar system and its creation and history, looking at Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, it finished by looking at the planets in the freezing depths of space almost at its limits – Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and the various other dwarf planets believed to have come in from the Kuiper Belt, like Quaeor, Varuna, Eris, and one of the strangest objects discovered in the group, Ultima Thule. This last has a dumb-bell shape, formed by two spherical asteroids collided and fused. It also showed some of the spectacular photographs sent back by recent NASA probes into that almost unimaginably remote part of the Solar system.

Far from being a featureless ball of ice, Pluto was shown to be a world of mountains, with craters like the Moon and a heart-shaped plain. This was believed to have been created through liquid water welling up from beneath its icy crust, smoothing over any impact craters on the surface. And one of these topographical features had a name to delight fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s SF/Horror fiction: Cthulhu Macula. Of course, the cold, dim, icy edge of the solar system is very suitable for a place named after one of the malign cosmic gods of the Cthulhu mythos, the Great Old Ones, who seeped down from the stars. Like Great Cthulhu himself, sleeping in his house in the sunken island of R’lyeh in the Pacific, they are dormant, just waiting their chance to return and once again subdue humanity to their hideous power. It also shows how there must be at least one person in NASA, if not the rest of the Astronomical Union, who’s into Lovecraft.

But there’s another, historical reason why this part of Pluto should have been named after one of Lovecraft’s monstrous fictional creations. One of the evil extraterrestrial races in his short stories is the Fungi from Yuggoth, otherwise known as Pluto. These are space travelling giant insects, at least in appearance, who have established bases on Earth. They are masters of surgery. Unable to bring their agents to their homeworld complete, they surgically remove their brains, keeping them in a suitable life-support container when they fly through the depths of space. Lovecraft wrote the story in which they make their appearance the year Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and so wrote the newly discovered world into the story.

The Planets has been an excellent series, not least for its computer recreations of scenes from the solar system’s remote past. It also had a fitting choice of band for its signature music: Muse. The Bournemouth band have written a series of hits about space and physics, like ‘2nd Law’, ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, while the video for ‘Sing For Absolution’ had them as astronauts fleeing an Earth in the grip of a new Ice Age, to travel into a future when the Sun is hotter and the Earth a burned cinder.

I don’t know if there will ever be a crewed mission to Pluto. Given that it’s five decades since we put men on the Moon, and are only now considering returning there, it’s not going to be any time soon. And I really doubt that we will find Great Cthulhu himself there when we do. Perhaps that’s what was need to keep up interest in space exploration: we should have found Cthulhu there, in his city where the angles are wrong, waiting for when the stars are right.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu R’lyeh ftagn!

 

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.

Examining Jeanette Winterson’s Ideas on AI and Literature

June 4, 2019

Last Saturday’s I for 1-2 June 2019 carried an interview in its ‘Culture’ section with the literary novelist, Jeanette Winterson, about her latest work, Frankissstein. This is another take on Frankenstein, with one strand of the book set in the contemporary world and exploring AI, the downloading of the human mind into computers and literature. Winterson’s the second literary novelist, following Ian McEwan, to turn to the world of robotics for their subject matter. I’ve critiqued both of them, based on reviews in the papers, because this comes across to me very much of another instance of ‘literary’ novelists appropriating Science Fiction subjects and issues, while disdaining and ignoring the genre itself.

Winterson’s interview with Max Liu was also very interesting in other respects, and worth reading. While I am not remotely inclined to read her book, and have real objections to some of her statements on philosophical grounds, I also found that there was much that she said, which I agreed with. Particularly about the exploitation of British communities under Brexit.

The Interview

The article, on page 49, was prefaced with the statement Jeanette Winterson talks to Max Liu about AI and why the novel could die if it doesn’t reinvent itself’. It ran

Jeanette Winterson would like to upload her brain to a computer. “It were possibl, I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to find out what it’s like to live without a body,” she says when we meet to discuss Frankissstein, her new novel about artificial intelligence. “I had a very religious upbringing, so to me, the idea that the body is just a house is normal.”

The 59-year-old wrote about her Pentecostal childhood in her semi-autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). For the past couple of years, she has been reading about AI and robotics at the same time as thinking about Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein. In her latest novel, the young Shelley appears as a character.

“I started writing about Mary in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century then worked my way to the present,” says Winterson. “There was no point setting a novel about AI in the future, because I wanted readers to realise the future is here. We don’t know how far big money has gone in developing AI, but I suspect it’s much further than we think.”

Winterson believes “we’re living in an ahistorical world where people don’t know how we got here”, the pace of change since the Industrial Revolution leaving us bewildered. “By its nature, reading slows us down,” she says,”so I’m pushing against the acceleration of modern life, creating imaginative space for readers to inhabit. Anybody who can imagine something is in control.”

Her new novel’s present-day characters include Ry, a transgender doctor, and Winterson says: “One of my godchildren identifies as transgender and I’ve been reading a lot about that because I thought I needed to understand. The idea of identity being provisional fed into this novel. Much Western thought rests upon the idea that there is a core self that we can know and perfect, but probably there isn’t.

Ray falls in love with Ron, who is trying to make his fortune by designing sex dolls. Ron plans to exploit post-Brexit tax breaks by opening a factory in Wales. “I hate to see how my class has been manipulated by people who have no thought and no care for them,” says Winterson. “I’m ashamed of my country for turning its back on a European project and choosing nationalism.”

Were she to live for another 100 years, Winterson says she would retrain as a scientist. Does this mean she doesn’t see a future for the novel?

“The novel is only on its way out if it doesn’t change,” she says. “In the 80s, it was too middle-class and too male. Then Angela Carter came along and was so fresh, but she had a terrible time initially. The example of English literature’s conservatism that kills me is when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984 and Carter’s Nights at the Circus wasn’t even shortlisted. It was the year before I published Oranges and I just thought: “This is so dull.”

In Frankissstein, one character says the urge to write comes from vanity, but Mary counters that it’s about hope. Which is it from Winterson? “My writing is a message in a bottle. I won’t be here long enough to get my brain uploaded, so I’m chucking this message overboard in the hope it will move the conversation on.”

Moravec, Transhumanism and Max Headroom

It would be interesting to find out what Winterson had been reading as her research for her book. My guess it would almost certainly include Hans Moravec and the downloaders and transhumanists. They aim to upload their minds into machines. A little while ago they held a party at which they avowed their intention to meet each other on the other side of the Galaxy in a million years’ time. Which is some ambition. I think Moravec himself believes that by this middle of this century the technology should have been perfected that will allow a human brain to be read in such minute detail that its functions can be reproduced on computer. This was the premise behind the Max Headroom pilot, 20 Minutes into the Future. In this tale, broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality, is created when his human original, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future London, knocks himself unconscious going through a crash barrier to escape the villains. The journo’s body is retrieved, and used by a teenage computer whizzkid, Brice, who seems to spend his whole life in the bath, to create Headroom as an experiment. The character takes his name from the last thing his original sees before he goes through the barrier: a sign saying ‘Max Headroom’.

Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

I also wonder if she read any of the SF literature about downloading and cyberspace, including one of the first novels to tackle the subject, John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect, published in 1970. This is about Bob Shairp, a man reduced to date and stored on computer tape. I haven’t read it, but according to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree,

it is a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its target, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley. (p. 307).

Future Shock and the Global Rate of Change

Winterson’s comment that it was useless to set the book in the future, as the future is already here, is very similar to the remarks I heard about two decades ago by William Gibson, one of the founders of the Cyberpunk SF genre. Speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of literature, Gibson said that the future was already here, it was just wasn’t spread out the same everywhere, so there were parts of the world, such as the developing countries, where it wasn’t present to the same extent as the more advanced West. As for her comments about living in an ahistorical age, where people don’t know how we got here, and the pace of change is accelerating, this sounds very close to Alvin Toffler and his idea of future shock, where societal change is now so advanced and rapid that it is profoundly disorienting. But it is possible to exaggerate the speed of such changes. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, that argued that the impact of modern technology is vastly overestimated. The internet, for example, it was claimed, isn’t half as revolutionary as it is made out as it is only a development of earlier technologies, like the telegram. It’s a contentious claim, but in many ways the most rapid technological, social and economic changes were in the century following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1937. That was when Britain was transformed from an agricultural, almost feudal country into a modern, industrial society. Britain’s empire expanded massively, communications improved allowed the rapid movement of information, goods and people across the globe. It was the period when new transport technologies like the railway, the automobile, the electric tram, dirigible balloons, aeroplanes and the rocket were created, along with inventions like the X-Ray, electric light, the telegram, telephone, radio and the first experiments in television, and, of course, sound recording and the cinema. Contemporary technological advances can be seen as refinements or improvements on these, rather than completely new inventions.

Transgender People and the Question of Core Personality

I also have objections to her comments about whether or not there is a core, human personality. I’ve no doubt that one argument against it is that many people would be very different if they had had a different upbringing. If they’d been born into a different class, or allowed to study a particular subject at school or university, or if they’d decided to pursue a different career. And, obviously, if they’d been born a different gender. But twin studies suggest that people do have some aspects of their character determined by their biology rather than their upbringing. And I don’t think she makes her argument by pointing to transpeople. As I understand it, many transpeople believe very strongly that they have a core personality or nature. It’s just that this is at opposition to their biological gender. Hence their desire to change. It isn’t simply that they simply decide at some point that they want to change their sex, which would be the case if it was simply the case that they had no core personality. But perhaps Winterson’s godchild is different.

Computers and the Existence of Self 

I’m also suspicious of the idea, as it sounds rather close to the ideas of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmoore that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is simply a meat machine for running memes, discrete units of culture like genes are discrete units of biological information. On the other hand, when she says that existing as a disembodied entity on a computer doesn’t seem strange to her because of her religious background, she’s in agreement with Paul Davies. In his book, God and the New Physics, he stated that he’s prepared to accept that life can exist outside the body because of the way computers could be used to simulate human personalities. I can remember reading that the wife of one of the leading downloaders was a Methodist minister. He commented about this apparent contradiction between their two disciplines by saying that they were both trying to do the same thing, but by different methods.

The Manipulation of the Working Class

I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with Winterson’s comments about how her class is being manipulated by people, who give them no thought and no care for them. The idea that the creation of tax breaks for businesses after Brexit would allow an amoral entrepreneur to build a factor for sex robots in Wales is all too credible. Just as I agree with her about Britain turning it’s back on the EU, though I also have strong criticisms of the European Union. But Brexit has been and is being used by the Tory extreme right and its related movements, like UKIP and Farage’s noxious Brexit people, to manipulate the working class and exploit them. If you look at what Boris Johnson and Farage want, the privatisation of the NHS to American private healthcare firms is very much on the table.

Conservatism, Sexism, Literature and Literary Snobbishness

She was also right about the conservatism and sexism of the literary world in the 1980s. Private Eye’s literary column attacked Hotel du Lac for its snobbishness at the time. And the Orange Prize for literature was set up because it was felt that women were being unfairly excluded from the main literary prizes. However, the remarkable success of women writers in winning the mainstream awards has also, in the view of Private Eye a few years ago, also called into question the reason for Orange Prize. Why have a separate prize for women when that year the lists were dominated by female writers? And as for Angela Carter, I wonder if some of the problems she had didn’t just come from her writing feminist magic realist tales and fairy stories, but also because the genre SF/Fantasy crowd liked her. Flicking through an old SF anthology I found in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a piece by her about literary theory along with pieces by other, firmly genre figures. A few years ago Terry Pratchett commented that the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival looked at him as if he was going to talk to his fans about motorcycle maintenance, and he was certainly subject to appalling snobbery by the literary critics when he started out. I think it’s therefore quite possible that Carter was disdained by those who considered themselves the guardians of serious literature because she was too genre. But I also wonder if Winterson herself, despite her deep love of Carter’s work, doesn’t also have the same attitude that sees genre fiction as somehow not proper literature, as she, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the others write.

I have to say that I don’t see the death of novel being anywhere near imminent. Not from looking along the shelves at Waterstone’s, and particularly not in the genre fiction, crime, horror, and SF. But it says something about the apparent lack of inspiration in literary fiction that it is turning to SF for its subjects. Winterson said some fascinating things in her interview, but to me, genre SF still did AI, robots and downloading first and better than the mainstream novelists now writing about it.

 

Astronauts Could Live in Moon Caves

May 22, 2019

Bit of science news now. Monday’s I, for 20th May 2019, carried an article by Francis Blagburn, with the same title as this article, on page 22, reporting that an American lunar scientist, Daniel Moriarty III, has suggested that astronauts to the Moon could live in its caves. The article ran

Astronauts could make use of the Moon’s nature cave structures to live inside small, natural shelters, according to Nasa.

The novel approach could see astronauts making camp in tunnel-like chambers on the surface of the Moon left by molten activity.

Dr Daniel Moriarty III, a post-doctoral lunar scientist, was speaking as part of an “ask me anything” session on social networking website Reddit when he discussed the concept.

“I think it makes sense to work within some of the structures and resources that are already there,” he wrote.

“It could be interesting to set up shop within a pre-existing lava tube, which could provide shielding from temperature variations and incoming solar radiation.”

Nasa’s next bout of lunar exploration is the Artemis mission, due to be launched in 2024. President Donald Trump has backed the plans and embraced space travel as a theme. “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6bn so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!,” he tweeted last week.

It’s a good idea, but not as new as the paper believes. Scientists have argued for some time that future explorers of the Moon and Mars would have to build their bases underground in order to shelter from the ambient cosmic radiation. It’s why the lunar base in Kubrick’s class 2001 is underground, and the Martian city in Paul Verhoeven’s ’80s’ version of Total Recall is built into the sides of a canyon. As are many of the Martian cities in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy charting the colonisation of the Red Planet, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. And the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, suggested that future colonists of the Moon would live in the caves there in his book, Man and the Planets, published in the early 1980s. He drew on science fiction for some of the ideas discussed in the book, and the SF work he used for that suggestion had the colonists walking about in conditions of near nudity in lunar caverns. Well, I suppose the engineers would keep it at a constant, regulated temperature, so you wouldn’t have to worry about getting cold, except perhaps in an emergency when these systems failed. But that idea now seems very dated now in contemporary, post-AIDS culture. The idea clearly reflects the changing attitude towards nudity and sexual morality of the late ’60s and ’70s rather than a realistic prediction of future lunar fashions.

I am very solidly behind these proposals for humanity’s return to the Moon, whether done by NASA with the Artemis project or their private competitors, Jeff Bezos and co. Hopefully it won’t be too long at all before we see people living in lunar and Martian caverns for real. Though more suitably dressed for television reports back to Earth.

Time Travel Tale of Scientists Warning of Ecological Collapse: Gregory Benford’s ‘Timescape’

May 10, 2019

Gregory Benford, Timescape (London: Victor Gollancz 1980).

Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, has asked me to do a review of Gregory Benford’s time machine book, Timescape. I read it a few years ago, having bought the 1996 edition, over a decade and a half after it was first published. It is just a bit dated now in its prediction of life in 1998, but still well-worth reading if you’re into physics and hard SF.

Benford, the ‘Galactic Centre’ Novels and Timescape

Gregory Benford is an American astronomer and hard SF writer. He’s probably best known for his ‘Galactic Centre’ series of novels. Set thousands of years in the future, this is about the last remnants of humanity battling for survival against a ruthless and almost overwhelmingly superior machine civilisation, the Mechs, at the centre of the Galaxy. Hard SF is the type of science fiction that tries as far as possible to keep to established scientific rules. Such as, for example, the inviolability of the rule of Relativity, so that there are no Faster Than Light drives taking humans to the stars in a matter of hours, days or months rather than years. But that doesn’t mean ruling out other scientific advances, like time travel. Several of the ‘Galactic Centre’ novels are set in an artificial environment within the Black Hole at the centre of our Galaxy, where careful engineering by alien creatures formed of pure magnetism have merged two Black Holes to form an artificial environment of warped space time, within which humans and organic aliens are able to seek sanctuary from the Mechs. The curvature of spacetime and stress cracks within it in this environment allow the inhabitants to travel backwards and forwards in time. One of the novels features the adventures of a modern human family, who are forced to flee forward in time as the Mechs invade, almost to the end of time itself.

Brief Synopsis

Timescape doesn’t go that far, and is very firmly set in the recent past, and near future according to the time it was written. It’s the tale of two scientists and their friends, Gordon Bernstein and his fellows at CalTech in 1963, and Gregory Markham, an American scientist and his friend Markham, at Cambridge Uni in 1998. Bernstein is a young graduate student, who detects strange signals from an experiment he and his fellows are running, signals that he gradually begins to realize cannot be explained as just random noise or the product of background radiation. In 1998 Markham and Renfrew are working on ways to generate tachyons, faster than light subatomic particles that will travel back in time through bombarding iridium with high energy particles. They hope that by creating such particles, they may be able to use them to send a warning to the past.

The Earth in this very near future is dying. The ecology is collapsing through a deadly bacteriological bloom that destroys vegetable and animal life. The result is global famine, poverty and social unrest, with food rationing and bands of hostile, violent beggars moving across England. Markham and Renfrew hope they can send a message to the past detailing how the disease can be fought and eradicated in order to save civilisation by preventing the catastrophe occurring in the first place.

Time Travelling Subatomic Particles from Space

The idea of using subatomic particles and quantum physics to contact the past is highly speculative, of course, but not unreasonable. Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that information is able to move backwards through time, so that events in the future are able to determine the results of certain experiments, for example. There was also speculation in the 1990s that some subatomic particles reaching Earth from despite might be tachyons in origin. I can’t quite remember whether these were a type of neutrino or meson, but the theory was that they were produced by high energy events in space, such as supernovas. This produced tachyons, which traveled backwards in time until they decayed to become neutrinos or mesons or whatever, which were then able to be detected by scientists.

The Connecticutt College Professor’s Time Machine

Also in the 1990s came a plan by a Black professor at Connecticutt Community college to build a real, working time machine. This wouldn’t be able to transport people, just other subatomic particles back into the past. The idea was to create an Einstein-Rosen Condensate of iridium ions. An Einstein-Rosen Condensate is a strange state of matter where a plasma – an ionised gas is supercooled so that its component particles behave as a single particle. This plasma was to be whirled around in a chamber mimicking the spin of stars. Stars are so massive that as they spin, they pull the fabric of space time itself around after them. The effect has been observed around the Sun, providing confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It has been suggested that this effect could be used in the case of extremely massive objects, like Black Holes, to travel back in time. You simply enter the region of space being dragged around by the Black Hole, and then travel in the opposite direction to the local movement of spacetime. This should make you go back in time, it is suggested, and so you should be able to leave that area of space some time in the past, before you entered it. The professors plan worked along similar lines. Electrons would be shot into the chamber in the opposite direction to the circulation of the condensate. This should allow them to travel back into the past. If the scientists running the experiment found a larger number of electrons in the condensate than normal or otherwise explained, before they had started shooting them into it, then it would mean that the electrons had traveled there from the future. Time travel, or at least that possibility of communication between past and future, would be possible.

This obviously got very many people very excited. H.G. Wells’ grandson, who directed the ’90s version of his grand-dad’s classic, The Time Machine, appeared in a documentary telling us that the age of time travel was almost upon us. The experiment was due to be run aboard one of the space shuttles, but I think it must have been cancelled when one exploded, thus grounding the fleet and finally endings its use.

Time and the Weird World of Quantum Physics

Benford warns in his acknowledgements that

Many scientific elements in this novel are true. Others are speculative, and thus may well prove false. My aim has been to illuminate some outstanding philosophical difficulties in physics. If the reader emerges with the conviction that time represents are fundamental riddle in modern physics, this book will have served its purpose.

Which must be one of the rare occasions when a scientist writes a book to show how mysterious and incomprehensible a scientific phenomenon is, rather than how it can be grasped and understood. This famously applies to quantum physics. As one prominent scientist said of this subject, you don’t understand it, you just get used it.

Science and Society in the ’60s and ’90s

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of physics in the book, though none of its so hard that only physics graduates, let alone the late Stephen Hawking, would be the only people that understand it. And the book does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like doing physics at an advanced level in the early 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Gordon Bernstein, the hero of the early years, is a New York Jew, whose girlfriend, Marjorie, is a Conservative gentile. As his investigations proceed, he first believes that the signals are messages from space before coming to understand they’re from the future instead. He faces scepticism and opposition from his colleagues and academic supervisors, and risks being failed and his academic career and research terminated. as he goes on and his theories become public, he suffers from the attentions of the press and a procession of cranks, who traipse through his office door offering their own weird theories. I think this is a common experience to many astronomers and cosmologists. I can remember reading a comment by one such scientist that hardly a week went by without him receiving in the mail letters from people explaining their ‘theory of the universe’. At the same time, Bernstein’s relationship with his girlfriend also comes under pressure. His family don’t approve, and would like him to marry a nice Jewish girl instead. There are also political disagreements. Penny and her friends fully support the Vietnam War, views that aren’t shared by the liberal Bernstein. But in a twist, it’s Penny who understands that the waiters at their favourite restaurant are gay, is comfortable with that fact.

Back in Blighty in 1998, Markham’s and Renfrew’s backgrounds are solidly middle class. This is still a world where women were expected to stay home and cook, and the aristocracy still wields power and influence. A society in which entitled public school boys shout their food and alcohol choices in the local pub in Latin. It’s a world in which Markham is an outsider, and resents the privilege and condescension of the upper class Brits among which he moves.

Timescape and ’70s Fears of the End of Civilisation

Like much near-future SF, the book’s now dated. 1998 is now twenty years ago, and fortunately civilisation has not collapsed. Not yet. The book was partly a product of the sense of crisis in the 1970s, when many people really did fear the end of civilisation through industrial and social unrest and ecological collapse. It was predicted that overpopulation would result in mass famine, while the resources would run out and the Earth itself become uninhabitable through massive pollution. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. Not yet. But there is still a real danger of global civilisation collapsing through irreversible ecological damage from climate change and pollution, and algal blooms are poisoning the water in some parts of the world. Despite it’s age, the book thus remains acutely relevant.

Social Change and the Rise of Domestic Computers

In other respects, the book as a prediction of the future hasn’t worn quite as well. The advance of feminism in the 1980s and ’90s meant that traditional gender roles were breaking down as women sought careers outside the home. By 1998 there was the expectation that both partners in a relationship would be working, and the old domestic arrangement in which women looked after children and the home and were supported by their husbands was seen as anachronistic. At the same time, he also doesn’t predict the advances in information technology that has produced the home and personal computers or mobile phones. There is, however, a machine called the Sek, which is a type of answerphone and database, if I recall correctly.

Conclusion

These differences between the book’s expectation of what the ’90s would be like and the reality actually don’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the story. Science Fiction tends not to be very good at predicting the future. If it was, then humanoid robots with a comparable level of intelligence and genuine consciousness, like Star Wars’ C3PO, would be in every home and we would already have colonies on the Moon, Mars and Earth orbit. We don’t have any of that. But we do have personal computers, the internet and mobile phones, as well as a variety of industrial machines, which weren’t predicted. Many SF novels still remain worth reading even though their predictions of the future, or the contemporary present in which they were set, are dated. These include such classics as those of H.G. Wells’, Jules Verne, John Wyndham and so on. What matters in the story and the writer’s ability to create a convincing, fascinating world, which Timescape does.

While some of its details are inaccurate, this is still a readable, gripping story with a solid base in plausible science, and whose warning about environmental decline is, horrendously, just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1980.

 

Yay! David R. Bunch’s ‘Moderan’ Now Back in Print

May 7, 2019

Bit of good news for fans of classic SF. Looking through the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s last week, I found that David R. Bunch’s Moderan was now in print. This was published in 1971, and is really a series of vignettes originally published in small magazines, as well as the big SF mags Amazing and Fantastic. These are set in a future in which organic humanity has decided that its reached the end of its natural evolution, and to evolve further it must transform itself into machines. This process is described as it affects the hero, Stronghold 10. The style is superficially sympathetic to heighten what the reality of what this new, cyborg humanity has become: immortal, but paranoid with each stronghold at war with their neighbours.

Brian Aldiss gives as sample paragraph of Bunch’s prose style, which explains the background to the novel, in his and David Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion Year Spree:

Now, to turn tedious for a time, this is what happened. Flesh-man had developed to that place on his random Earth-ball home where it was to be the quick slide down to oblivion. All the signs were up, the flags were out for change for man and GO was DOWN. To ENDING. Flesh-man was at the top, far as he could climb as flesh-man, and from there he was certain to tumble. But he had the luck to have these brave good white-maned men in the white smocks, the lab giants, the shoulders, and great-bulged thighs of our progress (what matter if they were weazened, probe-eyed, choleric scheming, little men sometimes – more often than not, REALLY?) authors of so much of man’s development and climb to that place where he was just due to die, expire, destroy himself and his home at this grand stage of development to make new-metal man and set him in the Strongholds upon the plasto-coated Earth that had been man’s random and inefficient home. New-metal replaced flesh (down to the few flesh-strips and those, we hope, may soon be gone) the bones were taken out and new metal rods, hinges and sheets put in (it was easy!) and the organs all became engines and marvellous tanks for scientifically controlled functional efficiency forever. YAY! Don’t you see?! Our Scientists made of life-man (the VERY-STRANGE-accident man) essentially a dead-elements man, one who could now cope with eternity, but he certainly was not a dead man. AH! Heavens no! He was alive! with all the wonderful scienc3e of the Earth ages, and just as functional as anyone could wish. YAY! science, take your plaudits now! You’ve shown what was meant from the beginning for the VERY-STRANGE-accident man. (p.324).

Aldiss states that it’s a technophobic piece in the SF tradition of questioning technological progress that began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Moderan was out of print for a long time, so I’m looking forward to reading it some time. Bunch also wrote poetry in an avant-garde style very much like his prose, though in verse. A collection of his pieces, of which only one or two were SF, The Heartacher and the Warehouseman, was published in the 1990s. The title poem is set in the Moderan world, and is about one of these cyborgs coming to a warehouse carrying his pump in his heart. He complains that he – and all the other cyborgs – have no heart. The cyborg warehouseman, suspicious, retreats behind his armoury of weapons, informing him of all the cyborg bits and pieces they have, like hearts and mechanical fingers. But he fails to understand the man’s real complaint – that their civilisation has no heart in the metaphorical sense. The warehouseman drives the Heartacher away, but wonders what will happen to him as he retreats back into his cubby-hole.

It’s one of those pieces that was acutely relevant in the 1990s, when there was much talk among the chattering classes of transhumanism and cyborgisation. It was the decade when Radio 3 broadcast the series Grave New Worlds examining these possibilities through interviews with writers, artists and scientists, including Paul J. McAuley, J.G. Ballard and the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, who really has tried to turn himself into a cyborg in performances in which he wired himself up to the net, so that images found online would work his body automatically through galvanic stimulators some Borg organic puppet, and by giving himself a third, cybernetic arm. It’s still relevant as prosthetic limbs continue to improve. While these are an immense benefit to those, who have lost their real limbs through accident or disease, it does raise the question of how far this process can go and humans become the cyborgs of SF. This was the central question David Whittaker was pondering when he created Dr. Who’s cybermen. Bunch’s novel also seems to have influenced one of the writers of Dr. Who Magazine way back in the ’70s. One of the comic strips, Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman, was about a cyberman, who had some how retained his emotions and compassion. The story was set on the planet ‘Moderan’. And in the 1980s the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, expressed concerns that people, who were heavily reliant on medical machines suffered a loss of creativity when he explored the possibility of similar mergers between humans and machines in his class Man and the Planets.

I’m glad that this lost classic is back in print. But still more than a little annoyed that it, and other SF works like it, are overlooked by the literary crowd in favour of those by ‘literary’ authors like Ian McEwan. Sorry to ride this old hobby-horse again, but a few weeks ago there was an interview with McEwan in the I. The newspaper mentioned to him that Science Fiction fans were upset about him denying that his book was part of the genre. McEwan repeated his sentiment, saying it wasn’t SF, but was based on him considering real world issues. Well, so is much Science Fiction, all the way back to Frankenstein. Aldiss has praised it as the first real work of Science Fiction as it was based on science as it was known at the time. This was Galvani’s experiments making the severed legs of frogs twitch and move through electricity. McEwan’s attitude shows the basic contempt of many literary authors and critics for the genre. They’re keen to borrow its tropes, but sneer at it as essentially trivial fantasy, unlike the serious stuff they’re writing. Much SF is, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But there is a very large amount which isn’t, and which deserves to be taken as seriously as so-called ‘serious’ literary works like McEwan’s.

 

The Prussian Confessional Church’s Denunciation of Nazi Genocide

March 20, 2019

One of the scandals of the Nazi regime was that the churches, who should have led the opposition to Nazism, did far too little to resist. And quite often the resistance that was offered was simply to preserve their own freedom against the demands and attempts at coordination by the Nazi state. Nevertheless, there were many heroic Christian clergy and lay people, who did resist Nazism, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who declared Hitler the Anti-Christ. 400 Lutheran pastors paid for their opposition by being murdered in Buchenwald concentration camp. The Nazis also devised a special emblem to be worn by Christian opponents of Nazis – Bibelforscher, ‘Bible Students’, as they were dubbed. This was a purple triangle, like the pink triangle worn by gay men and the black triangle of the ‘asocial’ and ‘workshy’. Most of those interned were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to accept Hitler as a ‘secular messiah’.

In June 1936 the Confessional Church – a Lutheran organisation that had split off from the official National Church – issued the Barmen Memorandum attacking not only Nazi anti-clericalism, but also Nazi ideology, racial anti-Semitism, the perverted judicial system and the concentration camps. Some of those who signed it, including the head of the Confessional Church Friedrich Weissler, were imprisoned and executed. Seven years later, in October 1943, the Prussian Confessional Synod at Breslau denounced the Nazi extermination policy as unchristian. They declared

Concepts such as “rooting out”, “liquidation” and “unworthy life” are not known to the Divine order. The extermination of people solely because they are related to a criminal, or old or mentally disturbed or belong to an alien race is not a sword to be wielded by the state.’ This included ‘the life of the people of Israel’. Moreover, claiming that you were merely acting on orders was no defence: ‘We cannot permit superiors to relieve us of our responsibility before God.’

See: Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship (Harmondsworth: Penguin 197) 477.

D.G. Williamson, The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982) 76.

James Taylor and Warren Shaw, A Dictionary of the Third Reich (London: Grafton Books 1987) 88.

I’m putting this up because the extreme Right in America and Europe is trying to justify its demands for the persecution of Muslims and their forcible removal or mass murder as the necessary defence of Europe’s Judaeo-Christian and secular, enlightenment heritage. The Nazis despise the Enlightenment and its doctrines of tolerance, humanity and the brotherhood of nations, which should serve as a warning to anyone who believes they can adopt their policies to defend it. And while many Nazis were Christians, and were supported by anti-Semites within the churches and wider German and European society, others like Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazis official ideologue, and Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, were fervently anti-Christian. Hitler himself was a pantheist. He had been raised a Catholic, but had very much turned against his upbringing. In his Table Talk he freely describes how unimpressed he was with his RE teacher at school, how since he was 12 years old he wanted to blow the Catholic mass up with dynamite, and how the Reich should found astronomical observatories all over Germany as part of a campaign to destroy Christianity. And one of the reasons the mainstream churches are uniting with Muslims to denounce the massacre in New Zealand is because of memories of the Third Reich, and the churches’ collaboration with the Nazis, as well as other atrocities committed through history in the name of religion.

The Barmen Memorandum and the 1943 condemnation of Nazism by the Breslau Confessional Church not just condemn Nazism, but also anyone else who seeks to exterminate other innocent people simply because they are of a different race or ethnicity. And that includes modern Western racial terrorists of the Nazi, Alt Right, or racial populist fringe, such as New Zealand murderer.  

‘I’ Newspaper: NASA Planning Permanent Return to the Moon

February 12, 2019

Before the deep political stuff, a piece of space news. According to yesterday’s I for 11th February 2019, NASA is planning to go back to the Moon and found permanently manned bases. The article by Clark Mindock, ‘NASA wants to station humans on the Moon’ on page 23 ran

NASA is planning to send astronauts to the Moon again, but this time it wants to keep them there.

The US space agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, called yesterday for “the best and brightest of American industry to help design and develop human lunar landers”, in response to what he said was a clear mandate from President Donald Trump and Congress to once again get astronauts out of Earth’s orbit.

In a post detailing Nasa’s lofty goals – to return astronauts to the Moon, and one day send them to Mars for the first time in human history – Mr Bridenstine said that the US was playing for keeps this time.

“I am thrilled to be talking once more about landing humans on the Moon,” he wrote on the Ozy website.

“To some, saying that we are returning to the Moon implies that we will be doing the same as we did 50 years ago. I want to be clear – that is not our vision.

“We are going to the Moon with innovative new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the surface than we ever thought possible. This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay.”

Mr Bridenstine said that the ambitious plans would begin later this week, with partners from private industry and elsewhere invited to NASA headquarters in Washington DC to discuss the next generation of lunar landers.

So far, Nasa has already co-operated with nine companies to send cargo tot he Moon, with the ultimate goal being to develop landers that can take astronauts back there.

As a space fan, all I can say is that it’s about time. Way back in the 1970s and 1980s space experts and commenters, like Sir Patrick Moore, the presenter of the Sky At Night, were predicting that we’d have bases on the Moon and elsewhere in solar system by now. But that was before space budgets were drastically cut and NASA instead concentrated on the Space Shuttle. This was supposed to open space up to just about anybody who could afford the cost of a ticket and was in reasonable health. Its crews experienced 3Gs at lift-off, but this was considered to be so low that a 70-year old man could tolerate it. Unfortunately the Shuttle was massively overengineered and the Challenger disaster put the programme on hold while its causes were investigated and corrected. Even then its use remained risky, as we saw a few years ago when one disintegrated during re-entry over America and the programme was subsequently cancelled.

There were plans in the 1990s for a private, commercial return to the Moon, according to Focus Magazine, but that didn’t seem to get anywhere.

My guess is that NASA is finally getting round to putting a permanent human presence on the Moon not just because Trump fancies going back to the glory days of the Cold War space race, but because the EU and the Chinese are also planning the serious exploration of the Moon. A little while ago ESA – the European Space Agency – announced they were planning to put people on the Moon, while last week the Chinese successfully landed a probe on the Moon’s far side. The Chinese are putting such effort into their space programme that the quantum physicist and SF writer, Stephen Baxter, predicted back in the 1990s that the first person on Mars would probably be Chinese sometime in the next decade. Under Reagan, one of the big aerospace conglomerations and think tanks published a report arguing that America needed to develop its space technologies and industries, and move out onto the High Frontier, in order to secure its place as world leader. It’s likely that this is the same thinking behind this announcement by NASA.

As for exploring the next generation of lunar landers, I wonder if they’ll be able to use any data or blueprints remaining from the original lunar modules that landed Armstrong, Aldrin and co all those years ago. After the Apollo programme was cancelled, the massive Saturn 5 rockets were broken up, with the exception of those on display at the Kennedy Space Centre, and the plans destroyed. This has outraged many space scientists like John S. Lewis, the author of Mining the Sky, who compared it to the destruction of Chung He’s fleet by the Chinese eunuchs in the 14th century. Chung He was a Chinese admiral, who led a fleet of ships on an exploratory mission to the outside world, going as far as the Bight of Benin in West Africa. However, when he returned the eunuchs at the imperial court had his fleet destroyed and further exploration banned because they feared that opening the country up to foreign contact would have a destabilizing effect on its society. The result of this was that the country remained isolated and stagnated until it fell prey to foreign colonialism in the 19th century, most famously through the Opium Wars.

Hopefully NASA’s announcement will mark the beginning of a new, serious wave of interplanetary exploration which aims to put people on the Moon and other planets, as space scientists, engineers and SF fans and writers have been dreaming about and working towards since before the great German director Fritz Lang made his epic movie Die Frau im Mond (‘The Woman in the Moon’) about a German moon landing back in the 1920s.

Radio Programmes Next Week on Homelessness, Conspiracy Theories and Aliens

February 6, 2019

Looking through next week’s Radio Times for 9th-15th February 2019 I found a number of programmes which might be of interest to some people following this blog.

On Monday, 11th February at 8.00 pm on Radio 4 there’s Beyond Tara and George, about rough sleepers. The blurb for this programme reads

Last year there were nearly 600 deaths on the streets of the UK. In this follow-up to last summer’s Radio 4 series on east London rough sleepers Tara and George, presenter Audrey Gilan catches up with the pair to ask what it would take to prevent the unnecessary deaths of homeless people. (p. 137).

Then a half hour later at 8.30 on the same channel, Analysis covers conspiracy theories. The Radio Times says of this

Professor James Tilley explores the current spate of political conspiracy theories, and examines what belief in them tells us about voters and politicians.

The next day, Tuesday 12th February, at 1.30 pm on the Beeb’s World Service there’s Documentary: So Where Are the Aliens?, which the Radio Times describes thus

Space, to quote the late, great Douglas Adams, is mindboggling big. So huge, in fact, that the probability of there being civilized life elsewhere in the universe is almost a mathematical certainty. This begs an obvious question, to which Seth Shostak – chief astronomer of the Seti institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has devoted his career. He speaks with fellow scientists Frank Drake and Jill Tarter about their pioneering work chasing extraterrestrial radio signals as well as the new listening and light-based techniques designed to open up the sky like never before. Last year’s tantalizing fly-by of the mysterious cigar-shaped Oumuamua has revived interest in this topic, although in 2019 ET could be forgiven for giving Earth a wide berth. (p. 138).

Regarding the programme on preventing the homeless dying, one way to stop it would be to fix the welfare state so that poor and vulnerable people didn’t become homeless in the first place. Giving more funding and expanding the number of homeless shelters so that they were safe and able to provide accommodation for rough sleepers would also be very good. As would support schemes for those with drug, alcohol or mental health problems. And as Mike’s pointed out in his reports on attacks on the homeless, it would also be very good idea for the right-wing media to stop portraying the homeless, as well as the disabled, the unemployed and those on benefits generally all as scroungers committing welfare fraud and generally demonizing them. But as the Tory party, the Scum, Express and Fail all depend on this for votes and sales, it isn’t going to happen.

The prgramme on conspiracy theories could be interesting, but I doubt it will actually face up to the fact that some conspiracies are real. Not the malign and bogus myths about a Jewish plot to destroy the White race, or that the business and political elite are really evil Reptoid aliens, a la David Icke, or have made a demonic pact with grey aliens from Zeti Reticuli to allow them to abduct us for experimentation while giving them the benefits of alien technology. Or similar myths about the Illuminati, Freemasons or Satanists.

The real conspiracies that exist are about the manipulation of politics by the world’s secret services, and secret big business think tanks and right-wing pressure groups. Such as the various front organisations set up by the CIA during the Cold War, the smears concocted by MI5 during the 1970s presenting Harold Wilson as a KGB agent, and the contemporary smears by the Integrity Initiative, funded by the Tory government, claiming that Corbyn and other left-wing figures across Europe and America were agents of Putin. And, of course, the real conspiracy by Shai Masot at the Israeli embassy to have Tory cabinet ministers, who didn’t support Israel, removed from government. As well as the embassy’s role in making fake accusations of anti-Semitism against entirely decent people in the Labour party.

But I’ve no doubt that the Beeb will shy well away from these real conspiracies, not least because of Britain’s sordid role in the West’s history of regime change in Developing nations that dared to defy the Americans and ourselves. The Beeb has put on similar programmes before, and the person being interviewed or presenting the argument was former Independent journo David Aaronovitch. And his line has always been to ignore these real conspiracies, and concentrate on all the mythical rubbish, which he presents as typical of the conspiracy milieu as a whole. Which you’d expect from an establishment broadcaster, that now seems to see itself very much as the propaganda arm of the Conservative British state.

Moving on to the programme on SETI, Shostak, Tarter and Drake are veterans not only of the search for intelligent alien life, but also of programmes and documentaries on the search. Drake was the creator of the now famous equation which bears his name, which is supposed to tell you how many alien civilisations we can expect to exist in the galaxy. He was one of the brains behind Project Ozma, alias ‘Project Little Green Men’ in the 1960s to listen for alien signals from two nearby, roughly sun-like stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Which found zilch, unfortunately. Shostak and Tarter were two of the leaders of the new wave of SETI researchers in the 1990s, and Shostak wrote a book about the possibility of alien life and what they would possibly be like. This concluded that they wouldn’t be anything like us, ruling out aliens like Mr Spock in Star Trek. In size they would probably be the same as Labradors.

It’s been known now that the Galaxy is old enough and big enough, with the right kind of stars and an increasing multitude of known planets, some of them possibly suitable for life, for alien civilisations to have emerged several times. And if they only advanced at the speed of light, they should be here by now. But they’re not. So far we’ve detected no sign of them. Or no absolutely indisputable signs. So where are they? This problem is called the Fermi paradox after the Italian-American physicist, Enrico Fermi. Suggested answers are that life, or perhaps just intelligent life, is extremely rare in the universe. Space travel may be extremely difficult. Aliens may exist, but they may be completely uninterested in talking to us. In this respect, we may even be a ‘protected species’ considered too fragile at our current level of civilization for contact with the rest of the Galaxy. Or perhaps there really are predatory alien intelligences and civilisations out there, who automatically attack any culture naïve and trusting enough to announce their presence. In which case, all the alien civilisations out there are paranoid and keeping their heads well down. One of SF writer even wrote a collection of short stories, each of which gave one solution to the Paradox.