Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Self-Taught Engineer Successfully Flies aboard Steam Rocket

September 21, 2018

And now, before the serious stuff, something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. This is a short video I found on YouTube from the Inside Edition channel. It’s their report on the successful flight of a steam-powered rocket, built and crewed by ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes. Hughes is a limousine driver and a self-taught engineer. His reason for building the vehicle is, er, eccentric: he wanted to see if the Earth was flat.

The video was posted on 18th March 2018, and shows Hughes and his rocket taking off in the Mojave desert in the south-western US. It climbed to an altitude of 1,850 feet before finally returning to Earth, its descent slowed by two parachutes. Hughes had spent ten years building it, and the video shows stills of early versions of the rocket.

Hughes’ landing was rough, however. The video describes it as a crash. A rescue team got him out of the cockpit, but he complained that his back was broken. When the news crew caught him with him to talk, ironically just outside a courthouse where he’d been giving a ticket for speeding, Hughes’ claimed that he might have a compressed vertebra.

The video ends by reassuring its viewers that, yes, the Earth is indeed flat.

I’m actually saluting this bloke, because he’s obviously really clever and has done something I’d love to do myself: build a low power rocket that could hold a man or woman and send them up to a reasonable height. Way back in the 1990s I had a paper printed in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society arguing for the construction and flight of such vehicles as a new leisure industry. I based this on the use of hang-gliders, paragliding and microlight aircraft as hobby aviation. People fly them because they want to enjoy the experience of powered flight, not because they actually want to go from A to B. In the same way, I feel, human-carrying rockets could be built and flown to give ordinary people something of the experience of astronauts going into space aboard real rockets, like the Space Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz craft. But obviously without having to spend millions on a ticket to space.

Steam, or hot water rockets, have been around since the 19th century. The first modern hot water rocket was patented in Britain in 1824 by the American inventor, Jacob Perkins (1766-1849). The American Rocket Research Institute, based in California, and founded in 1943, established a special centre for the research and construction of hot water rockets, the Perkins Centre, named after him. The Institute runs a number of training programmes for students and aspiring rocket engineers. The rockets developed could carry payloads up to 5,000 feet.

After the War, the German rocket scientist, Eugen Sanger, and his wife Irene Sanger-Bredt, carried out research into hot water rockets to see whether they could work assisting heavily loaded aircraft into the air. The main US researcher in the area was Bob Truax.

The rocket engines developed by the RRI ranged from senior student college engineering projects with a thrust of 700 lbs per second to the Thunderbolt II constructed by Truax Engineering, which had a thrust of 16,000 lbs per second.
The photo below shows the STEAM-HI III hot water rocket being installed at the Perkins Safety Test Centre in 1963.

This photo shows Truax Engineering’s Thunderbolt rocket and its static test firing in 1973.

See ‘The Rocket Research Institute, 1943-1993: 50 Years of Rocket Safety, Engineering and Space Education Programs’, George S. James and Charles J. Piper, in Jung, Philippe, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics, AAS History Series, Vol. 22; IAA History Symposia, vol. 14 (American Astronautical Society: San Diego 1998), pp. 343-400.

And the Earth is very, very definitely round. As it has been known to be by educated European since the 9th century, and by the Greek astronomers long before that. All that stuff about how people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat and that if you sailed far enough west you’d fall off was basically invented in the 19th century by Washington Irving. The Church Fathers knew and accepted that it was round. St. Augustine said so in one of his works, and argued that when the Bible spoke of the world as flat, it was an instance of God using the beliefs of the time to make His moral message intelligible to the people then alive.

I’ve no idea where the modern delusion that the world’s flat comes from. Well, actually, I do – it seems to have started a year ago in 2017 with the comments of a rapper on American radio. But before then I thought the idea was very definitely dead and buried. In Britain, the Flat Earth Society had dwindled to a single member. This was actually a physicist, who believed that the Earth was round. He used the Society to argue against dogmatism in science. And I thought he had packed finally packed it in, leaving the number of Flat Earthers in Britain at zero.

Now it seems that there are any number of eccentrics, who believe the world is really flat. They’re completely wrong about that, including Hughes.

But Hughes did something superb in building his own, human-carrying rocket

Advertisements

Al-Jazeera on the First Test Flight of India’s Space Shuttle

September 19, 2018

In this short clip, just over two minutes long, from Al-Jazeera, posted two years ago in 2016, Tariq Bezley reports on the first test flight by the Indian Space Agency of their space shuttle. The shuttle was launched into space on top of a rocket fired from India’s launch facility north of Chenai. The craft separated from the rocket at an altitude of 70 km and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, which heated it up to 2,000 degrees.

A female scientist speaking for the Observer Research Foundation, Rajeswari P Rajagopalan talks on the video about how it was necessary to test the shuttle’s heat shield.

Besley states that so far only the US, USSR, Japan and Europe have launched reusable shuttles. He states that NASA’s Space Shuttle flew 135 missions in 30 years before it was finally decommissioned. It has been replaced by the US air forces X-37B test vehicle. This unmanned vehicle was on its third mission, and had been up there for a year. However, the secrecy surrounding its missions have provoked speculation that it is a spy satellite, or is being tested to deliver weapons from space.

He then goes on to discuss the Dreamchaser, the spaceplane being developed by the private Sierra Nevada firm to service the International Space Station. Its first flight is planned for 2019. India’s space shuttle is in a much earlier stage of development, and it’s estimated that it’ll be 10 or 15 years before it is ready to fly.

Besley also discusses how India successfully put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, becoming the first Asian nation to do so.

Rajagopan states that China has flourishing military space programme, which is a direct challenge to India, and India has to respond if it is not to be left lagging behind.

Further tests will be carried out on the Indian spacecraft, including on the supersonic scramjet engine which the Indians hope will one day power the spaceplane. The Indians say that their Mars mission cost a tenth of that of other missions to the Red Planet. Besley concludes that if their space shuttle can achieve the same savings, space travel will become much more affordable for all.

A number of countries have developed plans for different spaceplanes. The Russians had their own version of the Space Shuttle, Buran, which looked exactly like the American. It has been mothballed since the Fall of the USSR and has never flown. The French designed a small spaceplane, Hermes, which was to go on top of their Ariane rocket in the 1990s. This was very much like the American Dynosoar spaceplane proposed in the 1950s, but never actually built. The Germans also designed a spaceplane, Sanger, named after one of their leading rocket scientists. This would consist of two craft, a larger plane acting as a first stage, which would piggy-back a second plane into orbit.
And then there was the British HOTOL project of the 1980s which also used airbreathing ramjet engines to take the plane into space. This was never completed because of problems with those same engines. The technology has since been perfected, and a new British spaceplane, Skylon, has been developed. It has been forecast that it will come into service sometime in the next few years, possibly flying from spaceport launch sites in Cornwall or Scotland.

The video shows how sophisticated India’s space programme is, and I’ve no doubt that their entry into space will lower launch costs significantly. While the American shuttle was an amazing piece of engineering, it was massively expensive. It only became competitive as a launch vehicle against Ariane and the other rockets because it was heavily subsidized by the American government.

I look forward to the development of India’s spaceplane and that country joining the US and Russia in launching manned space missions. Perhaps if more countries develop reusable spacecraft, humanity will at last enter a real age of crewed space exploration and colonization.

Conspiracy Book’s Debunking of Holocaust Denial

September 16, 2018

The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups: The 100 Most Disturbing Conspiracies of All Time, Jon E. Lewis (London: Constable & Robinson 2007).

As the book’s cover tells you, this is a popular treatment of 100 assorted conspiracies, ranging from the assassination of JFK, 9/11, the Da Vinci Code, the death of Princess Diana, the Men In Black of UFO lore, the belief that Roosevelt knew about the coming Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour?, the Illuminati, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and so on. It’s a selection of conspiracies and conspiracy theories that were current at the end of the 1990s and early part of the 21st centuries.

As you might expect of a popular work of this size, the individual chapters tend to be brief. Many are only about two or three pages long, and so this isn’t an in depth examination of them by any means. Most of these theories are absolutely spurious, and so get properly debunked. Most, but not all. Some conspiracies, like the Iran-Contral scandal and the Masonic lodge P2, which was deeply involved in Italian Fascism, the Mafia and had connections to the CIA.

Lewis writes in his introduction that his aim has been to understand and treat the conspiracy theories objectively, to find which are true, and which aren’t.

Hostility to conspiracy theory is as useless in understanding the world as an indiscriminate acceptance of it. The task, surely, is to disentangle the mad and bad conspiracies from those that illuminate the darkened, secret corners of power. To this end The Mammoth Book of Cover-Ups takes a considered, objective scalpel to one hundred of the most compelling conspiracy theories of modern times. The theories are arranged alphabetically, assessed and interrogated. Where appropriate, the relevant documents are reproduced, and details of where to look to find out more are listed. Each conspiracy theory is assigned an “Alert Level” rating indicating its likely veracity. (p. 3).

One conspiracy theory that the book thoroughly debunks is Holocaust denial, discussed on pages 180-2. The first two paragraphs briefly state what it was, and how its existence is supported by a mountain of very trustworthy evidence.

The Holocaust is the name given to the extermination of some six million Jews and other “undesirables” by the Third Reich of Germany between 1933 and 1945. To industrialise the genocide process, the Nazis purpose-built a number of death camps such as Auschwitz, which gassed the Jews in batches; most victims, however, simply died of malnourishment in concentration camps. In occupied Eastern Europe, from where more than five million Jews were taken, special SS killing squads, Einsatzgruppen, sometimes shot Jews in situ.

A wide spread of sources confirms the nature and extent of the Holocaust: the thousandfold testimonies of camp survivors; film and photographs taken by Allied reporters as the camps were liberated in 1945; the confession by Auschwitz SS camp commandant Rudolf Hoss; the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann in 1960-2 and his sentencing to death for “crimes against humanity”. But all of this is dispute by a number of historians and politicians, who speculate that the Holocaust, if it happened at all, was on at most a minor scale. (p. 180).

It then goes on to discuss David Hoggan and his The Myth of the Six Million, one of the earliest and most influential books pushing the lie that the Holocaust never happened. Hoggan claimed in it that the Jews had falsely accused the Germans of genocide in order to gain reparations. This set the pattern for later works, claiming that the Jews had made it up either to gain money or international sympathy. It was the latter which led the United Nations to look kindly on the creation of Israel as a Jewish homeland. The book notes that from 1970s, the most prominent mouthpiece for Holocaust denial in the US has been the Institute for Holocaust Review, led by the neo-Nazi Willis Carto. Publications from the Institute and similar organisations in the US speculate that the gas chambers at Auschwitz weren’t there to kill Jews, but to kill the lice they carried. There are many versions of Holocaust denial. One of these is that there was indeed an extermination of the Jews during the Nazi occupation, but that this was small and not official Nazi policy. This was the view of the notorious David Irving, who claimed that the Nazis were too busy fighting the war to organize the mass extermination of the Jews, and that Hitler was unaware of it.

The chapter goes on to describe how Irving’s version of the Holocaust and Hitler’s involvement was challenged by Deborah Lipstadt in her 1993, Denying the Holocaust. This accused Irving of anti-Semitism and distorting evidence. Irving sued her and her British publisher, Penguin, for libel. Lipstadt and Penguin defended themselves by hiring the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, who then went through Irving’s works. He found that Irving had deliberately used unreliable documentation. One such was the report made by Fred Leuchter, who designed gas chambers for the American prison service. Leuchter stated that he found no significant deposits of cynanide at Auschwitz. However, this was in 1988, nearly 40 years after the camp was used and Leuchter himself was not trained in forensics. Evans also found that Irving also expressed very anti-Semitic sentiments in his books, such as calling Jews ‘the scum of humanity’. The court found in Lipstadt’s favour, with the judge declaring Irving to be ‘an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semite and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism’.

The chapter also makes it clear that Hitler knew very well what was going on. He knew its scope even if he didn’t know all the details about every train of victims going to Sobibor. He set the agenda for the Holocaust, as shown in his speeches. In 1939, for example, he declared

If international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war, the result will be … the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. (p. 181.)

Fifteen other leading Nazis attended the Wannsee conference in 1942, which was held outside Berlin on how the extermination of the Jews could best be arranged. The meeting was minuted, and its protocols used to incriminate those present.

The chapter concludes

The Holocaust happened. Most reputable historians put the lower limit of Jews, gypsies, Romanies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled and the mentally ill exterminated by the Nazis at five million. The upper limit is as high as 11 million.

In 1979 the Institute for Historical Review offered a $50,000 reward to anybody who “could prove that the Nazis operated gas chambers to terminate Jews”. Mel Marmelstein, an Auschwitz survivor, forwarded to the IHR affidavits concerning the fate of his family in Auschwitz plus other documentation, and duly claimed his money. When the IHR failed to give him the $50,000 he sued. The court awarded him the $50,000 plus an extra $40,000 for distress. In other words, the leading outfit for Holocaust denial, giving it its best shot, could not convince a neutral jury of its case. (p. 182).

The book properly gives Holocaust denial an alert level of zero, as it is a completely false conspiracy theory.

It also has a short bibliography, which includes the following two books debunking Holocaust denial:

Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, 1993; and

Michael Shermer, Alex Grobman and Arthur Hertzberg, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, 2002.

Ellen Clifford of DPAC Attacks DWP and the Renewed Contracts to Atos and Capita

June 17, 2018

This is another short video from RT. It’s just over five minutes long, and is an interview with Ellen Clifford of Disabled People Against Cuts on the renewal of the contracts given to Atos and Capita to continue assessing disabled people’s benefit claims.

The interviewer states that the two outsourcing companies have been criticised for failing to meet targets and disabled people themselves through incorrectly assessing them as fit for work. 100,000 people have so far had the decisions against them overturned on appeal. The Labour and Liberal parties have called on the work to be taken back in house by the state.

The government, however, has released a statement, which runs as follows

The quality of assessment has risen year on year since 2015, but one person’s poor experience is one too many. We’re committed to continuously improving assessments, and have announced we’re piloting the video recording of PIP assessments with a view to rolling out this widely.

Clifford states that Capita and Atos have had their contracts extended only for two years, but that’s two years too long. They want this profiteering by the outsourcing companies to end. She also makes the point that one of the major complaints they hear about the assessments is dishonesty – or lies – by the company, and this is at such a rate that it cannot be coincidence. The current rate for decisions being overturned on appeal is 69 per cent. The interviewer asks if there is a chance that the process could be improved in the next two years. Clifford replies that over the past few years the government has announced that they’re changing and improving the scheme, but this is just tinkering around the edges. What is needed is a fundamental overhaul of the system, which is based on a model of disability that DPAC would not advocate. She hopes that the videoing of assessments will lead to more transparency, and DPAC will be watching this very carefully.

The interviewer also states that the majority of people are satisfied with the assessment process, and looking at the number of appeals against the positive cases, wonders if the issue isn’t being politicised. Clifford states that while the percentage of bad decisions may be small, they still affect millions of people, and so are statistically high. She says that anyone who works in the welfare sector or disability is inundated with cases from people, who have been turned down when they genuinely need that money. The interviewer asks her if she sees a glimmer of hope. She states that they see a government under pressure, experiencing market failure in this area. She states that DPAC also wants the assessments to be taken back in-house. They need to keep the pressure up. The assessments need to be taken back in-house and the whole system given a radical overhaul.

Everything Ellen Clifford says in this interview is exactly true. I’ve personally experienced Atos lying about my assessment and health, when they assessed me for incapacity benefit several years. And this was overturned on appeal. And when blogging about this issue, Mike and I, and many other left-wing bloggers, have received posts from commenters telling us how they were also wrongly assessed by the outsourcing companies to prevent them claiming benefits. Whistleblowers from inside the companies and DWP have come forward, stating that the government has set targets for the number of people, whose claims are to be rejected. I’ve reblogged a number of pieces, including videos about this. The fault lies with the DWP. And Kitty S. Jones has also described extensively on her blog how the DWP’s model of disability was produced by an American researcher working for Unum, one of the private medical insurance companies. They won the ear first of Peter Lilley, and then Blair and New Labour. The model assumes that people are malingering, and has been scientifically discredited. Nevertheless, this model is still used by the DWP.

The current system is a disgrace. It is, as Clifford states, all about throwing people off benefit. And despite its promises, all the so-called improvements introduced by the Tories are nothing but tinkering at the edges. When the Tories haven’t promised something more ominous. When they talked about cutting the rate of appeals, what they intended to do was not make the assessment process more honest, so that disabled people could claim benefit more easily, but actually making the conditions for being assessed as disabled more difficult, so that fewer people would be assessed as disabled, but could not successfully appeal against the decision because it followed the new, harsher conditions.

The whole process needs to be taken back in-house, and a radical overhaul done, with a view not to throwing disabled people off benefit, so that greedy multi-millionaires can enjoy another tax cut, but to make sure they genuinely have the welfare support and money they deserve and need.

Ursula Le Guin Referenced in Radio 3 Programme about Forests

June 14, 2018

Next week, Saturday 16th June 2018 to Friday 22nd June, Radio 3 is broadcasting a series of programmes about forests, in folklore, history, anthropology, witchcraft, music and art. And next Tuesday’s edition of Free Thinking, 19th June 2018 at 10.00 pm discusses forests and the natural world in the work of the Fantasy and SF author Ursula K Le Guin. It takes as its title that of one of her SF novels, The Word for World Is Forest. The blurb for it on page 126 of the Radio Times reads

Humanity’s impact on the natural world is a theme running through the work of American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. Matthew Sweet discusses Le Guin on forests with British academic and Green Party politician Rupert Read.

Israel Based Journo Shows How Censorship of Steve Bell Cartoon Plays into Hands of Real Anti-Semites

June 11, 2018

Last week the editor of the Groaniad, Kath Viner, spiked a cartoon by the paper’s Steve Bell for supposed anti-Semitism. The cartoon commented on the complete indifference to the murder of 21 year old Palestinian medic, Razan al-Najjar by the IDF shown by Netanyahu and Tweezer. Bell depicted the two having a cosy chat by the fire, in which al-Najjar was burning. This was too much for Viner, who immediately did what the Israel lobby always does whenever the country is criticised for its brutal treatment of the Palestinians: she immediately accused the critic of anti-Semitism. The cartoon was anti-Semitic, apparently, because al-Najjar’s place in the fire was supposedly a reference to the Holocaust and the murder of the Jews in the Nazi gas ovens. Despite the fact that Bell denied that there was any such intention in his work, or indeed, any overt references to the Holocaust at all.

Bell was naturally outraged, and issued a strong denial. I’ve blogged about this issue, as has Mike, and Bell’s denial was also covered by that notorious pro-Putin propaganda channel, RT. And an Israel-based journalist, Jonathan Cook, has also come down solidly on Bell’s side and against censorship.

Mike posted a piece reporting and commenting on Mr Cook’s view and analysis of the case on Saturday. Cook is a former Guardian journalist, who now lives in Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Cook praised Bell’s cartoon because of the way it held power to account, and indicted the powerful and their calculations at the expense of the powerless. He stated

In other words, it represents all that is best about political cartoons, or what might be termed graphic journalism. It holds power – and us – to account.

He then went on to describe how, by siding with Israel over the cartoon, the Guardian was siding with the powerful against the powerless; with a nuclear-armed state against its stateless minority. He then goes on to make the point that when criticism of Israel is silenced, the country benefits from a kind of reverse anti-Semitism, or philo-Semitism, which turns Israel into a special case. He writes

When a standard caricature of Netanyahu – far less crude than the caricatures of British and American leaders like Blair and Trump – is denounced as anti-Semitic, we are likely to infer that Israeli leaders expect and receive preferential treatment. When showing Netanyahu steeped in blood – as so many other world leaders have been – is savaged as a blood libel, we are likely to conclude that Israeli war crimes are uniquely sanctioned. When Netanyahu cannot be shown holding a missile, we may assume that Israel has dispensation to bombard Gaza, whatever the toll on civilians.

And when we see the furore created over a cartoon like Bell’s, we can only surmise that other, less established cartoonists will draw the appropriate conclusion: keep away from criticising Israel because it will harm your personal and professional reputation.

He then makes the point that doing so plays into the hands of real anti-Semites, and generates more:

When we fail to hold Israel to account; when we concede to Israel, a nuclear-armed garrison state, the sensitivities of a Holocaust victim; when we so mistake moral priorities that we elevate the rights of a state over the rights of the Palestinians it victimises, we not only fuel the prejudices of the anti-Semite but we make his arguments appealing to others. We do not help to stamp out anti-Semitism, we encourage it to spread. That is why Viner and the Guardian have transgressed not just against Bell, and against the art of political cartoons, and against justice for the Palestinians, but also against Jews and their long-term safety.

Mike goes on to make the point that we need to be more critical about the raving paranoiacs, who see anti-Semitism in Steve Bell’s cartoon, and also in Gerald Scarfe’s depiction of Netanyahu building his anti-Palestinian wall using the blood and bodies of the Palestinians themselves. This was attacked by Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador, as ‘anti-Semitic’, who claimed that it was a reference to the Blood Libel. It wasn’t, but the I apologised anyway. Mike goes on to say that there is no such thing as an unintentional anti-Semite, but authorial intentions are routinely ignored in these cases.

He then goes to state very clearly that as the authorial intentions of these cartoons weren’t anti-Semitic, Viner was wrong about Bell’s cartoon. Just as the Sunset Times, as Private Eye dubbed the rag, was wrong about Scarfe and Mike himself, as was the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism. And so are the people, who’ve accused Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein and so many others of anti-Semitism. And in the meantime, Netanyahu gets away with mass murder.

Mike concludes

But Mr Cook is right – these attitudes only fuel real anti-Semitism among those who draw the only logical conclusion about what’s going on in the media, which is that the Establishment is protecting the Israeli government against censure for its crimes.

It suggests to me that all those involved in this charade have been creating problems that will come back to harm all of us in the future.

https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/06/09/israel-based-journo-shows-how-guardian-editor-helped-anti-semites-by-censoring-steve-bell/

Now part of the problem here could be certain developments in anti-racism and postmodernist literary theory. For example, some anti-racist activists have argued that there is such a thing as unconscious racism, and have used it to accuse people and material they have seen as spreading or legitimising racism, but without any conscious intent to do so.

In postmodernist literary theory, the author’s intent is irrelevant. In the words of one French postmodernist literary theorist, ‘all that exists is the text’. And one person’s interpretation of the text is as good as another’s.

Hence, those arguing that the above cartoons are anti-Semitic, could do so citing these ideas above.

Now there clearly is something to unconscious racism. If you look back at some of the discussions and depictions of racial issues in 1970s popular culture, they are often horrendously racist by today’s standards. But they weren’t seen as such then, and I dare say many of those responsible for some of them genuinely didn’t believe they were being racist, nor intended to do so. And unconscious racism is irrelevant in this case too. The accusers have not argued that these cartoons are unconsciously racist. They’ve simply declared that they are, without any kind of qualification. Which implies that their authors must be deliberately anti-Semitic, which is a gross slur.

As for postmodernist literary theory, the accusers haven’t cited that either. And if they did, it could also easily be turned against them. If there are no privileged readings of a particular text, then the view of someone, who thought Bell’s cartoon was anti-Semitic, is no more valid than the person, who didn’t. Which cuts the ground out from such accusations. That argument doesn’t stand up either, though here again, the people making the accusations of anti-Semitism haven’t used it.

Nevertheless, their arguments about the anti-Semitic content of these cartoons and the strained parallels they find with the Holocaust, or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, are very reminiscent of the postmodernist texts the American mathematician Sokal, and the Belgian philosopher Bricmont, used to demolish the intellectual pretensions of postmodernism in their 1990s book, Intellectual Impostures. One of the texts they cited was by a French feminist arguing that women were being prevented from taking up careers in science. It’s a fair point, albeit still controversial amongst some people on the right. However, part of her evidence for this didn’t come from studies showing that girls start off with a strong interest in science like boys, only to have it crushed out of them later in their schooling. No! This strange individual based part of her argument on the medieval coat of arms for Brussels, which shows frogs in a marsh. Which somehow represents the feminine. Or at least, it did to her. For most of us, the depiction of frogs in a marsh in the coat of arms for Brussels is a depiction of precisely that: frogs in a marsh. Because, I have no doubt, the land Brussels was founded on was marshy.

But Cook and Mike are right about these accusations, and the favouritism shown to Israel, playing into the hands of anti-Semites.

The storm troopers of the right are very fond of a quote from Voltaire: ‘If you want to know who rules over you, ask who it is you can’t criticise’. Or words to that effect. Depending on whether the person using the quote is an anti-Semite or an Islamophobe, the answer they’ll give will be ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Muslims’.

Of course, their choice of the French Enlightenment philosopher is more than somewhat hypocritical. Voltaire hated intolerance, and in the early stages before it became aggressively anti-religious, the French Revolution stood for religious toleration. A set of playing cards made to celebrate it showed on one card the Bible with the Talmud, the Jewish holy book containing extra-Biblical lore and guidance, and the Qu’ran.

But by ruling that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, the Israel lobby very much appears to show – entirely falsely – that the anti-Semites are right, and that the Jews really are in control of the rest of us. It gives an utterly false, specious confirmation of the very conspiracy theories they claim to have found in the works of the people they denounce. The same conspiracy theories they claim to oppose, and which have been responsible for the horrific suffering of millions of innocent Jews.

It’s high time this was stopped, and accusations of anti-Semitism treated with the same impartial judgement as other claims of bias or racism. And false accusations should be firmly rejected as a slur, and apologies and restitution demanded from the libellers.

Radio 4 Programme Tonight Wondering What Happened to Star Trek’s Optimistic Vision of the Future

June 9, 2018

This is one for the Trekkers. On Radio 4 tonight at 8.00 pm, 9th June 2018, Dr. Kevin Fong will be presenting a programme on the Archive hour discussing what happened to the optimistic vision of the future in Star Trek. The blurb for it on page 189 of the Radio Times runs

8.00 Archive on 4: Star Trek – The Undiscovered Future

The first episode of Star Trek aired in 1966. Space medic and broadcaster Kevin Fog asks what happened to the progressive and optimistic vision of the future that the iconic television series promised him.

Mars as Communist Utopia in Pre-Revolutionary Russian SF

June 7, 2018

I thought this might interest all the SF fans out there. One of the books I’ve started reading is Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet, edited by Mark Ashley (London: The British Library 2018). It’s a collection of SF stories written about the Red Planet from the 19th century to just before the Mariner and then Viking probes in the ’60s and ’70s showed that rather than being a living planet with canals, vegetation and civilised beings, it was a dead world more like the Moon. It’s a companion volume to another book of early SF stories from about the same period, Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, also edited by Mike Ashley. The Martian book contains stories by H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury – from The Martian Chronicles, natch – Marion Zimmer Bradley, E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller, and the great novelist of dystopias and bug-eyed psychopaths, J.G. Ballard. It also contains pieces by now all but forgotten Victorian and early Twentieth writers of Scientific Romances, W.S. Lach-Szyrma, George C. Wallis, P. Schuyler Miller and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Both books are also interesting, not just for the short stories collected in them, but also for Ashley’s introduction, where he traces the literary history of stories about these worlds. In the case of the Moon, this goes all the way back to the Roman satirist, Lucian of Samosata, and his Vera Historia. This is a fantasy about a group of Roman sailors, whose ship is flung into space by a massive waterspout, to find themselves captured by a squadron of Vulturemen soldiers from the Moon, who are planning an invasion of the Sun.

The history of literary speculation about Mars and Martian civilisation, is no less interesting, but somewhat shorter. It really only begins in the late 19th century, when telescopes had been developed capable of showing some details of the Martian surface, and in particular the canali, which the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed he had seen. The Italian word can mean ‘channels’ as well as ‘canal’, and Schiaparelli himself did not describe them as artificial. Nevertheless, other astronomers, like Percival Lowell of Flagstaff, Arizona, believed they were. Other astronomers were far more sceptical, but this set off the wave of novels and short stories set on an inhabited Mars, like Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous John Carter stories. I remember the Marvel adaptation of some these, or at least using the same character, which appeared as backing stories in Star Wars comic way back in the 1970s.

It’s also interesting, and to contemporary readers somewhat strange, that before H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the vast majority of these stories about Mars assumed that the Martians would not only be far more scientifically and technologically advanced, but they would also be more socially and spiritually as well. Just like the Aetherius Society, a UFO new religious movement founded by George King in the 1950s, claims that Jesus was really as Venusian, and now lives on that world along with Aetherius, the being from whom they believe they receive telepathic messages, so there were a couple of short stories in which Christ was a Martian. These were Charles Cole’s Visitors From Mars, of 1901, and Wallace Dowding’s The Man From Mars of 1910.

Other utopias set on the Red Planet were more secular. In Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, of 1893, the Martians are handsome and intelligent, and their women totally liberated. Another feminist utopia was also depicted by the Australian writer Mary Moore-Bentley in her A Woman of Mars of 1901.

And in Russia, the writer Alexander Bogdanov made Mars a Communist utopia. Ashley writes

While the planetary romance theme was developing there were other explorations of Martian culture. The Red Planet became an obvious setting for a communist state in Krasnaia Zvesda (‘Red Star’, 1908) and its sequel Inzhener Menni (‘Engineer Menni’, 1912) by Alexander Bogdanov. Although reasonably well known in Russia, especially at the time of the revolution in 1917, and notoriously because of its reference to free love on Mars, it was not translated into English until 1984. Kim Stanley Robinson claimed it served as an influence for his own novel, Red Mars (1992), the first of his trilogy about terraforming the planet. Although the emphasis in Bodganov’s stories is on the benefits of socialism, he took trouble to make the science as realistic as possible. The egg-shaped rocket to Mars is powered by atomic energy. His Mars is Schiaparellian, with canals that have forests planted along their full length, explaining why they are visible from Earth. He also went to great lengths to explain how the topography of Mars, and the fact that it was twice as old as Earth, allowed social evolution to develop gradually and more effectively, with planet-wide communication and thus a single language. (Pp. 11-12).

So five years before the Revolution, Mars really was the ‘Red Planet’ in Russian literature. I’m not surprised it wasn’t translated into English until the 1980s. British publishers and censors probably disliked it as a piece of Communist propaganda, quite apart from Anglophone western Puritanism and the whole issue of free love. No naughtiness allowed on the side of the Iron Curtain, not even when it’s set on Mars. Russian cinema also produced one of the first SF films, also set on Mars. This was Aelita (1922), in which Russian cosmonauts travel to the Red Planet to start a revolution, though at the end it’s revealed that it’s all been a dream.

Meanwhile, Mars as a planet of mystery continues in the French SF series, Missions, shown at 10.00 Thursdays on BBC 4. This has French spationauts and their American rivals landing on the Red Planet, only to find a mysterious altar constructed from lost Atlantean materials described by the Romans, and Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut, who has been turned into something more than human with three strands of DNA. In reality, Komarov died when the parachutes on his spacecraft failed to open when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Tragically, Komarov knew it was a deathtrap, but went anyway because Khrushchev wanted another Russian space achievement to show up the Americans, and Komarov did not want his friend, and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin to go. It’s a tragic, shameful waste of human life on what was a purely political stunt, and Komarov is, because of his desire to save his friend, one of the great heroes of the space age.

But Missions shows not only how much people really want us to travel to Mars – to explore and colonise – it also shows how the Red Planet still remains the source of wonder and speculation about alien civilisations, civilisations that may not be hostile monsters intent on invading the Earth ‘for no very good reason’, as Douglas Adams described the motives of those aliens, who wanted to take over the universie in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the French spationauts, Jeanne, has dreamed of going to Mars since being shown it through a telescope by her father when she was a little girl. Electromagnetic scans of the area, when developed, give a picture of her face, and ‘Komarov’ tells her he has been waiting millions of years for her, and she is the true link between Mars and Earth.

Yes, it’s weird. But different. And it shows that Mars is continuing to inspire other forms of SF, where the Martians aren’t invaders – or at least, not so far-but benevolent guides waiting for us to come to them and make the next leap in our development. Just like Bogdanov in 1912 imagined that they would be ahead of us, and so have created a true Communist utopia.

CBS Series on Jack Parsons, Rocket Scientist and Occultist

May 29, 2018

I found this trailer the other day on YouTube for a forthcoming TV series on CBS about one of the weirder figures in the history of American rocketry, Jack Parsons. The series is called Strange Angel, which was the title of a biography of Parsons that came out way back in the 1990s or thereabouts.

Parsons was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1930s and ’40s, when it was little more than a piece of waste ground in the Californian desert. He was one of the pioneers at the very beginning of American rocket research, when it was still very much the province of the early rocket societies, like the American Rocket Society over the other side of the Atlantic, and the British Interplanetary Society here in Britain. As the trailer shows, this was the period when the early visionaries launched very small, experimental rockets, all the while dreaming of the day when larger machines would carry people to the Moon, the planets and beyond. Parsons also had a very practical approach to experimenting. Instead of worrying very much about complex theories of chemical reactions, he simply mixed various types of explosives together and then tested them to see which worked best.

And as the trailer also shows, Parsons was deeply into the occult. He was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s ritual magic. I think he also ran a boarding house, which only accepted guests, who were atheists or otherwise rebels against American religion and society. And one the people, who stayed there was the future head of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. According to the very definitely unauthorised biography of Hubbard, Barefaced Messiah, Hubbard took Parsons in completely. Parsons believed that Hubbard was a man of extreme occult talent, and the two started performing rituals together out in the desert. One of these was to bring about the birth of the Antichrist. Or something. And just as Hubbard was performing these weird rituals with Parsons, he was also sleeping with his girlfriend. In the end, he ran off with her and several thousands of dollars of Parsons’ money, which he’d promised Parsons he’d use to buy a fleet of three yachts. Parsons managed to get some of his money back, but told Hubbard he could his girlfriend. Hubbard himself produced his own version of the story, claiming that he had rescued the girl from a group of Nazi Communists. Or Communist Nazis. Hubbard died a few years later, when he dropped some of the explosives he was experimenting with on the floor of his garage and blew himself up.

I don’t condone the occult, but Parsons is very definitely one of the most fascinating figures of that period of rocket research, and it’s easy to see why he was chosen to be the subject of this drama series. Quite how faithful it’ll be to real life is going to be an interesting question. And it will be very interesting to see if it mentions anything about his relationship with Hubbard, as I’ve no doubt that the Church of Scientology would be very sensitive about that.

However, as it’s on CBS, there’s going to be little chance that those of us on this side of the Pond will be able to see it. Oh well, perhaps it’ll come out on DVD.

SF Short Film: Robots of Brixton

May 18, 2018

This is an interesting piece of what Beyoncé would call ‘Afrofuturism’ from the Dust channel on YouTube. Dust specialise in putting up short SF films, like the one above. This film, directed by Kibwe Tavares, imagines a kind of future Brixton, where all, or nearly all the people living there are robots. The film’s hero, a robot with Afro-Caribbean features, walks through the area, before relaxing with a robot friend, by toking what appears to be the robotic version of a bong.

A riot then breaks out, and robot riot police appear to crush it. This is intercut with scenes from the 1981 riots in Brixton, over which is dubbed a voice talking or reciting a piece about ending oppression. The film ends with shots of bodies on the ground, then and in this robotic present. And the quotation from Marx on a black screen: ‘History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce’.

People of all races like and produce SF, and there are a number of very well respected Black SF writers, most notably Samuel R. Delaney, who’s been going since the 1960s and ’70s, and Olivia Butler, the author of Clay’s Ark and the Parable of the Sower. A few years ago a volume of SF by Black authors was published with the title Dark Matter, the title also referring to the all the invisible cosmic stuff that’s adding missing mass to the universe. Also in the 1990s over this side of the pond there appeared a book, written by a Black author, about an all-Black mission to save a space colony by turning them Black. This was to save them from a plague which affected only Whites. I can’t say I was impression by this piece, as it seemed to me to be as imperialistic as the White ideologies of civilising Blacks by giving them European civilisation. This seems to be less controversial, though still dealing with a sensitive subject. It is also part of the character of much SF since it first appeared in the 19th century as ‘the literature of warning’.