Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

The Euthanasia of the Elderly in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 18, 2017

A few days ago I put up a post about the nightmare, alternative future described by the British SF novelist Stephen Baxter in his novel, Titan. Baxter’s a writer of hard SF, a subgenre in which the fiction is nevertheless grounded in solid, known science fact, though often with an element of artistic license. Titan was written in 1995, and is partly set in the decaying America of the first decades of the 21st century. A militantly anti-science president, Maclachlan, has been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian fundamentalists. Maclachlan shuts down NASA for good after a shuttle disaster. The launch complexes are closed down. Those that aren’t demolished become simply tourist attractions, as do the agency’s headquarters and mission control. One of these, a museum to the Apollo moon landings, is altered so that it promotes instead the spiritual experiences many of the astronauts did have during their missions. Maclachlan also introduces legislation demanding that only the Aristotelian cosmology of Thomas Aquinas, with its crystal spheres, is taught in schools. What is left of the agency is given over to the USAF under the paranoid and nationalistic General Hartle, who is very much like the rogue American General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear black comedy, Doctor Strangelove.

Against this, the agency attempts to launch one last, great space mission, a crewed voyage to Titan, where the Cassini probe has found evidence of active biological chemistry.

I commented in my post on the remarkable similarity between the policies of the fictional Maclachlan and Donald Trump. Maclachlan is fiercely nationalistic, and withdraws American peacekeepers from their stations around the globe, as well as pulling America out of NAFTA and the various other free trade agreements. America also pulls out of the World Bank and the IMF, and the UN is kicked out of New York. Like the real anti-Semites of the America Far Right, Maclachlan believes that the US is under ‘Israeli occupation’. Maclachlan also dismantles the country’s welfare programmes, especially those benefiting Blacks and other minorities, and starts building a wall with Mexico.

He also devises a policy to deal with America’s increasingly aging society: euthanasia chambers for the unwanted or neglected elderly. These are euphemistically called ‘Happy Booths’. There’s a very touching scene in which the last, fictitious surviving Apollo spaceman, Marcus White, is gassed to death in one of these chambers by a couple of nurses, who are every bit as malign as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. By this time, however, White is so confused with dementia, that he is lost in the delusion that he is back as a middle-aged man at NASA in his prime, suiting up and breathing the pure oxygen in preparation for another flight to the Moon.

This is interesting, as it completely turns on its head one of the truly despicable pieces of propaganda the Republicans were running ten years ago to make sure the American public didn’t get single-payer healthcare. Instead, we had Sarah Palin and the rest of the maniacs screaming that the introduction of single-payer healthcare, where all Americans would have free medical treatment financed by the state, would lead to ‘death panels’. Palin herself made a speech about how she didn’t want her children facing them. The idea was under a socialist system, medical care would be rationed. Those individuals deemed to be a waste of state money and resources, such as the elderly, would thus be humanely killed.

It was a disgusting piece of propaganda, based partly on the murder of the disabled in Nazi Germany. The Nazis were also pro-euthanasia, producing propaganda forms with titles such as I Don’t Want to Be Born. It was also based partly on the vile views of some of the founders of the Fabian Society, particularly H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who were very much in favour of eugenics and the sterilization of the biologically unfit.

Unfortunately, many Americans were taken in by this bilge. There was a BBC report on the truly horrific state of American healthcare, in which a clinic offering free treatment in California immediately attracted 50,000 + prospective patients. These are the 20 per cent of Americans, who couldn’t afford their private healthcare before the introduction of Obamacare. The Beeb’s reported also attracted the attention of Republican supporters, who’d believed all the rubbish they’d been fed by Palin and her stormtroopers. One of these was an elderly man, who rushed up to the Beeb’s crew and shouted ‘Your healthcare system stinks!’ When they politely asked him how so, he looked confused, and began to mutter about ‘death panels’.

There are no death panels in Britain, or anywhere else with a socialized, or state-funded medical system. As for Germany, state financing of medical treatment for the workers was introduced by Bismarck in the 1870s, nearly fifty years before the Nazis seized power. There is a problem, where dying individuals may be refused treatment of expensive and/or experimental drugs or other procedures on the NHS because the costs far exceed any chance of success. This is very much a controversial issue, as we’ve seen the past week with the parents fighting to send their dying son over to America for treatment. However, there are no death panels.

The ‘Happy Booths’ described in the book are a piece of artistic invention by Baxter. Conventional Christian morality rejects euthanasia for the same reasons it has traditionally ruled out abortion, except in certain very restricted circumstances. This is because both judge that there are certain forms of human beings, such as the unborn and the disabled, who are held not to have the same rights to life. If it is permitted to kill the disabled and the unborn, it is argued, there is a danger that the same attitude will spread to other groups also considered inferior, like the Jews and other ‘untermenschen’ in Nazi Germany. And Baxter is aware of this, as elsewhere in the book he describes how the British relative of one of the astronauts, stricken by CJD or ‘Mad Cow Disease’, is going to a euthanasia clinic even though their parents consider it unchristian.

A president dependent on the support of right-wing Christian fundamentalists would alienate a sizable part of his constituency if he did. What happens instead is that, through its hostility to state medicine and the welfare state, Republican politicians of Maclachlan’s type make it impossible for the poor, severely ill to support themselves. Hence Bernie Sanders’ chilling statistic that 50,000 Americans die each year because they cannot afford private medical treatment.

This is basically the same attitude of Tory party under David Cameron and Theresa May. They have extended the sanctions system and the Work Capability Tests to make it as difficult as possible for the unemployed and the disabled to quality for state support. The result of that has been that researchers at Oxford University found that in 2015 alone, 30,000 people died through the Tories’ austerity policies. And Mike over at Vox Political reported yesterday that, according to the Skwawkbox, there’s a nasty clause in Universal Credit, which means that the claimant has to find a job in two years, or they lose their benefit.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/17/uc-gives-disabled-people-just-two-years-to-find-a-job-or-lose-everything/

This is a right-wing ‘genocide of the disabled’, as Mike, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Tom Pride and the Angry Yorkshireman have said on their blogs, and Jeffrey, one of the great commenters here, has said on this. But it’s carefully hidden. The victims aren’t actually killed, they’re simply left to die. And the few politicos, who dare to call it what it is, are denied their ability to sit in parliament.

On Friday Mike commented on a piece in the Disability News Service about Mr. Jared O’Mara, a disabled Lib Dem MP, who has called the Tories’ policies towards the disabled ‘eugenics’, and stated that they want disabled people to ‘suffer and die’. Mr. O’Mara is to be commended for the way he tried to tackle Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the DWP and therefore the government’s chief minister responsible for implementing this policy. However, Mr. O’Mara finds it impossible to find anywhere in the House of Commons to sit during debates. There is insufficient seating for all 650 MPs, and there is no form available for disabled MPs to fill in stating that they have particular seating needs. As Mike says, this is all very suspicious.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/07/disabled-mp-accuses-tories-of-eugenics-is-that-why-they-wont-let-him-take-a-seat/

As a religious person, I can’t say I’m happy about the anti-religious stance of Titan. I went to a Christian college for my undergraduate degree, and some of the students were Creationists. I am not saying that their literalist reading of the creation story in Genesis is correct, but I have to say that they were, by and large, decent people. Those I met weren’t racists or political extremists, and I know that one or two were actually left-wing. I also can’t say that they were anti-science, outside of the very specific field of evolution. Moreover, since the election of Donald Trump there has been the emergence of a religious Left in America, something which couldn’t have been predicted when Baxter wrote the book back in the 1990s. One of the authors of the collection of articles attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservatism, pointed out that the Neo-Cons were not necessarily going to be politically dominant for ever. Kansas, and many of the other mid-western Republican states, had in the 1920s been centres of the Social Gospel movement, which combined Christianity and Socialism. It’s possible that as more Americans recognize how truly disgusting Trump and his party are, Christians over the other side of the Pond may return to it.

However, Trump and his administration are anti-science. The Republican party is strongly opposed to climate change, and so there has been a concerted attack on environmentalism since Trump took office. Legislation protecting America’s glorious natural heritage has been repealed, and federal scientists responsible for monitoring the environment have been effectively gagged. They may not publish any scientific papers supporting climate change, and the federal agency itself has been effectively gutted.

Titan also portrays a future suffering from global warming and catastrophic climate change, as do very many of the SF novels written during the same decade, such as Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather. So far Trump hasn’t wound up NASA, though I don’t doubt that the agency is still under considerable pressure to keep expenses under control. But the real harm is being done by Trump’s deliberate rejection of climate change to appease powerful donors from industry, particularly the Kochs in big oil. This denial of climate change, and that of the other world leaders, will lead to the deaths of millions worldwide. If it hasn’t already.

Donald Trump Predicted in Stephen Baxter’s 1995 Novel ‘Titan’

July 16, 2017

I’ve been making my way through Stephen Baxter’s SF novel, Titan, these last few weeks. Baxter’s a British SF writer, with degrees in maths and engineering. He applied to be an astronaut on the Anglo-Soviet mission to Mir in the 1980s, which went to Helen Sharman. He’s probably best known for his Xelee-sequence books. These are set in a universe dominated by the extremely advanced, but mysterious Xelee, who are engaged in a war across the entire universe with the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures determined to age and extinguish the universe of ordinary matter. He has also written other novels about a variety of parthenogenic humans, descended from a lost troop of Romans, a catastrophic flood in the Bronze Age, and the books The Long Earth and The Long War, about parallel worlds, with the late, great Terry Pratchett. His novel, Voyage, an alternative history in which NASA launches a final manned expedition to Mars, was adapted for Radio 4 by Audio Movies in the 1990s. He was also the scientific advisor for the 1990s BBC SF series, Invasion Earth, about aliens from the higher physical dimensions invading the planet.

Titan is also about a last, crewed NASA mission. This time its put together by a team of astronauts, space scientists and ground control crew as the Agency’s last, great space expedition before it is closed down following a shuttle disaster. It’s set in what was then the near future – 2004 onwards – in America increasingly falling into right-wing extremism, irrationalism and Christian fundamentalism. The leading politician and subsequent president, is Xavier Maclachlan, a Texan with standing on an aggressively anti-science platform. Here’s the description of the man and his policies on pages 284-5.

Hadamard was in Washington during the inauguration of Xavier Maclachlan, after his wafer-thin win in the 2008 election.

Maclachlan called it a ‘liberation of the capital’.

Armed militia bands came in from Idaho and Arizona and Oklahoma and Montana, to fire off black-powder salutes to the nationalist-populist who promised to repeal all gun control laws. In the crowd, Hadamard saw a couple of Ku Klux Klan constumes, a sight he though had gone into an unholy past. Come to that, there was a rumour that a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff. And in his speech Maclachlan appealed to the people to end what he called the ‘Israeli occupation of Congress’…

And so on.

As soon as Maclachlan lifted his hand from the Bible, US peacekeeping troops in the Balkans and Africa started to board their planes to leave. Foreign aid stopped. The UN was being thrown out of New York, and there was a rumour that Maclachlan was planning some military adventure to take back the canal from Panama.

Army engineers – set in place during the handover from the last Administration – started to build a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants. White it was being built, troops brought home from peacekeeping abroad were operating a shoot-to-kill policy.

There was chaos in the financial markets. Machlachlan had withdrawn the US from the North American Free Trade Treaty, from the World Trade Organisation, from GATT. Reviews of the country’s membership of the World Bank and the IMF had started – arms of an incipient world government, Maclachlan said, designed to let in the Russians. He had raised tariffs – ten per cent against Japan, fifty per cent against the Chinese – and world trade collapsed.

The Chinese, particularly, screamed. And so Maclachlan sent the Seventh Fleet to a new station just off the coast of Taiwan.

Meanwhile all the strategic arms treaties with Russia were torn up, as Maclachlan orderd his technicians to dig out the blueprints for Reagan’s old dream of SDI. In fact, Maclachlan wanted to go further. He was inviting ideas for what he called his ‘da Vinci brains trust’. The press was full of schemes for fantastic new weapons: smart remote sensors; dream mines that could shoot at passing traffic; smart armour that would use explosive tiles to deflect incoming projectiles; maybe even an electrical battlefield in which electricity-propelled shells would be zapped in by low-flying aircraft.

And back home, Machlachlan had cut off any remaining programs which benefited blacks and other minorities, and any funding that appeared to support abortion, which had been made illegal in any form.

Xavier Maclachlan was a busy man, and he was fulfilling his campaign promises.

Clearly, much of this is an extrapolation from the policies and attitudes of the Republican party and the American extreme Right in the 1980s and 1990s. Reagan had brought right-wing Christian fundamentalists into the Republican party, who had previously stood aloof from politics as part of a corrupt, fallen secular order. He had also begun to wind up government welfare programmes, particularly those aimed at benefiting minorities, such as Black Americans. Fears of an imminent apocalypse, social breakdown and Russian invasion, even after the collapse of Communism, had resulted in the emergence of the survivalist and then Militia movements, armed right-wing paramilitary groups. These had a bitter resentment of the federal government, which culminated in McViegh’s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma. They also tended to be bitterly racist and anti-Semitic. They believed and still believe in stupid Nazi conspiracy theories that claim that the Jews are trying to destroy the White race through racial intermixing and that America is covertly controlled by the Jews through the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’, or ZOG. These groups and right-wing American fundamentalist organisations also believed that there was a secret, Illuminati conspiracy to create a one world Satanic superstate centred on the UN. Phyllis Schlafly, who was actually a Democrat, regularly denounced the UN as well as women’s rights. And one leading figure in the militias – I think it may have been Bo Gritz, who supposedly served as the model for ‘Rambo’ – stated that the way they would clear America’s international debt would be by minting a single coin with the legend ‘1 Trillion Dollars’. As for the Klan, there were a series of scandals in which senior Republican politicos were revealed as having links to or membership in the White racist terrorist group. The most notorious of these was David Duke in Louisiana, who is unfortunately still around and blaming the Jews for everything even today.

And political scientists and economists were predicting the rise of China and the other ‘tiger economies’, which would dominate the ‘Pacific Century’ even then.

Of course, there are things Baxter failed to predict, like 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also takes the conventional view that the various free trade agreements and UN organisations, like the IMF and the World Bank, are nice, liberal, benefificial institutions, rather than the way corporate America imposes its own neoliberal policies on the rest of the world, particularly the developing nations.

Not that the Democrats have been much different. Counterpunch has reported that Obama was considering removing the ‘No first strike’ policy towards a nuclear confrontation, and Killary has been every bit as aggressive in her stance towards Russia and China as the Republicans, perhaps even more so.

As for the White extremist and racist groups supporting the new president, all that’s different is that the Klan has been largely replaced, or subsumed, into the internet-based Alt Right. But the hysterical fear of gun legislation, promoted and lavishly funded by the gun manufacturers and the NRA, against the desires of the majority of Americans, and even the NRA’s own rank and file membership, remains strong.

It shows how long the attitudes held by the American right, and which led to the election of Donald Trump, have been around. Since his election, left-wing news sites such as The Young Turks, Secular Talk and the David Pakman Show have reported that Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with Trump. Sixty per cent of the American public want him impeached. This dissatisfaction even extends to Republican voters.

Trump, however, in his racism, his isolationism, aggressive nationalism and hatred of the welfare state and women’s rights, is very much in line with the general political stance of post-Reaganite right-wing American politicians. Indeed, he’s so much a part of this political trend that, with caveats, his election – or rather, the election of someone like him – was predicted by Baxter over two decades ago.

No wonder an increasing number of young Americans are looking to progressive politicos like Bernie Sanders for leadership and the redemption of their country against a corrupt political elite and the military-industrial complex. And I fervently hope they win, and that humanity will continue to reach out to the cosmos in a spirit of genuine exploration and wonder, and not as another arena for warfare.

Ancient Christian Apologist Tertullian on Human Damage to the Environment

July 15, 2017

Some of the most vocal opponents of environmentalism and climate change in the US are politically Conservative Christians. They object to it, not just on the grounds that they believe it to be wrong scientifically, but also because they are highly suspicious of it on political and religious grounds. It is argued that the Green movement is really a pagan movement, or else a way of sneaking Socialism in through the back door through stressing the need for legislation and the regulation of industry to protect the environment. It’s also denounced as a form of Nazism, because the Nazis were also eager to protect the German environment.

It’s true that Green politics has strongly influenced some contemporary neo-Pagan religious movements, particularly Wicca, whose deities consist of an Earth mother and horned god. However, the scientific evidence on which the Green movement is based is separate and independent from any one particular religious or political group. And modern Green politics began with books such as Silent Spring in the 1960s and the Club of Rome, a gathering of concerned scientists, in the early ’70s, and not with Hitler and the Nazis.

Furthermore, writers and philosophers long before the Nazis were also acutely concerned with the threat of overpopulation and the damage humans were doing to the environment. One of them was the early Christian apologist, Tertullian, who wrote

‘Most convincing as evidence of populousness, we have become a burden to the Earth. The fruits of nature hardly suffice to sustain us, and there is a general pressure of scarcity giving rise to complaints. Need we be astonished that plague and famine, warfare and earthquake, come to be regarded as remedies, serving to prune the superfluity of population?’

This quotation was dug up by Adrian Berry, a fellow of the Interplanetary Society, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Geographical Society. Berry is very much a man of the right, who used to write for the Torygraph. He used it to argue that people have always had exaggerated fears about the threat to society. Or alternatively, they could also be extremely complacent, such as the 2nd century AD Roman writer Pliny. Pliny wrote of the enduring splendor of the Roman Empire just before it began to collapse. Jonathan Margolis also cites in his chapter on predictions of environmental catastrophe, ‘Global Warning’, in his A Brief History of Tomorrow: The Future, Past and Present (London: Bloomsbury 2000) 89, where he also discusses the possibility that predictions of environmental collapse may be wrong.

At the moment, the majority of the world’s scientists are convinced that climate change and environmental damage caused by humanity are real, and a genuine threat to the planet, its flora and fauna, and ultimately humanity itself. Furthermore, archaeologists become increasingly aware how global changes to the environment have caused civilizations to collapse. The early Viking colonies in Greenland were destroyed in the 14th century, when the environment in the northern hemisphere became colder, making it impossible to practice European-style agriculture so far north.

Similarly, the highly developed Pueblo Indian cultures in the Chaco canyon in what is now the southwestern US collapsed and were abandoned when the climate became hostile in the 13th century. The cultures existed in an arid region of the US, using extensive irrigation canals to water their crops. The area suffered an intense drought, and unable to support themselves, the inhabitants moved away.

As for ancient Rome, one of the causes for the barbarian invasions may well have been climate change. The environment became colder from the 3rd century onwards. Central Asian tribes, such as the Huns, moved west, crossing the steppes into Europe and moving south to attack China. This displaced other tribes, such as Goths, who were settled around the Black Sea. The sea levels began to rise, so that the Frisians and other Germanic tribes settled in what is now the Netherlands, were forced to abandon low-lying farms and villages on the coasts. This may have been one of the causes of the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain.

In the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire, towns shrank, while in the west there was a movement away from the cities, partly through economic grounds. Historians have argued whether the Roman population was decimated by disease. Certainly in Rome itself, located amidst swampland, malaria was endemic, and the sheer size of the population meant that it was periodically subject to outbreaks of other diseases. And the city depended on a steady influx of new immigrants to replenish its population. And there was a constant threat of starvation. The free Roman masses depended on shipments of grain from Egypt and north Africa, and one of the elected officials in the city was responsible for securing the grain supply. Amongst the graffiti found scrawled on walls in Pompeii are election slogans urging men to vote for a particular candidate because ‘he gets good bread’.

Tertullian may well have been absolutely right about the dangers of overpopulation. And regardless of whether he was or wasn’t, the fact that he, one of the great defenders of Christian faith and doctrine in the Roman Empire, was prepared to accept and argue that overpopulation and environmental damage were a danger, shows that there is nothing inherently anti-Christian in the Green movement. This was shown a few weeks ago when the current pope, Pope Francis, criticized Trump’s government for ignoring science and failing to tackle climate change. There’s an irony here in a religious figure attacking the elected leader of a supposedly secular state for having an anti-scientific attitude. And it remains true that there is nothing fundamentally contrary to Christianity about Green politics regardless of the support for Green politics amongst peoples of other religions or none.

Apollo Astronaut Michael Collins on Sexism, the Fragile Earth and Banning Guns in Space Colonies

July 13, 2017

Last week I put up a post about a clip of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, pulling faces at a rambling, incoherent speech made by Donald Trump. Trump was signing into law an act affirming America’s commitment to the space programme. His speech about it was less than inspiring however, and Aldrin, who not only went to the Moon himself, but has also been a staunch supporter of opening the High Frontier up to ordinary women and men, was very definitely less than impressed.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently was Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story, written by the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins. Collins was the pilot, who flew the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, and then waited in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic landing, before flying back with them on the return journey to Earth. The book is Collin’s account of how he came to be astronaut. Determined to be a pilot after being allowed to hold the joystick of a passenger aircraft on which he and his family were travelling as a child, he joined the USAF and became a test pilot. He then moved on to join NASA’s space programme. He describes the rigorous training required, and his first flight into space with John Young in Gemini 10 in July 1966. He also explains how he came, reluctantly, to leave the astronaut programme for a variety of reasons, not least was the way it was stopping him from spending time with his family. And in his final chapter he, like Aldrin, looks forward to the future spread of humanity throughout the Solar system and beyond, with humans going to Mars and then Titan, a moon of Saturn, which may hold the key to the origin of life.

This isn’t an explicitly political book. Nevertheless, Collins does comment on specific issues as they affect the racial and gender composition of the astronaut programme, his perspective on the importance of the environment and why he believes guns would be banned by the inhabitants of a space colony. These are all issues which Trump, his supporters and donors in the gun manufacturers and lobbyists would strongly oppose.

In the passage where he discusses how he and the other astronauts became part of a panel, whose job was to select a fresh batch of astronauts, makes a point of explaining why only white men were selected. He then goes on to comment that although this was what was done at the time, he believes and hope that this will change, and that Blacks and women are just as capable of flying air- and spacecraft equally well. He points out that the highly technological nature of modern aircraft means that there is absolutely no biological obstacle to women piloting such high performance machines. He writes

Note that I have said “he”, because there were no women in the group, nor where there any blacks. In thinking about that, it seems to me that there were plenty of women and blacks who could get the highest marks in categories 1 and 4 [their intelligence and how badly they wanted to be astronauts], but in 1966 categories 2 and 3 [education and experience] tended to rule them out. There simply did not seem to be aeronautical engineers and experienced test pilots, who were black or women. I think, and hope, that will change in the future. Flying a modern jet aircraft does not require a great deal of strength, for one thing. Hydraulic flight controls, like power steering in a car, prefer a light touch, and women should do as good a job as men. Obviously, an airplane has now way of telling the skin colour of the person flying it. (pp. 72-3. My comments in brackets).

He describes how looking at the Earth from space made him aware how fragile it was, and of the importance of preserving the environment.

I will never forget how beautiful the earth appears from a great distance, floating silently and serenely like a blue and white marble against the pure black of space. For some reason, the tiny earth also appears very fragile, as if a giant hand could suddenly reach out and crush it. Of course, there is no one giant hand, but there are billions of smaller hands on earth, working furiously to change their home. Some of the changes being made are good, and others bad. For example, we are learning more efficient ways of catching fish, and that is good because it means more people can be fed from the oceans. If, on the other hand, these new methods result in the disappearance of species, such as whales, then that is bad. The automobile gives us great mobility, but pollutes our atmosphere. We cook cleanly and efficiently with natural gas, but we are running short of it. Newspapers and books spread knowledge, but require that trees be chopped down. It seems that nearly every advance in our civilisation has some undesirable side effects, Today’s young people are going to have to acquire the wisdom to see that future changes help our planet, not hurt it, so that it truly becomes the beautiful, clean, blue and white pea it seems to be when viewed from the moon. The earth truly is fragile, in the sense that its surface can easily shift from blue and white to black and brown. Is the riverbank a delightful spot to watch diving ducks, or is it lifeless greasy muck littered with bottles and tires? More people should be privileged to fly in space and get the chance to see the fragile earth as it appears from afar.
(p. 146).

Further on in the book, he states that future orbiting settlements would get their power from solar energy, as this would not only be abundant and free, but also clean, unlike coal. (pp. 150-1).

He also remarks on the way the Apollo missions differed from previous historic expeditions in that the explorers were unarmed, and suggests that the future inhabitants of a space colony at one of the libration points where the gravity of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, and so named ‘Libra’, would similarly see no need for carrying weapons.

Apollo set a precedent for the future in another interesting way. It was probably the only major human expedition in which no weapons were carried. In similar fashion, no weapons would be permitted on Libra and Librans simply would not be able to understand why earth people continued to shoot one another. On Libra, if people felt hostile, they would be urged to put their energies into athletic contests or other competitive events, or simply to let off steam by going flying.

He then describes how the lower or zero gravity in the colony would allow people to fly aircraft power by their own muscles. (pp. 154-5).

Most of this is, or at least should be, non-controversial. Scientists have been warning us about the immense danger to our ecosystem, and the horrific decline in its natural wildlife as more and more habitats are destroyed, and an increasing number of species threatened with extinction, since the early ’70s. Among those warning of the ecological perils to the planet was the inspirational astronomer and NASA scientist, Carl Sagan. And indeed, one of the most powerful images that stimulated ecological awareness and the burgeoning Green movement was that picture of the Earth as a fragile, blue orb hanging in the blackness of space taken from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Way back in the mid-1990s the Beeb’s popular science programme, Horizon, devoted an edition, ‘Icon Earth’, to how this photo had influenced politics and culture.

The picture hasn’t just made more people aware of the urgent need to protect the environment. Some of the astronauts have spoken about how it brought home to them how artificial racial and national divisions are. They point out that there are now boundaries visible from space. Helen Sharman, the British astronaut who flew with the Russians to Mir in the 1980s, states in her book about her voyage that space helps to foster international understanding and cooperation. She observes that astronauts are the least nationalistic people.

As for guns, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that shooting in the enclosed environment of space habitat could have truly disastrous consequences through the damage it could do to the machinery and fabric of the colony itself, and their ability to preserve human life in the harsh environment of space. A bullet through the outer skin of a spacecraft could lead the escape of its air, causing those within to die of suffocation and decompression.

Trump, however, is supported by the racist and misogynist Alt Right, who would like to roll back Black Civil Rights and women’s social and political gains since the 1960s, while the Republican party as a whole is generously funded by the NRA and the gun lobby, and the Koch brothers and other industrial magnates. The Koch brothers own much of the American petrochemical industry, and so, like many of the other multimillionaire businessmen, are very strongly opposed to any kind of environmental protection. The Kochs in particular are responsible for closing down awkward parts of the American meteorology and environmental science laboratories when they dare to issue warnings about the damage industry is causing to the country’s natural beauty and wildlife. They are then replaced with other institutions, also funded by the Kochs and those like them, which then conveniently deny the reality of climate change. The Republicans and their supporters in industry have also set up fake ‘astroturf’ Green movements, like Wise Use, which seek to undermine the genuine environmental movement.

Given the way the experience of looking back at our beautiful planet from space has transformed political, social and cultural perspectives all across the world, you can understand why some astronauts just might feel they have excellent reasons for pulling faces at their president.

Buzz Aldrin in Physical Pain at Trump’s Rambling Speech about Space Programme

July 6, 2017

Donald Trump has alarmed scientists and laypeople with the anti-science stance of his administration. They’re alarmed at legislation he’s passed allowing the teaching of evolution and climate change as fact to be challenged in schools, who may also be compelled to teach Creationism and present the arguments of the lobbyists in the oil industry that deny the reality of climate change.

Trump’s comments about space also appear to have caused serious pain to Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin is a genuine American hero. He was the second man to step out on the Moon after Armstrong. He was deeply religious. A devout Roman Catholic, her age himself Holy Communion while on the lunar surface, but afterwards became more ‘New Age’ in his beliefs. He has also been a committed champion of America’s space programme and of opening up the High Frontier to ordinary folks.

In this clip, David Pakman discusses the very pained expressions crossing the old flyboy’s face at Trump’s rambling speech. Trump was passing legislation supposed to reaffirm and strengthen the American space programme. It’s clear from his comments that Trump himself actually doesn’t have a clue about space. At one point, after he signs the piece of legislation, one of his aides remarks ‘To infinity and beyond!’

This, of course, is the watchword of Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear. However, Trump fails to recognise the quote, and thinks it’s about the law, commenting, ‘It is infinity. Well, it could be infinity.’

And when Trump does for a moment appear to understand what he’s talking about, it’s actually quite sinister. At one point he starts talking about how space exploration will benefit American industry.

Well, space does indeed have the potential to benefit industry. There are substances, such as ultra-pure crystals, that are difficult to create on Earth, but can be made much more easily in microgravity. But that’s not what Trump’s talking about.

What the Orange Buffoon is talking about is how good space will be for American defence contractors, which raises the horrendous issue of the militarisation space, which is prohibited under international law.

Pakman comments about how, after his immense achievement in landing on the Moon, and then having his patience tested by a conspiracy theorist, who challenged him with the statement that he hadn’t really gone to the Moon, the 87-year old spaceman now looks as though he’s really in physical pain at Trump’s incoherent speech.

Unlike the conspiracy theorist, Trump did actually walk away from his meeting with Aldrin. The challenge to the old astronaut’s integrity and achievement was too much for him to bear, and he decked the offender. Clearly, Aldrin has too much respect for the presidency to hit its current incumbent. But it seems very clear Trump’s ignorance was a bit too much for him.

Government Internet Censorship in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 6, 2017

One of the very real concerns about the current attacks on freedom of speech by British and American governments is these states’ demands for increasing powers to regulate and censor what is posted on-line. This has all been framed under the pretext of protecting the British and American peoples from pornography, especially paedophile, and terrorism.

Stephen Baxter is one of Britain’s leading writers of Hard SF. This is the subgenre of Science Fiction, which follows Asimov and Clarke in being based on real science, though obviously also with a greater or less degree of extrapolation and invention permitting the inclusion of FTL drives, AIs and aliens. Baxter’s best known for his Xelee sequence series of books. These are set in a universe dominated by the advanced and unknowable Xelee, an alien race so far ahead of humanity that humans and the other intelligent species compete with each other to scavenge bits and pieces of their technology. At the same time, the universe is being prematurely aged by the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures for whom the light and warmth of the universe of normal matter is a hostile environment.

Baxter has also written a number of novels set in an alternative world. In Voyage, he described a crewed NASA expedition to Mars, whose triumph – a successful Mars landing – comes just when the entire American space programme is cancelled. The book was adapted as a radio play and broadcast on Radio 4.

In Titan, published in 1995, Baxter tells the story of a group of NASA and JPL scientists and astronauts, who launch a manned expedition to Titan to investigate further the discovery of living biochemistry by the Cassini probe. This is to be NASA’s last hurrah after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle results in the cancellation of the manned space programme. The story begins in 2004, in a world that is almost identical to the present of the time the book was written.

There are a few exceptions, however. Amongst the new inventions of this future past are computerised tattoos, which change shape according to the wishes of the wearer, and soft computer/TV screens, which can be rolled up and pasted on walls like paper.

And one of the issues that is very alive is the American government’s ruthless censorship of the internet. This is discussed in one scene, where NASA’s head, Hadamard, meets Paula Benacerraf, an astronaut aboard the ill-fated Columbia mission, her daughter, Jackie, who is responsible for publishing the discovery of life on Saturn’s moon, and her young son, at an official ceremony in Texas to honour China’s first taikonaut, Jiang Li.

He found Paula Benacerraf, who was here with her daughter, and a kid, who looked bored and restless. Maybe he needed to pee, Hadamard thought sourly. On the daughter’s cheek was an image tattoo that was tuned to black; on her colourless dress she wore a simple, old-fashioned button-badge that said, mysteriously, ‘NED’.

Hadamard grunted. ‘I’ve seen a few of those blacked-out tattoos. I thought it was some kind of comms problem -‘
Jackie Benacerraf shook her head. ‘It’s a mute protest.’
‘At what?’
‘At shutting down the net.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Oh, Christ, he thought. She was talking about the Communications Decency Act, which had been extended during the winter. With a flurry of publicity about paedophiles and neo-Nazis and bomb-makers, the police had shut down and prosecuted any net service provider, who could be shown to have passed on any of the material that fell outside the provisions of the Act. And that was almost all of them.
‘I was never much of a net user,’ Hadamard admitted.
‘Just to get you up to date,’ Jackie Benacerraf said sourly, ‘we now have one licensed service provider, which is Disney-Coke, and all net access software has built-in-censorship filters. We’re just like China now, where everything goes through the official news agency, Xinhua; that poor space kid must feel right at home.’
Benacerraf raised an eyebrow at him. ‘She’s a journalist. Jackie takes these things seriously.’
Jackie scowled. ‘Wouldn’t you, if your career had just been f***ed over?’
[Censorship mine].
Hadamard shrugged; he didn’t have strong opinions.
The comprehensive net shutdown had been necessary because the tech-heads who loved all that stuff had proven too damn smart at getting around any reasonable restriction put in place. Like putting encoded messages of race-hate and smut into graphics files, for instance: that had meant banning all graphics and sound files, and the World Wide Web had just withered. He knew there had been some squealing among genuine discussion groups on the net, and academics and researchers who suddenly found their access to online libraries shut down, and businesses who were no longer allowed to send secure encrypted messages, and … But screw it. To Hadamard, the net had been just a big conduit of bullshit; everyone was better off without it.
(pp. 130-1).

This is Science Fiction as the literature of warning: against cuts to the space programme, and net censorship. It even mentions rising graduate unemployment, in a scene where Paula Benacerraf arranges a meeting with her team to discuss the possibility of launching a crewed mission to Titan. They meet at dinner party in Benacerraf’s house, served by her housekeeper, Kevin. Kevin is a fine art graduate, who is working as Benacerraf’s housekeeper in order to work off his student debt. His works are the usual horrors inflicted on the world by contemporary artists. In her only visit to his atelier, Benacerraf is shown a 1/4 size sculpture of himself which Kevin has gnawed from a block of lard. This is just a study for a full-size work, which he intends to gnaw from his own liposuctioned fat or faeces. As she and her guests are being served by Kevin, she reflects that he is like the majority of graduates, who will never have a job.

Well, the shuttle programme has been cancelled, but hopefully this will not prevent the further exploration of universe. The Chinese certainly are looking to put a person into space, and are believed to be aiming to land a human on the Moon by 2020. Baxter also mentions this in Titan in his description of the spacewoman’s mission to the Deep Black, where he states that this is believed to be in preparation for a moon landing in 2019.

And Baxter is absolutely correct about the demands for a comprehensive censorship of the internet by the British and American governments. The only difference is the terrorists the governments are panicking about are Islamist, rather than neo-Nazi. So far, the demands for censorship have been limited, so there isn’t the almost-complete shutdown of the net described in Baxter’s version of the recent past.

But this is still a very real danger, as these accompanying threat, which Baxter didn’t predict, of increased state surveillance of electronic communications, for the same reasons as censorship.

Someone once remarked that all science fiction is really about the issues of the time they were set. Titan reflects the fears about the internet that were present back in the 1990s, when it was first emerging. These fears, and the consequent demands by government to censor nearly everything we see or read online, are still very real, and Baxter’s book is still very relevant.

Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Claims NASA Operating Child Slave Labour Base on Mars

July 1, 2017

More madness from the very warped mind of Alex Jones. Jones is the head honcho behind the internet conspiracy theory show, Infowars, and its companion website, Prison Planet. Jones believes, or affects to believe, that the American government, the UN, the ‘globalists’, the elite and liberals, Socialists and feminists are engaged in dire and foul conspiracies against the world and its people, and particularly those in America.

Over the years he has claimed that the richest 1 per cent of American society and industry, or at least their menfolk, sacrifice children in Satanic rituals at their annual secret meetings in Bohemian Grove in California. The Twin Towers collapsed because of a conspiracy by the American government, and not because Saudi-backed terrorists hijacked and flew two planes into them. President Obama was going to use to the legislation permitting the establishment of refugee camps to house disaster victims to seize power and herd people into what were really concentration camps. Humanity and the world were under attack by evil extradimensional entities, who might be demons or simply alien intelligences. And Barack Obama was fully under their control. He was truly the Devil’s emissary, because, apparently, he looked demonic, smelt bad and flies were always hovering around him.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. She was also under Satanic influence. She was part of a vast, paedophile conspiracy supplying children to leading politicians from a pizza parlour in Boston. She was also some kind of robot or cyborg, because something metal fell out of her trouser leg when she had a fainting fit during her campaigning. When she momentarily had some kind of problem swallowing a glass of water, Jones seized on this as evidence that she was either demonically possessed, or carrying some kind of alien spawn, which was about to come bursting out of her like the xenomorphs in the Alien movies. She was herself also a participant, with Bill, in black magic ‘spirit eating’ orgies put on by a performance artist.

The UN, Socialists and feminists are all engaged in some weird plot to take over the world and enslave everybody in it, particularly White men. Gay and transgender rights activists are a ‘transhumanist UFO cult’ to create a new, genderless, form of humanity.

How much of this Jones actually believes is a moot point. His ex-wife was suing him for custody of their children, on the grounds that he was utterly made and it was damaging their kids to see their Dad ranting and raving in the TV studio he has at his home. Jones’ lawyers responded by stating that Jones didn’t believe any of it, and it was all ‘performance art’.

Recently Jones has also been forced to issue apologies to people he has libelled on his programme. Someone took his comments about the pizza parlour in Boston very seriously indeed, and walked into it waving a gun around in order to free the child captives in the basement. There weren’t any children kept prisoner there, in the basement or anywhere else. Fortunately, no-one was shot or hurt in this incident.

Then he was threatened with legal action from the Turkish owner of a Yoghurt factory, who had a deliberately policy of employing immigrants. Many of these were Middle Eastern. Jones claimed that this, entirely respectable businessman, who was another paedophile, and that his employees had been responsible for a series of rapes. The businessman wasn’t, and his employees were also innocent. After being threatened with a writ, Jones ended up making a statement that he was entirely mistaken about it all on air.

Now he’s done the same to NASA. On Thursday, Jones had on his programme Robert David Steele, a former Reform Party presidential candidate, who claims to have been a case officer with the CIA. Steele spun a yarn that NASA had been kidnapping children to send them on a 20 year journey to be used as slave labour on Mars. Oh yes, and they were also been frightened and then killed, so that their blood and bone marrow could be harvested for use by the elites. The children had to be terrified when they died as this would enrich it with adrenaline.

NASA responded by denying everything, and pointing out that they didn’t have any kind of child labour camp on the Red Planet.

See: http://www.news18.com/news/buzz/we-do-not-have-a-child-slave-colony-on-mars-nasa-1447965.html

This story is, of course, absolute nonsense. For a start, 20 years is far too long for a journey to Mars. Spacecraft have to go at a certain speed – escape velocity – to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull if they are to go anywhere else in the Solar system, whether it’s the Moon or the other planets. I think current plans for a Mars mission estimate that it would take about 2-3 years or so to get there. A long time, certainly, but not as long as 20.

Then there’s the logistics and engineering problems of getting people to Mars. You need rockets of a certain size and power. Furthermore, any colonists for Mars, whether free or not, would have to carry all their food, water and air with them. The spaceships will also have to be shielded against cosmic radiation and solar flares. These weren’t much of a problem when going to the Moon, because of the relatively short length of the journey – about a week. Even so, if a coronal mass ejection – a type of massive flare known as a sun storm – had occurred, it would have fried the Apollo astronauts. These are a real threat for those intrepid souls going on the lengthy journey to the Red Planet.

There are also other medical problems caused by the lack of gravity in space. As the astronauts’ bodies don’t have to fight against the pull of the Earth’s gravity, muscles shrink. They also go to the toilet more than they would on Earth, and so start to lose calcium, weakening their bones. Hence their health is monitored, and those crews staying in space for a long time, such as during the Skylab programme from 1973-5, have to devote a certain amount of time each day to doing their exercise.

As there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in zero gravity, and the fluid in your inner ear that tells you which is which also starts to float along with the rest of you, some astronauts suffer from ‘space sickness’, similar to the sea sickness some people feel travelling by ship.

There are also psychological hazards that may endanger the lives of the space travellers. I heard Dr Kevin Fong, who’s a specialist in space medicine, talking about them one year at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Fong pointed out that the strange environment of space can also affect astronauts’ mental health. Several of them have reported hearing sounds, such as dogs barking and babies crying, while in orbit. They can also find themselves doing strange, irrational things, which can potentially kill them, before being snapped out of it. One astronaut aboard Mir described how he was asleep one night, before being suddenly awoken by a noise. He then found one of his fellow astronauts suited up, ready to take a spacewalk. But the poor fellow hadn’t connected the air hoses. It takes about seven hours or so to put on and inflate a spacesuit, so that it protects its wearer from the hard vacuum outside their craft. None of this had been done, and if the astronaut had walked through the airlock, he would have been killed. Fortunately, the other astronaut was able to wake his friends and colleagues, who woke up and managed to stop him.

These are the hazards facing the extremely healthy men and women, who manage to pass the rigorous testing and gruelling grueling training programmes. Hopefully, one day we’ll have learned enough to make space travel sufficiently safe so that families with children can venture into the Deep Black. But we very definitely aren’t anyway near that level now.

This is sheer bullsh*t, and it’s not hard to see where it’s ultimately coming from. Somewhere in there is the influence of Alternative 3. This was an April Fool’s Day joke, broadcast by ITV in 1975. It was a bogus edition of a fake science programme, ‘Science Report’, which claimed that the Earth was dying, and so the Americans and Russians had secretly shelved their differences in order to colonise Mars secretly. Leading scientists were disappearing as they took up their new lives on the Red Planet. Ordinary people, meanwhile, were also disappearing. They were being kidnapped, lobotomised and ‘de-sexed’ to turn them into slaves as ‘batch consignments’, serving their elite masters.

The programme was a hoax, but unfortunately many people were genuinely taken in and didn’t realise that it was a joke. There was also a tie-in novelisation, which until recently was unavailable in the US. This led to rumours that it was all true, and had been deliberately suppressed by Them.

The result has been that a number of other conspiracy theories about secret government space projects have grown up around it, or been inspired by it. This latest nonsense appears to be one of them.

I don’t know how many people actually believe Steele’s story. Possibly very few, the kind of people, who bought into the lurid revelations of Commander X and his tales about secret collaboration with aliens. Or the late Bill English and his rubbish about meeting the Zeta Reticulan ambassador, Omnipotent Highness Krill, at a military base.

I doubt very many people actually believe the story, but that hasn’t stopped Jones having an effect. During the American presidential elections, he gave very vocal support to Donald Trump, who was a guest on his programme several times. He has libelled various blameless individuals, such as the Turkish yoghourt manufacturer. It’s a mercy that his stories about paedophile gangs didn’t result in someone being shot at that pizza place. He also notoriously claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was all staged, and that the children and others, who were killed and injured were ‘crisis actors’. This has led to people approaching and accusing the kids’ grieving parents with these claims.

And anti-racist activists are worried about the links Jones and his show have with the racist Alt-Right. This includes his fellow presenter, Paul Joseph Watson, who has inveighed against the threat Islam and Muslim immigration supposedly poses to western civilisation.

Jones is a clown, and his ranting can be hilarious, but there’s a very serious, very dark side to his show. It’s almost the very definition of ‘fake news’, and it is having a pernicious effect on politics in the US, as more citizens are encouraged to fear the terrible, but entirely imaginary Others that mean to harm and enslave them. While, of course, supporting right-wing Libertarian policies, which will deny them proper, decent medicine, welfare support, housing, clean water and education.

Real Warp Physics: Travelling to the Pleiades in a Hyperspace with Imaginary Time in 1.3 Years

June 20, 2017

Now for something a little more optimistic. Don’t worry – I’ll get back to bashing the Tories and their vile policies shortly.

Looking through a few back copies of Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, I found a paper by a Japanese physicist, Yoshinari Minami, ‘Travelling to the Stars: Possibilities Given by a Spacetime Featuring Imaginary Time’ in JBIS vol. 56, no. 5/6, May/June 2003, pp. 205-211. The possibility of Faster Than Light travel is taken seriously by a number of physicists, engineers and space scientists, and a number of papers on the possibility of using warp drive or other advanced systems to travel to the stars have been published since Marcel Alcubierre published his paper showing that warp drive was possible, if only in theory, in the 1990s. Incidentally, one of Alcubierre’s names using the Spanish system was ‘Moya’, which was also the name of the living space ship in the SF TV series, Farscape.

In the article, Minami discusses the physics of hyperspace, using some seriously difficult maths to prove that it is in theory possible to travel to the Pleiades, otherwise known as the Seven Sisters, a star cluster 410 light years away in 1.3 Earth years. Without some form of FTL drive a round trip to the Pleiades in a spacecraft travelling at 0.99999 per cent of the speed of light would take 820 years, although due to time dilation the crew would only experience the journey as 3.6 years long.

Minami acknowledges that imaginary time is a difficult concept, and gives some examples of how contemporary scientists are nevertheless incorporating it into their theories and experiments. For example, Stephen Hawking has used imaginary time as part of his attempt to unite relativity and quantum physics. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end in singularities in which current physics breaks down. However, no such boundaries exist in imaginary time, and so imaginary time may be far more basic as a fundamental property of the cosmos.

He also discusses the way quantum tunnelling is utilised in a number of electronics components. These are the tunnel diode, the tunnel transistor, the tunnel diode charge transformer logic and other devices. Quantum tunnelling is the phenomenon in which a sub-atomic particle can travel slightly faster than light if it has imaginary momentum.

This is seriously mind-blowing stuff. I can remember the excitement back in the 1990s or perhaps the early part of this century, when a team of physicists showed it was possible to use quantum tunnelling to send information slightly faster than the speed of light, something which was previously thought impossible. For SF fans, this raises the possibility that one day Faster Than Light communication devices – the ansibles of Ursula le Guin and the Dirac Telephone of James Blish, could become a reality.

The paper then discusses the possibility of using wormholes or cosmological theories, which posit that the universe has extra dimensions, such as Kaluza-Klein Theory, Supergravity, Superstrings, M theory and D-brane theory to enter hyperspace. Minami states that one form of wormhole – the Euclidean – is considered to include imaginary time in their topology. However, using such a wormhole would be extremely difficult, as they’re smaller than an attempt, suffer fluctuations and the destination and way back is ultimately unknown.

He therefore does not make any detailed suggestion how a future spacecraft could enter hyperspace. But if a spaceship was able to enter hyperspace after accelerating to with a infinitesimal fraction of the speed of light, a flight which lasted for 100 hours in hyperspace would appear to last only 70 hours to an observer on Earth.

He then considers a mission in which a spaceship leaves Earth at a tenth or a fifth the speed of light. After escaping from the solar system, the ship then accelerates to near-light speed. Such a spacecraft would be able to reach the Pleiades in 1.8 years ship time, which 1.3 years have passed to the scientists waiting back on Earth. This method of transport would not violate the causality principle, and could be used at all times and everywhere back in real space.

I don’t pretend for a single moment to be able to follow the maths. All I can say is that, if a hyperspace with an imaginary time exists, then, as Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say, ‘Make it so!’

Stephen Hawking and Other Celebs Urge Public to Vote Labour

June 6, 2017

Mike over at Vox Political has put up a piece reporting that Ricky Gervaise, Dr Stephen Hawking and Mark Ruffalo, the actor, who played Dr. Bruce Banner, the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk, have all urged the public to vote Labour on Thursday.

Gervaise issued a Tweet stating he wasn’t telling people which way to vote, but it was a fact that the only way to keep the Tories out was to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Mark Ruffalo stated that he humbly endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, as he offers people an alternative to the corporate status quo, which never ends well for people. This prompted John Prescott to Tweet ‘Hulk smash Tories’.

Indeed he would. Banner and the Hulk in the original Marvel comics were profoundly countercultural figures. The Hulk was anger incarnate, born in the radiation blast of an American nuclear test when Banner tried to save teenager Rick. And Rick was very much a ‘rebel without a cause’, a youth, who’d driven into the test zone, heedless of his own safety, because he didn’t feel society had anything for him.

While Banner was very much a square, whose girlfriend was the daughter of the commanding officer in charge of the test, the tenor of the strip was very much anti-militarist. The commanding officer hated the Hulk, and had resolved to destroy him. The Hulk, however, really only wanted to be left alone, and so one constant theme was the running battle between the Hulk and the US army. Ang Lee’s film version of the strip, which unfortunately flopped, got this part of the Hulk’s characterisation absolutely right. And in the 1970s, the anti-militarist message of the strip became stronger. In one story, for example, Banner discovered and did his best to oppose dehumanising military experiments to link soldier’s brains to battle robots, experiments that had resulted in the troopers themselves feeling robotic and mechanical.

The influence of the Vietnam War in dehumanising a generation of American young men, to turn them into ruthless monsters responsible for horrific atrocities, is shown very clearly here.

And one real-life physicist, who has also come out for the Labour party is Cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking. Hawking told the Independent and the Mirror that he was voting Labour, because another five years of the Tories would be a disaster for the NHS, the police and other public services.

His endorsement has been welcomed by people like Dr. Alex Gates. Hawking is best known for his book, A Brief History of Time, though his background is in Black Holes. Dr Hawking even has a variety of radiation named after him. Black Holes, or rather the Event Horizons around them, are gradually evaporating, and the radiation they give off is called ‘Hawking Radiation’.

And so Dr. Gates quipped that Hawking had spotted the Black Hole in the Tories’ NHS budget.

One space scientist, who I feel would definitely have supported Jeremy Corbyn over here and Bernie Sanders in his own country, is Dr. Carl Sagan. Older readers of this blog may remember Sagan from his TV blockbuster history of science, Cosmos, and his SF novel, Contact, which was turned into a film with Jodie Foster as the astronomer heroine, who travels through a wormhole to make contact with an alien civilisation.

I very definitely don’t share Sagan’s views on religion. He was a religious sceptic and a founding member of CSICOP. But he was also a man of the Left, who hated imperialism and militarism, and supported the burgeoning Green movement. In the 1980s he warned that a nuclear war would result in a devastating global ‘nuclear winter’ of the type created by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It’s since been shown that this wouldn’t actually occur. But Sagan was right to press for nuclear disarmament, and absolutely right to oppose the new Cold War Reagan and Maggie Thatcher were trying to whip up against the Russians.

He was also critical of the design of the space shuttle. This was supposed to be the vehicle that would open space up to just about everyone, provided you were fit enough to stand the three Gs of acceleration into orbit. The Challenger disaster put an end to that.

Sagan informed the public that the original design for the Shuttle had been for a smaller vehicle, which would have been purely civilian and much safer and more effective. However, the American military had stopped this, because they wanted a larger vehicle to carry their spy satellites. The result was the over-engineered machine, which exploded at least twice, and whose launches had to be cancelled because of engineering problems.

Sagan died of prostate cancer in the 1990s. He was a brilliant scientist and visionary, who speculated about life on Mars and Venus, and, like Hawking, was a staunch advocate of the colonisation of space. And he was inspiration to a generation of young people to have an interest in space and science. One of the most obvious examples of this is Dr Brian Cox, who freely acknowledges Sagan’s influence.

One feels that Sagan would have firmly resisted everything Bush, Blair, and now Trump, Cameron and May have done to destroy the environment and spread carnage around the world through their wars in the Middle East, quite apart from the Trump’s administration hatred of mainstream science.

You don’t have to use Sagan’s ‘spaceship of the imagination’ to travel light years to see the immense harm Theresa May and her party have inflicted on the NHS, the public services and our national security.

And you don’t have to be a great scientist to realise that the Tories’ attacks on education – their spending cuts, privatisation of schools, and burdening students with tens of thousands in debts – will stop the country’s young people fulfilling their academic potential, regardless of the bilge they may spout about encouraging the STEM subjects.

And I think Hawking has spoken out about the dangers of May’s cuts to science funding and research.

The only party that is ready to undo all of this is Labour.

So please, vote for Corbyn on June 8th.

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.