Posts Tagged ‘CSICOP’

Poul Anderson and Ideas about Terraforming Venus Before Carl Sagan

December 21, 2022

This might appeal to readers of this blog, who aren’t fans of the late astronomer, Sceptic and presenter of the blockbusting TV science series, Cosmos. I put up a drawing I’d done of Sagan a week or so ago along with a piece explaining why I thought he was a great TV personality. While Sagan was a brilliant astronomer and space scientist, some of the readers of this blog were less impressed by his attitude towards the UFO crowd. Sagan was a fervent rationalist, who saw it as his mission to attack ideas he thought were irrational, and particularly the paranormal. He was one of the founders of the Sceptical organisation, CSICOP, or the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, along with the stage magician James Randi and the mathematician Martin Gardner. One of Sagan’s last works was The Demon-Haunted World in which he worried about the tide of irrationality creeping over America and the world and foresaw a time in which the New Age would have taken over completely, leading to a new Dark Age and people earnestly consulting their horoscopes each morning.

Some commenters remembered how Sagan had been wheeled on TV in the 1960s to debunk UFO encounters. They didn’t like his superior and condescending attitude towards the experiencers. Now I’ll admit that I don’t regard UFOs as nuts and bolts alien spacecraft. Much of the imagery and the basic plot of UFO encounters seems to come from science fiction and supernatural encounters with gods, demons and fairies before then. One of the alternative views of the UFO phenomenon is the psycho-social hypothesis, which sees it as an internal psychological experience which uses the imagery of contemporary culture. In previous centuries this was of fairies. Now, as belief in the supernatural has declined in the West, the imagery is from science fiction. But both the imagery of fairies and alien spacecraft represent the same theme of encounter with a cosmic other. Some UFO writers and researchers like John Keel and Jacques Vallee believe that there is a genuine paranormal phenomenon at work, and that the force that was previously responsible for encounters with fairies and so on has simply now changed to using that of space craft as society has changed. See Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse, for example. Many UFO encounters can be explained as misidentification, hoaxes, and sightings of top secret military aircraft. I’m also convinced that some are due to the intelligence community deliberately messing with people for their own purposes. In one of his books, Vallee suggests that the Cergy-Pontoise abduction in France may have been faked by French intelligence as an experiment to see how people would react to a real alien encounter. And then there’s the case of Paul Bennewitz, a defence contractor in the US who was driven out of his mind by a pair of intelligence agents at a nearby USAF base. Bennewitz thought he had got in touch with an alien held captive at the base. The pair claimed to be whistleblowers and fed Bennewitz a whole load of spurious documents apparently confirming it, and then told him that it was all fake. It’s a tactic apparently known as the ‘double-bubble’ used by the intelligence services to destabilise their enemies. It worked on Bennewitz, who I think was driven to a nervous breakdown.

Even with the hoaxers, the top secret aircraft and the misidentified objects, there are still some UFO encounters that are very difficult to explain. I think the best explanations are probably the paranormal and psycho-social rather than the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any the less puzzling nor that genuine people, who have had a truly inexplicable experience, should be sneered or condescended to.

But back to Sagan. One of Sagan’s achievements was to suggest a way Venus could be terraformed. This involved planting genetically-engineered bacteria in the Venusian atmosphere. These would consume the carbon dioxide and exhale breathable oxygen. But Sagan wasn’t the first person to suggest ways of terraforming the planet, and he didn’t invent the concept of terraforming. You can find the idea, but not the name, in the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which the Martians have built giant machines to replenish the atmosphere on their dying world. The great SF writer Poul Anderson wrote a story in which a similar technology is used to terraform the Venusian atmosphere.

This is mentioned by Mike Ashley, the editor of the anthology of classic SF stories about the worlds of the solar system, Born of the Sun, published by the British Library. In the introduction to the story about Venus, Ashley writes

‘The 1950s saw some authors taking note of recent research which suggested Venus was far from a watery world. Leading the way was Poul Anderson. In ‘The Big Rain’ (1954) he describes a harsh, sweltering Venus that, when it does rain, rains formaldehyde. The story considers how Venus might be terraformed, using the formaldehyde locked in Venus’ clouds. Airmaker machines, spread all over Venus, accelerate a reaction with the formaldehyde, ammonia and methane to produce hydrocarbons and oxygen, whilst bombs reinvigorate volcanos so that in time it starts to rain – and rains for over a hundred years, by which time Venus starts to be more Earth–like’. (p. 93).

To me, this is an example of one the instances where informed Science Fiction, even if wrong in the details, has advanced scientific thinking. And there are plenty of other examples in some of the other stories Ashley discusses in some of the other books in the same series.

Sagan, for all his faults, was a brilliant scientist and he did much to make people aware of the environmental crisis and opposed the threat of nuclear war and the New Cold War Reagan and Thatcher started ramping up in the 1980s. But in this case, while his ideas about terraforming Venus are most likely to be correct, he wasn’t the first to invent the idea.

Sometimes SF writers get there first.

Sketch of American Astronomer, Space Scientist and Activist Carl Sagan

December 3, 2022

I’ve put up this sketch of Carl Sagan began he was one of the major figures in space research as well as a committed Humanist and political activist. He was also a major populariser of astronomy and science, most notably through his blockbusting TV series and its accompanying book, Cosmos. This was also notable for its soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, who also composed the music for Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. According to the blurb on Cosmos’ back cover, Sagan was

‘(t)he director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions to the planets, for which he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service, and the international astronautics prize, the Prix Galabert. He has served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, as chairman of the astronomy section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union. For twelve years, he was Editor-in-Chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. In addition to 400 published scientific and popular articles, Dr. Sagan (was) the author, co-author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, Murmurs of Earth and Broca’s Brain. In 1975 he received the Joseph Priestly Award “for distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind,” and in 1978 the Pulitzer Prize for literature.’

It was Sagan who suggested that Black Holes could be used as interstellar subways so that spaceships from one part of the universe could use them to travel faster than light to another part of the cosmos connected by the wormhole passing between the Black Hole and its White Hole. He also suggested that Venus could be terraformed into a living, habitable world through the introduction of genetically engineered bacteria that would consume its toxic carbon dioxide atmosphere and replace it with breathable oxygen. He also noted that Mars had a large instability in its rotation, and that this could have resulted in its current, millions-year long period of lifelessness. But it was possible that in time its rotation would return to a more hospitable position and the planet would once more bloom into life. He was also a staunch advocate of the view that the universe was inhabited by intelligent alien civilisations and that one day we would contact them. He also wrote a later book, Pale Blue Dot, after the view of the Earth from space.

He was also a fierce opponent of what he considered to be superstition. He was one of the founders of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal along with the stage magician James Randi. They were formed in response to the publication of Gauqelin’s research suggesting there really was a link between the star sign under which people were born and their later careers. He was alarmed by the rise of Creationism and the New Age, and expressed his fears about them in his book, The Demon Haunted World. He was afraid that this would lead to a new Dark Age in which people would wake up every morning to anxiously look through their horoscopes.

He was also greatly concerned with the environment and global warming and the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s he also proposed the idea of nuclear winter. This was the idea that a nuclear war would send millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking out the sunlight and causing temperatures to plunge. This has since been rejected by scientists, but I have seen it suggested as one of the causes for the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this case it was the dust thrown up by the asteroid’s impact 65 million years ago that blocked out the sun’s light, after the initial holocaust caused by its impact.

During the inquiry following the Challenger disaster, Sagan claimed that it had occurred because the Shuttle was poorly designed, the result of a compromise between NASA and the military. The Shuttle was originally intended to be fully reusable and smaller. However, the armed forces insisted on it becoming larger so that it could carry military satellites into space. The result was that it was larger, and only partially reusable as it required an external tank to carry the extra fuel it needed to reach orbit. This was jettisoned after its fuel was consumed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

He also wrote the SF novel, Contact, later filmed with Jodie Foster playing the lead. This was about a female astronomer, who makes contact radio contact with aliens, a method Sagan himself strongly advocated. Following their instructions, she constructs an artificial wormhole portal that transports her across space so she can finally meet them. I remember coming across the book in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstones in the 1980s and was rather put off by its blurb. This boasted about it challenging and refuting racism, sexism and so on. All good stuff, of course, but a bit too PC for me.

Many of these themes appear in Cosmos. This was his personal view of the history of science, and while I loved it at the time, I have serious issues with some of the claims now. One of the problems is that he accepts what we were all told at school, that the Greek philosophers were scientists. He believed that if Greek science had progressed, we would have had space travel by now. The ancient Greeks were certainly responsible for laying the foundations of western science, but they were not quite scientists in the modern sense. They used deduction rather than the scientific method of induction. Deduction meant that they observed a phenomenon and then invented an explanation. In induction, devised by Francis Bacon in the 16th/17th century, the scientist observes a phenomenon, comes up with an explanation, and then devises an experiment to disprove it. If the explanation passes the test, it is tentatively accepted as true until a later observation or experiment disproves it. The ancient Greeks didn’t do much practical experimentation.

Sagan also followed the popular explanation of the evolution of the brain, in which there is a lower, animal brain with the higher faculties evolving later, so there’s a primitive reptile brain and a more advanced mammal brain. But Victorian scientists found that both types of brain structure were present in the earliest, most primitive animals. He also followed the standard, accepted narrative that the Roman Catholic church had suppressed scientific knowledge and experimentation during the Middle Ages. This has since been rejected by historians of science. To many such historians now, the Middle Ages after the 8/9th centuries were an age of innovation and discovery. Jean Gimpel’s book proposing the idea was called The Medieval Machine, after the invention of the clock, to symbolise the period’s belief in a universe governed by law, discoverable by human reason under the light of the divine. And rather than the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance leading to a new enlightened, rational order, it had the potential to do the opposite. The medieval philosophers and theologians were Aristotelians but were very aware of the flaws in Aristotelian science and had modified it over the centuries in order to conform more closely to observed reality. But the Renaissance Humanists would have dumped all this, and so we would have been back to square one with no further scientific advances than what was permitted through a rigid adherence to Aristotle’s thought.

There’s also an anti-Christian element in Cosmos too. He describes how Hypatia, the late Neoplatonist female philosopher was murdered by a group of Christian monks in the 4th century. Hypatia has symbolised for a long time to radical atheists the fundamentally anti-science, and to feminists, the misogyny in Christianity. But by this time Neoplatonism was a mixture of science and mystical speculation, forming what has been called ‘the mind’s road to God’. The real motives for her murder weren’t that she was some kind of pagan threat, but more from a power struggle between the authorities in that part of the Roman world.

Sagan is also critical of western imperialism and describes the horrors the Conquistadors inflicted on the Aztecs and other peoples of the New World. He’s right and this section is clearly a product of its time, with the rise of anti-colonial movements among the world’s indigenous peoples, the Black Civil Rights movement in the US and the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as Reagan’s new Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust. But looking at this 40 years later, it’s also one-sided. Europe wasn’t the only expansionist, brutal, imperialist culture. Islam was also militaristic and expansionist, and at the time the Spaniards conquered South America, the Turkish empire was expanding and subjugating parts of Europe, while Muslim pirates were raiding the continent as far as Iceland for slaves.

It’s also dated from an archaeological standpoint. At one point Sagan discusses the Bronze Age collapse of the societies of the Ancient Near East, showing how it was characterised by a series of crises, similar to the process of the fall of other, later civilisations into Dark Ages, but that these aren’t causes in themselves. It’s Systems Analysis, which was popular at the time, but which I think has also become subsequently passe.

All that said, Sagan was right about global warming, whose devastating effects he illustrated with the example of the planet Venus. This has also suffered catastrophic heating due to its greater nearness to the Sun. This released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse effect so that it is now a hell planet of burning temperatures and sulphuric acid rain. He also wasn’t wrong about the threat of renewed militarism and nuclear war and was a welcome voice against Reagan’s strident belligerence.

As a science populariser, his influence has also been immense. Cosmos was a bestseller, and I think it prepared the way for other bestselling works by astronomers and scientists like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And I certainly was not surprised when Brian Cox, the scientist, not the actor, said in an interview in the Radio Times that he was a massive admirer of Sagan. That came across to me very strongly from his numerous TV series about space and the planets.

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.