Posts Tagged ‘Meteorology’

Astronomer Vladimir Firsoff’s Argument for Space Exploration as a Positive Alternative to War

December 2, 2019

Vladimir Firsoff was a British astronomer and the author of a series of books, not just on space and spaceflight, but also on skiing and travel. He was a staunch advocate of space exploration. At the end of his 1964 book, Exploring the Planets (London: Sidgwick & Jackson) he presents a rather unusual argument for it. He criticises the scepticism of leading astronomers of his time towards space exploration. This was after the Astronomer Royal of the time had declared that the possibility of building a vehicle that could leave the Earth’s atmosphere and enter space was ‘utter bilge’. He points out that the technology involved presented few problems, but that ordinary people had been influenced by the astronomers’ scepticism, and that there are more pressing problems on Earth. Against this he argued that humanity needed danger, excitement and sacrifice, the emotional stimulation that came from war. Space exploration could provide this and so serve as a positive alternative, a beneficial channel for these deep psychological needs. Firsoff wrote

The traditional planetary astronomy has exhausted its resources. No significant advance is possible without escape beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The orbital observatories to come will reveal much that is now hidden about the other planets. Space travel is a short historical step ahead. The basic technical problems have been solved, and the consummation of this ancient dream is only a matter of a little effort, experiment and technical refinement. When Bleriot flew the Channel the Atlantic had already been spanned by air lines. And so today we have already landed on Mars – even Triton and Pluto have been reached.

But do we really like to have our dreams come true?

Possibly that happy extrovert the technologist has no misgivings. He sees the Solar System as an enlargement of his scope of action, and has even suggested preceding a descent on Mars by dropping a few bombs, “to study the surface” (this suggestion was widely reported in the press). Yet the astronomer does not relish the prospect of leaving his ivory tower to become a man of action. He is troubled by this unfamiliar part, and a small voice at the back of his mind whispers insidiously that his cherished theories and predictions may, after all, be false. The dislike of space travel is psychologically complex, but there is no mistaking its intensity among the profession.

The general public shares these enthusiasms¬† and apprehensions, more often than not without any clear reasons why. The Press (with a very capital P) feeds them with predigested mental pulp about what those ‘wonderful people’ the scientists have said or done (and not all scientists are 12 feet tall). At the same time the scientist is a ‘clever man’, and the ‘clever man’ is traditionally either a crank or a scoundrel, and why not both? Whatever we do not understand we must hate.

Of such promptings the fabric of public opinion is woven into varied patterns.

“Space flight is too expensive. We can’t afford it”… “What is the point of putting a man on the Moon? It is only a lifeless desert.”… “We must feed the backward nations, finance cancer research” (= in practice “buy a new TV set and a new care”)…

Wars are even more expensive and hugely destructive, and cars kill more people than cancer and famine put together.

And yet before 1939 Britain ruled half the world, her coffers were stuffed with gold, she also had 5 million on the dole, slums, an inadequate system of education, poverty and dejection. Came a long and terrible war, a fearful squandering of resources, the Empire was lost, and in the end of it it all the people “had never had it so good”, which for all the facility of such catch-phrases is basically true. Not in Britain alone either-look at West Germany, look at the U.S.S.R.! One half of the country devastated, cities razed to the ground, 30 million dead. BHut in Russia, too, the “people had never had it so good”.

In terms of ‘sound economics’ this does not make any sense.¬†

The reason is simply: ‘sound economics’ is a fraud, because Man is not an economic animal, or is so only to an extent. He needs danger, struggle, sacrifice, fear, loss, even death, to release his dormant energies, to find true companionship, and-oddly-to attain the transient condition of happiness … among or after the storm.

That German soldier who had scribbled on the wall of his hut: “Nie wieder Krieg heisst nie wieder Sieg, heisst nie wieder frei, heisst Sklaverie” (No more war means no more victory, means never free, means slavery) was a simple soul and he may have survived long enough to regret his enthusiasms among the horrors that followed. Yet the idea, distorted as it was, contained a germ of truth. For heroic endeavour, which the past enshrined as martial valour, is as much a necessity as food and drink. We must have something great to live for.

Hitler’s ‘endeavour’ was diabolical in conception and in final count idiotic, but it cannot be denied that it released prodigious energies both in Germany and among her opponents, and we are still living on the proceeds of this psychological capital.

What we need is a noble uplifting endeavour, and even if we cannot all take direct part in it, we can yet share in it through the newspapers, radio and television, as we did, say, in the epic rescue operation during the Langede mining disaster. It became a presence, everybody’s business-and I doubt if it paid in terms of ¬£ s.d…

You will have guessed what I am going to say.

Mankind needs space flight. Let us have space ships instead of bombers, orbital stations instead of ‘nuclear devices’. The glory of this great venture could do away with war, juvenile delinquency and bank raids. It could be cheap at the price.

It is a fallacy to imagine that money spend on developing spaceflight is lost to the nation; it is only redistributed within it, and it is much better to redistribute it in the form of real wages than in unemployment relief. Besides, real wealth is not in a ledger; it is the work and the willingness to do it.

Yet if we go into space, let us do so humbly, in the spirit of cosmic piety. We know very little. We are face to face with the great unknown and gave no right to assume that we are alone in the Solar System.

No bombs on Mars, please.

For all that they are well meant and were probably true at the time, his arguments are now very dated. I think now that the majority of astronomers are probably enthusiasts for space flight and space exploration, although not all of them by any means are advocates for crewed space exploration. The Hubble Space Telescope and its successors have opened up vast and exciting new vistas and new discoveries on the universe. But astronomers are still using and building conventional observatories on Earth. Despite the vast sums given to the space programme during the ‘Space Race’, it did not solve the problems of crime or juvenile delinquency. And it was resented because of the exclusion of women and people of colour. Martin Luther King led a march of his Poor Peoples’ Party to the NASA launch site to protest against the way money was being wasted, as he saw it, on sending White men to the Moon instead of lifting the poor – mainly Black, but certainly including Whites – out of poverty. And as well as being enthused and inspired by the Moon landings, people also grew bored. Hence the early cancellation of the programme.

And people also have a right to better healthcare, an end to famine and a cure for cancer. Just as it’s also not wrong for them to want better TVs and cars.

But this isn’t an either/or situation. Some of the technology used in the development of space travel and research has also led to breakthroughs in other areas of science and medicine. Satellites, for example, are now used so much in weather forecasting that they’re simply accepted as part of the meteorologists’ tools.

But I agree with Firsoff in that space is an arena for positive adventure, struggle and heroism, and that it should be humanity’s proper outlet for these urges, rather than war and aggression. I think the problem is that space travel has yet to take off really, and involve the larger numbers of people in the exploration and colonisation space needed to make it have an obvious, conspicuous impact on everyone’s lives. There is massive public interest in space and space exploration, as shown by Prof. Brian Cox’s TV series and touring show, but I think that to have the impact Virsoff wanted people would have to feel that space was being opened up to ordinary people, or at least a wider section of the population than the elite scientists and engineers that now enjoy the privilege of ascending into Low Earth Orbit. And that means bases on the Moon, Mars and elsewhere, and the industrialisation of space.

But I think with the interest shown in the commercial exploitation of space by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, that might be coming. And I certainly hope, with Firsoff, that this does provide a proper avenue for the human need for danger and adventure, rather than more war and violence.

Elderly Rabbi Arrested at Extinction Rebellion Protest

October 16, 2019

Yesterday’s I, for Tuesday, 15th October 2019, carried an article by Jennifer Logan reporting that an elderly rabbi had been arrested by the rozzers after praying at an Extinction Rebellion protest in London. The article ran

A rabbi who was arrested after kneeling and praying in the middle of a road during the Extinction Rebellion protests in London said yesterday that he was “standing up for his grandchildren.”

Police have now arrested 1,405 people in connection with the protests, which will continue tomorrow when activists are understood to be planning to block roads outside MI5 on what will be the seventh day of direct action over the global climate crisis.

Jeffrey Newman, the Rabbi Emeritus of Finchley Reform Synagogue in north London, was protesting alongside about 30 Jewish activists. He was arrested near the Bank of England as hundreds of people descended upon the financial centre for a second week of protests.

The 77-year-old, who was wearing a white yarmulka branded with the black Extinction Rebellion logo, said: “I see it as my religious and moral duty to stand up for what I believe in, and what I care about, for my grandchildren.

“I haven’t tried to involve the synagogue, because if you are asking for permission, you might not get it. I think it’s much more important to do what I’m doing.”

After last week’s protests, which blockaded Parliament and targeted City Airport, protesters are now focusing on the City of London over financial backing for fossil fuels. They claim that trillions of pounds are flowing through financial markets to invest in fossil fuels which damage the climate.

Extinction Rebellion said dozens of activists were due to appear in court this week, including trials connected with previous action in April.

I have to say that Extinction Rebellion aren’t exactly my favourite protest group, because their demonstrations seem to inconvenience the general public more than the politicians and the big corporations behind the fossil fuel industries and global warming. But they have a very, very good cause. Meteorologists, ecologists, along with other scientists and broadcasters like Sir David Attenborough have been warning for decades that unless something is done, our beautiful world may very well die and humanity along with it. When I was studying for my doctorate in Archaeology at Bristol Uni, one of the postgraduate seminars in the department was by an archaeologist on the impact of climate change on human cultures throughout history. He was particularly concerned about drought and desertification, which certainly has catastrophically affected human civilisations around the world. One of the most dramatic examples was the abandonment of the Amerindian pueblo cities in the Canyon de Chelly in the American southwest around the 12th century AD. The pueblo cultures had created an extensive irrigation to supply water to their crops in the southwestern desert. However, in the 12th century that part of America entered an extremely dry period during which the available water dried up. Civilisation was not destroyed, as the Amerindian peoples themselves survived by retreating to more fertile areas. Nevertheless, it resulted in those pueblos, which had survived for centuries, being abandoned.

And now we face a similar crisis in the 21st century, thanks in part to global warming and an increasingly intense demand for water. Back in the 1990s one edition of the Financial Times predicted that climate change and competition for water resources would be the major force for war in the 21st century. In West Africa one of the reasons for the conflict in the north of Nigeria, for example, between Christians and Muslims is the desertification of the traditional grazing territory of nomadic pastoralists. These are mainly Muslim, who have been forced to move south onto land belonging to mainly Christian peoples in order to feed their flocks. The result has been ethnic and religious conflict. But it’s important to realise that the roots of this conflict are primarily ecological. It is not simply about religion. Examples of desertification and global dry periods in the past have been used by the Right to argue that the current climate crisis really isn’t as acute as scientists have claimed. It’s just the world’s natural climatic cycle repeating itself. This certainly wasn’t the view of the archaeologist giving that talk at uni, who warned that there was only a finite amount of water and urged us all to use it sparingly.

It was interesting to read the good rabbi’s concern for the planet and his grandchildren. People of all faiths are now worried about climate change. One of the priests at our local church preached a very long sermon on Sunday, no doubt partly inspired by the coming Extinction Rebellion protests, on the need to save the planet. I’ve no doubt that the involvement of practising Jews in this protest, and others, will cause something of a problem for some of the propaganda used to attack Green groups. Because there was a very strong ecological aspect to Nazism, the Right tries to close off sympathy for Green politics as a whole by smearing it as a form of Nazism, even when it’s blatantly clear that they aren’t. But the IHRC definition of anti-Semitism states that it is anti-Semitic to describe a Jew as a Nazi. Which is going to make it rather difficult for the organisations and rags that follow this line to claim that Jewish Greens are somehow supporting Nazism for getting involved in protests like this.

But it seems the cops are becoming very heavy-handed in their treatment of protesters. Mike over on his blog condemned the arrest of a 91/2 year old gentleman on another climate protest. This spirited old chap used the same explanation for his actions as Rabbi Newman: he was worried for the future of his grandchildren. Or great-grandchildren. He was arrested because he was caught protesting outside the Cabinet Office, and so frightened that doughty defender of British freedom, Boris Johnson. Yeah, our current excuse for a Prime Minister, who seems to fancy himself as the heir to Julius Caesar, Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Winston Churchill, was ‘frit’ – to use Thatcher’s word – of a 91 or 92 year old gent. Mike concluded of this gentleman’s arrest

Conclusion: John was committing an offence against nobody but Boris Johnson. A Boris Johnson government is an offence against the very environment in which we live.


As ever, Mike is correct. In a subsequent article he showed that the Tories are far more likely than Labour to vote for policies that actively harm the planet. BoJo himself ‘was also among 10 ministers who received donations or gifts from oil companies, airports, petrostates, climate sceptics or thinktanks identified as spreading information against climate action.’ Mike’s article was based on a Guardian piece, that developed a scoreboard for the parties’ and individual politicians’ voting record. The Tories on average scored 17. Labour scored 90, and Jeremy Corbyn 92. Mike’s conclusion:

if you want a government that acts against climate change and to protect the environment for you, your children and future generations, you need to vote LABOUR.


And we have to stop the cops being used as BoJo’s private police force, so that no more decent people, including senior citizens and members of the clergy of this country’s diverse religious communities, are picked up because they dare to frighten BoJob and his wretched corporate backers.