Posts Tagged ‘Space Colonisation’

Ad Astra: A Tale of Quest, Obsession and Disappointment

March 23, 2020

Directed by James Gray, starring Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones and Liv Tyler.

I wanted to catch this one at the cinema when it came out last year, based on the trailer I’d seen online. This showed Brad Pitt as clean-cut, square-jawed space captain racing across the lunar landscape in a rover, guns blazing away at the bad guys in theirs. It looked a very convincing depiction of a possible near future. A future when humanity is at last moving out to colonise and exploit the resources of the solar system, but still plagued by geopolitical intrigues and violence. From the trailer, I thought it might be about terrorism on the high frontier, just as the motive for sending the Robinson family into space in the ill-fated 90s version of Lost in Space was a global threat from an insurgency. But it isn’t. It’s instead about humanity’s quest to discover alien intelligence, and the dangerous consequences of one man’s refusal to face the fact that we haven’t found it.

Warning: this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, and want to see it fresh, please don’t read on. I’ll put up something else in due course, which you can read without worrying that it’ll spoil your fun.

Brad Pitt plays Commander McBride, a hard-working, intensely focused career astronaut, whose devotion to his duty has led to his wife walking out on him. But because of his intense, single-minded concentration on his duty, he isn’t particularly affected by this. The film begins with a statement that humanity will expand into space, and will continue looking for extraterrestrial intelligence. Then the action begins with McBride in space, working with other astronauts on the outside of a giant space structure. This is hit by massive power surges, causing vital components to overload and explode, hurling pieces of the station and the astronauts desperately trying to fix them off into space. McBride is one of these, knocked off the station by falling debris. But he, and the other astronauts, fall downward to Earth, rather than off into space. Tumbling, Pitt eventually rights himself and parachutes back to the ground. The station is revealed to be no such thing. It’s a giant radio antenna, set up to receive possible signals from the ETs.

The power surge that hit the antenna was one of a series, each increasing in strength, that is causing blackouts and devastation across the world’s cities. Their source has been located near Neptune. It’s believed that their caused by an antimatter reaction, and a lost system commanded by McBride’s father, is believed to be the cause as it was powered by antimatter. The ship was sent out there on a 29 year mission to search for alien signals, far away from the interference of human telecommunications in the inner solar system. However, 16 years into the mission it disappeared. McBride’s father became a hero, and many astronauts tell McBride that it is thanks to him that they took up a career in space. This raises the question of whether McBride senior has indeed found aliens, who are hostile and using the station to disable Earth ready for conquest. This would be the plot in other movies, but not in this one.

Journey to the Moon

McBride is instructed to go to the Moon, from which he will be launched to Mars, to send a message to his father on Neptune, who is suspected of being alive. On his trip to the Moon, he’s joined by a Colonel Pruit (Donald Sutherland), who knew McBride’s father. The lunar base at which they land is a bustling town with a mall stuffed full of tourists and shops selling souvenir tat. McBride says to himself that it’s the kind of thing his father hated, and he would have tried to get as far away from it as possible. Pruitt is due to go with him, but is prevented from doing so at the last minute due to a heart problem. Finding a secluded spot away from the crowd, Pruitt gives him a memory stick, telling him that not everybody believes McBride senior to have been a hero. The stick contains suppressed information that they will do anything to prevent getting out. McBride then goes on to join the team that will take him to the launch site of the ship, that will take him to Mars. The Moon is being exploited by a number of different mining companies, but no territorial rights exist, so, as someone explains, ‘it’s like the Wild West out there.’ Hence the armed guards with McBride when he leaves the base. It’s this part of the programme that appears on the trailer for the movie, with McBride and team racing across the grey lunar landscape while under attack from what can only be described as space bandits. Various members of McBride’s team are killed, but he survives and succeeds in getting to the opposite base. He then joins the crew of the Cepheus, who will take him to Mars.

Space Rescue

On the way there, the crew receive a distress call, which they are obliged to answer. McBride tries to deter them because of the vital importance of the mission, but is unsuccessful as he is travelling incognito and so can’t reveal just how his mission overrides international space law. The SOS comes from a Norwegian scientific research station. McBride and the ship’s captain, Tailor, cross over to investigate. They don’ find any survivors, who have been killed by escaped baboons or some other ape used for research. These kill Taylor, and try to kill McBride, but he shuts them behind a door and decompresses that section, killing them. Crossing back to the Cepheus, the give Tailor a space burial.

McBride finally gets a chance to watch the video on the stick. It shows his father, (Tommy Lee Jones) announcing that the crew have mutinied. The mission has been unsuccessful, and so they wish to return to Earth. McBride as therefore suppressed it by putting them all in one section of the station and decompressing it, killing them all, innocent and guilty alike. This obviously leaves McBride shaken.

Mars and the Radio Call

On Mars, he’s taken from the launch complex to the base, where he is taken under great secrecy to a soundproof room, from which he reads out a scripted message to his father. This occurs several times, and are unsuccessful. On the next attempt, he goes off script and makes a personal appeal. He suspects that he has been successful, but the commanders won’t tell him. Throughout his journey, McBride is subjected to psychological testing before he is allowed to continue. He fails this for the first time, and is taken back to a comfort room – a room in which reassuring pictures of flowers are projected on the walls. He is told that he will not be continuing his journey. The crew of the Cepheus will instead go on alone to meet his father. They are equipping the ship with nuclear weapons to destroy the station before it can generate further power surges that will destroy civilisation. McBride is freed from his captivity by the station’s director of operations, a Black woman, whose parents were on board the station and murdered by McBride’s father. McBride has to rush through an underground tunnel to the launch complex, including swimming through a subterranean lake. He finally emerges in the system of tunnels, that will take the ship’s exhaust away from the ship itself when it launches. The countdown has begun, and it’s now a race against time for McBride to get aboard before he’s incinerated when the rocket fires its engines.

Encounter at Neptune

He succeeds in getting aboard and the ship launches. However, the crew are instructed to restrain him using any means necessary. In the ensuing struggle, he accidentally kills them. He then takes over the mission. He inserts the various tubes which will feed him intravenously during the 179-day mission, informs base what he intends to do and has done, and that he will now go dark.

He eventually arrives at the station, and comes aboard, moving through the decomposed section in which the bodies of the murdered crew are still floating. He brings one of the nuclear bombs on board with him. He meets his father, who blithely tells him what he did, and that he cared nothing for either his son or his mother. It is plain that he doesn’t want to come home, as although he hasn’t found alien life, he is convinced it’s out there. He just hasn’t found it yet. McBride sets the bomb, and tries to take his father back to Earth. But on the journey to the Cepheus, McBride senior pulls away from him, dragging him with him as the two are tethered together. The father tells McBride to let him go, McBride releases the tether, and his father floats off into space. McBride then jets back to the station, to rip off one of the panels so that he can use it as a shield against the icy particles and dust making up Neptune’s rings as he jets through that on his way back to the Cepheus. He then returns home, making a successful descent back to Earth, where friendly hands help him out of his capsule. Earth is safe, and his brought back all his father’s information on the countless alien worlds he discovered.

The film ends with McBride back in a military canteen, performing a kind of psychological evaluation on himself. He muses that his father was driven by his obsession to find alien life, and his disappointment at not finding it blinded him to the wonders of the worlds he had found. He is well-balanced, and focused on the tasks at hand, but not to the exclusion of the ability to love and be loved in return. There is a hint that this new attitude is bring his wife back to him.

Ad Astra as the Reply to 2001, Solaris, and Contact.

It’s a very good movie. The designs of the ships and rovers are very plausible and seem very much based on the old lunar rovers NASA used during the Moon landings on the one hand, and those on the drawing board for Mars on the other. It’s also a very quiet movie. It follows Gravity, and the masterpiece of SF cinema, 2001, in showing no sound in space except what can be heard through the characters’ space suits when they’re hit by the force of an explosion or some other event. It’s also at just under 2 hours a longer movie than most. This is gives it some of the quiet, epic quality of 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The interrupted space journey of its hero, from Earth to the Moon and the Moon to Mars and thence Neptune, also recalls that of Floyd, Bowman and the other astronauts of 2001.

But there’s an important difference between Ad Astra and these flicks. 2001 and Solaris are about humanity’s encounter with powerful, but unknowable aliens. These encounters are transformative for the species and at an individual, personal level. In 2001, the aliens’ black monoliths raise humanity up from apes, and then transform Bowman into the Star Child at the film’s climax. In Solaris, the hero rekindles a relationship with his lost love through a simulacrum of her generated by the planet below. This allows him to medicate and discourse on the nature of humanity, honour and the need for humans to value each other. He is then able to descend to the planets surface, where he meets another simulacrum, this time of a dying friend he left on Earth, in a house where it’s actually raining inside. In both films, the aliens are genuinely alien, incomprehensible, but nevertheless interested in humanity and able to be reached out and contacted.

This is a reply to those movies, which is clearly informed by the fact that after decades of searching for alien intelligent alien, we still haven’t found it. Nor have we discovered any life elsewhere in the solar system. It’s possible that it exists on Mars, but if it is, it’s at the level of microbes. This makes the film a kind of anti-2001. It could have been called ‘The Stars My Disappointment’, as a pun on the title of Alfred Bester’s SF masterpiece, The Stars My Destination. McBride’s conclusion – that the scientific information about the myriad alien worlds his father discovered – is still immensely valuable, even if they are uninhabited and lifeless, but the obsession with finding alien life blinded his father to its value – is a good one. But I remember the SF writer and encyclopaedist John Clute saying something similar to Clive Anderson back in 1995. This was during the Beeb’s Weekend on Mars, a themed series of programmes on the Red Planet on the weekend that the NASA pathfinder probe landed. Of course, people are still fascinated by the question of whether Mars is, or has been, an abode of life. Anderson asked Clute if he would be disappointed if they discovered there was no life there. Clute responded by saying that if someone said they were disappointed at that, he would be disappointed in them, as we would still find out so much about the world, which should be sufficiently fascinating itself. Well, yes, but that’s very much the consolation prize. What people have always dreamed about is finding life in space, and particularly Mars. You can’t really blame them for being disappointed if we don’t. As for the message that it’s good to focus on your work, but not so much that it damages your personal relationships, it’s a good one, but hardly an earth-shattering revelation. And in the context of space travel, Tarkovsky says something similar in Solaris. There the hero says at one point that humanity doesn’t need space travel and alien worlds. There is 5 billion of us – a mere handful. What man needs is man. This shows the humanistic focus of Tarkovsky’s movie against its theme of space travel and alien encounters.

Conclusion

Ad Astra is an excellent movie, but ultimately somewhat of a disappointment. It’s to be applauded as an attempt to make an intelligent SF film with a grounding in established science. But ultimately its message that the search for alien life shouldn’t blind us to the possibility that it doesn’t exist, or that it may be extremely difficult to find requiring a search that lasts generations, perhaps centuries, before we find it, isn’t as emotionally satisfying as films in which the aliens are very definitely there. You could compare it to the Jodie Foster film, Contact, in which she played a female scientist convinced aliens exist, and finally succeeds in going out there and finding them. In the vast majority of such movies, the hero is nearly always a believer in the existence of the ETs, who is finally vindicated when they turn up. This is one of the few films to show the contrary. It’s a valuable, perhaps necessary message, but one less attractive to most audiences, who want there to be aliens, if only fictional and contained in the narrative of cinema.

Oh yes, and I have to differ with the comments about the presence of tourist malls in space. Yes, such places are full of tat and kitsch, but there are also the sign of a genuinely vital human culture. People aren’t all high-minded, serious creatures, and for genuine, living human communities to be established in space, they can’t all be left to scientists and engineers solemnly probing the secrets of the cosmos or working on the best way to extract and exploit their resources. They’ve also got to be where ordinary people visit, and enjoy the experience of being on an alien planet. And that means buying tat and kitschy souvenirs as well as indulging in deep philosophical meditations. As Babylon 5 also showed with its market, the Zocalo, and its tat. Though in that episode, the stores selling the tourist kitsch were all closed down. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Piracy, Murder and Revenge in the Far Future

March 15, 2020

Alastair Reynolds, Revenger (London: Orion 2016).

And now for a bit of good Science Fiction. Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, asked me to write a review of Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger a couple of months ago. Well, it’s taken me a little bit of time to get round to it, but here it is.

Reynolds has a doctorate in astronomer and was a scientist for the European Space Agency before becoming a full-time writer. He specialises in hard SF, the type of Science Fiction written by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. This is based, more or less, in known science, although obviously this can be stretched to a greater or lesser degree. Hard SF tends of avoid Faster Than Light Travel and concentrates on creating worlds and futures that are scientifically plausible, given the present state of knowledge.

Revenger, however, is set in the very far future when the Earth and the other planets have long been broken up to create a plethora of habitable, artificial space environments like the space colonies advocated by the late Dr. Gerald O’Neill’s L5 Society and other space colonisation groups. There are about 20,000 such worlds, collectively referred to as ‘the congregation’. The Earth is no longer even a memory, and the Solar System has been subject to successive waves of colonisation, known as occupations. The present period in which the book is set is the twelfth. These occupations have spanned lasted thousands of years, with vast periods in between, so that the Solar System is very ancient indeed. And not all the colonising civilisations that have risen and fallen have been human.

Some of these lost civilisations were extremely advanced, far more so than the present state of humanity. They have vanished, but stashed pieces of their technology in the baubles, tiny artificial worlds sealed off from the rest of the universe. Although tiny, these have their own artificial gravity provided by swallowers located in their centres. Chemical rockets and ion engines are known and used, but the chief method of flight between the worlds of the congregation is the Solar Sail. This is limited to sublight speed and the inhabitants of the Solar System are themselves unable to reach the other cultures of the ‘Swirly’, as the Galaxy is called. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some of the ancient ships with which the Congregation was settled came from outside the Solar System, and there are a number of alien species from outside doing business there. Chief among these are the Clackers, who act as humanity’s bankers, and who have a mysterious, intense interest in the ancient discs used as currency. There is also a trade in the lost technologies contained in the baubles with ships, whose crews specialise in raiding them for their wonders.

The book’s the story of Arafura ‘Fura’ Ness, a rich young woman, and her quest to rescue her sister, Adrana, and avenge her murdered crewmates after the ship she and her sister join is attacked by the pirate queen, Bosa Sennen. The sisters come from a rich family that has fallen on hard times. Determined to restore the fortunes of their widowed father, they sign on as bone readers with one such ship plundering the baubles, Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore. The bones are a strange communication device, ancient alien skulls containing mysterious circuitry, or fragments of them, into which an especially sensitive human can jack to send and pick up messages from other vessels. There are also more conventional forms of communication like 20th century radio and television. After their ship has successfully plundered one bauble, it is attacked by Sennen. Ness is hidden from Sennen by the previous bone reader, a young woman driven mad by the bones. This woman and Adrana are taken by Sennen, who needs new bonereaders. She ruthlessly tortures and kills the other crewmembers, before departing the wrecked ship.

Ness and another woman, Prozor, manage to survive and make their way back to civilisation. Ness is ambushed by an agent for her father in a bar, and taken back to her home on Mazarile, where she is drugged and kept as a virtual prisoner. With the aid of her robot, Paladin, she escapes, rejoins Prozor, and the two make plans to join a suitable ship they can use to rescue Adrana and destroy Sennen and her evil crew.

Although set in the far future, the congregation and its worlds are nevertheless based on real scientific speculation. They’re a Dyson cloud/ swarm – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the precise term. It’s a form of Dyson sphere. The physicist Freeman Dyson suggested that advanced, space-travelling civilisations would break up the planets of their solar systems and use the material to build solid spheres around their suns in order to harness all the stars’ light and energy, with the civilisations then living on the inside of the spheres. However, there are problems with such a concept. For example, the gravity generated by centrifugal force would be stronger at the Sphere’s equator, and disappear at the poles, making these areas difficult for civilisations to occupy. Larry Niven dealt with this problem by suggesting that they would only build an inhabited ring around the star, hence his masterpiece, Ringworld. Dyson, however, believed that such spheres would not be solid, and would in fact be composed of a cloud of tiny worldlets arranged in suitable orbits. This is the idea that Reynolds has used as the basis for this book.

As advanced as technology is in Revenger – limbs can be removed, replaced and traded quickly and painlessly in shops like items in a pawnbrokers – the society of the congregation is very much like that of 19th century Europe. Their doesn’t appear to be any system of public, state education, so that many people are unable to read, and the sisters are initially somewhat resented because of their moneyed background. The sexes are equal in this future, with women and men performing the same jobs. But the Ness sisters’ father is a recognisable Victorian patriarch determined to do whatever he can to hold on to his daughters. The technology has changed so that the ships are driven by the light from the Sun rather than the terrestrial wind, but they’re still sailing ships. And the baubles with their treasures locked away are the interplanetary equivalents of desert islands and their buried treasure. The book therefore reads almost like something Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, would have written after an evening drinking with Jules Verne and the two knew about quantum physics, solar sails and Dyson Spheres. Reynolds is good at creating credible future worlds, and the Congregation and its worldlets are very convincingly depicted as places where people live and work. 

While not everyone likes or reads SF, and this may not be to every SF fan’s taste, it is a good, rattling yarn which successfully marries far future Science Fiction with 19th century pirate fiction. So avast, ye planet-lubbers, and hoist the mainsail to catch the wind from the Sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Video on Proposed Swiss Space Shuttle

October 13, 2019

This is an interesting little video from Swissinfo on YouTube about Swiss Space Systems, a company set up by engineer Pascal Jaussi, which is developing another space shuttle concept. Jaussi was inspired to become a space scientist as a child after he was given a copy of the Tintin book, Tintin on the Moon. His company’s design for the shuttle will have it taken up to 10,000 metres by a passenger jet acting as the shuttle’s first stage. The shuttle will then leave the jet, flying up to a higher altitude, where it will launch a satellite, which will then ascend to its final orbit using its own rockets. The shuttle is initially intended to be a satellite launcher, but later missions will be crewed.

Jaussi’s company does not intend to develop any new technology, but is simply trying to use and integrate already existing technology from America, France and Russia. This is aided by Switzerland’s neutral status. The American’s would understandably be extremely reluctant to give sensitive technology to the Russian the firm, which is building the engines for Jaussi’s shuttle. They’re the same as those in the Russian Soyuz rocket. The French aerospace firm Dassault is responsible for constructing the shuttle’s airframe. The company’s based in Jaussi’s home town of Payerne, in Vaud canton. He would like to build the launch complex there with another, launch complex without an accompanying crew planned for Croatia. The video also shows the shuttle’s cameras being tested in Canada. The video was posted four years ago in 2014, and states that the first test flights were planned for 2018.

This is another version of the Jet/shuttle combination initially proposed by Sanger in Germany. I’ve already blogged about British shuttle proposals using the same idea, Spacebus and Spacecab, by David Ashcroft and Patrick Collins.  The Swiss design is interesting, but 2018 was last year and the fact that we haven’t heard anything more of this fascinating project suggests that it’s experiencing difficulties. I hope that these are just a minor setback, and that we can look forward to the Swiss joining the other nations now entering a new Space Age, one that will lead to the proper exploration, industrialisation and hopefully colonisation of the solar System.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

May 10, 2019

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

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

Benford, the ‘Galactic Centre’ Novels and Timescape

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

Brief Synopsis

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

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

Time Travelling Subatomic Particles from Space

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

The Connecticutt College Professor’s Time Machine

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

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

Time and the Weird World of Quantum Physics

Benford warns in his acknowledgements that

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

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

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

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

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

Timescape and ’70s Fears of the End of Civilisation

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

Social Change and the Rise of Domestic Computers

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

The Operation of Worker-Owned Companies in Martian SF

December 9, 2018

A week or so ago I put up a few passages from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars (London: HarperCollins 1996), a science fiction book about the colonization and terraformation of the Red Planet. In Robinson’s book, on breaking away from terrestrial domination the Martians establish a constitution which makes all the companies not owned by the global Martian state or its constituent cities worker-owned cooperatives, partly modelled on the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. On page 301 Robinson describes how Nadia, the new Martian president in the capital, Sheffield, works to transform the planet’s industries, including those formerly owned by terrestrial metanats – vast multinationals that now dominate the industries of whole countries – into the new system. Robinson writes

Nadia, however, never made it to this conference. She got caught up by affairs in Sheffield instead, mostly instituting the new economic system, which she thought important enough to keep her there. The legislature was passing the law of eco-economics, fleshing out the bones drawn up in the constitution. They directed co-ops that had existed before the revolution to help the newly independent metanat local subsidiaries to transform themselves into similar co-operative organisations. This process, called horizontalization, had very wide support, especially from the young natives, and so it was proceeding fairly smoothly. Every Martian business now had to be owned by its employees only. No co-op could exceed one thousand people; larger enterprises had to be made of co-op associations, working together. For their internal structures most of the firms chose variants of the Bogdanovist models, which themselves were based on the co-operative Basque community of Mondragon, Spain. In these firms all employees were co-owners, and they bought into their positions by paying the equivalent of about a year’s wages to the firms equity fund. This became the starter of their share in the firm, which grew every year they stayed, until it was given back to them as pension or departure payment. Councils elected from the work-force hired management, usually from outside, and this management then had the power to make executive decisions, but was subject to a yearly review by the councils. Credit and capital were obtained from central co-operative banks, or the global government’s start-up fund, or helper organisations such as Praxis and the Swiss. On the next level up, co-ops in the same industries or services wer associating for larger projects, and also sending representatives to industry guilds, which established professional practice boards, arbitration and mediation centres, and trade associations.

I can’t say I’m happy about the idea of worker managers buying their share of management with the equivalent of a year’s pay. This seems far too easy for someone to exploit to me. And I’m also not sure how practical it would be to turn all companies into co-operatives. However, we do need industrial democracy, if only to overturn the massive exploitation of working people that has gone on under Thatcherism. Under the current Thatcherite orthodoxy, wages are frozen, jobs insecure and the welfare system undermined and destroyed. A quarter of a million people have been forced to use foodbanks to save themselves from starvation, and 330,000-odd people are homeless. And the number of people dying on our streets, and the elderly in their homes due to Tory cuts in the cold weather payments, has shot up. And this has all been to give the rich tax cuts and provide employers with a cheap, cowed workforce.

Enough’s enough. We need a proper government with a proper vision that treats working people decently, with proper wages and rights at work, invigorates trade unions, restores a strong and health welfare state, builds properly affordable homes and reverses the privatization of the NHS. Only Corbyn’s Labour promises all that. And part of this promise is to put workers on the boards of all firms with over a certain number of employees.

Corbyn is the person we need to have in No.10. Not Tweezer and her gang of crooks and profiteers. Get them out, and Labour in.

‘Horizon’ with Mark Gatiss on a Crewed Mission to Mars

September 6, 2017

After the programme with Drs. Stephen Hawking, Danielle George and Christophe Galfand on BBC 2 next Monday, 11th September, discussing the colonization of Proxima B, the Beeb are also dedicating an edition of the long-running science documentary programme, Horizon, to the issue of sending humans to a nearer planet, Mars. The programme’s called ‘Mars – A Traveller’s Guide, and will be screened at 9 pm on Tuesday, 12th September 2017.. The blurb for this on page 82 of the Radio Times runs as follows

The reality of sending humans to Mars is getting so close that certain scientists think that somebody who is alive today will be the first person to set foot on the Red Planet. But where should the first explorers visit when they get there? Experts on the planet take their pick from extraordinary Martian landscapes ranging from vast plains and towering volcanos to deep valleys and underground caverns. They also consider what people will need to survive, the best place to land, how to live and even where to hunt for traces of extraterrestrial life.

There’s also another section giving more information about the programme on page by David Buthcer. This says

The first person to walk on Mars is probably alive today. And they might watch Horizon. So here’s a rough guide to Mars, the even lonelier planet, with a rundown of its finest sights, drily narrated by Mark Gatiss.

Visitors should certainly look out for the Valles Marineris, he tells us, the grandest canyon in the solar system at 10 km deep and long enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Or there’s Olympus Mons, a volcano 100 times higher than any on Earth.

But getting to see them won’t be easy. One scene where an engineer describes what’s involved in landing on the planet puts the challenges in perspective. And the weather’s not great either.’

Mark Gatiss is, of course, one of the League of Gentlemen. Having escaped from Royston Vesey, a year or so ago he presented a programme on the great master of the British ghost story, M.R. James, and was one of the presenters of a series of programmes marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain a month or so ago. He is also no stranger to outer space, if only in fiction, as he’s also one of the writers of the relaunched Dr. Who.

Stephen Hawking on Why We Need to Colonise Space

September 6, 2017

Next Monday evening, 11th September 2017, on BBC 2 at 9 pm, Professor Stephen Hawking will present a programme arguing that humanity needs to colonise another world. Entitled The Search for a New Earth, the blurb for the programme on page 72 of the Radio Times runs

Physicist Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive, with climate change, pollution, deforestation, pandemics and population growth making life on Earth increasingly precarious. In this programme he examines whether humans could relocate to other planets, travelling the globe to meet scientists, technologists and engineers working on the means and method.

There’s more information about the programme on page 71. This passage states that

Stephen Hawking is convinced that, if we are not to risk annihilation, humans need to leave Earth within the next 100 years and make a new home on another planet.

It sounds like sci-fi, but a planet has already been discovered “in our neighbourhood” that’s a contender: Proxima B is in the Goldilocks Zone (the narrow orbit where conditions are perfect to sustain human life), but we’d need a massive technological feat just to get us there.

Astrophysicist Danielle George and Hawking protégé Christophe Galfard explore the practicality of where and how e could create a human colony in space.

There’s also a single page feature about the programme in the Radio Times on page 31, which includes Danielle George’s replies to the following questions

Do we really need to leave Earth?

What does a new planet need to be human-friendly?

How many people will it take to set up a colony?

Stephen Hawking believes Proxima B may be the most suitable planet. Why?

How far away is Proxima B?

How long would it take to travel 4.2 light years?

Could we fit 20 years’ worth of astronaut food into a spaceship?

Dow we have the right to take over another planet?

Do you think there is the will to make this happen?

Regarding the amount of time required to journey to Proxima B, George states that using current chemical rockets it would take 250,000 years. But there is a project at Caliphornia where they are experimenting with propelling a nano probe the size of a mobile phone sim card using a laser beam. This may make it possible for such a probe to reach Proxima in 20 years.

That last sounds like a version of the old proposal to use space-based lasers to send a light sail to another star. One of the proposed missions was Starwisp, which would use solar sails to carry a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri. The probe would reach a speed of 1/3 of the speed of light, and make the journey in something like 20 years.

The veteran hard SF writer, Larry Niven, also used the idea of laser-driven solar sails in his classic The Mote in God’s Eye. This is about the encounter between an expanding human galactic empire, and an alien race, the Moties. These are so called because their homeworld is a planet in a nebula dubbed Murchison’s Eye by humanity. The Moties are highly intelligent, but lack the Anderson Drive that has made it possible for humans to move out into the Galaxy. Instead, they have sent a vessel out on the centuries long voyage across interstellar in a ship using such a solar sail, powered by laser beam from their own system. It is the light from the laser beam which has given the Moties’ nebula its characteristic red colour.

As well as being super-intelligent, the Moties also possess between three and four arms, depending on their caste and function, and change sex throughout their life. Which makes me wonder whether the writers of the X-Files’ episode, ‘Gender Bender’, about a group of sex-changing aliens, who live an existence like the Amish had also drawn on the book for their inspiration. As well as the writers of Doctor Who when they decided that the Time Lords are also not restricted to remaining the same sex when they regenerate.

BBC 2 Programme on ’21st Century Race for Space’ Next Tuesday

August 30, 2017

Here’s news of yet another BBC programme on space exploration and science. Next Tuesday, 5th September 2017, physicist, broadcaster and massive Carl Sagan fan Dr. Brian Cox will present a programme, The 21st Century Race for Space, on BBC 2 at 9.00 in the evening, on the private companies planning to take humanity into the High Frontier. Among the scientists and engineers he interviews in the programme are Richard Branson and the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

As a new age of interplanetary exploration dawns, it is private companies and their maverick owners who are planning to finance space tourism, asteroid mining and even colonies on Mars. Professor Brian Cox investigates the technical challenges that could stop these billionaires achieving their dreams and also finds out how they hope to overcome the daunting obstacles to human space travel. Sir Richard Branson is among the stargazers explaining how they plan to fly through the heavens. (p. 76).

Another piece about the programme on the previous page, page 75, by David Butcher, also adds the following

When the likes of Richard Branson or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos enthuse about space travel it’s easy to be skeptical. But when Brian Cox meets both billionaires for this engaging look at “the prospect of us becoming a space-faring civilization” he comes away convinced by their vision, their desire to push boundaries and to make sci-fi stuff happen.

And for us, it’s hard to see the various hangars and labs and prototypes and launches and not get the feeling that space tourism, mining on asteroids and trips to Mars really aren’t that far off.

Cox is a good guide, leaning towards the deeper questions implicit in the subject. Ultimate, one designer argues, space travel is about “building life insurance for the species.” Though you hope we won’t need it.

That snippet also has a photo of Cox and with the space scientist, Brian Lillo, in space suits outside a Mars Society Research Station in Utah, ‘exploring the Red Planet’.

I went to a symposium 17 years ago on space tourism at the British Interplanetary Society’s headquarters in London. There are no end of really great ideas, and very motivate, intelligent people out there planning and discussing ways to take people up into the Deep Black for their holidays. One of the scientists, reviewing previous spacecraft designs going back to the early days of spaceflight, showed how sophisticated some of these were. He made the case that we’re actually decades behind schedule in our ability to explore and commercially exploit space and its resources.

Rush Limbaugh: Evidence of Flowing Water on Mars Is Leftist NASA Plot

August 20, 2017

Here’s another right-wing gasbag, who should lose his radio show. In this clip from two years ago – 2015 – host Sam Seder of The Majority Report comments on Rush Limbaugh’s pronouncements about signs of flowing water on today’s Mars by NASA. NASA announced that they had found evidence that water still flows today on the Red Planet at the right season. The space agency states that this is a survivor from the period, 3 billion years ago, when the planet was much warmer and wetter than today, and a great ocean may have covered the entire northern hemisphere. The discovery is of immense importance in the search for possible life elsewhere in the solar system.

This is science, but it’s too much for Rush Limbaugh, who sees a conspiracy where there is none. NASA is part of the leftist plot to delude the world into believing in global warming, and this announcement, he goes on to suggest, may be part of it. He ridicules his producer, Sneedley, who was excited and enthusiastic about NASA’s announcement. Limbaugh then declares that he is a ‘big time science guy’ who gone past ‘science 101’. He then goes on to cast scorn and suspicion about the announcement. It’s part of some leftist plot being pursued by the agency, but he doesn’t quite know what yet. But it’s probably about global warming. Soon, he predicts, they’ll announce that they’ve found a graveyard.

Limbaugh’s a Republican broadcaster, who’s been a fixture of American right-wing radio since the 1980s, loudly applauding Ronald Reagan and ranting about how the ‘Leftists’ are trying to destroy his country. In the clip, Seder and his co-hosts and producers ridicule Limbaugh not only for his scientific ignorance – what, pray, is ‘Science 101?’, as well as the way he has openly sneered at and belittled his producer.

They then conclude the programme by further mocking him. They imitate Obama’s voice to declare that Islam is the one true religion. The Martians rejected this, which is why they were hit by a devastating drought. That’s why Obama is going to declare shariah law, and have a child from every White family in the mid-West sold into slavery in the Middle East.

This is to poke fun at Limbaugh, and the stupid, paranoid opinion amongst many American Republicans that Obama is a secret Muslim advancing the plans for an Islamic takeover of the US.

The clip shows much of what’s wrong with the American right’s attitude to science, their massive ignorance, which they think shows how perceptive they are, and their stupid paranoia about ‘leftists’. Which in this case, means anything and anyone, who isn’t as crazily right-wing as they are.

I’ve put up several pieces here about the possibility of life on Mars, and the use of certain genetically modified organisms to terraform the Red Planet. I know that several of the readers of this blog have science backgrounds and similar interests. I’ve put this up because I thought people might like to see just how stupid and ignorant Limbaugh, and by extension, his audience, is about this whole issue.

Firstly, as Seder points out, when NASA made the announcement they said it was about the state of Mars 3 billion years in the past. It’s nothing to do with global warming.

Absolutely correct. Planetary scientists now believe that there was a period during the early history of the solar system, when Mars was warm and wet. I think the National Geographical mentioned this when they did a piece on Mars in the 1980s or ’90s. It’s also discussed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic SF novel about the colonization of Mars, Red Mars.

What killed Mars was not global warming, but global cooling. Mars has no tectonic plates, and so it is theorized that the planet’s atmosphere was not renewed through releases of gases released from its rocks through geological forces. Over millions or billions of years, the atmosphere evaporated into space. The surface pressure is about 5 milibars – that of a laboratory vacuum. Without an atmospheric blanket to focus and increase the sun’s light, the planet cooled. Without atmospheric pressure to sustain it, water rapidly sublimates into vapour on the Martian surface. What water has survived is locked up in the ice caps, and may be as permafrost below the Martian surface.

Mars has never been cited as a warning of the dangers of global warming. That’s always been Venus. Venus lies closer to the Sun than Earth, and so has suffered runaway global warming as ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide was released from its rocks. The result of this is that the planet is covered by a permanent cloud layer. Surface temperatures reach something like 400 degrees C, the rain is sulphuric acid, and its surface pressure is enough to squash a human flat. If you want an example of how different the histories of Mars and Venus are, go have a look, or read, the chapter ‘Blues for a Red Planet’ in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Sagan was a major believer in the threat of global warming, and in that episode of his epic science history blockbuster, explicitly drew a parallel between Mars’ fate and that of our own world, if we don’t cut carbon emissions.

As for finding a graveyard on Mars, some scientists have speculated on the possibility that we may find fossils of the creatures that may have lived on Mars, far back in ancient geologic time. There are also serious scientists, who have suggested that we should look for evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilisations in the planets of our solar system. Our solar system lies in a part of the Galaxy, where the stars are an average of a single light year away from each other. That’s a short enough distance for an advanced civilization to make the difficult journey across interstellar space to another solar system. And the solar system is so old, about 4 billion years if not more, that it is statistically likely that intelligent life has arisen elsewhere in our Galaxy. And just as the Earth orbits the Sun, so the Sun orbits the centre of the Galaxy, taking 225 million years to complete one revolution. This is long enough for our Solar system to have come close to one of those other stars, harbouring alien life.

So signs of an extraterrestrial civilization may well exist on Mars. However, Mars has been dead for so long, that it’s unlikely that there exist any remains of an indigenous Martian civilization on the planet’s surface. In their entry ‘The Surface of Mars’, subtitled ‘Desert’, in their book Catalogue of the Universe, astronomers Paul Murdin and David A. Allen write

If once great cities stood here, they have crumbled to unrecognizable shapes. If trees bowed before moist zephyrs, they have returned to the dust whence they rose. If aircraft landed here, they too have vanished, or been buried beneath unknown depths of sand and rocks. (pp. 205-6).

Not all scientists are convinced that the features NASA suggested was evidence of flowing water were actually produced by it. Others believe that the marks on the surface may instead be produced by the release of other chemicals in liquid form from the underlying rock.

But if liquid water still flows on Mars, albeit it occasionally, not only does it augur well for the possible survival of some life, even if only primitive bacteria, but it also makes the planet more hospitable for possible colonization.

NASA’s claim to have found evidence of surface liquid water was therefore immensely exciting. And Limbaugh’s producer, Sneedley, was actually absolutely right to be excited about it. It’s his host, Limbaugh, who’s ignorant. And dangerously so.

No-one expects ordinary people to be experts on science. Science has advanced at such a rate that it’s too much for many ordinary people to keep update with scientific advances, some of which can be very arcane to laypeople.

But we do need people to be reasonable well-educated. And especially about threats to the planet, like global warming. It’s why there’s a need for good scientific writers and broadcasters to explain the issues clearly.

Limbaugh with his stupid denial of global warming, and his paranoid suspicion that NASA is part of some larger ‘left-wing’ plot, is actually doing the opposite. He’s disparaging real science and trying to keep people ignorant in order to promote his own, extreme right-wing views.

He’s also a danger on racial issues. A day or so ago I reported that Trump had cut funding for FBI and Department of Homeland Security initiatives against White racist terrorism. This included a charity, Life After Hate, that helps former Nazis leave these organisations without being attacked by their fellow stormtroopers. It’s a real danger. Matthew Collins, one of the founders and leaders of the anti-racist/ anti-religious extremism organization, Hope Not Hate, had to migrate to Australia in the 1990s after he appeared in a documentary exposing the violence of the NF and BNP. Obama had given $400,000 to the charity. He would have funded them sooner, but he was prevented from doing so by the ravings and possible denunciation by Limbaugh.

It’s debatable, however, how long Limbaugh will actually carry on. Far from being the influential Republican spokesman he thinks he is, his radio station in recent has been haemorrhaging sponsors and advertisers. His ratings have fallen to the point, where fewer people listen to him than to College radio stations with the range of only one or two miles. The only thing keeping him on air is money from Republican and similar extreme right-wing think tanks. If they pull out, he’s off the air.