Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers and comments that I link to. Movie reviews and reports and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

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Links and Comments: Formal and Intuitive Religion

Two items. First, the latest survey showing the rise of the “nones,” the younger generation for whom formal religion is losing its attraction. In Nearly Every Country, Young People Are Way Less Religious Than Adults.

The pattern holds throughout most of the world, and especially in countries with the highest GDPs and standards of living. (The post linked above has links to larger versions of these graphs.)

Though the US is the big outlier here, as shown in the second graph:

The second item, from this blog, concerns what the “nones” are doing instead.

These nones tend to believe in the soul, divine energy, mystical realities, ghosts, fate and myriad other superstitions that traditionally fell under the umbrella of religion. They also tend to eschew formal social gatherings and regular group activities. Young nones, in other words, are adopting one of the least helpful aspects of organized religion (magical thinking) while abandoning one of the most beneficial (social bonding).

Of course this is consistent with the understanding in recent decades of mental biases that predispose humans to perceive agency in non-living things; to imagine that objects have essences; to generalize from anecdotes; to think in terms of black and white; to underestimate the prevalence of coincidence. These biases will never go away, because they work well enough for purposes of human survival rather than accurate understanding of the real world. They can only be overcome by education about how the real, physical world actually works, as discovered by broad exposure to that world (rather than confinement to a particular ideology) and to the conclusions found through systematic, challenged and confirmed, investigation of that world (i.e. science). Without such education, the default of humanity is magical thinking.

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Link and Comment: Adam Frank on the Earth’s Biosphere

Today’s NYT has an op-ed by Adam Frank, Earth Will Survive. We May Not., which keys off the theme of his new book, LIGHT OF THE STARS: ALIEN WORLDS AND THE FATE OF THE EARTH, just released this past Tuesday.

I’ve only just sampled the book, but what I’ve read, and this essay, present the kind of shift of perspective that I look for, and value science fiction for providing — in this case the recognition that the Earth’s biosphere isn’t about *us*, humanity. That biosphere has changed many times over the past tens and hundreds of millions of years — shaped by life. We are merely the latest form of life to be changing that biosphere, via what we call climate change.

The biosphere is a cosmic power in its own right. It’s a planetary force that channels vast energies flowing from the sun and transforms them into ceaseless rounds of blind evolutionary innovation. That power gives Earth and its biosphere a long-term resilience we must now fully imagine if we are to come to terms with the climate change we are driving.

We speak of “saving” the Earth as if it were a little bunny in need of help. We show images of gaunt polar bears on melting ice floes to elicit guilt and environmental action. But those images and stories blind us to the reality of this remarkable moment in Earth’s history.

Our planet does not need our saving. The biosphere has endured cataclysms far worse than us — and after millions of years thrived again. Even the Earth’s five fearsome mass extinctions became opportunities for the biosphere’s creativity, driving new rounds of evolutionary experiments. That, after all, is how we big-brained mammals ended up dominating the Earth rather than our dinosaur predecessors. As the great biologist Lynn Margulis once put it, “Gaia is a tough bitch.” In the long term, the biosphere will handle pretty much anything we throw at it, including climate change.

What Earth’s history does make clear, however, is that if we don’t take the right kind of action soon the biosphere will simply move on without us, creating new versions of itself in the changing climate we’re generating now. So we must be honest. The problem is not saving the Earth or life writ large, but saving our cherished civilization. From that perspective the nature of our choices changes significantly.

It’s not about saving the Earth; it’s about preserving an Earth that humanity can thrive, or at least survive, on.

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This recalls a Robert Silverberg story, “The Wind and the Rain,” which I blogged about here, with this quote from the story:

The planet cleanses itself. That is the important thing to remember, at moments when we become too pleased with ourselves. The healing process is a natural and inevitable one. The action of the wind and the rain, the ebbing and flowing of the tides, the vigorous rivers flushing out the choked and stinking lakes—these are all natural rhythms, all healthy manifestations of universal harmony.

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Lines from Angels in America: The World Only Spins Forward

Just a few about what the angels are, what they want, and in what sense the play is about angels and their relationship with America.

Part One: Millennium Approaches

Joe, a Mormon lawyer living in New York, has this take on America of 1985 (as Reagan is president), talking to his wife Harper, p26:

Things are starting to change in the world. For the good. America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations. And people aren’t ashamed of that like they used to be. This is a great thing. The truth restored. Law restored. That’s what President Reagan’s done, Harper. He says, “Truth exists and can be spoken proudly.” And the country responds to him. We become better. More good. I need to be a part of that, I need something to lift me up. …

Later he speaks to (arch-villain) Roy Cohn, p54:

Those who love God with a open heart unclouded by secrets and struggles are cheerful; God’s easy simple love for them shows in how strong and happy they are. … I wanted to be one of the elect, one of the Blessed. You feel you ought to be, that the blemishes are yours by choice, which of course they aren’t.

Because Joe has secrets and struggles: like Roy Cohn, he’s a closet gay.

Prior Walter, a 30ish gay man in New York with AIDS, hears a voice, a premonition of the angel, which says, p62:

Soon I will return, I will reveal myself to you; I am glorious, glorious; my heart, my countenance and my message. You must prepare. A marvelous work and a wonder we undertake, an edifice awry we sink plumb and straighten, a great Lie we abolish, a great error correct, with the rule, sword and broom of Truth!

In the very next scene a lawyer associate of Cohn’s rhapsodizes about the Republican agenda (sounding exactly like Republicans today), p63:

We have a new agenda and finally a real leader. They got back the Senate but we have the courts. By the nineties the Supreme Court will be block-solid Republican appointees, and the Federal bench—Republican judges like land mines, everywhere, everywhere they turn. … It’s really the end of Liberalism. The end of New Deal Socialism. The end of ipso facto secular humanism. The dawning of a genuinely American political personality. Modeled on Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In long monologue Louis, Prior’s Jewish boyfriend (who has left Prior, unable to handle the disease), ponders democracy in America, which he supposes is less about tolerance than power, and how race is really just a political question. P92:

Racists just try to use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It’s not really about race. Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist—only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political…

(This is the only explicit reference in the play to the play’s title.)

At the end of the first play, the angel arrives, dropping through the ceiling of Prior’s room, p119:

Greetings, Prophet;
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived.

The second play, Perestroika, opens with an ancient Russian Bolshevik, sermonizes about doom and the potential for change. He concludes,

Then we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead!

Later, Joe the Mormon lawyer, defends his worldview to Louis, p34-35:

Since you believe the world is perfectable you find it always unsatisfying. But you must reconcile yourself to its unperfectability by being thoroughly in the world but not of it. It’s the end of a nineteenth-century socialist romanticist conflation of government and society, law and Justice, idea and action, irreconcilables which only meet at some remote horizon, like parallels converging in infinity. The rhythm of history is conservative. Change is geologically slow. You must accept that.

The Angel finally explains to Prior what’s going on, p49ff:

ANGEL:
In creating You, Our Father-Lover unleashed
Sleeping Creation’s Potential for Change.
In YOU the Virus of TIME began!

You Think. And You IMAGINE!
Migrate, Explore, and when you do:

PRIOR:
As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued. Manifest first as tremors in Heaven.

ANGEL:
Heaven is a City Much Like San Francisco…

With earthquakes mirroring heavenquakes. And so,

ANGEL:
He began to leave us!
Bored with His Angels, Bewitched by Humanity,
In Mortifying Imitation of You, his least creation,
He would sail off on Voyages, no knowing where.

And on April 18, 1906, the day of the Great San Francisco Earthquake,

ANGEL:
HE Left
And did not return.
We do not know where HE has gone. HE may never

Prior is relating all this, his visitation or dream of an angel, to his friend Belize: “It’s all gone too far, too much loss is what they think, we should stop somehow, go back.” To which Belize replies, p52:

But that’s not how the world works, Prior. It only spins forward.

The Angel goes on:

Before the boiling of blood and the searing of skin
Comes the Secret Catastrophe:
Before Life on Earth becomes finally merely impossible,
It will for a long time before have become completely unbearable.
(Coughs)
YOU HAVE DRIVEN HIM AWAY! YOU MUST STOP MOVING!

The ultimate conservative agenda.

Forsake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow.
If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress:
Seek Not to Fathom the World and its Delicate Particle Logic:
You cannot Understand, You can only Destroy,
You do not Advance, You only Trample.
Poor blind Children, abandoned on the Earth,
Groping terrified, misguided, over
Fields of Slaughter, over bodies of the Slain:
HOBBLE YOURSELVES!

And the Angel gives Prior a book.

Vessel of the BOOK now: Oh Exemplum Paralyticum:
On you in you in your blood we write have written:
STASIS!
The END.

Many scenes, trials and tribulations (including the death of Roy Cohn) later, Prior ascends to Heaven and faces a row of Continental Principalities, who “maintain surveillance over Human Mischief,” and gives the book back.

PRIOR:
It just… It just… We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is… modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what? God…

He isn’t coming back. And even if he did…
If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again… if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see… how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard. That’s my only contribution to all this Theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.

The terrible things including, of course, AIDS.

PRIOR:
I haven’t done anything yet, I…
I want to be healthy again. And this plague, it should stop. In me and everywhere. Make it go away.

I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.
I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but… You see them living anyway.

And so Prior rejects the Angel’s plea for the abandonment of modernity. And lives.

In the final scene, four years later in 1990, Prior addresses the audience.

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

End of play.

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Ray Bradbury: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is Bradbury’s best and best-known science fiction book, given that we allow it to be called science fiction at all (this has always been debatable). The only contender for this position, a book which certainly leads it on high school student summer reading lists, and thus Amazon.com bestseller lists, is FAHRENHEIT 451. More on that book in another post.

(As an aside, my strategy for determining whether a given title is science fiction or fantasy, for lists I’m compiling for sfadb.com, is to compare the number of citations for any given title from sources that claim to list *only* science fiction, vs. the number from sources that claim to list only fantasy. For the vast majority of books, the tallies go heavily one way or another, and by this analysis, the two Bradbury titles just mentioned are definitely SF. This strategy is, in effect, a formalization of Damon Knight’s dictum “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” Coincidentally, I read Knight’s nonfiction collection IN SEARCH OF WONDER recently, and blogged about it here.)

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is a “composite novel” or fix-up, a book composed of 14 or so stories written in the late 1940s – written separately, without any necessary notion of combining them into a book – and then assembled with the addition of various bridging passages or “interchapters” to comprise a history of humanity’s settlement of Mars, the destruction of the native Martian race, the break-out of nuclear war back on Earth, a mass exodus of human settlers on Mars returning to Earth, and the status of the last few humans on Mars recognizing *themselves* as the Martians.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Bradbury wrote other stories in the 1940s set on Mars than went into this book. As with the later DANDELION WINE, the process of assembling the book seems to have entailed selecting those stories that were more or less consistent, and which supported the larger frame story about the history of human exploitation of Mars. In addition, many of the non-chronicled Mars stories had premises which were simply inconsistent with those that were included – to take an example, the story “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” (from 1949, later collected in A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY) had a human family stranded on Mars when atomic war breaks out on Earth. They come to care less and less about Earth, and more and more about their surroundings; gradually their skins turn dark, their eyes turn golden, and they *become* what a later Earth expedition perceives…. are native Martians. But this idea of transformation isn’t present in any of the stories that were captured in the CHRONICLES. One could identify a similar issue with virtually any of Bradbury’s Mars story not included in the book.

The stories in THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES can be grouped into three phases. The early chapters describe four expeditions of Earthmen to Mars: the first three fail; the fourth one survives, and discovers that the Martian race has been largely exterminated by contamination by the earlier expeditions. The middle section describes the migration of humans from Earth to Mars, the creation of settlements, and several ambiguous interactions with the few surviving Martians. The final section describes the breakout of atomic war on Earth, the migration of most settlers on Mars back to Earth, and what happens to the very few left behind.

I think this must have been the first Bradbury book I read, at age 15 or so, and I was charmed by the elegant descriptions of the casually exotic. Here from the first story, “Ylla,” the story of the failed first expedition, told from a Martian couple’s point-of-view:

They had a house of crystal pillar on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind.

And when I first read the book, I was profoundly tickled by conceits like this, a reaction by Mr. K to his wife Mrs. K’s report of her dream about a man from the third planet, named Nathaniel York: “A stupid name; it’s no name at all.”

The second expedition is told in “The Earth Men,” in which the characters are named Mrs. Ttt and Mr. Aaa and so on; it tells of four Earthmen who land in a rocket on Mars and encounter various Martians who are unimpressed by their presence and too busy to talk to them, finally redirecting them to what the Earthmen realize is an insane asylum. It seems there are many Martians with delusions they are from other planets, including Earth. Skeptical readers immediately detect unanswered questions and inconsistencies from story to story. The insane asylum idea is cute, but why are there so many insane Martians? A bit more editing or rewriting (RB apparently spent a good deal of time revising stories for inclusion into books like this one) might have included the suggestion of the Martians having been psychically infected by the incidental contact of the first expedition in “Ylla.”

“The Third Expedition” is a famous story all by itself, also known as “Mars Is Heaven!” and included in the first SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME anthology (though the original story didn’t include discussion of the previous two expeditions; those passages were added in to the version in the book). This story describes the familiar situation of humans landing on an alien world and finding it exactly like Earth – such as we later saw in Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. Here we come to understand that this illusion — created by the Martians, complete with local copies of the crewmen’s relatives, parents and brothers, who invite them to dinner and to stay overnight — is a trick, to overcome and defeat the invaders. (Like most SF of the 1940s and ‘50s, this and other stories here assume the existence of telepathy and various similar mental powers.)

The town in this story, I note, is the depiction of Bradbury’s Green Town (the setting for the DANDELION WINE stories), set on Mars.

The key story of the entire book, I think, is the one about the fourth expedition, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright.” The Earthmen of this expedition are depicted as crude tourists (or ‘ugly Americans’) who have no appreciation for what has been destroyed, and further despoil the environment. They discover that the nearby Martian cities are dead, some for thousands of years, but others much more recently, dead only in the past week, leaving thousands of cinder-like corpses. And the Martians died of chicken-pox (cf. H.G. Wells)! One of the crewmen, Jeff Spender, is much affected by this tragedy, and disapproves of the other men’s casual disregard, their disposal of trash in the canals. He perceives that this lack of respect will ruin Mars. He quotes Byron (thus the title), as a partying crewman vomits on the tiles of an elegant Martian library. He takes off into the hills for a couple days and then returns on a murdering spree, apparently with the idea to destroy this fourth expedition and prevent further trips from Earth. He has a confrontation with Captain Wilder, and makes his case with he’s learned from the Martian towns. The Martians were as good as anything human; “They stopped where we should have stopped a hundred years ago.” He talks about art, and religion.

They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animals. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. … So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion. … If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.

The Martian cities had statues, symbols; they didn’t ask why they lived, they just lived their life. “They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful.”

In other stories (not in this book), like “The Man,” RB seems remarkably naïve and credulous about religion, but these passages display a relatively sophisticated take on the strain between the verities of religion and the revelations of science, and in this story at least, RB identifies this tension with the conflict between Earthmen and Martians.

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I read this book in January 2018, and in March I read David Seed’s Ray Bradbury, a volume in the “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” series from the University of Illinois Press, the series edited by Gary K. Wolfe. Given the series’ purview, Seed discusses only Bradbury’s science fiction in detail, mentioning the fantasy stories and detective novels only in passing. Curiously to me however is that Seed discusses the numerous Mars stories, those in CHRONICLES and the dozen or two others (those others written in the ‘40s, and yet others written, or at least not published, until later), and never acknowledges or points out that most are *inconsistent* with each other, or at least inconsistent with those in the book. I think this is because Seed isn’t concerned with what the stories portray at face value, but more about how they relate to the symbols Seed perceives Bradbury is preoccupied with. He may be right; but I prefer to take the stories at face value, and see what they suggest about what Bradbury thought plausible (so to speak) about what would happen if Earthmen, of whatever types, encountered Martians, of whatever types.

One insight I appreciate from David Seed’s book is that Bradbury was consciously influenced by literary writers of his time – as we’ve seen in many of his short stories that exemplify them: Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck. In particular, Bradbury was impressed by the structure of Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, with its ‘interpassages’ or asides from the personal story about the Joads. (I read GRAPES OF WRATH decades ago but have not looked at it since.) These were the inspirations for the short chapters written for CHRONICLES, to bridge from one story to the next and imply the individual stories were examples taken from greater narrative, a whole history of the settlement of Mars of which we were only seeing selected passages.

And as I reread MC just now, I was actually quite impressed by these interpassages (many of which I didn’t remember). A striking one is “The Musicians,” about human boys who hike out to the dead Martian town and play at being musicians – by playing the bones of the dead Martians, like xylophones – before the Martian towns will be burned clean by the Firemen (a F451 angle!). Bradbury manages to link those earlier expeditions to the stories about the settlements; he even somehow justifies the presence of the story “Usher II” (a FAHRENHEIT 451 story!) to the overall narrative by suggesting that Earthly cultural prims have arrives on Mars. David Seed feels this story in particular doesn’t belong.

In fact, “Usher II” was left out of the UK edition of this book, which was called THE SILVER LOCUSTS; while later editions of MC in the US added or dropped a story or two, discussed below.

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A key point about this book, for any contemporary reader, and many a critic of the 1950s, is this: Bradbury’s Mars isn’t the least bit realistic. Not realistic even for its time. Earlier pulp writers, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, portrayed a Mars that his hero from Earth could be transported to, without any kind of issue, about, say, the atmosphere. Bradbury’s Mars is based on those early pulp stories, as well as early astronomical reports, by Percival Lowell, that claimed the existence of canals.

So is the book SF? In some way, yes, because everybody treats it as such. (Which may simply mean that most people don’t know, or don’t care, that his depiction of Mars is wildly inaccurate, and was so even when he first wrote the stories.) And it’s science fiction, I think, because Bradbury treats Mars as a real place that humans might venture to and occupy; it’s not a fantasy place with no connection to our contemporary world. Bradbury’s Mars may be idealized, even fantasized, but it’s still a location in a science-fictional, not fantastic, universe.

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Back to those stories added to or dropped from later editions. One story in the first edition, “Way in the Middle of the Air,” was taken out at some point, likely in the 1970s; it’s still in my 1968 era Bantam paperback, in the photo here. When you read it you’ll understand why. (It’s preserved in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, published in 2003.) It depicts a southern town in which all the “niggers” are being drawn to the promise of settlement and a new life on Mars, and somehow having the wherewithal to build their own rockets and abandon their masters and bosses. It’s told from the point of view of a white man offended by the very idea that their kind should have such initiative, and especially that with all them leaving, he’ll have no one to lynch tonight (!). At the end of the story, all the blacks having left for Mars despite his protestations, this white man tries to salvage his pride by nothing, to his friends, that at least the departing niggers called him “Mister.”

Obviously, MC would not have survived the decades with this story in it, that would have drawn condemnation for those words, as other books like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD have done…

At the same time, two stories were added to later editions that were not in the first – because, for one thing, they were written later than the book’s publication of 1950. A relatively incidental one was “The Wilderness,” first published in F&SF in 1952, which depicts two young women packing to go to Mars, from Independence MO, to meet their husbands who’ve already settled there. As in the previous story just mentioned, there are explicit parallels between the trips to Mars and the Conestoga wagons that took so many people from the east into the western US, in the 19th century.

And one other later-written story, “The Fire Balloons,” first published in Imagination in April 1951, is one of the most significant religious stories Bradbury ever wrote. Two Episcopal fathers depart for Mars, one who’s written a book about the problem of sin on other worlds. He wonders, mightn’t there be new sins on Mars, sins humans wouldn’t recognize? When they arrive on Mars, the locals tell them about the two races of Martians: one pretty much dead (as we’ve gathered in earlier stories), the other not at all human: round luminous globes of light, spheres of blue fire. The two fathers walk into the hills, and quickly find them—these globular creatures remind them of the July 4th fire balloons, lifted aloft by candles. When a landslide suddenly happens, the fire balloons lift the two men away from danger. So are they real, do they have souls, and free will? Peregrine is anxious to prove this so, to the point where he steps off a cliff to see if the fire balloons will save him – and they do. The two fathers then prepare a ‘church’ to attract them and teach them human religion. The fire balloons come, and they speak: they are the Old Ones, the old Martians, who forsook material life, free of bodies and ills, to live forever. “We have put away the sings of the body and live in God’s grace.” They have no need of the humans’ church. They depart. And the fathers think there must be a Truth on every planet, all parts of a Big Truth, all adding up to a whole Truth.

This is an extraordinary story, given Bradbury’s attitude in stories like “The Man,” in which he assumes that the verities of Christian religion must apply to every planet everywhere – and that a spaceship landing on an alien planet would expect to find a small town there, with bands playing, just like small town Illinois. That story is embarrassing on both counts.

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Two of the finest stories here are “Night Meeting” and “The Martian.” They are both about ambiguous encounters with the few surviving Martians, once humans have firmly settled onto the planet. In “Night Meeting” Tomas Gomez drives into the hills – after stopping at a gas station (! How did this gasoline get to Mars?) – to a dead Martian town, and sees a green insect-like machine approach, carrying a Martian with golden eyes, named Muhe Ca, who touches Tomas’ head so they can understand each other’s speech. But they cannot touch – they pass through one another. They both think they are real, and the other is a phantom; the Martian thinks his cities are alive, a festival is about to happen, the streets are clean, the canals are full of wine! Tomas sees everything dead, except for the new towns the humans have built. Are they future and past, overlapping? They agree to disagree, and move on. It’s a spooky story that focuses the ambiguity that David Seed identified; are the Martians real at all? Is this just a symbolic passing of the torch? Or, as I prefer to think, does this story represent a kind of simultaneous existence that are both true, without understanding the other?

In “The Martian” settler LaFarge and his wife live in a house along a canal, and miss their son Tom, long dead. A scratching at their door reveals a small boy… who looks like Tom, who assumes the character of Tom so completely and innocently the couple stops asking questions. When they go to town, though, the boy, the Martian, is affected by the presence of other people, all wanting their own lost ones, and dies in a confusion of changing identity. It’s heartbreaking not just for the human couple, whose illusion is taken away from them, but for how this is evidence that the Martian race has been literally subsumed by the desires of an invading race – and is thus destroyed.

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“Usher II” is a Fahrenheit 451 story – that is, a story about the rebellion against those government officials who would suppress imagination and fantasy and horror. In this story William Stendahl has constructed a new House of Usher, after Edgar Allan Poe’s original, on Mars, full of hidden machines to portray characters from stories by Poe and others. An official arrives, an Investigator of Moral Climates, who tells him he must tear the house down. This happened on Earth, how imaginative books were burned, and Hollywood was told only to make realistic works, by the likes of Hemingway.

Stendahl has the investigator killed by a mechanical ape, and then holds a grand party for all the local cognoscenti, and has them killed, one by one, by the various mechanical contrivances in the house, to be replaced by robot duplicates of themselves. The story ends with a replay of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” scene, of the victim being walled up in a cellar, crying, ”For the love of God, Montresor!” After which, his point having been made, Stendahl and his architect flee, as the house collapses behind them.

This is a problematic story on a couple grounds. First, the threat of moral rectitude hasn’t actually happened, wasn’t even that real in the 1950s. That is, society hasn’t banned Poe and all the others; except perhaps among the extreme religious right, who disapprove even of Harry Potter. If anything, popular entertainment continues to revel in fantasy, horror, and gross depictions of violence (with the related issue of gun violence in the US, though similar depictions of horror and violence in countries like Japan have not resulted in anywhere near the same rate of gun violence).

Second, does this reaction against governmental ban, against what are simply *stories*, really sanction murder? What was Bradbury reacting to? The disapproval of comic books, at the time, in the 1950s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_of_the_Innocent)? Or as in F451, the alarm that mindless TV was replacing imaginative books?

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Three later stories in the book. In “The Off Season,” Sam Parkhill, the jerk from “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” has set up a hot dog stand with his wife at some crossroads in the middle of nowhere, expecting traffic from the thousands of new rockets and settlers expected from Earth. Confronted by aethereal Martians, he reacts in the worst way, until the Martians inform him that something has happened back on Earth – and he sees in the sky, the Earth changes color, catches fire, seems to explode.

(I wonder if this remote desert setting is a response to Bradbury having lived in Arizona for a time. The setting here of “two dead highways” in the middle of the desert recalls the desert landscape that I knew, growing up…)

“The Silent Towns” is the one embarrassing story that remains in current editions of TMC. It’s set in a deserted Martian town where everyone has left, except for one Walter Gripp, a miner who would come into town every two weeks looking for a woman to marry, and was in the hills when everyone else left to return to war-torn Earth. Now, he tries phoning other towns, trying to find anyone left alive on the entire planet. And he finds one! A Genevieve Selsor, whom he rushes to meet, and eventually meets, and sees that she’s a fat, pale woman obsessively eating candy, who’s made a wedding dress in anticipation of their meeting, and who is thus hopelessly self-centered and shallow. Walter flees, and never answers the phone again. The story’s an Adam and Eve replay with a bad joke at the end: that the woman is so fat and homely that the man can’t stand her. Even before this era of ‘fat-shaming’ attitudes about political correctness (which just means not offending other people unnecessarily), even for its time, this is just a dumb, crude joke.

“The Long Years” depicts an expedition from Jupiter returning to Mars after many years, and finding a family, a Mr. Hathaway with his wife and kids, two daughters and one son, on an otherwise desolate planet. The captain and crew realize something is wrong – the kids should be older by now. They realize that Hathaway’s family died 19 years ago, and he has somehow recreated them, via Martian technology. Hathaway himself dies; the faux wife and children remain.

This is a better evocation of the last remnants of humans on Mars than the previous story, though it complicates matters by introducing the notion that Hathaway, a tinkerer who wired up the nearby town, also constructed robot versions of his family. It might have been more consistent to have them be remnant Martians, playing their roles as in “The Martian”; but then the story would have been repetitious.

Both of these stories recall episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the recognition that Rod Serling, that show’s producer and lead writer, often repurposed ideas he’d read in published SF stories for the scripts he wrote for his show. “The Silent Towns” evokes the very first TZ episode, “Where Is Everybody?” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_Is_Everybody). And “The Long Years” recalls the TZ episode “The Lonely” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lonely_(The_Twilight_Zone)), about a robot companion for an isolated man.

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The final two stories in the book are each classic in their own right.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” depicts an automated house in the aftermath of an atomic war on Earth. Its residents are all dead, but the house keeps functioning automatically: the robot mice come out to clean; the sprinklers come on; bridge tables emerge; baths are fixed. The house even reads a poem, one containing the title.

But a tree branch falls, and sets off a fire, and the house burns. Leaving only the robot voice announcing the date.

The key vision is the outside wall of the house, which shows the outline of five people, silhouettes from when the bomb went off. As in Hiroshima.

In a sense, this is another F451 story, depicting what RB feels is the horror of mechanized existence.

And finally, “The Million-Year Picnic,” ironically one of the earliest Mars stories RB ever wrote, in 1946, back when he had a completely different conception of what his Mars book might be. In the context of the book, it tells of a family that has left Earth’s atomic war and fled to Mars. They expect another family to arrive soon. The father promises his boys that the Martians aren’t dead, and the family takes a trip up the canals, leaving their own rocketship behind. The father recalls the old way of life, left behind: “Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth. That’s what the silent radio means. That’s what we ran away from.”

This is Bradbury’s take on what was happening in the mid-20th century.

The story ends with one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in all of SF literature:

“I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promised.”

“There they are,” said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.

The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.

The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…

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Link: Wills on Carter on Ideology v. Religion

From Garry Wills’ review of Jimmy Carter’s new book Faith, in the New York Times Book Review a couple weeks ago (posted online earlier):

In the ideology that the right thinks is a religion, the sin of sins is abortion, though that is not a subject mentioned in the Torah, or the Gospel, or the early church creeds and councils. Even the Catholic Church sees this not as a theological issue but as a matter of natural law, more a subject for philosophers, psychiatrists and scientists than for preachers as such. But science is evil in the rightists’ ideology: Scientists invent nonexistent things like evolution and global warming. The ideology also holds that guns are the very essence of government. Regulate guns in any way and we lose justice, liberty and comity, crushed by an instant tyranny. The ideology also insists that women should be subordinate to men, blacks to whites, and experts to “the common man.”

Carter was too religious to accept such pseudo-religion. He taught Bible classes all his adult life, with an emphasis on what is in Scripture rather than what is not — mainly, a regard for the poor, the rejected, the victims of prejudice and injustice.

(Backlogged on links to quote and comment on…)

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Links and Comments: Storytelling; Religious Fundamentalism and Fake News; the Attraction of Conspiracy Theories

Time magazine, December 5, 2017, Jeffrey Kluger: How Telling Stories Makes Us Human

[S]torytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.

A study of storytelling in forager cultures in Thailand, Malaysia, Africa and elsewhere. Storytelling has evolutionary benefits.

Of course, nothing captures natural selection quite like the number of babies any one person has, and storytelling confers that benefit too — at least on the tellers. “Storytelling is a costly behavior,” write the researchers, “requiring an input of time and energy into practice, performance and cognitive processing.” But the payoff for making such an effort is big: When the investigators looked at family groups within the 18 camps, they found that skilled storytellers had, on average, .53 more living children than other people.

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Patheos: Researchers Find Link Between Religious Fundamentalism and Falling for Fake News.

A new working paper by researchers at Yale University finds that the kind of people more likely to believe stories that are literally “fake news” — who fall for the hoaxes, if you will — are those who believe in delusions (like telepathic communication), are dogmatic in their thinking, and are just flat-out religious fundamentalists.

It makes a lot of sense. After all, the paper notes, evidence “suggests that religious fundamentalists may engage in less analytic and actively open-minded thinking.” I believe that. They already believe in huge amount of nonsensical garbage — a talking snake, a young Earth, God watches over you, Jesus performed miracles, etc. — in large part because they live in bubbles where those stories feel convincing despite not measuring up to reality. When pastors tell you those lies with conviction, and a sacred book reiterates the lies, and your parents teach you that doubting the lies could lead you down the path to eternal punishment, it makes a lot of sense that news articles that appear legitimate would just be taken as gospel.

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The Week, from Aeon: How to think like a conspiracy theorist, by Roland Imhoff.

It’s partly about feeling a lack of control about one’s life…

The rationale behind this is that lacking control increases the need to engage in the compensatory illusion of control — that is, in conspiracy theories. Detecting patterns where there are none at least leaves open the possibility of gaining control, whereas the attribution of, say, a natural disaster to unchangeable and uncontrollable weather dynamics does not.

And also this:

Belief in conspiracies can serve to set oneself apart from the ignorant masses — a self-serving boast about one’s exclusive knowledge. Adherence to conspiracy theory might not always be the result of some perceived lack of control, but rather a deep-seated need for uniqueness.

And so the researchers invented a conspiracy theory from scratch, and tested it out.

The new conspiracy seemed to be more attractive if it was a minority opinion. It set them apart from the masses.

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E.O. Wilson: What Is Man?

From the first page of his book HALF-EARTH: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016).

What is man?

Storyteller, mythmaker, and destroyer of the living world. Thinking with a gabble of reason, emotion, and religion. Lucky accident of primate evolution during the late Pleistocene. Mind of the biosphere. Magnificent in imaginative power and exploratory drive, yet yearning to be more master than steward of a declining planet. Born with the capacity to survive and evolve forever, able to render the biosphere eternal also. Yet arrogant, reckless, lethally predisposed to favor self, tribe, and short-term futures. Obsequious to imagined higher beings, contemptuous toward lower forms of life.

This is a book about Wilson’s plea to preserve the biosphere of Earth by sectioning off and preserving from human development fully half the land area of the entire planet. This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem: Rosling’s 2018 book (more on that soon) notes that the percentage of that land surface that’s been protected has grown from basically 0%, in 1900, to nearly 15%, in 2016. (Getting ahead of myself but: the dying off of small towns and the concentration of humanity into cities is a *good thing*, because that’s less likely to destroy the planet’s biosphere, upon which humanity’s future depends.)

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Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY


This is not my usual methodical summary with comments, but rather a compilation of random bits that stood out, as I read this book, without taking notes.

  • I was struck again and again by how key plot points, or techniques of special effects, or composers whose music was used, were accidental discoveries or were decided serendipitously.
    • The idea of HAL reading lips was suggest by an associate producer, to solve a plot point.
    • The notion of knocking the wine glass onto the floor – an incident fraught with symbology – was an offhand suggestion by the actor.
    • The colorized landscapes (of Scotland, and Monument Valley) used a technique they came to call ‘Purple Hearts,’ an accidental discovery that film stock recorded in three basic colors could be recolored randomly in restoration.
    • At one point Kubrick all but buys out a local record shop, playing bits of hundreds of LPs for appropriate tracks; but Gyorgi Ligeti was heard by chance by his wife on the radio.
    • That the tiger’s eyes reflected light was an accidental effect of the front-projection technique used in the Dawn of Man scenes.
  • Similarly: work would proceed on one part of the film, even as the overall story was undetermined, and techniques for filming other parts were undetermined. (All the 2001 era scenes with actors were filmed first; then the Dawn of Man; finally the Star Gate effects.)
  • The dimensions of the interior sets (as described in production details) are not consistent with the exterior ship Discovery (judging its size by what we see of the pod bay deck from the outside). Why is the emergency entry hatch so deep? As with so many others, the interior of Discovery is bigger inside than outside. (No doubt there’s a technical term for this.)
  • Gossip:
    • William Sylvester couldn’t get through the long take of the lunar briefing room conference; he was a junkie, and was threatened with dismissal, before he got his act together. (Even so, Kubrick didn’t get the single long take he’d wanted.)
    • Kubrick took a dislike to Carl Sagan, introduced to him by Clarke. He found Sagan “supercilious” and “patronizing” [Benson’s words] and didn’t want to see him again. (Nevertheless, Sagan took credit for one of his suggestions about the film, in his book THE COSMIC CONNECTION, that the aliens not be shown, only implied.)
    • Dan Richter, a ballet dancer who played Moonwatcher, was also a junkie – but a legal junkie, under British laws at the time, under a doctor’s supervision to administer doses.
  • I have a much better understanding of the ‘front-projection’ and ‘slit-scan’ techniques than I’ve ever had, via diagrams on pages 270 and 343.
  • The ‘pace’ of the spacecraft scenes was dictated by the movements of the stars [which shouldn’t have been moving at all] – any faster, they would have blurred, or twinkled. And so the spacecraft, e.g. the Discovery, moved at the same pace, in slightly different directions.
  • Doug Trumball, one of the key special effects wizards, was drafted and pretended to be gay to avoid it. Benson mentions that this – that homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and the US – was the reason Clarke had relocated to Ceylon (later known as Sri Lanka), where he lived most of his life
  • Other music Kubrick liked in early edits was Mahler’s 3rd,  Vaughn Williams’ 7th, and the scherzo of Mendelsohn’s Midsummer’s Night Dream.
  • Famously, the celebrated film composer Alex North was hired to do an original score for 2001, even after Kubrick had committed himself to using Zarathustra, at least, for the opening; and North gamely composed fresh music that attempted to achieve the same effects. Ultimately, it was not used; Kubrick liked his classical tracks better, and preferred a sound design that left much of the film with no music at all. Pieces of North’s score, like everything else, are on YouTube. It’s not bad; but it’s too recognizably the Alex North music of scores for Spartacus and Cleopatra.
  • It’s impossible to know about the alternate history of the effect of that score having been used, as opposed to the classical tracks by Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss (the pieces by Khachaturian and Ligeti were far less well-known and so carried no cultural baggage). Benson captures the issue with “The Blue Danube” p358, that it “was then considered a kitschy, musty, nationalistic composition”. Elsewhere, back in Jerome Agel’s book THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, I recall that a concern was that the piece would distract the audience with recollections of movies about Vienna.
  • Yet Benson confirms another recollection: that Kubrick, as perfectionist with the music as with anything else, “listened to about twenty-five recordings of ‘Blue Danube’ before choosing the one for Deutsche Grammophon by Herbert von Karajan, the world’s greatest conductor. It’s the kind of music that can sound terribly banal, but at its best, it’s still a magnificent thing.” P359
  • Indeed, I’ve always thought that this recording of Blue Danube is so much more precise and technical than any other I’ve ever heard. This was von Karajan’s esthetic, and it fit Kubrick’s esthetic exactly.
  • Benson spends a significant amount of time on Clarke, with the recurring theme that Clarke’s vision for the film – with introductory interviews by great scientists about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and with *narration* throughout the film about the state of the early man-apes, about what was going on with HAL, and so on – was gradually and eventually completely abandoned by Kubrick, who wanted a visual experience, not a verbal one. Clarke wrote endless drafts of that narration; some of this is in Clarke’s book THE LOST WORLDS OF 2001, published only a few years later in 1972. Clarke was shocked, “in tears,” by the previews of the final version he saw, without those intros and without the narration – but just as with the critics, he came around to realize what an achievement the film itself was. And Clarke’s novel version, following the release of the film by four months, ‘explained’ everything in the way he preferred. The film and the novel complement one another.
  • And there are descriptions of the harsh reactions of critics on the film’s premiere, and the walk-outs from the earliest showings, and the later revisions of opinions by critics. But the box office spoke, especially among younger viewers, as opposed to the elderly film critic crowd. 2001 was the highest box office performing film of its year. It didn’t do so well in the Oscars the following year – it was nominated in four categories, including best picture, but only won for special effects, which Kubrick had taken complete credit for.
  • Yet its assessment as a great film rose over the years, gradually, until 2001 is now ranked among the top 10, even the top 3, of various rankings of the greatest films of all time.
  • And I think a lesson here is that the classics are precisely those works that break new ground, that do new things regardless of the artistic or popular standards of the time, that upset people at first. And those works – like Melville’s Moby Dick, which is compared to 2001 on a couple grounds in this book – take a while to be recognized.
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C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, The Third Culture, Big History, and 2001

C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” is the famous 1959 lecture and then essay about the divide between the scientific community and the literary ‘intellectual’ community, an essay much referenced in books about the acceptance of science in modern culture (with, for example, several references in Steven Pinker’s ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, which are what prompted me to buy a copy of Snow and read it for myself). The essay comes in a little book, shown here in a 2013 printing just 58 pages long, that includes additional topics.

The principal essay is short and to the point. The Wikipedia entry for the lecture, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures, quotes a key passage, about how traditional intellectuals have no idea what the second law of thermodynamics might be about, nor care; yet would consider a scientist who’d never read Shakespeare to be uncultured, even uneducated. He notes p4 that “at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others.” As if the work of scientists like Rutherford or Dirac or Einstein was not intellectual.

Snow describes how he was trained as a scientist, but had become a writer, and so had interactions and friends among both groups. He discusses how scientists are thought unreasonably optimistic and unaware of the human condition, while the literary intellectuals lack concern about the future and would deny the progress of science and technology. An apt quote, p15:

They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture’, as though the natural order didn’t exist. As thought the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man.

There are worlds of commentary about this essay, easily found via Google, from critical responses at the time, to later re-evaluations, to references in contemporary books.

But I’ll make a couple points myself anyway: Snow lays the situation primarily at the English educational policies of the time, especially those of Cambridge and Oxford, with their high degrees of specialization. He notes that the educational systems in the US, and USSR, are not so severe. He discusses how the ‘intellectuals’ barely noticed or understood the industrial revolution (Ibsen among writers being an exception), how the poor gravitated toward the factories to improve their lot (a point Pinker makes also, to those who criticize the industrial revolution). And in the final essay of this slim book, he realizes how the industrialized nations are getting richer (and how ‘intellectuals’ don’t appreciate this rate of change [that rate of change being a central theme of science fiction]) and how the poor nations have noticed and will take any help they can get – and if the West doesn’t help them, Russia will. And so the gap between the cultures must close.

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This theme about the problems of specialization we’ve seen in essays on SF from the same general era as Snow’s, e.g. three separate essays in Bretnor’s MODERN SCIENCE FICTION (here http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2018/01/19/sfnf-bretnor-modern-science-fiction/).

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Since Snow there have been a couple prominent developments in this conflict, one relatively recent.

First, the gap between the cultures — at least among the curious lay public — began to shrink, I think, as books by scientists written for the general audience became popular, especially THE COSMIC CONNECTION and COSMOS by Carl Sagan, Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, and E.O. Wilson’s ON HUMAN NATURE, not to mention numerous works by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould and others.

So by 1995 editor (and agent) John Brockman could publish an anthology of essays, THE THIRD CULTURE, claiming that the culture had indeed shifted, from the literary, classical, and philosophical ‘intellectuals’ to “those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings our lives, redefining who and what we are” (p17). Brockman explores this idea in his introduction, and then fills the book with essays by representative key thinkers on various themes: evolution, the mind, cosmic origins, algorithms, and the singularity. Contributors include Gould, Dawkins, Margulis, Minsky, Dennett, Pinker, Penrose, Rees, Smolin, and many others, and what’s fun is how Brockman lets his contributors comment on each other’s essays. Even as the modern scientific intellectuals agree on the large-scale outlines of evolution and cosmology, they emphasize varying parts, bicker about the importance of details. That’s how science works.

And in 1998 E.O. Wilson published one of his most ambitious books, CONSILIENCE, subtitled “The Unity of Knowledge,” that attempted to show how recent understandings in the physical and biological sciences could illuminate issues in the social sciences, in art, in ethics, in religion. (Meanwhile, as one of Brockman’s contributors points out, p27, when traditional intellectual Mortimer Adler compiled a ‘Synopticon’ index, his entry on consciousness referenced Aquinas, Montaigne, and Aristotle.)

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Second, more recently, a movement known as ‘Big History’ has appeared, which attempts to put all of human history into the context of cosmological history – everything from the Big Bang, to the origin of stars and planets, to the development of life on Earth, the evolution of mankind, and eventually the growth of culture and modern human history. This grand scope was written about at least since Bill Bryson’s A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING in 2005 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Short_History_of_Nearly_Everything), and more technically by David Christian in MAPS OF TIME in 2004, with its sections that steadily zoom in on narrowing, more recent slices of the cosmic timeline. The movement has crystallized into a “Big History Project” led by Christian, with a website (https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home), a TED talk, a comprehensive coffee table book, endorsements by Bill Gates, and a forthcoming narrative account by Christian called ORIGIN STORY (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0316392006/), which of course I’ve preordered.

And of course, the opening credits of the TV series “The Big Bang Theory” is big history in popular culture.

The point about ‘big history’ is that it places the history that the traditional ‘intellectuals’ know about, the art and literature and philosophy of the past two or three thousand years, into a grander context, one only discovered and appreciated in the last 50-75 years. If you want to know what we know about the age and extent of the universe, or about human consciousness and the mind, don’t look to Mortimer Adler’s references; look to Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, to Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker. The best books about what collective humanity knows about the world, through systematic investigation [science], are the latest books, not the most ancient. Because the early philosophers, though their intuitive speculations are fascinating in retrospect, have turned out mostly to be wrong.

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Finally, just today, as I’m working my way a chapter at a time through Michael Benson’s history of the making of the film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, I came across this passage that captures how science fiction is a kind of third culture, a blending of art and science, and how 2001 in particular captured that combination. P. 264-265:

At its best, science fiction takes our post-Enlightenment way of understanding the world and extrapolates, using the findings of science and projections concerning the future of technology and putting them at the service of truths expressible through fiction. By the midsixties, astronomy and astrophysics had radically expanded the universe’s dimensions, and the emerging science of paleoanthropology—a discipline rooted in Darwinism, paleontology, and biological anthropology—was starting to revolutionize our understanding of human origins. But rarely had the findings of these broad disciplines been incorporated into artistic expression. Instead, science had effectively been over here, and the arts elsewhere.

It was one of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s great achievements, and a wellspring of 2001’s lasting power and continuing significance, that they took the complex, sometimes haunting, sometimes magnificent truths revealed by modern science, polished them with all the care given an expensive piece of Zeiss glass, and used them as a window to view the human condition within that staggeringly vast universe. Projecting back into the past, 2001’s authors examined human origins. They weren’t particularly doctrinaire about it. This was fiction, not a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Nature. But they always deployed scientific research—and its miraculous offspring, technology—to define their story, refine it, and expand it to its farthest possible limits It’s how they reached the border between the known and unknown—that place science is always probing like a tongue exploring a broken tooth. It’s where they wanted to take their audience, because beyond it, sometime like magic prevails.

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Richard Feynman’s Meaning, and Being Savvy

Here’s a short book of three essays first delivered as lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle, in 1963, gathered into a book published in 1998. Feynman, of course, was a famous CalTech physicist influential for work in quantum mechanics, inventor of pictorial diagrams to describe the behavior of subatomic particles that later became known as Feynman Diagrams. He won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics.

This book is subtitled “Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist,” and the lectures addressed a lay audience, not an audience of fellow scientists or of students.

My quick take: Feynman addresses issues of science, religion, and public credulousness that are all too familiar; not much has changed from 1963 to 2018.

The first lecture, “The Uncertainty of Science,” reviews the idea of science in three aspects: as a method, as the content of its results, and as what it can produce, i.e. technology. In the method, “observation is the judge of whether something is so or not,” and exceptions test, or ‘prove,’ the rule. Science requires objectivity, and thoroughness. The more specific a rule, the better. It doesn’t matter where ideas come from, or the background of any individual scientists; relations among scientists are good. Imagination is important, yet it’s difficult to imagine something truly new, that’s consistent with all past rules and observations. Why to the laws of science change? Only when the ‘sieve’ becomes smaller. Some uncertainty always remains; doubt is not to be feared. When people wonder how one can live without certainty, Feynman responds, “how you get to know is what I want to know” p28.0

The second lecture is “The Uncertainty of Values.” We must admit we don’t know the meaning of life; the worst times of history have been when “people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.” p33-34.

And so he talks about religion, reflecting on how students come to university (i.e. CalTech) and gradually give up belief in their fathers’ God. Most scientists don’t believe. Why? They most plausible idea is reflection upon learning the facts of the universe: its size, the relationship of man to animals, and so on; “Can the rest be just a scaffolding for His creation?” These scientific views “appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate” p39.8.

And yet moral values are not affected by loss of religious belief; they are thus independent. Yet he admits that Western civilization has two great heritages: the adventure into the unknown, and Christian ethics, and that the latter remains the source of inspiration.

(And then he trails off into a discussion of Russia and US, how the US government isn’t great, but it’s better than any other, and how Russia is backward, with discussions about Lysenko and others, and how governments should never impose any answers.)

The third lecture, “This Unscientific Age,” is a ramble in which Feynman admits he covered his planned topics in the first two lectures. So here he discusses various “uncomfortable feelings” he has about the world. Though we live in a scientific age, how few people understand even the basics of science. (It’s always been so, was my thought.)

He discusses ‘tricks’ about how to judge an idea. People who have quick answers to complex problems are dishonest — most politicians. Uncertainty again, and how we can be pretty sure about many things without being absolutely certain. E.g., how to test a supposed mind reader, at Las Vegas resorts; how experiments reading cards [he’s referring to J.B. Rhine, notoriously known a few decades ago and now mostly forgotten] became less impressive as tests were refined; how in contrast hypnotism turned out to be valid.

Flying saucers: ordinary people argue about what’s *possible*. That’s not the point; it’s whether the idea of alien spacecraft is *probable*. How the Catholic Church goes about proving a saint. How an anecdote, or one or two occurrences, prove nothing; “Otherwise you become one of these people who believe all kinds of crazy stuff and doesn’t understand the world they’re in. Nobody understands the world they’re in, but some people are better off at it than others.” p84

Some problems are due to lack of information, e.g. astrology, prayers, faith healing, Biblical prophecy: “I think it just belongs to a general lack of understanding of how complicated the world is and how elaborate and how unlikely it would be that such a thing would work.”

He visits a John Birch Society center in Altadena, which promotes tenants about “ancient principles of warfare” such as the 10th, paralysis, which the host claims is behind so much wrong in the world. It’s like paranoia; it’s impossible to disprove. Again, Feynman says, it’s about a lack of a sense of proportion. “And so it is with these people. They don’t have a sense of proportion.” p105. He humors the host by agreeing with her, to absurdity. (It’s very 2018.)

And he trails off discussing radiation from nuclear tests, the Mariner and Ranger probes, where scientists get their ideas from, Arabic science in the Middle Ages, the chaotic spelling of English, the many non-technological advances of man [i.e. humanity] such as economic systems, accounting, laws, and government organizations, future potentials of fusion and biology, and how he admires the encyclical of Pope John XXIII (i.e. what’s known as Vatican II]

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My takeaway from this book is his recurring thought that much gullibility about pseudoscience (and religion) is based on “a general lack of understanding of how complicated the world is and how elaborate and how unlikely it would be that [any such thing] would work.” A lack of a “sense of proportion.”

This aligns with the past three posts, about the value of education, about how the religiously-home-schooled teenager in Equus had nothing real to base his worldview on, and about the susceptibility of some to conspiracy theories and intuitive physics.

I’ve been thinking of the word ‘savvy’ as the quality of having this “sense of proportion” and this “understanding of how complicated the world is,” and, currently, the added understanding of the cognitive biases that have been identified in the past couple three decades, which cause one to reassess anything one might ‘believe’ to think about why such a belief might be held, as opposed to whether it is a valid belief, or understanding, of the world as it actually exists. I’ll be developing this theme.

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Richard Feynman
Feynman diagram
Simple English Wikipedia: Feynman diagram
Second Vatican Council

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