Adam Frank’s LIGHT OF THE STARS: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth (Norton, 2018) asks, what can thinking about the prospect of alien civilizations tell us about our own fate? Currently our species’ story (by those of us paying attention, at least) is that humanity is wrecking the planet, having initiated the Anthropocene and triggered climate change that is wiping out thousands of species and threatening our own survival. Must it always be so? If other planets support intelligent life, did those civilizations come to some coevolution with their planets?

He reviews the history of our ideas about alien worlds, from Epicurus to Fermi, and then our knowledge of nearby planets, as our studies of Venus and Mars have influenced our understanding of our own Earthly climate. The ancient Earth couldn’t support our kind of life; there was a ‘great oxidation event’ in the Archean eon when life discovered how to use sunlight, and changed the atmosphere of the planet. And then the recent discoveries of thousands of planets around other stars — some 1800 planets discovered as of 2015. The famous Drake Equation was then rethought, to ask how many civilizations have *ever* existed — or the converse: what is the likelihood humans are alone in the universe? With estimates of 10 to the power of -22; that is, extremely extremely unlikely that there has never been another intelligent species in the universe.

We can then ask, how often can civilizations become sustainable, i.e. surviving their Anthropocenes? The author analyzed various energy sources and their impacts, then built models with different starting conditions. And found three classes of results (p196): the first, an abrupt die-off of the population as planetary temperature rises. Second, a ‘soft-landing’ in which the population plateaued and an equilibrium was reached with planetary temperature. And third, a complete collapse–extinction–with or without changing to different energy resources, because the planet had reached a point of no return and could not recover.

Real data, of course, show rising population, energy consumption, and CO2 concentration (p199), with our eventual outcome among those options unknown.

What would a sustainable civilization look like? For a civilization to ‘wake up’ and become self-aware of its destiny? In 1971 a conference that included Carl Sagan created the Kardashev Scale (, identifying three types of civilizations based on how much energy they use: the planet’s, the sun’s, or the galaxy’s. The second type embodies the notion of the Dyson sphere, and the first is reflected in naive SF visions of planets turned into vast cities – Asimov’s Trantor; Star Wars. These did not understand that civilizations are part of a planet’s history, and this history is about energy *transformations* — the heat from any energy use has to go somewhere. Thus the key to sustainability is developing a cooperative relationship with the planet. P214, “Planets are nature’s way of turning starlight into something interesting.” Transferring energy is the domain of thermodynamics, and this science says there is always some waste. The components of planets – from rock balls to those with atmospheres, etc. — are ways of transferring energy, 216b.

Author and collaborators propose a different classification of planets.

Class 1: an airless world, such as Mercury.
Class 2: a world with atmosphere but no life, like Venus or Mars.
Class 3: planets with a ‘thin’ biosphere, with a start of life, like Earth in the Archean eon.
Class 4: planets with ‘thick’ biospheres, with deep networks of life; like Earth before civilization appeared 10,000 years ago.
Class 5: planets with ‘agency-dominated’ biospheres, where a civilization is actively managing the biosphere to enhance both itself and the biosphere.

We are now part way between class 4 and class 5. Vernadsky had the idea of a ‘noosphere’, a shell of thought surrounding the planet; this is what a class 5 planet would be.

An essential lesson: planets are the engines of innovation. They are the result of physical laws; no teleology is involved. But when a civilization triggers its Anthropocene, a new age ensues: the completion of Gaia, worlds where the planet as a whole has an evolutionary direction, a goal; an ‘agency-dominated’ biosphere.

And so the new human story must be our understanding that we are not the first species to have changed Earth’s climate. Right now humanity is a kind of cosmic teenager; we must gain the astrobiological perspective to face the Anthropocene. It’s not that we’re at fault for creating climate change; we need to understand that, of course, our civilization is changing the climate, that’s what planet-spanning civilizations do. Yet we must realize that our effect on the planet does not guarantee our own existence, or what the planet will be in 1000 or 10,000 years from now.


I recommend this book as doing a nice job of summarizing and integrating material, much already familiar, in its first half; and then for revealing some interesting new analyses of potential futures in its second. Its bottom line is that the ‘cosmic perspective’ of science — and of science fiction — will be necessary to manage our future, lest we stumble into that future without thinking (as our current political leaders would have us do) and risk extinction. (Not the demolition of the planet; it will survive.)

Posted in Astronomy, Book Notes, Cosmology, Species Reset | Leave a comment


H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE is one of the foundational science fiction novels. Published in 1895, it was Wells’ first novel, though it’s short enough that later anthologists have reprinted it as a novella (e.g. in the second volume of THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME). But compilers of reference books and reading guides overwhelmingly consider it a novel, if only because it’s been published as an independent book so many times over the past years.

It’s one of the earliest SF novels I read, in part because the 1960 film version, by George Pal, was one of the earliest SF movies I saw — in late 1966, I think, when I was in the 7th grade. (The junior high school I was attending showed the film in 15 or 20 minute increments during lunch breaks, and I missed the first couple installments at the time, not seeing the entire film until years later.) I just watched the film again, a couple months ago, and so picked up the novel one more time. I read it every decade or so, because it’s short, evocative, and I need to keep it clear in my mind against the memory of the film.

I shouldn’t need to summarize the novel for anyone reading this blog, but the bare bones are worth repeating: a lone genius gentleman in 1895 expounds to his friends about the fourth dimension; he’s taken 2 years to build a machine to travel through time; and when he uses it, he travels to the far future, to the year 802,701 AD, where he finds a social order split into passive Eloi and monstrous Morlocks, in a reflection of the social trends the author perceived when he wrote. The Time Traveler (he is never named) escapes the Morlocks and travels even further into the future, arriving on a cold beach where a dying sun shines on monstrous crabs, and then even further to when an eclipse masks the sun and leaves the world in total darkness, before returning to his present and telling his story. And then departs again, leaving fragmentary flowers. “One cannot choose but wonder,” concludes the narrator.

This time I read an edition from Oxford University Press with an introduction and copious notes by Roger Luckhurst, the British writer and academic ( His comments emphasize the extent to which Wells was influenced by the great discoveries of the 19th century — the geologists’ discoveries of the age of the Earth; Darwin’s discovery of the evolution and changing of species, and how these portended a distant future of change and changes in mankind. Elsewhere I’ve essayed about science fiction as the branch of literature that responded to technological and social change, but this broader perspective reveals how SF is part of the greater shift in humanity’s perspective and understanding of the universe. (Olaf Stapledon, whom I’m reading now, took an even more expansive view.)

This time I summarized the ways in which the book and film are different.

How the book is different than the movie:

  • It has the famous end of time scenes at the end (in the film, the Time Traveler escapes the Morlocks and returns immediately to his own time)
  • The TT explores the Palace of Green Porcelain — a counterpart to an actual museum in Wells’ day — though in the film there is a scene with speaking books that resembles the discoveries there
  • The TT accidentally starts a forest fire that blinds the Morlocks, then has to wrestle them away during the night
  • The book is infused with themes of evolution, class differences, and the future of humanity

How the movie is different that the book:

  • The movie has early scenes of the TT stopping a couple decades into the future, and watching fashions change in a store window
  • The movie has the TT engulfed in volcanic rock, which takes time to erode
  • The movie has a futuristic dome instead of the large structure Wells describes
  • The movie has the Eloi speak broken English
  • The movie employs the gimmick of the air raid siren to draw in the Eloi, and then the term ‘all clear’, which might have seemed familiar to audiences 15 years after World War II, but which seem ludicrously anachronistic today, especially as projected hundreds of thousands of years into the future
  • The movie has the TT destroy the underground lair of the Morlocks — as if this one area is the whole world — because, in Hollywood, the good guys must defeat the villains, not merely escape them.
  • The movie has the TT advance at the end, but only far enough to see a corpse disintegrate, before returning to the past
  • As the TT leaves again at the end, he takes three books with him.

In this novel Wells can be fairly said to have invented the idea of time travel, an idea that would be endlessly explored by later science fiction writers. Curiously, in the introduction Wells mentions one implication of time travel — the idea of compounding interest — which the film omits.

What I especially noticed on this reading, triggered partly by Luckhurst’s notes, is how sophisticated Wells’ speculation about the potential future of humanity were, given his time, compared to modern nonfiction analyses of human evolution and psychology. A few passages from Chapter 6. Page 32:

Strength is the outcome of need: security sets a premium on feebleness. This work of ameliorating the conditions of life–the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure–had gone steadily into climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another.

Page 33:

What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision. And the institution of the family, and the emotions that arise therein, the fierce jealously, the tenderness for offspring, parental self-devotion, all found their justification and support in the imminent dangers of the young. Now, where are these imminent dangers? There is a sentiment arising, and it will grow, against connubial jealousy, against fierce maternity, against passion of all sorts; unnecessary things now, and things that make us uncomfortable, savage survivals, discords in a refined and pleasant life.

Indeed, a theme of much current evolutionary and psychological thought is that human nature reflects the protocols of primitive life on the Savannah, when people lived in small tribes; and this nature is sometimes at odds with the protocols of modern life, of living in large cities with multicultural neighbors. (This discomfort is reflected in current politics.)

Wells goes there, page 34:

Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are of no great help–may even be hindrances–to a civilized man.

And so Steven Pinker has described how the reduction of violence over the past few centuries has been the dismissal of ‘honor culture’ that glorifies personal valor at the cost of killing others. A curious trade-off, which Wells’ novel might be seen as exploring the consequences of.

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For years I’ve been bemused by TV commercials that show shiny happy people living glorious lives, with a narrator who claims the benefits of some prescription drug that you should consult your [particular specialist] about.

(I gather that such commercials are allowed in the US but prohibited in the rest of the world. That’s a separate issue.)

But now, at age 63, I find myself in exactly the audience for such commercials; I’m now old enough to have such specialists, who can prescribe various special drugs. I now have both a gastroenterologist, and a cardiologist.

This is a good thing. The reason life expectancy is rising in the world is that medical technology is advancing, and people have access to it (even with the dicey access to medical care in the US).

See your doctor, take care of yourself, take their prescriptions. (And, don’t read the internet for diagnosis or prescriptions.) And we can all live to be 90.

Posted in Personal history | Leave a comment

Eric Frank Russell: SINISTER BARRIER

This is an early genre science fiction novel, first serialized in Unknown magazine in 1939, later revised and expanded and published in 1948 by Fantasy Press. I have the latter edition, in a used copy I picked up about six months ago at a bookshop in Oakland. (And this copy is a library discard, from the Contra Costa County Library, in a county inland from Oakland and including Walnut Creek and Mt. Diablo.)

I had two immediate thoughts as I read this novel – indeed, from reading just the first few pages.

First, none of the encyclopedia entries for this book – e.g. SFE, Wikipedia – indicate how execrably badly written this book is – at least, by modern standards. It’s awful, on a sentence by sentence basis. The prose is exaggerated, in a pulpish comic-book sense, and words are used helter-skelter, with too many words that don’t all go together in most sentences, that no careful writer would ever consider. Examples below.

Yet this was typical for much SF of its time – the 1940s and before, judging from what relatively little of it I’ve read. (Some Gernsback, some E.E. Smith; even the earliest Asimov stories had notes of the same pulpish prose.)

And so the second thought: when we read about how ‘literary’ critics of the ’50s and ‘60s sneered at science fiction as subliterary trash, we have to admit they were right in many cases. Obviously as we know they were most alarmed by the worst cases; if it’s SF, it’s not good, if it’s good, it’s not SF, as the refrain went. But you can understand their point if you go back and look at the more commonplace examples of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, works which were not considered unusual or harshly by readers at the time. (Except by critics like Knight and Blish, as I’ve noted in my summaries of their books, which is precisely what made those critics stand out.)

SINISTER BARRIER, despite its era and style, claims a certain significance in Sf history for its theme and for its popularity at the time. The 1948 Fantasy Press edition that I have – perhaps because the earlier 1939 serial was already well-known – even gives away the premise in the author’s foreword! Which is this: “we’re property.” That is, the human race is owned and manipulated by unseen beings, for their own purposes. And furthermore, virtually every mysterious event you can think of from throughout history – and here Russell draws heavily on the work of Charles Fort – can be explained as machinations of these unseen beings for the purpose of inciting violent emotions in humans, which is what these ethereal energy beings feed upon, or to prevent humans from detecting their existence. It’s the ultimate conspiracy theory SF novel. (A secondary premise of the book is that these energy beings may have cordoned Earth off from extraterrestrial contact, in effect saying “Keep off the grass.”)

The story begins, in the year 2015, with a series of similar incidents in which an eminent scientists abruptly go mad and commit suicide. Bjornsen; Sheridan, Luther, then Mayo, who leaps out of a building, and Webb, who fires futile gun blasts at the wall of his office before collapsing. We eventually gather that they have detected or suspected parts of this unknown control of humanity. But the prose interrupts.

Page 5 (the first page of the novel, about Professor Peder Bjornsen):

Raising his hands, he pushed, pushed futilely at thin air. Those distorted optics of his, still preternaturally cold and hard, yet brilliant with something far beyond fear, followed with dreadful fascination a shapeless, colorless point that crept from window to ceiling. Turning with a tremendous effort, he ran, his mouth open and expelling breath soundlessly.

Page 7b, about Doctor Hans Luther:

Carrying his deceptively plump body at top speed across his laboratory, he raced headlong down the stairs, across the hall.

Deceptively? (And of course the grammar implies the carrying extends to the stairs and hall, despite the first phrase.)

Page 10.8:

Leaving the window open, he searched hastily through the papers littering the dead professor’s desk, found nothing to satisfy his pointless curiosity.

I’d think his curiosity is entirely justified.

Page 26.8:

Wohl refrained from further comment while he concentrated on handling his machine. William Street slid rapidly toward them, its skyscrapers resembling oncoming giants.

The street is moving?

Several times, for example 12.2, we have this said-ism:

’What?’ ejaculated Graham.

Later, page 99b:

Whizzing high over jagged points of the Rockies which speared the red dawn, the pilot levelled off. Graham gaped repeatedly as he suppressed more yawns, stared through the plastiglass with eyes whose utter bleariness failed to conceal their underlying luster.

OK then, this is antique, pulp SF. We already know the premise; how is it played out?

The story gets underway as a banker, Sangster — because his bank has funded Mayo and Webb in their research — assigns one of his men, Bill Graham – in a coincidence typical of pulp fiction, because he witnessed Mayo’s suicide jump – to investigate. Graham teams up with a police investigator, Art Wohl, and the story has them follow lead after lead, at first to find other scientists who’ve committed suicide, then about the strange combination of iodine and other chemicals on their bodies, to an asylum where the author indulges in some speculation about schizophrenics (p37). Graham is promoted to official government Intelligence, which entails him receiving an encoded identity ring. The next lead, about a Professor Beach in Silver City, Idaho, is frustrated by the abrupt destruction of the entire city.

The narrative alternates between car chases (an extraordinary one in Ch2 about two-wheeled gyrocars outmaneuvering old four-wheel ‘jalopies’ on a ‘skyway’ accessed by a corkscrew ramp from the surface, with passengers pressed back and forth sans seatbelts), and gathering evidence that research into expanding the range of human visual perception – the “sinister barrier” of the title – has revealed previously unseen creatures perceptible only via infrared. (This was long before astronomers devised instruments to see IR, UV, etc.).

Page 87-88 in this edition:

The scale of electro-magnetic vibrations extends over sixty octaves, of which the human eye can see but one. Beyond that sinister barrier of our limitations, outside that poor, ineffective range of vision, bossing every man jack of us from the cradle to the grave, invisibly preying on us as ruthlessly as any parasite, are our malicious, all-powerful lords and masters—the creatures who really own the Earth!

(This is the one insight I give this story credit for – the idea that humans do not perceive everything there is to perceive. Cf. E.O. Wilson and many others. [But the conspiracy theories are nonsense.])

Once this discovery is made; what to do? The unseen manipulators, whom someone dubs Vitons, trigger the “Asian races” to start a world war, and much chaos ensues. (Reflecting racist attitudes of his time, Russell seems to think that Asiatic races are especially susceptible to suicidal group thinking – see page 49, with remarks about the Malaysians, the Japanese, the Hindus.) Then follow lots of scenes of bombings and mayhem, from the New York City setting. Later the Vitons abduct victims, rather than simply killing them, and return them to Earth as ‘dupes’ [in a prefiguring of stories like Heinlein’s Puppet Masters and Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers] to kill suspect humans. These Vitons are telepathic, you see, but only over short distances, and they can’t distinguish one human from another, only whether a human has perceived too much and is dangerous to them.

Various experts are gathered to work on weapons to destroy the Vitons, and because of the Viton’s limited range of perception, they work in underground labs. Their progress is statused in passages of technical jargon. This was an era of SF in which it was still possible to appeal to readers’ understanding of optics or chemistry or radio electronics to justify the inventions the author imagines.

P201: “It was the iodine that made the difference. Methylene blue was the catalyst causing fixation of an otherwise degeneratable rectifier. He agreed that mescal served only to stimulate the optic nerves, attuning them to a new vision, but the actual cause was iodine.”

P239: “Here, a worker bent over a true-surfaced peralumin disk and silver-plated it by wire-process metallization. While his electric arc sputtered its rain of minute drops, another worker close by plated another disk with granulated silver by-passed into an exoacetylene flame and thus blast-driven into the preheated surface. Any method would do so long as there was someone capable of doing it with optical accuracy.”

Their efforts succeed, of course. The story ends as a method of destruction of the Vitons is discovered, and the world war evaporates.

Of course we can’t not notice the social attitudes of the era, as reflected in this book. There is a single female character in the book, a Dr. Harmony Curtis, introduced on p22 as the half-sister of the deceased Webb, who is met with leers between Graham and Sangster. Then p24:

Dr. Curtis had a strict, professional air of calm efficiency which Graham liked to ignore. She had also a mop of crisp black curls and a curvaceousness which he liked to admire with frankness she found annoying.

Later, p76, Graham tries to distract himself from Viton detection by thinking of her.

He drew a woman from his memory, let his mind enjoy her picture, the curl of her crisp, black hair, the curve of her hips, the tranquil smile, which occasionally lit her heart-shaped face. Doctor Curtis, of course. Being male, he had no trouble in considering her unprofessionally. She’d no right to expert status anyway; not with a form like that!

No right!

The war over, Graham and Harmony conclude the story. There is a genuine insight here, about a change in the human condition—

“Up there, Harmony, are the stars,” he continued. “There may be people out that way, people of flesh and blood like us, friendly people who’d have visited us long ago but for a Viton ban. Hans Luther believed they’d been warned to keep off the grass. Forbidden, forbidden, forbidden—that was Earth.” He studied her again. “Every worthwhile thing forbidden, to those folk who’d like to come here, and to us who were imprisoned here. Nothing permitted except that which our masters considered profitable to themselves.”

“But not now,” she murmured.

“No, not now. We can emote for ourselves now, and not for others. At last our excitements are our own.”

This echoes any number of conceptual breakthrough events in SF, in which the true nature of reality becomes available.

The final page quickly closes to a budding romance. (The Smith and Gernsback titles I’ve read ended in actual marriage!)

“Has it struck you that in the truest sense we’re now alone?”


“Her face turned toward him, her eyebrows arched.

“Maybe this isn’t the place,” he observed, “but at least it’s the opportunity!” He bent her across his lap, pressed his lip on hers.

She pushed at him, but not too hard. After a while, she changed her mind. Her arm slid around his neck.

The End.

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Links and Comments: Progress; San Francisco Values; Value of Literature

From earlier this month.

New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff: Why 2018 Was the Best Year in Human History!: Once again, the world’s population was living longer and living better than ever before.

Kristof does a version of this column every year.

One reason for this column is that journalism is supposed to inform people about the world, and it turns out that most Americans (and citizens of other countries, too) are spectacularly misinformed.

For example, nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty is worsening or staying the same, when in fact the most important trend in the world is arguably a huge reduction in poverty. Until about the 1950s, a majority of humans had always lived in “extreme poverty,” defined as less than about $2 a person per day. When I was a university student in the early 1980s, 44 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty.

Now, fewer than 10 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, as adjusted for inflation.

Likewise, Americans estimate that 35 percent of the world’s children have been vaccinated. In fact, 86 percent of all 1-year-olds have been vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

I suspect that this misperception reflects in part how we in journalism cover news. We cover wars, massacres and famines but are less focused on progress.

Again – this is partly about how journalism works, but also how human nature works, attentive to exceptions and anecdotes and not to statistical trends. As I’ve said, no matter what paradise or utopia you can imagine, there will always be disputes, conflicts, and outrage (by those easily outraged) led by authoritarian leaders who play on the fear of the proportion of the population (given the range of traits in human nature) given to such fears, which are always relative.


San Francisco Chronicle: S.F. a leader in family values. Online headline: “What are much maligned ‘San Francisco values’? Prioritizing the welfare of families and children.”

Despite conservative rhetoric, cities like San Francisco exemplify family values over the red states – lower divorce rates, lowest teen birth rates (because “red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages and lower averages ages of marriage and first birth”).

Nationwide, there are about 20.3 births per 1,000 adolescents, versus only 7.4 per 1,000 in San Francisco.

Many more examples.

Family values are core Democratic values, and in no major American city are they more cherished, and not just preached but actually practiced, than in San Francisco.


This was the final article in the Dec 24/31 issue of Time Magazine, by novelist Jennifer Egan: We Need Writers Now More Than Ever. Our Democracy Depends On It (the print title was “Facts Still Exist”). It concerns fake news, of course, but also the role literature can play.

Literature is an antidote to the blunt distortions—good vs. evil, us vs. them—that are so easily exploited by those who would manipulate us. … Writers tend to fare badly under autocrats. Dictators understand very well that the strength of thought and analysis that literature embodies is a threat to the mind control that is an essential feature of tyranny. In countries like China, Russia, Turkey, Myanmar and Bangladesh, writers are routinely jailed or killed for creating work their governments find threatening. For American writers, the reality of such scrutiny and peril can be hard to fathom. We need to write now, write well—tell the truth in all its messy complexity. It’s our best shot at helping to preserve a democracy in which facts still exist and all of us can speak freely.

Posted in Culture, Human Progress | Leave a comment


This is the lightest Stephen Hawking book you are likely to read. Published posthumously, it’s a set of reminiscences on 10 big questions compiled and edited from various speeches, interviews, and essays in Hawking’s personal archives, “completed in collaboration with his academic colleagues, his family and the Stephen Hawking Estate.” Thus they are not refined essays, they are occasionally redundant and repetitious, and they sometimes fail to provide direct answers to the questions in the chapter titles.

Still a few highlights:

1, Is there a God?

He discusses Aristarchus and the laws of nature. p28.6: Most people think of God as “a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human is in it, that seems most implausible.”

The universe needs just three ingredients: matter, energy, and space. Where did they come from? Einstein’s insights led to the idea of the Big Bang. What caused that? Did God cause the universe to come into existence? No; nothing caused it; before the BB, time didn’t exist; there was no time for a Creator to have brought the universe into existence; it’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth. [That time began, so to speak, with the Big Bang was a key lesson in Hawking’s famous book A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME. Furthermore, his remark there about knowing “the mind of God” was just a metaphor for understanding the laws of physics. Really.]

Hawking’s view is that no one created the universe; there is no heaven, no afterlife. These things are wishful thinking. We live on in our children, perhaps.

2, How Did It All Begin?

He discusses creation myths; Aristotle; Kant, who thought time was absolute. Only in the past century have we realized that the universe changes with time. And it cannot be infinite, or the sky would not be dark. The universe had a beginning, but not a few thousand years ago. We perceived the expansion; the steady-state theory was abandoned. Soviet theories of a bouncing universe supported their ideology; but they were proven wrong. In ’65 came evidence, the background radiation. Einstein’s was a ‘classical’ theorem, and clashed with observed uncertainty, and the conclusion that there are many possible histories. The anthropic principle ‘explains’ why some universal constants are the way they are, because if they were different, we wouldn’t be here to think about it. M-theory is currently the best candidate for a unified theory. It entails 11 dimensions, but only three in space—because otherwise we would not be here. Later satellite evidence of the cosmic microwave sky showed predictions of inflation. Will the universe end? It depends on the amount of matter, which may bring about a ‘big crunch’.

3, Is There Other Intelligent Life in the Universe?

Is there intelligent life on Earth, he asks. Notes how the evolution of the universe required time to bring about heavier elements. Given the age of life on Earth, it happened in about 1/14th of the time available, p75t. It took time for RNA, DNA; humans have entered a new phase, just in the past 10,000 years, and especially the past 300. We’ve reached the limits of knowledge: no one can absorb it all, p80t. we are now entering a phase in which we can self-design, with perhaps two kinds of humans [cf a theme in Harari’s books].

Have we been visited? Author prefers idea that intelligent life is out there, and we’ve just been overlooked. With cautions about sending out messages.

4, Can We Predict the Future?

Early science dealt in determinism, until the advent of QM. Prediction is stymied by complexity and chaos. Then Planck’s quanta, particle spin, Heisenberg uncertainty. Einstein wondered about hidden variables, but was wrong. We can predict combinations of position and speed—though perhaps not in a black hole.

Short answer: no

5, What is Inside a Black Hole?

The idea of escape velocity was developed in 1783, and later the idea of collapsed stars from which nothing could escape, and the idea of a singularity. In 1963 quasars were discovered, whose energy was evidently gravitational collapse, 105t. Penrose, Wheeler. A black hole at the center of the galaxy. Hawking’s area theorem. Is information lost? Unsolved. The information paradox remains unresolved.

6, Is Time Travel Possible?

Discussion of geometry and measuring the curvature of space, its warp. Into the future, OK. Otherwise paradoxes arise. A ‘consistent solution’ would avoid the grand-father paradox. Or there might be alternative histories, an idea championed by David Deutsch. Or the Chronology Protection Conjecture: that the laws of physics conspire by prevent time travel on a mascroscopic scale, p140.

7, Will we survive on Earth?

Discusses the atomic clock; the many things that threaten the Earth—limited resources, global warming, nuclear war. Some catastrophe will likely cripple the planet within 1000 years. Notes that most depictions of the future (e.g. Star Trek) are of a perfected state where things aren’t still changing, but author finds this unrealistic. We will explore the complexities of our bodies and redesign humanity.

8, Should we colonise space?

Yes, despite the difficulties and challenges. One method is ‘Breakthrough Starshot’ whereby many tiny probes are sent out into space. It could detect a planet around Alpha Centauri within a few decades.

9, Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?

“Our universe has now awoken, becoming aware of itself. I regard it a triumph that we, who are ourselves mere stardust, have come to such a detailed understanding of the universe in which we live.” P183b. If there is no significant difference in how a biological brain and a computer brain works, then computers will eventually overtake us. P195: “Intelligence is characterized as the ability to adapt to change. Human intelligence is the result of generations of natural selection of those with the ability to adapt to changed circumstances. We must not fear change. We need to make it work to our advantage.”

P196: “Our future is a race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which we use it.”

10, How do we shape the future?

“Einstein had the ability to look beyond the surface to reveal the underlying structure. He was undaunted by common sense, the idea that things must be the way they seemed.” Imagination, the need to understand how things work, good teachers. We are now retrogressing, “witnessing a global revolt against experts, which includes scientists.” What can we do? Today’s students will need to rely on science and technology more than ever before. The earth is becoming too small; we can move out into space. The rise of AI could be the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity. People need to be scientfically literate to handle these challenges. Be curious, unleash your imagination.

Posted in Politics, Science | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: World Getting Better; Choosing What to Believe; Questions for Atheists; Mathematical Ideas; Trumpian Cruelty

Vox: 23 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better. From 2014, but updated this month. These data echo the theme of Steven Pinker’s recent books.

File under: human progress, despite conservative paranoia and fears


Slate: How Trump Chooses What to Believe, subtitled “He trusts dictators but not climate scientists. Here’s how he justifies it.”

Noted, among the many many condemnations of fearless leader, because of its allusion to that Thomas Gilovich book, HOW WE KNOW WHAT ISN’T SO: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life.

The essay by William Saletan explains,

To understand Trump, you have to start with a distinction drawn by psychologist Thomas Gilovich in his book, How We Know What Isn’t So. Gilovich explains that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves whether, despite contrary evidence, we can believe it. When we don’t want to believe something, we ask whether, despite supporting evidence, we must believe it. Each of us sometimes cheats this way, alternating between the two standards. But Trump cheats constantly and spectacularly.

So: does he have to believe climate scientists? No; he can thinks of reasons. Does he want to believe denials by Russians and Iranians? Yes, so he does.


Alternet: ‘How Can You Be Moral?’: Here Are 9 Questions You Don’t Need to Ask an Atheist — And Their Answers.

Handy guide for those who ask naive questions to those who don’t share their religious convictions. How can you be moral without believing in God? The same way everyone believes killing and stealing are wrong, with having to consult a holy book to check. (If you have to check your list of commandments to know right from wrong, you’re seriously deficient.)


Aeon: Mathematics as thought, subtitled “Mathematical ideas are some of the most transformative and beautiful in history. So why do they get so little attention?”

Bookmarking this to consult, later perhaps; long. There are all sorts of philosophical issues surrounding the relationship between mathematics and reality. Math is hard; it’s slow thinking, which most people aren’t good at. I’ve always thought that a sign of truly advanced intelligence (e.g. by some alien species) would be the ability to perceive deep mathematical truths as obvious.


The Atlantic: The Cruelty Is the Point, subtitled “President Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear.”

The conservative mindset, enabled by Trump.

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

Posted in Atheism, Conservative Resistance, Human Progress, Mathematics, Psychology | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Unread Books; Psychology and Logic; GOP Paranoia; Political Extremes

From recent weeks’ NYT.

Essay by Kevin Mims: All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read? There’s a Word for That. The print title, October 14, was “The Importance of Unread Books” subtitled “Why a personal library should include books you’ll never get around to finishing.”

He cites Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan:

Taleb argues that a personal library “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

The writer prefers “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read”, but also considers those books, like reference works, that one consults but never truly finishes.

In my own case, I have given into exigencies of life and circumstance to cull my collection of books, several times over the years — and I’ve always regretted it. It always turns out there is some book I discover an interest in looking at, a book I had but sold off. At least these days — unlike a couple decades ago — it is relatively easy to find and re-acquire virtually any book, via the internet. As I’ve done several times for books I once had…

Ivory Tower essay, published Sept. 30: Unpublished and Untenured, a Philosopher Inspired a Cult Following.

Whose book is Thinking and Being, summarizing ideas culled over decades.

…In other words, the distinction between psychology and logic collapses. Logic is not a set of rules for how to think; it is how we think, just not in a way that can be captured in conventional scientific terms. Thinking emerges as a unique and peculiar activity, something that is part of the natural world, but which cannot be understood in the manner of other events in the natural world. Indeed, Kimhi sees his book, in large part, as lamenting “the different ways in which philosophers have failed to acknowledge — or even denied — the uniqueness of thinking.”

I’m not sure I’d go this far, but an essential facet of my learning and thinking in the past decade or so is how the human mind perceives reality on its own terms, and not necessarily through logic or any perception of actual reality.


Published Oct 9th: Paul Krugman: The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics, subtitled “Republicans are an authoritarian regime in waiting”.

It’s impossible to keep up with all the blisteringly obvious condemnations of everything our despicable president says and does every day — and the observations of his fans, who cheer his every travesty — but this Krugman column strikes a deeper chord that perhaps helps understand it.

(We’re living in history. Not in a good way.)

What’s going on here? At one level, this isn’t new. Conspiracy theorizing has been a part of American politics from the beginning. Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” back in 1964 and cited examples running back to the 18th century. Segregationists fighting civil rights routinely blamed “outside agitators” — especially northern Jews — for African-American protests.


In contrast, fellow NYT columnist David Brooks keeps searching for answers, in a pop-psychology way. From Oct. 16th: The Rich White Civil War, subtitled “A smarter look at America’s divide.”

He considers the two extremes of a research report about voters, on a scale of seven; the extremes are “Progressive Activists” on the left and “Devoted Conservatives” on the right, 8% and 6% of the population respectively.

Devoted Conservatives subscribe to a Hobbesian narrative. It’s a dangerous world. Life is nasty, brutish and short. We need strict values and strong authority to keep us safe.

Progressive Activists, on the other hand, subscribe to a darkened Rousseauian worldview. People may be inherently good, but the hierarchical structures of society are awful. The structures of inequality and oppression have to be dismantled.

These narratives are familiar from works by Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker; Pinker’s view of history is that progress, in terms of the reduction of violence and the expansion of health and happiness, is the result of progressives, not conservatives. At this point in the American narrative, therefore, we would be in a (temporary) period of regression, driven by a demagogue who taps into the fears that always reside in a portion of the population, amplified by changes in society that is increasingly multicultural.

Brooks notes,

Roughly two-thirds of Americans, across four political types, fall into what the authors call “the exhausted majority.” Sixty-one percent say people they agree with need to listen and compromise more. Eighty percent say political correctness is a problem, and 82 percent say the same about hate speech.
Unfortunately, people in the exhausted majority have no narrative. They have no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action. When they get one I suspect it will look totally unlike the two dominant narratives today. These narratives are threat narratives. But the people who make positive change usually focus on gifts, not deficits. They tell stories about the assets we have and how we can use them together.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Politics, Psychology | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Psychology and Economics; SF and Fantasy

Several items from Sunday’s NYT.

First a review of a new book by Steven Johnson, FARSIGHTED: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most; the review is by Adam Grant: How Do We Make the Long-Term Decisions That Matter?.

The reviewer notes the popularity of the science of decision-making, in books by Thaler, Kahneman, and Gladwell; but this book isn’t about snap decisions, but about long-range ones, the ones that shape our futures. A couple interesting points:

What are the habits of people who excel at long-term thinking? One of Johnson’s thought-provoking points is that they read novels, which are ideal exercises in mental time travel and empathy. I think he’s right.

And his conclusion:

Since you’ll never have enough information to make the best choice, all you can do is make the best of the choice you’ve made.

Yet maybe that’s the point. As a species, we’re wired to be nearsighted. Flipping to farsighted requires peering into a crystal ball. Your vision will always be blurry. But there’s no better corrective lens than a clear diagnosis of just how myopic you are. If you want to improve at predicting the future, start by recognizing how unpredictable it is.


In the Sunday Review section, a “Gray Matter” essay by David Gal, asking Why Is Behavioral Economics So Popular?.

Mentioning Michael Lewis and David Kahneman and Richard Thaler.

What is behavioral economics, and why has it become so popular? The field has been described by Richard Thaler, one of its founders, as “economics done with strong injections of good psychology.” Proponents view it as a way to make economics more accurate by incorporating more realistic assumptions about how humans behave.

Yet this triumph has come at a cost. In order to appeal to other economists, behavioral economists are too often concerned with describing how human behavior deviates from the assumptions of standard economic models, rather than with understanding why people behave the way they do.

And yet these themes of psychology, not only about behavioral economics, are a recurrent theme in many, many recent books, whether about the current state of American politics, or how to understand ancient wisdom in light of recent scientific discoveries. (To describe my recent reading.)


On another theme. The Book Review’s “By the Book” page this week features Andre Dubus III. A standard question in these Q&As is about which genres one enjoys, or avoids. Dubus:

I’m not proud of writing this, but I do avoid nearly all forms of fantasy. That’s not to imply that there are not great works out there in that form, only that I tend to lose interest just as soon as magic of any kind enters a story, for this strikes me as escapist, as a denial of the mortal hand we’ve all been dealt, and I prefer to read those works that confront our reality and limitations and thwarted longings head on.

I am increasingly sympathetic to this attitude; I’m impatient with fantasy because it indulges human illusions, whereas the best of science fiction tries to see around them and understand the real universe as it is, or might be.

And so I notice that the monthly SF/Fantasy book review page, lately by Amal El-Mohtar, is titled The Best New Fantasy Novels, and is all about fantasy novels. None of which I’m inclined to read.

Posted in Economics, Psychology, science fiction | Leave a comment

Trump and Kavanaugh, Conservatives and Tribal Politics

It’s not so much about fundamental disagreements between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, (let alone the simplistic take about good vs. evil), as about social reaction to change… the changing demographic of the United States, and the inevitable expansion of the US into global society and politics. You can fight it, but it won’t stop happening. And the ones who most resent this kind of change are, by definition, conservatives.

There’s speculation about how this could happen, how those who view Trump as despicable on so many counts need to ‘understand’ those who support him. That’s not going to happen.

Paul Krugman in Tuesday’s NYT: The Angry White Male Caucus, subtitle “Trumpism is all about the fear of losing traditional privilege.”

When Matt Damon did his Brett Kavanaugh imitation on “Saturday Night Live,” you could tell that he nailed it before he said a word. It was all about the face — that sneering, rage-filled scowl. Kavanaugh didn’t sound like a judge at his Senate hearing last week, let alone a potential Supreme Court justice; he didn’t even manage to look like one.


A brilliant post by Adam-Troy Castro, on Facebook:

Another anguished post from a Trump supporter: “Why do liberals think Trump supporters are stupid?”

The serious answer.

Very long post, ending with:

That you have witnessed all the thousand and one other manifestations of corruption and low moral character and outright animalistic rudeness and contempt for you, the working American voter, and you still show up grinning and wearing your MAGA hats and threatening to beat up anybody who says otherwise.

What you don’t get, Trump supporters in 2018, is that succumbing to frustration and thinking of you as stupid may be wrong and unhelpful, but it’s also…hear me…charitable.

Because if you’re NOT stupid, we must turn to other explanations, and most of them are *less* flattering.

And here’s Thomas L. Friedman in Wednesday’s NYT: The American Civil War, Part II: The nation is deeply divided, with each side seeing the other as “the enemy.”

Bottom line:

It would be easy to blame both sides equally for this shift, noted Ornstein, but it is just not true. After the end of the Cold War, he said, “tribal politics were introduced by Newt Gingrich when he came to Congress 40 years ago,” and then perfected by Mitch McConnell during the Barack Obama presidency, when McConnell declared his intention to use his G.O.P. Senate caucus to make Obama fail as a strategy for getting Republicans back in power.

They did this even though that meant scuttling Obama’s health care plan, which was based on Republican ideas, and even though that meant scuttling long-held G.O.P. principles — like fiscal discipline, a strong Atlantic alliance, distrust of Russian intentions and a balanced approach to immigration — to attract Trump’s base.

That was cheating. What McConnell did broke something very big. Now Democrats will surely be tempted to do the same when they get the power to do so, and that is how a great system of government, built on constitutional checks and balances, strong institutions and basic norms of decency, unravels.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Politics | Leave a comment