NY Times, Dennis Overbye: The Flip Side of Optimism About Life on Other Planets. (The print version was titled “A Case for Why We’re Alone”.)
A consideration of the “Fermi paradox”: why, if by reasonable estimates there are likely millions of other intelligent species in our own galaxy alone, we’ve not seen any evidence of them. The angle of the piece is the take of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who thinks detection of any kind of life outside the Earth would be a “crushing blow”.
There must be something, he concludes, that either stops life from starting at all, or shuts it down before it can conquer the stars. He calls it the Great Filter.
You can imagine all kinds of bottlenecks in the evolution of life and civilization — from the need for atoms to first combine into strands of RNA, the genetic molecule that plays Robin to DNA’s Batman, to nuclear war, climate change or a mishap of genetic engineering — that could constitute a Great Filter.
The big question for Professor Bostrom is whether the Great Filter is in our past or our future, and for the answer he looks to the stars. If there is nothing else out there, then maybe we have survived whatever it is. As bizarre as it sounds, we are the first ones in the neighborhood to have run the cosmic obstacle course.
If there is company out there, it means the Great Filter is ahead of us. We are doomed.
This is a staggeringly existential piece of knowledge to have obtained at what seems to be a tender age as a species, based on a cursory examination of a sliver of our cosmic neighborhood. It is also a truly brave exercise of the power of human reason.
Not sure I’ll read this, but this book, which just won a Mythopoeic Award, has a description that seems relevant to my PvC that fantasy, being the modern equivalent of myth-making, is about the subjective understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, as is religion; while science fiction is about the *attempt* to objectively understand humanity’s place in the universe, as is science. (Thus, I reject the occasional claim the SF is a subdivision of fantasy, just because they both deal with things that aren’t literally real.)
Amazon: Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth, by Brian Attebery.
The publisher’s description:
Myth is oral, collective, sacred, and timeless. Fantasy is a modern literary mode and a popular entertainment. Yet the two have always been inextricably intertwined. Stories about Stories examines fantasy as an arena in which different ways of understanding myth compete and new relationships with myth are worked out. The book offers a comprehensive history of the modern fantastic as well as an argument about its nature and importance. Specific chapters cover the origins of fantasy in the Romantic search for localized myths, fantasy versions of the Modernist turn toward the primitive, the post-Tolkienian exploration of world mythologies, post-colonial reactions to the exploitation of indigenous sacred narratives by Western writers, fantasies based in Christian belief alongside fundamentalist attempts to stamp out the form, and the emergence of ever-more sophisticated structures such as metafiction through which to explore mythic constructions of reality.
Slate reviews another book that sounds fascinating, and which I may or may not read. (Life is short.)
This is about A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design by Frank Wilczek (a Nobel Prize winner in physics, for what that’s worth).
History books reveal that humans have always built their civilizations around two things: an obsessive desire for beauty and an analytical quest for truth. It’s a classic tale—the artist and the scientist, two halves of society. Wilczek tries to marry the two, arguing that they are one and the same: A search for the scientific is a hunger for the beautiful. Beauty is order, and order is beauty. His argument isn’t spiritual, but based on fact—as an agnostic, the author steers well clear of religion, and the result is a bracing meditation that leans convincingly on hard science.
PvC support: BBC: Bangladesh blogger Niloy Neel hacked to death in Dhaka. This is the fourth murder of a secularist blogger in the past year, in Muslim Bangladesh. Center for Inquiry responds here.
One political post for today (I’m saving up others): Mike Huckabee loves science, as long as he can make it up in support of his predefined worldview.
The writer comments,
I have a PhD in neuroscience and have never heard the term ‘DNA schedule’ before. This appears to be a concept that Huckabee — who has a degree in religion — has invented.