Category: Science

We Can Still Learn From Vern

Vernon Ehlers – candidate photo

Former Michigan Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, the first PhD physicist in the House of Representatives and the only one so far from the Republican party, died on August 15 at the age of eighty-three. His tenure in Congress (from 1993 to 2010) capped off a most impressive career as a scientist (specializing in studies of the nuclei of alkaline and post-transition metals), educator and science adviser to Gerald Ford while the future President held the same Congressional seat that Ehlers would later occupy. While in office, Ehlers continually brought his scientific expertise to bear on a variety of issues and functions: he wrote-up the most significant study and proclamation on the American scientific research program since Vannevar Bush, helped to wire Congress to the Internet, and was a reliable go-to information source for Republicans and Democrats alike on issues ranging from global warming to nuclear weapons control. He never forgot his constituency in Grand Rapids either, and was responsible for legislation that helped clean up the Great Lakes and control the influx of Asian carp and other invasive species into the ecosystem. Even when the partisan divide in Congress threatened to become a chasm, the soft-spoken Ehlers remained a role model for his colleagues, the epitome of civil dialogue and ethical speech. Someone who is at once both a gentleman and a gentle man is a rare creature indeed, and we need more politicians with both the professional attitude and professional expertise Ehlers embodied.

Initial reports of Ehlers’s passing did not list a cause of death, but later articles indicated he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That’s an especially tragic way to go for someone known for his great intellect, but even before then, I suspected he had died from a broken heart as a result of seeing what had happened to the Republican party. Not because the party had moved too far to the right. Nearly all the obituaries called him a moderate and true, he didn’t always vote along party lines, but that’s to be expected when one follows the scientific method in politics as well as at work. He was a deeply Midwestern brand of conservative that tends towards moderate views anyways and some of his more notable breaks with his party (such as his votes for the DREAM act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) probably derived more from his committed Christian faith that encouraged tolerance and compassion. Nor was it the election of Donald Trump and the new incivility that he represents; after all, he was one of Newt Gingrich’s greatest allies while the then-Speaker of the House was being (unfairly) vilified as an incendiary bomb thrower by the media. I suspect instead that he was heartbroken from how the Republican party has seemingly lost its way on science.

It is not surprising that Ehlers worked so closely with Gingrich when one considers that Newt was one of science’s greatest champions in the House, and also frequently went against the supposed party line on environmental issues. Unfortunately since the retirement of both Ehlers and Gingrich from the House, the Republican party has not found someone to replace them, either a professional PhD scientist or someone demonstrably scientifically literate who will work to inform and educate both members of the party and those on the other side of the political aisle. It is a tragedy then that the Republican party has not only ceded science to the Left, but have permitted it to weaponize the rhetoric of science against them, as embodied in the so-called “March for Science”. Alas, the marchers had a valid point: too many Republicans (including the current Commander-in-Chief) have taken what can fairly be called anti-science positions, either in refusing to concede verified scientific facts and take expert advice seriously (the most obvious examples being the embrace of creationism and the knee-jerk rejection of the consensus view on global warming) or in efforts to slash basic scientific research from the budget despite the obvious benefits and payoffs (A recent article on The Federalist has tried to argue otherwise, but I did not find it persuasive. You are only able to read this on the Internet thanks to public investment in high-energy physics). It is a sad commentary on where we are now that someone can be sneeringly designated a “RINO” simply for acknowledging that both evolution and global warming are true and asserting that public policy needs to be based on scientific fact. Worse yet, our leading science popularizers seem intent on exacerbating this problem; instead of working to persuade and inform, they rely on personal attack and ridicule to further dissuade those they need to reach out to the most. How can they claim that “Science is for Everyone” when they aim to exclude at least a third of the public?

Is there a Republican scientist (more specifically, a Republican physicist) out there who will continue Ehlers’s legacy of both defending science as a public speaker and by serving in office with equal effectiveness? The most obvious heir to Ehler’s throne would be Illinois State Representative Mike Fortner. He is not only a first-rate physicist (as a member of the DZero team at Fermilab, he helped to discover the top quark and continued to be an important collaborator on major experiments even while in office) but has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most civil and congenial politicians in the state. Like Ehlers, he is known to have an overall conservative voting record but to also cross party lines occasionally (most significantly being one of a handful of Republicans to vote to override governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of an income tax increase), and is also a hawk on environmental issues, so much so that he has become the rare Republican to be endorsed by the Sierra Club. Furthermore, he has gained a degree of national attention for his work on fair redistricting, using his scientific knowledge and training to help solve complex political problems. Unfortunately, he has just announced his retirement from his State seat at the end of this term, and has not given any indication of plans to run for national office. Further out west, Arizona’s Ruth McClung very nearly became the first woman physicist in Congress (and a genuine rocket scientist, at that!) when she ran in 2010, but has similarly not yet made the decision to run again. That’s a genuine shame as McClung, a Tea Party activist who was just twenty-eight years old when she ran for office, would have not just brought considerable expertise to discussions of such issues as national defense and space research but served as an obvious role model on many different levels.

But it is in California that we see the remarkable phenomenon of not one but two scientists taking a prominent role in the Republican Party and in keeping the conservative movement alive in what has very nearly become a one-party state. Charles Munger Jr. is of course the son of the famous philanthropist but has also had a distinguished career as a physicist at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where he was part of the team that figured out how to produce the first lab-made antimatter atoms. He has also been one of the most visible figures in the state Republican party, funding campaigns for viable candidates and ballot propositions to stem the rapid tide of “progressive” legislation in the state. One of his closest allies is Sam Blakeslee, a former geophysicist and state senator who is now director of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic State University. However they have also remained dedicated to state and local-level politics instead of trying to engage with conservatives all across the country. Clearly, a national figure within the Republican party who will help to both defend science from ill-thought out attacks from misguided compatriots as well as to explain basic scientific facts to them has yet to emerge, yet is especially-desperately-needed at this time.

A week after Ehlers’s death, The Detroit News published a moving editorial on how voters and politicians of both parties can learn from Ehlers’s example if they really want to to “return civility and reasoned governing” to the political process. Republican politicians and conservative voters can especially learn from his example by making the effort to be as scientifically literate and informed as possible. In particular, conservative scientists need to speak up, and make their voices heard in political debate, not just to increase the diversity of voices but to specifically provide a voice that can reduce misconceptions and misrepresentations from all sides. Additionally, those who have taken up the task of communicating science can also learn from Ehlers on how to address and engage politically and socially conservative audiences, and to learn to listen to their concerns as much as they hope they will listen to their advice. If they are genuinely concerned about science in this country and actually want to see policies based on facts and evidence instead of mere rhetoric, then they will have to make a sincere effort to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle. All the same, it is up to the Republican party itself as well as unaffiliated conservatives and libertarians to learn to listen more carefully to scientists and be more receptive to the concerns of the scientific community. As Jon Huntsman has long maintained, the last thing they should do is let themselves be seen as the anti-science party.

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield


The first few years of the Millennium were dark ones for fans of hard science fiction. In 2001, Poul Anderson died, followed a few months later by his frequent collaborator Gordon Dickson. Then in 2003, Hal Clement, who did more than any other writer to develop hard science fiction as an identifiable sub-genre by introducing a new degree of scientific rigor in writing and helped make world-building an art form, also passed away. Between these two massive losses came possibly the most tragic of them all, as physicist and writer Charles Sheffield lost a brief but brave battle with an aggressive brain tumor in 2002. Although he had begun writing quite late in life, Sheffield had nonetheless quickly developed a reputation as one of hard science fiction’s finest practitioners, a prolific and versatile writer whose diverse stories and series combined, as Spider Robinson (who would name the spaceship in his Heinlein paste-up Variable Star after his late colleague and friend) said, “the scientific grounding of Clarke, the storytelling skills of a Heinlein, the dry wit of a Pohl or Kornbluth, and the universe-building prowess of a Niven.” I would also add that he possessed Gregory Benford’s skill at realistic and believable depictions of scientists and science at work…even as practiced many centuries from now. As wondrous and exciting as his many novels and short stories were, there was still the feeling that the best was yet to come; alas, as had been the case with Stanley Weinbaum three quarters of a century earlier, the cruelties of cancer once again stole us of a promise yet to be fulfilled, and we can only surmise as to what might have been.

Although one would surmise based on the main topic of this series of essays that I would analyze Sheffield’s novel Godspeed, I have decided instead to look at the stories that make up the shared-universe collection One Man’s Universe. For obvious reasons, I am quite fond of the book’s hero, Scottish scientific genius of the far future Arthur Morton McAndrew, described as the greatest physicist since Newton and Einstein, and the first in many a century to be both a brilliant experimenter and theorist alike. A comparison of Sheffield’s depiction of scientists and their work in these stories with those by Gregory Benford demonstrates the wide variety of approaches a hard science fiction writer can take with their material. Whereas Benford is primarily an experimental physicist by profession who does theoretical work as well as fiction writing on the side, * Sheffield was a theoretical physicist whose day job as a Chief Scientist for the Earth Satellite Corporation put him in the position of adviser on a variety of experimental work. There is a profound difference in the worlds of the theoretician and experimentalist in physics, although they both require each other in order to succeed, a fact that is reflected in the science fiction of both authors. Benford’s science fiction is based primarily in speculations and extrapolations on the nature of the universe derived from discoveries made through experimental work and observation; Sheffield, on the other hand, specialized in literal “thought experiments” that dealt with how we might credibly test our more extravagant theories and speculations and what applications might be derived from them. The scientific method continues to hold strong in Sheffield’s universe as his scientists continue to push and explore its boundaries, following Clarke’s Second Law to the letter.

Sheffield was frequently compared to Arthur C. Clarke as a master of hard science fiction that was also exciting and accessible, and the comparison I think is particularly apt, since Sheffield’s literary voice was also the most American-sounding for a British SF writer since that of Clarke himself, or maybe Eric Frank Russell. He was a writer for whom the New Wave that originated in his home country had  seemingly totally passed by, favoring instead to hark back to the American pulps and paperbacks of yore. Even as hard SF itself was given a distinct British voice in the Eighties and Nineties by such writers as Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds who owed more to an earlier generation of British SF writers that included Brian Aldiss and Ian Watson than American scribes, Sheffield, already a longtime resident of the United States by the time he began writing, worked firmly in the Analog tradition, demonstrating the strong influence of Asimov and Heinlein as well as Clarke in his prose style and plots. Interestingly enough, Sheffield himself stated, in his contribution to Yojo Kondo’s Requiem, that he had always thought of Heinlein as an archetypical British writer. Science fiction, like science itself, speaks a lingua franca understood and appreciated all over the world.

The warp-drive ship featured in the McAndrew Chronicles (also the original published title of One Man’s Universe), is very different from the ramjet in Anderson’s Tau Zero or Benford’s “Relativistic Effects,” but is no less based in solid science. The McAndrew Balanced Drive, as it is called, consists of a simple disc of curved, super-dense matter in front providing gravitational acceleration according to the rules of the equivalence principle in general relativity, propelled by an engine that taps the energy of the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Of course, as Sheffield takes care to point out in his explanatory notes, despite the actual science involved, it is still fiction, and there are problems that would arise with such a mechanism in the real world. Besides the fact that we still cannot produce stable masses sufficiently dense for the purposes of such a drive, there would still be the matter of tidal effects upon its passengers and cargo, and the energies of the vacuum, despite being a very real consequence of quantum electrodynamics, not only remain untapped, but may very well be forever inaccessible for any useful purpose. Nonetheless, hard science fiction does not need to restrict itself to only that which is probable; the improbable but possible according to physical laws is very much part of the genre as well. There may never be a McAndrew Balanced Drive in the real world, but it still works as science fiction because Sheffield went through the effort to demonstrate how such a device could conceivably work according to known physical laws. As if that were not enough, he provides some more detailed but no less elegantly-written explanations at the end of the book on the scientific basis for each individual story. Hard science fiction is as much a form of rhetoric as it is narrative, an attempt at argument as well as entertainment, one that tries to persuade the reader that its speculations are within the scope of both possibility and probability through appeals to scientific fact.

Although each Chronicle can be read and enjoyed in any order, I still recommend reading them in sequence, as not only do the stories build upon one another, but the science in each Chronicle builds upon that featured in the one that immediately precedes it. The McAndrew Drive may not be introduced until the Second Chronicle entitled “Moment of Inertia”, but not only is it featured in each successive one, but the scientific basis is already laid down in the First Chronicle, “Killing Vector” with the discussion of Kerr-Newman black holes, which McAndrew has figured out how to artificially create and contain in miniature forms called “Kernels” (not unlike the quantum black holes in Larry Niven’s “The Hole Man,” itself another exceptional portrayal of future scientists at work). The Drive leads to the topic of vacuum-point energy that figures in the third chronicle, “All the Colors of the Vacuum,” and its ability to travel great distances permits the exploration of the Oort Cloud in “Manna Hunt”. As the ship ventures beyond the gravitational halo of our own Solar System, this results in dark matter and the Big Bang Theory being the scientific focus of “Shadow World,” a culmination of the exposition on relativity and cosmology in the all the preceding Chronicles. Discussing the origins and unsolved mysteries of the universe necessitates a broader discussion of how science understands the laws governing its known workings, which is what “The Invariants of Nature” is all about, and “Rogueworld” brings all the key scientific themes together in its highly speculative ring of black holes and rogue planets, wandering through the universe. A key theme in the book is that not only is the scientific method the best means of learning and problem-solving we have, but that knowledge itself is not created within a vacuum but builds upon that which is previously known, (the principle of “radical conservatism” put forth by the great physicist John A. Wheeler), gradually culminating until an endpoint arrives where we can properly assume that we have a theory that explains it all. If Sheffield the Experimenter used the individual Chronicles to test speculations about the universe, Sheffield the Theorist puts them all together to demonstrate for his readers how science actually works. It is often mistakenly assumed that the purpose of science fiction is to make predictions, but that is actually the function of scientific theories themselves; science fiction just takes those predictions and makes them accessible to the layperson. And just as in science, a theory only emerges after individual predictions have been tested and found to be themselves invariant in all frames of reference, it is only after reading the book in its entirety that one can truly discern the themes across each individual story.

As I write this, scientists everywhere are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s papers that laid out the Theory of General Relativity, and science fiction writers should be celebrating it as well; more than any other scientific discovery it has permitted the genre to go beyond Wells and Verne and expand its speculative horizons. Sheffield, Anderson and Benford are just three of the writers who have been able to use it to craft works of literature as well as entertainment, and even if the field is currently mired in literary faddishness (a polite way of saying bad writing) and under the yoke of far-left identity politics, the advances in scientific knowledge will continue enrich the possibilities for writers as surely they enrich our own lives as well.

*As Dr. Benford has politely corrected us below, he is actually primarily a theorist although he has done moonlighting as an experimenter on the side. However, we have left the paragraph unchanged as not only as the points about the differences between his work and Sheffield’s remains valid, but it helps illustrate how theory and experiment influence the writing of SF.

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford

Gregory Benford and Relativistic Effects




I once attended a talk given by renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose where he described binary pulsars as the most beautiful objects in the universe, as they fulfill every prediction made by the Theory of Relativity. Similarly, the stories of Gregory Benford are among the most beautifully written in science fiction, not just because of their prose but how they illuminate the laws and hidden facets of the universe. As a physicist himself, much of Benford’s science fiction is distinguished by both his keen observations of the lives of scientists and his finely detailed depictions of them at work, and his ability to vividly convey the sort of cognitive and sensory impressions that are part of their experiences. He is able to chart vast vistas across space and time, as with his Galactic Center series, but even when he stays Earthbound, as with Timescape and Cosm, which are probably the genre’s best depictions of actual science at work, the entire fabric of the cosmos becomes essential to the story as it is revealed to both the protagonists and the reader. If there is a single passage that best sums up Benford’s fiction, it probably comes late in Against Infinity, when the now-grown up protagonist contemplates the fragment of the Aleph (the mysterious alien object that has wrecked havoc on humanity’s Ganymede colonies) as another character explains what the object means to their understanding of the basic laws and forces of nature.

What’s even more remarkable is that even Benford’s short stories are able to encompass the totality of the universe, its laws and languages, its mechanisms and mysteries, with the same simple beauty and elegance that a scientific equation manages to perfectly express in mathematical form. Following Hemingway’s dictum that you write what you know about, much of Benford’s  fiction derives from his own work as a scientist in the fields of experimental astrophysics and plasma physics, and his short story “Relativistic Effects” (reprinted in the collection In Alien Flesh) is one of the best examples of this. Inspired by a paper he had read on plasma jets in stars, he set about imagining what it would like to perceive such phenomena from the outside looking in; the finished story, as he admitted, wound up being an unconscious homage to Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (which we just discussed; you did read it, right?). Although there are certainly similarities between the writing styles of Benford and Anderson, there are also crucial differences. Most notably, Anderson, despite a poetic writing style that transcended the genre’s pulp origins, was firmly a member of science fiction’s “Old Guard” standing in defense of its literary traditions. Benford, on the other hand, belonged to a younger generation of fans who grew up first with Heinlein’s juveniles, and whose adult entry into the genre was not with Astounding but with Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction, magazines which emphasized social commentary and high literary standards as opposed to scientific rigor. Moreover, Benford was also influenced, although not unduly so, by the New Wave when he started writing, in particular by the American writer Roger Zelzany, who fended off comparisons with the largely British writers who spearheaded the movement by insisting that what he wrote was “style with substance” instead of style at the expense of substance (as cited by Jack Chalker in his introduction to his collection Dance Band on the Titanic). Consequently, Benford has also been inspired by major American storytellers from William Faulkner to John Cheever in his writing, finding ways to experiment with literary devices to strengthen instead of subvert basic storytelling. “Relativistic Effects” also reminds me of Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos in its stylistic use of “accelerated” collage to create the impression of events occurring rapidly juxtaposed with those occurring in “real time.” In Benford’s case, there is an obvious reason for using such a literary device in a hard-science fiction story: it helps to convey the relativistic effects of the title without resorting to higher mathematics or technical jargon inaccessible to non-specialists. It is this use of mainstream literary technique to convey not just scientific facts  but the lives of the scientist and the process of how science works, something that might be called literary scientific realism, that has put Benford at the forefront of modern hard science fiction writers.

Also like Dos Passos (and unlike Anderson), Benford focuses on the role of the working classes in his story, and here there is a curious similarity between them as well. Dos Passos was one of the original “neo-conservatives,” a Trotskyite and democratic socialist in 1920s and 1930s who like many others, turned sharply to the Political Right, and became a libertarian-leaning conservative for the rest of his life. Although Benford maintains that he still considers himself “an honorary member of the Left,” albeit one of the “anarcho-syndicalist variety” (in the Afterword for Worlds Vast and Various) he has nonetheless been a registered Libertarian for many years. His actual political views, however, with a heavy emphasis on both free markets and environmental protection coupled with a strong support of both the public and private sector in scientific advancement and a truly rational and pragmatic approach to policy decisions (as opposed to others on the Left who use the rhetoric of rationality and pragmatism to sell irrational and ideological proposals), seem closer to those of the Modern Whig Party than any other. Whereas Poul Anderson had an automated control center monitoring and maintaining the faster-than light vessel in Tau Zero,  the ship in Benford’s story (which also uses a “ram-scoop” mechanism to achieve relativistic velocities) requires the use of human “servos” to guide it; those who elect to this dangerous job not only put themselves in harm’s way with each journey, continually colliding with particles and radiation at relativistic speeds, but the long-term effects of these exposures critically shortens their life expectancy. They are not unlike those sailors in naval vessels who had continually exposed themselves to asbestos while working in the engine rooms. Already knowingly reducing their lifespans for other crew members, they are further asked to sacrifice even more as part of a plan to save two galaxies on the verge of collision…

“Relativistic Effects” shares much of its scientific basis with the Galactic Center series, drawing heavily from then-cutting edge work in astronomy and astrophysics, particularly Benford’s specialty of plasma jets. Although acclaimed for their complex, solidly-scientific depictions of AI lifeforms, it is less recognized for its formidable feats of world-building as well, which involve not just planets but whole stars, nebula clusters and black holes.  As Benford explained in the preface to the 2004 reissue of the first book in the series, In the Ocean of Night (0riginally published in 1977),  this task  strongly corresponded with his ongoing research in electrodynamic models in astrophysics (the paper that came out of that research can be read here) . The passages of “Relativistic Effects” describing the process of acceleration feel not so much like condensations of such a paper but a re-interpretation, in which the equations have not only been translated into words but transformed through a process of synesthesia, much like the effect the Aleph of Against Infinity has on those who observe it. The reader experiences the sensation of being at the heart of a plasma jet at relativistic speeds, aware of every force-gravitational, nuclear and electromagnetic-and every state of matter, from the huge billowing clouds of gas down the smallest particle, and the interactions between them.  Relativity is essential not just to the study of vast expanses of space and time, but tiny ones as well, a fact that Benford illustrates in this story and in others, such as “High Abyss” and “Mozart and Morphine,” which go even further, by making the connection between both cosmic strings and the birth of the cosmos (in the former) and the everyday life of the physicist (in the latter).

One of the ongoing quests of physics has been to try to reconcile General Relativity, which explains gravity, with Quantum Field Theory, which explains the other three fundamental forces, a so far daunting task due to language differences, one speaking geometry, the other algebra. Gregory Benford, who has also written frequently on another ongoing effort at reconciliation, between C.P. Snow’s competing Two Cultures of the Sciences and the Humanities, has found his own way to reconcile the Two Theories by bringing together the Two Cultures through the lingua franca of science fiction. When reading a story or book by Benford, the Nature of the Universe reveals itself, through a subtle use of the scientific method, and we come to realize how it is all connected, from the forces at the heart of a massive black hole to the more subtle shifts of electrons and photons. Even more importantly, we come to recognize how wonderful it is that we are able, as sentient and thinking organisms, to understand these phenomena and unities, an understanding that forms the basis of scientific theories.  Such an Epiphany Of Reason seems like a contradiction in terms, yet it probably best describes the experience of the Sense of Wonder while reading science fiction-especially hard science fiction intended to illuminate the nature of the physical universe.

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson


Writers of hard science fiction, that most rigorously realistic of the genre’s subdivisions, pride themselves on their unwavering commitment to scientific accuracy and adherence to the known laws and facts of the physical universe in their stories, yet they find themselves making a necessary exception for one of the most significant of all its invariants. Since the Theory of Special Relativity has established that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, which has only been further buttressed by experiment and observation, the practitioners of hard science are forced to bend their own principles slightly whenever their stories go beyond our own Solar System. Fortunately, the Great Einstein giveth as much as he taketh away, and the many fascinating predictions and outcomes of both Special and General Relativity have provided the “loopholes” many writers are looking for in trying to explain how their characters can traverse such great distances. In some instances, the stories are specifically about faster-than-light travel itself; the brand-new Christopher Nolan film INTERSTELLAR follows a well-worn path to the stars that science fiction writers have traveled many times before, attempting to explain how FTL or the “warp drive” in terms that are consistent with current scientific knowledge, and using it as a platform for both the stories and themes. The movie has its own pedigree in real-world science as well, being based on a story idea by noted cosmologist Kip Thorne, whose textbook Gravitation, written in collaboration with John Archibald Weaver and Charles Meisner, is cited by friends of mine in the know as the definitive book on the subject . Hopefully, the movie will also pique interest in the written word, getting curious viewers to search out the classic science fiction stories that already grappled with the premise of faster-than-light travel from as solidly scientific and rigorously rational a perspective as possible. With that, we will begin a three-part look at some of the finest works of dealing with the premise in hard science fiction, and what they have to say about the treatment of science and the physical universe in science fiction: Poul Anderson‘s novel Tau Zero, Gregory Benford‘s short story “Relativistic Effects,” and the selected short stories that make up Charles Sheffield’s collection One Man’s Universe.


It is rather unfortunate that there is only one legitimate film adaptation of Poul Anderson’s novels, and it is a terrible one at that: a truly awful “comedic” German adaptation of his exciting novel The High Crusade. Even so, Anderson, who wrote prolifically at what were usually very high levels of literary quality in as wide a variety of science fiction and fantasy as is possible, has seemingly made his own small mark on science fiction film: when James Cameron’s blockbuster AVATAR was released, many noticed its similarities to Anderson’s celebrated novella “Call Me Joe” (but not his novel The Avatar), something I had myself noticed a few years earlier when Cameron’s project was still in Development Hell and a draft of the screenplay was floating around the Internet. Cameron is not the only filmmaker who seems to have borrowed from Anderson: David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK is quite reminiscent of Anderson’s Fire Time, and the aliens of GALAXY QUEST who take every statement literally seem descended from the Hoka! Anderson created with Gordon Dickson. Fans of both BABYLON 5 and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE should read the stories in Anderson’s Technic History series, to see where the writers for those shows may have learned how to depict the politics of a spacefaring mercantile culture (for that matter, G’Kar is exactly how I imagined Anderson’s Merseians as resembling). Finally, Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR owes a considerable debt to Anderson’s Tau Zero, possibly the Grand Master’s finest book. The cover of my Gollancz copy features a blurb by James Blish hailing it as “the ultimate hard science fiction novel.” While there are other legitimate contenders to that title (Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Gregory Benford’s Timescape among them), I can’t think of another novel that from a purely thematic perspective best exemplifies this particular subgenre. Poul Anderson is usually not thought of as being primarily a hard science fiction writer because he wrote in so many other different genres and sub-genres, but he was one of science fiction’s premiere “world-builders,” writing some of the key essays on how to create scientifically credible alien worlds and planets, and was a master of the “puzzle story,” a variant of the mystery or detective story (which Anderson also wrote prolifically) in which the solution lies in the scientific method. Anderson’s proficiency in these areas as well as in prose writing in general helped produce one of the most masterful works in the genre. Even if one is to argue over whether it is the “definitive” hard science fiction novel, it is the one I would try to introduce to a novice reader to get them interested in the subgenre, and appreciate it as one of literary merit.

The initial premise of the novel is not unlike that of the excellent, underrated Czech science fiction film Ikarie Xb-1 (released in an edited form in North America as Voyage to the End of the Universe), depicting the human drama between members of a space journey to settle the planet located in the star system Beta Virginis. Anderson’s world-building skills are not used this time in the construction of the planet of destination but the vessel of voyage, and this is as much a feat of physics as it is of engineering. As with Thomas Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” (which is itself frequently cited as the definitive hard science fiction short story), the action may take in the confines of a single spaceship but the actual drama takes place against the backdrop of the entire universe, whose laws and limits help define both the outcome of the story and the actions of the characters. The setting is the spaceship Leonora Christina, another tip of the hat to Anderson’s Danish ancestry that recurs throughout his fiction. The real Leonora Christina was a 17th-Century countess, the daughter of the King of Denmark, who spent two decades in solitary confinement as punishment by the royal family for the supposed crimes of her Dutch husband (who was executed), during which time she wrote a celebrated autobiography and became a Danish folk hero, a symbol of stoicism and endurance in the face of long-lasting hardship. Time, and history, seemingly stood still for the real Leonora Christina in the walls of her dungeon cell during her imprisonment, who gave up her freedom for love, just as those who voluntarily sign up for the space journey will find that time will slow down and they will lose touch with hundreds of years of human history once they have completed their journey. Under the leadership of Constable Charles Reymont, a crew of 50, of equal numbers men and women from all races and nationalities, and consisting of highly trained scientists, engineers and other experts, tries to deal with both technical and interpersonal crises when the ship accidentally collides with a nebula on its way out. This unexpected change of course forces the crew to adapt to a new change in its mission as well, and it turns out that there is something even more profound than just the survival of the ship’s crew at stake.

To be excessively pedantic, the Leonora Christina is not really a warp drive, as it does not go faster than light, just 99% of it. The ship is a Brussard Ramjet, a popular spacefaring vessel in science fiction of the period, that continually scoops interstellar hydrogen and other free atoms to fuel the ion engines that propel it outwards through the void. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle that everyone knows by its mathematical shorthand, as the ship continues to gather mass to accelerate itself, it nears the tau zero of the title, where its velocity will finally equal the speed of light. Now, it goes without saying that the Brussard Ramjet itself will likely remain an improbability, if not outright impossibility; as Larry Niven explains in his essay “Bigger Than Worlds” (published in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind) it involves certain absolutes, such as an infinite fuel supply in all directions and 100% efficiency to work properly. But its importance in Tau Zero is as an illustration of the process of how the universe functions, and the evolution of our perception of its workings. We move upward from the classical Newtonian-Maxwellian model to the Einsteinian, first through the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction that bridged classical mechanics with special relativity, and as both the ship and the storyline accelerate in momentum, the wider notions of general relativity (which Einstein formulated by applying his ideas in special relativity to accelerated frames of reference) enter the narrative as well.

In addition to his Scandinavian background, the Pennsylvania-born, Texas-raised, University of Minnesota-educated Anderson also draws proudly and profoundly from his American heritage as well. If you are wondering how you can successfully write a so-called “Space Western” that successfully works as science fiction, then Tau Zero is the book to read. The vivid prose seems to owe much to the classic Western novels of Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer and Zane Grey, and story itself is not like those of such films as STAGECOACH and RED RIVER, about the travails and conflicts of those settling The Open Frontier, and the hero Reymont (not an American but a native of Earth’s Antarctic colonies, strengthening at once that he is a Citizen of the World and a Child of Pioneers) could very well have been played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Joel McCrea. The publication of Tau Zero was regarded by many, according to David Pringle in The 100 Best Science Fiction Novels, as a repudiation of the “New Wave” movement in science fiction, and the “First Salvo” by science fiction’s “Old Guard” in maintaining its traditional literary values. By staying firm to the crisp, straightforward writing style that the genre had long been known for and providing a storyline that is a heir to the pioneering tradition in American literature, Anderson offers an effective counter to the excesses of the New Wave, although this does not mean he avoids literary flourishes. The passages used to explain the novel’s science not only avoid the dryness usually (and more often than not, incorrectly) associated with the hard science sub-genre but sometimes rise to the level of poetic vividness, approaching the language used by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles and other stories to impress the reader with that elementary Sense of Wonder regarding both the majesty of the cosmos. A frequent error made even by those who consider themselves fans of the genre is that hard science fiction is defined by the amount of scientific detail accumulated in the plot, and the degree to which the author explains the science behind it. A good hard SF story may do so but it can also be a fatal mistake, if the writer forgets to provide a compelling story or characters, or if the detail is ruined by one or more errors. Hard science fiction instead focuses on scientific realism, and finds a way to integrate the details and explanation in a non-obtrusive way, without letting them interfere with the essential elements of any good story. Truly great hard science fiction goes beyond escapist entertainment and makes science itself a theme for further thought and discussion. Possibly because of his right-of-center politics or his old-fashioned writing style, likely both, the masterful thematic profundity of Tau Zero and other Anderson works when it comes to the relationship between science and both societies and individuals has remained unexplored.

A friend has cited Tau Zero as having inspired him to become a physicist, with his motto being “the universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be.” This adage not only summarizes the prevailing world-view of hard SF, but Anderson’s own personal and political beliefs as well. Anderson considered himself to be a Libertarian politically, but much of his fiction and essays also display a deep and abiding cultural conservatism, in the sense that he was concerned with the preservation of both historical memory and those institutions and values key to the healthy development of civilization: science, reason, free enterprise and a sense of duty and chivalry. One of the first generation of science fiction writers to have grown up with the original printing of Campbell’s Astounding and its stable of authors, he was also one of those most directly influenced by the writing of Robert A. Heinlein. Like Heinlein, Anderson started out on the Centre-Left, (his early stories “Un-Man and “Sam Hall” are deft satires of McCarthyism and the John Birch mentality), but started moving rightward as the Fifties themselves moved onwards. Tau Zero, like many of Anderson’s later novels (from Orion Will Rise to A Harvest of Stars as well as the novella “Goat Song”) is not only pro-science but pro-civilization, standing directly against the leftist politics and deep cultural pessimism of the New Wave as well as the irrationalism and anti-science attitudes of New Age thinking, which had also lamentably infiltrated the SF community (Anderson was NATIONAL REVIEW’s science fiction critic during this time and he wrote a particularly damning critique of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods for the magazine the same year Tau Zero was published). Just as the laws of science are the same regardless of their frame of reference, so are the laws of human nature; certain rules of political economy and social decorum must continued to be maintained in this Brave New World, in contrast to the “revolutionary” sexual and social attitudes that were supposedly sweeping the country and whose depiction had become commonplace in the genre. Despite the fact that his multinational dramatis personae lives under a world government dominated by Sweden, American-style liberal democracy and free-market economics have ultimately won out (a possibly satirical touch, given the way so much of the American intelligentsia was infatuated with Swedish-style socialism and pacifism at the time), and it is strongly suggested that this is a positive means of maintaining a balance of power in this brave new world, just as the spaceship tries to maintain physical balance itself through the journey. The New Wave movement in science fiction was deeply rooted in revolutionary political and social movements of the time, that sought to “break down barriers” and reform the culture along the lines of Utopian thinking. Early on in Tau Zero, there is the suggestion that the crew of the Leonora Christina will attempt a new community based on free love but the circumstances of their journey as well as of human nature itself prevents it from emerging. At the end, the ship survives the end of this universe and enters a new one through a second Big Bang, but it is strongly implied that the laws of this new universe will be no different than those of the last, just as the the ship’s crew will not only re-perpetuate the human race in this Brave New Universe, but re-establish civilization and the laws that keep it stable and functioning. The universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be. And it will continue to be so, onwards, to the end of time.

Movie Review: Science At Work

Movie Review: Science At Work


The late, great Frederick Pohl opened Chasing Science, his wonderful memoir of scientific tourism, with an account of his visits to America’s national laboratories. Although the majority work under heavy security there is one lab, as Pohl notes, that always welcomes visitors with open arms: Fermilab in DuPage County, Illinois. It is there that the Top Quark was discovered, solidifying the Standard Model and establishing it firmly as the touchstone of modern physics, and it remained the country’s leading particle physics facility until the recent shutdown of the Tevatron accelerator. Even so, it remains a major research center as well as a popular tourist attraction in the greater Chicago area, and the recent documentary Science at Work provides a virtual tour of the lab for those of us who have wanted to but never had a chance to pay a visit.


As its title implies, Science at Work is a film about scientists on the job, chronicling a full work week at Fermilab spotlighting a new project on each day, usually emphasizing one scientist in particular who will serve as sort of a tour guide on the journey. Many of the segments open with the scientists at home, saying goodbye to their children, or bringing them to the lab, either to its day care center or as part of a “Bring Your Sons and Daughters To Work” day. Some drive to work, others ride their bikes. All come off as warm, friendly and gregarious, the type of people you’d love to have as your neighbor; the filmmakers have done an excellent job of choosing their interview subjects. These are precisely the people needed to communicate science to a Middle-American audience, but whose voices have been largely muted until now. One gets the sense that while Fermilab might be in Chicago’s backyard, its values are still those of DuPage and the surrounding counties (Naperville, the largest city in the area, was once named one of the most conservative cities in the country), with a deeply-ingrained sense of hard work, fair play and entrepreneurship incorporated into the scientific ethos. As one researcher puts it, when you’re employed at Fermilab, you become part of a family, and that familial atmosphere really comes through to the film’s credit.


Fermilab was founded and designed in part by its first director, Wyoming native Robert R. Wilson, who incorporated much of his home state into the lab’s prairie terrain; it is as well-known for its herds of buffalo as it is for its scientific work. Appropriately enough for a lab founded by a native of the tiny community of Frontier, Wyoming, Fermilab’s research focuses on what it describes as three fundamental Frontiers of Particle Physics. As eloquently explained in the documentary by senior scientist Herman White and cosmologist Craig Hogan, these are the Cosmic Frontier, which studies naturally-occurring particle interactions to gain a better understanding of dark energy and dark matter, among other phenomena; the Energy Frontier, which involves colliding and accelerating particles at high energies to generate new particles and recreate the early state of the universe under controlled conditions; and finally the Intensity Frontier, which probes matter and subatomic processes with intense muon and neutrino beams (a method developed by the lab’s second director, Leon Lederman, for which he won the Nobel Prize). Each Frontier gets spotlighted by the film, with physicists actively engaged in each project explaining the science behind them. Particularly entertaining is Intensity Frontier physicist Bonnie Fleming’s explanation of neutrino flavor-changing which uses ice cream as a metaphor, complete with Sesame Street-style animation. The eloquence and down-to-earth style of the interview subjects combined with the film’s incorporation of simple animation and graphics go a long way in making the complexity of particle physics accessible to the novice viewer, and if the subject matter is overly simplified, it will at least make most viewers curious enough to learn more about it.



Although an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary, Science at Work is also a flawed film, and the main flaw is reflected in the title. Near the end, one scientist cheerfully remarks that contrary to what you may think, you don’t need to be a genius to be a scientist, just a hard worker and rigorous thinker. Unfortunately, this process of hard work and rigorous thought isn’t really visible on screen. We see them explain it, and we see snippets of the scientists at the job, but we never really get a feeling as to how much effort, mental and physical, that the scientists must put into their work. Nor, for that matter, are all the frustrations that arise from experiments not working, machinery breaking down, mismeasurements, and all the rest documented, although they surely must have occurred during filming! Although we put so much emphasis on getting young people interested in science and in choosing STEM careers, if we aren’t also realistic and depict the hard work and long hours, as well as the particular frustrations of such a career, we are only being unfair to them. Additionally, even though we are told that a majority of those who work at Fermilab are actually not scientists but engineers, machinists, and others who keep the equipment running and in order, and although we see them briefly, we never actually hear from them. They are as much part of the endeavor of discovery as the scientists themselves and it would have been nice to have heard their voices as well. In a longer film-the documentary runs a mere forty-two minutes-there might have been space for them but time and money are as much a bugbear for documentary film as they are for its narrative counterpart.


A more personal quibble is that we don’t get enough of Fermilab itself in the film. Robert Wilson, a gifted architect and sculptor as well as a great scientist, was determined to make sure his lab stood out from the drab dreariness of most government buildings, and although it would be the famously gregarious second director Leon Lederman who would make the lab a public attraction, the attractiveness of the lab with its futuristic buildings and modernist sculptures dotting the landscape, was Wilson’s idea. There’s a beautiful shot early on of one of the scientists bicycling through one Wilson’s sculptures, appropriately called Broken Symmetry, and the movie could have used more images like this, but instead, we frustratingly mostly only see bits and pieces of the lab’s layout and design instead of witnessing it in full. A sequence where a tabletop model of the lab is used to explain the main collider ring winds up being almost comical, like a parody of a scene in a James Bond film where the villain explains his master plan, and only amplifies the frustration of not seeing exteriors of the device up-close and personal.



A just-released documentary called Particle Fever has been receiving much Internet buzz as well as widespread critical acclaim. Dealing with the hunt for the Higgs Boson conducted at CERN and the lives of the scientists involved in the search, it sounds like the type of film I’m always anxious to see, but alas, isn’t opening anywhere near me. Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, I was able to instead watch Science at Work. Just as Fermilab and its achievements shouldn’t be forgotten in the shadow of the Higgs, this dearly made, relatively short film shouldn’t be overlooked with all the hype surrounding Particle Fever and in spite of its flaws, it merits a viewing in order to get to know the people who are furthering our understanding of the universe. Even if it is too cursory to provide a thorough exploration of the lab, it at least encourages our appreciation of those explorers who work within it, and will leave you wanting to learn more. And wanting to learn more is what being a scientist is all about.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Joanna Ploeger, friend, scholar and mentor.


Misconceptions about the First 190,000 years of Human History/Paleo Lifestyle

Misconceptions about the First 190,000 years of Human History/Paleo Lifestyle

There are many people that base what they know of the first 190,000 years of human history on Hollywood movies about cavemen rather than any academic research. The reality is that anatomically modern humans lived a hunting and gathering lifestyle exclusively for almost 190,000 years. They did this, not because they were too stupid to invent agriculture or that they had no idea what animal husbandry was, they lived that lifestyle because it was easy. In fact it was so easy a “caveman could do it”.

Got your attention?

Hunters and gatherers did not invent agriculture because it was a better lifestyle. The fact is that agriculture is not optimal for human health and it certainly is not as easy as hunting and gathering. Agriculture has a host of health and social problems that come with it that are extremely negative and the majority of these problems have not been overcome until relatively recently. This begs a question…If farm living is so much harder why would anyone do it?  The answer is relatively simple, necessity. The first people who moved to the agricultural lifestyle did so because of ecological change, change in climate, and population pressures that occurred at the end of the last ice age.

There are myriad reasons why humans did not develop agriculture before or during the last ice-age, but for the most part the ready availability of prey animals and small population densities made agriculture less desirable. Around 12,000 years ago there was a perfect storm of change that forced humans to try something new. That something new was not inherently better than what had come before. The change in diet associated with agriculture probably led to thousands of early deaths and has led to centuries of gastrointestinal problems as human beings adapt to this new lifestyle.

But, but, but….you can’t possibly be suggesting we return to the lifestyle of hunting and gathering. No, that is not what I am saying. We could not return to that lifestyle even if the population wasn’t so large, or even if someone believed it was a good idea. The ecological factors that made it possible for people to subsist easily are no longer present. Vast herds of megafaunal prey animals no longer roam America and Europe and will not again in the near future. Secondly our technological society has finally begun to mature to a point where human beings are better off as agriculturalists than as hunters and gatherers.

This does not mean we can’t objectively look at the differences between the hunting and gathering lifestyle and the agricultural lifestyle so we can understand why humans chose each. There are several advantages to being a hunter and gatherer.

1) Medical- Medicine didn’t magically become better when people started living in villages in fact medical problems got much worse when we started living on top of each other. Diseases that were often avoided because of isolation suddenly became pandemic. To see this in action look at what happened in North America after Columbus. The Native Americans had arrived on this continent as hunters and gatherers in small isolated groups. The trip to North America acted as a natural bottle neck for disease. Very few diseases that infected humans were carried across. These band of hunters and gatherers were isolated from human disease vectors that had evolved in the old world. When these diseases were reintroduced they decimated the agricultural civilizations that had sprung up in North America. Without such killers as measles, chicken pox, even the common cold the population had never evolved resistance.

So, you have all those same injuries and illnesses that hunters and gatherers faced like hunger, broken limbs, etc plus more disease in agricultural society. This lasted until the early modern period and it was often exacerbated by a much larger population vying for fewer resources. Pray if you are ever dropped back in time before about 200 years ago. It is somewhere underpopulated.

2) Society- Contrary to pop culture the strongest person was not always “Boss Caveman”. I may need to remind you these hunter and gathering groups are simply extended or direct family groups consisting of father, mother, children, and grandchildren. Sometimes uncles,aunts  and their children as well. Thirty people is the normal size of these bands. They are not states they are not even really tribal. Bands and family groups. There are no rules, rulers, kings, or serfs and government hasn’t been invented yet. Just because movies tell you that UGH was beating his tribe into submission doesn’t mean that was the norm.
As for WAR?  What war? Can you call a fight between groups that max out at about 60 people a war? It is a conflict more akin to a family feud. Most Hunter and Gatherer groups, we have had the privilege to observe in the modern age don’t go to “War” they count coup of one kind or another. Sometimes they do kill somebody sometimes a people get hurt. That is the nature of being human. When compared to the horrors inflicted by agricultural societies?

I have had people call hunting and gathering societies communist utopias. They were not. They were neither Utopian nor were they communistic. In fact communism as we know it, in which individuals live communally for the welfare of the group, is an invention of agriculture. These hunting and gathering bands are the haven of  the original rugged individualist.

The major advantage to living in large groups for these early people was child rearing. Children survive with more regularity in a settled society. Score one for “It takes a village”.  As the population rises in these settled agricultural communities they soon exceed the normal number of people associated with hunting and gathering. You can support more people on less land with agriculture. Soon you have government and with government comes a type of power humans had never had over each other before. In a hunting and gathering society when the bands become too large and one group tried to dominate another they break apart and go their separate ways. This doesn’t happen for agriculturalists. They are tied to the land or they are dependent on specialized knowledge of others to survive. They can’t run away over the hill and survive without interference from the state.

Yes, we are better off today than 13,000 years ago but it took quite a bit of heartache to get here and we didn’t get here because agriculture was a better choice.

Saying that hunting and gathering is a better lifestyle choice than agriculture until the modern period is not Marxism projected backwards, if anything it is individualism projected backwards. Neither is it a “Noble Savage” fallacy. There is plenty of evidence that life was not always easy no matter which lifestyle you lived. Humans evolved to live a particular lifestyle. We lived in that lifestyle for tens of thousands of years and it was not lack of intelligence or imagination that kept us there it was simply easy…we all get in a rut sometimes.

 Some popular misconceptions about paleolithic man. 

1) Paleolithic Humans were prey for carnivores such as the cave lion, or the short faced bear. and lived in constant fear of their surroundings..false.
Human’s have been apex predators since before becoming anatomically modern. Large carnivores may have been able to kill the occasional human but archaeological remains suggest early humans hunted other carnivores much more often than they hunted humans.

2) Paleolithic Humans lived exclusively in caves…false. Caves were certainly utilized, but humans are very adaptable and probably lived in many different types of structures made from local materials.

3) Paleolithic humans were always dirty, hungry, and disease ridden…false. We dealt with disease above. As for being dirty we can’t really tell from the archaeological record, but we can surmise based on hunters and gatherers that have been studied. Bathing is a fact of life in most of these societies and cleanliness is often ritualized. As for hunger it really depends Archaeological evidence shows that many groups of hunters and gatherers went through periods of boom and bust from year to year, others are more constant in their nutritional intake. It almost always depends on the area in which the people lived and the abundance of food. Looking at skeletal remains of hunters and gatherers verses agriculturalists, hunters and gatherers are often in much better physical shape probably as a result of better diet (Hunters and gatherers actually work much less than agriculturalists so it isn’t from physical labor).


For more reading:

Mashall Sahlins’ study The Original Affluent Society goes into detail how hunter and gatherer societies functioned,;jsessionid=C9F7CA5045C73D36D8813F2E5237FAB0.f02t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage&userIsAuthenticated=false

And if you want to see a writer go a bit too far with the Noble Savage idea:

Space Colonization – It Ain’t Like Dusting Crops

If mankind is going to reach for the stars, it is most certainly going to involve some way to travel faster than light speed.  A recent post on this very site, reported the fact that certain scientists are considering warp drive as a possibility.  I am skeptical of such things but then again I am not a scientist.  My thoughts are that this is going to take a while regardless but there two basic schools of thought on how this is going to develop.  1) That we are going to have to colonize our own solar system and that through that colonization we may learn what it is going to take to head to new stars.  2) There are others though that propose that we skip the colonization of our own solar system because the prospects for terraforming, say Mars, are bleak at best.  I suppose that there are those that think we need to just do both because we need to do it.  These two opinions seem to be the basis though for all the rest.  Myself, I take the first route, because I believe mankind has a lot to learn before it can reach to the stars.

Hypothetically, lets take a trip to a star with our goal to colonize a world on it and at the moment of arrival we need to face the problems in doing so.  What is going to happen at that moment.

1) Conventional Drive Propulsion:  Even to survey such a system to find a suitable world is going to require  getting around that system far faster than we have been currently able to get around our own.  Even if we send a robot drone to do this, it is going to have to move.  Current missions to survey our own solar system have been slow and cumbersome taking years to do.  Depending on how we arrive, we may need to survey the system quickly or far in advance.  The need to get around a solar system quickly becomes apparent regardless because we can’t take all day finding the place to colonize.  We might be able to use our faster than light propulsion for this but there is also a possibility that we may not.

2) Communication: The recent Mars mission highlighted this problem.  Even in our own solar system time lag problems can be fatal.  Even if we follow a mothership with drone survey ships model, time lag can be difficult to get the colony going right away.  Some form of faster than light communication would be helpful, but more than likely we are going to have to deal with time lag and that means problems we are going to have to overcome.  I would rather practice this closer to home before we start sliding to other stars.

3) Terraforming:  It may be that as we send out robot ships out that we may to find much in the way of worlds we can colonize.  There is a real possibility that we may not find something better than Mars.  If so, I would rather have how to deal with such a world all worked out before I get there.

Then there are the issues of how we build such a colony ship in the first place.  Questions arise: Do we have all the resources we need to do so here on planet earth or are we going to have to exploit other planets and moons in our solar system to have the materials we need? That means at least robot mining colonies to do this.  What is the best way and place to build this starship.  Building it in space would help, but that means manufacturing technology is going to have to go to no gravity or low gravity environs.  The list of questions also includes environmental controls, life support, self sufficient technologies, etc. It is a long list of questions.

The main fact we have to face with this issue is that all we have done is gone to the moon and back and sent robot probes into or local neighborhood.  All this qualifies us for is that we have gotten off our belly and are on all fours.  We really have not even learned to crawl, let alone walk or run.  It may be that there is a giant leap in the near future that will help, but we cannot count on it.  In the meantime, questions can be answered by addressing the learning curve we need to face in the local neighborhood of our own solar system.  It becomes a great testing ground and nursery to learn to crawl and then walk.

I am hoping to hear the other side on this one, because maybe their objections to this have merit.  I am after all not a scientist or engineer.  My thoughts are that we may have many barriers to break before we break the speed of light barrier and that to break them we may have to look and experiment in our own back yard first before the stars can be reached.  I just don’t think this is going to be like dusting crops; it is far more complicated than what we would like it to be.

Life and life

Life! You know it when you point at it but you find it difficult to say just what it is. What is it about an entity that make you say “That’s alive.”? What systems that we do not normally think of as alive have similar properties? What things that get described as life might it be better not to call life?.

I originally wrote this article to clarify my own thinking on the subject. I found the framework that I’m using here helpful. Others may come up with different useful descriptions.

The first question about life is “Is it a process or an entity, an activity or a thing?”. Is life a substance or force permeating living beings which is not present in non living entities? Or is life the activities that go on in living beings?

Well, the way you know if something is alive is by what it does. If it is inactive and unchanging one identifies it as being dead. This suggests that one should think of life as what goes on in a living being. One should only propose the existence of a life force if there is no other way to explain what is going on.

In the 1950s and 1960s we uncovered the physical bases of heredity and the energy transport mechanisms. Inheritance turned out to be coded on the nucleic acids, ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Energy was found to be transported by adenosine triphosphate (ATP). While much of the mechanism of life is not understood, there seems to be no reason to believe that any unknown principles of physics or unknown forces are involved.

(An aside. In the Nineteenth Century developments in biology and geology did sugges that there were gaps in contemporary physics. Evolution in biology and uniformitarianism in geology required a vast age for the Earth. Known energy sources could not explain how the internal heat of the Earth or the heat of the Sun was maintained over such a long period. This problem was solved with the discovery of nuclear energy.)

Life is a property of a system not of any individual part of a system. You cannot point to a molecule in a cell and say “That molecule is alive.”. A protein or lipid or carbohydrate molecule is the same inside or outside a living cell. One cannot look at any particular chemical reaction and say “This is life.”.

OK. So what is it about a system that has us saying “This cell or this organism is alive.”?

One answer I have seen is reproduction. However this by itself seems wrong. A sterile organism can still be alive. A worker bee is not dead. Neither is a pet that you have had sterilized.

The best candidate that I have seen is autopoiesis. This is self maintenance. An autopoietic process brings about its own continuation and the maintenance of the structure in which the process occurs. An autopoietic system replaces its components with new ones that it has created. This description fits cells and it also fits organisms. However it can be argued that it also fits organizations such as corporations, states and ant nests. These are not exactly what one thinks of when one talks about life.

I think we can say that all living systems are autopoietic but not all autopoietic systems are alive. Systems that we describe as alive are self-contained bounded physical systems rather than systems linked by a network of concepts. Thus life is a property of a definite physical body whose individual components were created by that body.

Reproduction of living systems uses the mechanisms of autopoiesis. New organisms are created by the living organism using components that it has created and organized into another autopoietic system. However a self replicating system does not have to be autopoietic. It can simply create copies of itself without maintaining itself or doing anything much except replication. It can also replicate itself by taking over another system and making that other system replicate it. Examples of this behavior are the activities of viruses and prions.

Living organisms do not live forever. To allow a kind of life to persist some members of a kind have to be able to reproduce that kind. Thus self-replication is a property of all types of entities that we normally think of as life forms. However not all members of a kind have to be able to reproduce. An organism can produce both sterile and fertile offspring. Bees and ants provide good examples of this.

Living cells are the most obvious examples of living systems. They are elaborate structures made up of organic matter, water and inorganic materials (mostly as ions in solution). They are maintained and replicated by physical and chemical interactions among the components.

However the components of an autopoietic system do not have to be organic molecules or organic structures that are not alive by themselves. (A cell membrane is a universal part of all known living cells. Isolated from a cell it cannot be described as alive.)

The components of an autopoietic system can themselves be autopoietic systems. This is the case in multi-cellular animals, plants and fungi. These originated as multi-cellular colonies. The cells became differentiated into many types and organized into structures in new autopoetic systems. The cells can be isolated from an organism and grown by themselves in unorganized tissue cultures. The culture is not an autopoietic system though the individual cells that it is made up of are. A mouse is autopoietic system and the cells that it is made up of are also autopoietic systems. A tissue culture is not an autopoetic system though the cells making it up are.

Thus I think life can be regarded as recursive. It can exist on multiple levels. The life of a mouse is not the life of its cells though it depends on the life of the cells. One can make a case for even higher levels of autopoietic organization. For example a bluebottle (Portuguese man o’war) is a colony of multicellular polyps. There are several specialized types of polyp in a colony and an overall structure.

If autopoietic systems organize into a higher level system the individual components can loose the ability to maintain themselves. They can become dependent on their interactions with the other formerly independent systems. That is, living organisms can organize into a higher level living system and the lower level of life can then be subsumed into the higher level of life. This appears to be what happened when eucaryotic cells were formed. (Life can be divided in procaryotic and eucaryotic organisms. Procaryotes have relatively simple cell internal structures. Eucaryotes have elaborate membrane bound cell internal structures. Procaryotes are the bacteria and the archaea. The eucaryotes are the protists, the animals, the plants and the fungi. Protista is a grab bag including the simple eucayotes that don’t fit in the other kingdoms.) The eucaryotic cell probably formed as a symbiotic association of several different types of bacteria. Examples of cell organelles that were once independent organisms are mitochondria, plastids, flagella and cilia and the nucleus. I would not regard these as being autopoietic systems in their own right any longer.


Viruses probably have multiple origins. One of them is probably extreme simplification of parasitic bacteria.. If this is the case then living forms can evolve into self replicating systems that are arguably no longer alive. However I only know of this in entities that are parasitic on living organisms.

Another possible example of a higher level autopoietic system composed of autopoietic sub-systems is the biosphere of the Earth as a whole. The Gaia hypothesis regards the entire biosphere as a self regulating system. The hypothesis is that action of living organisms maintains the planet in a condition suitable for life. A system of feedback loops stabilizes the climate and and atmospheric composition etc. The main components of the system are bacteria. Other living organisms, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the outer layers of of the lithosphere could also be regarded as components of the system. Under this hypothesis the Earth would be an example of an autopoietic system that does not reproduce. The Gaia hypothesis is sometimes criticized as being a fuzzy mystical approach. I see it as a useful way of looking at a complex of feedback loops. It is a plausible, probably correct but unproven hypothesis.

All the known examples of life ultimately depend on aqueous organic chemistry. In principle this does not have to be the case. One sees many examples in science fiction of other kinds of life. Life with liquid ammonia or other solvents instead of water, life based on silicon rather than carbon compounds, metallic life forms, life based on nuclear reaction and so on. Some of these alternatives could be possible. Some probably aren’t. But that is for another generation to find out.

The ideas that I presented here most came out of What is life? by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. In turn the idea of autopoiesis that they used came from the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.

The Greatest of America’s Heroes Has Passed Away

The Greatest of America’s Heroes Has Passed Away


Neil Armstrong really needs no introduction. I don’t have words to tell you what his accomplishment means to me. His one small step is the greatest achievement man has ever made. His tiny step dwarfs the pyramids, it makes the great wall look like a picket fence. His small step is the kind of thing that not only transcends the bounds of this planet it transcends the barrier of race, religion, and nation. His step was a step forward for all mankind. Let us remember this hero of heroes. I have no more words…

Coming to a Home Near You 3-D Movies Without the Glasses

Coming to a Home Near You 3-D Movies Without the Glasses

Soon you will be able to purchase a 3-D television that requires no glasses and that allows you to view the 3-D screen from almost any angle. An article in Science Daily published yesterday outlines the new technological advancement. Current 3-D technology relies on the glasses integrating two different views of the scene into a three dimensional whole. The new technology takes the perspective into account from five or more points, allowing the viewer to view what is happening on the screen from many different angles. These autostereoscopic displays are able to create the three dimensional illusion through the use of  technology that can track the depth of the room and the distance the viewer is from the screen. The computer then generates an image in real time based on this information.

These Televisions should be showing up in stores sometime next year. The science fiction dream of Tri-D TV without the glasses is finally here…..where is my damn flying car?