Putting Stress in Context

I am currently sitting in the university library stressing over an exam I have to sit tomorrow.  In fact, here is proof:

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As I quiver behind the Norton Anthology of English Literature which will lend me no aid tomorrow, and I ponder writing a blog post for the sole purpose of procrastination, I remember the importance of putting into context every stress we face.  This can be done on varying levels.  The most simple, of course, is to convince yourself that your life will continue regardless of the result of the exam.  If I fail tomorrow’s exam I have the possibility of a re-sit.  I’m only in first year so it won’t go towards my final degree.  Even if all fails and I’m forced to drop out of university, I still have my health, my family, my friends, and the opportunity to find employment elsewhere.  And on a deeper level I often remember how tiny a spec I am, inhabiting a marginally larger spec that orbits a still undeniably small spec, unobservable to the mast majority of the known universe.  On this tiny spec alone there are 7 billion people who couldn’t care less whether I pass tomorrow’s exam.

Even on another level, however, I’ve managed to put this stress into perspective, though in a way more difficult to describe.  I stood in front of a mirror yesterday gazing at my face for a number of minutes (yes, this is going somewhere).  In my sleep-deprived state I happened to notice how peculiar many parts of it looked – in particular the eyes.  Maybe it’s just me and my aversion to making eye contact but I’ve never noticed quite how intricate the eye is.  Patterns streak across the iris in a rich array of colours, hazel-blue in my case, like a fiery aurora.  The pupil floats in the centre, a perfect featureless circle showing only my own reflection back through the mirror.  My wonder did not cease here; I noticed, as my eyes twitched to and from the light, the pupil dilating inwards and outwards.  Eager to test this further I shined a torch onto and off the side of my face in slow succession, watching the pupil instinctively react.  It did this like the focusing of a camera lens in a process I could not feel or sense.

What this showed me, beyond a worrying sign of my own vanity, was how amazing it is simple to live.  To be this incredible biological wonder I don’t really understand or even particularly consider on a daily basis.  We’re so absorbed by everyday obsessions – be they work, taxes, socialising, politics and, of course, exams – that I don’t think many people besides biologists and children realise this.  Whatever happens in my exam tomorrow, my mere existence is a true marvel.  This isn’t an excuse to be devoid of motivation or ambition by any means, but I really believe it’s healthy to keep these things in mind.

Okay, stress-fuelled philosophical rambling over.  Back to the textbooks…

The Value of Science Fiction

By Hill – Giuseppe Gerbino (Self-published work by Hill) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is often given a bad name.  It can have connotations of strange people in jumpsuits or bizarre prosthetics, sprouting technobabble, involved with stories which have no relation to the modern world.  Yet, I believe that science fiction offers an opportunity to look at our world from a different and new perspective.  Your Great Gatsbys or Macbeths may give a deep commentary on the world we live in and human nature, yet they’re inevitably constrained by being stuck within that which they seek to criticise.  Science fiction can remove itself and look down on these issues, which makes it a unique platform for expressing such comments.

This post has been prompted by reading Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which I’ll focus on – although much of this will apply to other science fiction work.  Consider Phlebas covers a wide array of themes and idea.  The most immediately apparent is war; the book is set during a galactic war between two groups: The Indirans and the Culture.  We see a form of total war, seemingly without boundaries, as entire planets are destroyed and races wiped out.  This is the logical extension of human warfare.  During the 19th and 20th centuries we ‘advanced’ from a form of war involving large armies, where the result would usually be decided on the battlefield, to a situation where factions would try to win at whatever the cost.  Wars became more a matter of crippling the enemy’s economy rather than routing their armies which, through aerial bombings and the use of submarines, had a direct impact on the civilian population.  This developed into the utilisation of mass destruction, whether through nuclear weapons, chemical or biological, to achieve a victory.  In Consider Phlebas, Banks pursues this to its logical conclusion.  The destruction of planets is a terrifying concept, but largely because you can imagine it would actually happen if people had the capability to do such a thing.

This commentary is less subtle in places; the final act of the story is set on a proscribed ‘Planet of the Dead’, in this case a preserved world which perished during a nuclear war.  The characters journey through underground bunkers, the only remnants of a civilisation which destroyed itself.  They could easily be burrowing into the bowls of the Earth at some distant time in the future*.

The Indirans and the Culture are fighting almost purely on ideological grounds.  The Indirans are a religiously devout, warmongering race, while the Culture have developed a secular, anarchist, planned consumerist economy which seeks to extend its influence across the galaxy.  Conflicts between ideologies is another fascinating aspect of human nature we’ve seen develop in the 20th century, which Banks captures in his novel.  There’s a brilliant line where the protagonist Horza, fighting on the side of the Indirans, describes a seemingly innocuous bit of technology as “the real representative of the Culture on this planet.”  This line resonates with anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of coke or eaten in a Macdonalds.  Imperialism by commercialism against imperialism by military force are ideas which have conflicted in human history, which Banks shines new light on by portraying in a new scenario.  I found myself siding with the Culture, which is a testament to the realistic civilisation Banks forced considering the story is narrated from a viewpoint biased against them.

There’s another small, easily missed mention to ideologies I quite enjoyed.  After a raid on what they expected would be an unarmed temple was repelled, the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence discover that it was situated on the border between two warring states, one Socialist and one highly religious.  No other details are given, but I love the possibilities for stories that creates.

Technology is another area where science fiction thrives.  The image I chose for this is an artistic rendering of the Culture’s Orbitals which, as you can see, is a remarkable idea.  They serve as artificial worlds for people to reside on, equipped with terrain, climates, ecosystems, etc.  They look utterly bizarre and totally artificial, yet I could imagine how they would actually work.  I’d question the economic viability of such structures when there’s a multitude of planets to terraform and explore, but that’s another issue.  Perhaps the best technological prediction in the book is that of drones, fully sentient machines who are considered individuals – to destroy a drone is tantamount to murder in the Culture’s eyes.  This is explored wonderfully in Consider Phlebas.  My favourite instance was the drone Jase, which develops an infatuation on Fal ‘Ngeestra.  This is never developed, but just the small reference to Jase taking a sound recording every time Fal laughs tells us so much about the depth of these drones’ personalities.

It’s no secret that technological predictions, above all else, have made an impact in the real world.  The main example I can think of is Arthur C. Clarke pretty much inventing the idea of geostationary satellites, a good decade or so before they became reality.  You can see more here.  Today, ideas like space elevators, which have so far been imagined only in science fiction, are perfectly plausible.

These are just a few examples of how science fiction can be immensely relevant to our modern world.  This is why the genre, along with fantasy, has always existed in some form and I expect always will.  There’s never an end to the things it can give insights into, forcing us to see things in ways we might not expect or be prepared for.

*In the epilogue Banks reveals that the events take place in our past, yet the simlarity remains.

 

Glass Rain

Portrayal of the exoplanet HD 189733b in Celestia.

For the first time ever, astronomers have managed to discern the colour of a planet outside of our solar system.  The exoplanet, HD 189733b,* is thought to be blue in colour.  They achieved this remarkable discovery by measuring light from the planet when exposed then measuring again when it slipped behind the star.  They noticed a substantial drop of wavelengths corresponding to the colour blue when this happened.  Unfortunately for the possibilities of finding life, this is unlikely to be water.  The planet is thought to be a gas giant which practically hugs its star, giving it a temperature of around 1,000C.  The blue colour probably comes from silicate precipitating in the atmosphere, which reflects light from the star.  That’s right – the planet contains glass rain.  Molten silicate rains horizontally in a sideways direction at around 7,000 km/h.  Just imagine the geographical processes of that planet!  The geology, the chemistry, the…

Every now and then a phrase or an idea leaps out from an astronomical discovery which excites the imagination; ‘glass rain’ is one of those.  I don’t suppose molten silicate is even a particularly unusual occurrence, but it does indicate just how vast and diverse the Universe must be.  This planet is only 63 light years away and scarcely observable as it is – what wonders could exist beyond our reach?  If scientists expand on this technology and method, the possibilities of future discoveries are breathtaking.  It’s moments like these I wish I had become an astrophysicist.

*And scientists wonder why exoplanets never enter the public imagination.

Gaia: Why Mars is Probably Dead

As a tangent to yesterday’s post (and also because discussing bleak prospects for Mars appears popular), there’s another point in James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth that seems relevant for today.  It’s just been announced that NASA will send another rover to Mars in 2020 to compliment the work of the current Curiosity rover in its search for life.  While Curiosity has been generally examining the environment with its hi-tech equipment to see if it could ever have been fit for life, this new rover would focus on studying the planet’s geology.

When writing the book, it was Lovelock’s view that the development of life on a planet inevitably acts to terraform that planet to make it even more fit to harbour life – such as how on Earth life has regulated our atmosphere in the last 3 billion years to keep the temperature constant, despite the fact it ought to be lowering.  If Mars has ever had life on it, then this life should have modified the planet to make it more habitable, thereby leading to more life.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mars should still be habitable now if it ever sustained life – some catastrophe could have destroyed the atmosphere, for example – but signs of former life ought to be more obvious.  Certainly, it would suggest with certainty that no life exists now.  In this theory I think it’s still possible that life never developed past basic bacteria before being wiped out, but the chances of such a short lifespan can be considered unlikely.  If this is true then our search for life on Mars is probably in vain.

That’s not to say I don’t think we should be sending rovers to Mars.  Quite the contrary!  There is still so much we can learn from our neighbours whilst developing our own technological capabilities.  I just don’t think we should be getting our hopes up for any big announcements.

Gaia: Shifting of Scientific Consensus

I’ve just finished reading the 1979 book Gaia: A New Look At Life On Earth by James Lovelock.  It’s a good read and I’d highly recommend it, even if it may be a bit outdated.  In it, Lovelock sets out a summary of his ‘Gaia’ theory, a theory of the ‘Organic Earth’.  He visualises life across the planet as, although existing in an array of individual life forms, comprising something greater – a bit like how cells and bacteria in our bodies come together to comprise us.  His evidence and conjecture really are fascinating; he uses the improbable stability of the atmosphere as evidence, for instance, with there being an optimal level of oxygen to support life but not so much that there’s a danger of flammability.  This is an easier example to understand how Gaia works: if the oxygen level gets too high then forest fires would begin breaking out, adding carbon dioxide to the air and also limiting oxygen produced by plants.  If it gets too low in favour of carbon dioxide then plants will prosper, thereby creating an increase of oxygen into the air.  He also discusses the implications of human civilisation on Gaia.

I’m interested at the extent to which his ideas have entered the scientific mainstream opinion.  Lovelock clearly wrote Gaia knowing that parts of it would be perceived as a radical new idea, yet, much of it is familiar to things I recall learning at school.  I can’t name any specifics but the general concept of all life on Earth existing in a mutually-dependent relationship is one which seems obvious to me as a result of my education.  Has the consensus changed that much in just 30 years?  There are other things I noticed that have changed, such as successful steps taken to limit the emission of CFCs to save the ozone layer from depletion (a remarkable feat, in retrospect) which was only beginning when Lovelock wrote the book.  It’s now accepted that this action was well-judged and may have saved us from terrible consequences.

One thing which hasn’t changed is the debate over fossil fuels.  Lovelock seems to hold the position that they are not as great a problem as is often claimed (he even considers whether activities on land could ever truly threaten Gaia as long as the oceans are left intact; I disagree, though his example of the destruction Ice Ages cause is convincing).  He is outspoken in his opposition to renewable energy and even seems in favour of using fossil fuels which is, uh, a strange position for an ecologist to take.  To be fair, Lovelock aside, most scientists are in agreement that the use fossil fuels ought to be limited – it’s largely the public which still grasp on to outdated ideas.

Another idea I found fascinating was Lovelock’s speculation on the ‘purpose’ of humanity for Gaia.  Unlike evolution within a species, changes to Gaia don’t seem to necessarily require being advantageous to it so it’s possible that humanity could simply be an ‘accident’, but it’s interesting to speculate nonetheless.  He wondered whether an intelligent species (intelligence defined as having the ability to store information collectively and add to it throughout successive generations) might act as a kind of guardian of Gaia.  He pointed to a hypothetical asteroid collision with Earth, which in normal circumstances would be a catastrophe for life on Earth.  Humanity’s presence, however, through our development of technology might actually be able to stop this threat to Gaia.  It’s certainly a challenge to the accepted view that humans are nothing more than a cancer to the planet – though Lovelock does warn of the dangers human overpopulation might have for Gaia.

Despite being out of date in places and even despite disagreeing with bits of it, Gaia is still a book well worth reading.  You’ll need a basic understanding of chemistry and biology to understand everything but it is generally written in a readable and often quite poetic style.

Death on Mars

As far as we are aware, no organism has ever lived or died on our red neighbour, Mars.  Perhaps evidence will one day emerge of fossilised bacteria hidden within Martian rock.  There is indisputable proof that water once flowed freely on the surface after all, which is one prerequisite for life as we currently understand it.  Some scientists have even suggested life could exist today in underground, water-filled caverns, though I’m not sure how likely this is.  Whatever the truth, nobody has doubted that Mars’ oxygen-less, atmosphere-limited, distant surface would be an easy place to live, but this hasn’t deterred humanity’s persistent dream of one day walking on the red planet.

The Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery, on the other hand, might do just that.  Apparently the level of radiation potential astronauts would endure in both traveling and settling on Mars are far beyond what is considered safe for a human to experience.  Here are some figures, taken from the BBC (measure in millisievert, the unit of equivalent radiation dose):

  •  Annual average: 2.7mSv
  • Whole body CT Scan: 10mSv
  • 6 months on the International Space Station: 100mSv
  • Traveling to and from Mars (excluding time spent on planet): 660mSv

For the average human in a developed country exposed to 2.7mSv a year (so perhaps just over 200mSv in a lifetime), the chances of developing a cancer are around 1 in 4.  If I understand this correctly, this makes the chances of developing a cancer after traveling to Mars far greater than ought to be acceptable.

This, understandably, poses huge problems for the future of space exploration.  It’s incredible that such a haven for life could ever develop on the Earth considering how many dangers exist to us outside of the planet.  While I think some scientists are still optimistic, I find these figures very depressing.  They serve to remind me that the Earth is not a cradle, but a prison.  We are trapped here for each of our tiny lives until the prison walls break down and then even here won’t be inhabitable – once the solar flares beam down, or the surface becomes irradiated by ultra-violet light, or a stray piece of rock slams into us, or…

Mars is a world of death and Earth a world of life.  But Earth is defying the norm of the Universe – how long before it joins Mars?  It’s as if the Universe were designed with the strict intention of making life impossible.

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