MT VOID 08/07/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 6, Whole Number 1557

MT VOID 08/07/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 6, Whole Number 1557

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/07/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 6, Whole Number 1557

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Acknowledgement (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

This week's MT VOID is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Buy a used Humvee today. Real men don't worry about gas prices. [-mrl]

Song Lyric (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

We hear on the radio a sort of smarmy love song called "I'm Walking Behind You." I thought to myself I could write a better song to fit that title. The original song is sung by Frank Sinatra at What do you think?

   I'm walking behind you,
   And I have a knife.
   I'll be walking behind you
   The rest of your life.

Now isn't that better? His melody is the same as mine. [-mrl]

Thoughts on Issues of Exo-Biology (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

There have recently been some discoveries of Earth-like planets and that gets some people excited about the possibility that they might have Earth-like life. Some scientists seem to believe that life is very likely to generate on Earth-like planets. Nature seems to move in the direction of creating amino acids, the building blocks of life. I am skeptical. First of all, I am not sure at what point in Earth's history it became an "Earth-like" planet. For the vast majority of Earth's history it would have been fairly hostile to the emergence of life. It was "Earth-like" all that time. You really have to catch a planet in a small window of time if you want to find life as we think of life. But have the Earth-like qualities of Earth really fostered life?

We place all of life in the history of Earth in what I take to be a single evolutionary tree. So why didn't parallel-life develop on this planet? Okay, it did form, but that is not what I mean. I mean that the probability that life would form naturally on a planet is probably the same that life would independently develop twice given that it developed once. But I believe the current theory is that there was only one origin of life. If life developed a second and third time on this planet, wouldn't there be disjoint evolutionary trees? But I think the current thinking is that there is only one tree.

Well, there could be multiple explanations. It could be that life did develop multiple times but the life was so similar that we could not determine that some life has come from a different development of life. If there were two disjoint trees of life on Earth, each from an independent development of life, we might erroneously assume that the two roots of the zoological trees have a fictional common ancestor. This is similar to the Creationist claim that species were created pretty much the way they are today and, for example, humans and apes have no common ancestor. This makes for a very large number of short family trees. This is a possible model, but it is unlikely because the apes' tree is so similar to the human tree and the simplest explanation for that is that the two trees spring from a common root. And they are hence connected. However, it may be hard to tell two trees are really two trees without actually deciding if they have a common root.

Let me make an analogy. As I look at my backyard I see two trees. Let us assume these are the same species of tree. Then I might not know for sure the two trees really are two trees. Down below they might join and have a single root system. Unless I dig up and see the entire trees I cannot know for sure they are two different trees. Unless you can see the entire structure, two adjacent trees are hard to distinguish from a single tree. Of course I might examine the DNA of the two trees and determine if they are the same, but even if they are the same one could have been grown from a cutting of the other. (Side note: In one sense they may even be the same tree even if not connected. All navel orange trees I believe are genetically equivalent and owe their origin to one tree from which cuttings have been taken. In a sense that makes them a single tree. But I am digressing.) My point is that two graphical trees are indistinguishable from a single tree unless you can see for yourself that they are connected.

We tend to think that the zoological tree is all one tree having its root in unicellular creatures and that even the unicellular creatures have some common ancestor. But it is easy to see similarities in complex creatures like humans and chimpanzees and to conclude they are so similar they must have a common ancestor. But given two different single-celled creatures I am not so sure there is enough structure to tell if there is a common ancestor. That would make it possible that there may be multiple trees that are really not relatives of each other.

Another possibility is that there are multiple trees that merged at a higher level. It has been suggested that mitochondria are really a virus that originally invaded a different kind of creature and stayed in a sort of symbiosis. It might be possible that they may owe their origin to a different emergence of life than we do.

So life on Earth may form one tree with one origin. Call this "Hypothesis V". It may form multiple disjoint trees: "Hypothesis VV". Or it could be multiple trees that have joined at a higher point: "Hypothesis W". (I assume the reader will understand why I chose those names.) If V is true I would ask why there was only one emergence of life, and it makes the finding of exobiology less likely. Hypotheses VV and W make it seem more likely that life will be widespread in the universe.

None of this changes my belief that Drake's Equation (see the link below) yields probabilities so small that it is highly unlikely that the Human Race will ever encounter a recognizably intelligent alien, though I also believe the probabilities are also in favor of there being many cases intelligent life many on many planets in the universe.

Wikipedia on Drake's Equation:>


Sex and Birds (letter of comment by John Purcell):

In response to Mark's comments on "Jurassic Love Nests" in the 07/31/09 issue of the MT VODI, John Purcell writes:

Your latest production has produced some comments from me that I feel compelled to share with you. To whit:

I agree with you that America is extraordinary Victorian in its prudency about sex, especially in movies. Your comment "We are watching this program "Jurassic Fight Club" that is about paleontology and long extended sequences of dinosaurs fighting. I admit it. I enjoy it more than the European equivalent which I assume would be 'Jurassic Love Nests' or 'The Jurassic Dating Game'" had me chuckling. Would you much rather be watching long extended sequences of dinosaurs having sex? If so, I suggest you and Evelyn start sleeping in separate bedrooms. ;=)

That reminds me: there really is a movie called "Jurassic Pork", which has nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with a batch of prehistoric swine brought back to life in the 20th century. Google it in sometime and you'll see what I mean. [-jp]

Mark replies:

Now you have me ready to look for "Jurassic Pro Wresting". Or how about "Cretaceous Celebrity Poker"? The one program where the Tyrannosaurus is at a disadvantage because he cannot hold his cards and see them too. [-mrl]

In response to Mark's comments on birds in the same issue, John writes:

It is also very interesting to think of birds being descendants of dinosaurs. That bit of knowledge is fascinating, and gives one pause when considering evolution. Of course, that train of thought gets me to musing about the denizens that populate this part of Texas, which my wife and I have labeled The Land That Time Forgot. There are insects, snakes, and lizards (geckos and anoles) in our yard that, quite frankly, remind me of old SF movies with Ray Harryhausen special effects. There hasn't been a hard freeze here in positively ages, so these beasties thrive on from time immemorial.

And I do love what you tell your students (having dinosaur for Thanksgiving). That must cause some weird faces. Naturally, my mind spins out of control with lines like this, so I start thinking of the Flintstones eating brontosaurus burgers and racks of spare ribs the size of a barge. Sometimes I am hungry enough I could probably eat ribs like that. Imagine the size of the barbecue grill you'd need to cook that up! [-jp]

Mark replies:

Well, now it seems birds are not descendents of dinosaurs but cousins. And even being cousins, dinosaurs never show up to family reunions.

And Ray Harryhausen maybe created thunder lizards, but he hates to see real lizards used as dinosaurs. Though the truth is that he used a blown-up lizard in ONE MILLION YEARS BC. [-mrl]

And in response to the various letters in the same issue, John writes:

Anyway, I better leave it at that. I don't do math very well, but the computational discussions in the latest VOID were still interesting and practical, which would have helped me taking this subject in high school and college. I'll leave this kind of stuff to you and your mathematically inclined readers. [-jp]

Birds (letter of comment by Steve Milton):

In response to Mark's comments on birds in the 07/31/09 issue of the MT VOID, Steve Milton writes, "If birds are no longer in the evolutionary line of dinosaurs, what is an archeopteryx classified as?" [-smm]

Mark replies, "Good question. If birds lose their dinosaur status, archeopteryx would also for the same reasons, I would think. I think that archeopteryx are still an ancestor of birds. There still is some question of whether archeopteryx is genuine, but I think these days the tide of opinion is that it is. Besides, other feathered dinosaurs have been found." [-mrl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

The Connectivity of the Library of Babel (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about the connectivity of the Library of Babel as described by Jorge Luis Borges. Well, I wrote that article a while ago, and as I was working on it, I discovered that there had just been a book published on that very topic: THE UNIMAGINABLE MATHEMATICS OF BORGES' LIBRARY OF BABEL by William Goldbloom Bloch (ISBN-13 978-0-19-533457-9, ISBN-10 0-19-533457-4).

Bloch covers all the mathematical aspects of the Library, not just the layout of rooms. So he has chapters on "Combinatorics: Contemplating Variations of the 23 Letters", "Information Theory: Cataloguing the Collection", "Real Analysis: The Book of Sand", and "Topology and Cosmology: The Universe (Which Others Call the Library)". But the chapter which covers the same topic as I did last week is "Geometry and Graph Theory: Ambiguity and Access".

Before I talk about that, though, I want to mention his conclusions in "Topology and Cosmology: The Universe (Which Others Call the Library)". Bloch begins with the two sentences "The Library is a sphere whose precise center is any hexagon, and whose circumference is inaccessible," and "The Library is unlimited and periodic." These he reduces to six requirements: 1) spherical, 2) uniform symmetry, 3) circumference unobtainable, 4) no boundaries, 5) limitless, and 6) periodic. And from these he concludes that the Library must be on a 3-sphere (existing in 4-space). This is not the approach I took; I assumed the Library existed in a basically Euclidean three-dimensional space.

As for what I discussed last week, Bloch has new insights. For example, I said, "For every hexagon to be accessible from every other hexagon, if only (a maximum of) two exits are allowed per hexagon, then it appears that the layout must be in effect a spiral. ... The problem with this is that it in effect makes each floor of the Library a single infinitely long room with one fixed end. This does not appear to be how Borges wanted the reader to picture the Library. And indeed, the necessity to select a starting hexagon--which will have only one exit instead of two-- violates both the statement that all hexagons are identical and that any hexagon may be considered the center of the Library." Bloch has no problem with each floor being a single long path, perhaps because his embedding of the Library in 4-space solves the problem of having a starting hexagon with only one exit.

However, I also said that "one might marginally improve the connectivity by alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise traversals on alternating floors." Since I had assumed each hexagon had two exits, each with a spiral staircase, this is just wrong. As Bloch points out, this assumption mandates that every floor of the Library is identical to every other. It turns out that if each hexagon has two exits but only one staircase, then it is possible to have different paths on each floor.

I also wanted to point out that the topic covered in "Combinatorics: Contemplating Variations of the 23 Letters" is one that Borges was not the first to address. Kurd Lasswitz's "The Universal Library" was first published in the United States in 1958 in Clifton Fadiman's classic anthology, FANTASIA MATHEMATICA (ISBN-13 978-0-387-94931-4, ISBN-10 0-387-94931-3), but had been published in Germany over half a century earlier, in 1901. And indeed Borges discusses it at length in his essay "The Total Library" (1939), and then explicitly lists it as a major inspiration for "The Library of Babel" (1941) in his introduction to his collection FICCIONES. Lasswitz assumes 100 symbols rather than 25, but is also more concerned with the number of books rather than the layout of any library containing them.

(There have been other books covering the mathematical aspects of Borges's work. Alas, most of them seem to be out of print and hence very expensive.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, 
           to make the world signify, to render it 
           visible.  We are not, however, in danger 
           of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, 
           we are gorged with meaning and it is 
           killing us.
                                          --Jean Baudrillard

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