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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/15/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 16, Whole Number 1619
Table of Contents
M. C. Escher *and* Pulp Illustration (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The New Britain [Connecticut] Museum of American Art currently has two exhibits of interest to science fiction fans: "M. C. Escher: Impossible Reality", which runs through November 14, 2010, and selections from The Robert Lesser Collection of Pulp Art (end date unspecified--it may be permanent). If you can't make it, the latter can be viewed in part at http://tinyurl.com/yzhea4p, although the on-line slide show has no text describing the works or artists.
Roy Ward Baker, R.I.P. (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Roy Ward Baker died October 5. Baker was the little known director of A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958), and excellent film on the sinking of the Titanic. Later in his career he directed for Hammer including THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and SCARS OF DRACULA (1970). He also directed for Hammer what I personally consider the best science fiction film ever made QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1968) (a.k.a FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). Other films he directed include ASYLUM (1972) and VAULT OF HORROR (1973) for Amicus. He also directed episodes for several popular television programs like "The Avengers" and "The Saint". [-mrl]
Discussion of Space Exploration and the Extinction of the Human Race (comments by Tom Russell and Mark R. Leeper):
This piece did not start out as a weekly editorial. I received this comment from frequent contributor Tom Russell and then I commented right back at him. But I think that the issues raised go beyond what we would put obscurely in a letter-of-comment column. I will make this exchange this week's editorial. This is what Tom wrote:
Jesus Christ Avatar
In a recent issue of MT VOID Mark commented on the debate in the science community over manned space flight vs. unmanned space probes. Stephen Hawking wrote that mankind needs to be able to move out beyond Earth in order to survive; others note the great difficulty and expense of manned space flight.
Years ago I read an article about the terrible fate of the people of Easter Island. The island was a lush paradise when they first arrived, but as their population increased they consumed everything on the island. In the end all the trees were gone, leaving them nothing with which to build boats to escape the paradise they had squandered.
Also in MT VOID, Mark commented on the movie SOYLENT GREEN. In 1973 we didn't know how easily we might kill the oceans. Scary: Our grandchildren may live to see SOYLENT GREEN come true.
Why is it we care about the future of humankind?
If life started when a random bolt of lightning struck a random puddle containing a random mix of chemicals dropped to Earth by one or more randomly-passing comets, and life has no purpose, and humans are the result of random mutations of that early life form, and the universe doesn't care if we exist or not, then what reason then can be given for trying to perpetuate us? We all are good- for-nothing in the grandest possible sense. Why, then, do we care about the future of humankind? Why spend resources on manned space flight to prepare to escape from the Earth?
Why should we try to learn about the universe?
If the universe started as a random burp of total nothingness - not even starting from an empty void - and is perhaps one of countless other universes each with its own space and time and laws of physics, without any cause-and-effect relationship with each other or anything else, if there indeed is anything else, which we can't possibly know, and without any design or any meaning to its existence, then surely there is no "Mind of God" (as Stephen Hawking once contemplated) or any ultimate truth or beauty to be learned by figuring it (our universe) out. What reason then can be given for exploring it at all? Why use our resources to send probes out into the unknown? There is, literally and completely, nothing to be learned.
It would be funny if the Theory of Everything turned out to be Murphy's Law. That certainly seems to be what science is telling us now. It's the random mutations of genes - things going wrong - that is the engine of evolution. The universe that we live in has doomed mankind, in fact, everything in it, to an ultimate and total extinction - the grandest of all instances of Murphy's Law.
Perhaps the story of Noah gives us the answer to the manned-vs.- unmanned debate: we need both. Noah built an ark to escape the doomed Earth; he used doves (unmanned probes) to learn where to go with the ark. We're going to need a bigger boat.
If, as science now tells us, our universe has doomed humankind, then our only hope for ultimate survival is to create other universes suitable for humankind, and to establish human life in those Edens. This would require technology far beyond "manned" or "unmanned" space flight. Further, we need to have some way of knowing we have succeeded, that is, we need to know that the beings we created, even if they happen to have blue skin, are truly a continuation of humankind - created in our own image. We must be able to send someone's soul to live within the body of one of those beings, to truly become one of those beings, and to then come back to let us know that our creation is good. Jesus Christ avatar, do you think they're what we hope they are?
But even having done all that - having become as gods - we would still not know why we exist. Perhaps we are only here because all the universe is a stage and all men and women are merely players. Or perhaps we're avatars, with our entrances and exits? Let's hope our movie isn't as terrible as Avatar. It couldn't be; we're in 11D.
- Tom Russell
This is my response:
I have read your essay and I can see we see things very differently. Let me examine some of the questions you raise and give my own answers.
IS LIFE WITHOUT PURPOSE?
You talk about whether what is life is without purpose and without meaning. Generally people who talk about a purpose to life independent of the individual are couching it in theological terms. We give our own lives purpose ourselves. Whether there is purpose beyond that really is a function of your theological conclusions. I suppose--being an agnostic on whether there is a God--I have to be equally agnostic about whether there is purpose to life beyond what we give it ourselves. However, just making the world work as well as I can manage to make it work is about all the purpose I can handle myself. That is a purpose that is big enough and noble enough for me. As for meaning, I am more than a step behind you. I not only do not know the meaning of life, I don't know what it would mean for something to be "a meaning of life." That phrase means little to me. All I know is that Monty Python gave us a bait and switch and never told us the meaning of life.
IS IT BECOMING TOO EXPENSIVE TO EXPLORE SPACE?
The Easter Island analogy for space travel is a definite concern. It may already be too expensive to explore much of our solar system, particularly with our economy as weak and fragile as it is these days. Energy is getting more expensive with time, certainly. On the other hand, our NASA budget is really a very tiny part of our national budget. Someone recently described it as being as small as a rounding error in the Federal budget. On the other hand it is a highly visible expense and that makes it an easy target for cuts. There is also the possibility that in the future space exploration could get cheaper. For example, if the space elevator is built or some other as yet undreamed of approach is implemented it could actually get cheaper in the future to send people into space.
WHY SHOULD WE PERPETUATE THE HUMAN RACE? WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF MANKIND?
The alternative is extinction. There are two aspects of human extinction that need to be considered. One is that the human race would have to die, and the second is that the human race would have to be dead. Let me discuss the second first.
The human race being dead is bad for a number of reasons. Humans have a natural urge and instinct to extend their line and have influence into the future. We do not want to feel that after we went through all the pain and expense of living nothing is left behind. And many people feel the best thing to leave behind is living vessels of their DNA in the form of descendents. I think I may feel the urge to extend my line less than most people have, but draw what conclusions you will from the fact that Evelyn and I have no children. Our DNA combinations end with us. (Shoot, and it was really good DNA we had too--really primo stuff.) But as to whether continuing our existence is important consider the human race has created works of art that will almost certainly go unappreciated after there are no longer humans. Without humans around to appreciate it, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just paint.
On the other hand alien races just might appreciate some of our contributions. We are a race that proved the Poincare Conjecture (and immodestly I add we are the race who discovered the Leeper P- Function http://leepers.us/p_function.pdf). Mathematical results we have discovered very possibly would have relevance to other races beyond planet Earth. One of the great attractions to mathematics for me is its (probably) literal universality. The appreciation of the Sistine Chapel is very human-specific while the establishment of truth of the Poincare Conjecture is not at all human-specific. The comprehension of the truth of the Poincare Conjecture may be limited to humans for now, but it would be just as true on alien planets. Mathematical truth has more potential to be transferrable to alien races than does art.
However being dead is just one of several disadvantages to dying. A most significant disadvantage to dying is the pain of death. And the pains of dying for the human race are not pretty much analogous to the pains of dying for the individual. There are questions of how long the race would know in advance that it is dying, how physically painful the dying process would be. Death could come to the human race in an instant without any advance warning. A supernova could send a cosmic blast of gamma radiation traveling at the speed of light that would kill everyone in an instant. All life on the planet could be dead too fast for it even to register as pain. As bad as that sounds, it is a really merciful way to go.
A much slower and more painful death would come from losing the phytoplankton in the seas. Lose the phytoplankton and we probably would starve the oceans and then starve ourselves.
If the food runs out there would very likely be slow starvation, but we would very likely speed things up with food wars. I prefer the gamma burst and no blindfold, thank you.
IF THE ORIGIN OF LIFE IS RANDOM, THEN IS STUDYING THE UNIVERSE POINTLESS?
I do not see why you think that if like has no a priori "meaning" than there is no reason to study and understand the universe. We are here in the middle of this infinite machine and I can think of very little that is a better purpose to life than to understand the machine. You seem to be saying that you have a favorite myth for how it all came together and you want what is observed to conform to that myth. You seem to feel that if it did not have your idea of "meaning" then it is pointless to study. I would say it is fascinating to study no matter what its origins were. And the more we can deduce about its nature and its origins the more beautiful it becomes.
The universe does not need a meaning to be beautiful in itself and noble to try to understand. It is a marvelous and beautiful mechanism in itself regardless of how it came together. Part of the beauty is its mystery. I strongly suspect that the universe's true origins are more wondrous than any creation myth.
ONE LAST POINT
You suggest science is telling us that the universe has doomed mankind. Mankind may be dooming mankind, but the universe as a whole is not.
Optical Illusions (letters of comment by Stephen Milton, voxwoman, Jo Paltin, Dave Anolick, Frank Leisti, Charles Harris, and Peter Rubinstein):
In response to Mark's question about the optical illusion in the 10/08/10 issue of the MT VOID, we got comments from Stephen Milton, Wendy Sheridan(?) (voxwoman), Jo Paltin, Dave Anolick, Frank Leisti, and Charles Harris. Peter Rubinstein sent the explanation of the originator (Jeremy Hinton), which can be found at http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/col_lilacChaser/index.html.
Charlie Harris says:
Actually, this is just a clever restaging of one of the classic visual illusions: the negative color afterimage. If you stare at a colored area for a while, then look at a neutral area (white or gray), you'll see the complementary color (and the complementary lightness--dark for light or vice versa). Explanations have invoked bleaching of color-sensitive photopigments in the eye, inhibition in the visual system, and adjustable gain or setpoint in neural opponent processes.
Negative afterimages are usually demonstrated with a simple stationary image. A Google Images search for "afterimage" turns up a zillion demos. You voluntarily move your eyes from the colored to the neutral area.
In the illusion that you cite, the gray area replaces the colored one for you, one disk at a time (also giving the illusion of motion). Each time a pink disk blinks off, the green afterimage becomes visible on the gray background. The green is too pale to outweigh the pink, but if you simply shift your gaze, you'll see the green afterimages of the whole flock of pink disks.
My erstwhile Bell Labs colleague George Sperling did a quantitative study of a single-disk version. He was able to produce an even more striking illusion, by alternating colored and neutral at certain rates:
"[A] hand holding a (green) dollar bill appears as a pale green hand holding a pink bill.... If the presentation is recycled several times a second, a 'continuous,' color-reversed, flickering image is seen."
Sperling, G. (1960). Negative afterimage without prior positive image. Science, 131, 1613-1614.
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The science fiction book discussion group book for September was THE DISPOSSESSED by Ursula K. LeGuin (ISBN 978-0-061-05488-4). (A side note: This group is now meeting bi-monthly, alternating with the science book discussion group, since the two groups are basically all the same people.) The basic story of THE DISPOSSESSED is probably familiar to most science fiction readers: Two hundred years before the time of the novel, a group of anarchists left Urras for its moon (really a twin planet) Anarres to found an anarchist society. Both sides agreed to isolation, and only now is contact re-established. Shevek is a mathematician on Anarres where, although everyone praises the principles of total personal liberty espoused in their society, the actual society is far more constrained, not by laws, but by tradition and custom. Unable to publish his radical theories about time, Shevek decides to go to the capitalist society on Urras. (There is also a Marxist society on Urras, as well as various "Third World" countries. Urras is very much a copy of 1970s Earth.) Surprise, surprise, this is no Paradise either.
Anyway, what struck me was how similar Anarres seemed to North Korea as described in Barbara Demick's NOTHING TO ENVY. Life is always fairly Spartan on Anarres due to minimal natural resources, but a famine strains it even more. There is a "cult of the hero", though it is a heroine (Odo) and she is already dead. Everyone spouts slogans, the more so when conditions are hard. And so on. And underlying it all is the fact that the reality not only fails to live up to the theory, but that the people living in it don't realize this. (ANIMAL FARM is a more familiar literary example.)
The problem with THE DISSPOSSESSED, alas, is that LeGuin is not willing to let the reader draw their own conclusions about this, but instead has the characters lecturing each other about all this. (The introduction of a Terran ambassador--someone unfamiliar with either Anarres or Urras--at the end provides even more opportunity for this.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: That I could clamber to the frozen moon And draw the ladder after me. -- Author Unknown
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