Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A World without Saul


A while ago, I was part of a conversation on one of my favourite speculative topics – time travel. The question asked was, if you had access to a time machine, what would you do with it?

One respondent, presumably an ardent atheist, responded that he would go back in time and kill Saul of Tarsus.

For those of you who don’t know, Saul of Tarsus is otherwise known as St Paul, and he was a critical figure in the development and spread of early Christianity. He was central in taking the beliefs of a small pocket of Jesus followers centred on Jerusalem to the greater Graeco-Roman world. The history of the Roman Empire, and indeed of the world, would be extremely different were it not for his actions.

Now, the sentiment being expressed is a common one, especially on the Internet. There are a lot of people out there who genuinely feel that many of the world’s problems can be traced back to dogmatic religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. This is especially true of the New Atheists, the most famous of whom include Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. There are echoes of Enlightenment-era thinkers in their words and they are strident, unrelenting and unabashed in their criticism of religion and elevation of reason, science and skepticism as the ideal basis of any worldview.

As for why atheists tend to be so vocal on the Internet, I can only speculate. My guess is that many of the more pugnacious atheists are so because they grew up or live in a religious environment or surrounded by believers. Some natural reactions to ubiquitous attitudes that are contrary to one’s own are anger or withdrawal, sometimes both. So, people withdraw to the Internet and vent their rage online.

It certainly doesn’t help that a common belief among religious people is that because an atheist does not draw their morality from an ultimate authority, that they are therefore lacking in a moral centre.

To this young man (I am guessing his age and gender), I told him that I doubted very much that he would like the result.

Northern and Eastern Germany and Scandinavia would still be mainly rural backwaters filled with rapey, bearded, violent raiders. England would likely be the same. Eastern Europe would have no real cities and the rest of Europe and the Levant would cower in fear of Hunnic/Slavic/Mongol/Turkic/Avar horsemen from the Steppe.

Mediterranean civilisation, if it weren’t overrun by invading barbarian hordes, would be much the same as it is now in terms of social mores… only with slightly looser attitudes on things like slavery, which lost favour in Europe very slowly, first with a distaste for the idea of Christians being slaves of non-Christians, then for Christians being slaves at all and finally for slavery entirely. The process took nearly two millennia.

You have to remember that Christianity, by the time it became the religion of the Empire, had essentially absorbed Graeco-Roman morality almost in its entirety and appended some conservative ideas governing sexuality and a few ideals surrounding charity, suffering and pacifism. None of Christianity’s moral attitudes were entirely alien to Graeco-Roman culture, but Christianity did do a lot to standardise them across the board.

Of Graeco-Roman attitudes adopted by early Christianity, one of the more interesting ones is the attitude toward women. The restrictions on a woman’s role in the church by the author of the Timothy letters (attributed to Paul but likely a 2nd century author), for instance, were the result of one Christian community’s attempt at fitting in to the greater Graeco-Roman society around them.

They tried to do this by combatting some of the competing attitudes prevalent in Christian communities at the time, exemplified in popular writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which included the notion that a woman could do significant things and was in many ways the equal to any man. The idea that a woman could do more than simply get married and pump out babies was so radical that a common pagan criticism of early Christianity was that it was anti-family-values.

Bear in mind that this dissenting attitude would not be endorsed by many modern feminists. It held that chastity was the greatest virtue and that complete and utter submission to God was the ideal life. It did, however, provide a vision for a woman to have a far greater role in controlling her own life and in her faith.

People seem to misunderstand (and mischaracterise) just how Greek early Christianity was after Paul. From its Platonic conceptions on the nature of God, the immortality of the soul (hotly contested in Jewish circles but not questioned in Christianity), the afterlife, the organisation of its hierarchy, to the morals its adherents lived by and the analytical and argumentative nature of its theological scholarship, it all derived from or was guided by existing Greek philosophical tradition. Far from being an alien implant that swept away or poisoned existing Graeco-Roman culture, it was existing Graeco-Roman culture that happened to import and then digest a bunch of Jewish/Eastern ideas.

This became truer as time went on and Christianity became unmoored from its Jewish roots. When Graeco-Roman Gentiles became the majority of Jesus followers, it was all over. Graeco-Roman Christians depicted God in mosaic and statuary artwork, ate pork, failed to circumcise their sons and generally kept their own ways almost from the beginning.

Even setting aside all that, you have the various crises that beset Europe in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th centuries (invasions and plagues, mostly) and the state’s inability to respond to them effectively, and you have the entire thing breaking apart or being absorbed by foreign powers without some pan-European organisation holding it all together, which is what the Medieval Church provided. Indeed, for a long time, with the breakdown of civil administration in Western Europe, the withering of the educational system and the advent of an illiterate warrior nobility, the Medieval Church was the only institution that had anyone who knew how to hold a pen in some areas, let alone how to do sums, build in stone or preserve history.

Without Christianity, there would likely be no Islam either, which would mean that there would be no sudden papyrus shortage in the 7th century (due to the Roman Empire’s loss of Egypt to the armies of Islam) that precipitated a lot of the knowledge loss and paper-reuse in Medieval Europe (people would scrape existing words off a page to reuse the paper). But then again, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that papyrus eventually rots and parchment doesn’t if you look after it properly. The great library in Constantinople had huge issues with thousand-year-old manuscripts rotting away before they could be preserved. With so many books and copying having to be done by hand, it was inevitable.

The bottom line, however, is that without Christianity and especially the Medieval Church, Western Europe would have eventually been overrun and broken up by barbarians and the whole region would have splintered into regional powers with no real commonalities or transmission of ideas or technology between them at all. There would be whole swaths of the continent today where the whole society wouldn’t even know how to read, let alone know what the Romans did or who Aristotle was.

The upshot to all this is that you’ve got a world where European civilisation, mostly centred around the Mediterranean, has a half-remembered, glorious past but where anything too far inland in the north is barbarian land where ruined cities and forts stand in silent testimony to what could have been. In this scenario, China is the world’s leading power and the scientific revolution may never have happened.

With Paul out of the picture, Christianity remains a tiny splinter group within Judaism and may have in fact died with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Without Christianity, what hope could there have been for a pan-European common identity or a pan-European common language after the collapse of the Western Empire? In the chaos that followed, what other forces could have spread ideas as far afield as Dublin, Oslo, Palermo and Constantinople?

I would argue none.


How Many Nappies Do I Need to Buy?

Baby Love

So, you’ve found out the news that you’re going to be a first time parent!  Congratulations! Apart from being completely intimidating and more than a little bit terrifying a prospect, this is a joyous time, but if you’re anything like me, you want to do a little bit of planning ahead of time.

One of the pieces of advice that often gets bandied about is the tip that you should stock up on nappies early and to purchase them while they are on special at your local supermarket.  This is all well and good, but the next thing that will happen is that you will go to the store and again be completely overwhelmed.  There are at least six different sizes of disposable nappy available from a variety of companies, all offering different gimmicks in order to entice you to buy them over their competitors. Not only that, but they also come in different quantities, so you’re left wondering which packs to stock up on, and how much is enough.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the different varieties are divided up by weight rather than something more intuitive like height or length and they overlap a bit so your little one is always covered.  Again though, there is no real guidance as to which ones to buy and how many to get. Searching online seems to only yield forum posts and thumb-in-the-air estimations from parents, which is a little bit imprecise for my tastes.

So I decided to do a few quick calculations.

First, I downloaded the World Health Organisation’s statistics on child growth from birth to five years old. These are divided up between data for boys and data for girls, which the Victorian state government in Australia helpfully put into a graphical form that you can print out and refer to.  The next thing I did was to look up the Huggies website and looked up their range of nappies.  I chose Huggies not because I particularly trust the brand (My wife and I are still just expectant parents ourselves, so I have no opinion one way or the other), but because they’re reasonably popular here in Australia, have the full range of sizes and are a bit more expensive than most other brands, which for a worst-case-scenario calculation like this one, is perfect. I’ve also assumed you’re paying retail prices and buying in their biggest bulk size ($35/box), which as we know, is very often not the case.

The WHO data is divided up into fifteen percentile categories with the 0.1st percentile meaning that 99.9% of babies are bigger, the tenth percentile meaning 90% of babies are bigger and so forth until you get to the 99.9th percentile, wherein only o.1% of babies are bigger than this set of figures.  For the vast majority (i.e. 80%) of babies, weights between the 10th and 90th percentiles is expected, so don’t panic if your baby is a bit bigger or a bit smaller than the average.

I also assumed that a newborn baby will need a nappy change once every sleep / waking cycle, which for most babies is between two and three hours (which works out to be about 9.6 nappies used a day) and that a month is 30.4167 days long.  The assumption is also that this rate will never change. Remember though that this is a worst-case-scenario calculation and many babies will use fewer nappies, especially after they start on solid food.

Here below then, are the tabulated results for girls with the average sized baby highlighted in red:

Percentiles P10% P15% P25% P50% P75% P85% P90%
Girls Months spent at various weights (up to 36 months)
Mths Newborn 3 2 2 2 1 1 1
Mths Infant 6 6 5 4 3 3 3
Mths Crawler 19 18 17 14 12 10 8
Mths Toddler 9 11 13 17 15 14 14
Mths Walker 0 0 0 0 6 9 9
Mths Junior 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Girls Number of nappies required @ 292 nappies / month
Newborn 876 584 584 584 292 292 292
Infant 1752 1752 1460 1168 876 876 876
Crawler 5548 5256 4964 4088 3504 2920 2336
Toddler 2628 3212 3796 4964 4380 4088 4088
Walker 0 0 0 0 1752 2628 2628
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 0 584
Number of boxes required
Newborn 8.2 5.5 5.5 5.5 2.8 2.8 2.8
Infant 18.3 18.3 15.3 12.2 9.2 9.2 9.2
Crawler 61.7 58.4 55.2 45.5 39 32.5 26
Toddler 36.5 44.7 52.8 69 60.9 56.8 56.8
Walker 0 0 0 0 27.4 41.1 41.1
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 0 9.8
Total Boxes 124.7 126.9 128.8 132.2 139.3 142.4 145.7
Total Cost $4364.5 $4441.5 $4508 $4627 $4875.5 $4984 $5099.5

And the same results for boys:

Percentiles P10% P15% P25% P50% P75% P85% P90%
Boys Months spent at various weights (up to 36 months)
Mths Newborn 2 2 2 1 1 1 1
Mths Infant 5 4 3 3 3 2 2
Mths Crawler 17 16 15 12 9 8 7
Mths Toddler 13 15 17 18 15 15 14
Mths Walker 0 0 0 3 9 9 9
Mths Junior 0 0 0 0 0 2 4
Boys Number of nappies required @ 292 nappies / month
Newborn 584 584 584 292 292 292 292
Infant 1460 1168 876 876 876 584 584
Crawler 4964 4672 4380 3504 2628 2336 2044
Toddler 3796 4380 4964 5256 4380 4380 4088
Walker 0 0 0 876 2628 2628 2628
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 584 1168
Number of boxes required
Newborn 5.5 5.5 5.5 2.8 2.8 2.8 2.8
Infant 15.3 12.2 9.2 9.2 9.2 6.1 6.1
Crawler 55.2 52 48.7 39 29.2 26 22.8
Toddler 52.8 60.9 69 73 60.9 60.9 56.8
Walker 0 0 0 13.7 41.1 41.1 41.1
Junior 0 0 0 0 0 9.8 19.5
Total Boxes 128.8 130.6 132.4 137.7 143.2 146.7 149.1
Total Cost $4508 $4571 $4634 $4819.5 $5012 $5134.5 $5218.5

The thing that jumped out at me was how little difference it makes if you have a little boy or a little girl. It adds up to maybe a few hundred dollars over three years. I’m sure other things factor in, but for nappies at least, boys and girls are evenly matched.

If you wanted to do your own calculation and modify it to suit how many nappies your baby uses after they are on solids (which I unfortunately couldn’t find reliable data on), I think the important takeaway here is the part of each table that shows how many months your baby is likely to be in each weight category.  If your baby cuts down to (say) five nappies per day after starting solids, then you might only need half the boxes I calculated here from there on in. Every kid is different, however, so if you use this information as the basis for your own calculation, remember that the WHO statistics are just a rough guide, not the be all and end all.

I hope this helps you first time parents out there.  I know I felt a little bit better myself once I worked out what to expect.

Building the Boys from Brazil

Evil paper clips... Eeeeeviiiilllll!
Just recently, I saw the film The Boys from Brazil for sale at my local JB HiFi (sort of like an Aussie Best Buy) for cheap and saw that Gregory Peck was in it. There was a swastika on the cover too, so I bought it, assuming it would be about Gregory Peck kicking Nazi butt and taking names in South America.

What I got instead was alt-history scifi with Peck playing escaped Nazi war criminal Dr Josef Mengele in Brazil trying to re-create Adolf Hitler using 95 clones. The idea was that with the same genes as the original, all you would need to do would be to recreate Hitler’s environment growing up (family life, major events etc.) in the lives of the clones and at least one of them would grow up and become the same guy who took over half of Europe in World War 2.

To that end, Mengele and his Neo Nazi backers sent out agents to do things like murder the boys’ adoptive fathers when the boys were the same age as the original Hitler was when his own father died. They even vetted the families for similarities to Hitler’s for things like income, the type of job the father had, the comparative ages of the adoptive parents and possibly pre-existing racist beliefs in the family.

Throughout the movie, you see glimpses of how the boys’ lives and personalities developed. What I thought was clever was that they all had some kind of artistic hobby, be it playing with marionettes/puppets, photography or music (the original wanted to be a painter growing up) and that they were all spoilt, stuck-up little so-and-sos despite being raised in different parts of the world, implying that the plan was working to a certain extent, at least in the initial stages.

The actual “science” part of the scifi is a little out of date and there are some goofs, for instance when comparing identical twins to clones and declaring that clones are more alike than twins, but apart from that it holds up reasonably well. Especially prescient is the description of the cloning process, which closely mirrors what biologists do today, but that was at that time (1978) only theoretically possible.

The film and the book by Ira Levin it was based on both end with the plan being foiled by the protagonist, but only after 18 of the boys’ fathers were already killed. The film and the book both imply that this was all that was statistically required for at least one of the boys to grow up to become the next Hitler (though to what confidence interval this was calculated to was never stated). The book apparently ends with one boy exhibiting delusions of grandeur like his clone father, foreshadowing a repeat of the horrors the original Hitler wrought.

After the credits rolled and I had digested Gregory Peck’s amazing performance, I began to think about just what would be required to orchestrate such a plan. The film’s Mengele was a character of such arrogant bombast, such diabolical supervillainy and calculated genius that I wouldn’t doubt his ability to fulfill the task. All the same, it would be a staggering challenge that would net the man a Nobel prize were it not for the fact that his work happened to be in the service of some of the purest kind of evil. No matter how early Peck’s Mengele got up in the morning, he must have had some help, is what I’m getting at.

Putting aside the plausibility of Mengele achieving human cloning in a Paraguayan shack back in 1964, let alone on such a mass scale, what really struck me was the sheer audacity, resources and long-term planning that such a project would necessarily involve.

In the film, it is mentioned that the cloning process is very inefficient, meaning that nine in ten attempts at a successful clone pregnancy end in failure. Thus to get 95 healthy boys, Mengele would have needed to have attempted the process nearly 1,000 times. In reality, for a variety of reasons, the failure rate is much higher, between 97% and 99.9%, meaning that to get the same results in the real world, Mengele would need to repeat the process between 3,000 and 95,000 times.

Mengele would have needed a veritable assembly line of doctors working round the clock even at the optimistic success rates the movie cites. Not to mention all the women required to carry the cloned babies to term and the money and medical staff needed to look after them all. Ten doctors trained in the cutting edge cloning process, two or three hundred potential mothers and an entire hospital wing worth of staff and equipment would be the minimum required to pull it off and even then, it would take years.

Then there’s the issue of financing the venture. In the film, Mengele mentions that the project cost millions of dollars to bring to fruition. Given the technology and scale involved, this sounds about right, even in Paraguay and even in 1960s US dollars. This begs the question of just where Mengele and the Neo Nazis got all that money.

The answer, presumably, lies in hoards of what is referred to as Nazi Gold – confiscated wealth, art and treasure laundered through and secreted away in Swiss bank accounts during the war. This is a conspiracy theory with an element of truth to it, as members of the Nazi regime did become very wealthy and much of this wealth made its way into the secretive Swiss banking system, but to what extent this wealth was accessible after the war is open to speculation. We do know that it amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars and as much as three quarters of it may have been looted since the war, giving the film some firm basis of plausibility on that account.

Then there is the matter, once the boys were born and covertly distributed to their adoptive families, of ensuring that their lives followed the same trajectory as that of Hitler himself, an altogether more difficult proposition. The film showed how the task of murdering the boys’ fathers could be managed by six men with fake IDs and an unlimited travel and guns budget. What the movie did not show was the difficulty in arranging further transformational events in the boys’ lives that would mirror the biography of the man they were created from.

Two transformational events in Hitler’s adult life that would be harder for Mengle’s goons to recreate would be the young Hitler’s years spent homeless and alone as a failed artist on the streets of cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic Vienna and his tour of duty as a soldier on the front lines in France during World War 1. Both of these events were instrumental in the making of the man who inspired Godwyn’s Law, the first for helping to cement his racism and the second for filling him with the all-consuming rage that would fuel his political fire.

Without either of these things happening, Hitler may just have become a clerk or the owner of an art gallery somewhere, married some farm girl and raised three average and unremarkable kids, dying in relative anonymity surrounded by grieving grandchildren. Instead of stoking the blaze of Armageddon that was World War 2, he could have led a perfectly dull life and it all hinged in these two events.

Clearly, just killing the boys’ fathers isn’t enough.

The failed artistic career and subsequent homelessness would probably be easy for the agents to ensure because, let’s be honest, Hitler was never very good at painting and the clones would probably get rejected from art/music/dance/clown school on their own merits anyway. The issue was never that the young Hitler had bad technique – it was that he just painted what he saw in a time when modern, abstract art was beginning to flourish. He was utterly lacking in the kind of imaginative flair that characterises a good artist and that art schools looked for in potential applicants and so, he was told time and again to apply again next year. This would make him hate modern art in later life and his drive to stamp it outward in part a reaction to this crushing rejection.

Having said that, if the bar happened to be set particularly low that year, a clone or two might actually get into their school of choice and be exposed to a very different kind of life to that of a starving street vagabond. He might try a few mind altering substances (it being the early to mid 1980s), be exposed to all sorts of unconventional political ideas by his teachers and maybe even meet a cute Jewish or black girl who would go in to turn his world upside down. After that, the clone would be useless to Mengele. He just would not be angry or racist enough by half and probably even hold pacifistic left wing political views.

This isn’t even considering that during the mid 1980s, welfare programs that didn’t exist in the early 1910s were by then well in place in many countries, so that the clones would not have to actually experience starvation or homelessness even if they were rejected from their school of choice. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the conditions wouldn’t still be harrowing or life altering, after all, a clone living on welfare in 1980s New York or London would be living in some rough neighbourhoods, but you might mitigate the worst of the racism the original Hitler developed during his time as a vagabond.

Sure, Mengele’s lackeys could use intimidation, blackmail or bribery to keep the young clones out of school, but how would they force the issue of privation and abject poverty? They could periodically rob the boys or have their stuff destroyed, which would require consistent monitoring and sustained effort, but that would require more men.

Simulating the effect of World War 1 would prove even more difficult as the cultural impact of World War 1 as compared to other wars cannot be overstated. Before World War 2 came along, it was called The Great War, the War To End All Wars and a bunch of other names to connote just how big a deal it was. It changed the world in many fundamental ways, arguably moreso than World War 2 did.

Prior to World War 1, people in Europe thought of wars as grand romantic adventures, full of brave deeds and noble causes like love, duty, loyalty and honour. Prior to World War 1, people were living in the world of Napoleon and Wellington, of cavalry charges, resplendent uniforms, curled moustaches, shiny buckles and cannon fire. The First World War destroyed all of that. War became about industrialised death: grisly, dirty, explodey, impersonal, inglorious death. It didn’t matter anymore if you were brave or plucky, skilled or strong, daring or beautiful because mortar fire and mustard gas would kill you just the same as your cowardly, weak, inept, ugly comrades.

At the end of World War 1, gone were the men on horseback in their bright blue uniforms, ornate sabers, spiked helmets and polished brass buckles. Here to stay were round helmets, drab uniforms and guns. War had taken a turn for the industrial and in the time it took for the generals on both sides to realise this, an entire generation had been traumatised by the sight of thousands of men dying all at once in what could only be described as wholesale butchery.

A big part of the problem was that this was a time when war had been a gentlemanly affair in which death was dealt on a more-or-less individual basis and the kind of mass destruction we take for granted about war today was completely unimaginable. Sure, the world saw glimpses of it during, say, the American Civil War, but to most Europeans, that had been a regional conflict that had taken place on the other side of the world, so it really didn’t matter.

The full scale of the horror of modern warfare, then, just kind of hit all at once for the belligerents in genteel Europe. It was so very extreme in both the stresses and the stakes that some people came home at the end of the war fully prepared to go to extremes in every other aspect of their lives, and this was especially true in politics. Hitler, being among this generation, cited it as transforming him into the political firebrand he would become.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the eponymous boys from Brazil would have been of age with Hitler during World War 1, would have had no real analogue for this life-changing event. Perhaps some if them could have served in the Gulf War or in Afghanistan, or perhaps in one of several other minor or proxy wars fought by the countries with majority-white populations in which they were placed, but these would have been nothing compared to the psychic shock that World War 1 brought to the table for that generation. Not only that, but the possibility of mass destruction is now priced into people’s expectations for war, which lessens the effect.

Which is to say nothing of the fact that Hitler’s politics were heavily influenced by the simple fact that Germany lost the war, and in such specifically ambiguous (to the common soldier) circumstances that a myth about the soldiers being “stabbed in the back” began to develop around the Armistice. Hitler’s politics and even his political drive would have been radically different if, say, Germany had won the war or had lost unequivocally in the eyes of the common soldier. The wind in Hitler’s sails was the profound sense of shame and betrayal felt by a sizable portion of the German populace and either of those outcomes would rob any of his clones of that political power.

I would have to wonder at what machinations Mengele’s flying monkeys would attempt to emulate the very specific circumstances of the end of World War 1. This is where the scheme would likely have completely broken down, assuming it hadn’t already.

Even assuming all of that went according to plan and at least one of the boys went through the various transformative events to turn him into a Hitler for the new millennium, it would only be circa 2005 that he would be ready to rise to power as Hitler had around the age of 40. Here then, lies the final problem.

2005 in Sweden, Germany, the UK, the US, Canada and Austria is not 1935. The world has seen a figure like Hitler before, has seen what a fascist mode of government looks like, has much better attitudes toward race, has stronger democracies and a more stable financial system in 2005 than in 1935*, which would ultimately mean that the clone’s seizure of power would not look like Hitler’s and may not even be feasible. There isn’t any guarantee that anyone would listen to the clone’s angry message about national renewal through ethnic cleansing because the world has not been turned upside down**. In an age of YouTube and Internet ubiquity, there’s every chance that such a diatribe would simply get lost in a sea of cat pictures and rage faces.

* No, really. The economy is bad after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but it isn’t Great Depression Grapes of Wrath era bad.

** The attacks on the 11th of September, 2001 and the cultural changes that came with it to the US notwithstanding.

Life on a Generation Ship

I like the idea of adorable robot caretakers

A lot of science fiction is predicated on the idea that that humanity has at some point in the distant past gotten on spaceships from their homeworld (usually Earth, sometimes not) and colonised the stars, terraforming and populating hundreds of worlds and thousands of moons along the way. This is the backdrop of landmark science fiction such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Star Wars, Alien and a whole raft of others. The common theme here is that in order to have epic adventure across the stars, the problems of interstellar space travel need to have already been solved.

Unfortunately, the problems of interstellar travel are substantial ones, the most insurmountable of which is the issue of sheer distance. To quote Douglas Adams, space is big. How big, you might ask? Big enough that if you tried to visit our nearest neighbouring star (Proxima Centauri – 4.24 light years) and somehow contrived to travel at light speed, it would still take you four years to get there. Big enough that if you tried to get to Proxima Centauri as quickly as the fastest man made object ever built (the Helios II probe), you would take some 18,000 years to arrive.

Of course, most science fiction stories of the type I mentioned get around this problem by invoking theoretical concepts such as faster-than-light travel, wormholes and hyperspace. While these concepts may have some basis in real physics, their depictions in science fiction tend to gloss over some vast technical problems it might be impossible or impractical to overcome. Like with the development of powered flight, it might take thousands of years for these concepts to go from the level of our current speculation to physical reality. We may, in fact, never solve these problems.

If the speed of light really is the cosmic speed limit, we will at some point need to leave our solar system in order to ensure our species’ survival. It might not be for a few billion years, but our sun will eventually become a red giant and engulf the Earth. If humanity is still around at that time, colonising the stars will no longer be a far off dream, but a practical necessity.

This is where the notion of the Generation Ship comes in – a huge spacecraft designed to be continuously inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people for literally generations while the craft makes its way to its intended destination. The idea is that it would be a floating environment people would be happy to grow up, raise families and die in without ever seeing the outside of. While that might sound awful to you, remember that this is basically what Earth is (albeit on a much larger scale) and that for most of human history, the majority of people never ventured more than a few kilometres from the place they were born. Make the environment big, pleasant and/or interesting enough and the people on board may never want to leave (think of The Axiom from Wall-E)

Of course, this isn’t without its own problems. First of all, much to NASA and every other space agency’s chagrin, keeping a human being alive in space is difficult, expensive, time consuming and usually requires a lot of training, effort and vigilance on the part of the human. This isn’t something you can trust most people with, let alone generations of varying quality and it means that you will have a real problem keeping the lights on and the air going. No building has ever been continuously maintained and used on Earth for more than 2000 years, so you can have no hope that generations of human maintainers can do it to a vessel hundreds of times more complicated for at least ten times as long. That will mean that shipboard maintenance will need to be taken up by autonomous, self-repairing robots if you have any hope of getting the ship to its destination with its cargo intact.

Additionally, for every cubic metre of living space you provide, the ship will probably require several times that amount of room for all the resources and systems required to keep that living space going, let alone the rockets and other things you’ll need to land on a likely planet for colonisation when you get there. Remember that even if you can build a lot of the tools you need, you will never get a chance to stock up on more stuff like oxygen, metals, fuel or water in the thousands of years between star systems, so you will need to take it all with you when you go. If you get on a Generation Ship the size of (say) New York, you will be relegated to living in a tiny portion of it about the size of Central Park.

Moreover, all the food you eat, all the air you breathe, all the water you drink would be recycled. Again, this is something the Earth does for you all the time that a Generation Ship would need to provide a facsimile for in the emptiness of space.

None of this even considers other issues you might encounter living in space. Low gravity, for instance, might be the cause of a lot of health problems for Generation Ship inhabitants, like muscular atrophy and brittle bones. Cosmic radiation might be difficult or impossible to effectively shield against and this could lead to elevated rates of cancer and other health conditions. As of yet, nobody was ever conceived, born or raised in space, so there might be a slew of issues that haven’t even been identified.

Let’s say that these problems are mitigated by genetic engineering, new unimaginable technology and clever construction of the ship. The builder of the ship still has not addressed the social issues that hundreds of generations of humans living in the worldlet the builder has created for them would encounter. How do you keep them “on mission” and stop them from turning around or abandoning the colonisation scheme? How do you keep them from killing each other or destroying the ship?

One answer would be to feed, clothe and educate the inhabitants generation after generation through the use of sentient robots. This way any change in language and culture or societal breakdown can be adjusted for and people wouldn’t forget the mission, where they came from, where they’re going or what they need to do once they get there. Unfortunately, any measures you take to ensure the successful colonisation of the stars also means curtailing individual freedom and stagnating culture for hundreds of generations of people. Even convincing them of the idea that a planet is a good place to live after countless generations on board a ship might be a huge challenge, regardless of how automated the process of terraformation is.

You might get around all these issues by not sending people at all, but rather thousands of vials of frozen DNA (or DNA sequences in the form of data) and factories for the production of humans to kick into gear only when the destination is reached a la Rendezvous with Rama. Combine this with robot nannies to rear the first generation of colonists and you ensure mission success, but risk a discontinuity of human culture if these robots cannot properly emulate human interaction. Whether this is a problem or not depends on your point of view and the quality of your robots.

If human interaction, and especially continuity of interaction, is considered to be of paramount importance, or if there is no way of building a human from scratch, another alternative is to simply grow human brains in jars, hooked up to a computer simulation of a planetary environment (like The Matrix) and mating is taken care of by the ship according to choices made by humans in the simulation. This will reduce the amount of living space and resources a Generation Ship builder needs to provide, limits the damage to the ships human conflict can cause and will mean that the first generation of colonists is raised by actual humans. Of course, this assumes the process of transferring brains into new bodies is firmly established by that point.

Regardless of what form it takes, building a Generation Ship is not as simple as simply constructing a floating resort and calling it a day. You need to think about human nature and how to get the passengers to go along with your original plan millennia in advance. It requires building a world and setting rules for the inhabitants and their descendants to live by – the duties in fact, of a creator deity.

Perhaps it’s a good thing we’re not quite at that stage yet. Something in me doubts that we are mature enough yet as a society to set those limits responsibly.

Dinosaur Feathers

Tiny dinosaurI may be part of a transitional generation – the last to think of dinosaurs as being primeval reptilian beasts as opposed to feathered proto-birds. Of course, even my generation was transitional in this sense. We might have been the first generation for whom the popular understanding of dinosaurs was of nimble and intelligent creatures rather than the slow lumbering dullards the 19th and most of the 20th century imagined them to be.

The modern, scientific understanding of dinosaurs is that many of them were basically flightless birds with teeth. As a matter of fact, the famed bipedal theropod dinosaurs we all got to know and love in Jurassic Park, (Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, Gallimimus et al) are now thought to be more closely related to modern chickens than any of them were related to other famous dinosaurs like the ridge-plated Stegosaurus, the armoured Ankylosaurus, the horned Triceratops or the long-necked Brachiosaurus. These two-legged theropods, far from being the scaly monsters of every child’s nightmares, now have a much warmer, fluffier, brighter, more familiar covering.

Unfortunately, becoming more avian than reptilian has also meant that these dinosaurs have lost some of their street cred. There seems to be something very instinctual about a fear of reptiles and it’s something that most humans appear to have. Whether this is just the result of widespread cultural motifs depicting reptiles as an evil other, an aversion to venomous snakes and creatures like them, or something deeper, something buried deep within our DNA, it’s hard to deny that reptiles are hard to love and easy to fear. Perhaps in our genes, we are still the hunted monkeys cowering in fear of the anaconda in the trees.

Or perhaps not. For every image of reptiles being these slithering, sliding, cold predatory creatures, there is a counter example of them being wise, benevolent or powerful. It really depends on your culture. Whereas our very word for describing these animals comes from a Latin root meaning “to creep” (reptus) and one image for the very embodiment of evil is in the form of a snake, other cultures like the Aztecs, and Hindus turned these creatures into important deities (Quetzalcoatl and the Nagas respectively). It could be that snakes developed into deities because of their natural and obvious power – being able to kill with a single bite is something that is hard to ignore.

All the same, there is something wicked, alien and powerful about reptiles that this older image of dinosaurs appeared to tap into. Not only were dinosaurs often huge, possessed of killer teeth and murderous claws, but they were also scaly and cold to the touch – terrible lizards in both name and deed.

Contrast this with your image of just about anything with feathers and the difference couldn’t be more stark. Even the largest and most dangerous birds, hawks, eagles, vultures, emus, ostriches and cassowaries, simply don’t inspire the same kind of terror as the that scaly image of theropod dinosaurs do. Gone are the scales, replaced with soft down and sweeping feathers. Gone are the teeth, replaced with flat beaks. Gone are the arm claws, replaced with fingerless wings. Let’s face it – these birds may be just as dangerous as their ancestors were, but they just don’t look the part.

Which, perhaps, is part of the reason I’ve seen so much pushback on the topic from people my age (mostly male) whenever the topic comes up.  One very common sentiment I’ve seen thrown around in response to new dinosaur discoveries featuring feathers is a variation on the theme “DINOS DON’T HAVE FEATHERS >:-(“.  It’s as though a small part of people’s childhoods dies when they find out that the fearsome velociraptor was probably covered head-to-toe in feathers instead of scales.  And the size of a chicken.  That bit also seems to raise a bit of ire.

Mind you, Velociraptor has always been that small, ever since its discovery.  Spielberg and company apparently thought the name of the more appropriately-sized Deinonychus was too hard for audiences to say and the name of Utahraptor too parochial.  But you’re going to get that when making a blockbuster dinosaur movie as opposed to a documentary.  The facts sometimes have to give way to the cinematic, which also explains why Dilophosaurus appears with a frill neck, spits venom and was unaccountably tiny in that movie.

As if to drive the point home, many paleontologists now classify birds as being a type of dinosaur.  As a matter of fact, the dinosaurs you came to know and love in your childhood, the kind that all went extinct 65 million years ago now come with the qualifier, having become non-avian dinosaurs.  The good news then, is that the dinosaurs are still alive.  The bad news is that your inner ten-year-old probably thinks they’re kind of lame.

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