Archive for the ‘What-ifs’ 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.


What if the Roman Empire Never Fell?

It is a common enough refrain, especially among those who would look at out modern world and decry that our progress is not enough, that were it not for the fall of the Empire (and the coming of the Dark Ages), we would have full colonies on Mars by now. Certainly, the loss of much metallurgical, engineering, building, historical and agricultural expertise following the fall of the Western Roman Empire was drastic and impacted on the inhabitants of Western Europe in a negative way and the lack of political unity created war-torn, unstable conditions that would be unimaginable today.

With that said, let us examine what the consequences would be of a resurgent Roman Empire, one that maintained its control over Western Europe and held it together, much as Eastern Asia has been held together by China for nearly four millennia.

The main issue I want to address would be technological and scientific. While it would be incorrect to call what the Greeks and Romans did science, they made a number of breakthroughs, mathematically and engineering-wise that would later form the basis of the scientific revolution of the Renaissance.  There are those that would argue that the potential material progress that 1500 years of uninterrupted development would bring you would be astounding. Enough to put us in outer space a thousand years ago, surely, and certainly further than where we are now.

But is that really true?

The trouble with all this is that we can’t just run the clock back, tweak a few things and let it go again to see the results. Not only would that violate a lot of ethical precepts, it is also currently impossible. What we can do, however, is to look at an analogous civilisation that encompassed the same scope in power, wealth and influence as Rome but did survive into the Modern Age – China.

Imperial China and Imperial Rome were more or less contemporaneous, even if China itself is a good deal older. You could make the argument that Rome at its foundation was a continuation of earlier Greek and Latin society, even if Roman ethnic identity was, relatively speaking, new. At any rate, the unification of Italy under Rome and the unification of China under the Qin dynasty happened more or less at around the same time and their periods of greatest territorial expansion also occurred on similar timeframes.

What then, did over two millennia of cultural continuity and (relative) stability do for the Chinese? Well, it made them the richest, most powerful, most technologically and culturally accomplished state in world history, right up until the Renaissance. That’s an extra thousand years’ worth of uninterrupted progress the Chinese had over the Romans.

During those thousand years, Chinese inventors had birthed into the world gunpowder, the printing press, paper currency and compasses, among a slew of other technologies and areas of knowledge that are much more mundane, yet crucial to the building, mining and pottery industries. Even the principles of mechanical clockwork were known to Chinese scholars and craftsmen.

What had pointedly not happened, however, was an industrial revolution. Things instead stayed more-or-less stable, with occasional hiccups and forays into these areas at the behest of various emperors.  Unfortunately, any golden ages of learning and progress to be had came and went at the whim of the man sitting atop the throne.  If a particular emperor was interested in exploration and learning, much progress was made under his patronage.  If his successor wasn’t so much inclined to scholarly pursuits, well, things stagnated.

The big change to this pattern and the reason we all grow up expecting change and progress to be an inevitable part of everyday life is because we were born a few centuries after the Industrial Revolution.  Once technology was taken out of the hands of the hereditary members of guilds and cloistered scholars and put into the hands of the mercantile classes, competition and a cash economy led to an explosion in technological innovation that has continued unabated to this day.

When wondering why this happened (or didn’t happen) we need to examine a myriad of facets, too numerous to get into fully without writing a whole book on the subject, each interacting in various ways. A major aspect was the mobility of the workforce.  By killing off much of the population and causing labour shortages, the Black Death in the 14th century had revolutionised European labour relations such that serfdom as it had existed was dead. Thanks to the haphazard forms of medieval government, bargaining was able to take place at a more or less local level. Arguments with your local landlord or baron would go thusly:

“I want more pay.”

“Well, you can’t have it.”

“Fine.  I’ll just go over to the neighbouring landlord. He’s offering me more money and better rights. Good luck finding someone to plow that field for you!”

Because each lord was then in competition with each other for the few workers who were still alive and Western European central authority was generally weak, there wasn’t all that much that could be done other than for each lord to relent and allow the peasants more freedom.  Various kingdoms even passed laws to restrict the movement of peasants off the land with varying degrees of success.  In Western Europe, as each king was less a sovereign and more just the nominal leader of a gaggle of squabbling minor warlords, little could be done to stem the tide.

Workers now had more rights, could come and go as they pleased and had the option of changing jobs and seeking higher wages for the first time in nearly a thousand years. This was crucial to the industrial revolution because it allowed people the legal freedom to move to the cities to find work en masse when industrialisation happened.  When the population recovered, these legal freedoms remained in place and the workforce surplus could then be funneled into the burgeoning industrial sector, which then ramped up the engine of technological progress at an exponential rate.

Critically though, this did not happen everywhere.  In China and even in what remained of the Roman Empire, a strong central authority was able to act as a stabilising force against the winds of change brought on by the Black Death and thus, the workforce remained much as it had – tied to the industries of its forbears. In Imperial Rome, just as in Medieval Europe, a man was required by law to undertake the same occupation as his father had.  This started out as an attempt by the emperor to maintain the status quo as much as possible, to make taxation simpler for his bureaucracy to assess, to protect vital industries in key provinces and to ensure that the army always had recruits.

Essentially, the continued reign of the Caesars would have meant that the industrial revolution could never have taken place.  Areas within the Empire rendered empty by plagues would be repopulated by imperial edict and, as had been imperial policy during Late Antiquity, people from outside the borders of the Empire would be invited to settle in the regions suffering the most.  What little bargaining power an English peasant farmer could glean after an outbreak of the Black Death would then be offset by the forced relocation of thousands of Norweigan, German or Swedish immigrants brought in to the local county on the orders of the man who wore the purple.

Without the conditions that allowed the Industrial Revolution to happen, Western Europe would today be part of a sprawling empire built on the backs of a vast population of peasants ruled by a small cabal of wealthy aristocratic landowners and their imperial masters.  Yes, the cities would be grander than those in pre-industrial China or Medieval Europe, having aqueducts, sewers, and indoor plumbing in most homes, but the level of development would be far behind what it is today, perhaps something akin to 17th century Europe.  The fastest mode of transportation would be a horse and the time it took to send a message from one end of the Empire to the other would be counted in weeks, not milliseconds.  Guns, cannon and the printing press would still be around, introduced to the Empire after long delay from their Chinese roots and a rudimentary form of science might be extant, but without mass industrialisation, iPhones and rocket ships would be absent from the scene.

The Americas and Australia may have remained uncolonised by Europeans and developed in isolation or they may have been contacted instead by Arab or Chinese adventurers.  Instead of churches at the centre of every Latin American town, there might have been mosques instead as part of a Pan-American Caliphate.  Or, if first contact with Eurasia had been limited only to trade with China, the Aztec Empire may have gained horses or modern weaponry and in so doing change the geopolitical landscape of the Americas forever.  An imperial equivalent to Hernan Cortes or Francisco Pizarro would then be chased back to his ships by thousands of horsemen wielding the latest in Chinese-made guns and supported by Chinese-derived cannon.  Australia may still be majority Aboriginal or it could have become a Chinese or Arab colony.  Africa might be very different, with many areas throughout the interior of the continent retaining their traditional character and with a variety of majority Muslim nations to the north and west, though some of these may have been re-christianised by later emperors.

The English language would not exist, replaced instead with a highly modified derivative of Vulgar Latin.  It would probably be similar in many ways to modern Italian, though with different regional accents, and its speakers would call it, without caveats or qualifiers, Latin.  However, as is the case with Middle English and Old English, modern speakers would only be able to understand the words of Virgil and Cicero with considerable difficulty and perhaps some training.

Protestantism would likely not exist either, in its place a near-universal adherence to the State Church of the Roman Empire (the split between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity having never taken place) with pockets of Arianism, Nestorianism or some other offshoot in different places at the margins of the Empire.  The State Church would, of course, be subject to the authority of the Emperor and it would be he who would likely have the final say on matters of faith, having retained in his own person the title of Pontifex Maximus, so there would be no Pope.  Society at large would probably still be very religious and the Middle East, especially Jerusalem, would be a bone of contention between Rome and whatever Muslim empire ruled the region.

The rise of Islam could probably not be stopped by the Roman Empire, even with its western half intact, though its hold on places like Spain, and much of North Africa, would have been a lot less secure with a united Western Empire as an adversary, so Morocco and Libya might today be majority Christian nations and Spain would have far less interesting architecture.  The Eastern Empire may have held on to Constantinople and Turkey as we know it today may not exist (or exist, but in a completely different place), in its place the easternmost extent of the Roman Empire that speaks either our hypothetical Modern Vulgar Latin or some form of Modern Greek.  The Balkans and Eastern Europe both would have a much more Greek character even than today.

In the end, it is my belief that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution that followed were unique events in human history that were far from inevitable.  The first birthed Science into the world as a field of study separate to things like philosophy, mathematics or rhetoric and the second accelerated the change that might have come of it.  I very much doubt that having an emperor still sitting on the throne in Rome, Ravenna, Milan or Constantinople could have brought it about.  Certainly, having an emperor sitting on the throne in China all that time did not.

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.

What if there weren’t 24 hours in a day?

A glimpse of a more rational worldIt’s something intuitive, isn’t it? 24 hours per day, 60 minutes per hour, 60 seconds per minute. We live with it every day, run our days by those rhythms, parcel out our lives in chunks based on 3600 second intervals. It’s something that has become second nature to us to the point where nobody questions its basis.

The reason we have the day as a unit of time is obvious – we are earthly creatures and our sleep/activity cycles are based around day and night, light and dark. Why we have the hour as a unit is less clear and less immediately obvious if you’re trying to guess where the notion came from.

If you’re familiar with your ancient history, you might know the little factoid that tells you that the hour unit was first set down by the ancient Egyptians. As far as we know, at least – it was a long time ago. Queen Cleopatra, for instance, lived closer in time to us than to the ancient scribe who decided to divide up his sundial into ten units of sunshine per day (plus two extras for morning and evening twilight).

After that, it seems the idea of 12 hours of daylight caught on, with the night bring divided up into 12 just to balance things up.

Later on, came the Babylonians (who were to the Greeks and Romans what the Greeks and Romans are to us – told you it was a long time ago). They gave us minutes and seconds, but only by accident.

See, the Babylonians had a pretty screwy counting system of base 60, as opposed to the base 10 system we use today. So to say the number 100, they would write 1[forty], which means one lot of sixty plus forty lots of one. While it works, it also meant that they used 60 as a basis for everything, including how they might divide up an hour to get a minute and how they’d do the same to the minute to get the second. They did what came naturally and now we’re stuck with it.

Why all this matters is that 12, 24 and 60 are inconsistent and relatively random divisions that we probably wouldn’t choose if we were starting from scratch in the modern day. In truth, we might opt for a 10 hour day instead of 24, 100 minutes an hour and 100 seconds per minute instead.

What would that really mean apart from making it easier for kids to learn the system?

Well, first of all, it would mean no more 3 or 9 o’clock as proxies for right and left (they would become 2.5 and 7.5 respectively on a clockface) and no more AM or PM. 12 would become 10 and 6 would become 5.

What happens to the workday is even more bizarre. You could imagine that with such long hour units (2:24 standard), the day would drag on, and a four hour day under that system would last 9:12 standard. Likely, people would default to half hour gradiations, which makes a 3.5 hour day the equivalent of 8:24.

So the downside is that you work longer hours, but the plus side is that you can take your sweet time at lunch ( 72 standard minutes for a half-hour lunch!)

Minutes would become longer too, at 1’24” standard, so concepts like the one-minute mile, rotations per minute and “just a minute” would either disappear or at least be heavily modified. I’d like to think that it would lead to a slower pace of life.

Seconds, finally, would also change, though not as much as you’d think. At 0.864″ standard, you’d hardly notice the difference sitting next to a clock, though the thought of an athlete running 100m in under 10″ would go from being really impressive to being unbelievable. Likely, with that barrier expressed as 11.57 centimal seconds, you would have sportswriters all over the world wondering if the 11 second barrier would ever be breached.

There is no way we would ever change the system in the future and will probably be measuring out minutes and seconds in lots of 60 for thousands of years, long after we colonise the stars and have forgotten we ever came from this small blue planet. Habit and convention are funny, powerful things.