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Aliens and Angels

COINCIDENCE??!!  I think NOT!!!

In all seriousness, I think there is a logic here, but of a more subtle sort.  I touched on just the barest aspects of this similarity (though without mentioning angels) back here.  Today I want to go into greater detail on this topic, and in a slightly different direction.  In all seriousness, I think there are some striking similarities, and that’s what we’re going to look at.

I’ve written about angels before, so I will just give a brief rundown of the characteristics traditionally attributed to angels in the Western (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) tradition (though I will emphasize the Christian, since the Christian theology of angels is the one with which I’m most familiar):

  1. Angels are immortal by nature.  Not only do they not die, they cannot die nor be killed or destroyed in any way (except by God, who could annihilate anything if He so wished).
  2. Angels are pure spirit, or pure mind (which is another way of saying the same thing).  They thus lack bodies and are not composed of matter in any way (but see here and here for dissenting views).  As a corollary to this, angels do not need to eat, drink, or breathe.  The general interpretation is that they refuse to do these things (see Judges 13:15-16) or that when they appear to do so (see Tobit 12:17-19), it is an illusion.
  3. Angels are not all-knowing (omniscient)–only God is–but what they do know they know perfectly and without confusion.  This is because, not having bodies, they are not subject to the frailties inherent in brains and physiological phenomena, and also because they know directly through the ideas (in the Platonic sense) infused into them at their creation by God.  Thus angels are, as noted above, more intelligent than humans and less prone (if at all) to error.*
  4. Angels are not usually asserted to be able to read human minds; but since they are more intelligent and understand human behavior perfectly, they can often infer what a human is thinking.  They can telepathically send suggestions to humans, though, thus being able to send thoughts, though they can’t receive them.
  5. Angels can travel instantaneously anywhere in the cosmos.  This is symbolically represented as “flying”, but being immaterial, angels do not fly, walk, or move in any way we understand.  They just pop up wherever they want to be.
  6. Angels are immensely more powerful than humans.  Though they are not made of matter, they are capable of interacting with matter.  They are thus able to perform acts (technically referred to in theology as “preternatural” acts) that are far beyond what humans can do, and which appear to humans to be miraculous.

That summarizes the properties of angels.  Let us now move on to aliens.

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What Is Needed for Good Science Fiction

This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion.  There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind.  It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.

Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots.  I watched Star Trek:  The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged.  I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov.  Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references).  Certainly, Asimov knew better.  The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created.  It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us.  The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.

The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right.  This leads to the topic I want to talk about here:  What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy?  That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.

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Where Have You Gone, Carl Sagan?

Sagan and Carson

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?  A nation turns its lonely eyes to you–Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”

Sometimes I feel that way about Carl Sagan.  Carl Sagan, for those of my readers who may be too young to know of him, was probably the greatest and most familiar science popularizer of the last century.  He was especially visible throughout the 1970’s, which was a partial inspiration of this series, of which this is the long-delayed first post. Sagan was more than just a 70’s icon, though.  I think he is a symbol of a bygone–and in some ways, better–time.

Carl Sagan had an M.S. in physics and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics.  At various times, he worked closely with NASA (he conceived the idea for the plaque placed on the space probes Pioneer10 and Pioneer 11) , had Top Secret clearance at the U.S. Air Force and Secret clearance with NASA, was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, published research on the atmosphere of Venus, and researched the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  For nearly the last thirty years of his life, he was associated with Cornell University.  Beyond his professional and scientific accomplishments, substantial as they were, Sagan was best known for his extraordinary effectiveness in bringing science to the masses through all the available media of the day:  print (magazines, newspapers, and books), film, and TV.  Had he survived to today (he died, tragically, of complications related to myelodysplasia at the age of sixty-two in 1996), I don’t doubt he would have had a substantial social media presence.

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