Not long ago I wrote a post in which I compared the traditional characteristics of angels with the characteristics attributed to aliens in pop-culture. I was discussing it with a friend who’d read it, and he initially misinterpreted what I’d written. He took me to be describing what I thought aliens were actually like, as opposed to how they’re described in literature, movies, and so on. I clarified what I meant; but it occurred to me that maybe I should discuss my thoughts on aliens in real life. Onward, then!
The logical starting point in discussing aliens is clarifying our terminology. What most people take “alien” to mean, without explicitly saying it (or perhaps not even explicitly realizing it), is “intelligent life forms originating elsewhere in the cosmos”. In short, alien intelligence is automatically assumed without even taking into the account the probability of alien life. If there is no life in space at all, though, there can certainly be no intelligent alien life. Thus, we have to start at the beginning and ask, “Is there life in space at all?”
Even that question makes unstated assumption, to wit: Are we talking about any life, or only, to use the cliche, “life as we know it”? Life as we know it–that which we see on Earth, including ourselves–is based on carbon. Carbon is the building block of the amino acids that form the proteins out of which life is made, as well as of the RNA and DNA by which genetic information is passed from generation to generation. Things could, however, have turned out differently.
Many posts I’ve done here have touched on science or technology or related issues. To date, the primary focus of these posts has generally been on other issues, generally related to pop-culture. Recently, though, I wrote a post dealing with aliens from a purely scientific perspective, without bringing pop-culture into the mix. Individual posts have a way of getting lost over time, as the total number of posts increases. Thus, I’ve decided to start yet another index for strictly science-related posts, as well as for those with a heavily science-oriented content. Enjoy!
Long-time readers are aware I’m a science fiction buff. Heck, perusing the content here is enough to demonstrate that. As I’ve discussed in the past , I’m a Star Trek buff from way back. Most of my reading as a kid and young adult was science fiction. and so were many–perhaps most–of the movies I watched. Given all this, I have to apologize a bit to sf fans for this post. As the title implies, I’m going to try to show why the “final frontier” will always be just that–the final frontier–since, in my opinion, there will never be a substantial human presence in space. In short, alas, the future envisioned by Star Trek (or Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica or Andromeda or any other space-oriented media franchise) is never going to come to pass. I don’t like that either, but there it is. Let me explain.
As I’ve noted before (here and here), scientific illiteracy is rife in our culture, even in the context of science fiction movies, novels, and such, where the writers ought to know better. Probably one of the biggest areas of ignorance, misunderstanding, and misinformation is in the area of space travel. There are many issues involved. Therefore, I will consider each category of problems under the appropriate heading. Off into space we go, then!
I had been mulling over making a post on this topic when I saw this story in my Facebook newsfeed. A new galaxy, tiny and dim, has been discovered orbiting our own. That was a fascinating piece of news, and it confirmed my intention to write about the topic of space. More specifically, I want to discuss how the structure or layout of space seems to be widely misunderstood, even by some writers of science fiction. In this regard, this post is a sort of follow up to this one and this one. Thus, let us now boldly go into space and see what we’ll find there!
Since October 4th, 1957, with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be sent by humans into Earth orbit, we have lived in the Space Age. Press coverage of space and space travel seemed wall-to-wall throughout the 1960’s and into the early 70’s. Space figured largely in pop culture, too, with the 60’s giving us Star Trek and the monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. With time, the allure wore thin and the extraordinary became humdrum. Still, over sixty years later, we are more deeply connected to the inventions of the space program than ever before. Cell phone signals, Internet transmissions, and GPS all depend on satellites to function. Many of us get satellite TV as a matter of course. There has even been a resurgence of interest in space in both pop culture and reality. In the former, the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, after periods of dormancy, have re-started. In the latter, Elon Musk is making plans for manned travel to Mars, while various government sources have spoken of returning to the moon and of founding a military “space force”.
Given all this, one would assume a certain amount of science literacy regarding space. Certainly in the beginning of the Space Age, there was a strong push towards what we’d now call STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, out of fear of the head start of the Soviet Union in space. With space more integrated into our lives than ever, a permanent international space station in orbit, and the aforementioned space exploration plans, it would seem more imperative than ever that we have a good grasp of science and terminology of space. Most particularly, one would expect such science literacy from the writers of science fiction, which is perhaps the most characteristic genre of our age. Alas, that seems to be far from the case. Thus, along the lines of previous posts of mine which detail areas in which sf writers often fall short, I want in this post to look at some of the basics of space.
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.
About three years ago I read an SF (science fiction) novel in which one of the protagonists suspects that the other is either an alien or a robot (or perhaps a bit of both, and thus in effect a cyborg, though that term was never used). I enjoyed the novel, actually, but I noticed a trope that I’ve encountered before in SF. The first tip-off about the possibly non-human nature of the second protagonist is when she is observed not breathing. In a sequel novel, it is made explicit that the second protagonist is indeed a technologically-augmented alien (and thus, as noted, a cyborg) and that she does not need to breathe, eat, or sleep, although she chooses to do all three in order to blend in to human society, and also because she’s developed a liking for those actions. Additionally, I should point out, she doesn’t need to go the bathroom, either. Yes, the second novel went there…. I still liked it, though, which may say something about me.
Robots (and their variant, androids) don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep, either, though some can eat. It is made explicit in Star Trek: The Next Generation that Data, the resident android, is capable of eating and drinking, though he doesn’t need to. In fact, one humorous vignette in the first TNG movie, Generations, is this:
In the process of testing out his emotion chip, Data drinks the liquor that Guinan offers him. He hates it, and orders another–but the point is that he is indeed capable of drinking it in the first place.
Another thing about robots is that they are immortal and seem never to need repair or recharging. In the TNG two-part episode “Time’s Arrow”, the crew find Data’s head in an archeological dig in a cave in San Francisco. It has apparently been there since the 19th Century–thus nearly half a millennium. Later in the show, Data’s head is blown off, and his body is recovered. His “future” head is reattached, and it works perfectly, while his “past” head is left in San Francisco, to be found in the 24th Century.
Similarly, in the Stephen Spielberg movie A. I. Artificial Intelligence, the boy android David spends two thousand years underwater, awaiting the granting of his wish by the Blue Fairy (you’ll have to see the movie if you want an explanation of the plot point!), until the future Mecha (sapient robots that have replaced the now-extinct human race) rescue him and restore him to the surface. He is after two millennia fully functional. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Marvin the Paranoid Android is functional after 576,000,003,579 years (he counted!) in the radio series, and “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself” in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, though there it is noted that he has had ongoing repairs.
So what am I getting at with all this? Read on!
I think that with all the emphasis on achievement, careers and competitiveness, science education has become — with notable bright spots to be sure — a joyless, alienating and frustrating experience for millions and millions of kids. There are those science-fair-winner types and then there’s the rest of the class, not grooving on the material and hence, they find out, doomed to mediocre futures. Seems like ambivalence and hostility aren’t such surprising responses to such a message. … I think things might go better if the narrative of our scientific understandings of nature — what some are calling “Big History” — were told early and often, capturing the interest and imagination of students from a young age. They might then be eager to learn the problem-solving, evidence-based process of scientific inquiry that has led to these understandings.
–Ursula Goodenough, “It’s Time For A New Narrative; It’s Time For ‘Big History'”, in 13.7: Cosmos & Culture (10 February 2011); courtesy of Wikiquote