Spaced Out

I've been thinking about space quite a bit this week in my sickbed. It was partly the effect of the cocktail of flu drugs and stomach pills and so forth which I was ingesting--at one point I drifted in and out of sleep to the sound of Monty Python's Life of Brian playing in German on a laptop, fairly high in a legal way. Partly, I suppose, I wished to 'scape some of the more tedious and obvious thoughts about Britain's economic crisis.

That last line probably reads as typically pompous, but I was for a time caught in the credit crunch myself, until the video tutorials (which a surprising number of undergraduates seem to want) stepped in and began a little thousand-point reflation, as it were.

Anyway, three odd events have come together in my mind. The first is the Vatican's conference on evolution, life, and the universe which was held under the aegis of the pontifical academy. The conference debated astrobiology, and attracted many famous physicists, including Stephen Hawking. It has been, inevitably, reported by the more excitable in the media as a conference on Extraterrestrials. If you believe what you read in the press you really shouldn't be on this blog.

Bishops and science fiction tend to run together sometimes. It was Bishop Francis Godwin, after all, who wrote one of the first sci-fi stories, musing on how morning dew might transfer the mysterious essence by which it flew to its carrier and thereby allowing flight.

At the time, an Aristotelian delusion of essence was perfectly respectable, as was the later but contingent idea of ether. Godwin was around at just the right time, though, to know enough of gravity (and, probably, the still somewhat shady calculus that the likes of John Locke kept quiet about too) that he could joke about the inverse rule of gravitational attraction to distance. He really was between worlds, except that they were behind his eyes.

Godwin made me think of Josef Schumpeter. He was a somewhat bitter man, though he concealed it a little, who'd been ruined once, exiled twice, and who unsurprisingly came up with the idea of creative destruction in economics. I thought of him because Schumpeter thought that the most interesting people, and those who drive growth, stood in the overlap of convergent waves of change and time. Mad as he may sound, he makes in the twenty first century a better case for where growth comes from than, say, the Swann-Solow, Kaldor, or Keynesian models that were once so dominant.

There's an intellectual history to be written of the twists and turns of economic philosophies at the end of the last millennium, though how many would see the utility of allusions to episcopal whimsy I do not know. Many, if this flu gets round.

Other, and of course catholic, priests followed the Anglican Godwin with slightly more serious science. Between 1700 and 1750, Vatican observatories sprang up, which eventually had a great hand in the invention of the spectrograph, and by 1930, it was a Belgian catholic priest who came up with the idea of the 'big bang' theory of universal evolution.

Journalists, especially in English speaking countries, often don't realise these things, trapped in a post-protestant or anticatholic mindset as many of them are. Of course, what may be running through yours, as you read, are notions that Giordano Bruno was killed because he believed in many worlds, or that Galileo suffered because of some nonsense about a flat earth that Washington Irving made up after the event.

That's not true. Both suffered because they defied the iron logic of Rome, which is of perceived loyalty and overt obedience. Not even the worst version of Torquemada or Savonarola, however, could ever be said to be good catholics if they consistently defied physical truth.

I'm going to try and read the papers of the pontifical conference online, and if you have time you may wish to as well. They include Stephen Hawking on origin and destiny; Rudolf Muradian on numbers; Fotis Kafatos on evolution in the insect world; discussions of digital intelligence; and an intriguing set of papers on evolution culminating in one on the appropriate level of silliness to assign to the idea of intelligent design.

The second 'space story' that caught my attention and which made me think was this one. It suggests that the increasingly open, but not world-toppling rivalry between India and China in Space might ultimately be fruitless. Both countries have explored an idea which really appeals to me, of mining the regolith of the moon for helium-3, and then using it for fusion power.

Unfortunately, there seem to be serious doubts about the possibility of doing so with a tokamak reactor, and other reactors under perform or have not yet even been tested. It's absurdly early to call time on an intriguing idea, but it may have just slipped further away.

The third space story was a neato one; a couple of fridays ago, we all missed a collision with a largeish asteroid by the cosmic equivalent of a hair's breadth. It wasn't as big as Tunguska and wouldn't have done that much damage, but the news, coming as it did after the recent explosion of a meteor with nuclear force over Indonesia made me think. If Tunguska's 1000-Hiroshima object had entered the atmosphere a little later in the morning of June 30 1908, and hit Moscow, or Berlin, or London--what would the twentieth century have been like?

All good fun when you're ill. Here's a video with some serious people and some others. Mmmm crunchy nut.


Martin said…

Hope you're on the mend.
DBC Reed said…
Was n't Swift a bishop? Or a dean at least? Then there's the Irish bishop who read the kind-of -science fiction Gulliver's Travels and declared he hardly believed a word of it.
Martin Meenagh said…
Many thanks Martin. I am well, or at least much better now!

DBC--lol, as they say. Swift was a Dean of St Patrick's in Dublin, of course. Having seen the state of modern Britain, I happily believe in Yahoos, and that houyhynhms might exist somewhere near Bloomsbury.

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