Science in Popular Fiction: Fermi’s Paradox is Preying on my Mind

First up:  Apologies for another huge gap between posts!  It turns out that trying to keep up with a Master’s degree course whilst juggling hobbies, (small) jobs AND trying to think up ideas for blog posts is quite the challenge.  Fortunately, astrophysics and modern popular media make for a wellspring of ideas, especially when the two combine.

I want to start this post off by talking about the popular media part – Prey (2017) by Arkane Studios.  I could use many words to describe it:  Spooky, serious, sad, sublime, silly… occasionally all five of those things at once.  But what really sparked my interest, however, is the setting:  a parallel timeline where the Americans and Russians didn’t have a space race, but instead worked together after the failed assassination of JFK only strengthened the World’s resolve to reach the stars.

Of course, things aren’t all peachy – the Russians discovered something in space… aliens that look like something from the Rorschach Inkblot Test and have an unfortunate tendency to perfectly mimic everyday objects whilst simultaneously devouring all human life for… plot reasons.  But never fear!  Evil megacorporations being evil megacorporations means that soon the alien is harnessed for research, with only one or two horrendous disasters along the way – and that’s where your character comes in.

Now I’m not going to go on and on about the plot of a video game here, but what I do want to talk about is one of the central themes – a subtle one that is so incredibly easy to miss but is nonetheless there from the very first moments:  Fermi’s Paradox.  The game doesn’t ever talk about this to your face – nothing more than a book lying open your character’s coffee table and their computer password, but is woven indelibly into the plot.

Fermi’s Paradox is a simple question:  If the Universe is infinite, and thus has an infinite number of stars, implying an infinite number of habitable worlds with an infinite number of intelligent beings… why haven’t we met any of them yet?  This is an extension of the far more fundamental Olber’s Paradox:  If the Universe is infinite then why is the night sky dark and not infinitely bright?

The answers to these questions are grappled with in the field of cosmology – the study of the Universe on a meta scale (the parallels between the Universe on its largest and smallest scales can have some quite unsettling implications – perhaps the topic of another post).  Students of cosmology are much like Prey’s Player Character in that they have no frame of reference:  no outside source to compare with;  no real way to tell exactly what is going on, when it happened or even if it happened.

The only thing that you can be reasonably sure of in either is that it has a beginning, and if there is a beginning then that implies some sort of ending.  The evidence for a Big Bang beginning our stream space-time causality is there, but it is dogged with errors, leaps of logic and some good old plain guesswork (see Inflation Theory for one such example (Guth 1981 – Inflationary Universe:  A Possible Solution to the Horizon & Flatness Problems).

This brings me back to Fermi’s Paradox – cosmology assumes three universal truths:  Homogeneity, Isotropy and Flatness.  In other words: matter is the same everywhere regardless of direction and there are no clumps of the stuff that would have a significant impact on a Universal scale.  So if we are to assume that these are constant, perhaps the biggest paradox then is ourselves?

Copernican Principle suggests that we as a species inhabit no special or favoured place in the Universe.  As a species we are almost unquestioned masters of our World (let’s just avoid the awkward topic of deadly plague bearing rats…  or the Great Emu War of ’32…).  If this is true, then there must be others like us.  And since the Universe is spread uniformly on a cosmological scale, they must be reasonably close.

What I want to suggest, then, is this:  We are looking for life on our terms, and in an infinite Universe of infinite possibilities, this is a very blinkered approach (yes there is an infinitely high chance that there is a creature looking just like me typing this exact essay at this exact moment somewhere else in the Universe but there’s an even more infinitely high chance that there isn’t).  Take Prey:  within the confines of the game’s world the characters and creatures are intelligent.  They behave appropriately to their circumstances, have goals and ambitions and carry these out whilst adapting rapidly to the creative approaches to puzzles and combat that you as the player are forced to take.  They do not, however, have any concept of you as a person “beyond the screen”, they feel only the effects of your actions.

By extension, the inverse is true.  Rooting around in the quiet, art deco hallways of Prey’s Talos-1 you can never be sure if you’re alone in a room with a roll of toilet paper or if that toilet paper is watching you back.  If it is watching you back then how quickly is it going to scuttle towards you to try and eat you?  And if it is scuttling towards you, how the heck is it doing it?  This is Fermi’s Paradox in action:  In the world of Prey I cannot distinguish between that which is living and that which is mundane

The point of the essay, then, is this:  We’re not truly alone in the Universe: mathematically it’s almost impossible – so impossible that it has its own paradox.  But just because we’re not alone doesn’t mean that we should want to find this life, and it’s entirely possible that something we dismiss as mundane could harbour a terrible truth.

Be careful what you wish for.

Physicists:  Creating problems you didn’t know you could have in ways you can’t understand


Space, Astronomy & Astrophysics: Why I Think “Up There” is Important to us “Down Here”

First of all, apologies that it took so long to get my next post out!  The automatic publishing feature was supposed to get this out at the beginning of the week but that didn’t quite happen.  Hopefully next time I’ll figure out the widgets without angering our digital overlords so we don’t all have to spend the rest of eternity calculating pi or something like that.

So:  Space.  Not just space:  Humans in space.  Humans in space permanently.  Why is it important and why would we ever bother going somewhere else when we have Earth which seems pretty OK if not for all problems?

I once had a conversation with a lady on this very topic, and I tried to explain to her my deeply held belief that space exploration isn’t just important to us as a species, but possibly the single most important priority for every single person on the planet – whether they know, or indeed want it to be, or not.

“Oh no,” she said “Why would we ever want to go out there?!  There are too many problems for us to fix here.  If we can’t fund our NHS, our schools or our pension properly, going to space is a total waste!  A vanity project for people who can’t face up to our problems!” and with that triumphant flair the debate, it seemed, was over.

Now, the fact that the lady in question is a former banker and town councillor who, by her own admission, uses private health care, has a private pension and sent her children to private school notwithstanding, I would like to propose an alternative viewpoint:

In an isolated system, entropy will always increase.

Now, why am I quoting the Second Law of Thermodynamics at you?  What do I mean by that?  Well, here’s a different interpretation of that quote by who I regard as the greatest thinker of our time (Terry Pratchett, if you’re wondering):  Chaos will always win out over order because it’s better organised (Quote from the book Interesting Times).

Earth is mankind’s cradle.  There’s a lot wrong with mankind:  Violence and War;  Religious Zealotry and Intolerance – especially from those who claim to oppose such things so ardently;  Bureaucracy in all its forms.  There is however a lot of good with the bad:  The arts and music; our natural propensity for discovery and the pushing of boundaries;  The Full English Breakfast.

This is the point of this essay:  a child cannot stay within its cradle forever.  We denizens of Earth are at a point as a society where we have reached adolescence:  We have increased powers and freedoms that promise so much good, but also unleash destruction upon our hopes and dreams.  We openly acknowledge that there are too many people on our planet, we are damaging our environment and the other creatures that live here and also that many people are in positions of great power who can only do more harm than good (individuals such as Trump and Putin are debatable, but there are others such as Rupert Murdoch or Richard Branson who receive less attention and are potentially far, far more harmful).

Indeed, we stand at a point now where we threaten to turn back from the teachings of our youth:  The Enlightenment and all that it brought with it (freedom of speech, the scientific  method, the ability to debate an issue from both sides) is being forgotten;  The wars which we swore never to fight again after the early 20th century are resurfacing, their casus belli no longer ideological or “I want your back garden” but religious and the increasingly rare resources available to us; the methods of fighting them reliant on terror, psychology and economics rather than the bullet or valour.

To stop this, humanity needs a unified goal, something that every single person can unite behind and cannot be twisted by the demagogues of twisted and dangerous philosophies.  To many space exploration seems like the stuff of Hollywood:  Shining Knights fighting with laser swords atop metal beasts in the inky black of the abyss.

To me it is perhaps the best chance that we have of making sure that some of the good that humanity has accomplished is preserved before too long in the cradle twists our limbs and psyche completely beyond recognition.

A laser sword and dressing gown that’s acceptable to wear to all occasions would also be quite nice, thanks.

Rome: Kingdom, Republic and Empire

Napoleon Bonaparte is famously recorded as saying “L’histoire de Rome est l’histoire du monde.” – the story of Rome is the story of the World.  Indeed, it is a microcosm of history;  a story of greatness, innovation, stagnation and failure that resonates throughout time, and against which all other nations, rightly or wrongly, are compared.

Before I continue any further with the history of the Roman Empire itself, I want to mention briefly some of the things Rome created which we still use to this day:  cement (how else would the Basilicae of Ravenna still stand after 1500 years?), a postal service (presumably postal strikes too?); a fearsome professional military machine with the tactics, leadership and technology to match (never underestimate an angry man in a silly hat); and finally the most fitting (and my favourite): satire.

Why the most fitting?  The Roman Empire is a nation of ironies and contradictions on such a scale that, once you strip the facade and idealism away, it is difficult to tell whether the tale you are left with is an epic or a farce.  A nation so bent on being free from tyranny that they overthrew their king, instated a Senate and a constitution then crowned an absolute Emperor.  An illustrious line of madmen, decedents and murderers that began with Augustus (“Great Man”) and ended with Augustulus (“Little Man”).

In order to keep these posts as short as possible I will end this part of the essay here.  My next entry will cover the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, the establishment of the Senate and the beginning or Roman dominance over the Mediterranean.

Thank you for reading.

Freeloaders: An Addendum

So what did I mean by my assertion that philosophers are freeloaders?

Consider society as a pyramid.  Those who grow the food and gather the raw materials needed to sustain the basics of human life are at the bottom – not because they are the least important but because they are the foundation upon which everything else is built.

Next comes the tradesmen – the movers of goods, the artisans and engineers, the teachers.  Those who take the materials and turn them into things which improve life and pass knowledge on.  The important thing here is that these people are actually using the knowledge of past generations for immediate practical benefit.  They are however not immediately necessary and thus add strain upon the base of the pyramid – i.e. without, say, 10 farmers you cannot have one factory worker or bespoke ethical vegan butcher – it makes no sense to mass produce squeaky dog toys if you cannot eat.

The final tier is the leadership, the thinkers and the artists.  The products of this class have no immediate value.  The Illiad for example is a magnificent text, but confers no immediate benefit to society in terms of what you can eat, build or take comfort or convenience from.  The same is true for thinkers, philosophers and scientists:  These people can make great leaps in human understanding, but this understanding often means little for the man on the street.  Take William Harvey, for instance:  in 1628 he published a groundbreaking work that we now take for granted:  That blood circulates around the body.  In modern society we take that for granted, it has given doctors and biologists new ways to save lives and improve them.  At the time, however, medical technology was nowhere near the point where that could help – in fact, given the hygiene standards of the time, it was just as likely to cause death from infection as blood loss if intrusive surgery was performed.

In simple words:  the engineering had not developed at the same rate as the science.

The people at the top of the pyramid contribute the least to society, but have the most impact on the direction that a given society is heading.

So yes, to the people at the bottom, the people at the top are freeloaders getting rich off their labours.

To a societies’ descendants, the people at the top are the pioneers, leaders and key figures that define their identity.

It’s simply a matter of perspective.

(As an addendum to the addendum, this model is grossly oversimplified but I think it serves to illustrate my point well.  As time and society progress, however, the pyramid will become top-heavy as technology replaces people.  What effect this will ultimately have remains to be seen).

The Eagle has Landed: The Dream of a United Europe

So this seemed like as good a place to start as any, given its current relevance and controversy.  Over the next several posts I will be looking at previous attempts to unify Europe, their relevance to the European Union, and perhaps providing some arguments in favour and against the so-called Superstate.  I’ll also attempt to scry the future of the Union, using previous examples to predict where it’s heading and what, if anything, could be done to change or endanger this.

The next few posts then will be split into different topics as follows:

The Eagles of Europe:  Ambition, Grandeur and Failure

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The Roman Empire:  (AKA Your land and people are Roman, you’re just too stubborn to have realised it yet).  Arguably the most famous example of a United Europe, under its motto Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and People of Rome) the Empire stretched from the North of England to the banks of the Nile.  But for all of its ambition and (occasionally) good intentions, the Empire crumbled: its Rulers dead, its once invincible legions crushed and Rome, the Eternal City, in ashes.  Whilst this is far too large a topic to cover in a few hundred-word blog posts, I will attempt to explain the hows and the whys, making some comparisons with today’s society.

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The Holy Roman Empire:  The First Reich (AKA there’s nothing you can’t do with a little ambition and a Pope).  Whilst the Third Reich is, understandably, reviled for its actions in the first half of the 20th Century, the word Reich itself is simply German for “Empire” or “Regime”.  Whilst perhaps not as widely well known or understood as the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire is perhaps the first example of a Federal Europe, with its many Princes and Electors chafing under the Emperor, who strove for centralisation and the transfer of powers from the Electors to himself.  Again, this is a very large topic and I do not have a firm enough grasp of all of the subtleties to do it any justice, but I will attempt an explanation of this most curious of Empires, and what we can learn from it in modern day Europe.

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The First French Empire:  The lands and territories controlled by France during the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte (AKA Not all stereotypes are completely true).  If the French Empire was successful in one thing, it was its ability to bring people together to oppose it.  The British, Prussians, Russians, Austrians (and so on and so forth) formed a Grand Coalition to attempt to curb the territorial ambitions of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and for many years were ineffectual in this.  However, years of British naval blockades, overextension, the Russian winter and unfortunate defeats in the Iberian peninsula led to its ultimate defeat, culminating in the decisive Battle of Waterloo.  Whilst I could wax lyrical about Ships of Oak and Men of Iron, the Age of Naval Adventure and Empire, I will be looking at the ambition behind the Empire:  what it hoped to achieve, its ideals, its supporters and opponents and why this too failed.

Monetary Union and You:  The Electric Boogaloo

Economics and finance are not my forte, and not really my cup of tea.  However, any examination of a Unified Europe must take this into consideration.  I will examine three key currency unions, their pros and their cons:

The Florin:  Originating from the Italian city state of Florence, this was the de facto dominant currency in Europe for much of the Middle Ages.

The Latin Monetary Union:  The first formal attempt to introduce a unified currency to Western Europe.

The Euro:  The most successful formal attempt to introduce a unified currency to the nations of Europe, the currency remains divisive and has introduced as many problems as benefits.

The European Union:  Herald of Peace and Prosperity, A Dying Attempt to Create a Fourth Reich or Something in the Middle?

This final section will take everything from the previous sections and attempt (badly) to create a cohesive whole:  where is Europe today compared to these examples from the past?  What can Europe learn from them?  Is it headed the same way or in a completely different direction?  Can lessons be learnt from the past, or are we trailblazers in an age of enlightenment, free speech, repression and fake news?

I’m not entirely sure myself yet, but I hope that by the end I will have some idea, and that you reading (if indeed you are) will at least glean some entertainment if nothing else.

Thank you for reading.

Here Goes Nothing…

So here we are, then.  In a way I suppose I could have started writing this sooner, or perhaps just given up on it as an idle fancy, something that would be nice but as a postgraduate astrophysicist I would never seriously have time to entertain.


And there is always a but.  Whilst the scientific fields encourage freedom of thought, to investigate with objective logic the universe around us, it so often ignores what it is that makes the very same universe so interesting:  Ourselves.

We live in a universe of impossibilities; indeed the more impossible something appears the more likely it is to happen.  From gravity to matter to stars to all of the different elements that make life possible, there’s no real reason why any of it should have happened, and especially not in the way that it has.

By the same stroke our modern world is also an impossibility.  From the grandest of empires to our thirstiest of ancestors thinking that that cow looked really appetising, there is no reason for most of our World to be the way that it is.  Whilst the most fundamental building blocks of our society have been lost to time (fire, agriculture, music etc.) most elements of our society only really exist when there’s enough food and security for freeloaders like politicians, philosophers and poets to exist.

This, then, is the aim of my blog:  to briefly look at and discuss some of what I regard the key periods, societies and individuals of Europe from the last 2,000 or so years and their impact on society today; hopefully with some humour and pizzazz thrown into the mix.

I hope you enjoy.