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Star Trek, Space Travel, and the Cloud May 20, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Science Fiction, Space Travel, Star Trek, Uncategorized.
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Every week, the Memorable Entertainment channel (MeTV) runs a Saturday night episode of the original Star Trek, which I record and watch while I read the Sunday morning paper. Today’s rerun was “The Changeling.” An ancient (i.e., 21st-century) space probe from Earth, the Nomad, collides with an alien space probe called Tan-Ru. The two damaged machines managed to magically repair themselves and merge into a new, hyperintelligent machine that considers its mission to be to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to destroy these “biological infestations.” This episode was recycled for the first Star Trek movie, and Nomad became V’ger.

What always interests me in watching ancient science fiction is the contrast between today’s world and what the mid-20th century thought today’s world and the farther future would be like. In many ways, we haven’t made anywhere near the progress they thought we’d make in the 1960s. For example, genetic superman Khan Noonian Singh did not lead a crowd of genetic superpeople to power in the 1980s, leading to the Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, leading to the space-exile of the U.S.S. Botany Bay in the late 1990s. We didn’t even map the gene code until a few years ago, and genetic superhumans won’t be a 1950s emergence, but more like 2050s — assuming no one raises the obvious ethical questions.

On the other hand, at a pivotal moment in the episode (more on this later), Nomad zaps Scotty with a super-taser bolt and kills him, and no one on the bridge, especially Dr. McCoy, thinks of doing CPR — largely because the scriptwriter didn’t know that CPR had been invented. (In the 1968 episode where Kirk gets amnesia, joins a tribe of Native Americans, and saves the life of a drowned child, Kirk uses a version of artificial respiration that was taught to countless Boy Scouts until the late 1950s. CPR was invented in 1960, but obviously had not yet made its way to 1967-68 Los Angeles.)

And yet, computing and the Internet are ridiculously farther advanced than Star Trek thought they’d be in the 23rd century. In deep space, Nomad opens fire on the Enterprise. Kirk returns fire, then ceases fire and orders that the enemy be hailed. Nomad inexpicably also ceases fire, and uses the hail to magically teach itself 23th-century English, including plausible intonation and inflection. (Nothing like, “I aim gnome-AD,” for example.)

The Enterprise beams Nomad aboard, then inexplicably leaves Nomad virtually unattended. Nomad finds its way to the bridge. The device is attracted by Uhura’s singing but unsatisfied by her explanation. The machine’s response is to download the contents of Uhura’s cerebral cortex, which for some unknown reason entails wiping her “hard drive” of all data. (But don’t worry! It takes only a week to reeducate her the old-fashioned way to college level, or roughly ten days before she can return to duty.)

Alarmed by what Nomad is doing to Uhura, Scotty attempts to rescue her, and Nomad kills him with a super-taser zap. Nomad offers to “repair” Scotty, and our heroes accept the offer.

KIRK: All right, Nomad. Repair the [Scotty] unit.

NOMAD: I require tapes on the [Scotty] structure.

MCCOY: Well, [Nomad]’ll need tapes on general anatomy, the central nervous system, and then one on the physiological structure of the brain. We’d better give it all the neurological studies we have, as well as tracings of Scotty’s hyperencephalogram.

(Spock loads up the data.)
SPOCK: Nomad, I have arranged the tapes for flash feed at the top speed of the computer. Please do not draw the information faster than the machine’s capacity.

Yes, dear reader: do not download files from the Internet too fast, for fear of crashing it.

Meanwhile, for the last several minutes of “The Changeling,” I as a viewer, watching while reading the op-eds, am thinking, “For goodness sakes, don’t let Nomad jack into the ship’s Intranet!”

This distracted me from the silliness of 1967 to thinking about the future of space travel. I can no longer get along without the Cloud in my life. I have many gigs’ worth of files stored in Dropbox, so I never again have to worry about losing files that are important to me. There’s a search engine called Goodsearch that offers to pay the charity of your choice one penny per search, and I have given my charity several hundred dollars. (I use Goodsearch even when I know exactly where I want to go; a typical Goodsearch might be something like “imdb star trek changeling plot synopsis.”) Research, reading, shopping, online communities like Twitter and Facebook: I’ve grown to positively need the Cloud.

IF someone invents faster-than-light travel, and IF the Republicans can be persuaded that investing in the future is better than pocketing someone else’s money in the present (ha!), and IF we resurrect a space program worthy of the name — all of which I sincerely doubt could ever come to pass — the first explorers would carry with them a supply of “space buoys” so that they would never lose touch with the Cloud. Star Trek called these buoys “relay stations,” but they appear to have been only used for “subspace radio.” I would use it to connect the neighborhood to the Cloud, so that I as a spacefarer would never be too far from my Dropbox collection of family photos from my childhood, my PDFs, my love letters, whatever, whether I was orbiting Proxima Centauri, Tau Ceti 4, or Vulcan.

After FTL travel, the second-most-important invention would have to be “subspace radio,” because if the information in the Cloud were limited to the speed of light, Skyping Mom from Alpha Centauri would mean a time lag of about ten years from your saying “Hi, Mom” to you hearing her say, “Hello, kiddo.” If I want to download a book from Project Gutenberg to pass the lonely hours in deep space, I really don’t want to waste 10 years, or 200, between the time I click on the request to the time the download is complete.

But here’s the thing: physicists have discovered something called quantum entanglement, in which information passes between paired photons not just faster than light, but instantaneously. (If you’re interested, this 2008 article from Nature, the weekly science journal, summarizes what we know.) Quantum entanglement, in turn, suggests that Alfred Bester got it right in The Stars My Destination. This 1956 novel suggests that to teleport yourself faster than light, all you have to do is (a) know where you are and (b) visualize a location you have been to before and want to return to now. The only absolute rule is that no one can “jaunte” through outer space — until the book’s hero invents a way to jaunt both through outer space and through time. Says Wikipedia,

At this point he realizes the key to space-jaunting. It is faith: not the certainty of an answer, but the conviction that somewhere an answer exists. He then jauntes from one nearby star to another. In the course of his star-hopping, Foyle locates the answer for the future: new worlds suitable for colonization reachable only if he can share the gift of space-jaunting. Finally he comes to rest in the locker on Nomad, where he spent his time before being reborn the first time. The Scientific People now see him as a holy man, and take up vigil to await his revelation.

Quantum entanglement proves to us that the impossible distances of outer space are a chimera; not faster-than-light but instantaneous travel is theoretically possible. If we can figure out how photons do it, we can figure out how to do it with atoms, molecules, and eventually vast collections of molecules. We will be able to jaunte. Imagine the possibilities!

“Brain Wars” and Heresy May 3, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.
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I just finished reading a fascinating new book, Brain Wars, by Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the University of Montreal who has studied the distinctions between mind, brain, and consciousness for almost 30 years. Brain Wars is a careful and comprehensive examination of the state of scientific research in all subjects related to the mind and to consciousness (rather than “merely” the brain). To anyone who approaches Beauregard’s topic with an open mind, Brain Wars is enlightening and exciting.

Ah, but that “open mind”! That is something else again. Early in Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard lists the three unquestioned and therefore unquestionable axioms of modern science:

  • Only matter and energy exist. Science is not only forbidden to consider that anything other than matter and energy exists; it may not consider even the possibility that something more exists. Life, consciousness, sentience, and the human senses of purpose and meaning are all accidents. If a concept cannot be explained through the laws of physics, it does not exist. (Physicalism)
  • Any complex system is nothing more than the sum of its smaller components. Dissection is the only acceptable technique of scientific inquiry. Any scientific inquiry that fails to limit itself to reductio ad infinitum is by definition fraud, crackpot, or fundamentally malignant. When you see words and phrases like “nothing more than,” “merely,” “simply,” “just,” or “little but,” you can see the reductionist mindset at work. (Reductionism)
  • Reality exists independent of the observer, and to hell with Heisenberg and anyone who thinks Heisenberg had a point. Quantum mechanics? Pshaw! Scientists may only consider empirically verifiable facts and may use only the scientific method. (Objectivism)

(Let us refer to these sacred axioms of modern science, Physicalism, Reductionism, and Objectivism, as PRO. Let us remark in passing that without PRO, you would not be reading these words; without PRO, we’d still be stuck in 1600 or so. Which, the glories of the Elizabethan era aside, may not be anyone’s favorite era of cultural development.)

A blogger named P.Z. Myers (a self-avowed “godless liberal” who according to Wikipedia is “widely regarded as a confrontationalist”), read a partial excerpt of one chapter of Brain Wars online and instantly proclaimed the entire book “nonsense,” “tripe,” “baffling piffle,” “unsupportable fantasies,” “very silly,” and “full of woo”; this is only to be expected, said Myers, since an earlier scientific text by Dr. Beauregard is “one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived, books I’ve ever read.” (That is one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived sentences I’ve read in months!)

In other words: Not having read either the current book or any of the meticulously structured and conducted research that Brain Wars summarizes, cephalopod researcher P.Z. Myers condemned both the book and its author with full-throated loathing. All scientific research of which this priest of PROism disapproves is reduced to nothing more than “feeble anecdotes” based on “flawed reasonings,” “confabulation,” and “confirmation bias.”

Apparently unprepared to receive an online assault made within moments of the publication of his new book, Dr. Beauregard made the mistake of responding to Myers’s attack in kind. His proofs that Myers had assailed the new book without actually reading it, or any of the dozens of research studies it reviews, were fine; his repetition-with-enlargement of his original point, obfuscated by Myers, was acceptable. BUT, Beauregard made the huge mistake of responding to Myers’s ad hominem attacks on Beauregard with similar ad hominem attacks on Myers. (It does not help Beauregard’s cause that English appears to be his second language, or that Beauregard’s feelings appear to have been hurt by Myers’s ad hominem viciousness.)

Responding to flung poop with poop-flinging was a bad mistake. To coin a phrase, “You can’t use Rush to flush Rush.” My advice to authors who receive knee-jerk attacks from jerks with knees: Pretend your attacker is your most fervent admirer. “I am so happy that blogger P.Z. Myers considers me an incompetent idiot,” Beauregard ought to have written. “I am even happier that the committees that confer major international awards in my speciality, such as the Joel F. Lubar Award for distinguished achievement in neurotherapy, all disagree with Dr. Myers. I am sure that Dr. Myers is highly qualified to teach introductory biology to college freshmen in his small town in Minnesota. And he writes a cute little blog, too! If only *I* could squeeze in the time to write a blog! — but my num­ber­less peer-reviewed research studies keep taking up my time. In future years I will look forward to seeing whether Dr. Myers shows himself capable of publishing at my level. His blog, Pharyngula, is certainly full of interesting information on zebrafish and ceph­a­lo­pods, and I know that much of it must be factual.”

Naturally, Myers reacted to Beauregard’s clumsy attempt to give Myers a taste of his own medicine as positive proof that every word Myers has ever published is God’s sacred truth and every word that Beauregard has ever published is “unaware of [the] basic concepts of science.” Myers’s second attack on Brain Wars — which Myers still appears not to have read — is even more savage and even less founded on the scientific rationality that Myers claims to prize.

Beauregard’s second mistake was trying to defend his work for what it is, a comprehensive review of up-to-date scientific research, when P.Z. Myers’s attacks have been on the heresy Beauregard displays toward Myers’s religion.

Yes; I said it; P.Z. Myers is not in fact a “godless liberal.” P.Z. Myers is a high priest of scientific orthodoxy, a Torquemada of Truthiness, a “Joey the Rat” Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in Orthodox PROism. The real scientists are the real seekers of truth; anyone who even wonders whether a distinction can be made between brain and mind is a heretic. Evil. A “charlatan” with “some very, very strange beliefs.”

Most religious believers appear to consider atheism a belief system comparable to a religion. This is absurd, rather like considering abstinence a form of sexuality, or refraining from drinking alcohol a form of drunkenness.

But consider what happens to a scientist who offends against the religion of “PRO”: attacks on the scientist’s methodology, reasoning, past work, and character. Being informed by the scientific es­tab­lish­ment what research is fit to be pursued and what research “contra­dicts the laws of nature.” Having discoveries suppressed, mocked, dismissed, or explained away. Being accused of sloppiness, fraud, mental illness, incompetence, foolishness, and ideological bias. Being ridiculed. “All too often,” says Rochus Boerner, “scientific truth is determined by the authority of experts and textbooks, not by logic and reason.”

I consider myself a “freelance theologian,” although probably “phil­os­opher of religion” would be more accurate. Although I contribute my time, talent, and treasure to the Christian denomination I joined when I married my Christian husband, and although I follow the real-world teacher of wisdom on whom the myth of Jesus is based, I no longer follow Paul of Tarsus. “Christians” who preach hate, judgment, con­dem­na­tion, and exclusion in the holy name of Jesus would no doubt consider me an atheist.

I mention this not because I consider myself a great big huge expert on God: You know exactly as much about God as I do and as anyone else in the world does, virtually nothing. I mention it because I see the words of religious believers every day of the week, and many times on Sundays. Brain Wars is a comprehensive and impartial review of where modern science stands on issues that True Believers con­sider crackpottery: spiritual belief, hypnotism, mysticism, near-death experiences, telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. The attacks on Brain Wars leveled by P.Z. Myers are religious anathema at its finest: “Die, heretic, die!”

Solely because P.Z. Myers declared The Spiritual Brain to be the “worst,” most incompetent, most idiotic book he had ever read, I rushed right over to Amazon and bought a copy. In hardcover. If the Torquemada of Truthiness hates it that much, the book must be chock-full of insights that scare the priesthood of PRO silly.