Interstellar

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Most everyone I’ve read – mostly science fiction writers and fans – have described Interstellar as the best science fiction film of the last twenty years. There have certainly been comparisons to 2001 and so there should be – the references and homages to Kubrick’s classic were obvious. The focus of most people seems to have been on the space travel component and the treatment of concepts like relativity and the effect of gravity on space and time. And that was excellent. Spoilers ahead.

But to me the real strength of the movie revolved around the backstory of environmental collapse and the consequences for society when the planet can no longer sustain the human quest for more stuff. Whether you want to pin the blame on climate change or the depredations of Monsanto, the message is clear: we are pushing the world toward another extinction event and our only hope is… well, what is it? Abandon the planet or fix it?

At first neither seems possible. Science has run up against the wall. In fact, for most of the people involved, science has been thankfully abandoned (the Apollo mission was fake – which is another way of saying that progress is a lie — a central theme of all ultra-conservatives) as people subside into survival mode. Just hanging on and hoping that next year will be better.

But can science overcome human nature? Some certainly think not. Dr. Mann has abandoned hope – his view is that individual survival is understandable but that people are incapable of thinking in the abstract, of acting in ways that ensure the survival of the species even if their own survival and that of their children is the price to pay. It certainly is a conundrum but people have shown themselves capable of working on things they know will never be completed in their lifetimes. Visit the cathedrals of Europe most of which took 400 or more years to construct and you will see what I mean.

Others – Professor Brand – pretend to be almost there with the solution, even though he knows that the answer can’t be found without more data. He fakes his work so that people won’t lose hope. His plan B is plan A all along. He abandoned individual humans long ago so that the species can continue. He incorporates recursiveness in his equations as a way to hide the awful truth.

This is all well and good but really, isn’t that what we all do? None of us expect to actually reach the promised land but we all work hard to take a few more steps on the journey so that our children , grandchildren, or if you are like me and have never produced any, the children and grandchildren of our neighbours can have a better life. Individual selfishness is certainly a barrier to that but not in the simplistic way you might think.

What I really liked about the movie was the way it seemed to include a mystical element without ever having one. The solution seems to come from advanced aliens who want to help us (i.e. God) but in fact comes from the human future. But the person transmitting the message is from the present, from someone who only wants, selfishly, his children to survive.

In other words, the answer to our current problems can only be solved by us – in the present – driven by selfish motives that are ultimately altruistic. The answers don’t come from God; they certainly don’t come from abandoning science or accepting second best solutions because the real solution is too hard. It comes from the on-going scientific conversation and keeping an eye on the future. While the temptation always exists to hold onto what we have and fight fires as they come, to constantly look to the ‘more simple’ past, the world can’t take any more of that. The future is coming, one second at a time, and we need to prepare for it rather than deny it.

And that’s what good science fiction is: a conversation with the future.

I just wish all the actors didn’t mumble so much.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

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The Space Between

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When you look into a clear night sky, what do you see? Stars, of course, sometimes so thick that the light seems to blur into streaks. Some people of an imaginative bent can see constellations. Some claim to see the future – which is nonsense; everything we see is hundreds or millions or billions of years old.

But what we don’t see – or don’t notice – is the space between the stars. Empty space – though it isn’t empty. Even the purest vacuum has a few atoms in it and waves of energy pouring through it. Then, there is the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that makes up the bulk of the universe.

It is in fact the spaces between the stars that connect everything together. It is how we can talk about their being a galaxy or a single universe. It is because they are all connected by space and time that they are one thing, instead of a bunch of whirling bits doing their own thing with no impact on each other.

Sort of like society. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing a society. It was glib but it was almost certainly what she thought. Mrs. Thatcher, though hardly a libertarian ideologue, tended to see people or families moving around, seemingly independently, acting for good or ill, without always seeing the space between them, filled with language and tradition and negotiating frameworks and cultural expression — things that don’t merely constrain individuals but construct them.

Much of what makes up human life is invisible or, on the surface, incomprehensible. Take language. When you hear someone speak you hear words and sentences. This is an illusion. Try listening to a foreign language and you will see what I mean. You hear sound and nothing more. On an oscilloscope it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. Even on the printed page – if you are illiterate or dyslexic it may look like nothing but random marks. The code that deciphers it is not strictly in our head – it is in our collective heads. Language fills the spaces between us and language lets us accomplish so much that we could never do without it.

The law is much the same on a different scale. Parliamentarians often think that they make the law. It consists of the Bills they debate and pass. But each of those Acts exist in relationship with all the laws that were passed before – not merely in one country but increasingly in all countries. The law is an amorphous and largely invisible thing, constructed by individual Acts of Parliament but also by constitutions, legal proceedings, even the very debates and arguments that oppose the individual bits of legislation that majorities pass. It permeates almost everything we do in a civil society. Some would argue it is what most people mean when they say society.

Society exists, Mrs. Thatcher, and continues to exist long after its residents, like you, are gone.

And that’s ten minutes.

Mars

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The private sector Mars mission just announced the 100 finalists for their planned colony on Mars. Eventually this group will be whittled down to twenty four and, if the project’s backers can raise enough money (a very big IF), they will launch these people, four at a time, on a one-way trip to Mars.

That’s right — one-way. Everyone who goes on this trip is going to die on Mars — or in one of multitude of ways that could happen en route. So the question becomes not if they will die on Mars but when.

Most experts think their lives will be measured in weeks or months rather than years. Well, frankly, most experts don’t think they will go there at all.

The argument over who does a better job at space travel — the public or the private sector — rages in circles where those arguments rage (mostly science fiction conventions and on-line forums of space enthusiasts) but so far it has been mostly theoretical.

Those who are keen on private enterprise point out the obvious inefficiencies of NASA and other government space agencies, as well as their inherent cautiousness. Despite that cautiousness — an obvious reluctance to waste valuable human resources not to mention the bad PR it would cause — government efforts have managed to kill a fair number of people.

But those were accidents and not a condition of employment. Only the private sector can be so cavalier about human lives.

In any case, it remains moot. So far the private space industry has not accomplished much and certainly hasn’t accomplished anything — so far — that hasn’t already been done by government bodies.

To the extent they have gotten a few things off the ground, their only claim to fame is that they did it cheaper. Whether they are as effective is difficult to say — there simply isn’t a large enough sample to show whether private rockets succeed (or fail spectacularly) at a greater rate than public ones.

All that aside, the question in most people’s minds is: why do it at all? Young people in particular are more likely to be reluctant to send humans into space (and I thought we got risk-averse as we got older) arguing that we can do it with robots.

This may be because they have been raised on science fiction where robots are portrayed as actually smart and capable and not the hopeless dummies they mostly are. Computers are faster than humans at a number of computational and data sorting functions (that’s why they can do so well at chess and Jeopardy) but can’t do a lot of the things humans do so well — like recognize danger or improvise solutions on the fly. Or even walk and recognize faces.

Someday they may be capable of what humans can do but for now any really interesting stuff done in space will be done by people. But still, why do it at all? To advance human knowledge? To provide us with an alternative habitat in case (or when) we mess this one up?

Or maybe as George Mallory put it: because it’s there.

And that’s ten minutes.