Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Showing posts with label Stephen Hawking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen Hawking. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking, An Immortal Farewell

This is a post I wish I did not have to write, on the passing of the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking. He died today, aged 76.

Image Source: Reuters via Voa News.

This time last year, it was reported that Richard Branson offered Hawking transportation on Virgin Galactic to the International Space Station. In 2007, the famous physicist became the first quadriplegic to experience simulated zero gravity on a modified Boeing 727-200 and looked incredibly happy when he became weightless.

Click here to read my references to his work. If you have not read his books, you can listen to some audiobooks and films on his work, below the jump.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Space Farming: Little Green Tendrils of Chaos

You can take it with you: Nigella damascena, a type of buttercup, germinated in a lab on the International Space Station. Image Source: Wiki.

When we depart for the Final Frontier, we will have to become very good at farming in zero gravity and on other worlds. Anyone who has tried the most basic seed planting and coaxed a plant to maturity under ideal earthly conditions may start to appreciate what a daunting task that is. Even in today's era of Frankenfoods, plants don't care what humans think they should be or do. If you try to force plants or their environment to run counter to the laws they expect to follow, they simply die. If scientists are able to force plants in the short term via genetic modification to satisfy artificial human fads and demands, there will always be a correction in the environment, somewhere, that will decimate the plan. Period. For thousands of years, people have tried to play god with plants. Even when they achieve some success, that never become god. Biology will never be fully instrumentalized by humans, and it's a good thing too. It is that scary unknown factor in agriculture which brings a host of problems to space colonization.

On 12 March 2015, NASA confirmed via Hubble's observations that Jupiter's moon Ganymede has a huge water ocean under an ice crust, which could mean that it harbours life. Image Souce: Sci Tech Daily.

Experts claim that the only way for humanity to survive over the long term is that we clear that hurdle in the future. According to Stephen Hawking, whatever problems we may have down here on earth, a bigger one trumps them all. Our future lies in the stars, he argues, and humanity must eventually abandon this planet or face extinction. Does God play dice he asks, paraphrasing Einstein? Yes, He does, Hawking argues, asserting that there is an underlying range of chaotic variability, an unpredictability, to everything. Hawking contradicts Einstein's insistence that there had to be an underlying order in everything which we could not yet grasp. Despite Hawking's faith that the future cannot be predicted, he is certain humankind must go through a cataclysmic bottleneck, a test of survival, a possible extinction event. Over the next thousand years, space exploration must be our inevitable future. There is no wiggle room on this, he concludes, due to global warming, nuclear annihilation, or a genetically-engineered virus.

Cultural expectations of transcendent Singularity (which include a faith in space colonization) continue the very mechanistic mentality, a 19th century positivism, which quantum physicists criticize. Humans-as-machines is a very popular idea now, and culturally speaking, it is big, but not that deep. Humans are now addicted to, and obsessed by, their species' new computing power. Pause to observe the stunning fact that 40 per cent of the world's population got a new heroin habit over the past 20 years that was socially acceptable, economically profitable (if also economically tumultuous), politically unstable, and governmentally dubious. Then imagine that the most hard core tech addicts insist that we must lose ourselves in the addiction, becoming more and more like the technological objects of our adoration.

In fact, successful space exploration might be achieved only by an antithetical stance, a renewal of the organic, in a move that counters the seductive, semi-sexual love affair with computer gadgetry. In this post, I noted how popular ideas in the 1920s and 1930s shaped scientists' early conceptions of dark matter. In cultural terms, today's Singularity and quantum aficionados are 1920s' and 1930s' revivalists.

That is the kind of point that confirms that culture and science are not contending opposites; instead, they make an unexpected pair of yoked oxen. How scientists interpret and conceptualize their findings is heavily influenced by their cultural values, about which they are rarely objective or intensively schooled. This is why science fiction author Charlie Stross argued that space colonization is not a story about extending technology, despite all the technical trappings of the exercise. It is a story, as Frank Herbert knew well, about our relationship with the environment. And that relationship, given our psychology, almost always is expressed mystically and philosophically through the expansion and transformation of religion; Stross pondered some of this:
I'm going to take it as read that the idea of space colonization isn't unfamiliar; domed cities on Mars, orbiting cylindrical space habitats a la J. D. Bernal or Gerard K. O'Neill, that sort of thing. Generation ships that take hundreds of years to ferry colonists out to other star systems where — as we are now discovering — there are profusions of planets to explore. And I don't want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they're there, that the case for space colonization isn't usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. "We can't afford to keep all our eggs in one basket" isn't so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality.
A response to that post, quoted at the Daily Galaxy, dismissed these culturally-derived warnings because transhumanists believe we will meld with machines and morph into something non-human, or superhuman, or post-human:
[Stross doesn't take] into account the possibility of post-Singularity, Drexlerian, Kardashev Type II civilizations. Essentially, we're talking about post-scarcity civilizations with access to molecular assembling nanotechnology, radically advanced materials, artificial superintelligence, and access to most of the energy available in the solar system. "Stross also too easily dismisses how machine intelligences, uploaded entities and AGI will impact on how space could be colonized. He speculates about biological humans being sent from solar system to solar system, and complains of the psychological and social hardships that could be inflicted on an individual or crew. He even speculates about the presence of extraterrestrial pathogens that undoubtedly awaits our daring explorers. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Biological humans will have no role to play in space. Instead, this work will be done by robots and quite possibly cyborgs.
That is such a 2000s' thing to say. Super-this, nano-that.  In 2005, Ray Kurzweil maintained in The Singularity is Near that we could interface with our technology, the way computers interface with each other, and in so doing we could transcend our biology. It was a fashionable, and now dated, thing to assume. The post-Singularity hypothesis tells you more about 2005 than it does about 2500.

Part of that hypothesis suggests that our addiction to computers is reaching blind adoration, and extends to the assumption that they are, or will be, smarter than we are. We love them so, such that we will either join with them (a typical, unreflective psycho-sexual assumption), and/or they will out-survive us. This is exactly the kind of thing an addict would say about his or her drug: it's stronger than I am; it's destroying me in the long term; but I love it anyway in the short term because it enhances my capabilities. The Daily Galaxy:
In a futuristic mode similar to Hawking, both Steven Dick, chief NASA historian and Carnegie-Mellon robotics pundit, Hans Moravec, believe that human biological evolution is but a passing phase: the future of mankind will be as vastly evolved sentient machines capable of self-replicating and exploring the farthest reaches of the Universe programmed with instructions on how to recreate earth life and humans to target stars. Dick believes that if there is a flaw in the logic of the Fermi Paradox, and extraterrestrials are a natural outcome of cosmic evolution, then cultural evolution may have resulted in a post-biological universe in which machines are the predominant intelligence.
There is so much blind confidence in the secular window dressing around science and technology, that there is no warning that Millennial technological prophets employ the language of cult leaders. They speak the high-priestly language of a sacred mentality with religious fervour, and remain unaware of what they are actually doing, because they are scientists. They predict the future, while in the same breath admit that science tells them that the future cannot be predicted.

Eco horror from John Wyndham: alien trees might be triffid-like on planets in binary, two-sun systems. Image Source: Passenger Films.

Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #1.

Image Source.
Will the techno-rapture break down over space farming, when the plants remind us about our bottom line dependence on the environment? That is the final cultural pre-condition. We breathe air. We drink water. And despite our love affair with our shiny tools, we need the other earthly organisms which have evolved alongside us. What will the galaxy gurus do when the plants refuse to grow, or start to die, or grow tendrils 12 feet long so that they can snag and eat the colonists?

What if, in the wilds of space, space colonies and spaceships, plants can survive better than we can, arise to occupy a superior evolutionary niche to do so, and eventually overthrow and destroy us? They are only tamed here on earth because terran conditions allow us to be dominant. Space colony die-hards forget that humans evolved to a dominant position out of, and within, this earthly ecosystem, and no other. Once humankind leaves this planet with other terran species, to interact in long-haul spacecraft and space colony ecosystems, there are no guarantees that humans will dominate those systems. Even with humans supported by the technology they developed, plants may not remain their silent slaves. And this is before animal husbandry comes into the mix.

In a related vein, Mars One - the plan to send colonists on a one way trip to Mars by 2027, aka the final apex of reality television - came under harsh criticism this week. Their candidate selection practices and media entertainment fund-raising took a bashing. Critics dismiss Mars One as a pyramid scheme, even though that is only symptomatic of a more pressing problem. The reason private companies are taking over space exploration is because of politics. For years in the United States, a bizarre scenario has unfolded in which global warming has been pitted politically against space explorationObama's government slashed NASA's budget and money for other Big Science projects, which meant that other countries are now challenging or outcompeting America in these fields. Under these conditions, private companies will merge commercial capitalism with space aspirations and exploration technology. This week, Mars One's technological feasibility critics came through the loudest because a 2014 MIT study declared that Mars One's colonists' first wheat crop would blow their life support systems.

An independent MIT study from October 2014 concluded that the maturation of Mars One colonists' wheat crops would blow their life support systems by creating an overabundance of oxygen. Image Source: Extreme Tech.

Agriculture adds an element of the universe's chaos into any plan for survival in space and space colonies. This is the chaos whose metrics physicists like Hawking constantly seek and which eludes them. This is the chaos which makes them admit that they cannot predict the future, right at the moment when technology dangles a future in front of them that they want to believe (rather than prove). This agricultural element of the unseen, of perceptual error, of the unknowable, confirms that space farming would constantly remind us of our essential humanity, right when space exploration threatened to dehumanize its technologists and engineers. It is organic chaos, culminating in our unpredictable relationship with the unwieldy environment and other organisms which may have the last laugh, which reminds us how fragile we are and that we must colonize the stars with humility. Luke, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, was raised as a farmer. It's no wonder why George Lucas did that. This is why, this week, the Mars One project came under fire around the question at the heart of all human civilizations: not media, not money, but agriculture.

An earlier post on HOTTC discussed the film, Silent Running (1972), in which the 1970s' back-to-the-land movement met the 1970s' space opera. You can hear Joan Baez's performance for the film's folksy soundtrack below the jump. Will the calls for space colonization overlap with the Millennial back-to-the land movement? So far, they haven't. Below the jump, see a selection of plants which have been planted on the International Space Station, and which plants are planned for future greenhouses on the moon and Mars. Several foods have been tested on the ISS, including the first bagels in space.

"Plant growth chambers, seeds and watering devices that made up part of an experiment flown to the space station during the STS-118 space shuttle mission [in 2007]. The seeds were later returned to Earth and grown within lunar growth chambers designed by students." Image Source: NASA via Phys.org.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

All Hallows' Eve Countdown: Mark Twain's Young Satan

Mark Twain depicted Lucifer as ambiguous, attractive and psychopathic. Image Source: The House of Vines.

October marks the start of harvest season in the Northern Hemisphere. Hallowe'en is just around the corner. Every year, the site Countdown to Halloween runs a blogathon so that interested blogs can comment on the season in any way they see fit (I highly recommend Gothtober). This blog participated in 2011 and 2012 (see those posts here); this year I am participating again.

2013's All Hallows' Eve Countdown at Histories of Things to Come will offer horror-themed posts with a twist. These posts will mostly address how horror straddles the dotted line of acceptability: how horror can have non-horrific origins; how horror's marginal aspects become mainstream (not always in a good way); how horror carries mixed messages; or how horror stories convey moral messages. Posts in the countdown will be more or less every other day; there will also be some regular, non-countdown posts this month.

Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (30 November 1835-21 April 1910)). Image Source: University of California Press.

Today's post concerns some of the darker writings of the famous American writer Mark Twain. Twain's real name was Samuel Clemens; he took his pseudonym from sailing Missouri steamboats on the Mississippi river in the late 1850s, where mark twain was the call which meant 'safe water' at two fathoms, or twelve feet deep.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Happy Birthday, Professor Hawking

Brain Pickings celebrates Stephen Hawking's 71st birthday today with a 1991 documentary (directed by Errol Morris, music by Philip Glass) about the famous physicist, who stated:
Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.
To see the film, go here or here. In the documentary, Hawking remarked (starting at 0:13:05) that cosmology of an expanding universe does not preclude the existence of a Creator (something he later disputed) but it does limit the timeframe in which the universe might have been created. Hawking's fascination with time as the key to the cosmos also prompted him to ask: why do we remember the past, but we don't remember the future?

From the cover of A Briefer History of Time (2005). Image Source: Skeptic.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Beyond Googolplex Years, the End of Time

According to physicist Stephen Hawking, even Black Holes die. Image Source: Message to Eagle.

Space.com has posted a set of five short videos which discuss the meaning of time from the perspective of humans, our planet and the cosmos. The videos emphasize that time is no abstract. It is above all a natural process, which embodies the nexus between our minds and the environment. This is something I have discussed in a previous post, here. Beyond that, time is the measure of all life interacting with the environment; and finally, it is the very rhythm of the universe.

Time is an interconnected metric, whose elements of non-life and life are indistinguishable. Everything dies, the video promises, including things in the universe that are not alive. You cannot have life without death. But can you have death without life? Yes, you can. We live in the stellar era, a time defined by the power of stars. But all stars die. According to Stephen Hawking, even Black Holes die, radiating energy until they disappear. And what will happen when they do? Finally, the universe will die - unless there are dimensions beyond the ones with which we are familiar, a world beyond perception and beyond death:
Based on Hawking's theory, the last Black Holes will disappear when the cosmic clock strikes 10 to the 100th years from now. That's a number known as a Googol. That's the end of our universe, and yet it's still far short of forever. What will happen, say, in 10 to the Googol? A Googolplex years? Well, if you wrote all those numbers out, in tiny one point font, it would stretch beyond the diameter of the observable universe. Will the great Arrow of Time ever come to rest? Or, does that Arrow fly a curved path, destined to cycle back again and again, as whole new universes come into being in a way similar to our own. The numbers that describe the time horizons of our universe are incomprehensible. Yet they may well be relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. 
See the video one on human time (here); video two on Earth time (here); video three on cosmic time (here); video four (here); and see the fifth video in the series below the jump.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cause and Effect: Time and Western Civilization?

Time as a chessboard, not an arrow. Ballet on Time Chessboard by Lawrence Alfred Powell.  Image Source: Redbubble.

In my post from November 25th, I discussed Stephen Hawking's assumption that time travel backwards is impossible. From MSNBC's report: "'Down at the smallest of scales, smaller even than molecules, smaller than atoms, we get to a place called the quantum foam. This is where wormholes exist. Tiny tunnels or shortcuts through space and time constantly form, disappear, and reform within this quantum world. And they actually link two separate places and two different times. The tunnels, unfortunately, are far too small for people to pass through — just a billion-trillion-trillionths of a centimeter -- but physicists believe it may be possible to catch a wormhole and make it big enough for people, or spaceships, to enter,' Hawking writes. 'Theoretically, a time tunnel or wormhole could do even more than take us to other planets. If both ends were in the same place, and separated by time instead of distance, a ship could fly in and come out still near Earth, but in the distant past. Maybe dinosaurs would witness the ship coming in for a landing. ... Ultimately, scientists may find that only travel into the future is possible, as the laws of nature may make travel to the past impossible so the relationship between cause and effect is maintained.'"

I noted Hawking's reservations in my earlier post, "that time, the entire Fourth Dimension, must follow the rules of cause and effect.  Incidentally, the principle of causality underpins the entire conception of western civilization, so it's interesting that Hawking has run headlong up against that brick wall and steadfastly backed away from it."  Two things struck me here: first, that Hawking's assessment is so dependent upon the notion of this causality that he had to invent a wall of radiation or similar force to prevent the universe from acting in a way that he considers to be illogical.  It looks like there is room for a blind spot here.  Second, the principle of causality underpins practically every area of human inquiry, especially in the Western tradition, in everything from theology to the scientific method.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hawking's Party for Time Travellers

Is time travel possible? Image Source: Just 5 Minutes.

In his Discovery Channel series, Into the Universe, Stephen Hawking recently hypothesized that if time travel to the past is possible, then he could throw a party to welcome chrononauts from the future.  He would publicize the invitation, and wait.  Daily Galaxy provides a transcript of his comments on the result: "Let's imagine I'm throwing a party, a welcome reception for future time travellers. But there's a twist. I'm not letting anyone know about it until after the party has happened. I've drawn up an invitation giving the exact coordinates in time and space. I am hoping copies of it, in one form or another, will be around for many thousands of years."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Space as Palimpsest: The Wow! Signal 6EQUJ5

Image Source: Bigear.org.

It's been just over 33 years since we received the only message from space that ever seemed to constitute an intelligent transmission: 6EQUJ5.  This message was picked up by the Big Ear radio telescope at about 11:16 p.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time on August 15, 1977 at Ohio State University Radio Observatory.  There is a history of the transmission hereDr. Jerry R. Ehman, who was part of the SETI project working at the Observatory, noted the transmission and made the famous margin note: "Wow!"  There is an explanation of the values 6EQUJ5 here (different numbers and letters measured intensities of power in the transmission).

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Little Something for Us Chrononauts

Clocks Slay Time (2010). © By alexandraburciu. Reproduced with kind permission.

On September 10, Larry King Live broadcasted an interview King conducted with Stephen Hawking about his recent book The Universe in a Nutshell and his comments that the origin of the universe does not need to be explained with reference to a divine creator.  Tellingly, that hot topic veered quickly to the subject of time travel.  Is there a connection between the quest to determine the divine/non-divine origins of the universe and time travel? (I feel like Paul in Dune - "The worms - the spice - is there a relationship?"). 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The World's Time Capsules

Hi there. The gold Pioneer plaque, affixed to both Pioneer spacecraft.

Who remembers Voyager 2?  I do!  The 1977 Voyager 1 and 2 projects are still ongoing at NASA.  Voyager 1 and 2, as well as the 1972-1973 Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, were sent to gather information, and bore messages that distilled the life on our planet down to a picture, a collection of sounds, and simple messages describing the apex of human development and scientific knowledge.

The plaque on Pioneer 10.

They serve two purposes. They are time space capsules and attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence.  The spacecraft are historical artifacts, and their messages for alien life sum up human existence, a 'message in a bottle' cast into the sea of space.  Any object that washes up on a beach should be treated with caution.  A message in a bottle could inspire a rescue of a scarecrow castaway.  More often, bottles on beaches are considered a bad sign, a key to a mystery better left alone. In that regard, there was something disingenuous about the 'we come in peace' imagery associated with the Pioneer project.  The Pioneer plaques were created at a time when space exploration was optimistic, a product of global village idealism.  At its best, space exploration still embodies that part of human ambition. More likely, it will come to reflect the conclusion of Arthur C. Clarke's 1946 short story Rescue Party, about advanced aliens who come to aid humans as earth is destroyed and soon regret it. There is more to the human interest in space than benevolent adventurousness.  You can read Clarke's story here.