Okay, so this could possibly be an exercise in deep thinking. Or not.
The single most important question we could ever ask is the one we will never get an answer for.
Put in a simple way: "What the hell is going on?" implying… Why are we here? What is this place? Does something else come next? It's a favorite topic in science fiction, whether addressed head on or implied, in fact, it underlies both my debut novel, Algorithm and As Wings Unfurl.
In Algorithm I used the premise that a large part of our DNA is responsible for instinct, that for humans has a very specific purpose. In As Wings Unfurl the idea is that we have been fooled into a belief of evolutionary origins, and that the biblical accounts may be more accurate.
Philosophers, theologians, and even scientists have sought the answer, but we all know deep down that isn't going to happen. That grim fact alone is really quite an interesting clue to the answer itself. And there are other clues.
When a question is posed that really cannot be answered, the reason is either it's not a legitimate question or we aren't capable of understanding the answer. An illegitimate question is one that sounds logical but is poisoned with a logical impossibility. For example, when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, what happens? Here it's clear that the question has no logical underpinning. You simply can't ask that question!
Does asking about the Universe and our place in it fall into such a false trap? In this case, we may be faced with an answer that we cannot understand. Theologians would point to scripture and belief systems that explain everything. The supposition is that we don't have all the facts, and may never get them. However, even in a belief system, there are questions that can be posed, that we need to relegate to a higher authority… admitting we will never understand the answers as living human beings.
It seems the question of existence is like the endless series of "whys" a child might dish out, which usually result in parental exasperation. There is a limit to our understanding, and that limit derives from the type of logic we use.
Our logic was developed by a life form obsessed with survival. That's how we came to be. The way we think is entirely based on getting food, shelter, and staying out of deadly trouble. All this came about over a period of millions of years on a tiny dust mote called the Earth, stuck in a corner of a galaxy containing 100 billion stars in a universe containing at least 10 billion galaxies. The numbers are staggering. But the point is that our way of thinking came about in an exceedingly parochial way in a negligible part of the universe. Our logic may not apply to the bigger picture. When we ask a question aimed at the entire universe, we make the crass assumption that the universe and all its moving parts follow our brand of logic. Heck, even the language we use may not apply.
Aristotle once declared he was able to prove the existence of God. His approach is sometimes referred to as the First Cause. The assumption, made logically, is that all things have a cause. Applying this cause/effect relationship to anything will ultimately lead to the First Cause. For example, why is there wind? The air is moved by the heat from the sun. Why does the sun heat the air? Its thermonuclear reactions give off heat and we happen to be near enough to feel it. Why is there a sun? Matter was attracted by gravitational forces, and when an enormous amount was squished together, atoms fell apart. How did the atoms come to be? They are the consequence of the Big Bang, where matter for some reason chose to appear from nowhere and take on the form of atoms. Now we're getting in trouble.
To Aristotle the Big Bang could easily be interpreted as God. To physicists, it's just one of those curiosities that maybe someday we'll understand. Interestingly, the logical problem with the First Cause is that there is no proof that all things in the universe need to have a cause. (Just like the Big Bang). Here, logic itself demands that we be careful in extrapolating a series of deductions.
I propose that the question so dear to us all, is one that makes no sense. Just like a square circle, the question itself is simply not allowed.
Don't feel bad or get mad. Logic, like everything else, has its limits.
I mentioned other clues early in this essay. They are all around us. Matter is made of something, right? What exactly is that? Ah…silly question? We're great at taking things apart, giving them names, studying how they interact. But we will never ever know what matter is. That, right there, is a clue!
Another clue: did you know that all attempts to produce a perfect vacuum have failed. Put in another way, we cannot create a space with nothing in it. Read that as trying to produce a tiny spot where nothing exists. Reason? Because something always shows up. Light and/or tiny particles of matter manage to be created. Out of nothing!!!
Another: entangled particles … one can separate subatomic particles that usually exist as pairs. Whatever is done to one particle happens to the other at the very same time, regardless of distance between them. Einstein called this "spooky." It defies reason, but does suggest what we are seeing is not at all what really exists.
Finally, how is it that after the Big Bang, matter chose to form into atoms? It's peculiar because atoms have properties which are anthropomorphic … that is, they have likes and dislikes, which persist through higher levels of complexity, all the way through to us. It's puzzling that matter came together in the form of building blocks.
Existence is a strange phenomenon. It resists eradication. Matter behaves as if it's all part of one thing—odd little observations, but deeply meaningful. At this point, one could draw the conclusion that we are immortal, based on the fact that all our atoms will continue to exist after we die. It seems matter will last forever, either in the form of solids or energy, since it and energy have nowhere to go. They simply cannot unexist.
Originally posted on Lupa Mysteries Blog Spot 7 Sep 2016
Every once in a while, something happens to change the way you view the world. That happened to me the other night. It was a dream.
I was in a house with my parents hosting some kind of party. Already this is unusual, since I rarely dream about my parents who passed away long ago. While my mother was entertaining some guests in the living room, I noticed my room’s door was ajar, with a light streaming from within. My mother just finished bringing a dead cat to life (remember, it’s a dream). I entered my room, where my father started up a conversation about what my mother just did. He claimed it was impossible, that it made no sense. When I started up a soliloquy, a very unusual one, I became half-awake. I was so impressed that I repeated the speech out loud so I wouldn’t forget it.
I explained to my father that our view of the world is ever-changing. It is made up of bits and pieces of observations that we strive to glue together into a workable thesis. Whenever something strange pops up, we rearrange the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle until they fit in another way. “But, what about the impossible?” my father asked. “You mother just brought a cat back to life.”
Then I came up with this: The glue which holds those pieces together is logic. Our logic developed along with us as we evolved and struggled to survive on this tiny mote of dirt in an incredibly huge universe. It may be that our logic simply cannot explain everything we see in the universe (like dark matter, entangled particles, the creation of matter from nothing, even the big bang), because it was never designed to deal with such questions. In fact, we may not have the language to apply to the rest of the universe. Even the concept of causation, the basis of our scientific method, may have no relevance to existence.
It was then I woke up.
The lowly atom --- composed of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. It's our fundamental particle (discounting the smaller bits that make up those neutrons and protons). I say fundamental because atoms have the wonderful property of combining, recombining and splitting away from other atoms. Nature's sandbox. Atoms pile up to make molecules, which in turn, pile up to make all sorts of things, including us. This penchant for interaction is a big deal property of atoms and molecules. You could say it's a sort of atomic/molecular awareness. Atoms are picky about which other atoms they'll associate with, as are molecules.
Let's consider that matter is aware. It interacts, combines, recombines, falls apart. Just awareness. This happens all the time. It's when matter becomes self-aware (like the pile that makes us up) that's when we start pointing fingers, declaring which pile of molecules is more self-aware than another. Surely we are more self-aware than a rock. or a flower vase, or a fish (we think). The point here is that awareness begins at the atomic level or even sub-atomic level ... basically matter is aware of itself as a result of its nature, so it's no surprise that piles like us have that same property.
So, what's the bottom line? No biggie here. We are simply large bunches of matter exhibiting some awareness of the world around us. The more matter in the pile, especially organized, the more that pile seems conscious. But, what about the soul, you ask? There's room for the soul, if that's how you wish to perceive existence. However, there's no need to make things more complicated by introducing a belief system. Just look around you. We're all made of the same stuff, and that stuff clearly is aware of other stuff. It's actually quite a beautiful thought.
Anyone who pays close attention to the fantastic special effects in SF movies knows that most of what they see is impossible. Less obvious are scientific blunders, which occur in written work as well as on the big screen.
What am I talking about? The list is huge, but I think we can focus on a few popular errors.
For example, a ship blows up in space. What do we see (and hear)? A fireball, a roar...maybe even some debris whooshing past. Of course, there's no sound in space, so that's an easy one. Less obvious is the fireball. Fire needs a fuel and oxidizer (usually oxygen). Since there's no oxygen in space, how can a flame go beyond the confines of the inside of a ship? It can't.
How about artificial gravity? Since our best understanding of gravity suggests it is a question of deformed space-time, objects "feel" each other by following the contours of the fabric of space-time. As far as we know, gravity does not behave like a magnetic force, so there is no way to shield it or create it. So much for theory, but let's suppose you CAN manipulate it and create artificial gravitational forces. How would you limit them to the flooring of a spaceship? I've seen astronauts leap out of ships directly into space without being pulled back by that artificial gravity. Pretty awesome invention.
The Enterprise shoots out a photon beam, aka, a laser weapon. And we see the beam. Any problems with that? Remember there's no air, no molecules for that beam to bump into and light up. We should not be able to see the beam. But how exciting would it be to see the target mysteriously explode? Without flames? Without sound?
Space travel - wow, this is a big one. How often do we see a ship traverse the galaxy? Our modest little Milky Way is about 100,000 light-years across. That means that even at the speed of light, it would take 100,000 years (Earth time) to get from one end to the other. Ok...there's Einstein and his theory of relativity, which means that time dilates as you approach the speed of light...so time for you passes more slowly and you just might live long enough to complete the trip. To make this as realistic as possible, if you accelerate at 1 G (equivalent to Earth's gravity), it would take you about a year (Earth time) to get to about 99% of the speed of light (you would need a year's worth of fuel!). You'd have to travel a bit longer than that to reach 99.99% the speed of light. At this point it would take you about 1100 years (your time) to cross our galaxy. Convenient space travel will require something akin to a wormhole or entirely new science (tachyons, warp drive). Be wary of wormholes - although they represent a theoretical way to span huge distances in an instant, they also promise to bring you to a different time (past or future).
So where's the fun? We want noises in space, we like to travel quickly, we want instant communications (not covered here), and we want all our alien friends to speak English. Suspension of belief is a great pleasure. The "what if" question can be replaced with "what the heck" and we'll all get a kick out of great SF stories, because those stories are actually about us more so than the methodical extension of known science. Having nodded to the fun factor, Science in Science Fiction can also be a poignant warning, a realistic vision of tomorrow, which gives the reader or viewer a sense of place and destiny.
I've included herein a short list of links to articles that may be of interest. Enjoy.
10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better – Charlie Jane Anders
The Real Science of Science Fiction – Susan Stepney
Yes, It Matters If The Science In Your Science Fiction Story Is Accurate – Charlie Jane Anders
Putting the Science in Science Fiction – Tedd Roberts
Time Travel in fiction – Wikipedia
Technology in Science Fiction – Wikipedia
The Best Hard Science Fiction Books of all Time – MIT Technology Review
More fi than sci – Mukul Sharma – The Times of India
Don't Ruin Science Fiction with Science – Alex Reissig
Space Flight in Science Fiction: Getting off this Rock – Patty Jansen
How Interstellar Travel Works – Karl Tate
A Primer on Time Travel - Damon Shavers
The Biggest Errors in Hard Sci-Fi – Joseph Shoer
“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I gathered the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”
So spoke Victor Frankenstein--reflecting an inner struggle with his conscience, but revealing therein several key points about the science behind his creation. For one, "the instruments of life", and for the other, "a spark of being." I think we can all imagine what the "spark" may refer to. Mary Shelley, only 21 yrs of age at the time, was a contemporary of several scientific luminaries, namely, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, and Giovanni Aldini. This was the age of electricity. Galvani and Aldini were famous for exciting dead animal muscles, making them twitch to the horror and delight of many an audience. Clearly a huge inspiration to Mary.
The "instruments of life" were likely an embodiment of Alessandro Volta's invention, the battery. Thus, Victor did not have to wait for a stormy night to charge up his creation, rather, he simply put together a stack of metals and wet paper, and stuck it to the mass of sewn up body parts on the table.
In Mary's time the state of death was not all together clearly defined. Given numerous instances of drowned people coming back to life, the only sure definition of death involved the smell of decay ... putrefaction. If you think about it, we haven't come that far along since then. We do recognize that a heart which ceases to function is not enough...we then look at the brain. However, the lack of brain activity is not always a definitive marker. There are examples of people with little or no activity rejoining the living. In fact, studies have been done with cat brains soaked in glycerol which were kept frozen for years that have resumed electrical brain activity after thawing. Perhaps, putrefaction is really a best endpoint.
Of course, Mary was not quite aware of the problems with tissue rejection that Frankie would experience. She was also not aware of the viability of organs after their blood supply was cut off. At room temperature, most organs will survive for about 6-72 hours, which is quite impressive. There is one major organ that has a rather short survival time, and that is the brain. It is accepted that brain damage begins to occur about 4-5 minutes after oxygen is cut off, and that the hippocampus can survive for only 10 minutes. Thus, the surgeon in Mary's time would need to work extremely fast.
Transplant surgery continues to improve in the modern era, and can handle most organs. Head transplants in animal models did actually work (for a day or two) in experiments conducted years ago. In fact, Dr. Robert White (1970s) offered his services to transplant the heads of actor Christopher Reeve and scientist Stephen Hawking. Both refused. Regardless, a Dr. Canavero is planning such a transplant sometime soon. The future is now.
Despite many amazing advances in technology, most drugs today, like in the past, are being discovered by accident. As Pasteur pointed out, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind,’ and, indeed, some of the greatest discoveries were due to a chance observation or an unexpected side-effect. Dicumarol (and the anti-coagulatants derived therefrom) was discovered when cattle fed fermented sweet clover were observed to develop stomach bleeding. The use of alkylating agents in the treatment of leukemia stemmed from an earlier observation of white blood cell depression in the victims of an accidental exposure to sulfur mustard gas. The dilatory properties of nitroglycerin were discovered when workers in the manufacture of this explosive experienced severe vascular headaches.
Penicillin was a brilliant example of an unexpected discovery which required several observations over a period of years. In 1878 Pasteur suggested that one microorganism might prevent the growth of another. In 1897, following in Pasteur’s footsteps and looking for a way to finance his Ph.D. thesis, Ernest Duchesne noted that certain molds kill bacteria. Duchesne had noted that the Arab stable boys at the army hospital kept their saddles in a dark and damp room to encourage mold to grow on them. When he asked why, they told him that the mold helped to heal the saddle sores on the horses. A test conducted on infected guinea pigs demonstrated the curative powers of the mold. He followed up with a series of meticulous experiments, studying the interaction between Escherichia coli and Penicillium glaucum, showing that the latter was able to completely eliminate the former in a culture containing only these two organisms. He went on to demonstrate its effectiveness against typhoid bacilli. Because he was 23 and unknown, the Institut Pasteur did not even acknowledge receipt of his dissertation. Thirty years later, in 1928, Alexander Fleming made his historic observation of old staphylococci culture boxes where molds had time to develop, in particular, a rather common penicillum mold. He called the active principle in mold broth penicillin. Despite publishing his observations, no substantial interest in the findings were aroused. In 1935, a young biochemist, Ernst Chain, joined Professor H. W. Florey at Cambridge University to conduct studies on the toxicity of snake venom. It was during Chain’s investigation of lysozymes that he happened upon Fleming’s forgotten publication. Chain and Florey purified penicillin and described its amazing antibiotic properties in 1940 in The Lancet. Further work led to its final form as the first antibiotic drug.
Acetaminophen (TylenolÒ) owes its discovery to a mistake. Two young doctors, Arnold Cahn and Paul Hepp, in the department of internal medicine at the University of Strassburg (ca. 1880), were investigating the use of naphthalene in the treatment of intestinal worms. Initial results were disappointing, however, one of the patients they treated exhibited a pronounced reduction in fever. Subsequently, it was found that acetanilide had been mistakenly shipped to the laboratory instead of naphthalene. Acetaminophen, a metabolite of acetanilide, was introduced by 1894 and gained widespread use after 1948 when scientists determined it to be safer than acetanilide.
More than one hundred years later, we have not advanced to the Star Trek era wherein drugs are synthesized as needed. We still rely on careful observation, a characteristic of the human mind we can only hope will never leave us.
We have five senses. Okay, maybe one more … extrasensory perception, but by the name itself, this one is not actually a sense. Our brain relies on these senses to form thoughts, memories, and control bodily actions. Indeed, our perception of the outside world is completely dependent on our senses and their interpretation by our brains.
What if a human brain was isolated from all these senses? And what if this happened before birth?
Such a brain would have no memories, no inputs, no ideas about the form or structure of the world. Unlike those unfortunate enough to have lost some senses, like the deaf or blind, such a person would have no recollections of the world around them. None. They would be incapable of even imagining an object, since they would never have experienced one. They would have no concept of communication, colors or sounds, touch or smell.
Such an individual could be kept alive, probably by artificial means and with some difficulty, since reflexes such as swallowing and breathing would probably be absent as well.
The point of this essay is not the horrific situation that this person would be in, but more to the point, would this brain even be aware of itself? Without any sensory input, would there be any thought?
After all, the brain evolved as a specialized organ designed to deal with the environment. It was tasked with the responsibility of survival, coordinating movement and metabolism to that end. In more complex species of life, it was charged with more complex duties, like language and cognition.
If such an organ was isolated from the get go, never having a chance to learn about its environment, what could it possibly think about? Those little gray cells might be firing, but there would be no need to remember anything, no need to figure anything out, no need to sleep or wake, as these actions would have no meaning. Dreams could not form.
One possibility is that such a brain would cease to function, or more accurately, would not function at all, since it would have no reason to. All well and good, and logical too. But … what of consciousness? Self-awareness? Would such a brain be aware of its existence?
I would hope not.
Then, of course, there is another possibility ... a consciousness without bounds, creating its own worlds and its own universe. Sound familiar?
That's the question, isn't it?
Why we ask? Well, what could be more important than knowing how you'll spend the rest of eternity ... if indeed, that's what awaits us.
There is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed before we can even begin to ponder the infinite. And it's subtle. And it's important.
We evolved on this tiny little planet, ensconced along the Orion arm of our great 100,000 light-year wide Milky Way Galaxy. No need to tell you that we're just a speck ... more like a speck of a speck, when compared to the vastness of our Galaxy, never mind the rest of the Universe. So why have I brought that sobering thought up? Language and logic. Those two items, which we have come to rely upon in our everyday thinking, have a very significant limitation. They were developed along with our evolution on this little mote in space. As a result, everything we think, everything we apply our infallible logic to, is based on our need to survive, thrive, and reproduce on this one tiny orb.
What's the bottom line? We are myopic. Like fish in water, wondering if there is anything they are not aware of... like the air and the land. They have no concept. A smart one may think about what's out there, but will probably guess wrong, since it has no experience of those worlds.
We've already seen basic concepts shattered. Gravity was all good, until one day we noticed that the Universe is expanding faster at the edges than it should be ... and that gravity doesn't explain the motion of other galaxies ... not by a little, but by a lot. Call in Dark Matter and for good measure, throw in Dark Energy. Problem solved. Not quite.
This is but one glaring example of how incomplete our understanding of the Universe actually is. Now, add to that the very strong suspicion that logic and our language itself does not necessarily apply to the Universe, or for that matter, Existence. Which brings us to the point of this little essay.
When we wonder what comes next, we may be entirely misled by our parochial thinking. We talk of consciousness, the spirit, the soul, God and gods, an afterlife ... all terms that may not apply at all to reality as it really is. Logic, which serves us so well here on Earth, may be just a local curiosity with no application to understand the wider world. We conveniently ignore the illogical concept of the Big Bang ... seriously, a Big Bang? Math and current science are okay with it ... but think it through ... what exactly exploded? And why? How about Existence? Careful thought here suggests the concept itself t makes no sense. Interestingly, attempts to create a space where nothing exists fail ... perfect vacuums result in matter and energy showing up apparently from nowhere. How's that for logical?
Bottom line. We are handicapped by our experience, our little world, and our logic. We can explain things only in terms of other things. That in itself should alarm the enlightened person ... why can't we explain something as simple as matter? What it is. Why it is. We can't because of our evolution and our limited thinking which was adapted only for one thing ... survival. It will never ever be possible for us. However despairing that sounds, to me it's a major clue. That matter pervades everywhere and has that wonderful special property of showing up magically even in a perfect vacuum, says something quite significant, especially when you consider we are made of that stuff. That it organized itself at the atomic level to eventually become self-conscious is mind-boggling. If that occurs without the help of an Almighty, then we really are something special.
So, what comes next? The question may have no meaning. It may not apply to our situation, for the reasons stated above. Our logic fails us. Our language is inadequate. One guess, like the fish thinking about the world as it really may be, is that consciousness and matter are linked, perhaps one and the same. So, nothing really comes next. We just continue to be, shifting from one form of matter to another. We are and always will be.
Hera asks, "Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" Oedipus answers, "Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age."
A second, more ancient riddle goes like this: "There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?" The answer is "day and night."
The real riddle is who built the Sphinx and when. The most compelling evidence suggests that the Sphinx was built for the Egyptian Pharaoh Khafre during his reign (2520-2494 BC), based on the architecture, geology, and archaeology of the Sphinx and its related monuments. But there are dissenting opinions on the matter.
One that tickles the imagination the greatest is based on the science of erosion. In the early 1990s researchers examined the distinctive pattern of rippling waves visible on the body of the Sphinx and the walls surrounding it. Although the body had been built using the different layers of limestone already there, the weathering appeared not to have been made by wind, but rather by water. And since the last Egyptian age to include substantial rainfall was over 7,000 years ago, history as we knew it needed a major overhaul. There are other ways to explain the erosion, eg, salt crystal exfoliation, wherein Nile salts sucked into the sand-covered Sphinx leached the limestone.
So the age of the Sphinx is somewhere between 5500 years and 7000 years. Either way, it's an incredibly old statue of totally unknown purpose. We're not even sure what the face used to look like, although there some early sketches that suggest features more typical of the Negroid race. Add to that, that the face may have been carved out of a larger head, which some have suggested was that of a lion.
We're also not sure what it was called. The commonly used name Sphinx was given to it in classical antiquity by reference to a Greek mythological beast with a lion's body, a woman's head and the wings of an eagle (although, like most Egyptian sphinxes, the Great Sphinx has a man's head and no wings). The English word sphinx comes from the ancient Greek Σφίγξ (transliterated: sphinx), apparently from the verb σφίγγω (transliterated: sphingo / English: to squeeze), after the Greek sphinx who strangled anyone who failed to answer her riddle.
Regardless of its age and purpose, the Sphinx remains a remarkable tribute to a civilization long gone from our collective memory. I wonder what might remain of our own civilization after 7000 years.
I have been writing science fiction/fantasy since grammar school. In highschool I elected to pursue a career in the sciences which sidelined the