Imagining Ourselves in Hoyle’s Cloud

img_1371To contemplate (or even define) our own existence in a meaningful way may be to contrast ourselves with something entirely different.  The universe has gotten much bigger in the last 50 years, both in reality and, perhaps more importantly, in our minds.  As we discover our staggering insignificance and tenuous survival in a vast (however measurable) void, we often rely on popular scientists to translate cosmology and hard to grasp concepts on the nature of reality. In story form, it’s hardly ever done well.

Science fiction’s often formulaic tales rarely reveal anything interesting about the reality of consciousness or humanity in the context of the cosmos.  At the risk of taking a side in the tired academic debate on the legitimacy of science fiction as fiction (or science), mere suspension of disbelief isn’t enough for me. Neither is escapism.  Even children eventually feel like they start seeing the same thing again and again, when turns out to be just people doing people things in space or in some distant future. The banal pseudo-exotic behaviors and names come across as contrived. The novelty of gadgets wears off quickly. The occasional technological advancements that turn out to be reality more often turn out to be superfluous and laughable, and they’re usually utilized in the first place as simple genre devices, and furthermore much less interesting than a retrospective story of how that advancement came to be reality.  In other words, a literary analysis of how or why humanity plays with its toys is more substantive than the toys themselves.  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t brilliant because of his accurate depiction of Skype in 1968, and I’d venture to say that Kubrick himself would place this idea low on his list of intellectual breakthroughs.  To me, the film exists as a fine example of science fiction because the premise, and the story as a whole, wouldn’t make sense in any other context, and it is almost devoid of nostalgia (or humanity, some have argued).  As adults, our appreciation of Star Wars is almost pure nostalgia, and the drama could be set in the Old West or in 1920’s Brooklyn, the questions of good and evil or sexual tension or hero redemption being wholly transferable. I think this maybe my trouble with some genres in general.  They seem to be otherwise ordinary life stories that are unnecessarily pushed through the meat grinder of some contrived setting or set of peculiar, wild and crazy conventions.  This movie about Santa Claus rescuing Martian children from depression comes to mind. Or perhaps this question of context defines good science fiction, in which case most that has been written is bad.

In telling a story using the vernacular of science, an absence of legitimate scientific concepts (yes, even theories) can also be a detriment to quality. Rarely, for example, will science fiction even conceptualize that we have likely been imagining aliens all wrong, and that we don’t even really know what we are looking for. Original concepts exist, but unfortunately scientists are not often story tellers, and so we must settle for social studies experiments in space that we inevitably connect to real life.  (By the way, real science sometimes seems to fall into the same trap, it seems to me.  Apart from the sweet sentimental notion of a human time capsule flying through space well after our sun has exploded and engulfed our earth, doesn’t Voyager’s Golden Record seem a bit pedestrian and short-sighted in that it relies only on human-specific denominators? Morse code? Brain waves of thoughts about love? A message from President Carter? Really?).

In Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, an alien gaseous superorganism approaches from the depths of space and threatens life on earth.  At first, the usual suspects of the disaster story come to the surface: the conspiracy theories from the public, the intellectual superiority (and quirks) of the scientists, the simple minded chest-pounding of military officials, the incompetence of politicians.  But after the quick refutation of leading scientists’ hypotheses on the ramifications of our sun being obscured by the cloud, the problem grows with some surprising, thought-provoking events, including the establishment of meaningful communication with the cloud.

Hoyle was not a biologist but an astrophysicist, yet the story drives fascinating questions of evolutionary and philosophical significance, partly because the context is so profoundly unique. Contrast the possible questions you might ask a 500-million-year-old organism that travels at 100 kilometres a second in search of solutions to the “deep problems” with Captain Kirk’s dilemmas about lusting after a green alien woman with voluptuous breasts and a tail.  One of these scenarios is at the same time less likely to occur in a movie or book, and more likely to approach something like truth or answering a real damn question.

Sometimes to understand why some things are plausible, hence powerful elements in a story, is to understand profound concepts in science that may not spontaneously occur to the layman. Hoyle has done this masterfully in The Black Cloud. The story rests heavily on information theory.  And he gives us a view into how information is shared among scientists, what they think and argue about (and how they argue), about how language could determine our subjective reality, and how the imperfections of our modes of communication determine our individuality (if we could all communicate instantly and telepathically, we would soon cease to be individuals). But the book even goes beyond effectively mixing scientific education and entertainment, already an impressive feat. Hoyle’s pace and plot development make the book hard to put down (although at times his clunky dialogue shows that he is, after all, a scientist and not a novelist). And he allows the reader to contemplate questions that would likely not occur in the uneducated mind, or more aptly, the curious mind without a bit of guidance.  How would we communicate with something we only suddenly conceptualize as alive?  How exactly can something come from nothing? How have the natural processes of our planet influenced our very nature? What is consciousness? Why do we have bodies at all? Why do we live on a solid planet? Is that an advantage? What questions have we not asked because our intellectual capabilities have not yet allowed us to conceptualize the questions? In order to learn something truly new, would the transfer of new information necessarily need to be expressed in a language wholly different from any we know?

Reviews seem to reveal that Hoyle didn’t produce the steady quality of sci-fi like that from Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. And Hoyle turned out to be wrong on some of his science, particularly in the field of biology and even in cosmology (regarding the beginning of the universe, he preferred his “Steady State” theory, and referred to the counterargument, sarcastically, as the “Big Bang”).   But he was also right about his theory of how chemical elements are formed in the insides of stars, and Richard Dawkins writes in the afterward that Clarke only equaled Hoyle at his best, specifically in The Black Cloud.  Each author of classic novels is unique, and we are never to know the factors that determine any given writer’s work.  But this story, published in 1957, still stands as one of the most original ideas ever to be written in any genre.

What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”


Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

From Eternity to Here

img_1036To extinguish your total bank of knowledge on the subject of a book by page 11 can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your self esteem, your habits of curiosity or your attitude about learning.  I try not to read books that I suspect will simply restate what I already know, or ones that I am predisposed to agree with. Rather I enjoy books that are a bit out of my league. I may have overshot a bit with this one.

If you have ever watched Sean Carroll’s Youtube videos, you know that his verbal speed is not much slower than 299,792,458 meters per second, which is also the known speed of light. But a book can be paused, reread, skimmed and scanned, and Carroll is one of those Richard Feynman kind of physicists that perfectly explains complex ideas that are nearly impossible for the layman to retain, much less explain to another layman. And the reader can reread as many times as it takes to get it (the pictures help, too).

The idea of time has fascinated me ever since I sat one day at a bus stop and realized that if there is no matter, there can be no time.  So what is time? In an episode of Brian Cox’s excellent series The Wonders of the Universe, Cox explains that the reason things are the way they are is because it is much more likely that they would become that way than another way. Things change from an ordered state to a disordered state because there are many more different ways to be disordered than ordered.  And this is crucial in the understanding of time and why it is important.

Entropy is the number of ways that the components of a system can be rearranged without a noticeable difference.  As Brian Cox explains above, a pile of sand has high entropy, and a sand castle has low entropy.  There is no law in physics that says the sandcastle could not  be blown by the wind to form another adjacent, identical sand castle; it is only much more likely that it will not. Why is this important in relation to time?  We know now that entropy always increases over time, and the only way that we really know the difference between the past and the present is because of the processes of matter changing from low entropy to high entropy.  It is the reason we can’t remember the future, why we get old, why it’s very hard to unscramble an egg, why there is an arrow of time that goes in only one direction.  We notice change and therefore conceptualize that change with time.

I can now move on with my day, and chapter 2.

This is why I read.


From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

By: Sean Carroll 

Dutton, 438 pages

Obvious and Hidden Symbols

symbolsCarl Jung longed for his work to be understood by the general public, not only by specialists in his field.  There have been others, like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, who have also made great efforts to translate their often esoteric research and observations to laymen, children, and the generally curious. Most naturalists or armchair aficionados rely on books and papers written in this way, for this audience, and we non-scientists owe much to them.  In Carl G. Jung´s Man and His Symbols we discover meanings of symbols in our waking life (the medieval, natural, religious, in advertising, literature, political propaganda, sculpture and art, or in myths) and in our subconscious life (dreams, compulsions, desires, emotions).  Much of this “profusely illustrated” book (how could a work on symbols not be so?) is simply Jung´s interpretation of his clients´ dreams, but the work in general may well be boiled down to his effort to describe the acquisition of psychological maturity, a highly individual endeavor, and how it may be obtained in a modern society that moves toward conformity at every turn.  His clients come to him with dreams, he interprets them as subconscious expression through symbols, the only way the subconscious can express anything. These symbols are recurring and they learned throughout our lives through literature, for universesnakeexample. To me, dream interpretation gets boring quickly, mostly because the books and articles I´ve read on the subject either neglect subjectivity entirely (similar to the silliness of zodiac symbols) or are too self-deprecating by explaining that dreams are only products of individuals, thereby just fun to speculate about.  But there are symbols that carry meaning that we all understand, and there are individuals who´s dreams are particular to him or her, but decipherable through symbolic means (Jung includes a James Thurber cartoon in which a “henpecked” man sees his home and his wife as the same thing).


                    Cartoon by James Thurber.

Often in modern life we behave in ways that conflict with our individual nature, and I think there is something to be said for the subconscious compensation for this imbalance. Jung has written much about this, and I include his expertise in the other works on the subject that I have read and will read.  If I, for some political motivation, choose to fly a    Don´t Tread on Me flag, with its squirming serpent amongst disjointed words and letters, I want to know what it means, both to my own mind and to humanity in general.  This is not only a peculiar interest, but a social responsibility.



A Film about Everything

img_0812Terrence Malick’s latest, “Voyage of Time,” appears to be as ambitious as it sounds, a visual journey from the beginning of time to the end of it, and it could be incredible.  Richard Brody describes Malick’s work most effectively, using satisfying scientific parlance–the interstitial scenes of a broken relationship, occupying a rarefied plane of thought–and he seems to value his work in a way few do.

I agree with Brody in that Malick often gets a prompt dismissal from the viewing public because his work operates outside the day-to-day actions of normal life, or framed stage life; it also dwells in the small moments that Hollywood skips over, the moments that people (who think they know what constitutes art or experience) think don’t make good cinema, and he shoots the overwhelmingly beautiful scenery and sounds around us, be it city or desert, or in the living room or in a raging party.  These invariably inarticulate dismissals of Malick’s films, or other serious works, are particularly tiresome to me, but it’s Friday and I’m in a forgiving mood.

Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of Voyage of Time click here

We can now add to Malick’s scope the space between the microcosm and macrocosm, or at least the pleasant struggle to find the difference.  Voyage of Time seems to nurture that small place of comfort that some of us find in the knowledge that the universe operates completely independent of us– the observers– yet our ability to observe, to recognize beauty, to understand natural processes through curiosity and empirical evidence, is really what defines us and what defines happiness.  The preface of the film seems to try to get at truth (see below). And any film that tries to demonstrate the beauty and significance of a cosmos that is indifferent to us, thorough images that do not exist to be seen by us, is unlikely to engender despair. Rather, (I hope) it reminds us of the deep satisfaction in our desire to contemplate and to understand, to make connections and describe what is beautiful.  This is what I understand to be science, philosophy and art, all in one.


Science in the Classroom and Beyond

The Internet is saturated with information, some bogus, precious little accurate and useful, and nowhere is this more obvious than in study of science. I value applicable lessons that explain current events in cosmology (among many other things). These are some examples of real efforts to help teachers and amateurs alike to get kids or curious people excited about the incredible natural world beyond.

Lewis Dartnell has a lesson plan to help kids understand how we detect exoplanets.


Click here for NASA’s list of confirmed and documented exoplanets. It is even more interesting using the information in the lesson plans above.


Universe Todayimage is a website that I am on all the time. New Horizon’s Pluto discoveries and photos, Curiosity on Mars (and other landers, probes, rovers, spaceships and satellites) ,  SpaceX news, solar system information, deep space, Hubble and Webb telescope news and info…etc..)


Phil Plait’s (Twitter: @BadAstronomer) Bad imageAstronomy blog is now on Just click on the health & science tab of the website, or this link.


imageHeavens Above is one of my favorite astronomy websites because it is full of real useful information that answers those annoying questions I always seem to have. Think you’ve seen a UFO? It was probably an Iridium flash.  Want to track Saturn, ISS, Hubble, Tiangong 1, or a North Korean satellite? Or spacecraft escaping our solar system? It’s here.

Google for Education has chosen some lesson plans from science teachers, almost all of them are great for younger students. A great collection of physics and science lessons related to the movie Interstellar used to be available there, but I’ve been having trouble finding it. I suspect some IP issue there. But check out this list in the meantime.

This Week in Science from the Richard Dawkins Foundation is a periodic collection of articles and news of what’s happening in science today.  Includes much more than cosmology, and always a good read.

And no list like this would be complete without and Loads and loads of real information.

Go outside and look up!

In Defense of Polymaths

The Invention of Nature                                                                                                                                           by Andrea Wulf
John Murray, 473 pp.

imageAlexander Von Humboldt was an often insufferable chatterbox who dominated conversation and dinner parties that usually included important contemporaries, thinkers and politicians.  His interests spanned from the movements of land masses and volcanology to astronomy, from plant and animal habitats to mineralogy to map making, from vertebrate nervous systems to geopolitics, but his greatest contribution was his (now self-evident) concept of nature.  Before Humboldt, studies were made in general isolation and empircal observation didn’t necessarily mix with the theoretical.  But Humboldt made a lifetime of experiencing nature firsthand and recording volumes of invaluable observations.  And although outside of scientific circles he is mostly forgotten, his name has left a permanent mark. He has more things named after him than anyone.  There is the Humboldt ocean current that flows past Chile and Peru, there are parks in South America named after him, like the Pico Humboldt in Venezuela and the Sierra image Humboldt in Mexico.  There is a village in Argentina, a river in Brazil, a bay in Colombia, and a geyser in Ecuador named Humboldt. In Greenland there is the Humboldt Glacier and the Kap Humboldt.  There are rivers and waterfalls in New Zealand and Tasmania, and mountain ranges in China, South Africa, Antarctica and New Zealand.  There is the Rue Alexandre de Humboldt in Paris and parks in Germany (his native country).  In North America, there are four counties, and thirteen towns, mountains,  and lakes named after him (and one river).  There is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California and two parks–one in Chicago and one in Buffalo, named Humboldt.  Almost 100 animals and 300 plants are named after him, and the state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. Several minerals have his name, and there is even a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His contribution to exploration and scientific thinking is almost unknowable because it is so vast. And most interestingly, he was not a scientist, but a naturalist and compulsive documenter with insatiable wanderlust and curiosity.  His immeasurable influence can at least partly be measured by his associates and those he affected.  Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe was his close friend, and Humboldt undoubtedly had an influence in his finishing Faust. Charles Darwin kept Humboldt’s Kosmos as a guiding inspiration, filling it with notes, and he attributed the development of his Origin of Species to Humboldt so blatantly that we might never have heard of his natural selection or evolution.

Thomas Jefferson considered Humboldt’s maps of the western territories invaluable, and found himself giddy with excitement when the eccentric German came to visit the White House in a young United States.

imageThe philosphy of conservation in the United States owes much to Humboldt.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is in large part a rumination of his ideas of the interconnectedness of nature. George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature in 1860, a book inspired directly by Humboldt’s ideas, and marking the beginning of conservation movement.  Henry David Thoreau found a way to focus his introverted, mountain man eccentricities after discovering Humboldt, and eventually broke away from Emerson’s existentialism, more and more valuing Humboldt’s direct observation of nature. During his time in Yosemite, John Muir filled his copy of Humboldt’s Views of Nature and Cosmos with notes, at a time when he was coming up with his ideas of glacial formation of landscapes.

Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman both loved the writings of Humboldt.

A comprehensive list of his influences could go on and on, and this book is a voluminous collection of fascinating stories, and strong encouragement for someone like me, a person with wildly varied interests, but who cannot claim to be a scientist or specialist in most things.  Our view of nature nowadays owes so much to the tenacity and inventiveness of Humboldlt, and Wulf has made a proper, highly readable book of it.

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections - copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections – copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer