Mar 31, 2014

Wonder and Skepticism

This blog post is a continuation from a previous post about the new Cosmos television program. Full disclosure: I have not seen Episode 3. I made the mistake of watching Episode 4 on FOX. It has been well over a decade since I tried to watch a prime time network television show. Ew. The contrast between the educational and inspiring Cosmos program and the trashy commercialism being used to pay for it was mind wrenching. I watched Episode 2 on the National Geographic channel during a late night time slot where the commercials were much less annoying. I watched the first episode on line (commercial-free) which is clearly the best way to go.

I've been reading quite a few blog posts about the new Cosmos television program. It is always interesting to observe how discussions of scientific discoveries can offend religious sensibilities. A post by Victor DiCara (A.K.A. Vraja Kishor) asks if the science in Cosmos is being presented with adequate humility. "What could be more unscientific than claiming to know everything better than anyone else?" Victor is concerned about how Neil Tyson compares the modern scientific view of the cosmos to pre-scientific ideas about the world. After all, Victor laments, "maybe we are just as wrong about the world as they were" (March 31, 2014 at 10:10 comment).

Carl Sagan wrote a book (The Demon-Haunted World) that explicitly addresses issues like humility in science and he compares the predictive power of science to other human attempts to understand the universe. Episode 3 (“When Knowledge Conquered Fear”) provides a good example of the unprecedented power of science: using the Newtonian understanding of gravitation to predict events such as the periodic return of comets to the inner solar system.

Many of us are charmed by the ancient idea that a comet might be a "starry messenger" sent to herald some great terrestrial event. However, I can't take seriously the suggestion that we in this age, when the orbits of comets can be calculated and we can land space craft on them, are just as wrong about comets as the ancient pre-scientific cultures that came before us.

Reality Chains
What supports the turtle who supports the elephants?
In Episode 4 of Cosmos, the idea was mentioned that a black hole might contain the conditions required to initiate and inflate a new universe (technical, general). It has been suggested that when matter is gravitationally constrained then the "torsion of spacetime generates gravitational repulsion". (another account)

This idea that our universe might be inside a black hole that is inside another universe begs the question: how did the first universe come into existence. Is it turtles all the way down?

Cover art: Trysta views Realities.
In the Exode Trilogy, time travel is first invented then the very nature of the universe is altered so as to make further time travel impossible. The type of time travel I use as a plot device in Exode is the one first imagined by Isaac Asimov for his novel The End of Eternity. Asimov postulated that if you were to go back in time and change the past then you would cause a new Reality to come into existence. A series of Reality Changes creates what I call a Reality Chain.

Another fictional invention that was used in Asimov's fictional universe was a technology for viewing alternative Realities. Using that technology, Noÿs Lambent was able to select the Foundation Reality as the most desirable future for Earth.

Episode 1 of Cosmos started with the claustrophobia felt by Bruno over the idea that the cosmos was delineated by a crystalline sphere with affixed stars that spun around the Earth once a day. Modern cosmologists, after having extended the dimensions of our observable universe to a larger sphere (about 30 billion light-years across) are also feeling much so that they keep inventing new hypothetical models of a multiverse.

Ivory Fersoni
One of the critical issues for any multiple universe model is evidence. If there were other universes, then how could we obtain information from them? In the Exode Trilogy I imagine that there are components of dark matter that exist in strange dimensions beyond the three spatial dimensions that constrain ordinary matter. One of the mysterious features of Asimov's temporal Realities was the fact of temporal inertia. Asimov proposed that our universe has a kind of "memory" of previous Realities.

For the Exode Trilogy, I imagine that unconventional matter in the Sedronic Domain provides the basis for that memory of other Realities and the basis for a technology for viewing alternative Realities. The unusual genetic endowment of Ivory and her clones makes it possible for we Earthlings to tap into the vast information sources that are available in the Sedronic Domain.

Kach and Lycaun
Wonder and Skepticism
Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World and the television program Cosmos are about science. Sagan stressed the importance for science of a marriage between the human sense of wonder and healthy skepticism. However, we humans are story tellers. We use out imaginations to impose order on the universe. When we invent stories (such a giant turtle to support the world) we can be amused by - or even have faith in - our invented stories, but if we don't want to be fooled and find ourselves believing nonsense then we need to be skeptical about the veracity of our imagined accounts of reality.

To what extent is the formula of unified wonder and skepticism useful in constructing science fiction stories? I like the idea of making skeptical inquiry a part of the Exode Trilogy. Kach is born on the distant planet Hemmal where she studies the hermaphroditic  Prelands and their faith in a Creator who made the Prelands. The Prelands believe that their descendants will eventually transcend their physical form and merge with their Creator.

Kach spends her life trying to make contact with the mysterious Creators who made not only we Earthlings but also the Kac'hin. However, there is a fundamental problem confronting Kach. The Huaoshy are as different and remote from we humans as we are from a bacterium living on the wall of a deep cave.

Kach wants to meet and understand her Creator, but that is about as likely as a bacterium having a conversation with a human.

What if creatures as primitive and limited as we humans are simply not able to understand the true nature of Reality? In the Exode Trilogy I imagine that the pek know, from long experience, that biological creature like we humans are a danger to ourselves. Hence, the pek spent the past million years working hard to replace us with Prelands. As told in the Exode Trilogy, it is only grudgingly that the pek allow we humans to develop a technological civilization and grope towards the stars. It is not at all clear that our freedom will have a happy outcome.

Mayan writing
Gohrlay and her cadre of positronic robots win we Earthlings our freedom from pek oversight and force the Huaoshy to alter both the dimensional structure of the universe and their ancient ethical code of conduct. Yet, dramatic as they are, these changes are not enough in themselves to reveal to the people of Earth the truth about our planet's history and the origin of our species.

We humans have always been in direct physical contact with our DNA, but it was only during the past century that anyone conceived the possibility of reading out the information content of our genes. Similarly, in the Exode Trilogy, a few Earthlings suddenly become aware of the fact that we have always been immersed in the Sedronic Domain. Clone sisters Angela and Anney discover that they can tap into the vast information ocean of the Sedronic Domain, but they are unable to understand what they "see", much like a European gazing upon Mayan writing for the first time.

Luckily, the editor is infected with nanites that provide a key for decipherment of the flood of information that Angela can access via the Bimanoid Interface. With Ivory mediating a collaboration between Angela and the editor, all it takes is some time and effort for the story of the Exode Trilogy to be told. Sadly, Ivory and her clones remain hidden away where their unusual genetic pattern cannot be confirmed and the primitive nanotechnology of Earth cannot hope to reveal the zeptoscale symbionts that give humans access to the Interface. The Exode Trilogy can only be understood as science fiction.

In his science fiction novel Contact, Sagan explored the possibility that a scientist might be given powerful, life-altering experiences that can not be shared objectively with the rest of humanity. While sharing a sense of wonder and adventure through our fictional stories we can also bring into play characters who exercise scientific skepticism. In Contact, Sagan made the wonderful choice of using a man with religious faith (Palmer) as the skeptical judge of Ellie's evidence for aliens.

Hiding in the Light
Episode 5 of Cosmos mentions the burning of books by the first emperor of China. It is fun to imagine an alternative world history in which the Asian kingdoms of 500 BCE became something like the nations of Europe that could go through a scientific and industrial revolution....about 2,000 years ago.

In the Exode Trilogy, I imagine that in the Ekcolir Reality a technologically advanced Etruscan empire comes to dominate Europe. In that Reality, methods for glass blowing were brought to central Europe from the east and by 2,000 ago, optically clear iron/manganese-balanced glass was already widely available in Europe. In the Ekcolir Reality, spectroscopy and telescopes were both well developed significantly earlier than in our Reality.

an alternative renaissance
When Thomas gains some access to the Bimanoid Interface he is surprised to learn that development of the Etruscan civilization was sabotaged in the Buld Reality in order to prevent global warming and catastrophic sea level rise in the 20th century. Princess Luri is one of the last cultural remnants of the Etruscans remaining in 100 BCE of the Buld Reality.

Cultural differences in the Ekcolir Reality.

In Cosmos Episode 6 ("Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still") we go deep underground to a neutrino detector. I love using particle detectors as backgrounds for futuristic scenes in science fiction stories (see the example below). Neutrinos were detected from supernova 1987a, having arrived at Earth hours before photons from the explosion. Is it possible to detect neutrinos from the big bang or will the search for evidence from the earliest universe lead us to a different view of how the Cosmos began?
Parthney trying to expand his mind on the planet Luk'ru (see)
Also in episode 6, we see a simulation of Democritus in ancient Greece making an argument for invisible atoms. Can we trace the origins of scientific thought to a departure from animism? The human brain is specialized to allow us to guess what other people are thinking. We naturally adopt what Dennett has called "the intentional stance". That innate behavior serves us well as social primates, but we mistakenly apply it to inanimate objects. Science has helped us step away from our instincts and see the world as it actually is.

For example, with microscopes and telescopes we have moved beyond the restrictions of our natural senses and revealed the wonders of the very small and the very distant. As part of a quick tour of atoms from hydrogen to carbon to gold we find ourselves in a kind of retro cyberpunk chloroplast: the CGI animation used steel blades to illustrate enzymatic splitting of oxygen atoms out of carbon dioxide. It was suggested that if only we could capture photons as efficiently as plants, then we could abandon fossil fuels and live on solar energy.

A more realistic animation.

In Exode, global warming is a major topic. It is not clear that we could prevent sea level rise by attaining a clearer scientific understanding of photosynthesis or even demonstrating an efficient laboratory method for capturing solar energy. Growing plants provide a flexible solar collection system. If this were science fiction, we might engineer an artificial plant that could use sunlight to produce hydrogen gas and and send it to our homes through biotubes, thus providing us with a clean and convenient chemical fuel.

Keep it clean: How old is our planet?
In episode 12, "The World Set Free", we should get a more detailed presentation about global warming.

episodes 11-13
 episodes 7-10
episodes 1 and 2

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