A TROJAN AFFAIR - The S.K.A. at Carnarvon

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Chapter 13

A delegation of politicians and global press was in town and the keynote speech Marsha had mentioned to Chris was upon her.

“There are so many aspects to this, so much I could potentially talk on,” she’d told the organizers. “I’m hard pressed to pick between topics. I could stick to my own narrow focus of hard-nosed science; the promised outcomes from this project are tantalizing and on paper, for all humanity into the future, they outweigh the impact on this community many times over. But lives aren’t measured on paper. It’s a dilemma for me.”

“Don’t become so emotionally involved,” they told her. “It’s an ideal platform to direct the international spotlight onto the positive outcomes for local issues. Can you work something like that into it?” they suggested, and there was a clear instruction in that suggestion.

That evening she chatted around the communal table.

“I want to expand this beyond covering the local impoverishments, which I’ve been briefed to pursue. If I dig too much into that, I’ll feel obliged to also detail the stresses felt by the community, and that’s not what I’m paid to do,” she admitted. “This is about science, so talking about the details behind what we’re up to is unavoidable. It’s gonna be filmed for a global audience who know little about the underlying implications. I really want to make people who don’t care or think about science, to care grasp the relevance of this project within the global cultural drift. I want the audience to realize that this is just one peak on a very much larger groundswell of cultural change.”

She turned in early and fell asleep thinking about it. When she awoke, her plan was ready.

As she took to the podium her heart fluttered; she hated the limelight but what she had to say was now more than merely going through the motions of duty to the job, it had become an imperative in her mind;

“There is a prejudice…” she began, “a prejudice that in Africa, the world need only focus on seeing that the bare basics get delivered… elementary education, some food staples, maybe clean water and some low-grade energy to keep the natives from becoming restless.

I think that, in large measure, this stems directly from the charity drives of our recent past. What they did was reduce Africa in the minds of the world to a basket case; ripping up the Hollywood image of Tarzan and jungles and replacing it with dusty, fly-ridden malnourishment. The entire focus became fostering a continent-wide subsistence.

When one stops to consider it from this perspective, it’s hard to imagine a more outdated colonial view. We, liberal and socially sensitive as we think of ourselves, recoil in horror from this reflection of ourselves.”

She paused a moment to assess the audience’s mood—she had their full attention.

“This project, the SKA, is the big break for Africa. At the very least it is a chance to become a world leader in data storage and management… imagine, if you can, Africa and South Africa as the leader in the storage and management of data. Because, no matter what, with the inevitable needs of the SKA to manage and store vast data in ways we cannot even understand at this moment, the onus falls to us to find a solution—a solution that will be commercially used in countless other industries… I’m painting for us a picture of Africa… Africa! Of Africa leading the world in data technologies, with all of the commercial opportunity and upliftment that this implies… teaching the proverbial man to fish.

This project is not going to hand out food stamps—instead, we will give something so much more valuable, we are simply going to force Africa to rise to a challenge that some may think impossible.”

Marsha had delivered the message that was expected of her, and she saw the inclines of heads and squints that betrayed skepticism creeping in. She had anticipated this and had the antidote ready for delivery.

“Half a century ago there was nothing to choose between the two Koreas. They were both impoverished peasant societies living, yes… like the image of Africa… subsistence lives. The tragedy that became North Korea is too well known to depress you with, but it is the miracle of South Korea who took the high road and grasped the challenge of educating its people… that must be our beacon. In practical terms, what transpired for Korean is that, today, half of us are driving Korean cars and using Korean electronics.

The overwhelming message from Korea is that they didn’t do all of this by waiting for something from outside to be given to them… they didn’t do it by clinging to an ideology. They did it through education and through investment into technology.”

Marsha looked about—the body language of the skeptics was changing, she was winning them over so she pursued that tack for a few more minutes, urging the politicians and luminaries in the audience to get behind the project, to see the blue-sky potential of it; the unknown opportunities that developing new technologies inevitably deliver, opportunities that can’t be planned, opportunities that just arise when breakthrough science unfolds.

She then swung the direction of her speech and expanded on the need to come to grips with the broader and more global social and societal elements of change.

“None of us alive today will see the distant future, yet we care about the survival of our species even though the atoms of our own mortal remains will return via microbes or incineration to the earth.

When we stop and think about it that way, it is curious that we care about the future… Why should we care if we are mortal, just a bag of chemicals that returns to the earth to become other things; to become nitrogen in the grass for cattle, carbon for new bodies, and water in new rainfalls?

Yet we, alive today and every generation that went before us, have been universally concerned about how things will turn out long after our consciousness is no more.

Of course, we will leave behind the legacy of our decisions and attitudes… we will leave our DNA in our children—but that is not ‘us’… we will be gone. This sort of dry scientific objectivism is often attacked by mystics who hope to claim a point in favor of a deity and an afterlife… Well, I protest; let me categorically say that we care just as much… maybe more… because we understand the fundamentals and improbability of life and sentience—and that understanding sharpens our appreciation of it.

I would argue further; that science-based thinkers are even more intrigued by the future and want the best for our species and biosphere because we grasp how impossibly rare our earth and the life on it is, in vast frigidity of space.

Of course, biologists will point out an additional factor that is not obvious to the layperson; that we are concerned because survival of that which makes us, our DNA, compels us to care—in the same way it is our DNA that ultimately compels us to breathe, to eat and to seek pleasure… and reproduce.

In a very real and tangible way then, survival of our species is written through natural selection into the very fabric of every living thing. Afterall, those lineages that failed to impart to their protégée this peculiar objective of caring about the future, simply did not see their DNA prosper as ours has.

Put more plainly; the genes that didn’t care about the future got out-competed by those with the genes that do care—and each one of us here present, healthy, sane and not entirely psychotic carry them in abundance. The non-carers went extinct—we are not them. The few psychopaths who don't care… who slip through… are simply noise in the statistical probability.”

There was a mild disturbance in the audience as a mobile phone rang and the owner squirmed to retrieve it from a pocket without standing up; he extinguished the embarrassment.

“So… we care about the future, that is inherent in our genes.

For better or worse, because we’re moving rapidly into a highly technological age, humanity’s future is now deeply tied with understanding the nature of the very-very small; the quantum world and the very-very large; the cosmic one… We in our mundane every-day lives sit at the boundary between these two extremes.

The nature of the universe is change—yet our infrastructures and commerce is built on the presumption of stability—of no change occurring; Our food supply, our access to the resources of water, energy and raw materials… they’re fixed and growing in appetite; we somehow expect to have more of these, but the reality of the matter is that we have less and less.

So… we have developed global systems and infrastructures that are at odds with reality.

The challenge is to manage and protect this world and our future in the long run; and to do that, we need to look out into space to fundamentally understand where it all evolved from; trace it back through time and through an intricate and well understood evolution of particle physics I won’t burden you with today.”

She paused for a sip of water.

“The SKA is just one important leg of that discovery path. The data that it teases from the universe, together with a host of other major complementary investments into CERN and the Hadron Collider and other mega-science initiatives, will tell us a lot about the accuracy of our scientific theories and models, which in turn will help us to plan and manage the distant future. Your children and their children will benefit and thank us for what we’re doing right here, today.

Deeply passionate as I am about this topic, I must begin to ease toward a close with an important thrust; a message about the environment that science must survive in... and that is the gist of my intention today—to bring science alive in your mind:

In the 1960’s, Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev devised a scale to rate the kind of theoretical civilization that we might develop into and of course the kind of alien civilizations that the SKA might reveal to exist elsewhere in the universe.

In broad terms, according to Kardashev, out there in the cosmos there may be intelligent life capable of making contact with us… it will be at one or another level of development. He classified these civilizations as Type-One, Type-Two and Type-Three Civilizations.

For a benchmark, humanity at this moment is… yep, Type-Zero-point-five; we don’t rate, we’re barely on the scale. This comes as a real blow to our collective ego, especially if we think the whole universe was made only for us.”

There were a few stirs in the audience and her teleprompt indicated that she had three minutes to wind up the speech, so she summarized; “For those interested in the details, please do research ‘Kardashev Scale’ in your own time.”

“As I say—we hardly rate on this scale, yet, we think of ourselves as supremely intelligent and sophisticated. The reality-check is that we’re barely three centuries into being a scientifically based species, into being students of the universe; we’ve barely had three decades with technologies that are more than pretty crude mechanical machines.

We need to look at the scale in order to understand the type of global civilization that we can strive to be; even at the cost of cherished lifestyles or cultures.

It is urgent to do so now, because this epoch, this moment in time is one of grave danger, and I cannot overemphasize this... We have the capacity in so many ways to derail our own progress and drive ourselves right back to virtually a Stone Age existence… this is no exaggeration.

The history of our species tells us that divisions between peoples hamper their ability to face challenges. Over the past ten thousand years we’ve gone from lots of small groups to a few large groups… It’s the trend I want you to focus on; bands of hunter-gatherers became clans, city-states became nation states and now we see confederations of States.

Europe as a single entity might have teething problems, but at least its no longer wasting resources on borders and armies and internal friction; it’s the trend line towards unity, from lots of competing groups to few cooperating groups: Our future as a species lies in unity and for those of you who feel repulsed by that, give me a moment and I’ll explain to you why you feel it.

There are milestones on the road to unity—let me list a few:

We all routinely use the Internet; that is the first step toward information sharing at a global level.

I am addressing you in English, the language most likely to assimilate and supersede all other cultures and languages, if only because it is the language of entertainment, commerce and diplomacy.

Global perspectives are rocking cultures and the religions they harbor; in fact… the very word globalism has been tainted by the fear-mongers with negative connotations.

I’ll bet it really bothers you when I say it… globalism. There’s an Orwellian tinge to it; I feel it myself.

This is where it is critical to cast off the emotions of propaganda and look at the trajectory of truth.”

The convener caught her eye; he was tapping his wrist. She nodded at him.

“The world I inhabit today is less draconian than the one my parents inhabited. And they inhabited a less restricted world than the one their parents inhabited; Yes… we all cherish fantasies about the past, but by all practical measures the balance sheet of progress and conveniences our epoch has brought us… our easy access to travel, safe food, painless medicines… longevity; it has all occurred not just against a backdrop of globalism, but directly because of it.

If we follow that progressive line of hard won freedoms we now enjoy back through time, to… oh, maybe our fiftieth ancestor who lived a thousand years ago, only a fool would suggest that our convenient pain-free lives now, are less attractive than the lives of almost anyone who lived in our past.

So, I ask all reasonable people here present today to look to those who shout out against our common humanity… The ones who want us to re-divide along outdated tribal and other lines and consider, understand and realize, that they are the enemies of reason and prosperity. They are the foes of progress and education.

They don’t want your freedom, they seek to restrict you.”

The convener was now pulling his index finger across his throat mouthing, “Cut!”

She was out of time right at the climax of the message she needed to deliver and nothing was going to stop her from speaking it. Her audience were locked in on her every word, so she ignored the gesture and pushed on.

“Now I must address our esteemed political leaders in this delegation.

Democracy is a system that counts votes, it does not weigh them.

In this regard it is an imperfect system. But democracy is the best we have, so I won’t talk against it.

We must however remain mindful that when we only count votes, wherever in the world that may be, we are counting the votes cast by the least informed and comparing them on an equal basis with the most informed.

This potentially results in bowing to the lowest level of understanding, and that in turn leads to retarded political and military infrastructures that cater to and appease the most superstitious fear-ridden minds that are still so anchored in our deep past.

For this reason I beg you to be vigilant and guard against the fear, suspicion and superstition by which your electorate will seek to harness and saddle you.

The greatest tragedy of our epoch might prove to be that we are dragged back into our own past by our primitive roots and fears; that ignorance and arrogance will take the steering wheel; and that we commit species suicide through an Armageddon so close to winning the war against irrationality and oppression.

So, as you flick through the news tomorrow morning, when you see the ugly face of terrorism, when you are frustrated by opposing religious fundamentalism and other movements that scream against unity and progress, I ask you to think of my words here today.

Please… Choose bravely.

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