Dr. Louw was not comfortable with technology. In fact he hated it.
His misgivings aside, he had discovered that the new CCTV system at the school, donated recently to oversee the security of computers donated by the SKA project, was quite a useful instrument.
With it he had solved some small mysteries around the school—minor pilfering by pupils, some graffiti culprits, smokers and other anti-social behaviors. But he battled to operate its menus.
Frans van Doorn was one of the less popular of the boys. Introverted and disinterested in sports—a very real social disability—he occupied the lowest rung of social hierarchy among the learners; but he was a whizz on computers.
Ahead of the science fair meeting, Deon had spotted Frans in the corridors and asked him for a quick review of the CCTV system—how to switch between the camera frames and a few other useful details.
Dismissing the boy, he’d watched the monitor with growing alarm as the parking lot filled up and overflowed, multitudes streaming into the lecture room.
He cut to the lecture room and saw that it was extremely full already, no more seats available—and there were twenty minutes to go before the talks were scheduled to begin.
Among the familiar faces he saw a divide—a polarization of those who upheld traditional values and those who were enamored of boastful human pride as he thought of the delving into the higher sciences.
Then he saw the police Captain arriving in plain clothes. Tall and arrogant, with a confident swagger that made Deon smell the acrid sweetness of his own sudden adrenaline-fueled armpit sweat.
There was no sound on the CCTV pickup, but now he needed desperately to see if the Captain had relented and was going to do the right thing.
He made some adjustments to the settings that the boy had taught him and then hurried down to secure a seat for himself.
“My boy is very enthusiastic about the project,” the Captain was saying to John Fiske, the science teacher and convener. “He’s in the tenth grade and comes home every day with fantastic facts. I heard that our guests here today do our small town a great honor and I wanted to hear for myself…”
He’d noticed the school Principal close at hand, sidling closer, straining to hear what he was saying while pretending not to be listening or to even have noticed him. And he knew too that the Dominee and the Principal were in conference and aligned on every matter. In fact he knew about every secret meeting the men had ever held with his now departed colleague.
The Captain raised his voice a little to ensure that Louw would hear him, just to rile the man;
“…I wanted to hear our guests explaining truths that we so rarely get the chance to hear out in such a backwater. They do our town a great honor,” and then he grasped Deon’s elbow and Deon whirled with genuine surprise to face him, “Hello Dr. Louw—Malusi Motsoaledi, you probably don’t recognize me out of uniform.”
“Oh... uhmm… yes, yes… Captain Motsa…” he stammered the name badly and gave up mid way through; the expected confrontation robbing him of his poise.
“Oh, please, call me Malusi,” the Captain said in measured and modulated accent, “it’s easier on the European tongue.”
Motsoaledi had worked hard to lose his African accent in favor of a cultured one he intended to exploit as his career took him onward, and this presumption ate at Louw and all of Louw’s peers too.
“An uppity kaffer,” they called him.
“We are very honored and grateful that you are hosting such an event with such esteemed dignitaries at your school today, sir,” the Captain goaded.
“Thank you,” Louw replied without meaning it, his lips pulled into a hard thin miserly line that only grudgingly gave up the terse response—he did not invite the Captain to call him Deon.
The presumption and insolence of the man was too much to take. And without another word he wafted into the crowd seeking a familiar face; the familiar face he saw was his former pupil and son of his late friend, JJ Kruger. And right next to JJ stood the boy who’d started all the trouble at the school, Dara.
A testing tap on the microphone sounded through the amplified speakers, and John began introducing the speakers and the topic inside the hall;
“…we’re especially honored today to enjoy not just one but two internationally acclaimed scientists from quite different fields—and they’re related—I mean that it’s all related, both the topic and the talkers.”
There was a light chuckle from the audience.
“And, much as our experts study aspects of reality that are quite apart from one another, the nature of science is that they intersect in some extraordinary ways, so that the topics chosen for this morning are not arbitrary, but intended to tell a cohesive story.”
Both Marsha and Al sitting in comfortable lounge chairs nodded agreement.
“The initiative that brings our small town such vast knowledge and talent is of course the point of departure for these addresses. As most of you will already know, the SKA has its focal point here in Carnarvon, and its findings will have vast implications for humanity well into the future. From it, we expect to uncover not just the origins of the Universe but the patterns and evolving elements, molecules and chemicals that make it up—and of course, the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.”
He paused momentarily.
“So, there is one unbroken chain from the Big Bang, through quantum mechanics that gives rise to physics, and physics gives rise to chemistry, which in turn is the basis of biology, and of course biology ultimately works through natural selection on this planet—and most likely across the entire cosmos—to give rise to complex evolved life and civilization as we know it. And in turn, civilizations build cultures… our culture has built technologies that are delivering staggering results… results that contradict our oldest philosophies and confirm our least believable imaginings.”
He paused another moment.
“And then there is us, here, today. Our lives full of all the exciting and sometimes mundane realities that make up what we call ‘being alive’. For me personally, being alive goes a step further than a paycheck, bills, taxes… romantic dates, having children… entertaining or even planning my holidays. For me to feel alive I actively and daily have a regime of marveling at the vastness and the intricacies of that which we glibly call reality. I hope that our guest talkers here today can infect you with some of that same appetite for wonder. So without further ado, I hand the microphone over to Professor Marsha Martin.”
A vigorous round of applause pounded out a confused rhythm from seventy percent of the attendees; the remainder sat stoically, unmoved, stony faced, arms folded or hands pointedly in laps.
“Thank you John,” Marsha adjusted the microphone to her mouth. “Some of you may know that my colleague and co-speaker here today, Alok, is also my husband. And, that our son, Dara, is with us today also. Africa is an exciting place and coming here has been challenging and exhilarating all at once.”
From the audience, Dara beamed at his mother. He was on crutches and still moved gingerly.
“My family is unfortunately separated to different parts of the world… it’s a symptom of our careers that we must accept. There is perhaps a perception that scientists are tremendously wealthy, and although it is true that we feel very wealthy in that our work rewards us in non-monetary ways, alas, for the most part it attracts pay no better than a tradesman. This means that we live apart and when we’re in the field we’re quite far from easy commuting routes. So I am especially happy today to have Al here and visiting us for a short time. I am especially pleased to share this platform with him today, the first time in our careers. I wish to thank John and the school for facilitating this and ingeniously devising a topic that ropes us both in.”
Seventy percent of the audience smiled, the rest did not.
“And, I am aware that the town has, in these past days, experienced the tragic loss of a beloved citizen from one of its longest-standing families. I invite that we take a minute of silence to contemplate in our own way this tragedy, and send our most sincere condolences to his son, JJ and daughter, Sonja, who have so kindly and bravely taken time to attend.”
Deon, the Principal, was disgusted by the sham of her concern. He made some show of using the silent moment to leave—some of the thirty percent who had folded arms got up, tapped wives on shoulders and left too. Their vacated seats were gladly taken by others who had stood and clapped a few moments earlier.
As the silence came to its end within the lecture room and the distant microphone’s muffled voice began laying forth that there would be a talk followed by question and answer sessions, the small group of deserters met in the foyer outside.
“The impertinence of it,” Louw told them. “I thank you for taking a stand by walking out with me.”
“We only came here to give them hell,” one of the men said, and others nodded their heads.
“The Dominee and I both asked them to kindly not hold this meeting today… they couldn’t be bothered. There is no dignity and decorum in these people. They’re without decency.”
As he spoke, they began to drift together away from the meeting, down the corridor; furious and unsure of their next move but happy to have registered their discontent.
“…so I will try to give some brief idea of the challenges we face when we consider interstellar travel. Alas, some of you might find it tedious to stay focused and I won’t blame you for nodding off…”
A good chunk of the audience were smiling encouragingly.
“…but, if you manage to stay away, when I’m done, I’ll turn you over to the real star of the show—to Alok. The reason I must go first is that I’ll set up the necessary foundation of facts that will make his speculations that much more interesting....”
“I’ve got some facts too, you know…!” Al chirped in from the sidelines, and a ripple of chuckles ran through the crowd, and John felt vindicated for standing his ground and letting this proceed—the lighthearted banter was proving to be the ideal tonic a grieving family and community might need to take their mind off of tragedy.
Marsha smiled warmly; “Trust me… I’m the boring nerd in this family,” she assured the crowd. “Al will dazzle you with the wild and crazy possibility that human beings are some product of a space faring race out in the cosmos. No doubt you’ve all seen the television documentaries about ‘Ancient Aliens’ who, according to the pundits, allegedly came to earth and seeded it with life; or at least fast-tracked human evolution in a technological direction away from our basic ape cousins. I’m not accusing him of believing it, but it makes for a fun speculation.”
Like a tennis match, the grim-faced remainder of the thirty percent shook their heads with irritated vigor. The arguments and questions they had prepared to tackle these two scientists with needed no speeches or lessons to precede them. In their opinion, it was a monumental waste of time going through the speeches in order to get to the Questions and Answers session.
“So…” Marsha began, “Space. It is rather well named, because there is quite a lot of it…”
It was met with a sea of smiles and a proportion of set faces, hardened to resist any attempts to woo them.
“I think it’s quite hard to gather just how much space there really is. Let’s start like this. The earth is forty thousand kilometers around, that’s its circumference, so it has a diameter of just less than thirteen thousand kilometers—step back into space and you’re looking at thirteen thousand kilometers from side to side. But the sun has a diameter of nearly one-comma-four million kilometers diameter. To give perspective, if I have a ball that is one meter high at my knee—a gym ball that represents the sun, the earth is smaller than a marble. One million three hundred thousand earths could fit into the sun.”
She let it sink in.
“Now, our sun is just a star close by, and stars are just suns far away. Our sun is quite average, not the smallest, but by a long-long way from being the biggest. In the Milky Way, the galaxy our solar system finds itself in, Antares is the biggest, and its diameter is a truly staggering one thousand one hundred and thirteen billion kilometers—it has a diameter a thousand times bigger than our sun. This means that five hundred and twelve million of our suns could fit into that one single sun. On that scale where the earth is a marble and our sun is an exercise ball a meter tall—one of those Pilate balls at the gym—Antares is a kilometer-high mountain; Table Mountain down in Cape Town is that height… the earth is a marble next to it.”
By the look on the faces, it was going to take a lot of pauses just to set the most basic ground to begin discussing interstellar travel.
“Okay—so these are the bare basics to start getting a handle on how big space is… Next fact; as my late colleague, Carl Sagan once remarked, there are more suns in the universe than there are grains of sands on all the beaches of the earth. That’s a big number. To spell it out, it is ten to the power twenty-two, or, a one with twenty-three zeros behind it. And ours is just one of them.”
She wrote the number on a blackboard, “10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars”
“So if our earth could fit into one of those suns one point three million times… Sheeew… That’s a lot of matter… a lot of stuff out there. And then there are dust clouds that probably push the amount of matter in the universe up by a significant figure again.”
“Come on Marsha…” Al chimed in and there was a murmur of amusement through the audience; even the stony expressions nodded in agreement. “I’m only here for 3 weeks,” he teased.
“We have quite a way to still go, I’m afraid.” Marsha warned, “I unfortunately have to still hurt your minds quite a bit.”
Someone got up muttering about the absurdity of the numbers being discussed, and left the room. His seat was taken. Marsha watched him go, allowing him to leave in silence so as not to inflame his clearly volatile mood. When he was gone, she shrugged, and there were more mild chuckles.
“Okay—so we have all this matter, all this stuff, in stars and gas clouds—but how much space is it set into? Remember, this part of the discussion is about us traveling between the stars, so I’m trying to set the scene here for the magnitude of the universe—so that my complaining husband can give you a sense of whether ‘Ancient’—or more contemporary—Aliens have popped by for tea or to abduct the impressionable for a quick medical.”
A mobile phone rang and was cut, Marsha stole the moment to sip water. The ringing prompted others to check and turn their phones off.
“If we took all that matter and represented it as a single grain of sand, how large a room would we set that grain containing all matter in the universe into? The answer is staggering”
She turned to the board and drew a cube then wrote “32 km” on each of its sides.
“We’d need a room thirty two kilometers on a side and high… fifteen miles a side… about from horizon to horizon on a level plain... Those of you who know False Bay in Cape Town—that bay is thirty two kilometers in both directions… and, for a sense of thirty two kilometers high, consider that a Jumbo flies at about ten kilometers altitude. So, into such a vast arena you’d place a single grain of sand and smash that grain into trillions…” she pointed at the number on the board—1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000—“…of pieces, each representing a sun. Any questions?”
There were no questions but a sea of bewildered looking faces.
“Okay. So, like I said, space is big, really-really-really… reeeeeally very big. The moon is a little under four hundred thousand kilometers from earth—and it takes light just over a second to cover that distance. It took our fastest spacecraft three days to make the same trip. The sun’s further away; one hundred and fifty million kilometers—or around eight light minutes. You’ll see that I sneakily introduced a new measure of distance there. The moon is a light second away, the sun is eight light minutes of distance away. We need this new form of measurement to start looking at the distances to the stars, because kilometers will make no more sense out there in space.”
She yawned in playful pantomime, playing to some expressions of bewilderment reflected from the audience. “I warned you… I know it’s tedious, but it’ll be worth it to stay awake,”
The established split and mix of expressions still suggested that the majority was thoroughly enjoying the details.
“Let’s press on to the juicy bits that Al will share… When you look at the Southern Cross here in the Southern Hemisphere, there are two pointer stars; the one closest to the cross is Proxima Centuri—and it is the second closest sun to the earth after our own sun. It is four-point-two light years away. The light you’re seeing has been traveling at three hundred thousand kilometers a second for over four years to strike you in the eye. It’s a humbling thought, so savor the effort the stars gone through to entertain you. Never look up again without thinking about that, because all others are very much more distant than that.”
She wrote on the board again; “42,000,000,000,000km = 4,2 light years”
“But, if you want to stay with familiar units, a light year is around ten-trillion kilometers. Proxima Centuri is far away, and, you’ll agree that four-point-two light years is easier to work with than those endless zeroes in trillions of kilometers when talking about even our closest neighbour.”
She pointed to her freshly written number.
“The center of the Milky Way is around twenty six thousand light years, so its light reaching us now left the Milky Way before humans domesticated animals or planted crops. We’re about half way from the center, so there’s another that much out to the edge in the other direction, and another twice that to the other side of the Milky Way from its center. Now, I’ll try to spare you many more figures, but each star within the Milky Way occupies about seventy eight cubic light years of space, or around three comma five light years—but it varies because gravity clusters stars, so there are pockets and open expanses—like villages here in the Karroo—where each house in the village represents a whole galaxy—except, a whole lot more of them, so maybe the microbes on the dust in the houses…”
She pointed at that latest figure on the board; 42,000,000,000,000km = 4,2 light years.
“The fastest rockets humans have ever produced have achieved speeds over sixty thousand kilometers an hour, yet they’d take eighty thousand years just to the nearest star, just over four light years away… four and a half billion years, as long as the earth has existed, to reach the Milky Way’s center. Even eighty thousand years is a long time; it’s almost as long as humans have been humans. Eighty thousand years is too long to sit in a spacecraft breeding generation after generation just to get there. We need something a lot faster than rockets… you can see I’m hinting at Al’s speech here.”
“Are we there yet?” Someone heckled in a playful voice from the audience.
“An excellent pun,” Al agreed, “Come on Marsha, I’m itching to talk.”
The easy fun-filled atmosphere was buoyant for most, the hardliners sat, unmoved, like cats with swishing tails—Marsha systematically laying down a solid foundation of established facts.
“Simmer down boys,” she quipped back. Not much more from me. But since I’ll be testing you on this later, let’s just recap distances: If the sun were now reduced to what I’d said the earth was earlier, the size of a marble, the distance from the sun to the Earth, which we call an ‘Astronomical Unit” or AU, would be about a meter and a third—four feet in old money. Well… then the Earth would be almost invisible because it would be barely thicker than a sheet of paper. So, for more perspective, on this scale, since it takes light eight minutes to travel those four feet, the orbit of the Moon would be about six millimeters in diameter or three millimeters from the earth—which is about the size of a pinprick. On this scale, our closest neighboring star, Proxima, is about three hundred and thirty six kilometers away—two hundred and ten miles in Americanese. Call it four hours drive if you don’t break the speed limit. Space is big, distances are huge.”
She wrote once more on the board, “900 years”, and as she wrote she said; “Now I can see I’m losing most of you and my husband wants the floor, so I’ll wind this up as quickly as I can.”
“Let’s say you took Methuselah from the Bible; at nine-hundred years, he’s the longest living human ever claimed, so we’re using him as our astronaut; we’ll stick him on a rocket as a baby and aim it at the nearest star, maximizing speed to get him there before he dies nine centuries later. Just one of the problems you’d encounter to achieve this within a millennium would be the kind and quantity of fuel. You’d of course also need to accelerate the fuel you’re carrying, in order to accelerate you more. The kind of rockets we have right now in the early twenty-first Century use chemical propellant, and, were all the matter in the universe nothing but chemical rocket fuel, there wouldn’t be enough of it to make that trip in such a relatively short nine-century transit—So… forget interstellar travel with our present chemical rockets. We need something else… Nuclear bomb propulsion, if we could build such a thing, would be better but you’d still need a thousand million—a billion—supertanker-loads worth of nuclear bombs… so, forget that too. Using fusion rockets… a thousand supertanker loads might do it… thing is, we have no idea how we’d make fusion rockets... Antimatter rockets? If we could make them—and at this moment in time total human production of anti-matter over the last several decades stands at less than a fraction of a gram—we’d need ten railway tanker loads. And when you get there you’d need the same amount again to decelerate on the other side. And, that’s without going into how you’d accelerate up to the necessary speed without killing everyone aboard with the G’s.”
“Star Wars made it seem a lot easier,” somebody in the second row suggested loudly, and a few laughed.
“Ahhh…. Hollywood,” Marsha sighed. “Oh… that it was so easy…. Yet, Hollywood does actually point to something realistic—Warp Drive. If you think you’ve heard of it you’ve watched Star Trek. Digging too deeply into the reasons why light speed can’t be exceeded is a conference on its own, so I’ll spare you the details.”
“Please… and thank you!” Al chimed in again and the audience burbled agreement.
“You can’t exceed the speed of light for fundamental reasons. However, you might be able to collapse space or expand space faster than light speed… that does not violate physics. In theory we can do it but for certain we’ll need lots of energy, lots more energy than we know how to access—I’m talking energy levels far beyond nuclear fission or fusion—beyond our H-Bombs… far, far… faaar beyond them. But the mathematics is worked out—all we need is the energy and technology. Those of you who came to my keynote speech a few weeks back will recall the Kardashev scale and us attaining Type-One civilization status… well, that’s what I was talking about then. In about two hundred and fifty years—give or take—we should be there if we don’t blow ourselves up first; we might well have warp drive.”
Al was tapping his watch and some were jovial, enjoying the pair interacting. Of course, some were not.
“I know… I know… this is exciting stuff—I hate talking, but once I start…”
“Don’t I know… you never stop,” he finished the statement to laughter.
“Last point, I promise; a warp drive collapses space in front of you and expands space behind you. If a traveller wanted to go to say, London, rather than traveling the ten thousand or so kilometers in whatever time it takes at a certain speed, you’d collapse the distance in front of you to a meter and expand it behind you to ten thousand kilometers and step across the one meter ‘gulf’ in a second without any acceleration issues—what happens to everything in that collapsed space is something we simply don’t yet know… but it probably won’t please the unlucky residents. The good news for you, though, is that you would effectively not have to travel at any speed, you would not have to accelerate and suffer acceleration’s problems. There are possibly civilizations out in deep space that are not just hundreds of years ahead of us as we are hundreds of years ahead of the explorers who sailed in wooden ships to the Cape, but thousands, tens of thousands, maybe millions of years advanced over us. Do they have warp drive? Possibly, yes. And, with that I’m certain you’ll be please to know that, I conclude. Any questions.”
“Wat ‘n klomp kak,” came a lone voice from the audience and many turned to look as the big man with a two-tone khaki and mauve shirt who’d called it a load of shit, stood up, buttons around is belly straining against his bulk. He shuffled in his short pants and stocky powerful legs past the knees of others seated in rows and then strode to the exit.
Marsha looked at the audience in askance and somebody made a gesture that universally says, “Forget it.” Marsha shrugged and sat down.
Al rose and came to the lectern, adjusting the microphone for himself, “Thank you, Marsha. Exhausting as it was, it’s really set my talk up beautifully… Do we need a break? Stretch the legs; or you want to go on?”
“I think we can use 15 minutes?” John Fiske suggested.
Al agreed, “I believe there are refreshments in the foyer.”
John confirmed it.
People gratefully took to the break.
“Wow… quite a mouthful,” JJ congratulated her.
“I barely scratched the surface,” Marsha assured.
Like a star with a myriad satellites clustered around, Marsha had a throng of admirers all wanting to pose private questions.
“The real issue,” she was explaining, “Is that this stuff is hard… it’s complex and intricate… very often it’s counter intuitive.”
“Absolutely, that’s why…” JJ gestured toward two or three small groups filling out of the building toward their cars, “…so many are satisfied in the fantasy world and pettiness. Magic’s easy to claim and agree with. Children accept it unquestioningly… ‘it’s a miracle’ answers everything.”
“I’m not touching that,” Marsha insisted.
“Guess I’m still in reality’s recovery room,” JJ made room for Al who had joined them.
“I just caught the tail end of that… there’s an important realization we must grasp,” Al began to explain. “Our brains evolved on the African plains for two primary functions—to eat and to breed. Science… all those facts that Marsha just went… without even touching quantum mechanics and relativity asks way more of us than we’re evolved to deal with; it’s remarkable that any of us can grasp any of it,” Al pointed out.
“Why are humans different to other animals?” Someone asked.
“Co-operation… As a species we are co-operative with one another; that allowed us to organize ourselves and to create cutting edge technologies like clubs and arrow… other technologies all flow from co-operation.”
“A lot of people don’t cooperate…” someone in the crowd, pointed out. “…they exploit.”
“Quite right,” Al agreed. “I’m not talking about individuals, I’m talking about communities; we’re weak as individuals, strong as groups. If too many in a community are out for themselves and stop cooperating—the community fails; the system is self-regulating.”
“The Ten Commandments are all the cooperation we need,” came the retort.
“Hmm… but the notion of Ten Commandments belonging to any religion is peculiar, it suggest that nobody knew murder and theft and jealousies were wrong before they were ‘given’ insight from an external agent.”
“If we weren’t given it, where did it come from?”
“We’re social animals; pitifully weak as individuals—thin skin, no nails, useless teeth for defense or attack. It goes back to group cooperation and self-regulation; codified ‘commandments’ are not epiphanies, they simply document observed behavior. Cooperation is written into our DNA and the fabric of our societies.”
A throng had collected, hands in the air to ask questions; some having only caught tail ends of the latest statement.
“You’re saying the Ten Commandments are not valid?” A gruff man challenged.
“Not at all. I’m saying that the basis of them, the shall-not’s were already operating long before they were recorded. They’re the unmentioned fabric of any viable society—per definition they have to be there for a society to begin to develop.”
“I don’t know how you can say that?”
“Groups rely on trust. A group who thinks murder, rape and theft were okay, aren’t going to survive very long because trust breaks down… In an anarchic society, nobody has trust, nobody cooperates… they’re vulnerable to being toppled by those who do co-operate… that much must be obvious?”
“Can you give an example of an imaginary group who didn’t cooperate?” The man was unrelenting.
“Well, no, of course I can’t give an example of a group that was uncooperative and went extinct because… well, they’re extinct… you prove the point with your question. They may have arisen, but were gone in a generation…. I clearly can’t give an example of something that never arose.”
“Very clever!” The man spat the sarcasm at Al, apparently unaware that he had caught himself in a trap; “You clever people always trying to fool us with word tricks.”
“It’s not a trick of words sir, it is a fact. And my apologies to you if it seems offensive.”
“Ja… everything about this presentation is offensive.”
“I… I’m sorry about that.”
“You… you so clever, hey? You tell the people here; what successful population don’t have God in their life?” he altered the angle of his thrust.
“Sweden?” Al ventured. “They do all right with maybe 90% secularists… atheists by another name. For that matter, most of Scandinavia and Western Europe—totally secular; I’d rather live in Scandinavia than… oh… Nigeria or Saudi or Afghanistan.”
“Ha! You won’t give up will you?!”
“I will if I’m wrong.”
“Lots of scientists are God fearing.”
“Lots? I can confirm that ninety seven percent of the scientists who make up the Royal Fellows of Sciences, ninety three percent of the National Academy of sciences aren’t—they’re non-theists…”
“Those scientists!” the man said it as if he’d hit pay dirt. “The ones who set off nuclear bombs.”
“In fairness sir, The Royal Fellows aren’t in the business of setting off bombs… Regrettably, yes, the bombs and all technologies available to politicians and zealots wouldn’t be possible without the help of scientists,” Al suggested, and added, “But if you want an example of peaceful people who lived without Commandments, most hunter gatherer groups from the Amazon to the Kalahari Bushmen… right here in your own back yard… are good examples.”
“You call the Bushmen successful?” he scoffed then laughed aloud.
“Measuring success requires a frame of reference; I agree… they’re not successful at making weapons and forming armies, which helps explain their poverty and present condition living on the fringes of desirable lands that we took from them.”
The heads were bobbing back and forth; another tennis match of ideas being lobbed and slammed between opponents.
“So… you must bring that up? That we took their land?”
“Well I think the fact’s unavoidable... Nobody can deny that the Bushmen had the run of the whole of Southern Africa until us farmers arrived, killing the wildlife and putting up fences. Don’t be confused by the current situation; they didn’t choose to live in a dustbowl and eke a living from scraps. That’s only since we came.”
“You emphasize we?” The man challenged. “How can you say ‘we’?”
“I think you’re talking about my blackness… it’s clear I’m Indian… Well… my people like your people are farmers… As a farming culture, we equally share responsibility of displacing all of the first people everywhere, the hunters. I’m part of the ‘we’—we all are; farming made us settle, invest and want to protect our turf. We invented ownership and wiped out and legislated against the threat of anyone who didn’t recognize it.”
“Who says my ancestors killed anyone?” He took personal affront.
“Lets’ stay away from intent,” Al played aikido with the man, deflecting the thrust into a political debate. “Farmers are in much closer daily contact with livestock… In China they live cheek by jowl with them, and that’s why we see most diseases today coming out of China where microbes jump species… Bird Flu… Swine Flu… They’re not just names, they’re pedigrees.”
“Let’s say your ancestors never intended or actually killed anyone… any of the Bushmen.”
“Ja… let’s say that.”
“Okay… but your genes from Eurasia had hundreds of generations of immunity built in; we Europeans and Asians brought diseases to parts of the world that didn’t have immunity… we decimated the local populations without intending to. We also did wipe out the game for our domestic grazing.”
The man looked long and hard at Al, almost sizing him up and measuring him for his coffin. His mind dueling with how to handle this difficult skinny little black pixie; then an argument clincher popped into his mind;
“Then that is God’s will,” he said emphatically to Al. “They’re no use to serve God so He gave us the ability to drive them out.”
“Sir, I don’t want to challenge you on that. I can appreciate that this is your firmly held stance and I only hope to give you some perspective that is borne out by my study in this field.”
“So you’re saying that these people, the Bushmen, are somehow useful?” He came in at the knees again, battle set in the thrust of his stance.
“All people are useful to themselves, sir. Again it’s the frame of reference that is important… might I expand on that?” Al asked politely, not wanting to trigger a showdown.
JJ had maneuvered into a protective position close by. The man looked peeved and JJ smiled; there was chemistry here and it wasn’t good.
The man’s stance relaxed and he nodded his permission for Al to go on.
“I’m guessing you feel that your own utility is anchored in a celestial Being; the Bushmen feel that their utility is anchored in their ancestors and children. I can only say that if we as modern urban societies want to look for utility in Bushmen, we have two choices—to look at their sustainable lifestyles in terms of environmental impact… which is negligible… it’s also unrealistic for our industrialized world; or, we can look at the very useful lessons we can learn from their social anthropology.”
“English is my second language,” the man said. “Don’t try your tricks to confuse.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve no intention to trick you—I just don’t want to insult you either by being too simplistic and appearing condescending,” Al told him, gesturing a quasi surrender with his hands. “I’ll conclude it simply, and then I must get back inside for the presentation.”
People were filling back into the lecture room.
“In the modern world we’re at odds with ourselves. For five hundred thousand generations… not years but generations… we lived in small wandering groups. We’d rarely see a stranger and if they were friendly we’d trade or mix our genes.”
“Ja, sure…” it was a challenge Al ignored.
“If they were hostile we’d move away… When there’s no hospital and combat is hand-to-hand—and when there’s no ownership of land or animals, and there’s abundance of both… it’s better to retreat and live peacefully elsewhere.
“As if you were there to see this,” the man laughed again.
“It’s an archaeological fact… it’s what I study. Farming locked us down to a piece of land. It was an investment that paid dividends only if we could protect it from plunder. We’ve been farmers for five hundred generations, and…”
John tapped Al on the shoulder and said, “Two minutes.”
“…and our psychology and how we deal with one another developed for a thousand times longer in a completely different environment to the one that we… every one of us… are now immersed in. Our psychology is poorly adapted to dealing with large crowds of strangers.”
“…and so what? What good is all this ‘knowledge’?”
“It results in stress… stress kills; massive doses of cortisol… adrenaline… we’re bathed in it, and it’s not good for us. We spend our lives in conflict and mistrust; these manifest as racism and tensions far in excess of their logical necessity. And for what? For believing slightly different things to one another… Most beliefs that we hold are simply accident of birth—where and when we’re born; hardly worth fighting over.”
“Aaaaall this gedoente… all your loooong story… based on you believing in five hundred thousand generations,” he laughed out loud again. “The Bible clearly tells us that the planet is a few thousand years old… so you’re talking nonsense.”
“That sir is not an issue of belief. The evidence supports what I just said.”
The man didn’t hear Al’s response, he was stomping away, through the doors and out to the parking lot.
Al made his way back to the lectern.
The portion of the crowd that had previously been forced to stand were now still standing while many empty seats stood vacant.
John checked the corridor outside, it was deserted so he invited those standing to fill the vacated seats.
“Was it something my wife said?” Al smiled as they took their new seats and the proportion of smiles returning to him suggested that the attendance loss was borne entirely by the thirty percent who’d shown their disdain earlier during Marsha’s presentation.
The crowd settled and hushed.
“So… Ancient Aliens and Modern UFO’s,” he chirped cheerily. “A riveting and also, I suspect, potentially touchy topic…”
His prognosis validated by pockets of hardened glares.
“In science-speak we call it The Fermi Paradox… an apparent contradiction between high estimates for the existence of extraterrestrials and humanity's lack of evidence for these speculated civilizations.”
Al saw not just cell phone cameras trained on him by the unsmiling, but a tripod supporting an old-style video camera in the second row; arranged to film between the heads of the row in front of it.
He quickly thought the unsolicited filming through, weighing whether to request no filming that might jeopardize his agreements with publishers, but concluded that there would be nothing he’d say today that would approach a problem.
“I’m going deviate from my script, to start with an important aspect underpinning our endeavor here; a question triggered by someone in the lobby a moment ago. It’s a little off the rest of my topic and, strictly, falls out of my area of expertise, but its relevance will become clear when I reach my original brief. If I do make an error, my esteemed colleague here,” he gestured toward Marsha, “will surely interject to rescue me from folly.”
Marsha inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“I was asked ‘what radio astronomy is and why build the SKA here… at Carnarvon?’ Well, optical light—the light we see—occupies only a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum that starts at Gamma-rays and goes down in frequency and energy through X-ray, Ultra-violet, Visible light, Infrared—which we experience as heat. The spectrum goes on to fall in frequency down to Radio and Microwave. We think of light as somehow ‘special’, but it isn’t. It is just that we have evolved organs—the eye—that can detect and focus it. When we say ‘the eye’ it’s rather a misnomer since there are in excess of forty different types of separately evolved eyes, and eyes within those categories at different levels of evolvement that present across species.”
The man training the tripod camera seemed to be having a lot of trouble focusing between the heads while remaining undetected and Al was amused, wandering why he was going to so much trouble to keep the very obvious contraption hidden.
“So—how did eyes evolve? Our skin reacts to ultra-violet… it burns. My ancestors came from a very sunny place where Vitamin-D from the sun was plentiful, so I inherited high levels of melanin which shows as black. Many here come from northern latitudes where, over many-many generations, limited sunshine would have culled out those with high melanin… with black skins… leaving that population with melanin-poor skins… with white skins. In those climes and for obvious reasons, your ancestors did not need the protection against harsh sun. This is how natural selection works. My skin in sunless climates would leave me with rickets and other Vitamin-D deficient ailments.”
A hand was up from one of the non-smilers.
“So how do blacks survive England and Europe?” The man challenged and looked around with pride, knowing he’d publicly stumped the scientist.
“Great question. Diet….” Al responded. “Modern diets compensate for Vitamin-D deficiencies from a lack of sun; we’ve artificially overcome that aspect of what natural selection would normally do.”
“And what has this to do with eyes and radio?” The man asked.
“You’re right. It’s a minor sidetrack but it does have bearing. I’m making the point that although our eyes can’t see infrared another organ, our skin ‘can’… can ‘see’ infrared. It can’t see it as you think of seeing but it reacts to the sun—and that’s all vision is; cells that react to light, cells that trigger a minute electrical pulse along a nerve that runs to an analytical part of the brain called the Brodmanns Area and Visual Cortex of the Cerebral Cortex at the back of the skull. So modern sunburn and the tan that follows is sort of an analogue for the very basis of the original evolution of the eye. Light travels in straight lines, light and shadow falling on an ancient ancestor gave a crude advantage to the animal that can detect the change. Those animals that reacted, survived predators and found prey more easily. Over time those patches of ordinary skin tended to build up in the offspring of those with reactive patches, and these patches eventually became what we now know as retina.”
Heads shaking in protest to his thesis gave Al the impression that the original thirty percent was now closer to ten percent of the audience who were there for altercation.
“The other side of the visible spectrum, infrared, we feel as heat and we react to it too, always keeping ourselves in an optimum zone between cooking and freezing. I’m sure you can appreciate why evolving heat detection mechanisms proved to be a good environmental predictor. But we don’t naturally detect Gamma or X-rays. Why is this?”
“Because they’re not plentiful in the environment?” A youngster ventured.
“Excellent! Yes. You don’t evolve in a direction if there is no pressure to do so. And radio or microwave… why didn’t we evolve these?”
“Same reason?” The same lad suggested.
“No. Radio is quite plentiful, actually. But as a wave, radio is too low-energy and has too long a wavelength to be able to move electrons from one energy state to another as visible light does. It’s a mechanical issue… Good so far, Marsha?”
“Gold star,” she smiled.
“Good. I learned a lot from this lady,” and they exchanged a smile. “So I’ve diverted my speech, but you’ll understand why in a second… Well, the Big Bang, the origins of the universe and the stars themselves broadcast not just in visible light, but all energy levels across the spectrum so that radio astronomy is just another way of looking at what is going on out there. And, because as Marsha’s lecture pointed out, you’re seeing the sun as it was eight minutes ago, and Proxima as it was four years ago, we’re always looking back in time. Radio waves come through the walls of your house and light doesn’t—so radio astronomy tells us stories that the light can’t when it gets blocked by dust clouds in deep space. And because we humans have developed the technology to create radio waves, our mobile phones and TV stations have flooded our urban environments with so much ‘noise’ that we need a big quiet corner of the planet to listen to the cosmos.”
“So why come here? Why not go to Australia? Why come bother us?” heads turned to look at the challenger who evidently was taking the whole thing very personally.
“That was a decision that I’m afraid is beyond me, sir.”
“Well, for my money you can all fokoff”—he said and there were a few lonely claps.
“I’m sorry that you feel that sir, we don’t mean to offend,” Al said. “We’re up to where I was going to begin… Radio and Ancient Aliens… what’s the connection? Well, the first connection is that if there are advanced civilizations in space, they’ll probably be making radio noise. If we listen, we may hear them and SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is doing just that.”
“Then why haven’t you found them yet?” Came a challenge from the audience.
Al pointed at the numbers Marsha had written on the board.
“That’s the problem. Lots of potential out there but the distances and time make any signals fleetingly tiny and desperately far away. Turn the issue around… The Milky Way is a hundred thousand light years across—we as a civilization have only been adding our radio broadcasts to the cosmos for a lot less than a hundred years, so that beyond a bubble around the earth that’s at most a hundred light years in any direction; two hundred light years across… beyond that advancing edge, humanity is ‘invisible’… we don’t exist yet on the radio hit parade. Our radio has not reached even one fifty-thousandth of the stars in just our galaxy, and our galaxy is one in maybe a trillion like it. We can assume the same is true for their signals not having had time to reach us… And perhaps those who are a lot more advanced have moved away from radio to other as-yet undetected methods of communication. Am I starting to hint at the problem?”
There was a general murmur of agreement.
“Perhaps they’d need to dig into their museums of ancient history to find a radio receiver to hear us… and that’s ‘if’ they knew where in the sky to point it,” he gestured, opening his upturned hands to an imaginary sky—then focusing to an imaginary point; “The same way that their host star, their sun, is only a prick of light in our sky; our sun and planet are only a pinprick of light to them… The only way to collect vanishingly weak signals that leak into the cosmos from us or them, is to use an antenna like the SKA, very precisely aimed at that pinprick in direction, and then trying to pick out the target signal from the background radio ‘noise’ that is everywhere. If that’s not a big enough task there are billions of possible frequency ranges to listen for. To call it a monumental task, is to trivialize the challenge.”
“It sounds like you’re describing a waste of time,” the same voice challenged again.
“Surely, learning and discovery can never be a waste of time, sir? Almost every item you have in your convenient modern life is the result of an accident of discovery, looking for one thing and finding another that is useful.”
“Professor,” came a friendly voice, for the first time a female’s voice. “Can we move onto UFO’s please.”
“I’m a lowly Doctor I’m afraid, not a Professor. But yes, and forgive the side-track.”
“It’s been very interesting, but I’m itching to know. Do you believe in UFOs?” She inquired.
“Is there life out there? Let me start with that. And I’m not just talking aliens driving spacecraft… microbial life will do…. Well; latest estimates put the number of planets in just the Milky way at six hundred billion.”
He drew a line under Marsha’s numbers and added his own number to the board: “600,000,000,000—Planets in Milky Way”
“The Milky Way is one of perhaps four hundred billion galaxies, each probably containing that number of planets.”
He pointed to the number he’d just written and wrote out the next number: “>400,000,000,000—Galaxies in the Universe”
“I don’t want to hurt your mind like Marsha did, but these are the facts. The probability of life arising and becoming technologically capable is tiny, but the opportunities for it are huge. I would say ‘yes’, in my opinion there is not just life but probably intelligent life in the universe. But saying ‘is’, is a long way from saying ‘is now’, because ‘now’ only applies here…. The ‘now’ as we look at the sun was in all reality eight minutes ago from the sun’s perspective… It may have catastrophically exploded seven minutes ago, and we’d say it’s still there. In the case of Proxima it’s four years ago. Do you see the problem?”
He took the chalk and dabbed a familiar pattern of dots, three in a row with some other prominent points around it, talking as he did so:
“We look out at Orion’s Belt in the night sky and pick the middle star—the other two are at different distances from us and their apparent arrangement from our perspective is just an accident of alignment; they aren’t really in a line at all… Well that middle star’s now was sixteen hundred years ago. What was going on in Earth’s history sixteen hundred years ago? The Vikings hadn’t even arisen… The Roman Empire was just collapsing. So Orion’s ‘now’ occurred then; it’s all very mind boggling but inescapable. Are you following me?”
The lady said she was.
“So… UFO’s. I’ll discuss speculations about UFO’s in our history when I’m done with the present.” He thought a moment, “I’m going to paraphrase somebody some of you may have heard of, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; and I urge you to look him up… YouTube is full of his stuff…. He was asked this same question, ‘Do you believe in UFOs’ and he looked long and hard at the questioner and said ‘Remember what the ‘U’ in UFO stands for’. It means ‘Unidentified’. So that when you see a light in the sky and say, ‘I can’t identify it as anything I know, so it must be a UFO from another planet’, your speculation really ought to end there; at the point you declared that it is unidentified. To leap from declared uncertainty to the absolute certainty that ‘therefore it must be aliens visiting from another planet’, is not helpful.”
“But I have seen strange lights,” she insisted.
“There are just so many tricks that light can play and our brains are just so very easily fooled—this is how conjurers and street magicians make their living. Not by manipulating the laws of physics but by fooling your brain—it’s much easier to fool your brain than to manipulate or reverse physics. We need to get past this notion that our brains are perfect or even good data receivers. They simply aren’t. This is why we have machines to do it, to take the human element out of perception.”
“So, yes or no… UFOs visit earth or not?” She insisted on a definitive answer.
“It’s possible, but improbable. We just haven’t made enough noise in the galaxy to single ourselves out of the… what was it? Other six hundred billion planets that also need to be investigated by aliens before they randomly find us. They may have come, but it’s unlikely. And given the problems of travel that Marsha covered earlier, the time and vast energies needed to take a look, wouldn’t you expect unmanned probes first? Would you expect them to come bumbling in here… actually crashing? Or would you expect them to obscure themselves and watch? I personally wouldn’t be impressed with the ones that crashed. You know… they’re the failures of the Cosmos… to come across the galaxy and then fall out of the sky when they get here…”
The audience applauded.
“Friendly or hostile?” Someone else asked.
“Another interesting question. The good Professor Stephen Hawking is on record thinking they’d be hostile… wanting our women and wine maybe. And he does have a point in that we’d expect to see predators becoming dominant civilizations.”
“Why predators,” a voice in the midst queried.
“It’s in the chemistry and biology. There are ratios of how much energy is available at different levels of a feeding chain. Plants are the lowest level of energy—that’s why plants aren’t all that active—and then energy accumulates as herbivores eat plants and predators eat herbivores. Lions lie all day in the shade and spend a relatively short period acquiring high-yield nutrition. Their prey animals spend all day eating. Herbivores simply don’t have the time off from absorbing nutrition to become a technological species.”
“So if they’re predators, surely they’d predate?” The lady from earlier posed.
“Another great question, but this goes back to that bottleneck that Marsha talked about in her last lecture on the Kardashev Scale and its Type-One, Two, and Three Civilizations. The civilizations that can’t overcome their own meanness, their own suspicions—oh… and you see that word again taking us back to where our morals come from…”
He directed his address to the group who’d stood with him earlier, out in the foyer.
“To acquire inter-stellar travel and become a potential hostile threat to another planet or species there, we have to learn to live with ourselves and get past our suspicions and pettiness. We have to see a planet and its hosts of species as holistic and in balance. Those civilizations that may be out there in the cosmos that can’t get past their own base predatory selves, will tend to implode and wipe their own civilizations out, never becoming a galactic threat. For this reason I think my esteemed colleague Stephen is wrong. I think that any civilization that becomes inter-stellar has gone through the filter of its own predatory nature and emerged on the other side sensitive to environments.”
“You don’t think they want our resources? To enslave us?” The lady piped up again.
“That takes us into the realms of the Ancient Alien stories. That the Gods we read about in our Bibles and other mythologies were in fact from outer space? Aliens?”
“I hope I was successful in opening this part of discussion by giving you a sense of why modern UFO’s are unlikely. I also hope I simultaneously convinced you that visitors who did or do visit will be inclined toward hospitality and nurture? Now let me deal with their motivation to come here.”
He noticed JJ nodding and smiling, and he momentarily felt a pang for how he and his sister must be processing all of this cosmic grandeur on the very day that their private universe was so imploded.
“We evolved for the prevailing conditions on this, our earth; for its gravity and its quite specific mix of gasses in the atmosphere. The chances that any creature from elsewhere could arrive here and be capable of stepping out as we saw on the old Star Trek series are… well… remote and probably impossible. That they could consume our meat, fruits or vegetables and derive nutrition is unlikely—the enzymes of digestion are just too specific to where they’d come from; I mean… we share a lot with a cow… a lot of DNA and the same biosphere. We almost share the same morphology… body-plan… yet we can’t eat grass and cows can’t eat meat… So why on earth would one an alien to be able to digest grass or meat?”
“They’d probably want our water,” she persisted.
“There is a lot more water to be had with far less trouble than to drop down into what is the gravity-well of earth to get it, contaminated from their perspective as it would be with microbes that are specific to here.”
“How about gold?” Some called out.
“Gold’s only valuable to us because it’s rare, but gold and other useful elements are plentiful in deep space. A Type-One civilization, the minimum level that could travel as we’re speculating, would have energies at their disposal that would make it laughably uneconomical to come here. There is no magic involved in making elements if you have the energies as they would have, you’d simply produce them from the raw materials of the cosmos, precisely as they have been naturally produced through fusion reactions in the middle of stars.”
A mighty growl of irritation went up in the middle of the group. Three big men wearing the two-tone shirts and short pants with powerful legs that seemed a standard uniform for those who were perpetually grumpy, all stood in unison and shuffled grousing past seated legs and then strode up the aisle and out; followed by a gaggle of women and children.
Al let the deserters go in silence.
When they were gone the persistent lady relented, “Your arguments are very powerful. Thank you, it’s a lot to take in. My last question is this; why all over the world do we see the same reports in history of the same sort of visitations and the same pyramids built.”
“Human brains are the same everywhere, their architecture is almost identical; their common experience as proto-humans and then humans is six or more million years old; as a species we have only been out of Africa and having slightly different experiences for say seventy thousand years… which is a fraction of that time. We are much more similar than we are different, so that our brains deal with the environment the same way wherever you go; we see lights in the sky and our common origins which are not that long ago, compel us to think in the same way and come to the same conclusions. Because pyramids are wide at the base and narrow at the top—just like a cairn of stones—it’s how things pile up and it’s why all ancient human civilizations did it this inefficient way—inefficient in terms of material used to useful indoor space created. What would be remarkable is if various civilizations built inverted pyramids that contravene this ‘pilling’ tendency… Of course, we stopped building pyramids because we figured out how to make more sophisticated structures that are more efficient. And before I’m asked it; if Aliens built the pyramids you’d think they’d have at least dropped a small piece of equipment, something more than a pile of stones to say they were here.”
“Just one last question,” John had been trying to close proceedings down.
“The gentleman over there,” Al indicated a younger man wearing the two-tone shirt and short-pants uniform of the naysayers.
The man stood up and cleared his throat. He had a round and ruddy face echoed by a rotund body. “You people think an explosion caused all of this. This universe and life?”
“I think you mean The Big Bang, sir?”
The man allowed that he did, “Ja—and where’s it expanding into? Into heaven? You’ll eventually come to God when that happens whether you like it or not.”
Sporadic victory laughs sounded in the audience.
“Well, that’s strictly a question for my wife but I’ll take it and she can score me. I’ll do it what justice I can as quickly as I can…though we could spin it off into an entire conference on that question alone.”
The audience who had not just laughed now smiled and nodded.
“First—it was not an explosion it was a very rapid expansion; there’s a subtle but important difference. Second—it was not an explosion in space and time, which is properly referred to as four-dimensional spacetime, but rather an explosion of spacetime—not in, but of… that’s a very important point. It’s important because it addresses what we’re expanding into—you proposed heaven, sir?”
The man nodded—“Ja.”
“I’ll agree with that,” Al said and the man looked surprised, “I’ll agree that we’re expanding into a heaven. Let me explain why: The edge of our earth is not toward the horizon, it is ‘up’… correct? It is not left or right or forward or back on the two-dimensional surface—that would just send you on a never-ending journey round and round the spherical ball. To find the edge of earth you don’t find it—like a cliff at the edge of the flat plain—on the surface, you find it in the third dimension of up or down.”
The man inclined his head with suspicion, analyzing the answer for a trick that Al seemed to be gunning for.
“I make this point because our ancestors who didn’t know that they were living on the surface of a sphere—a ball—thought that they could find the edge of their flat world by traveling over the horizon… Correct?”
The man didn’t answer, so Al pressed him to agree or not.
“Correct,” the man grudgingly agreed.
“So the edge of earth is not on the two dimensions we live on—on that we agree. Now, remember I told you we live in spacetime—spacetime is one thing—three dimensions of space, one of time. Yes?”
“Yes,” the man said, but it was a hesitant agreement—his hackles and suspicions high.
“Well—the edge of the universe is not endlessly up. If you were to travel forever at unimaginable speed in any direction into space, you would not reach an edge. You would not reach a boundary, you would not cross into heaven; same as traveling over the surface of the earth—you’d find no center and no boundary. What our universe is expanding into does not lie in the three dimensions of space but in the fourth dimension of time. The center of our universe is our past the edge of our universe is our distant future. So—we are forever expanding toward your future, perhaps a heaven in the distance of time? I’d like to make it so.”
“I rate that a ten,” Marsha suggested.
“Aggghh…” the man made a guttural throaty sound, “you blerry scientists think you are so clever but it’s all bullshit.”