Sunday, March 29, 2020

Random Coronavirus Thoughts and Observations

1.  One of the most amazing examples of hypocrisy in the modern era has to be how fast the right-wing media went from calling the COVID-19 pandemic a Democratic-inspired hoax to a real event. It's truly a rewrite of history that would make Russian  "journalists" and "historians" proud. Yes for those who don't have a clue, I'm being sarcastic equating right-wing media with the puppet media controlled by Trump's good buddy. 

2.  The big thing with right-wingers now is how they are downplaying the pandemic. Far to many people even now continually say that it's just the flu and that there is no reason to allow it to derail the economy. They seem to understand that it's only the apparent health of the U.S. economy that will allow their Orange Buffoon to have another term occupying the White House. Not his ability to inspire people to do good works, or unite a scared country, or manage the Federal Government.

3.   From my observations, there is a nice dose of  privileged white male frustration inherent to downplaying the pandemic. Even though I'm a white male other members of this group begin feeling extremely insecure when situations start to exceed their ability to grasp or control. This causes such anxious people to hoard important items and make runs on gun shops. Because nothing reinforces a delicate white male ego like going survivalist, especially when it comes to weapons. Americans use to truly believe in the saying that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. That's now a huge dark joke.   

4.  It's a true paradox of our age that corporations who normally make billions in profits have to be suddenly bailed out with taxpayers funds the second the economy goes sideways. While certain politicians and business types cry out in absolute pain whenever someone says the minimum wage needs to be increased to a living wage.

5.   I've never liked living in a Southern middle class suburban setting. Despite all the displays of patriotism and moral rectitude there is a callous shallowness that can easily be seen by someone like me who doesn't fit in but keeps his mouth shut. The best example I can give is the very existence of Trump. Just a few election cycles ago these good moral folks were all in a mighty uproar over Clinton getting a blow job in the Oval Office. Now the Orange Buffoon can pay off porn stars, assault multiple woman, cheat on his wives, threaten the free press and really anyone who gets on his bad side, and openly lie about things that can be quickly disprove. These self-proclaimed pillars of the community will then swear up and down he was sent by God to save the country from the heathen liberals.

6. Climatologists can take a dark comfort with the fact that it's now epidemiologists, experienced physicians and nurses, virologists, and other trained professionals having their judgement questions by individuals who are lucky to have a high school diploma. The science types have said since the beginning COVID-19 could make a lot of people sick. But all the Bubbas and other assorted trailer trash were convinced by their degenerate, reality television star Pied Piper that it was all some new conspiracy. Now a lot of people are going to die because of their stupidity.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Limits to Humanity

Much to the chagrin of my grandparents who largely raised me, my view of the universe was shaped by Carl Sagan and his various science lectures on television and books. Not that they opposed me watching his version of “Cosmos” on PBS back in the 1980's, in fact my grandfather was probably just as enthralled as me. But lets just say I came away with ideas that didn't fit well with their views. And to be truthful, some of Dr. Sagan's concepts didn't fit well with my understanding of the universe either.

At that time in my youth, I didn't understand the nature of the cosmic speed limit of light and frankly chaffed at the idea that there was no way around it. Having watched the Starship Enterprise and numerous other fictional vessels exceed lightspeed allowing them to have weekly adventures on all manner of alien worlds was something I desperately wanted to be possible. But Carl Sagan did offered up a semi-satisfying alternative in one episode of Cosmos.

Dr. Sagan said that it was theoretically possible for a sublight starship to circumnavigate the observable universe within the lifetime of a human being. Of course this hypothetical starship would have to squeeze extremely close to lightspeed in the order of something way more than 99.99999999 percent of light. Yes, an extremely difficult task given the energy requirements but as imaginary journeys of the mind go, not a show stopper we need to worry about right now.

What makes such an ultimate journey possible for these hypothetical humans would be time dilation, which would more of less stop time for those aboard the starship relative to the rest of the universe. The price these travelers had to pay though was that many billions of years would have passed upon their return home. While I never saw circumnavigating the observable universe as an attractive adventure just to return to a home that didn't exist anymore, it did imply there wasn't anyplace we couldn't reach for exploration and colonization in the future. The same goes for building fascinating stories here in the present.

One of my all-time favorite science fiction novels is entitled “The Genesis Quest” by the late Donald Moffitt. In that book an alien species in the Whirlpool Galaxy, twenty-three million lightyears away, intercept intergalactic radio messages sent by humans in the good-old Milky Way Galaxy. Included in these messages were genetic instructions on how to recreate living humans. A century or two later the resulting colony of Homo sapiens spends most of it time reviewing the information sent from the Milky Way, like the key to immortality, and growing restless.

As with humans, they get stupid and revolt against their good-hearted alien benefactors who promptly give them a massive sublight starship so a bunch of them can make the twenty-three million lightyear journey back home. Because the humans are now immortal, the five-hundred year voyage to the Milky Way is easy-peasy. The trouble arrives in the sequel, “Second Genesis” when they get back to the home galaxy and find out the neighborhood has gone downhill.

Even without warp drive or any other faster-than-light technology, science fiction suggested that humanity had a bright future filled with adventures zipping between galaxies. That was until Dark Energy went and screwed up the whole thing.

Since the early twentieth century we've understood that the universe was expanding. It all started at the Big Bang with space itself inflating outward pushing all matter farther apart. The general idea held by the cosmology boys and girls was that at some point gravity would slow the expansion and eventual pull everything back together into what they called the Big Crunch. Things got weirder as more accurate measurements of the universe showed that the expansion was actually accelerating.

Cosmologists, a bunch not prone to idle speculation, eventually came to the conclusion that there was a mysterious anti-gravity-like force that causes this increased rate of expansion. They call this anti-gravity force Dark Energy because they haven't a clue about how it works.

Where Dark Energy really throws a cosmic monkey wrench into intergalactic travel fantasies is that it is pushing everything outside the Local Group of galaxies, which includes the Milky Way, away from each other essentially faster than the speed of light. Yes, the damn cosmic speed limit is still in effect but that only prevents anything with mass going FTL. Space itself doesn't have any mass so Dark Energy can expand the universe as fast as it wants.

What this means is that when and if humanity ever begins building sublight starships that go as fast as I mentioned above such vessels would never reach the Whirlpool Galaxy. The same would go for the fictional humans of “The Genesis Quest” wanting to return home. With the expansion of space itself such travelers would spend eternity speeding through a dark, growing void.

Now all is not lost as far as intergalactic travel is concerned. The Local Group of galaxies we're inside consists of the Andromeda Galaxy and a whole bunch of dwarf galaxies all occupying an area around three megaparsecs, roughly 9.8 million lightyears. The Milky Way by itself contains between 100 to 400 billion stars with each star system hosting an assortment of planets. The Andromeda Galaxy is estimated to have at least 1 trillion stars with each of them orbited by its own worlds. That's an awful lot of potential real estate for any species capable of pulling their heads out of their asses and acting like they have some intelligence.

In fact since everyone in the Local Group is bound together by gravity, we'll all merge into one huge elliptical galaxy in several billion years. Sometime after that Dark Energy will push the rest of the universe so far away it will beyond our ability to detect given our current technology. Any existing intelligent species at that time will most likely believe the universe is static and unchanging. That is until all the available interstellar hydrogen is used up, stars begin to die, and the universe suffers what is called Heat Death.

Yes, that pesky Dark Energy means Dr. Sagan was wrong about a sublight starship being able to circumnavigate the observable universe. Dark Energy wasn't discovered until the 1990's, several years after his death so you'll have to cut the man considerable slack.

I've got to admit, I find the idea that the vast majority of the universe exists outside our ability to ever reach disturbing on a philosophical level. That the greater majority of it will eventually slip into the darkness never to be seen or considered again. Yeah, that will not happen for billions of years but I grew up influenced by Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer to believe that at least the galaxy was our playground.

I like to fool myself sometimes to think I can set aside normal human assumptions about the nature of the universe. That assumption being that the cosmos exists to satisfy the needs and desires of our species. Speaking strictly about the universe, it doesn't give a damn about us hairless primates. It might be beneficial to the rest of humanity to realize that fact as well.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Destiny's Path

 Celham knew going outside the space station alone was a bad idea. But with main power failing, he had no choice but to spacewalk and replace the transfer coupling on the main solar array. Celham shivered inside the EVA suit over the blind luck that they had a spare coupling. Unfortunately, having the replacement coupling was the easy part of the operation. Normally, such a repair would have involved three spacewalkers, two people inside the station controlling the power, and most of the planet-side ground control. The only thing he knew for certain that Mia inside the station and him were the only humans left alive.

The clouds around Brigham started to clear weeks ago but the surface of the planet looked dead. It was spring in the northern hemisphere but where there should have been a healthy green showing forests and grasslands was instead brown, black, and gray. Pretty much what you would expect after a protracted nuclear war along with Walau supervolcano being triggered which coated the entire planet in a death shroud.

Celham reached the panel housing the transfer coupling and quickly removed the cover. “Well,” he said to Mia over the radio, “Brigham civilization can claim at least one achievement over Earth and the rest of human-settled space.”

Mia said nothing directed but did grunt a barely audible response suggesting she was listening. “The histories say the nations of Earth fought two nuclear wars back before the Flourishing. But neither of those conflicts ever came close to driving humanity extinct.” Celham continued as he disconnected the cables running to the old coupling.

“It does seem to be the end for our species on this planet,” Mia said surprising Celham. Two years had passed since the Walau eruption and since then Mia didn't say much beyond the most basic communications. Mia held citizenship in the Southern League of City-States, a loose federation of old pirate kingdoms and republics for whom neutrality in geopolitics was the main pillar of their foreign policy. Located in the Ten-Thousand Islands region of the southern hemisphere ocean, the League had successfully avoided becoming entangled with any of Brigham's three power blocs..

What had finally pushed the Southern League of City-States into the global suicidal fire was the triggering of the Walau supervolcano by the narcissistic little bastard running that country. Walau always wanted to play in Brigham's big leagues of geopolitical games but never could be taken seriously. So as the recent world war raged, its Dear Leader became offended that Walau wasn't being asked to join any of the three major planetary alliances. Somehow Dear Leader got his hands on a megaton-level nuclear device and detonated the device in supervolcano's caldera.

The supervolcano was overdue for an eruption by several thousand Brigham-years and whether by design or dumb psychotic luck the weapon set it off. Walau's Dear Leader and the rest of that tiny nation was essentially vaporized in the space of an hour. Mia's family lived in the city-state that had the misfortune of bordering Walau. As the eruption continued for months it threw up enough material into the atmosphere to cause a planetary extinction event.

Civilization, already pushed beyond the breaking point by the rest of the nuclear war, didn't stand a chance as Brigham was encased in a death shroud of toxic dust and gas. The only survivors were the twenty-four people living in the experimental space station orbiting Brigham.

“Kill the power,” Celham said to Mia over the radio.

“Power disengaged,” Mia replied, “station now on batteries.”

Celham quickly pulled the old coupling out of its slot and inserted the new one. Incredibly, reconnecting the cables was easy and fast allowing Mia to bring the solar arrays back online. By that time the station's orbit had taken it to the nightside of Brigham bringing out the full radiance of the Milky Way. For Celham, the galaxy seemed to be taunting him with its beauty and mystery.

When Celham was a child, his grandfather had read the newly recovered histories to him of how humans left Earth to live among the stars and eventually come to settle their world. The recovered histories told of technologies like unmanned seedships that crossed the stars, of humans being encoded into computer memory, synthetic wombs, and massive machines that turned Brigham into a copy of Earth. All applied sciences that despite the tireless efforts of the best minds on Brigham was still closer to magic than practical applications.

But the recovered histories did offer numerous examples of technology that had accelerated the advancement of Brigham civilization. Most of the scientific knowledge went to the betterment of all humans, but like all technology, it had a darker side that unscrupulous men and women began using to gain and hold power.

Celham was silent as he hung in space wondering just where humanity's birth world might be located. The unmanned seedship that settled the planet had arrived over thirty-two hundred years earlier. The initial settlement had begun as planned with Artificial Intelligence guiding robots to gather local resources to build a safe outpost for the reconstituted human embryos even then growing in synthetic wombs. A few years later, the seedship AI then turned to introducing Earth plants and animals to the surface and oceans.

Given the engineering and replication technology available to the first humans on Brigham, it only took a century for the planet to become a copy of Earth. Even when the colony obtained a stable and healthy human population of sixty-thousand, the leaders expanded the number of synthetic wombs and continued to crank out thousands of babies, which like the first colonists were raised by robotic caregivers.

At that time the decision to keep the seedship wombs going was considered a no-brainer by the colony leaders. But it would eventually produce a schism that brought down the colonial government and cause a war that pushed the survivors into a deep dark age. Much to the chagrin of every one of the modern era who read the recovered histories, very little about the schism was explained. Compounding the mystery of those times further, nothing was ever mentioned about the fate of the seedship and the technology it housed.

“Celham, Mia said over the radio bringing him back to reality, “you need to get inside, the radio signal from the surface has returned.”

They met in the crew mess hall located in a section of the rotating torus. The artificial gravity supplied by the rotating torus was about one-third of the surface of Brigham. It was enough to prevent all the maladies associated with living in micro-gravity like bone and muscle loss. For the crew of the space station, it also allowed meals to be far more relaxing compared to trying to eat in the free-fall sections.

Mia had pulled up a map of one of the barren regions of the northern hemisphere on the wall monitor. Called the Utah Expanse, the area had been divided up in the modern era by the four nations that had existed before the war. Development had never advanced much beyond the coasts due to the extreme weather.

“The transmission is a data signal but it doesn't correspond with any scientific or military code,” Mia said while sitting at the nearby table. “I've tried to hail them with our communication array but we're either being ignored or they're simply not receiving,” she further said frustrated.

“You want to go down to the surface,” Celham said confirming what he already knew about what Mia wanted to do.

“The station is falling apart,” Mia said, “sure the areogarden is still viable but everything else is months away from failing. If we didn't have that transfer coupling we'd be heading down to the surface now.”

Neither talked about the other option the rest of the station crew pursued since the world had ended. As the months rolled by each crew member had surrendered to the hopelessness of a dead world. Only Celham and Mia had held on to any hope of a future, even with Brigham dying before their eyes.

This mysterious signal had first appeared as the clouds around Brigham started clearing. Mia and Celham had narrowed down its location to a remote valley thousands of Kilo-Steps from any known settlement. Mia had instantly wanted to use one of the remaining escape pods to find the signal figuring someone on the surface had survived.

Celham had talked her out of it saying that the ultraviolet radiation hitting the surface was still too strong and that the signal was probably from an automated military source. The truth of the matter was that Celham wanted to do something completely different.

The space station had originally been conceived as a way station for the manned exploration of Brigham's largest moon. As technology had progressed from the recovered histories, new telescopes built on Brigham had detected an artificial structure on the surface. A vast complex that looked like an abandoned city. What really raised the curiosity of the nations was that every twenty-years something from that location generated a visible light and radio signal that appeared to be aimed at Brigham's surface. It was an overwhelmingly accepted theory that the signal was saying, “Here I am, come see me.”

Mere months before the start of the world war the spacecraft that would take astronauts to the moon had been completed. Called the mothership, it had a tiny craft attached to its side that would be used to land on the moon.

“You can't go Celham.” Mia exclaimed upon hearing of his plan to use the mothership. “We're all that left, our only option is to return to the surface. The best bet for other survivors is that signal coming from the Utah Expanse.”

The two had never become lovers during their lonely exile in orbit. But neither Mia nor Celham could conceive of going their separate ways. Celham was emotionally distraught but since his childhood, he had dreamed of going to that distant outpost and maybe, reconnecting with that lost past of the colonial era and even discovering the fate of the rest of humanity.

Mia's secret desire was to be around children again, no matter how improbable that might seem. With conditions on the surface of Brigham improving every day, there was a real chance that the signal they were receiving was from a community of survivors.

Two weeks went by as both prepared for their individual fates. Celham had to wait for the moon and space station to be in the proper locations to launch the mothership and Mia wanted to wait until he was gone. She cried to herself as Celham pulled away from the station and fired the mothership's main engine.

With her path clear, Mia then boarded the escape pod, programmed the landing coordinates into the guidance system, and headed for the surface. Reentry was a nightmare all by itself with upper-atmosphere turbulence seemingly trying to exact revenge on one of the creatures that had so destroyed the world. Several times Mia feared the escape pod would break apart before reaching the surface. It didn't but the retros didn't fire properly and when the escape pod hit the surface Mia suffered a skull fracture and several broken bones even though she was wearing all the proper protective gear.

Unable to move, Mia drifted in and out of consciousness believing she would die before long. But at some point, the hatch was opened and a strange-looking group of men pulled her from the ruined craft. They didn't look quite right and spoke a bizarre language that was nothing like she had ever heard.

They loaded her on a vehicle that floated in the air. Pain medication hit Mia once she was onboard and her vision cleared allowing her to get a good look at her rescuers. The people surrounding her weren't really men, they seemed oddly intermediate between male and female. Even stranger, their hands felt like a combination of plastic and metal but moved with a steadiness and speed that no person could ever hope to emulate. Before she passed out, the thought occurred to Mia about a word mentioned in the recovered histories, a reference to mechanical beings called robots.

When Mia returned to consciousness she found herself laying in what had to be an incredibly advanced hospital bed. Mere seconds after opening her eyes, one of the robots appeared beside her bed.

“How do you feel?” it asked in her own native language. “Your injuries were extensive but we managed to repair everything.”

“Where am I,” was all Mia could say to the thing in front of her.

“You are in the main complex of the reestablished Colony-One Base. With your global war drawing down the Group Leader AI decided it was time to reemerge and recommence the Designers primary mission.” The robot said in a soothing voice that actually seemed musical.

“What mission are you talking about?” Mia asked feeling lost despite the obvious implications.

“The establishment of a successful human civilization on this planet.” The robot said in a tone that betrayed a bit of frustration. “The main settlement dome was completed mere months after the effective end of the war while the reconstituted embryos entered the artificial wombs the following week. That first batch of children are now over two-years-old.

Despite the protests of her robotic caregiver, Mia was taken to the nursery a few hours later. The children had never seen a human adult and were fearful when Mia was wheeled into their area. But it didn't take them long to rush into her lap and feel the warmth of her love.

Celham piloted the mothership into lunar orbit ten days after leaving the station. A day later, he boarded the landing craft for the trip down to the airless surface. Despite it all, he successfully landed the craft just outside the perimeter of the mysterious, ancient complex. Certain he was about to fulfill his destiny he climbed down the small ladder on the side of his craft and stepped onto the surface of another world.

Celham had difficulty walking on the lunar surface since the gravity was even less than that of the space station. But he slowly made his way to the nearest building and what looked like a door. The buildings were pitted with micro-meteorite impacts but all seemed structurally sound. What bothered Celham though was that while the windows of every building he could see were also intact, they were totally dark. Suggesting his lifespan would only be as long as his air supply lasted.

Stepping in front of a window, Celham leaned over trying to see inside despite the interference of the glass of his helmet and whatever clear material made up the ancient porthole. It was difficult to be sure, but there seemed to be a human skeleton slumped over some sort of control panel.

“Well, I guess the right choice would have been to go with Mia,” Celham said to himself, the dead person inside the complex, and the uncaring universe. With nothing left to lose, Celham walked over to what had to be an airlock door and began hitting what was obviously the controls beside it. Much to his surprise, after hitting the first button, the light in the nearest window came on and the airlock door began to open.

Having come so far, he stepped inside to see where his destiny would next take him. 


Author's notes:

1.)This story takes place in the same universe of several others I have written before. One day I'll link all of them together. More importantly, I'll correct all the various mistakes in canon and organize a better timeline.

2.)The first mention of the concept of seedships for came from a Arthur C. Clark novel called Songs of a Distant Earth. Unmanned seedships get around the near impossibility of building functional starships that could travel between the stars and establish human colonies on planets in other star systems. Strictly speaking seedships have no life support systems and either carry frozen embryos or human DNA recorded in computer memory. Upon arrival at the destination, the embryos would be thawed, or in the case of the encoded DNA, reconstructed and grown in artificial wombs.

3.)At first I was going to have the seedship that colonized the planet Brigham be sponsored by the Mormon Church. In that Arthur C. Clarke novel I mentioned, he had several religions and even cultures send out such seedships in hopes of preserving their beliefs or way of life.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Sapiens: The Long Climb

The archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.

Proving that I spent way too much time interested in all the things normal teenagers ignored, I remember being fascinated by a science article on human origins published in the early 1980's. This article was new research that dated the emergence of our species to a little under two-hundred thousand years ago. A remarkably distant time for a South Carolina teenager who regularly heard revival pastors come to my grandparents' church to report the world was at best six-thousand years old.

The two-hundred thousand year human origin article was real science, as opposed to material that purposed horny space aliens mated with our ape-like ancestors to create humans. One of many utterly ridiculous ideas that had been floating around in popular culture/New Age circles since the early 1970's. These preeminent bullshit theories can all be traced back to Swiss wacko, Erich von Daniken who had extraterrestrials inhabiting every attic and basement on prehistoric Earth and onward into the present.

The real science that tickled the fascination centers of my brain had our ancestors evolving in eastern Africa with early Homo sapiens popping up in southern Africa. At that time, H. sapien appearance was considered “sudden” with them weathering tough climate times in caves on what is now the South African coast. Once the climate situation improved, our people then moved out of Africa to spread across the globe. The general assumption after that being H. sapiens quickly eliminated the “brutish” and primitive Neanderthals while conquering the rest of the planet.

A nice tidy theory that has been turned on its ear.

Back in 2017 the fossils of five Homo sapien individuals dating to nearly three-hundred thousand years ago were found in a cave in Morocco. Needless to say, this fossil find overthrows the idea that our species popped up in eastern Africa before moving down to the South African coast to hang out eating tubers and shellfish. That our species originated throughout the entire continent of Africa.

Northern Africa was probably quite different three-hundred thousand years ago with the Sahara going through a green and wet period allowing those five individuals to hunt plentiful game. There was an important difference between those early humans and those of us alive today. The individuals discovered in the Moroccan cave had smaller versions of the cerebellum. Additionally their braincases were elongated resembling archaic human lineages instead of modern humans.

Despite these internal differences, numerous computer studies and 3D x-ray measurements of the fossils reveal that these people were almost indistinguishable from those of us living today. Whether or not these folks could have been taught complex abstract ideas is questionable, but they did make stone tools to aid in their daily survival.

The book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari purposes that Homo sapiens were pretty lowly creatures up until seventy-thousand years ago when we went through a “cognitive revolution.” This allowed our species develop abstract, imaginary ideas like gods, nations, money, and human rights among many other concepts. Armed with this ability to imagine new things humans acquired the ability to cooperate in larger numbers as compared to our hairier primate kinfolk.

Like my younger teenage self, it fascinates me how our ancestors navigated those long, dark millennia before some unknown spark pushed us over the edge into true sentience. Contrary to Mr. von Daniken and his confused followers, no advance aliens helped our ancestors. Through centuries of monstrous trial and horrific error our species scratched its way up from living in caves and working with stone to the technological civilization we have today.

Ultimately, my thoughts lead me to the opposite end of where we came from to where we are going. Will Homo sapiens exist three-hundred thousand years from now and if we do, what will the lives of our descendants be like.

Of course, my hope is that our species will have spread out to the solar system and beyond. That our far-flung children might one day look back upon our time and feel a similar fascination at how we eventually moved beyond the primitive and destructive desires that hold us back now.