dear Brutus…

dna chain

In mid-May of 2014, at the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was quoted as stating the equivalent of “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood.”

In late June of that year, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) said, “It’s not in the U.S. DNA to go out and play for a draw, nor is it in the German DNA, we’ll both be playing to win.”

The phrase “not in our DNA” has long been a bête noire for me. The connotation is, more often than not, used to state an aversion somehow built in to the behavior of a person or group. As such, it is a reversal of the late ‘90s business jargon of “corporate DNA”. In that context it was meant to express what was part of a company’s vision, mission, and culture. It has evolved into what could become a dangerous misconception based on casual misuse.

While technically correct, behavior is not dictated by DNA, the metaphor has become very common in American political discourse. In May of 2011, then presidential candidate Herman Cain voiced the opinion that being No. 2 economically and militarily is not in our DNA. This bad habit is not limited to the GOP either; their critics often charge that “unlike the conservatives, it’s just not in our DNA.”

Often this is used to hint at one position having moral superiority over the opposing side. Last year, President Obama opined that discrimination casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”

Misuse of “DNA” and what result it may or may not produce is probably unrelated to doubt of or actual opposition to science. For the most part, we trust doctors to use true understanding of genetics to treat or prevent disease. Increasingly we expect forensicologists to employ the same discipline either to convict or exonerate in matters of jurisprudence.

But at the same time the suspicion that the moon landing was a hoax persists and the anti-vaxxer subculture has been gaining strength for more than a century; it’s nothing new.

If we’re not careful about science, whether from ignorance or Luddism, in fiction or reality we run the risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. The Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Pope Urban VIII had acted out of anger and fear of science and its implications. Considering other acts of the Inquisition, Galileo got off lucky. It took the Vatican almost 360 years to come full circle on their decision with Pope John Paul II finally admitting the errors of the Catholic Church in that regard.

Misapprehension of science including genetics did not spare Alan Turing unfortunate and severe persecution. The father of artificial intelligence and hero of breaking the German Enigma cipher machines during WWII was honored in 1945 with induction to the Order of the British Empire. Six years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The following year he was convicted of gross indecency (homosexuality was considered criminal in the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1967) and given a choice between imprisonment and probation. He chose the latter but that forced him agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. It is a widely held belief this judgment led to Turing committing suicide.

It may be hyperbolic to suggest that “It’s not in our DNA.” could lead to future attempts to cure racial or ideological diversity. There probably won’t be further recourse to medicine to enforce conformity with regard to gender binary. But misconceptions, like their cousin – superstition, die hard.

There are dangers in a political climate where one side seeks to make opposition illegal, or worse, misuse science to eradicate it. I can’t – and I don’t think we should – avoid the worry that any belief that fault lies in our stars (i.e., that our behavior is chained to our DNA) could end in catastrophe.


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let’s make it a good one…

Astral is my first effort at a sci fi novel since high school. I don’t have any of the scripts or books I wrote then with one exception and while the retained short story is not The Eye of Argon it isn’t The Time Machine by any stretch.

As noted previously, my science fiction preference requires space travel. But what about the rest of the world(s) in which the story takes place? We’re quite unlikely to invent any propulsion system that could make reaching exoplanets feasible without seeing advances in other scientific and technological fields. By the time any visit to α Centauri is made, it seems probable that we might also have taken a significantly more active role in our own evolution.

Astral won’t be a big bucket into which I’ll pour all the science that appeals to me. However, the characters in the novel will consider many  machines yet to be dreamt of to be common, everyday things. Part of the world-building has to include a fairly thorough understanding of the societal repercussions of fictional innovations. What will it mean if we can travel faster than light and have mastered manipulation of the genome?

Opinion of human civilization 500 years ago can range widely. Should our emphasis be on the artistic achievements of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo or on the rise and impact of Imperialism? Is it more important to note the wars and plagues or the contributions of Martin Luther and Galileo Galilei? In 500 more years what will be the state of art and thought? Human nature may never change, despite our technological sophistication.

By the time audiences first took seats in the Globe Theatre in London and other people were excavating Pompeii near modern Naples, what humanity was and probably would always be was already on full display – fully developed. The fact that Shakespeare and Vesuvius still interest us may prove this point.

There will be more than a few exceptionally dark, perhaps ugly moments in Astral. Tonight I’ve been pondering which aspects of the characters who inhabit one human colony find beautiful and how they find it in their lives.

Any moment in time is both great and horrible if viewed from a wide enough point of view. What sort of future we create and whatever tales we tell about it depend – as it always has – on what perspective we adopt.

Imagine


ѱφ

sic itur ad astra…

Note: There’s been a longer than normal interval between posts as there was more than usual work involved with this one.

Science fiction is very probably my first genre love. As readers of this blog already know, this affinity began with Star Trek. Given that, it won’t be surprising that my taste in scifi is generally best served when the setting is against the backdrop of a human interstellar presence. My story set in ancient Greece has been replaced as a priority with a novel-in-progress that takes place almost 50 light-years from Earth and roughly 550 years in the future.

Part of my outline process usually involves a map of some sort. This scifi effort (working title, Astral) is no different. By making a chart of most of the stars within 50 ly of our solar system, details about the future politics of humanity came into sharper focus. This is as much a part of the world building for the tale as FTL travel, terraforming, and human genetic engineering.

Stars

The volume around Earth at the given radius includes at least 583 star systems. There are red and white dwarf stars not shown in the first chart. Similarly, the stars shown do not double up with regard to arity (binary, trinary, and so on). If habitable worlds may be assumed to orbit stars like the Sun, about 10% ±x of these systems could support life. It should be noted, since extrasolar discoveries are being made “all the time”, no real effort was made to match exoplanet reality.

Settlements

A presumption was made that faster-than-light travel would have limitations based on mass and material composition of any ships involved. Relatively instantaneous hops of 20 light-years or fewer are the standard.

This decision puts ten systems with potential for colonization within direct reach of Earth. Each colony would then become a waypoint for the next tier of expansion. The result would be a web of worlds, each having a neighborhood of 10 other colonized systems on average including 2 colonies of their own.

The first question after making these determinations was, “How far from Mother Earth would humanity spread before thinking of their new home world as more important than the origin point of the species?” The answer lay as much with history, sociology, and psychology as with astrophysics. The critical star turned out to be Xi Boötis (ξ Boo, “zai boh-oh-tis”). Two hops from Earth, with 70 Ophiuchus in between as the staging point, Xi could have almost as many imperial opportunities as the initial starting point of the human race.

The expanding network of worlds colonized from Xi (and the colonies growing from those, etc.) would reach to between 20 and 30 more systems by the time humanity began to push outside the 50-ly radius sphere. If such a significant branch of colonial propagation were to stage a revolution, Earth society could be thrown into a panic. What’s more, other factions might seize the event as an opportunity for their own independence – to one degree or another.

All of this is the backdrop of Astral, with Xi and its extended family as the new hub of human destiny in space (for the time being) and two other, though smaller, federations as political entities separate from Mother Earth. Apart from ME, the factions are Federalist Arcadia* (sharing in etymology with Arcturus, one of two “named” stars among those claimed from Xi), the Hamarchy of Keid*, and the Ophiuchid Cantons*.

So, what’s the story? To that I’ll cryptically reply, “Imagine Plato meets Poe.”

* © 2016 Thom Truelove



fellow travelers…

On or about Sept. 28, 1991, Dr. Carl Sagan and Tenzin Gyatso (བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ།) met. I am neither a scientist nor a theologian but both of these men have my respect. The former is most broadly known for Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and the latter as the 14ᵗʰ Dalai Lama. The approaches to the subject of understanding the universe they each took are different but the mission are one and the same. The meeting was recorded, at least in part, and while the video quality is poor but the message is strong and can be found here.

Whether we have any formal training in the fields of science, religion, or philosophy or not, all of us share the goal of comprehension. What is the cosmos and why do we find ourselves in it? There are pragmatic, non-philosophical answers to pursuit of this knowledge.

In one of the final interviews of Dr. Sagan, he was asked to comment on the consequences of science and technology on human civilization. In part, this was his answer:

“And if we don’t understand it, and by ‘we’ I mean the general public, if it’s something that – ‘Oh. I’m not good at that. I don’t know anything about it.’ – then who’s making all of the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in?”

Two years before his death, Dr. Sagan gave a lecture at Cornell University and included a philosophical reflection on an already well-known photograph taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 space probe. This is often called The Pale Blue Dot speech. It is truly worth a listen. Essential.

Just a phrase or two might offend some but, if so, it might be among those who have decided they can learn nothing from science or scientists. Nevertheless, the message and emotional tone of Dr. Sagan’s plea should be universally held – regardless of any other ideology at least in the opinion of this author. In very few words, relatively speaking, this stands as a summary of what being human means and could mean. From the moment I first heard them they also stood as something of a miracle.

To paraphrase a definition of miracles I once read, they’d be inexplicable events that inspire us to do more/better. Put this way – science, religion, and the individual quest for meaning with which we’re all involved might all include a miraculous experience along the way. With this two-part formula for a miracle each of us is able to define and find our own.

Earth and Song

As far as is known, the Dalai Lama hasn’t commented directly on this almost poetic prompt for humanity to acquire an improved perspective. However, the following opinion from him seems ample cause to presume the two scholars would be in agreement.

“Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or nonbelieving, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference.”

As a miracle results – by this definition – from an inexplicable source, it is the effect on our motivation that matters more and whether and how we allow ourselves to be moved and motivated. I don’t see any conflict between religion (“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”) and science (“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”). I don’t see any reason why they can’t both have their share in the miraculous. It’s a big universe.