Tag Archives: annals of hubris and delusion

Lost in Space

As various toxic billionaires continue to fantasize about expanding their contact networks and Twitter feeds into the universe, we turn to a revealing author/reader exchange published in the New York Review of Books. The images, relayed from an exceptional series of paintings by Jeremy Geddes, have been added by DP.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from author/physicist Freeman Dyson, who closes his October, 2016 review essay with the following ecstatic vision of our “escape” from the planetary cage:

When we first read the above, particularly the last paragraph, we thought the former Princeton physicist must be in some sort of perverse competition with Stephen Hawking, the prize being free tickets on the Bezos Express. We filed it away in our ever-expanding Annals of Hubris and Delusion, for future reference.

ASCENT

Thus were we relieved to see a thoughtful response in the most recent NYRB, jointly submitted by the distinguished mathematician Simon Altmann of Oxford; Sa’id Mosteshar from the London Institute of Space Policy and Law; and Alan Smith, from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory:

HYPOSTASIS

THE STREET

We note in particular the astute observation that what earthbound humans think of as “life” may not include whatever other life may exist elsewhere in the cosmos; surface area, starlight and food surely do not exhaust the possible parameters for “life”. While Dyson’s foolish insistence on such narrow requirements are surprising, coming from a scientist of such long and varied experience, his response casts an even dimmer light on the issue of human encroachments elsewhere in the universe:

To construe the issues concisely raised by Altmann, Mosteshar and Smith as “a clash of cultures”, thereby placing himself beyond substantive intellectual engagement, constitutes an astonishing, willful misreading. Yet the dramatic shift in his views regarding human identity at loose in the universe between his original essay and the above response is even more astonishing.

In the original essay, Dyson describes humans as “midwives” and active “creators of a living universe”; highly evolved beings making a conscious science-driven decision to send “Noah’s Arc seeds” into infinity. But in his response to the letter, humans are suddenly reduced to being merely “part of nature”, thus “free to evolve and diversify” — just like a virus or fungus. What’s more, those who voice ethical, environmental or philosophical objections to such a darkly determinist view of human existence clearly do not understand the basic expansionist nature of all life. Fine for gathering taxes and pushing paper, but no room on the Bezos space train for such dolts and ditherers. Oh my….

Finally, while Dyson in all his blustering arrogance hardly warrants analysis of his painfully weak grasp of Shakespeare, he might do well to meditate long and hard upon other words from Twelfth Night, as spoken by the fool, Feste: “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.” 

WHITE COSMONAUT


The Ultimate Exit

In the ever-expanding Annals of Hubris and Delusion, we turn to recent comments made by two distinguished physicists who appear to have caught the same strain of Space Fever presently burning through the ranks of the world’s billionaires. First up: Freeman Dyson, in the pages of the New York Review of Books:

exit2

Words shocking in their shallowness, from a scientist of such stature: what evidence can Dyson summon to justify his view that humans merit such an expanded role, as “creators of a living universe”?

The historical and environmental record actually suggests the opposite, namely that we destroy and contaminate everything that comes within our grasp. Untethered from any empirically grounded evidence, Dyson sounds like a fairground barker, urging dim punters to pony up for the ET Fun House.

Then we have Stephen Hawking, writing in the Guardian:

exit1

Oh my. First, Hawking takes note of the “ever-increasing risk” of being wiped out; yet somehow this does not diminish his ardor for signing up for one of Dyson’s Ark “seeds”, conveyed we suppose by the likes of Bezos and Musk.

Rather than confront the limitless appetite for violence and environmental damage exhibited in centuries of human behavior, and the consequent implications for evolutionary biology, Dyson and Hawking become mouthpieces for a Grand Exit Strategy for those who have amassed sufficient plunder: ad astra!

DP correspondent Jon Swan writes:

It is more thrilling to imagine finding life –  even if it is only a speck of bacteria – deep within a frozen ocean of another planet, which Congress has directed NASA to do in its Europa mission, the centerpiece of its Ocean Worlds Exploration Program, than to try to heal a wounded planet. And more thrilling yet to imagine establishing human colonies in space, as billionaire Elon Musk hopes to do on Mars, and as do even such respected scientists as Freeman Dyson and Stephen Hawking, who, in his latest book, writes, “I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.” 

There can be little doubt that our species will wiped out on the planet that gave birth to us if we turn away from the reality that surrounds us and focus our hopes and dreams — and spend our treasure — on starting a new life in outer space. But is a species that is willing to turn its back on the plight of seven, eight, and soon nine billion lives and to spend billions on providing for the escape of a privileged few worth preserving?  

A very good question; and as the Cold War heats up all over again, we suggest a far more plausible endgame for the human adventure, one more consistent with the scientific and historical evidence:

exit3