Expanding Spheres

Believe it or not, this is not about ‘Replicas’ even though it may seem to be at first.  It isn’t even about science fiction, although it does illustrate the value of the genre.  Bear with me.  I’ll get to the likes of Trump and sexism in the end, so it’s worth it.

Transwaffle is getting an annoying large amount of attention.  It isn’t that it’s getting a huge number of page impressions compared to, say, Sarada’s blog , (that’s her offering today by the way, this being the link to the blog itself) so much as that it’s getting more attention than this blog when it shouldn’t.

As I mentioned on the other blog, there is currently an issue with MumsNet which I am also concerned extends way beyond it into general opinion forming on feminism more widely.  Please permit me this digression, as I am going somewhere.  The sections on feminism are in fact dominated by the trans issue.  It doesn’t even particularly matter whether the discussion is primarily gender-critical or dominated by pro-trans stuff, or even balanced between the two.  The problem is that the discussion has pushed every other women’s issue out of the conversation, and whereas it may be important, it really isn’t that important.  The attention paid to transwaffle is similar.  There are other things going on, such as climate change, Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, FGM, anti-abortionists in the US, and I feel uncomfortable that my blog is feeding the fixation people seem to have on this issue.  Consequently it’s quite annoying that the small number of views on there is bigger than the small number of views on here.

The act of blogging has brought to mind the word “blogosphere”.  This is presumably a biosphere-like concept, where the point is not so much the geometrical or topological shape of the “sphere” so much as the hyperlinks joining it all together or perhaps the gravitational or magnetic-style force it brings to bear on opinion and knowledge, or perhaps more accurately belief.  It doesn’t seem to be literally spherical so much as a sphere of influence.  But then the question arises:  what actually is spherical in this respect?  In fact, what is even round?  What is even a filled-in geometrical shape?

France is famously a hexagon.  Anything outside that hexagon is not considered properly French, so for instance the Basques, Bretons, Catalonians and Flemings are not French because they are not part of the hexagon.  It’s this hexagonal hypothesis which has partly contributed to my aversion of the French language, in which I am more fluent than I wish to be, because on visiting Dunkirk on a school French exchange many of the families tried to stop us speaking French and used to say things like “Can you speak English please?” in an annoyed tone of voice when we spoke it.  That resentment arose from the French state’s insistence on supporting only French French as the official language of the hexagon.  Nonetheless, the idea of a hexagon does appeal to me, partly because it’s like the carefully surveyed lines of political territories in North America and Australia and brings to mind their attempt at rationally organising a nation, with the exception of West Virginia.

I’m not sure it’s possible to have headcanon for one’s own work, but if it is, part of my headcanon for Earth in ‘Replicas’ is that the former nations of the British Isles, Low Countries and France are all divided up into provinces, the planet having now unified politically under one government, separated using straight lines.  Hence there are the provinces of Highland and Lowland in Great Britain, separated by the Tees-Exe Line, then Lowland extends into the former Benelux countries, being separated from an almost perfectly hexagonal province covering most of early 21st century France.

This is going somewhere, honestly.  I have to keep my views down you see.

Although a political entity may claim a territory on the surface of the roughly spherical object we call Earth as a polygon or less clearly defined enclosed “plane”, it doesn’t follow that anyone in that territory has been to all of it, or in fact any of it.  It’s not like you dab a country with your foot when you enter it and it becomes “it” all over.  What actually happens is you make a foray into the territory along a wiggly line, in a vehicle or on foot, or perhaps flying over it, and maybe you can claim to have seen that bit of the country to the horizon of where you’ve been, but you can only literally claim to have seen all of a country if it’s quite small, like the Vatican, Andorra, San Marino or Liechtenstein.  Consequently, although people loosely say they have “seen” Italy or France, unless they’ve orbited over them they usually haven’t seen all of them.  A map of their actual viewing area would be a thin, straggly affair probably only ranging over a small part of the territory, and it would essentially have a non-integral Hausdorff dimension different than the countries’ Hausdorff dimension.  Those territories with well-surveyed imposed borders consisting largely of apparently straight lines would, though, have Hausdorff dimensions close to two on a map, although in reality all countries are three dimensional and tend to follow the curvature of the planet they’re on, at least on Earth.  Strictly speaking they’re all wedges extending to the centre of the planet, where there’s an amazing international border between every single country in the world.

Topologically, rather than taking the view to the horizon into consideration it makes more sense to think of one’s path through a country to consist of a wiggly line, probably overlapping with itself, and as such it could be said that our experience of a country is in fact a lot closer to a blogosphere than a sphere, in that it is in reality a tangle of lines representing our relationships with each other and various locations in the territory.  It isn’t usually any more filled in than the blogosphere.  The blogosphere itself is in fact only fairly trivially geometrical, although considered as a geographical network of servers linked to each other, it probably is somewhat spherical, although with large voids in it and staying near the surface of the planet.  Topologically, however, the blogosphere is a network, presumably most easily depicted in a space with a particular number of dimensions, which may not be three.  In order to minimise the tangle, one might have to increase the number of dimensions.  This is in fact true of most human mind maps or cerebral neural networks, which are allegedly best depicted as eleven-dimensional graphs.  For all I know, the blogosphere is the same.  It could be that graphs reflecting human activity generally require eleven dimensions.

I’ve previously mentioned the enormous political significance Iain M Banks gave to the fact that space travel is in three dimensions and has very remote nodes. The remoteness entails a high degree of self-sufficiency and the three dimensions make it harder for a political entity to surround or dominate than a topologically two-dimensional space such as the land surface of a planet.  Banks goes on to argue that a culture with the degrees of freedom in three-dimensional space is necessarily a post-scarcity society, unless it’s unsustainable.  I find his argument compelling. probably because I want to believe a society based on abundance is inevitable and part of the nature of reality, although it may also be part of that nature that nobody ever gets there because the species destroy themselves first.

Much of the way I think about these things has long been dominated by the Galactic Association universe, which in a sense deserves a capital U because it stretches hundreds of light years into space from the Solar System although it is of course fiction.  Although it is fiction, it does provide an opportunity to think about the expansion of humans into three-dimensional space and our interaction with other possible extraterrestrial intelligences in a fairly methodical way.  It’s a model.

This link shows a map of GAILE-explored space as of 2376, the “now” of the GAIL universe.  There’s some difficulty in representing this space in two dimensions, but it’s possible to work out where everything shown is using this flat surface from the data on it, and even to work out whereabouts in our sky the home worlds of the other technological species are.  Another notable thing about that map is, unsurprisingly, the irregular nature of the contours depicting the limits of human-explored space.  Although it stretches about ninety light years from Earth, giving a theoretical volume of around three million cubic light years, thoroughly explored human space does not occupy a sphere but is more like a three-dimensional version of West Virginia in that it’s irregular.  Nonetheless, as the volume of explored space expands, the frontier of that space also increases in area, and a doubling, for example, of its radius is an eightfold increase in volume.

Topologically, GAILE space is still a graph whose nodes represent visited star systems and whose edges (i.e. lines) are space lanes and exploratory routes.  It isn’t literally three-dimensional and it doesn’t fill its space.  Nonetheless it should probably be assumed that since we can even now detect fairly small planets in nearby star systems on occasion, GAILE does know about other planets than simply the ones humans or even automatic probes have visited.  Nonetheless it still seems possible that there are uncharted regions within human space and therefore unknown phenomena, perhaps even including hostile aliens who are, though, apparently confined to their own star systems.  This is possible but unlikely.

There is already a fairly well-established Galactic Association timeline.  Averaging these three hundred and forty years of history, a new planet is settled every 42.5 years, although due to First Contact there is a gap of seventy years between the third and fourth settlements while humanity came to adjust to the knowledge that we were not alone in the Universe.  Moreover, at the beginning of the period only sublight travel was possible and even after the development of warp drive there was a period during which starships had to spend a long time accelerating and jerking (the first derivative of acceleration) to a velocity at which hyperspace jumps became possible, limited by primitive gravity control.  By 2376 a starship is able to accelerate at sixteen gees without harming its passengers or crew, making interstellar travel much less time-consuming.  Hence there are technological advances which accelerate human settlement of other star systems, and presumably also discovery although these are not specifically mentioned.  The whole of human-settled space occupies an approximate sphere eighty light years in radius at the approximate plane of the Galactic equator, and the width of the Arm is about five thousand light years at this distance according to the text.  There are also six intelligent technological species known to humankind including humans themselves.

A number of facts can be gleaned from this:

  • There are ten habitable planets in a volume one hundred and sixty light years in diameter centred on the Solar System.  Two are known to be inhabited by native intelligent species – Earth and Remus – so this puts them out of bounds for colonisation by other species.  This is an average of one habitable planet per two million cubic light years, meaning that the average distance between them should be about thirty.
  • There are a total of six technology-using intelligent species known to humanity.  One of them is extremely advanced and has probably spread through a much larger volume of the Galaxy than the others, meaning that its apparent homeworld is in all probability a settled planet rather than the one they originated from.  It’s also further away than the other homeworlds, at a distance of 1340 light years, and seems to have a serial number rather than a name.  Ignoring this planet, the most distant homeworld so far known to humans is 764 light years from Earth.  Therefore, assuming the sphere with a radius of 764 light years centred on the Solar System is a representative sample of the distribution of intelligent life forms in the Galaxy and that they are all known to humans, this means that this volume of getting on for two thousand million cubic light years contains one intelligent species homeworld per three hundred million cubic light years and an average separation of three hundred and forty light years between their points of origin.

The interval between settlements of planets should therefore shorten as human space expands.  There ought to be something like ten thousand planets habitable by humans in Galactic Association space, not necessarily known to the species living within it.  However, since GAIL involves cooperation and resource-sharing, the fact that we are not alone helps us find other planets for the other species and makes it possible for them to inform us of planets suitable for humans.  Left to ourselves, though, assuming that another three hundred and forty years would lead to a doubling of the radius of explored space from Earth, there could be expected to be seventy additional planets in that sphere we could live on, and therefore a settlement on average of about one every five years, although less frequently at the beginning and more at the end.  Given that other species will be helping, that rate will in fact increase even assuming no technological progress during this period, which won’t be the case because some of that shared information will cover technological advances and scientific discoveries made by those species, and so on.  New species will also be encountered.

Hence the Galactic Association timeline down past the twenty-fourth century becomes increasingly crowded and eventful.

Now consider MumsNet and other such online sites again.  If the spread of opinion and information is anything like this, it will be exponential rather than linear, and the mere fact that there are a few people on MumsNet who are gender critical doesn’t mean those opinions will stay on Mumsnet.  They may in fact do something like double every few months.  There are other opinions of course, but the problem with this fixation on trans issues is that sooner or later, whether or not this is valid, it’s in danger of dominating feminism and turning it into something fairly useless.  While that’s happening, other people, for instance those in the manosphere, will be able to take advantage of this preoccupation to push back the advances in women’s rights, and this is likely to happen regardless of the views held on the trans issue.  The problem is that the preoccupation is proselytised.

And that’s feminism, ignoring other ideas, such as neoliberalism, racism and the like. These also spread in a similar way, and ideas within them spread similarly.  The likely result, if we’re not careful, and we may already be there, is a random assortment of popular ideas not based on evidence.  And while we have to deal with the likes of climate change and other environmental catastrophe, we can’t afford for this to happen.

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