20 seconds later…

Everyone’s heard of the Butterfly Effect nowadays of course but people tend to get it wrong.  The initial idea, which I’ve mentioned before on here, was that a single flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause a hurricane in Africa, something which is very relevant to us right now in these days of hurricanes and climate change denial.  It’s often taken the wrong way.  Whereas it does mean that tiny differences can lead to enormous changes in the long run, it definitely does not mean that all tiny differences will.  They have to be in the right place at the right time.

In this vein, something which has been going through my head a lot recently is the question of what would have happened if the year had been slightly longer, for instance by a second.  There are actually massive problems with this idea.  If the year had been a second longer for the past 4600 million years, the estimated age of the planet, it would have orbited the sun a total of a hundred and forty-five times fewer.  There is a major problem with this though, specifically the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs.  In fact, it would take an incredibly tiny difference for the asteroid to miss the Earth in this respect.  If the year were more than a hundred nanoseconds longer or shorter, the extinction of the dinosaurs wouldn’t have happened and the chances are we wouldn’t exist.  This is a good example of the butterfly effect.  However, it should also be noted that if the year had been that bit longer so that Earth ended up in exactly the same position, for instance if it had been exactly 6.8 milliseconds shorter or longer, which would add up to exactly a year over its whole history, the asteroid would have hit and the situation would be as it is now.  There is another factor in this to which I’ll return, but before I do that I also want to mention that the solar system is chaotic in nature.  It is in fact impossible to predict over a period of many millions of years exactly where any of the bodies in the solar system will or have been because they all pull on each other very slightly, which is how Neptune was discovered – Uranus wasn’t in the right place so another planet had to be changing its orbit slightly.  Therefore all of this is rather artificial.

The other issue is of course that as well as dodging an asteroid, Earth would also have been hit by other asteroids and meteorites which in reality it wasn’t, so for all we know in this scenario we might have been about to bang the rocks together when we got hit by a completely different asteroid which wiped us all out a couple of million years ago.

Since even a hardly measurable difference in the length of the year would completely change the history of the past 66 million years, it’s not possible to have the length of the year have been different since the very beginning of the world.  What is possible, though, is for it to have been altered by the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs itself.  It’s known as the Chicxulub Impactor, because it hit the Mexican town of Chicxulub in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Although it’s not essential for the future evolution of the human race for the object, which may have been a comet, hence the name, it clearly would have to hit the planet somewhere at about that time.  The question is, then, how do I get the year to take slightly longer and still have the Chicxulub Impactor hit the planet?

My first thought was to have the object itself hit the planet so hard that it actually changed its velocity by enough to lengthen the year by twenty seconds, which incidentally adds up to around forty-two years in the past 66 million.  It might be thought that this would require the planet to be slowed down but in fact the opposite would be needed.  In order to move a planet into a slower orbit, it has to be sped up.  Hitting it from behind could do this.  It would then move into a wider orbit taking longer to go around the Sun.

However, a scenario as simple as this wouldn’t work because of the energy involved to change the velocity of this planet by even a millionth.  Earth’s mass is about 5 972 000 000 000 000 000 000 tonnes and moves around the Sun at thirty kilometres per second.  Considering the energy of a rifle bullet of twelve grammes travelling at 370 metres a second already sounds quite large, or a Saturn V rocket with a mass of 1000 tonnes travelling at 40 000 km/hr is almost unimaginable, anything which could alter the velocity of this planet by that much would have to exert an unfeasibly immense force even to increase the orbital velocity of this planet by a millionth.  The Chicxulub Impactor was ten to fifteen kilometres in diameter and may have been of a class of meteors known as carbonaceous chondrites, which have a maximum density of 3.7 kg per cubic decimetre.  Assuming it to be a cube, which it wasn’t of course, its mass would have been up to 12 487 500 000 000 tonnes, and assuming it to have a head-on collision with the Earth, orbiting at the same speed but in the opposite direction, it would have hit us at 59 kilometres per second.  Given that its mass would have been two billionths that of Earth’s, hitting it head on at twice its velocity would have slowed us by four billionths of a year, which by now would have added up to about three months, although a slower planet ultimately means a shorter year as its orbit would’ve moved inwards.  So this is not a solution.  Four billionths of a year is about an eighth of a second, so ultimately one hundred and sixty times that force is needed.  This could of course be provided by a body a hundred and sixty times more massive, which given the same density amounts to something, again assuming it’s cube shaped which it wouldn’t be, the size of a dwarf planet.  Such an impact would probably do the job of slowing the year down by twenty seconds but it would also wipe out all life on Earth, so that’s a non-starter.

However, all is not lost.  It’s been suggested that the Chicxulub Impactor was actually formed by an impact event in the asteroid belt in the Jurassic period, which is interesting to contemplate because it means there was a rock with the dinosaurs’ names on it from quite early in their history.  Thinking on the same scale, if there is even now an asteroid fated to wipe out humanity in the same way, that would have been around since the dinosaurs themselves were at their height.  Hence Chicxulub needn’t be a one-shot job.  It could accelerate our orbit over a period of about 100 million years if need be.  How though?

In order to answer that question, the moons Janus, Epimetheus and Phobos can help.  Here’s a picture of Janus and Epimetheus, which are co-orbital moons of Saturn:


The remarkable thing about these moons is that they share orbits.  One takes only thirty seconds longer to orbit Saturn than the other, and they regularly slow down and speed each other up, leading to them swapping orbits.  If the Chicxulub Impactor did this with Earth, it would be a very unequal tug of war and over time it could alter the orbital velocity of this planet.  What it means, effectively, is that rather than needing to provide a massive jolt of energy in one go, the object concerned can do it over a period of 100 million years, meaning that it would only need to exert one hundred millionth of the force required each year to change Earth’s orbit.  This could be achieved by a highly eccentric orbit in the approximate direction of the Earth’s movement, with Earth at the focus in the same direction as its orbit.  From the perspective of the Sun, the orbits would be braided, and from ours we would have another small but eccentric moon.

A slightly similar situation exists with this right now:


This is Phobos, which is slightly larger than the Chicxulub Impactor but is also a carbonaceous chondrite.  The streaks visible on its surface in this picture are caused by the gravity of Mars tearing at it and in about 40 million years it will break up and form rings around the planet, which themselves will be gone some time afterward.

On first thinking about this, I was given to wonder whether in fact the Chicxulub Impactor was, at least temporarily, a minor moon of this planet which collided with it, and to me that does seem quite plausible, particularly in view of the fact that a very similar situation pertains on Mars right now.  However, clearly Earth has no rings so its fate would have been much more violent.  Incidentally, when Phobos does get broken up by Mars, some of it will probably hit the planet but it may not slow it down much because the angular momentum of the whole system will remain the same.  Angular momentum is the quantity of rotation of a body, given by multiplying the velocity of its rotation by its moment of inertia, which in turn is a body’s resistence to angular acceleration – speeding up its spin in other words.  An actual impact would donate the energy of the moon to Mars, but rings won’t.  This is also the flaw with Chicxulub.  Whereas it is feasible for the object to change the length of the year, it would have changed straight back again when it hit us, unless parts of it broke off and were slung into space carrying their angular momentum with them.  Hence I’m going to assume that would happen.

Now it may look as if I’ve done the maths here but in fact I haven’t.  However, I ignorantly assume that this is still possible – that if the Chicxulub Impactor had entered into a co-orbital relationship with us in the early Jurassic period, it could have accelerated the Earth-Moon system enough to give us a year twenty seconds longer by the time it hit us 66 million years ago.  However, in a way this is too big a change because a year twenty seconds longer would be detectable as time went by.  The lengths of the year (there is no one official year length, but that’s another story) are known to within a hundred microseconds, and a year twenty seconds longer would be out by a day compared to ours after only 4320 years, which is shorter than the length of recorded human history so far.  Although this sounds trivial, it would be neater to assume that in the process of lengthening the year, the day was also lengthened in proportion to that year.  This brings up a couple of issues.

As it is, the Moon gradually slows the rotation of the Earth by tides, both in the rocks and in the oceans, slightly decelerating.  At the time the Chicxulub crater formed, there were approximately 370 days a year, meaning that the 24-hour day we have right now would have been around half an hour shorter.  It is, however, entirely feasible that the Chicxulub Impactor itself could slow the rotation of the planet by the requisite interval to preserve the exact same number of days per year as there are now.  This would require a day only 54.7 milliseconds longer by today.  That would be one heck of a coincidence of course, but as far as I can tell the same object could do both in the same orbit.  Incidentally, just as there is no one definitive year length, there is no one definitive day length at any particular time, for the same reasons which I’m not mentioning here because it would make all this more complicated than it already is.

There has been a lot of handwaving mathematically up to this point which I haven’t resolved, so anyway, just assume for the sake of argument that the 24-hour day as we understand it now is roughly 54.7 milliseconds longer and the year is exactly twenty seconds longer.  What does that mean for this planet?

The first difference is that the centre of the Chicxulub crater would have been around fifteen metres to the east of its actual location.  This is because the planet is rotating slightly more slowly, and it means the casualties of the impact would be slightly different, looking at them at an individual level. For instance, this is a Purgatorius unio:

By Nobu Tamura – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19461292Purgatorius_BW

This is the earliest known primate,  close to our direct ancestors, and lived in North America at the time of the impact, so it’s entirely feasible that many members of the species directly ancestral to us were indeed wiped out directly by the incident.  The exact individuals ancestral to us would have been different.

Here’s a quote from Ray Bradbury’s classic A Sound Of Thunder, which is a possible origin of the term “Butterfly Effect”, discussing the possibility of killing a single mammal ancestral to humans in the late Cretaceous:

“All right,” Travis continued, “say we accidentally kill one
mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular
mouse are destroyed, right?”
“And all the families of the families of the families of that
one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one,
then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible
“So they’re dead,” said Eckels. “So what?”
“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the
foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a
fox dies. For want of ten foxes, a lion starves. For want of a lion,
all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are
thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to
this: Fifty-nine million years later, a cave man, one of a dozen in
the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger
for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that
region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the cave man starves.
And the cave man, please note, is not just any expendable man,
no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have
sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus
onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a
race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying
some of Adam’s grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one
mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could
shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very
foundations. With the death of that one cave man, a billion others
yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never
rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest,
and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming.  Step on a mouse and
you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your
print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth
might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware,
there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on
the Path. Never step off!”

This is, in my opinion, usually incorrect.  Whereas there are crucial individuals, even back in prehistoric times, the same mutations would usually arise elsewhere in different individuals of the same species and it’s been calculated that about fifty thousand generations would be sufficient to dampen down such differences in the gene pool.  I don’t know how thoroughly that calculation was done, so once again this is sloppy maths.  Having said that, although the Butterfly Effect only applies to a few tipping points, the fact that there are so many species on the planet at the moment in question probably does mean there would be a couple of small differences in what managed to survive the initial extinction and what was wiped out, but it would only be noticeable to specialists.

By World Wide Gifts – Flickr: United States – California – Sequoia National Park – General Sherman Tree – Panorama, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27955967314px-United_States_-_California_-_Sequoia_National_Park_-_General_Sherman_Tree_-_Panorama

 There are also examples of species with individuals who may be less than fifty thousand generations from the time of the dinosaurs even now, such as redwoods.  Anything which can still produce offspring when more than around 1500 years old would be instances, so it might even include yew trees.  But for most species any differences would have been dampened down.

This issue is raised by, of all people, Elizabeth Gray!  Not this one but a fictional one who appears in what may be one of the stories which ultimately inspired Doctor Who, namely Time Patrol by Poul Anderson.  This is part of a series where people are recruited from the entire history of the human race to ensure that history is never altered by slapdash time travellers, and effectively expresses the opposite of Ray Bradbury’s idea.

By the end of the Palaeocene, fourteen million years later, any organism with a generation time under about three centuries which exists in this timeline stands a good chance of existing in the other one.  Past that point, barring another impact which would have been dodged, things proceed pretty steadily and similarly to how they are “here” until the start of the Pliocene, ten million years ago, because there does turn out to be at least one significant difference, namely Milankovitch Cycles.

There are three of these, and for us they repeat every thousand centuries or so.  One is how circular or elliptical the orbit of the planet is, which varies between almost circular and 5% from circular.  Since the Sun is always at one focus of the ellipse, this alters its position more than might be thought.  Also, over forty-one millenia the planet tilts more or less, between 21 and 24 degrees from right angles to the plane of its orbit.  Finally there’s a twenty-three millenium wobble, which is quite widely known, called precession.  The three of these together change how much light and heat from the Sun Earth gets, thereby changing the climate, substantially because ice is white and reflects heat.  Again, however, the ultimate difference would amount to a few months, so although the onset of the ice ages and the warmer periods between them would be altered, it probably isn’t very significant.  The Butterfly Effect loses again.

This brings us to the end of the last Ice Age, happening maybe nine months later, and since ice ages don’t have such rigid timetables this really means nothing.  The climate in the Sahara would alter in its usual cycle, so it makes no difference to when the people who left Africa did so or when others crossed the Bering land bridge much later on, during the last Ice Age.  All of this still seems inevitable and the fact that by the end of that time the planet happens to have orbited forty-two times less is pretty irrelevant.

One thing which would’ve been happening throughout this period is that in terms of strictly numbered years since the impact, astronomical events have been occurring in different years and different times of year.  Eclipses in particular are very different.  They occur on different dates and at different times, are of different types and durations and over different parts of the planet.  Therefore there’s potential for differences in history.  The Chinese astronomers whom the Emperor executed for failing to predict a solar eclipse would not have died.  Earth dodged the Arizona meteorite and there is no Meteor Crater in Arizona, but of course there might be another crater elsewhere.  There would also be minor differences in Moon craters.  For instance, the 22 km wide crater Giordano Bruno appears to have formed in 1178, so that wouldn’t be there either, along with perhaps others, but others would be.

This is where it gets rather hard to think about.  Assuming exactly twenty seconds difference over exactly 66 million years, which is spurious accuracy, the difference is not precisely forty-two years but forty-one years, 302 days, 20 hours, 20 minutes and 34.2 seconds according to the solar year, again with spurious accuracy.  Over the five thousand years of recorded history the drift would amount to just over a day.  The significance of this is that the seasons would be at different times of year if the year is thought of as a trip round the sun.  They would in any case be at different times of year because the Milankovitch Cycles would be different.  So would the solstices and equinoxes, for the same reasons.  Since solar calendars such as our own are based on seasons and day lengths, the actual start of the year would be at a different time in terms of seconds since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Speaking of seconds, since they are 1/86400 of a day, they would be very slightly longer and the year would be the same length.  The speed of light would therefore seem to be very slightly slower although in fact it wouldn’t be.  The astronomical unit, however, would not be different as it’s rounded off and the difference in the distance of the Earth from the centre of gravity wouldn’t be big enough for it to make any difference.  This also means that the parsec would be the same length because measurements can’t be accurate enough.  The light year, however, would be longer by twenty light seconds.

It would in fact be forty-two years earlier, but in order to make this show on a calendar the assumption must be made that the date of the beginning Christian Era, along with the points in time for all the other dating systems, is fixed.  I have in fact chosen to assume this although it does make it a religious statement.  The idea is that the birth of Jesus, which incidentally occurred in 4 BCE rather than 1 BCE/CE because of a mistake by the Venerable Bede who invented this dating system (there is no year zero), occurred at the same time as it would’ve done anyway in absolute terms, so it is in fact now 1975 rather than 2017.  Jesus was born during the rule of Caligula rather than Augustus and was crucified not in the time of Tiberius but that of Vespasian.  This has several particularly interesting consequences.  It means that:

  • His ministry began just after the destruction of the Second Temple.
  • The Epistle to Titus is called Traian instead, assuming that Titus was named after the emperor.
  • The Number of the Beast is 1260 rather than 666, because numerologically the name used appears to have been that of Nero, but in this reality it would’ve been Traian instead because he was on the throne at the appropriate time.  This assumes a preterist interpretation of Revelation, where it’s seen as a disguised account of the events of the first Christian century.  It so happens that the number 1260 also occurs in Revelation in any case, so this is a world where the Number Of The Beast is mentioned a total of three times and is numerologically the same as the title of one of the books in the New Testament.  Someone might use this.
  • Although the first pope is called Peter, this is not the Peter of this timeline but someone else.  This means there are fewer popes in this timeline.  Assuming Alexander I is the second pope, there are four missing popes and the regnal number of the Clements is one lower.
  • Assuming that the darkness after the Crucifixion was a real event and a genuine eclipse, which some early texts say it was and for which there is an apparent candidate at the appropriate time, the heavens did not darken after the death of Jesus in this timeline, which makes the gospels one verse shorter for that reason if not others.

Passing beyond the immediate aftermath of the foundation of Christianity, the next issue is Constantine’s conversion and his decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  In order to keep history in step in terms of absolute time since the extinction of the dinosaurs, the Edict Of Milan, which declared the Empire Christian, occurred in 271.  Since I believe Christianity was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire by causing people to focus on the hereafter, this would lead to the Goths sacking Rome in 368, and so it continues forty-two years ahead of us in calendar terms right through history.  Easter, all movable feasts and Passover would all be on different dates.


Another set of differences is astronomical.  The solstices doe not occur when the Sun enters Capricorn and Cancer, but Aquarius and Leo.  Or so it seems.  If the hypothesis that the sequence of the Zodiac is named after dominant seasonal incidents, they would be in the same places but these would be at different times.  However, for the sake of this idea I assume that this is a merely mnemonic device, since I genuinely believe that Scorpius, for example, does look like a scorpion, meaning that Libra, having been formed from its “claws”, would still be next to it, and this in general suggests that they would have the same locations relative to each other.

Hence there are tropics of Leo and Aquarius rather than Cancer and Capricorn.  This means that the books ‘Tropic Of Cancer’ and ‘Tropic Of Capricorn’ by Henry Miller are called something else, possibly ‘Crazy Cock’ and ‘Crazy Hen’.  Another literary change is ‘1984’, and this has considerable consequences too.  George Orwell will have written it in 1906 and swapping over the last two digits would make it ‘1960’.  1960 is our 2002.  This means that the John Hurt ‘1984’ film does not exist, that the Eurhythmics didn’t bring out the album ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and that the influence of ‘1984’ on Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ is absent.  However, Bowie’s ‘The Diamond Dogs’ still refers to ‘1960’.  This would’ve made a difference to the careers of Annie Lennox, John Hurt, Richard Burton and Terry Gilliam.

By contrast, ‘2001’ would still be called that but it would be set in a more distant future which we have yet to reach.  On that subject, there would have been no Y2K bug in 1958 and presumably the problem would be completely solved by the time the year 2000 came around.  ‘1066 And All That’ would be called ‘1024 And All That’ and England would’ve won the World Cup in 1924.  Columbus would have sailed the ocean blue in 1450, so that rhyme would have to be different.

Anyone falling asleep here and waking up in the 20 seconds later universe the next day wouldn’t notice much awry other than the date being way out.  This would be a 1970s with Donald Trump and social media.  The world would’ve been changed by an attack on the Twin Towers on 9/8.  There would be a number of trivial differences in popular culture, such as the probable absence of ‘Twelve Monkeys’, the Asian radio station GEM AM being a heavy metal station instead and so on, which nobody would be able to account for easily.

I want to use this scenario as the basis for writing but I don’t know what to do with it.  One merit it has, however, is its resemblance to the kind of trivial popular culture differences often associated with the Mandela Effect, and for this reason it also interests me.  The trivial results from the year being twenty seconds longer seem inconsequential but in fact would here be caused by such a tiny change.  This is like the universe next door, and it illustrates that some unknown detail could be different and lead to such differences.

But mainly I just want to use it as a basis for a story.


The Wyvern Chronicles

I’m embarrassingly interested in fictional worlds.  Whereas there are fictional worlds one is supposed to be into, such as Middle Earth and Westeros, and of course the Galactic Association, there are others which are only really meant as a backdrop, and strangely I find myself drawn to these, if anything more so than the ones you’re actually supposed to notice.  Two of these which are particularly close to my heart are the fictional BBC English counties of Borsetshire and Wyvern.

By Chemical Engineer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63010076640px-Ambridge_sign_BBC_Sep_2017

Borsetshire is of course the location of Ambridge in ‘The Archers’.  Its name is taken from Antony Trollope’s Chronicles Of Barsetshire, and both B?rsetshires have a county town called B?rchester, in themselves clearly named after the real Dorsetshire and Dorchester, although Borsetshire at least is not in the vicinity of Dorset.  Remarkably there are even maps of Borsetshire, something I became aware of in the early 1980s.  I also noticed at the time that the county in the map I saw remarkably borders other real counties.  It’s also clear from listening to the soap itself that it’s fairly near Birmingham, as characters go there more than they do London or Manchester for example, so it’s their Big Smoke.  I personally think it’s probably Herefordshire or Worcestershire, probably the latter since it doesn’t seem to border Wales.

Ambridge is not just confined to the radio soap, or to its bubble Ambridge Extra.  There are a total of seven novels set in Ambridge from three different authors.  One covers Elizabeth’s time at the Echo, another Jock Gallagher’s life in the early part of the twentieth century and another trilogy is contemporary with the soap from 1951-2000.  I sometimes think there’s scope for a kind of origin story to do with the founding of the village of Ambridge in Anglo-Saxon times or perhaps an account of the Archer family when they were in fact archers themselves, around the time surnames were developing.

Another rather more outré thought I had when I first saw the map was that it would work fine if the northern, southern, eastern and western edges were transposed, so that Borsetshire turns out to be north of Warwickshire, west of Herefordshire, east of Worcestershire and south of Oxfordshire.  In other words, it would be as if you’d taken hold of a map of English counties, made presumably out of the same stuff topologists make their items out of, pinched it upwards and twisted it through 180°.  Hence Ambridge, Borchester, Felpersham and the rest do have real locations but are only accessible through some kind of interdimensional portal.  In fact I shall refine this now:  Borsetshire is south of Gloucestershire, east of Worcestershire and west of Herefordshire, and can be entered and exited via a location between Broad Marston and Upper Quinton, in the waste ground between Reddipack Ltd and Simms Metal Management.  If you look these up, you just might get why I’m being so specific.

In my head canon, the county of Borsetshire is one in which all directions are reversed.  This means that when characters enter and leave the county, they become mirror images of themselves, for instance becoming left-handed instead of right and with their hearts on the right-hand sides of their chests rather than their left, a fact which is particularly important in Elizabeth’s case.  In a way it’s a shame that Ambridge village shop isn’t located at the topological anomaly without Clive Horrobin’s knowledge, as his armed raid might then have encountered problems when unbeknownst to him, Debbie, Kate, Jack and Betty would have turned out to have their hearts on the opposite sides than he expected.  This of course also assumes that Clive Horrobin is topologically naive, which since he’s also a plumber is unlikely.  It would also mean that the River Am would flow directly through the shop, which would be inconvenient.  There is generally an issue with rivers in this scenario.

Leaving aside the Borchester Triangle aspect of the situation, there are now nearly seven decades’ worth of audio recordings of linguistic data for the Borsetshire accent and dialect.  It might be thought initially that one of its chief features is the hypercorrect insertion of postvocalic R in syllables where it is historically absent such as the final syllable of Martha.  Surprisingly, however, it turns out that such hypercorrection does in fact occur in real rhotic English accents in the West Country among some speakers, which is disappointing.

There is of course another county, rarely mentioned explicitly, in BBC drama, namely Wyvern, the location of Holby City Hospital, Holby South Police Station and of course St Elsewhere James’s.  Holby itself is very clearly Bristol, although most of ‘Casualty’ is filmed in Hertfordshire and nowadays Cardiff.  I tend to think of “holbicity” as a kind of abstract noun or perhaps a force of nature akin to electromagnetism, but let’s not go there.  Wyvern is the county in which Holby is located, so it’s basically Avon.

What’s not generally realised, and I find this very neat in a nerdy kind of way, is that the fictional Wyvern predates both Avon and ‘Casualty’.  It was in fact first mentioned in the almost forgotten police drama ‘Softly Softly’, which was set in the fictional Wyvern district of Bristol.  My own memories of ‘Softly Softly’ are exceedingly vague but since it is itself a spin-off of the more successful ‘Z Cars’, this basically means that the world of ‘Casualty’ can be said, again in my head canon, to have been invented in January 1962.  ‘Z Cars’ was of course set in Lancashire, so oddly it probably doesn’t mention Wyvern at all.

The name ‘Wyvern’ was, I presume, chosen for heraldic reasons.  Bristol used to be in the county of Somerset(shire), whose flag looks like this:


This is of course a wyvern.  Actually it’s not a wyvern at all but it is generally referred to as one.  This brings us back to Game Of Thrones in fact, because the so-called “dragons” of that series are also wyverns.  The difference is that dragons are quadrupeds with a pair of wings whereas wyverns are bipedal, again with a pair of wings.  I expect I go into this in more detail in my rather unfortunately titled book ‘Here Be Dragons‘, but I have to hold up my hands and admit that in fact I can’t remember.  So this is not a wyvern, technically.  Wyverns are effectively pterodactyls whereas dragons have six limbs and no counterparts in the real world.  Nonetheless it is referred to as a wyvern and at the time of ‘Softly Softly’, Bristol was in Somerset.  This changed in 1974 of course.

For quite some time prior to 1974 there was pressure to create a county of Greater Bristol, similar to Greater London.  Although this never happened, in 1974 the county of Avon was created in the same vein as the metropolitan counties, Cleveland and so on.  I’ve always perceived Avon and Cleveland to be anomalous because they’re kind of metropolitan counties but not quite, unlike the likes of Humberside and the Isle of Wight which clearly weren’t.  Incidentally, there was another metropolitan county proposal which never saw the light of day in the form of Portsmouth and Southampton, which I imagine would’ve been called “Solent” although I don’t know.  Taken together, Portsmouth and Southampton are higher in population than any of the big northern or Midland cities, or than Glasgow.  But I’m getting off the point, whatever that is.

Unlike Avon, which was abolished in 1996, Wyvern still exists, or at least it exists as much as it ever did.  I imagine there are parallel universes where it really does exist because it’s a really good name.  Here, it’s a mythical county named after the wrong mythical animal.

The same, unfortunately, does not apply to the name “Holby”.  It has its merits.  For instance, Derby is a substantial settlement about half the size of the presumed population of Holby.  The idea of setting hospital and police dramas in Bristol is also a very good idea because of the environs – moors, an estuary, beaches mountains, inner city and suburbs are all nearby.  Nearby, incidentally, is not a town, which brings me to the problem: “-by”.  I shall explain this by means of a diagram and a Danish soap opera:

By Midland_Map_-_5_Boroughs_912_AD.PNG: Robin Boulby.The original uploader was Robinboulby at English Wikipediaderivative work: Hoodinski (talk) – Midland_Map_-_5_Boroughs_912_AD.PNG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=169621835boroughs

The lighter pink area represents the so-called “Five Boroughs”, which is part of the Danish-ruled part of Britain during the Dark Ages.  It’s notable for including many placenames ending in “-by”, such as Derby, Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Oadby.  This is because “by” is the Danish equivalent of the English “bury” or “borough”.  There are a few places ending in the syllable elsewhere but on the whole they are of Scandinavian origin.

The problem with the name Holby for Bristol is that it isn’t in the right part of the country.  If the Danes had got that far, possibly from the western side of the island, Britain would probably still be largely Scandinavian even today, which might be nice but isn’t so.  However, I haven’t noticed any specific references to Holby being where the real-life Bristol is, although I do have a vague impression that characters have been known to mention Weston-super-Mare.  Another noticeable thing, and I have no idea if it’s deliberate, is that accents tend to be much more like northern English ones than West Country ones, and I wonder vaguely whether this is an attempt to address the issue, although I very much doubt anyone else really cares, which I think is a shame in a way.

Just as there are potential academic papers which can be shoehorned into ‘The Archers’, so are there a number of interesting research opportunities regarding the situations depicted in ‘Casualty’, ‘Holby City’, ‘Holby Blue’, ‘Softly Softly’ and ‘Z Cars’.  One is that there seems to be a cluster of medical emergencies of an exciting nature in the Holby area, which I strongly suspect is statistically significant.  That said, it’s only fair to point  out that random or pseudorandom data can form clusters, like this:


Hence although it’s unlikely that there are real Emergency Departments which see the accidents ‘Casualty’ depicts with such frequency, it has to be remembered that reality is not always very convincing.

I have now realised that I forgot to mention the Danish soap opera connection, so before I go on I’ll just mention that the Danish series Ugeavisen is also set in Holby, though not the same one.

A further medical oddity is found with Charlie Fairhead’s son Louis, who suffers from SORAS – Soap Opera Rapid Ageing Syndrome.  He became a teenager rather faster than his age suggests.  This is of course very common in soap operas and other TV drama.

Unlike Ambridge, Holby is a site of real research.  For instance, in ‘Holby City’ one cardiologist does research into gold nanoparticles for heart problems, and various other new surgical techniques and the like are developed by characters on occasion.  This happens a lot more in ‘Holby City’ than ‘Casualty’.  What puzzles me about this is how closely it relates to real medical science.  If it does, but doesn’t reflect actual instantiated results, it kind of makes the setting the ultimate in hard science fiction, along the lines of the magnetohydrodynamic motor in ‘The Hunt For Red October’ and the space junk harvesting in the Japanese anime ‘Planets’.  On the other hand, it may not be all that rigorous, although presumably the medical advisors do try to make it so.

A final question remains:  how long does it take to drive from Ambridge to Holby?

Discovering ‘Discovery’

New ‘Star Trek’ is on the box again for the first time in a dozen years.  Bearing in mind that there were only eleven years between the end of TOS and the first film, this could be seen as the biggest gap.  However, if you count TAS, which finished in 1974, and bear in mind that the J J Abrams “Star Trek” films started in 2009, the first gap is more like five years and the second only four.  Enough of this nerdiness – let’s move on to a different kind of nerdiness.

I’ve watched the first three episodes of ‘Star Trek Discovery’ and was relieved to find that it didn’t follow the more recent films, which I found utterly appalling as I’ve said previously on here.  In particular it ignores the fork in the timeline associated with the destruction of Vulcan in the films, which I suppose was thoughtfully included to avoid polluting the main franchise with the rather disappointing ideas promoted in the recent films.  I have now also read a number of reviews, which have influenced my opinion.  So how is it then?

One of the things about cinematic and televisual sci-fi, particularly in recent decades, is that they suffer considerably from high production values and special effects, which detract from the quality of the writing.  Ironically, technological innovation makes it ever easier to wow the senses without deploying intelligent stories.  Happily, this is not true of ‘Discovery’.  Although it does have pretty impressive sets, visuals and other special effects, it shows the influence of the quality of plot and characterisation evident in the likes of ‘Game Of Thrones’ and ‘The Walking Dead’, at least to some extent, and also seems to include topical references if my reading of the situation is the same as many others’.  I’m thinking in particular of the Klingons.

Just a brief aside:  one of the discoveries I made in ‘Discovery’ that made my watching more fun was that there are Klingon subtitles throughout.  It begins with on-screen Klingon subtitles in the Klingon script itself, but naturally the main Klingon subtitles use the Latin alphabet, which is mildly disappointing.  I won’t dwell on this though, because to me it seems very clear that the Klingons, here shown as a splinter group, are a reference to contemporary violent human groups committing atrocities in the name of Islam.  Leaving aside the question of whether they’re a genuine organisation or a name under which people claim certain acts, there’s a kind of cycle here because Al Qaeda is named after Asimov’s Foundation, Asimov being the science advisor for the original ‘Star Trek’ film in 1979.  It also kind of refers to the older ideas of the Klingons being first the Nazis, something which was particularly clear in TOS, then the Soviets, paralleled particularly in the comparison to Chernobyl in one of the films, after which they made peace with the Federation.  The need for an enemy is reflected in these choices, and when I say that I have the West rather than fiction in mind.  Klingons as a threat, and also as a splinter group rather than a whole race as an enemy, works quite well and the emphasis on their subculture works quite well. Potentially it could also allow difficult issues to be addressed which would otherwise possibly offend Muslims, although the question of tact and subtlety arises.

Like ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’, ‘Discovery’ has its ice maiden in the form of Michael Burnham.  Unlike the other two, Michael is fully human although she was brought up on Vulcan by Sarek, and possibly Amanda.  This raises the immediate continuity problem of why Spock never mentioned her, although this might be resolved at some point.  Then again, Spock didn’t acknowledge his father in TOS, so it may not be out of character.  My headcanon is currently telling me that as “Number One” she may in fact end up on Christopher Pike’s team on the Enterprise itself, although as usual I’m probably on a hiding to nothing there.  Incidentally we have yet to see the Enterprise itself and I strongly suspect we won’t until the series finale.

I’m now going to nitpick and get bogged down in detail as only I can.  It’s been said that ‘Discovery’ breaks with continuity in depicting three-dimensional audiovisual images when there were no holograms in TOS.  This is not so.  On the rare occasions when the viewscreen on the bridge is shown from several angles in the same scene, the figures and scenery are also shot from different angles, the implication clearly being that this is a three-dimensional representation of the transmission, not one onto a flat surface.  Moreover, the Arboretum can be seen as a primitive hybrid holodeck and it’s possible to interpret the dialogue, for example Scotty’s, as implying that, and ‘All Our Yesterdays’ effectively depicts a holodeck with, as usual, the completely ridiculous idea of suspended safety protocols.  In fact, the holograms shown in ‘Discovery’ could even be seen as more primitive than the examples in TOS, since they are obvious projections rather than looking completely realistic.  I’m just saying!

Other call-outs to continuity include the Gorn skeleton shown in one scene, though not referred to directly.  There’s probably a lot more of this stuff.  Apparently there’s also a tribble although I didn’t spot it.  A star date, possibly the earliest ever, is used just after the titles in the first episode, namely 1207.3, and an immediate Gregorian (presumably) calendar reference is given as Sunday 11th May 2256.  Incidentally, in the GAIL timeline this is a year after the discovery of the planet Mammon around Zeta Trianguli Australe.  I haven’t yet correlated that star date with the rest of the system.  I suspect there’s a depiction of the real Utopia Planitia in the title sequence itself.  But I realise I’m boring you, so enough of this.

Oh, just one more thing on that tack.  Although computers are often shown as amoral or perhaps evil in the Star Trek universe, the idea of a positronic brain also exists.  The main point of a positronic brain, as invented by Asimov, is not that it runs on positrons but that in behavioural terms it has a conscience.  Consequently I found it disappointing and inappropriate that a particular life-threatening quandary required an argument to engage ethical protocols (I can’t remember the exact phrase), although to be fair computers, as opposed to androids, in the Trekverse are not positronic and the actual idea of the positronic brain is not honoured in spirit in Trek anyway, as opposed to ‘Bicentennial Man’ and ‘I Robot’, so fair enough.

Good science fiction uses its setting and tells stories which could not be told without that setting.  ‘Game Of Thrones’ is not SF of course, but it does evoke the idea of weapons of mass destruction very effectively in a different context and very much tries to acknowledge the values and culture of pre-modern Western and other societies, though I’d take issue with Danaerys Targaryen’s politics in that context.  There’s nothing wrong with doing that in fantasy because fairly arbitrary things can be posited in it which don’t require rigour, although that in itself is a potential flaw in fantasy because it can provide facile resolutions to conflict.  Nonetheless it’s possible to look at, for example, Danaerys and contemplate whether she takes after her father in her deeds while still believing she has the very best of intentions and sees herself as a powerful force for good.  The same kind of thing can be done with characters in ‘Discovery’, or at least I hope it can.  One of the issues I have with Star Trek is that it tends to miss opportunities.  ‘Voyager’ failed to use being stuck on the other side of the Galaxy enough, and its voyage back could easily have provided structure to an arc but failed to do so.  ‘Enterprise’ suffered from similar flaws.  It could also be argued that ‘Discovery’ shouldn’t be trying to imitate the likes of ‘Game Of Thrones’ because telling those kinds of stories is not original enough and Star Trek is supposed to be groundbreaking rather than just copying what else is around even if it’s good.  On the other hand, recent work on ‘Replicas’ has convinced me that it’s okay to use a setting as a background to character-based stories even if it is science fictional.

Finally, I have to say that I dislike the use of action sequences and physical violence.  Whereas I recognise that this is a common part of Star Trek and is not a sign of the franchise going downhill, in the case of ‘Enterprise’ the increasing use of violence to solve problems really was a sign of the writers running out of ideas and presumably pressure by Paramount to make it appeal to a different but probably larger potential audience, which also made it more generic.  I just hope that the use of violence in ‘Discovery’ doesn’t ruin it.

You will note, incidentally, that I haven’t used a single illustration in this entire review.  I hope the reason is obvious!


Introducing ‘Replicas’ (Part Two)

This is a continuation of my last blog post, in which I started to introduce my novel ‘Replicas’.  If you want to buy the ebook version for only 99p, follow this link .  Anyway, I will crack on.

Everyday Life

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1758516640px-Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02

You probably remember me objecting to ‘Star Wars’ on the grounds that its plot didn’t depend on the setting. That is, it asserts universals which in the setting are seen as applying as much as they would in any other. This means of course that in fact the plot of ‘Star Wars’ does depend on the setting, so I later added “non-trivially”. Hence my definition of science fiction as fiction whose plots depend non-trivially upon the setting. I hope I’ve done this with ‘Replicas’, but I also hope that it’s a story which feels like everyday life to the reader. That is, I want it to be emotionally realistic as well as scientifically plausible.


There are ideas in the novel which work because of technological and cultural change, and this story couldn’t be told in 2017 or before, although advances in gene editing mean that it might not be too long before certain elements of it become facts of life. We are, however, probably a lot further from having human-like robots than we are from the transgenic scenario, although breakthroughs and rapid progress are impossible to anticipate in detail so maybe we aren’t. However, just as nowadays, though not necessarily in the near future, most people in the developed world might have taken antibiotics for an infection which could in the past have disabled or killed them and taken that for granted and forgotten about it for the rest of their lives, the genetic modification which has occurred early on in Melissa’s life she also takes for granted.

It’s a narrow path to tread between the boring and the excessively bizarre. Nonetheless to believe in a story I have to make it convincing in both scientific and emotional terms. Both forms of realism have to be in play and since you have to write about what you know, at least some of it, even in the 24th century, needs to be drawn from personal experience. This is why, for instance, Melissa is a linguist and botanist, and has two children. It also brings up the problem of using personal experiences with others as a resource, which risks crossing certain personal lines. To take a fictitious example, an argument one may have had with one’s partner about sex could theoretically end up being included in a story. I have of course tried to be discreet but that’s something of a luxury if I want to write something credible. Two of the dialogues are from other sources. One is a role play with my son and another is with the computer “therapist” ELIZA, a program witten in the 1960s. I’ll leave it up to you to find them.

<By Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5168552&gt;


ELIZA is relevant in more than one way. The initial intention of the programmer was to demonstrate the superficiality of human-computer interaction, but what was in fact demonstrated was that users tend to attribute human intentions and motives to computer programs. Whereas these are clearly not going to be there in the circuits of the DEC System 10 running it, the same could be true of humans themselves. The externalist philosophical position holds that the basis for knowledge is outside the person whereas the internalist view is that it is in some sense within them. I have generalised this to the idea of mental states and dispositions of certain kinds being external to the mind. Just as a brain-dead person still has a next of kin because she is their mother, so are there certain states of mind, as it were, which can be read into a supposed person without those states being literally part of their conscious mind. This is in fact partly what Barak/24601 is having to wrestle with, and has come down on the side of being extremely externalist in that it even denies it’s conscious at all. This reflects the Cotard delusion, a state in which a depressed person believes themselves to be decomposing, dead or non-existent, which oddly can swing round into the belief that they’re immortal. Barak/24601 believes itself not to exist, or rather that it’s a mere mindless machine.

One Change Is Not Enough

322 Vermilion Sands web

(This is from here and will of course be removed on request)

J G Ballard once observed that science fiction stories set in the future are usually really about the present. They can sometimes serve as allegories or satire about something which is bugging the author at the time of writing. Another tendency has been for a single change to be made without also assuming a vast number of other changes and their interplay. The aforementioned author claims that his ‘Vermilion Sands’ stories were really supposed to be about the future. To me, they actually strike me as exercises in creating a surreal atmosphere and are none the worse for it, but that’s not what he claims. By contrast, stories written a few decades ago are often plagued by anachronism which can pull the reader out of suspension of disbelief. Notoriously, Heinlein’s ‘Have Space Suit – Will Travel’ includes the line “Dad says that anyone who can’t use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote. Mine is a beauty! A K&E 20″ Log-log Duplex Decitrig. Dad surprised me with it after I mastered a ten-inch polyphase.”. Somehow hyperspace travel co-exists with them.

Datedness is hard to avoid, and the risk may be multiplied by introducing and extrapolating from a number of changes. There’s also a feeling of inelegance to it, which I’ve chosen to tolerate for the sake of constructing a convincing world. In the real world, many changes occur and interact. Much of the changes in the past three decades can be attributed to Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web but there has also been a trend of economic liberalism, growth of religious fundamentalism and advances in biotechnology, and although all of these do influence each other, they are relatively independent developments.

Arthur C Clarke observed in ‘Rocket To The Renaissance’ that just as European exploration of the planet enormously stimulated the West culturally and scientifically, so could human exploration and settlement of space be expected to surpass that by far. I would contend that some of that fallout is already evident, for instance in the form of research into the Martian atmosphere revealing the prospect of nuclear winter here and also via the Spaceship Earth concept and the idea of this planet being a tiny oasis of hospitability. I feel confident that the lack of human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit since 1972 has done a lot of damage to our species and blighted our prospects, which is an unpopular view. Consequently, ‘Replicas’ depicts an earthly society constantly replenished and stimulated by space exploration, something which can be seen in the likes of Melissa’s career and in the materials science developments resulting from the study of silicon-based life. I passionately believe that humanity needs a physical growing point to thrive, and only since 1972 has this been effectively absent in the whole history of hominin genera. Hence I have chosen to illustrate how this might work both in Melissa’s own life and the life of humanity on this planet.

Up Wing Politics


It’s no secret that on the whole my politics are quite left wing, though also anarchistic and libertarian, whereas the world of the Galactic Association’s 24th century is largely capitalistic with a couple of exceptions. However, this is not difficult for me. Three hundred and sixty years ago, the issues in English politics differed hugely from today’s. It was around the time of the Restoration when parliamentary democracy as we know it today was practically non-existent and the kind of concerns expressed by the political class covered such matters as the tolerance of Roman Catholicism, the Stuart succession and Parliamentarianism versus the monarchy. It might be expected that any current debate in politics would be as outmoded as one between Cavaliers and Roundheads. I don’t think this is entirely true although I have attempted to imagine what other issues might have arisen in the meantime, such as the fight for robot rights, the political unification of Earth and of course LGBT concerns. It would be difficult also to let go of one’s own current political views because of course one wants one’s hopes for the future to come about.

Heinlein has often been seen as fascistic, partly because of the ideas expressed in ‘Starship Troopers’ that only people who have served in the military should be given the vote since they have demonstrated the willingness to defend it with their lives. Whereas I don’t agree with it, it is a viable position and a fairly respectable argument, but simply because he happens to have depicted a setting where that is the political order doesn’t imply the views are his. For all I know they are, but the book is a thought experiment which could’ve been written by a pacifist anarchist.

It’s also important to be open to other viewpoints and respect them rather than adhering to the dogma that only one’s own views are correct and everyone else is simply wrong because they haven’t thought them through. Also, there’s a strong tendency, which in fact I feel even in myself, to draw a line around one’s opinions and relegate others to an outer darkness where they aren’t worth considering. I have tried not to do this here.

Like most English-speaking people alive today, I grew up and continue to live in a society where the economic system is capitalist and the political system is a liberal democracy, or at least this is how it describes itself. Whereas this can be argued with, the economic and political system prevailing over most of human space in the late 24th century is also of this nature. This therefore also counts as me writing about what I know. I have taken at least one foray in the book into a different political system and not portrayed it sympathetically, largely because my experience with people who have lived under what seems to me to be a similar system has been that it’s screwed them up. You could certainly do worse than live under such a system and it’s by no means a dystopia. Trying to imagine a utopia would in any case probably be boring and unconvincing. Also, both utopias and dystopias would probably come across as unconvincing portrayals of a more nuanced future.

There’s also the question of what has been called “Up Wing” rather than left or right wing, and if I’m completely honest with myself I have to admit that the “Up Wing” view is pretty close to my own. I really want this species to survive, and if not by any means necessary, by a very wide potential variety of means, and as such I’m happy to ally myself with whatever gives us a future among the stars. Such a future, since it would probably be longer by far than one on this planet alone, and I hope consisting of many more lives lived through many times the recorded history of this species, and given time a better political order may emerge and prevail. Vision is, however, needed for this.

Up wing politics is also referred to as democratic transhumanism and technoprogressivism. Transhumanism and singularitarianism are often seen as problematic by the Left and the Greens because they focus on technical solutions to political problems. They also tend to be dominated by free-market ideas. To me, this strongly suggests a future dystopia where the poor are disposable and the rich are immortal, more intelligent and healthier. With truly cognitively enhancing drugs, technological extensions of healthy lifespan and modification of the genome to confer much greater longevity, but without an NHS-style system, comprehensive education and the like, I can only really see the species developing into two castes or even subspecies, the poor and the rich. I would of course like to be wrong, and maybe it’s my hyperbole, and clearly we no longer have to pay three thousand quid for a PC like in 1981, so maybe I am. Nonetheless, there are some issues which transcend the left/right divide, and for me one of these is the long term survival of the human race. Clearly I would like a fair world where everyone gets fed and sheltered adequately, but in the absence of that, and of course I shouldn’t be pessimistic because that could decrease the chances of a better world coming about, I would like there still to be people in 350 years time, on the whole. Up Wing politics to me means the kind of politics which promotes the human settlement of space, by whatever means. At the same time, to me it seems feasible that a combination of technological and social progress would occur.

Many Western countries have questionable histories, and there’s a sense in which people living today, though they may benefit or suffer from the history of their native countries, cultures or ethnicities, shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of others in the historical past. That’s easy for a relatively privileged Westerner to say of course. Nonetheless, the circumstances in which someone born in 2326 are givens in a similar way to my own givens. My first language is English, for example, which is advantageous in the world today but also has the legacy of being spread by colonialism. Likewise, someone born in 2326 might have similar inherited advantages but they shouldn’t be held responsible for them or, really, even be apologetic about them. The standard of living of the whole Earth is in any case assumed to be very high.

An Invitation To Visit Your Great-


In conclusion then, I have tried to write a story which inspires, feels realistic both emotionally and scientifically, addresses LGBT issues, is optimistic and addresses various philosophical points.  I hope I’ve done so smoothly and unobtrusively, and also entertainingly.  I also hope this novel is the first of many.

Introducing ‘Replicas’ (Part 1)

As you may know, my novel ‘Replicas’ has just been published with considerable help from the Galactic Association. What follows is somewhat like an interview with myself on the subject of the novel. Before I get to that, the ebook can be bought HERE, and a print version will follow. I’ll cover this first.


At the moment, ‘Replicas’ is an ebook. Although I appreciate that many people prefer to have a piece of dead tree in their hands, and this will be available at some point, there are good reasons for it being released as an ebook first.

The most obvious is of course captured by the words “dead tree”. A physical paper copy of a book has mass and is composed of a considerable amount of matter compared to an ebook. As such, it uses up physical resources to a far greater extent than an ebook. That said, the very existence of embodied energy in the form of devices required to read ebooks shouldn’t be underestimated and built-in obsolescence and over-reliance on a digital infrastructure are also important, as is the implicit endorsement of the economic system which brings them to us. I will go back into the issue of politics later.

Another issue is the history of the Galactic Association universe. If you go to Amazon and read the foreword, you will see that the origin of this shared universe lies in the 1970s, to my mind the last time when things were “normal”, though that may be my age. ‘Handbook For Space Pioneers‘, the original work which provided the setting for my novel, was itself envisaged as an ebook at the time. In terms of the world of the book, the text and illustrations were envisaged as being read from a screen. An example of this is that the pages are referred to as “frames” and the whole book is described as a computer resource. Hence it makes sense that both ‘Handbook For Space Pioneers’ itself and ‘Replicas’ are ebooks.

Finally, the website http://www.gailearth.com and ‘Replicas’ are symbiotic. There are links throughout the book which go to the site. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune‘ had an extensive glossary at the end and was later accompanied by the now forbidden ‘Dune Encyclopedia’, which expanded the Dune universe interestingly, but contradicted what was later done with the series, and to some extent this is similar. Unlike ‘Dune’, however, this novel is, I hope, more humanly engaging.

Gender & Sexual Minorities


(Yes, I know it looks weird).

A major theme of the book is what might in this early twenty-first century period be referred to as LGBT. I personally prefer the initialism GSM – Gender and Sexual Minorities. The way I’ve chosen to do it might be seen as controversial to some people and there’s also a possible problem with anachronism. If you want to know exactly how I’ve done that, you’ll have to read it of course, but it could be seen as promoting a certain position in the Truscum/Tucute debate because I clearly identify non-transition with dysphoria whereas it doesn’t follow that this is so, or will be so in the future. In my defence, I would say that I’m depicting a limited situation affecting certain individuals and that doesn’t mean there aren’t happily non-binary people out there in the Galactic Association universe or that gender presentation is fixed. Two sets of attitudes may also seem out of place in the novel, one religiously motivated and the other apparently not. My answer regarding one of those is that even now there are variations in conservatism and liberalism among religious individuals and sects, and I believe it’s feasible that even in three and a half centuries there will still be religious people who are to some extent transphobic.



Can an object think?  Can it be conscious?  Simply being human in appearance doesn’t make it a person.

Subjectivity is examined in the story. Just as people are often presented as “just knowing” they are of a particular gender, so are people generally convinced that they know they’re conscious, and I do in fact believe this is true. I’m partly asking whether it’s coherent to doubt that one is conscious, and whether this is similar to gender identity. Is it really possible to know what one’s gender is, or is that about something else? Another concern which follows straightforwardly from this is whether conscious robots are possible.

Genre SF

By Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden – Space Pilot X Ray GunUploaded by Oxyman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15920861640px-Space_Pilot_X_Ray_Gun_made_by_Taiyo

There are energy weapons in the Galactic Association but they don’t figure at all in ‘Replicas’, even as replicas.  After all, there are guns in the contemporary real world but how many mainstream literary novels feature them?  Even so, ‘Replicas’ is “Genre SF“. It will instantly be recognisable as bog-standard science fiction by any SF fan, although of course it should appeal more widely. Some science fiction is kind of incidentally so, such as ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’, written by literary authors who happen to use an SF setting to tell a story. Another example is the intensely irritating ‘Time Traveler’s Wife’, whose basic idea is uncomfortably close to ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, though that’s another story (or is it?). By contrast, the kind of stories written by Iain M Banks, Alastair Reynolds and William Gibson tend to use the kind of tropes SF fans can be assumed to be familiar with, such as intelligent aliens, force fields, faster than light travel and virtual reality. Some of these are necessary plot devices – it’s difficult to write certain kinds of stories if the impossibility of travelling faster than light is acknowledged for example, and that’s certainly true of the Galactic Association universe because many of the settled human planets would be impossible to reach from Earth in less than a lifetime even at near-light speeds. It’s difficult to take the idea of travelling faster than light seriously. The same is not true of certain other aspects of genre SF, in particular aliens and robots. We already have real examples of lumps of matter which are purposeful, conscious and intelligent in the form of human adults, so it’s practically a given that there could be other lumps of matter, either in the form of non-living devices or life forms which have evolved and originated elsewhere in the Universe, which are also conscious and purposeful. Therefore, to me the idea of AI – Artificial Intelligence – is not at all far-fetched and there basically just are robots. There are other examples of AI in the novel too, such as the vehicles and home security systems, and virtual reality entities. A simulated person is no less a person than a human. Moreover, the robots, which I call robots, automata or droids in order to avoid the gendered terms gynoid and android, have sophisticated inner lives and human-like emotions. There are also inferior robots which obey Asimov’s laws of robotics and are more like machines. There is an unstated backstory to the development of these entities by the way. It’s been noted before that a major motivation in the development of technology is in fact pornography and often male sexual desire. This applies, for example, to videos, sex dolls and of course the internet itself, which is substantially used for porn. At the same time, cosmetic procedures and products enable appearance to be enhanced, perhaps faked, with the result that there are false nails, false eyelashes, wigs and breast implants, among other things. I have chosen to envisage that this march of “progress” towards sex robots will ultimately lead to sentient beings with the inevitable moral dilemma that a being created as a mere sex object ought to be seen as both having a right to exist and a right to autonomy. The history of the robots in ‘Replicas’ is that their techological ancestors were sex robots, and a fight for civil liberties has occurred in the centuries between the perfection of the inflatable sex doll some time in this century and the time of Deborah and 24601/Barak which has led to them no longer being primarily sexual but nevertheless being aware of their history in the same way as Black people are aware of their own history of slavery and exploitation. Also, they just are people. They have a similar qunadary to the anatomically female characters in the book in that they need technological help to reproduce, which creates a potential point of exploitation.

The Real Future Of Earth


One of the distracting features of stories set in the future is that they are not always convincing because they are really about the present and an extrapolation of a specific feature of the present. A related issue is that it’s not always easy to depict technological and social progress over time in stories about the future. I have tried to address both of these in ‘Replicas’. It’s also clear that a lot of the exciting stuff is happening off-world. But, what if while all that exciting stuff going on excludes you because you can’t find a baby-sitter? What if your relationship, family and work commitments tie you to this planet? Would you not feel you were missing out and maybe start engaging in some kind of “second best” activity? Very often in space opera the situation on Earth is either completely out of the picture, as with Asimov’s forgotten location of Earth in the ‘Foundation’ series, or it gets depicted in passing without much focus on what it’s actually like to live there in the twenty-fourth century, as occurs with ‘Star Trek’. I have chosen deliberately to focus on this aspect. Melissa is deeply involved with her personal life on Earth also does research into other planets and is very engaged with the fact that human beings are in the process of spreading through the Galaxy. In this regard I’ve depicted architecture, funeral customs and fashion, and crucially, also the population issue – people on Earth need a permit to have children and are all vegetarian for example. Also, as time goes by there is technological change. Techniques for robot production change and information gathered from different star systems influences human culture.

A major social issue I encountered was that of work. It’s very difficult to imagine physical labour fitting into such a futuristic world. At the same time, the fact today that there are chess machines better than any human hasn’t stopped chess tournaments, and the existence of driverless cars doesn’t stop people from driving. It may even be psychologically necessary to work at something. I found a solution to this which again you can find out by reading the book.


By Dario Sanches from SÃO PAULO, BRASIL – BEIJA-FLOR-TESOURA (Eupetomena macroura), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3618575580px-Eupetomena_macroura1

DOCTOR: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re going to get killed by eggs or beef or global warming or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible, that maybe you survive. This is the year five point five slash apple slash twenty six. Five billion years in your future, and this is the day

(He looks at his wrist watch.)

DOCTOR: Hold on.

(The sun flares and turns red.)

DOCTOR: This is the day the Sun expands. Welcome to the end of the world.

Thus opens the second episode of the first series of the revived ‘Doctor Who’, a series most fans assumed was dead and gone forever as of the late 1980s.

There is an argument, and indeed a general and very old expectation, that humanity hasn’t got long to go. There’s even a mathematical argument for it. If we assume that we are about halfway through the number of human births which will ever happen, and bear in mind that the population doubles every thirty years and that 75 billion people have lived up until about now, there is likely to be only about a century before the last human being is born. There are currently 7.5 billion people. In thirty years time there will be fifteen billion, in sixty thirty billion and in ninety sixty billion. That seems to mean that we can’t expect a long future, and in particular a future where we settle in space. The Galactic Association universe has ten habitable planets, including Earth and another planet with primitive but intelligent life forms on it which is therefore out of bounds to human settlement, within eighty light years. In fact the Galactic Association estimates six hundred million habitable planets. Now suppose the average number of people ever to be born on each of those planets is only 1250 people. That’s in the whole of future human history, however long that is. In that case, the chances of being born on one of those planets rather than Earth before it has colonised any of them is 99%. The mere fact that we are living on Earth now, without having spread through the Galaxy, seems to be practically enough to prove that it will never happen.

This is quite a gloomy view of course. It may also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we go around assuming that the human race is about to go extinct, we will quite possibly feel hopeless and that there is no future so it’s not worth planning for it and then maybe we will end up using up all our resources and making our planet uninhabitable without bothering to go anywhere else. But there’s a complacency and self-destructiveness about this attitude, and there’s another way of looking at the data above.

The Doomsday Argument seems to count human births and lives, but does it really? It certainly seems to suggest that there is a dramatic change in our near future, within the next century or so, which means there will no longer be people thinking about how long the human race has left. But it could mean exactly that: people will stop expecting the world to end or expecting us to die out, and this may well be because they’re aware that there are millions of planets or space habitats scattered among the stars, each with millions of people on or in them, and that this has been the case for thousands of years. In that scenario, it’s unlikely that many people will honestly believe that we are about to become extinct. Perhaps some major event could still wipe us all out of course, maybe an unexpected one. It’s therefore possible to reinterpret the Doomsday Argument as a way of predicting an end to human pessimism, or maybe a technological or spiritual evolution into a new state beyond such thoughts, which could of course amount to the same thing.

In any case, the Doctor expresses hope for the future in a similar way to ‘Replicas’. It’s an optimistic story which I hope will give people hope, and the pessimism you may feel right now which may make it seem unconvincing is what I’m trying to overcome, because we need an end to pessimism which breeds more pessimism.


One rather obscure hint in the novel is that whereas Christianity has ceased to exist, Islam has survived and flourished. The idea that the Christian faith is extinct was not in fact my intention, but the interpretation would be a valid one. You might ask yourself why a Christian of all people decides to depict a positive world where my own faith has disappeared. Christianity is seen as akin to astrology by one character, as persisting because of a delusion about the power of prayer which has evaporated at some stage in the past three and a half centuries, probably because it was popular as a Western faith, and also in other parts of the now unified Earth where economic development and higher standards of living now mean that hardly anyone is in need and that many major threats to life can be dealt with easily. There are no longer any infectious diseases on Earth, for example, except among people into alternative medicine who deliberately give themselves colds and the faction known as the Steady Staters which I’ll leave you to discover. By contrast, Islam has survived and grown. This is because of the slower development of countries with a large Islamic population and their tendency as a result to have larger families. I envisage Islam becoming more common than Christianity during the second half of the twenty-first century. However, Islam has also split into two new religions. One is relatively conservative but still much more liberal than Islam as it is today. Christianity has long had liberal elements but many of these prevailed only in recent centuries. Islam can be seen, perhaps somewhat politically incorrectly, as being about six centuries behind Christianity. In terms of the Islamic calendar, the late twenty-third century CE is the early nineteenth century AH.

Due to the need to undertake pilgrimage to Mecca, fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan and mark the beginning of the month by sighting the Moon, Islam is more or less confined to this solar system if not this planet. There is a second religion which has liberated itself from these requirements and can be conducted anywhere in the Galaxy, but whose parent faith was Islam.

By User:Alketii, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61256797islamicworld

Politically, there has been something like a caliphate in the sense that there was a large territory unified under theocratic rule in North Africa, South and central Asia and South East Asia. As time passed, this became more liberal and also developed an international auxiliary language. This is the spiritual homeland of both faiths.

Leaving Islam aside, most people are probably largely non-religious or vaguely pantheist in their beliefs.

All of this is probably coming across as quite abstract and impersonal. In fact, for me it’s anything but. One reason for being involved in politics is that you’re concerned about the future and want to make the world a better place. This often involves one’s own children, grandchildren and so forth, and since humans are cultural, we pass on memes as well as genes and “mother” the whole human race, whatever our gender or whether we have any children of our own.

Next time, I will go into other aspects of ‘Replicas’, including the possibly rather surprising political setting, the need to construct a believable and multidimensional world and that old hobby-horse of mine, the interaction between plot and setting.

Why Bother With Flat Earthers?

Why Bother?

Why bother with flat earthers at all? Aren’t they harmless, in a tiny minority and irrelevant? Probably in each case. However, what they do is serve a purpose as a kind of toy model of how an absurd opinion becomes widespread and some such absurd opinions are far more popular and influential. Two which come to mind are Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but for all we know there are more in store.

One problem with going into any of this is that of the various things about which people might have unusual and poorly-supported opinions, many of them might be held by myself or someone reading this, and that’s difficult. One example which comes to mind is my opposition to vaccination as it stands, although I’m not opposed to vaccination in principle, and the fact that Donald Trump is sympathetic to that opinion is almost enough to cause me to drop it. However, that in itself is illustrative, because I hold a difficult middle position in the vaccine debate, where I believe safe and effective vaccines should be developed as opposed to the current vaccines, which I perceive to be poorly tested and relatively hazardous. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with autism – that’s a separate issue. Some might say that this is an example of false balance, as with such things as anthropogenic global warming and “teach the controversy”, which is the idea that evolution and creationism in schools should be given equal time, when in fact the evidence for one side is much better than that on the other.

Anyway, back to the Flat Earthers.

Their Arguments and Cosmology

There are in fact a few variants in the Flat Earth “theory”, which I’ll mention later on, but right now the dominant idea is that the Earth looks like this:


The North Pole is said to be at the centre of the Earth and the Antarctic around the edge. This is of course the map shown on the UN flag, which many Flat Earthers claim is no error. They see the UN as being involved in a conspiracy to hide the truth via the Antarctic Treaty, which they claim bans the public from visiting Antarctica. Incidentally, in this view you can’t fall off the jäääärne (edge of the ice) because there is a wall of ice in the way, a conclusion which was drawn long before George R R Martin suggested something similar in ‘Game Of Thrones’. Some Flat Earthers additionally believe there is a larger Earth beyond the wall with its own continents and oceans and even claim to know their names. It’s claimed that during the fourteenth century a map came to light in China which revealed an additional thirty-three continents beyond the ice wall. However, it’s not necessary to believe this to be a Flat Earther.

One of several problems with the idea of Earth being flat is gravity. If Earth was flat and gravity operates as it’s widely believed, a denizen of such a “planet”, rather than experiencing it as flat, would in fact feel as if they were moving around inside a bowl. The further they were from the centre, the steeper the ground would appear to be and if there did turn out to be an edge, that would seem to be horizontal, so you wouldn’t fall over the edge at all. However, Flat Earthers either don’t believe in gravity or believe that it’s a lot weaker than usually thought. As an aside, gravity is in fact a very weak force. The entire mass of the planet can be overcome by a small magnet, for example, and it’s one of the puzzles of modern physics that it’s so much weaker than the strong and electromagnetic forces (the other, weak, force doesn’t operate in quite the same way). Instead of gravity, Flat Earthers posit that Earth is constantly accelerating at the same velocity as that involved in falling freely, and this would in fact probably work as far as I can tell. The objection that it would quickly reach the speed of light is, interestingly enough, completely invalid because special relativity as conceived by Einstein predicts that the speed of light is always the same to an observer no matter how fast they are moving because time slows down for them compared to an observer at rest, so in fact there would be no limit to this acceleration.


Flat Earthers sometimes base their beliefs on the Bible. This was popular during the nineteenth century. It probably goes without saying that they also deny that humans have been to the Moon and so forth, and that they believe there is no South Pole, that NASA is a major player in the conspiracy, that all photos of our planet from space are fake and so forth.

The various arguments advanced to establish that Earth is round are countered thus:

* Ships disappear over the horizon due to the refraction of light.

* Photographs taken from many miles above the ocean and land either show no curve at the horizon or do so because cameras use distorting wide angle lenses.

* The curve seen as a shadow of Earth on the Moon during a lunar eclipse is caused by the water above the sky refracting the light from the Sun.

* Aircraft which fly “around” the planet are merely flying in large circles. Apparently some also believe that long haul flights involve anaesthetising the passengers so they don’t notice they’re flying differently than might be expected but I haven’t actually ever heard a Flat Earther say this.

* The Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated that Earth does not move horizontally, as it were, through space or orbit the Sun. This is an interesting one which I’ll come back to.

* Human missions in space were filmed in tanks of water.

* Communications and weather satellites are drones and high weather balloons.

There are various other claims, which if you’re interested are all over the internet.

Oh, and they also believe that Earth can’t be moving because otherwise star trails (the sky does rotate in their version of reality) would be blurred, which shows that they have little sense of scale or parallax.

Flat Earthers generally know all the common arguments advanced to demonstrate that the world and have answers. Many of these are from the book ‘Zetetic Astronomy’, published in 1881 by Samuel Rowbotham under the ironic pen name Parallax, but some are different. For instance, the book claims that lunar eclipses are the result of a normally invisible large disc passing in front of the Moon whereas modern Flat Earthers make the refraction claim. However, two things are notable about the way they argue.

Their Psychology and The Psychology of Others

Many conspiracy theorists are keen on the word “sheeple”. This implies that the majority of the population has had the wool pulled over its eyes by the Powers That Be. Whereas I do in fact agree with this to some extent, I don’t agree that it covers the specific things many conspiracy theorists go on about. In general, and in fact I also agree with this to some extent, this particular kind of conspiracy theory involves the belief that the education system and propaganda has persuaded people to accept the status quo for nefarious purposes which serve the interests of an elite group, who know the real truth. I’m in a slightly awkward position here because in fact I accept fully the idea that mass media and schooling, for whatever reason, tend to close down creative and original enquiry and questioning, and for that reason I decided to present our children with the choice to go to school or not, and they chose not to go, meaning that they ended up learning in other ways. I am also fairly committed to autonmous education, but all of this is really a subject for another blog entirely – homeedandherbs.blogspot.com . Consequently my approach is very much to test things for oneself without relying on second-hand experience and hearsay. You might think that conspiracy theorists would also take this approach and I’m sure many of them do, but quite a few of them don’t, even those who are not religiously motivated.

As I said, there are a number of common arguments that we are living on a round planet, which unfortunately, though valid, are often hard to test. As soon as the information available becomes second hand, the question of trust emerges. This means, sadly, that strictly speaking although I’m sure space agencies do have genuine images showing a round Earth, those are open to doubt in a Cartesian kind of way. That is, just as we might all be brains in a vat being electrically stimulated to imagine the world, so might these photos be fake. It’s fantastically improbable but not literally impossible, so it can’t be rejected and won’t work as an argument. This seriously cuts down the possible arguments available. In order to circumvent the “sheeple” claim, one must find ways in which the Flat Earther in question can reliably test their claims and trust the method used. This is immediately problematic if they haven’t thought of the test themselves. Anyway, I came up with the following four ways in which this could be done:

1. Look at train timetables in different parts of the world. How this works is as follows: the version of the Flat Earth shown on the UN map distorts the shapes of the land masses such that North America is much smaller east to west than Australia. If this were so, trains travelling between Sydney and Perth could be expected to take much longer than those travelling between Seattle and New York City. This is also verifiable by the thousands of passengers who get on and off these trains in stations between those pairs of locations, and the speed of the trains is also easily verified by such methods as counting regularly separated posts. The timetables themselves have to be fairly accurate or the passengers would complain, so there’s no room for deceit by the train operators and no opportunity to gas the passengers. Consequently, the fact that trains get from Sydney to Perth more quickly than trains going from New York City to Seattle, even when stops in between are taken into consideration, almost proves that the route in the latter case is longer than the former. Incidentally it has to be train or bus journeys because of public accountability and the fact that they travel across a surface with landmarks clearly visible.

I can think of two possible ways to counter this argument:

(i) The UN map is wrong. The North Pole is not in fact at the centre but Earth is still flat. In this case, there would still be discrepancies regarding train journeys but in different places. There would always be dicrepancies because just as it’s impossible to map a globe onto a flat surface without distortion, the opposite transformation is also impossible. Consequently there is no possibility of a fake globe without this showing up somewhere on it, although it’s conceivable that the distortions are not in heavily-populated areas – they could be in the oceans, for example.

(ii) On that subject, it seems at first to be conceivable that the land is the same shape as shown on a globe but the oceans are not. It isn’t, but before I get to that, it’s also impossible for the land to be at different separations because that would distort time zones. Whereas time zones are not exactly accurate with regard to the position of the Sun, the position of the Sun itself can be measured easily using a quadrant with a plumb line, which doesn’t require anyone to trust anyone else.

2. The position of the Sun is useful in another way, which unfortunately does require either a degree of trust in others or the ability to travel long distances. Hold a metre rule vertically when the Sun is closest to the zenith, measure the length of the shadow and repeat the experiment along a line of longitude. The length of the shadows will vary. If Earth is flat, that variation will follow the tangent trigonometrical function. If it’s round, it will follow a sine function. This is in fact similar to the original experiment conducted by Eratosthenes to demonstrate that Earth is round. Prior to that the Greeks believed the surface of the Earth to be a slope which influenced the climate due to the distance from a nearby Sun – hence the word “climate”, indicating a slope.

Problems with this include the need to trust someone else to be telling the truth about the height of their stick and travelling to the places concerned when the Sun is in the right position.

However, rather surprisingly an entirely different objection was made to this suggestion, namely that mathematics as such, at least at that fairly modest level of complexity, was untrustworthy. Never mind that the experiment could be repeated with a pencil, a football and a lamp at a fairly large distance, apparently the mathematics was doubtful. This, I think, is an interesting clue as to what might be going on.


3. There is a myth that water goes down toilets and plugholes one way in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern. It doesn’t, although there may be a tendency, because the volumes and therefore masses of fluid are too small for this to be uninfluenced by other factors such as the position of the taps or the shapes of the bowls. Larger vortices, however, do rotate counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern. If Earth is flat and the north geographic pole is at the centre, this would mean there was a relatively arbitrary circle, the so-called “equator”, outside which they rotate clockwise and within which they do so counterclockwise for no apparent reason. On raising this objection, the reply was that “it’s to do with wind patterns” and on asking for more details I was asked to focus on experimental results. Well, this would be verifiable, as would the ocean currents, by direct observation without an intermediary, because these rotating storms also apply to ordinary weather patterns, so what you do is watch the weather forecast and note the prevailing wind direction relative to the centre of a high or depression and compare notes with someone on the other side of the equator. This involves trust once again, but it can nonetheless be confirmed that in one’s own putative hemisphere the wind reliably blows in a particular direction.


4. Finally, earthquakes provide evidence not only that Earth is round but that it has a molten interior and a spherical solid core, although this requires a greater degree of trust than the others because you have to trust geophysicists or seismologists a long way away. Three types of waves produced by quakes are: the tremors which move along the surface, the S waves which vibrate perpendicular to their direction and the P waves which are like sound waves. P waves have a “shadow zone” near where the antipodes of the quake would be if Earth is round where they are particularly weak in a circle. This is akin to the difficulty in hearing sounds make in air from underwater and vice versa, suggesting a large spherical solid body within the planet. In the meantime, S waves are bent by the fluid content below the crust and recur in concentric circles of greater intensity centred on the epicentre. If Earth is flat, these areas are eccentric ellipses unless the quake is at the North Pole or wherever the centre of the flat Earth is.

There are a couple of other tests, including measuring the ping of servers with known remote locations and observing outside traffic cams in distant countries to see whether they’re in daylight or not, which produces two contiguous circles of light and darkness, and yes I have checked this, which is impossible on a flat surface given that Euclidean geometry is true (which it isn’t – I’ll come back to that too). However, although I know I’ve gone on and on about this I’m less interested in the details of the content of these arguments than the details of the interactions between myself and Flat Earthers.

Although Flat Earthers claim the majority is being deceived and is taking certain information on faith, the reverse appears to be the case. Not only that but also the people concerned are not keen on listening or testing these things for themselves. The degree of trust involved in measuring the length of a shadow, noticing the direction of the wind or reading a train timetable is non-existent and the content and validity of the arguments are open and available for assessment by the person concerned. By contrast, the arguments for a flat Earth are highly arcane and difficult to test without special equipment and coöperation, and are in fact rarely tested by Flat Earthers themselves.

I think a number of things are going on here.

Firstly, I think some people are trolling. They don’t really believe for an instant that Earth is flat and are just trying to get an emotional response, attention or a thrill out of deceiving other people. However, it’s increasingly hard to tell how honest people are online.

Secondly, I think a lot of people are feeling excluded and ignored. A study whose details I have frustratingly forgotten looked at the approach of Sasquatch investigators, and it was found that they tended to be people without much formal schooling in poorly-paid work or no paid work at all, and of course tended to live in rural areas. I suspect many Flat Earthers are similar, except for the last bit, though I can’t prove it. This is partly because of the lack of trust they place in maths, but also because they don’t seem to know professional scientists such as astronomers and geologists. This is a very important point because I think it extends far beyond the realm of Flat Earthers.

Thirdly, people generally use shared beliefs as a form of social cohesion. The more unusual the belief, the smaller the group and the more relatively important each person is within that group. It also makes them feel special and gives them a sense of control. They are therefore understandably reluctant to test their beliefs in a way that does not require trust in some other, but alternative, authority.

All this wouldn’t matter were it not for the fact that all of these forces also operate in generating extremist positions among the disenfranchised, or subjectively disenfranchised. Hence it applies as much to Brexiteers and Trump supporters as anyone else, and there are likely to be other untoward processes which will occur with world-changing significance as well.

I want to come back to the maths, but before I do that I want to examine an alternative Flat Earth theory.

Other Flat Earths

Perhaps surprisingly, the standard theory of the Flat Earth is not the only one. In the mid-twentieth century a British person known as John Bradbury arrived at some startlingly heterodox conclusions about the Universe, which included the hypothesis that Earth was flat. However, whereas standard Flat Earthers seem to start with the belief that Earth is flat and explain other observations in those terms, for Bradbury it was merely a detail in a startlingly different cosmology. This too is significant.


For Bradbury, Earth is indeed flat but with a convex underside. Australia contains large deposits of mercury which are heated by the Sun and become more fluid, which distorts Earth’s shape and causes tides. The atmosphere gets colder the further up one goes, until it finally becomes liquid, and then apparently frozen. Above this layer is the “sub-semi-vacuum” and 220 miles above us, the Moon orbits, gradually accumulating and shedding phosphorus which explains its phases. Above that, 400 miles up, is the Sun, which gives off invisible radiation which heats Earth but is not in itself warm, or it would cause the liquid air to rain constantly down onto us. All light is green and other colours are derived from that colour, and it moves at infinite speed. The Apollo astronauts landed in Tibet because the magnetic field of the iron casing of the Universe moved the spacecraft in that direction. This magnetic field also prevents people from falling off the edge of the world.

The Earth only seems to be round because the human eye moves in a curve, in the same way as the sky only seems to be a dome. This is by contrast with mainstream Flat Earthers who believe the sky really is a dome.

It’s notable that this particular Flat Earth theory seems to have completely disappeared nowadays compared to the dominant Flat Earther version based on ‘Zetetic Astronomy’. Then again, sometimes accepted scientific theories have their own momentum without being particularly well-supported by evidence. Bradbury’s version, however, does not have a Christian background.

I said I’d return to mathematics. It was interesting to note that one person with whom I interacted didn’t trust trigonometry, and I suspect this was because trigonometrical functions are not intuitively obvious to them. In fact they are but that’s a subject I covered on homeedandherbs, but the problem is that people tend not to realise that they’re using them. There comes a point, however, when a mathematical argument which would be intuitively obvious isn’t so because of limitations in attention span and the ability to follow a line of thought, and this happens to everyone. though at different stages. Some parts of mathematics are, though, open to doubt, and one of these is Euclidean geometry, and this impinges on the Flat Earth in two ways.

I mentioned the Michelson-Morley experiment as quoted by Flat Earthers as evidence that we do not orbit the sun. This experiment involves two laser beams on a rotatable surface whose waves would interfere with each other if light travels at varying speeds according to the movement of the light source. This would demonstrate that the orbit of the planet would slow one beam down to varying degrees according to its angle if the light waves are waves in a medium of some kind. This does not in fact happen, and the explanation for this usually given is that although Earth does orbit the sun, the apparatus and the light waves shrink in the direction of movement but this can’t be detected if the observer is moving with them. To a Flat Earther the explanation appears to be simpler – Earth is not moving. However, Flat Earthers also believe Earth is constantly accelerating and must therefore experience length contraction in the direction of travel along with the time dilation effect predicted by Special Relativity. However, this would mean that the Michelson-Morley experiment can’t be used as evidence that we are not orbiting the Sun. This is a geometrical issue because time and the three dimensions of space are divided up differently according to how fast one is moving. The generalisation of relativity leads to the conclusion that spacetime is curved by the presence of mass, and ultimately that space can be considered curved enough to close in upon itself after many billions of light years. This sounds like it means the Universe is on the three-dimensional surface of a hypersphere but it can also be seen as meaning that there is a maximum distance between any two points after which it will reduce and the direction between them will swap, that three dimensional shapes tend to be slightly bigger on the inside than their outside would suggest and that parallel lines eventually meet. Hence non-Euclidean geometry.

There are two playful possibilities emerging from this. One is that for an object travelling close to the speed of light and approaching or moving away from Earth, Earth is in fact more or less flat, because to that object Earth is the thing which is moving near the speed of light and therefore thinner in the direction of travel. At the speed of light, Earth literally is flat. The other is that it’s possible to construct a hypothesis which makes Earth literally flat but is compatible with it being measured as roughly spherical.

According to Einstein, mass warps space so if nothing had mass Euclidean geometry would be true – parallel lines would never meet but stay the same distance apart. But the idea that parallel lines meet doesn’t need Einstein. Maybe space just is that way regardless of what physical mass exists. If that’s so, suppose parallel lines meet at a distance of 10000 km and that’s just the way space is. In that case, maybe Earth really is flat. Earth’s surface is simply a plane bisecting the Universe, and at a sufficient distance any two objects moving in straight lines meet. This would have two interesting consequences. Firstly it would mean that Earth seemed to be round but was actually flat, and secondly it would mean that the fixed stars are a maximum of only 40000 km away and probably stud the underside of that flat Earth.

I think it’s a shame that Flat Earthers didn’t adopt this version of the Flat Earth theory because it works a lot better than theirs.


Loving Angels As Well?

Copyright HBO – will be removed on request.  Fair use justification – illustrative purposes

The Robbie Williams song ‘Angels’ is to me quite guilt-inducing.  The woman depicted in the lyrics is, in a most angelic way, a very selfless lover which seemed very difficult to live up to and I ended up feeling very much that I wasn’t an adequate spouse compared to that standard.  Of course, as a Christian I could recognise that life isn’t about personal striving but allowing God to act through one to achieve more than one would be able to manage without help.  As I’m typing this I can feel my non-theistic readers becoming dismissive, and I can empathise very strongly with that, because of the issue of angels.

There are spiritual paths whose conceptual accoutrements are very ornate and cluttered.  Hinduism and Shinto come to mind with their plethora of spirits and deities.  Abrahamic religions, I feel, are a reaction to that and proceed in the opposite direction, but human nature being what it is there also seems to be a cycle between what might be termed monotheism and what seems at first to be closer to polytheism.  People seem to find it hard to maintain the idea of a single deity without gradually adding bits to it.  Then the point comes where the need is felt to clear out the “dross”, as the clearer-outers would have it, and those extra ornaments are abolished.

The issue of angels arose for me recently because of the use of the concept in popular culture, namely the feature film ‘Dogma’ and the TV series ‘Preacher’, which have a lot in common.  To this end, it’s worthwhile looking into angelology just to work out what’s going on.  So I did that, and came across the familiar nine choirs organised into three triads:


The choirs are, from top to bottom, Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; Principalities, Virtues and Powers; and, Principalities, Archangels and Angels.  So far, so elaborate.  I can see the justification in this kind of structure as a basis for meditation and a cabbalistic-style structure to the spiritual universe.  Comparing them to chakras, I feel the latter have an unquestionable reality to them which is not at all slippery and I think I’ve mentioned them elsewhere on this blog.  With angels though, and particularly with this highly ornate hierarchy, I have a substantial problem.

One of the issues with theology, as opposed to philosophy, is that it can seem to built enormous conceptual structures on top of minute turns of phrase in Scripture and the like.  Here I have older approaches to the Bible in mind.  The hierarchy of angels is probably the best of all examples I’ve found of this happening, although technically angelology is not theology.  The Bible seldom mentions angels, and it took me a very long time to track down why they’re organised into these nine levels based on studying the Bible.  I would even go so far as to say it isn’t there.  The explicit idea is from Pseudo-Dionysus, in a work called ‘On The Celestial Hierarchy’, and is based on the flimsiest of pretexts to the contemporary mind:  Colossians 1:16, which in the King James Version reads:

For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

Somehow Pseudo-Dionysus (whose name, incidentally, was not literally that – the “Pseudo-” bit refers to the fact that he is taken to be St Denys, i.e. Dionysus, but isn’t) managed to build the whole hierarchy of angels on that plus a couple of other verses which are no more apparently relevant to the subject.

This is not a problem if it’s confined to the Middle Ages, which I’ve always assumed it is.  At the time, all sorts of elaborate conclusions were drawn on not very much evidence and then accepted as Holy Writ.  It turns out, though, that there is in fact at least one relatively mainstream Roman Catholic group which fully accepts the idea, namely one of the many Franciscan Orders.  I find this quite troubling, although I’m not myself a Roman Catholic.  Of course I don’t accept for a moment that this hierarchy is real for various reasons, not least that I see it as paralleling the hierarchies found in church and state, which I would consider to be absent in “Heaven” and as a mark of human failings.  The so-called “Kingdom” of Heaven is not a government.  All that stuff is what people do, not God, and the idea that there’s a parallel between the hierarchy of the Church and Heaven strikes me as totally bizarre and an attempt to justify an unjustifiable mundane system.  Of course it could be said as well that my own finitude and sinfulness leads me to this conclusion and that in fact God’s Kingdom is literally that, with a monarch, a court and the rest.  To me, however, that’s Babylon, and nothing to do with the divine.


I have occasionally said to atheists that the only real difference between myself and them is that I believe that there is one extra person in the Universe.  I say this as an attempt at bridge-building.  I don’t see myself as on the opposite side as other people just because they happen to be atheist.  There is another reason why I say this though:  Ockham’s Razor.  That is, the idea, mentioned ironically by the mediaeval Franciscan friar William of Ockham, that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is the best hypothesis.  This is part of how I justify monotheism.  Many other spiritual pathways posit the existence of many supernatural beings, for instance Thor, Freya, Woden, Loki and the rest in Asatru, and Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon and others in Ancient Greek religion.  The monotheistic faiths, by contrast, posit the existence of a single deity, which is much simpler, and there are other religious perspectives which accept the existence of other deities only as faces of a single true deity behind them all.  Consequently when atheists ask the question “Which God do you believe in?”, attempting to make the point that someone who does not believe in Zeus or Freya is just as much atheist as they are, they miss the point that all these other names are simply names for the same deity, just as the Morning and Evening “Stars” are both Venus.  Of course it could very well be argued that the next stage on from monotheism is the belief that the number of deities is in fact zero rather than one, something which I happen not to accept but don’t wish to argue about.

Given this simplicity and adherence to Ockham’s Razor, you can perhaps understand why I have difficulty accepting the existence of angels.  To me, they seem redundant and in a way quite similar to the Roman Catholic idea of saints, and taking the passages which mention angels in the Bible, I must admit I have strong doubts.  Nor is there any problem in me admitting my doubt.  I would say that all Christians doubt and that it’s a healthy part of one’s spiritual journey to acknowledge that doubt.  In fact, just as there seems to be a cycle between a single entity and multiple entities in religion, in an individual’s spiritual path there is a similar cycle of doubt and trust which ultimately serves to strengthen faith.  Pretending not to doubt stunts spiritual growth.  To me at least, I want to wallow and luxuriate in my doubt like a nice warm bath, stepping out only when I’m ready to towel myself off in a reinvigorated spiritual state of trust.


In Genesis chapter 18, Abraham has three visitors.  When I first read this passage as a child, my immediate conclusion was that it referred to God as a Trinity.  Later on, taking as it were Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”, I decided that this was a childish interpretation, and also an example of over-interpretation.  I was therefore surprised, decades later, to find that it’s also an interpretation which has been fully endorsed by certain churches!  Nonetheless, looking at it I can only see it as seeing things which aren’t there and I don’t think it’s in keeping with the spirit of what at that point was a Jewish text to try to cram the idea of Trinitarianism into it.  I don’t want to take things too far and I want to be cautious, and the fact that the religious establishment can accept that kind of interpretation strikes me as extremely dubious.  It’s similar in fact to my embarrassment at realising that to repair a certain part of the Big Bang theory it was necessary to have Dark Energy.  When I had that thought, I decided I would never make a good scientist if I was having to make up something that silly, and apparently Einstein thought something similar.  Unfortunately scientific theories have their own momentum and that idea is now widely accepted in cosmology even though it’s clearly rubbish.  The idea of angels seems quite similar in that respect.

But, am I in fact ignoring very real supernatural beings who deserve some attention?  Someone who knew something he couldn’t have about me once told me I was surrounded by angels who loved me and that he could see them all around me.  Since he was also party to impossible knowledge, this does lead me to doubt my doubt in angels.  There is also clearly at least one angel I do believe in, who is of course not commonly believed in by liberal Christians, which I see myself as:  Satan.


By UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg: Flickr user TheMachineStops (Robert J. Fisch)derivative work: upstateNYer – UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11.jpeg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11786300UA_Flight_175_hits_WTC_south_tower_9-11_edit

 I believe in Satan because Sod’s Law, at least in geopolitics and human affairs, seems very real and the alternative seems to be to believe in conspiracy theories.  Although things weren’t exactly hunky-dory before it, 9/11 really cocked things up in a major way.  It was exceedingly convenient for the military-industrial complex that it happened.  If I was a metaphysically naturalistic atheist, I would probably have looked for an explanation for that which would amount to some kind of conspiracy theory, and as we know, most believers in conspiracy theories of that nature are seen as delusional and having various other psychiatric issues.  That said, of course there are real conspiracies such as the Tuskagee Syphilis Program and I’m not denying that there really are conspiracies, just that the likes of the Illuminati (who actually, in a way, seemed like a great bunch of guys incidentally) taking over the world are just not happening and even if they are it misses the point, which is to make a world where they could not make useful headway, and that starts from within.

Even so, 9/11 is suspiciously convenient, and rather than opt for an earthly conspiracy theory when that kind of thing happens, I believe in a demonic one.  It was orchestrated somehow by Satan, by which I definitely do not mean, incidentally, that Islam is Satanic, because it very clearly isn’t.  I just mean that the establishment found it too convenient for it just to have happened by chance.  9/11 is, incidentally, merely a particularly vivid example of what I mean.  There are plenty of others.

Consequently, I clearly do believe in at least one angel, namely Satan, and if I believe in one, why not believe in others?  When I say “why not?”, this should be taken in the context of the fact that I’m a theist who believes in the supernatural and not in the sense that there is no God or supernatural, because that particular deal is not on the table here although it’s a valid question.

So yes, I do believe in angels, and moreover I believe that they are supernatural beings rather than aliens, which is another possibility I haven’t explored.  Furthermore, the idea of angels and angelology is culturally relevant and helps one to understand creative works even if one is personally completely naturalistic and atheistic.  For instance, the top of this entry is illustrated using the armillary sphere-like device which appears in the title sequence of the TV version of ‘Game Of Thrones’.  I would posit that it is in fact a Throne.  Hear me out on this one.

Thrones, sometimes known as or perhaps associated with ophanim are the third choir of angels counting down from the top.  They are markedly unlike other angels in appearance because they are utterly non-humanoid in appearance, something which incidentally appeals to me because the idea of angels looking like humans is completely absurd and I am already having my ability to believe things severely stretched at this stage.  This is an example of a Throne:


Thrones are fiery wheels with eyes on the rims.  Whereas Game Of Thrones will of course not feature angels at any point, it turns out that the concept behind the title sequence involved the idea of a “mad monk” (not my words) in a tower somewhere who was able to see all the action, and what can be more a sign of an ungrounded flight of fancy than the idea of a Throne?  Hence this is, in my opinion, entirely intentional on the part of the designer of the title sequence and it’s something which can be appreciated if one knows something about angelology.

Finally, there is the usual peeve:  cherubim are not putti.

This is what people tend to think cherubim look like:


In other words, like Cupid.  Cherubim are in fact the second highest choir of angels and have four wings and four faces, one of a lion, one of an oxen (don’t ask), one of a human and one of an eagle.  I honestly have no idea why people think cherubim are putti but I’m quite curious about it.

So, that’s why angels bother me.