Inferiority And Stripy Blue Marbles

A quick aside about the planet Mercury:


Next year, the European and Japanese space agencies are working together to launch BepiColombo a major mission to Mercury, rather surprisingly due to reach the planet after a seven-year voyage.  This was at first a little confusing as Mercury, orbiting as it does within our own path round the sun, can be reached in less than half a year.  Apparently the reasoning behind that thought is not obvious, but if you think about it, it must be so.  Since it takes Earth a year to go round the sun and Mercury is rarely more distant from us than when it’s at its furthest point from the sun and we’re on exactly the opposite side of the sun, and since the closer an object orbits to the sun the faster it moves, the length of the longest direct path between us and Mercury has to be shorter than half our orbit and the space probe would have to be moving faster than Earth does, so it has to take less than six months.  Therefore I was puzzled by this at first.  It turns out BepiColombo is going to approach Venus, I think, three times and Mercury six times, so clearly it can’t be describing anything like a simple portion of an ellipse.

Mercury and Venus have a few things in common.  They are the two inferior planets.  This is not a reference to them being a bit naff compared to the others.  What it means is that they are both “below” us with respect to the sun.  Mars and the rest, by contrast, are referred to as the superior planets because from the perspective of the sun they’re “above” us.  This is not strictly true because they’re all orbiting, but I hope you get my point.

I’m about to go on about orbital dynamics, so be warned.

The German mathematician Johannes Kepler, 1571-1630 aware that his contemporary model of the solar system seemed to be completely wrong as it involved epicycles, the idea that as well as orbiting the sun, the planets made their own little circles as they moved around it, simplified the system and came up with his three laws of planetary motion, which are as follows:

  1. The planets move in ellipses with the sun at one focus.

This could be seen on the English pound note, except that the sun is placed erroneously at the centre of the orbits:

(will be removed on request)

 Maybe this was done to foil potential astro-savvy counterfeiters, who knows?

2. Over equal periods of time, a planet sweeps out an equal area.  This is quite difficult to express clearly, but can be illustrated with this diagram:


This is an exaggeratedly elliptical orbit of a planet with the sun at one focus (as opposed to the centre).  Suppose it takes a week for the planet to move from the position in its orbit from the lower to the upper point in the blue sector.  It will also take a week to move through the red sector.  Moreover, the area of both sectors is the same.  This means that planets move more quickly the closer they are to the sun.

3. I find Kepler’s third law the most interesting.  I’ll state it first, then explain it in “normal” language:  The square of the sidereal period is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis.

This is not as complicated as it sounds.  The “semi-major axis” is simply the average distance from the sun.  It can be clearly illustrated using Saturn.  Gratuitous image of Saturn:


Saturn is, rather helpfully, about ten times the distance of Earth from the sun, and the cube of ten is of course a thousand.  Since thirty times thirty is nine hundred, it can be expected that Saturn takes about thirty years to orbit the sun, and this is in fact the case.

Back to missions to Mercury and Venus.  Mercury is about 40% Earth’s distance to the sun and Venus is roughly 70%.  Therefore spacecraft travelling to Mercury or Venus are effectively describing half of an orbit averaging the average of the sizes of the two orbits, in other words 70% and 85% of ours respectively.  Doing the maths, an orbit of 70% of ours is about the same as that of Venus, which takes 225 days to orbit the sun, so it ought to take a maximum of around 123 days to get to Mercury. and 143 days to reach Venus.  This is somewhat surprising because it takes longer to get to Venus than it does to reach Mercury, and this means in fact that of all planets in the solar system Mercury could be the quickest to reach even though its maximum distance from here is greater than that of Venus.

I mentioned earlier that Mercury and Venus have a fair amount in common.  Both have very long “days”.  Mercury’s day lasts fifty-six of ours and Venus has a day longer than its actual year at 243 of them.  Both of them along with Earth are of about the same density, five and a bit times that of water.  Also, both of them orbit almost upright compared to the sun, meaning that there is practically no variation in day length, and there wouldn’t be even if they rotated at the same speed as Earth either.

Which brings me to:

Stripy Blue Marbles


Here is a fairly well-known false-colour image of Venus in ultraviolet light.  Given the colours, it looks remarkably like Earth although this is misleading because the choice was made to colour it blue and white, like us, and to the naked eye Venus looks more like this close up:


Now look at this photo of our own planet, as would be seen by a human eye:



This is a view over the Pacific Ocean, revealing how close to an ocean planet Earth really is.  It’s almost possible to line up a globe at that distance so that no landmasses at all are visible, only the ocean and various islands, and from somewhat closer up it is easily feasible because a substantial part of that hemisphere would be hidden.

Although the first picture of Venus is false colour, it still reveals the fact that the swirls of clouds there are of a particular shape and that differently-composed clouds separate into streaks.  The “blue” streaks may be a mixture of sulphuric acid and ferric chloride, the latter chemical being used to treat sewage.  That part of the Venusian atmosphere sounds  to me like it might be quite useful for unblocking toilets, except that it isn’t that concentrated.

The relevant contrast between the two images is that whereas the clouds on Venus form streaks running roughly east-west interspersed with other clouds, the ones on Earth are much more swirly, indicating a more turbulent atmosphere at that level.  There is a reason for this.

It’s been theorised that ocean planets are in fact very common in the Universe.  All that’s needed, ultimately, is for the most common compound in the Universe, water, to accumulate in a fairly large lump at an appropriate distance from an appropriate star.  Moreover, once that has happened the atmosphere is likely to become high in oxygen without any biological activity simply because the radiation from the star will then break the water up into hydrogen and oxygen.  On smaller such planets, the hydrogen will then float up into space and the ultraviolet from the sun will generate an ozone layer from the remaining oxygen.  However, such a planet could well be lifeless because there wouldn’t be enough of any other elements for life “as we know it” to begin.  The kind of substances which might form on such a planet would be water, hydrogen peroxide and ozone, and whereas life clearly does well with water, it can’t really be expected to exist just as water itself.  Such ocean planets could simply be balls of highly pressurised ice covered completely in fresh water with oxygen atmospheres, although like us there would be clouds and rain.

The English interwar religious communist science fiction author and academic philosopher Olaf Stapledon supposed that ocean planets would in fact be very common, and were likely to form when the gravity was able to attract a lot of water but was also too high for there to be enough land of such an altitude to stick out of the ocean, meaning that there would either be islands or no land at all rather than continents, at least above sea level.  On the other hand, such worlds could be rocky.  It’s just that all rocks would be on the sea bed.  An intermediate kind of world has also been suggested where there is a rocky core covered by a thin layer of ice at the bottom of a deep ocean, with deep sea vents and active volcanoes providing other elements and thereby making life possible.  Finally, there could simply be Earth-like worlds with single continental plates like the Pacific, without enough geological activity to balance the erosion of land and a consequential global ocean.

Whatever the cause, ocean planets are probably very common, and one of their shared features is that because they are almost completely covered in water, their climate is likely to be fairly samey all over.  It takes a lot of energy to heat water up, once warm, water takes a relatively long time to cool down, and because it’s a liquid, warm and cold water tend to mix together.  On a planet with no land, nothing blocks this effect, so temperature variations on such a planet would be small.  However, certain things could interfere with this.  For instance, if an ocean planet was like Uranus and it orbited a sun-like star at the same distance as Earth, each hemisphere would spend half the year in daylight and the other half in darkness, and such a planet could do such things as have boiling oceans at one end and frozen ones at the other, which would swap regularly.  However, this is a fairly extreme case.  Another possibility is a planet with an orbit elliptical enough for it to cross the entire habitable zone of its star every half year, and this planet too would be stormy and turbulent. Yet another is that the planet would simply be quite small and have a thin atmosphere, though still thick enough for liquid water to exist on its surface, which could lead to greater temperature variations between the poles and equator, although smaller planets are probably less watery anyway because they’d have larger variations in altitude and less gravity to attract or hold on to their water, so such a planet is quite unlikely. However, even in these cases the conditions would have to be a lot more extreme to make a planet uninhabitable compared to one with more evenly mixed land and water on its surface.

Some of the planets in our own solar system have a marked axial tilt whereas others rotate almost “upright” compared to the sun.  Mercury, Venus and Jupiter are in the latter category, whereas Earth, Mars and Saturn are in the former.  Uranus is really extreme and roughly rotates “on its side”, giving most of the planet a forty-two year day and a forty-two year night, except for a narrow zone at the equator.  If it’s assumed that our solar system includes a typical distribution of axial tilts, it looks like there’s a roughly three in eight chance of an ocean planet rotating roughly “vertically” with little variation in day and night length, and along with that little seasonal change.

Now imagine such a planet which is on the margins of human habitability.  It has a gravitational pull around 30% greater than ours, hardly any axial tilt and is studded with the occasional low-lying island, rather like Polynesia.  Assume also that that planet rotates at about the same rate as Earth and that it has plankton which release enough oxygen into the atmosphere for us to breathe.  It has a roughly circular orbit like ours too.

Such a planet would have quite monotonous weather, with the exception that any hurricanes which developed would last a very long time.  Hurricanes are fed by the ocean and start to abate as soon as they make landfall.  Also, it’s possible that there would be very high winds at sea level due to the relatively rare interruption of land.  A wind could easily blow right round the planet with nothing to stop it at all.  On Earth this can only currently happen in the Southern Ocean although in prehistoric times there was an equatorial ocean of this kind.  The same would apply to ocean currents to some extent, although islands could possibly deflect these.

You could, in other words, expect stripes I think.  Winds would clear the atmosphere of cloud in some places and not others and there would be a tendency for certain places to be almost permanently cloudy and for others to be mainly sunny.  It would look roughly like a blue and white version of Jupiter:


(only much better-looking than this rather ropy illustration).

I might be ignoring possible chaotic effects brought on by the butterflies of little islands of course.  There are streams of clouds leeward of oceanic islands, for example, which for all I know might add up to a major effect.  However, given that the atmosphere is denser, the clouds are likely to be higher, and therefore further above the lowlying land.

In other words, if we ever leave this solar system, one thing we can expect to see, I think, is stripy marbles.



Most Jews, Christians and Muslims would agree completely with the above statement in classical Arabic – the Shahada.  It reads, “there is no deity but the one true God”, which is the first part of the Islamic profession of faith, which in full is:

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh (wa) Muḥammadun rasūlu ‘Allāh”.  Clearly Jews and Christians, but not adherents of Baha’i or Sikhs, might take issue with the second clause.  In English then, “No deity but the one true God (and) Muhammad is God’s prophet”.

I don’t regard myself as a Muslim by any means, of course.  I’m not going into my own religious beliefs as such here so much as to note the fact that many years ago now I wrote a dissertation on Islamic societies and the Great Transformation.  This is me in another guise than how most people know me today, when I was studying sociology and there was an expectation in my first degree that if one were to give up a particular subject, even if it was subsidiary, one was expected to write a dissertation on a topic in that degree.  I only did one year of sociology and it was not a good dissertation.  I’m not emotionally attached to whether it was or not because sociology doesn’t matter to me as much as most other subjects.  I don’t really understand how sociology isn’t politics, for example, so it’s not clear to me what sociologists think they’re doing, something which came up later when I studied politics.  This dissertation of mine lacks intellectual rigor, was written in haste with quite cursory research based mainly on secondary sources and did not involve any contact face to face with any real Muslims.  It just wasn’t that good.


‘The Great Transformation’ is in fact the title of a 1944 book by the Hungarian-American political economist Karl Polyani, in which he argues that the invention of the modern nation-state went hand in hand with the development of a society dominated by the market.  Whereas the market existed previously, it didn’t dominate the human psyche, and the main change was that people shifted from ideas such as reciprocity and redistribution to behaviour as rational individuals within the marketplace.  The specifics of this idea are pretty irksome and also seem very inaccurate to me, but one thing Polyani did which does seem true is point out that there was a major change in the nature of Western societies around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Where we would differ is in the description of that change.  Nonetheless this change, regardless of its details, can usefully be referred to as the “Great Transformation”.

Two particularly uncontentious features of the Great Transformation come to mind.  Before it, the division wasn’t so much between childhood and adulthood as the period in life before getting married and the period from marriage onward, which applied to women and to men though in different ways.  Also, and this made a greater impression on me personally at the time, before it, societal roles were something one was born into whereas after it, one was expected to discover and change one’s role as life progressed.  In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written well before the start of the change, ambition is seen as sinful and against the divinely-ordained order of things.  Even today, the role of royalty is more ascribed than achieved, and this in a sense makes them as much prisoners of their situation as anyone else, though it’s a gilded cage.  Afterwards there were eventually ideas of careers being chosen and much focus on individual talent and skill.  Families were less likely to hve sons following in their fathers’ footsteps although the role of daughters often remained much more prescribed in  a way which had previously applied to sons.  We are roughly talking about the Industrial Revolution.

Polyani’s view is pretty close to the idea that liberal democracy and liberal economics are inextricably involved with each other, and is quite similar to the “Whig Interpretation Of History” in some respects, in that the past is seen as an inevitable progression towards freedom and enlightenment, in fact, seeing it as from a contemporary perspective to which everything was apparently developing.  This doesn’t really work of course.  Sarada often talks jokingly about looking back at Victorian times and seeing them as grim and unenlightened compared to the middle to late twentieth century, then extrapolating that beyond Victoria and imagining a world which was unimaginably awful to today’s minds. She recognises very clearly that this cannot be the whole story, and considering the bawdy and ribald nature of many writings before this time, at least the prudishness of the Victorians hadn’t gone on forever, and to a considerable degree the Victorians were good at inventing their own past, as with the frequent spurious explanations for children’s rhymes and the like.  Nonetheless, it clearly was pretty grim in many ways as the Bloody Code suggests, where one could be hanged for associating with gypsies or stealing anything which cost more than a shilling, such as a handkerchief.  However, once again there was a time before the Bloody Code.  It’s important not to idealise the past just as much as it is to catastrophise it, and in recognising that the past is a foreign country, we probably have to reject the idea that everything was always trundling along tramlines towards the glorious present of Liberal Democracy.


Liberal democracy was of course not the only bright shiny future on offer.  I have to come clean here and confess that I Was A Teenage Stalinist, and whereas I am no longer like that, I admit that the idea of striding bright-eyed into a sunny socialist future involving big shiny biceps and a 50% increase in the production of tractors which can then plough the fields of our glorious collective farm under the watchful eye of Comrade Stalin do fill me with a sense of nostalgia, and I do believe that something good can be salvaged from all that.  This brings me to the second theory applied to the Great Transformation, namely Marxism.  I have to say this about Marxism.  Just as evolutionary theory, special and general relativity and quantum mechanics are working contemporary theories about biology and physics, and just basically true although lacking in detail in their original form, so is Marxism basically a correct description of economic, social and political relationships.  In other words I am a “Marxist” in the same sense as someone who believes in evolution is an “Evolutionist”, and just as the word “evolutionist” is a neologism made up by fundamentalists to pretend their creationism is a viable alternative, so the word “Marxist” is a word used by people who are in denial about the real way society works, or perhaps wish to conceal that fact or have been deceived into believing it doesn’t.  Having said that, there are details of Marxism as conceived by Marx and Engels that are just plain wrong.  For instance many of us are both bourgeois and proletarian and the two of them seriously failed to account properly for Green issues or for spirituality.  Note also that just being Marxist doesn’t stop you from being right wing.  It’s entirely feasible to use Marxist analysis to arrive at a strategy to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, at least in the short term, and I sometimes feel that the most Marxist party of all in today’s Britain is in fact the Conservative Party.  In other words, Marxism is as true as the theory of gravity, but gravity isn’t just about things falling but also things orbiting or leaving the planet altogether.

Taking both the idea of liberal democracy and that of Marxism together, there is in theory a major drawback to applying them to Islamic societies which is the same as the difficulty in seeing pre-modern Western societies as capitalist, namely the fact that they prohibit usury.  Both Islam and Christianity forbid the charging of interest on a loan, which means that capitalism as we understand it cannot operate as smoothly as it does in the West.  However, and this is where the practical aspect of my lack of time and real-life experience cuts in, there is apparently a series of contracts used in the Islamic world, each of which does not amount to interest but which together do, and a similar situation operated in Christendom before modern banks were established.  There are also the concepts of purchasing assets whose value will reliably increase, such as jewellery, and of paying tent on money from banks.  I find all of this quite disappointing as potentially the prohibition on usury is quite positive, but the spirit of shari`a doesn’t seem to be honoured here.  Having said that, I noticed that some Muslims couldn’t understand why I was vegetarian because my religion didn’t tell me specifically that I should be.  This is real experience of Muslims, but of course a generalisation from a few individual Muslims which may be unfair, but the idea behind that seemed to be that it wasn’t about reasoning through why a particular practice is in place so much as just doing what the Qur’an or hadith tell you without question.  There are many Christians who also take this approach.


The other two big models of the Great Transformation are rationalisation and anomie theories.  Rationalisation is the idea, also present in Polyani’s thought, that the difference was that rationality began to be applied to society and that society has become increasingly rational as time has gone by.  In a sense this means we are becoming more “scientific” as part of progress, socially as well as technologically.  This would mean things like evidence-based policy, and also positivism in social science, which is usually deprecated – the idea that human societies can be understood scientifically.

It’s interesting to try to apply this to Islamic societies.  One of the apparent contradictions from the outside with Islamic societies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is that they are apparently based on faith-based rather than rational principles at the same time as seeking to use modern science and technology.  This means that scientifically-based intellectuals and other professionals might be imagined to encounter some degree of cognitive dissonance.  An imaginary example, and I don’t know how this really works out, is oncology – the study and treatment of cancer.   One way of understanding cancer is as evolution.  Mutations occur within a body cell which enable it to ignore the “kill” signal, survive better without oxygen and separate itself from its former fixed position and reproduce elsewhere in the body, for a limited period before it kills the host.  However, most Islamic countries are full of people who don’t believe in evolution.  Only eight percent of Egyptians believe in evolution, for example, and Sa`udi Arabia and Sudan have banned the teaching of evolution in schools.  It’s not clear to me what happens in biology departments in such countries and nor is it clear to me what happens when students from such countries study at universities in the West before returning to them.  Medical researchers would seem to have a problem.

One remarkable fact reported of active members of Da’esh and other hate groups is that they have a strong tendency to be engineering graduates.  Letting my personal prejudices interfere for a moment here, if I cast my mind back to about the time I was writing the aforesaid dissertation, I knew quite a few engineering students, mainly Christian or non-religious, white and ethnically English, and they did in fact strike me as unusually nasty, hateful people.  In fact, many of them were fundamentalist Christians and they stood out as being unusually illiberal, intolerant Christians, more likely to be stridently homophobic and, if male, sexist.  I realise that not all engineers are like that and in fact, being a Halfbaker there’s no way I’m going to diss engineers as a breed, but I can see the tendency, not there but in my past.

Nearly twice as many members of hate groups self-describing as Islamic have degrees in engineering than in Islamic studies.  Almost half the graduates in such groups have engineering degrees.  Nine times as many engineers are in these groups than would be expected by chance.  In fact, if you wanted to do what Trump presented himself as doing by preventing the entry of such people to the US, you’d do a better job banning all engineers from entering the country than people from officially Islamic countries.  However, two things about that:  it would have major economic consequences, and it would be more rational.  Not that it would be acceptable, mind you, but this perhaps illustrates that the rationalisation thesis doesn’t really apply to the United States, at least under Trump.

It’s also the case that members of non-Islamic right wing hate groups in the West are more likely to be engineers.  It might be thought that this is because engineers are better at making suicide vests and terror weapons, but this doesn’t seem to be the reason.  Nor is it just a question of engineers happening to be acquainted with one another because when hate groups spring up as cells or on a small scale, they also seem to be engineers.  An important criterion for membership is actually mutual trust.

Engineering students are particularly likely to be politically conservative, which of course groups the likes of white supremacists and “Islamic terrorists” together – they’re just two varieties of right wing groups with a lot in common.  They are also more likely to be religious, that is, members of conservative organised religious groups.  This corresponds to my own experience of engineering students.  They were often intolerant fundamentalist Christians and members of the Federation of Conservative Students, apart from one who was thrown out because he was too right wing.  They seem to be people who dislike shades of grey and imprecision, and since that’s how they perceive the contemporary world, they want to get rid of it.

Ironically, this seems to mean that rationalisation is a fairly good explanation of hate-motivated violent activity in self-described Muslims.  The reason Islamic societies are that way might be explained by the idea that they are dominated by bivalent logic and all-or-nothing thinking.  What would interest me, though, is whether this means the members of such groups are plodders or high achievers, although the former might be expressed as frustration.  It might be that in order to become a really good engineer, you have to be able to think more flexibly.

It also reflects another thing which irritates me about left wing ways of thinking about society.  Left wing politics often seems to be about finding problems rather than solutions.  Applying this to engineering, it’s like that subject being about studying why bridges fall down and planes crash without finding ways to design better bridges and planes.  Much left wing thought refers to “late capitalism”, which seems to be considered a euphemism for “eternal capitalism” or “mature capitalism”.  There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of suggesting how capitalism can be brought to an end in academic circles.

The other theory, which seems to fit Islamic societies quite well, is anomie, which is the idea that the distinctive feature of modernity is the loss of meaning and certainty in values.  Some Islamic scholars believe that the choice is between Islam and existentialism, and that existentialism actually has it right in a fairly profound way.  Islam in this analysis is seen to be the answer.

This, I’m afraid, is where I run out of time and steam.  I’m going to publish this now.  Let me know what you make of it.

Am I My Doppelgänger?

Could there be another you in another world or is that “you” really someone else?  Why is this important?

Before I answer those questions, I want to look at the idea of the Doppelgänger.  A Doppelgänger is an identical copy of someone who is out there in the world somewhere, and the story goes that if ever they meet, one of them will die.  Although the word is German, this idea exists in English folklore, where they are referred to as “fetches”.  On the whole it’s confined to mythology although the internet has meant that it has become easier for people to find their doubles nowadays, which is not quite the same thing as there is no sense of bad luck or misfortune associated with it.  There is also the very strange case of Emelie Sagee, a teacher at a school in what is now Latvia, in the nineteenth century, who would allegedly have a ghostly copy of herself appear beside her, mimicking all her movements, when she felt tired or ill.  This may naturally itself be a fabrication.

At first glance you might also find the idea of parallel universes to be equally fanciful.  However, there are good reasons for believing in them.  The physical constants which allow us to exist at all in this Universe are very finely tuned.  For instance, if the force bonding atomic nuclei together was slightly weaker the only chemical element would be hydrogen and “life as we know it” would not exist.  If this is the only Universe, we would more or less be forced into believing in a Designer, i.e. God, because it seems to be so precisely arranged.  However, any universe without life in it would not have anyone living in it to notice that the physical constants were any different.  Consequently, one solution to this problem is to propose the existence of multiple universes where those constants are different from how they are here.  In almost all those universes, even where there are stars, there are no rocky planets and no chemical compounds, although I would still hold out for the possibility that there could be life forms or at least conscious beings made out of ionised hydrogen.

By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Leaving that possibility aside for now, given that we’re more or less forced to choose between the Design Argument and the Multiverse, I opt for the latter.  Given also that there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be universes where the laws of physics vary a bit less than would be required to rule out the existence of organic life forms entirely, it seems plausible that there would be a plethora of other universes which are more or less like this one in various ways.

Many of these universes would be very similar indeed to this one, to the extent that they would contain counterparts of ourselves, which brings me back to the question of doppelgänger.  The issue is, are we the same person in all these other “dimensions” or are we just a load of almost identical clones?  What would it mean for us to be the same person elsewhere?  What would it mean for us not to be?

There are two main philosophical theories about this.  One is counterpart theory, which is the idea that those people in the other universes are very similar to us but not the same people.  The other is known as “cross-world identity”, or “transworld identity”, which is the idea that we are the same people in them.  I personally believe in the latter.

The problem with cross-world identity is that there doesn’t seem to be a definite way to identify the people involved as the same in different universes.  I was born in Canterbury, did two degrees in philosophy, got married to Sarada, lived in Leicester, had two children and became a herbalist.  There is presumably a parallel universe where I did a doctorate in biochemistry, ended up working for a biotech company in Cambridge, and had no children.  This goes against my values because of my political beliefs, but those could also have been different.  It goes further than that though, because there seems to be no reason for identifying this random individual in another universe with me even if she has everything in common with me.  She wouldn’t have been born in Canterbury because she would be from a possibly identical copy of Canterbury on a different planet in a different universe.  She wouldn’t even live on Earth or in the Milky Way.

If at some point in the future, a twin Earth appears billions of light years away from here which repeats our history perfectly, apparently the same individuals would be born on it and live identical lives.  These people would in a sense have nothing in common with us.  They wouldn’t be us.  This is of course the classic problem with the idea of the resurrection of the dead and judgement day.  A person dies and their body is cremated or rots away.  The atoms making up their body become incorporated in all sorts of other life forms, including human beings.  Those human beings also die and their bodies are also destroyed.  Then comes the Day of Judgement and all the bodies of everyone who has ever lived are reconstituted and reanimated.  But if these bodies are made of the same matter, there is no way that two complete bodies can be made up, particularly if cannibalism was involved, or possibly blood transfusion or organ transplants.  Therefore the resurrected human race cannot be the same as the original human race unless they happened to have died the night before or were cryonically preserved or something.  God then goes on to judge these people, completely unfairly, since they have just been called into existence and have done nothing their originals have done, so why are they responsible?

I happen to have an answer to that, but I mention it here to illustrate that it seems fair to claim that the almost or even completely identical people in parallel universes are not in fact us.  What exists to link us to them?  They’re in different universes!

There does, however, seem to be a much more ordinary-seeming situation which makes sense of it.  At one point I was a baby in a hospital in Canterbury.  I am now a 49-year old typing a blog entry in Loughborough.  At first sight the answer to the question “Is a baby in a hospital in Canterbury the same person as a 49-year old blogger in Loughborough?” is an obvious “no”.  However, clearly it is the case because the first person turned into the second one.  Put more normally, the first person became the second one.  There is a succession of moments from my infancy to my middle age and in each moment I’m the same person as I was in the moment immediately preceding.  The same could apply to parallel universes.  In each successive parallel universe, perhaps adjacent, I am the same person, so I’m the same person as myself in any possible world where I exist.

I’ve described existence through a lifetime as an “ordinary-seeming situation”, and of course it is.  What might not be as obvious is that just as living one’s life is what we all do, and it’s entirely ordinary even if one is oneself extraordinary, it’s just as ordinary to exist as a single individual in many parallel universes, or at least, that’s how it seems to me.  However, there are still a couple of problems with this.

One is the question of what happens if there are “gaps” in one’s existence.  That is, there are some universes where one exists and others which are initially identical apart from one’s existence.  If there is a way of ordering parallel universes, and I think there is in the form of relative probability, our births are, to quote Eric Idle “amazingly unlikely”, and therefore it wouldn’t be surprising if there were very probable nearby universes where one doesn’t exist, then more improbable and therefore more distant universes where one doesn’t.  It could be argued that this never happens in someone’s lifetime.  I would argue, though, that it does.  It happens, for example, every time we fall into a dreamless sleep.  There is a sense in which we don’t exist during that time, although anyone who wanted could easily call us back into existence just by giving us a shake.  However, and this applies to identity through time as well, there are overlapping characteristics in a lifetime which guarantee identity proceeds in a fairly steady stream, and arguably parallel universes interrupt that stream.  Bringing them into the picture, it seems that characteristics can be so altered that I could arbitrarily identify myself with a rock on the third moon of a planet in the Andromeda galaxy which was destroyed when its sun went supernova six billion years ago.  This is not so.  In the same way as there are overlapping characteristics through a lifetime, so are there overlapping characteristics in parallel universes.  The point does come when claiming that one is a particular thing or person is simply false.

Why is this important?

It’s important for various reasons.  I am of course currently quite preoccupied with the Mandela Effect – the discrepancies between groups of people regarding their memories of well-known events, such as Shirley Temple having been dead since 1939 as opposed to her survival until this century and the existence of a fifty-first US state called Superior consisting of northern Wisconsin and Michigan.  It’s entirely plausible that these are mere memory effects.  However, if transworld identity can be made to work, another explanation is possible, namely that other versions of oneself are living in parallel universes where the state of Superior does exist and where Shirley Temple did in fact die nearly eight decades ago.  Those other versions of oneself would often have such memories.  It’s equally possible that there are versions of oneself whose memories of such events are incorrect, and that I may be such a version.

If transworld identity is plausible, containing no logical flaw that would make it impossible to be true, there is then a plausible explanation for the Mandela Effect.  This is that events which are true in parallel universes create accurate memories which in special circumstances become mixed up and transferred into one’s mind in other universes.  The veil which leads us only to perceive this world occasionally blows aside or rips, and we glimpse those other realities.  If this happens to a sufficiently extreme degree, we might no longer be said to be the same person, because all the important memories would change to those from other universes, and those might even turn out all to be true in a particular parallel universe.

Then again, and this is ignored by many people although it’s as important, maybe our memories are becoming less reliable because we use Google, Wikipedia and digital media too much.  I think this is also true, and will be going into that in a bit too.

Getting From Here To There


‘Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected’ is a TV series I associate with the late ’70s, although apparently it carried on until 1988.  Since I didn’t watch much telly in the ’80s, this might explain why I think of it that way.  The general idea was that each self-contained episode would end unexpectedly.  This could be seen as bad writing.  It’s kind of like deus ex machina – the trope in classical drama where an apparently unresolvable situation would arise in the story which would then be sorted out at the end by a god turning up.  This would generally, I imagine, provide an upbeat ending and the difference with Dahl’s series, and by the way I don’t know to what extent he was involved in the writing, is that the ending would normally be shocking or horrific.


This may be unfair.  I only remember two episodes clearly, and before you ask, no, I did not see the one where the bloke eats too much royal jelly and turns into a bee.  The ones I’m thinking of are one in which a crooked antique dealer who makes his money from persuading gullible people that their stuff is worthless and then going on to sell it for a tidy sum comes a cropper when he insists a particularly valuable commode is cheap trash and he only wants the feet.  The sellers find that it won’t fit through the door, proceed to saw the legs off and present him with them.  Here the god of justice enters through the narrow door and exacts his revenge, but to be honest it doesn’t seem to have come out of nowhere because we have a clearly established greedy and dishonest character to whom just desserts are served, and the ending seems to proceed pretty neatly from the rest of the story.  The other episode involves a connoisseur with a weak heart being murdered by someone who ruins a valuable bottle of wine by letting it breathe for too long, which come to think of it is a rather similar story.  Okay then, maybe it did just ring the changes on the same basic idea and existed in a rather posh world of its own where people have ironic misadventures visited upon them, which is of course very Dahlesque, but neither of those episodes exactly involve a meteoric denouement striking the plot from outer space.  Then again, I may not be remembering it very well.

The last few days in my life have been characterised by two different things.  One is the delightfully fluid application of finishing touches to my novel, which I’ve found most enjoyable.  The other is the appalling event in Manchester and its aftermath.  When confronted with such horrific events, it seems to be natural for people to try to fit it into their view of the world, often also in quite dramatic and emotive terms, which however may be inappropriate, and to be honest I’ve felt completely powerless about it, not just in terms of what should happen because of it, but also out of concern that I will react inappropriately and insensitively.  This can happen very easily and even if the reaction is honest and well-founded there can be unintended consequences.  In order to avoid them, all I’m going to do is present the bare facts, which is that a lot of young people and their parents were killed and seriously injured by a suicide bomber.  Note that I use the word “suicide” there without the usual squeamishness of using a term for a criminalised act, because in this case there seems to be little doubt that the act was deliberately cruel.

I’m not even going to try to enter into a discussion of the situation and its possible wider significance and consequences, except to say that it was an evil act among many other evils in today’s world, which is uncontroversial.  Odious comparisons could be made with suffering and death elsewhere on the planet, perhaps in a misguided attempt to provide context and perspective, and I’m not denying the reality of those other evils.  Nor am I interested in theorising right now.  There is a basic baseline of humanity here which almost everyone can agree on that it was an atrocity, standing alone and considered as such, and a terrible instance of how wrong things are in the world right now.  Explanations can be offered but this is a vivid personal bereavement and loss.

These two experiences seem difficult to reconcile.  On the one hand I’m spending a lot of my time living in a fictional twenty-fourth century setting where the last major conflict of this kind took place over two centuries previously in 2096.  To them, such events are as remote as the French and American revolutions.  Children might learn about them in history if they’re interested or they might be studied in more detail at university, but although they can be learnt from in the same way as we might learn from the history of the French Revolution, followed by the Age Of Terror, or perhaps more positively as an early example of a fully secular state, they are remote from my protagonists’ lives.  Their lives are far from perfect of course, or it would be difficult to come up with an interesting tale, but the difficulties so far are largely non-political and more to do with the likes of frustrations in relationships and practical difficulties of coming to terms with having become a physical being when one was previously simulated.  On the other hand, the personal is political and there are political elements in those relationships and situations which also strongly suggest a history of struggle.

One novelty for me in trying to imagine this world is that it is very much still scarcity-based.  Most of the human Galaxy is still capitalist, with a couple of minor exceptions.  Mega-corporations still exist although not on the world-dominating scale often portrayed in Blade Runner and cyberpunk futures.  There is still a gap between the availability of resources and apparently limitless human need.  This sits rather uneasily with me because I believe passionately in abundance.  I believe that scarcity is manufactured as a result of the psychological need of the wealthy to keep others in poverty.  Nonetheless I do feel quite positive about the setting and also quite comfortable in it, since it is still a better world, or more precisely nine better worlds, than the one in which we currently live, partly due to a generally higher standard of living and technological solutions to many of the problems we face today.  From a political perspective the unification of humanity has meant the end of war and the motives for insurrection have been defeated without interfering with freedom of any kind.  People simply have enough and are not motivated to resort to violence.

In the timeline involved, the last major war was in 2076.  This is easily within the lifetimes of perhaps hundreds of millions of people alive on Earth today.  It’s less than six decades away.  Projecting that backward, people aged sixty today in Western Europe and North America were already being born into a world with rock music, satellites, television and computers, but more importantly also with nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and more positively in most people’s views, democracy, the welfare state, the UN and the Geneva Convention.

How do we get from today’s world, with its Manchester suicide bombing and continued sense of threat in this country, to a world in less than six decades with perpetual world peace?

Mysteries, I’ve heard, are written backwards.  You decide on a solution, test it for plot holes, then work your way through to the shocked relatives finding the dead body in the locked room and calling in the genius detective.  You know the ending already and fit the rest in.  I still have minor problems of this nature with my story.  One particular difficulty was that I’d assumed there was no unskilled manual labour left on Earth but one of my characters was unable to find renumerative work doing anything else.  This I solved by inventing an Amish-like network of closed communities who believe human fulfillment maxed out in the 1950s and seek to recreate such a world in various small towns, one of which is Letchworth Garden City.  There are still small gaps and plot holes which I’m currently plugging, I hope fairly elegantly and credibly.

I would defend futuristic positive science fiction as providing a sense of vision and a goal.  Just over the hill, if we want it and if we can raise our sights high enough, there can still be a gleaming utopia, because when it comes down to it there is simply no practical reason for anyone to be poor, unfulfilled or exploited and it’s scandalous that these are still realities in 2017.  Another thing which is scandalous, just to remind ourselves, is the fact that someone saw fit to murder and maim scores of children in Manchester this week.  These two things are connected, and the question is, how do we get from here to there?  How do we get from a world with suicide bombers in it to  a world, to quote Al Stewart without the irony, “that’s finished with war” or war which is pursued by other means?

Maybe by working backwards in the same way.  This is our locked room mystery.  We need to say to ourselves, isn’t it remarkable that within our children’s lifetime, perhaps even in ours, we will be living in a world where war, famine and poverty are no more?  And then we need, urgently, to say to ourselves, not how fanciful and unlikely that idea is, but to write the next six decades of future history backwards.  We know where we must be.  There’s no choice but to be in that situation by then, because otherwise pretty soon we simply won’t be at all.  Having eliminated that impossibility, we have to concentrate on working out our route, because we know deus ex machina is a purely dramatic device and that the machines as such cannot deliver that, or they would’ve done already.

The invention of nuclear weapons necessitated the invention of a different way of living which would mean they could never be used.  Nowadays there are many other risks, created for example by the easy availability of plans to build bombs on YouTube.  Hence the question now is what that exciting invention, changing the way we all behave towards each other, will be.  We will have the completed jigsaw by 2096 and we’ll be sticking the last few pieces in by 2074.  Today, we apparently have a daunting heap of unconnected pieces, but we have the picture on the front of the box.  What we need to do now is to put those pieces together.  We need to find the corner pieces now, then in a few years’ time we’ll find the edges.  Maybe we’ll be defeated for a while by an expanse of blue sky, but we know we’ll make it in the end because we know where we’re going.  We don’t know how to get there yet, but we will.  And we can’t allow ourselves to imagine it’s impossible, because it’s not.

What We’ve Lost


2017 is 1978-y.  The calendar for both years is the same in terms of days of the week and dates.  It differs in other ways, such as the date of Easter Sunday and the movable feasts.  I am, possibly rather pointlessly, “re-enacting” 1978 in my mind, keeping track of news stories, popular culture and events in my life from that point.  1978 is also the last year I didn’t keep a regular diary of some description, so it’s interesting to extend it backwards. My father was my current age in 1978 too, so that may be significant.  My mother, on the other hand, was my current age in 1982, a more important year.  As I’ve mentioned before, 1978 was also the best year in terms of positive economic activity – if you subtract economic activity which is generally negative, such as disaster relief, cleaning up after car crashes, healthcare after people have fallen ill and funerals, it comes out on top.  Finally, it’s the last year before Thatcher.

calendarThis is all nostalgia of course.  However, it’s useful nostalgia, and it makes me wonder if there’s a way we can get certain things back.  Certain other things shouldn’t come back because they were utterly awful.  Here’s a list of my impressions of the differences between then and now taken from my observation of events:

More respect for working class culture

One of the most striking things about 1978 is that there’s a kind of prosaic, “everyday-ness”, unpretentiousness and mundanity to a lot of stuff which feels more distant now, and I would associate this in my mind with working class culture.  Unemployment, for example, tended to be portrayed publicly as misfortune for the unemployed rather than resulting from laziness or even blamed on the unemployed in any way.  There was none of this sanctioning, lecturing, condescension or any of that.  Nor was there any contempt for the more chavesky members of society, to the extent that the very word “chav”, though it did exist, was not widely known.  It occurs, incidentally in a certain punk song I’ve been unable to track down from that very era, but it’s actually a Romani word and at the time would’ve been heard as part of that vocabulary rather than something adopted fully into English. Employment in working class occupations was also, naturally, higher.

Punk is, of course, an anti-establishment, though also cynically exploited by the mainstream, strand in the late ’70s, but again with working class roots.  Another example is pub rock, punk’s precursor, which I can never quite get a fix on, and there are many other groups around which are anything but pretentious.  Squeeze’s ‘Cool For Cats’ particularly springs to mind, although it’s one example among many.  Squeeze, in fact, clearly following on from the Troggs and the Kinks, reflect what is more an ongoing tradition which has since come to an end rather than something which was particularly distinctive of the time, although there is clearly a swelling of working class influence at this point.  Continuing in the vein of popular culture, sitcoms come to mind such as ‘The Liver Birds’, clearly long in the tooth by that point, and also such as the rather obscure ‘Upchat Line’.  Also on TV we have ‘Play For Today’, which criticised the spending on the Silver Jubilee while a single mother struggled to make ends meet in ‘The Spongers’, a series for which Mike Leigh and Ken Loach both wrote many plays.  Remarkably to today’s eyes, there was even an educational TV series on trade unions and industrial relations, something which would never be seen today.  Such series as ‘On The Move’, featuring a young Bob Hoskins as a lorry driver, promoted adult literacy.

Car Trouble

Speaking of driving, this was also an era when modernity was symbolised by road traffic and motorways.  Traffic wardens were the butt of many jokes and more seriously, this was only a few years after J G Ballard’s ‘Crash’ and his less well-known ‘Concrete Island’, a modern-day version of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ telling the tale of a man stranded on a traffic island on the M4 in West London and struggling to survive.  Ian Watson’s ‘Thy Blood Like Milk’ portrays a young joy rider who  is made to pay for his victims’ lives with his blood, which is drained from him in a hospital on ‘Superhighway 31’ in a polluted future.  By the late 1970s this was fading, but the grittiness of the black stuff was in the soul of 1978.  Alan Bleasdale wrote that in 1978, again for ‘Play For Today’.

Art and Craft

Before the automation brought by CGI and computers in other ways, artisanship and virtuosity were musts.  Whereas nowadays computer-generated landscapes, characters, scenes and special effects are ubiquitous, the best CGI in 1978 was seen on the likes of ‘Star Wars’.  Before the recent additions to ‘A New Hope’, there were two instances of CGI use, both very primitive by today’s standards.  All the rest was of course achieved by the likes of model shots and matte painting.  Real objects were involved by necessity, and ingenuity and creativity were very hands-on.  Different skills are naturally required today, just as professional and hard-won, but they do not involve manually dealing with materials, cinematography and paint.  Another example is airbrushing, an important aspect of illustration at the time, which links to album cover art and via that the concept album, because at that time people would sit down and listen to entire double albums in one sitting.

Unity of experience

Today it can be quite difficult to work out whether what you’re into and are familiar with is widely known.  There are countless TV channels, music can be streamed or downloaded, often as single tracks, on demand, and timeswitching is routine.  None of this was widely available in 1978.  There were three TV channels, four national radio channels and very few video recorders and the Walkman wasn’t introduced until 1979.  All of this led to a marked unity of experience regarding popular culture.  If you weren’t physically sitting in front of the telly when Corrie was on, that was it – you wouldn’t see it.  The world would stop for ‘Morecombe And Wise’.  You could make a cup of tea during the ads but you couldn’t skip them and the first box set wouldn’t appear for decades.  The music chart was key.  Films were not shown on TV for five years after they had stopped showing them at the cinema and there was a rule that television programmes would never be shown more than three times, which wasn’t a problem for most people because everyone hated repeats.  This was also the era of losing TV shows.  The BBC only introduced a policy on archiving that year.

All of this meant that people would watch the same programmes and hear the same music at the same time.  This meant a much higher degree of focus on popular cultural products than exists today.  Scarcity led to value and quality in both viewership and production.  There were not acres of air time to fill.  In fact, much of the time BBC TV  would just be showing Test Card F or a blank screen.  Moreover, the fact that it was harder to wow the viewer with special effects meant that non-realist writing actually had to be good rather than relying on the spectacle.

Slap and Tickle


More embarrassing to today’s sensibilities is of course the overt sexism, racism and homophobia everywhere with little sense of inappropriateness or interest in the rights of the people affected.  The interminable ‘Carry On’ series of films was drawing to a close, and they are of course deeply corny and painful to watch today, but I also maintain that they are in a firm tradition of bawdy British humour which stretches back through pantomime, Shakespeare and Chaucer all the way to the double-entendres of Anglo-Saxon riddles.  Again, this is an example of an ancient tradition which was drawing to a close rather than a specific Zeitgeist.  Much of it is should of course stay in the past but there is a potential distinction between bawdy humour and political incorrectness.  It’s possible also that the reason it existed was that there was still a sense of hiddenness at the time connected partly to modesty and perhaps prudishness, which contrasts with today’s expectation that we bare all in social media and elsewhere.  Another aspect of the dark side of this is of course the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris – rampant active paedophilia.  As I mentioned before, at the time the Paedophile Information Exchange were affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties.  All mercifully gone, along with the tendency of people not to over-share.  There were depths, some of them dark, but some also profound in a way we have lost touch with.

Nonetheless I maintain that because of the sheer Britishness of the tradition carried on by ‘Carry On’, the cringe-inducing smuttiness of Sid James’s Henry VIII is the most appropriate portrayal of that monarch ever to appear on screen.

  Then there’s the question of homophobia.  Whereas this was quite pronounced at the time, it has the distinction of having got worse in the 1980s due to the Thatcher government capitalising on the AIDS epidemic.  Consequently although it was at the time drifting towards greater tolerance, this process took a U turn in the early ’80s and proceeded to go backwards for many years.  Hence the question arises of the point at which we were back to being as opposed to homophobia as we were in 1978, and how much earlier various other measures of tolerance, such as the lowering of the age of consent, would have happened.

Progress and Equality

I’m not going to succumb to the fantasy that things were better in the old days and certainly progress has been made in terms of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity.  However, what really stands out for me is that there seemed to be much greater respect for the working class and the poor, and an understanding that progress would smooth out inequality.  Many of the differences between then and now are to do with technological change, perhaps progress, but not these.  These are primarily to do with naked class prejudice and excessive focus on the work ethic and profit and whereas people today tend to have a strong understanding that it’s not acceptable to be sexist or racist, the ideas of respect for the poor without blaming them for their situation and the willingness to treat the working class as worthy of dignity and respect is gone.

How do we get this back?

Scriptural Unicorns


Why does the King James Bible mention unicorns several times?  First of all, let me confirm that it does.

All of the references to the unicorn are in the Old Testament.  There are a total of nine mentions, two in consecutive verses, as follows:

  1. God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” –
    Numbers 23:22.
  2. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.” – Numbers 24:8.
  3. His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” Deuteronomy 33:17.
  4.  Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?  Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” – Job 39:9, 10.
  5. “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the nicorns.” – Psalm 22:21.
  6. He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalm 29:6.
  7. But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalm 92:10.
  8. And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7.

Some people have used this fact to discredit the Bible.  Other people are very attached to the King James Version (KJV) and some even believe it to be a special second revelation on a par with the Bible itself.  Others attach themselves to it because of its seemingly picturesque language, and still others prefer it because they believe that other popular versions of the Bible are manipulated to make it seem more liberal than the original intention.

I am personally quite attached to the KJV, and find it unnatural to say the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, so I usually use the version beginning “Our Father, Which art in heaven.”  Many well-known Bible passages come to me first in the KJV.  Then again, some passages from the gospels occur to me first in Gothic, a language spoken in Roman times into which the Bible was translated in the early fourth Christian century.  A few of them come in Old English, although as far as I know the entire Bible was never translated into English before the Norman Conquest.  It’s just how my mind works.

In spite of how my mind works, however, I recognise that the KJV, however beloved it may be, is not a particularly good translation.  In a sense it suffers from being too accurate.  That’s quite a flippant way of putting it, but it tends to translate word for word, meaning that particular turns of phrase, i.e. idioms, in Hebrew and Greek tend to get transposed directly into English when in fact they weren’t originally part of the English language.  This fact is somewhat obscured by the very strong influence the language of the KJV has on English, such that some idioms which weren’t formerly found in English are now part of the language.  An example of this is the form “X of Xs”, as in “Song of Songs” and “King of Kings”, both of which emphasise the importance of the noun mentioned.  To an English speaker living in 1611, this would have sounded odd and not have suggested what it does to us nowadays.

A particularly questionable aspect of the KJV is that James VI conducted a personal vendetta against people whom he saw as witches, who were also seen as never practicing alone.  Having said that, there are some misconceptions about the attitude to perceived witches in Britain in the past, and much of the actual burning is more like popular lynching than a governmental execution policy.  Nonetheless, James VI could be said by modern standards to have been paranoid about witchcraft, and as a result the KJV includes a number of dodgy translations which use words such as “witch”, for instance Exodus 22:18 – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live“.  To be honest I don’t fully understand what other options were available here because when I read it in other languages it still seems to say this, but it’s said that this is inaccurate.  Maybe there was just a lot of anti-witchcraft sentiment around at the time all those translations were made, but it says “sorceress” in the NIV so I don’t know.

Back to unicorns.   This is what the Bible means by a “unicorn”:


I’m going to assume that this picture is out of copyright!  This is what I call an aurochs.  Across Eurasia in Old Stone Age times, there were various species of bovine, including the wisent, or European bison, and the aurochs.  Just to get this out of the way:  I say “aurochs” for the singular and “aurochsen” for the plural, not to be awkward but because the “ochs” bit to me is “ox” spelt oddly, so to me “aurochsen” makes more sense than either “aurochs” as a plural or “aurochses”, which sounds dreadful, so that’s why I do it, okay?  I want to get past this.

It makes a lot of sense to interpret the KJV “unicorn” as an aurochs.  Oxen strength is proverbial, for example, and the Numbers references refer to the strength of a “unicorn” in the same way.  The Deuteronomy verse refers to “the horns of unicorns” and the plural introduces ambiguity in that it could be talking about pairs of horns rather than one horn per beast.  That verse also mentions “unicorns” just after cattle and several of the other references do the same and also depict it as a beast of burden.  Moreover, most or all of the references seem to be figurative, as if they are about a mythical animal, or at least one which isn’t around any more, and that’s the crucial clue.

The word “unicorn” in the KJV translates re’em in Hebrew.  When the Bible came to be translated into English, no animals in the Middle East had that name.  Given the figurative overtones of the reference, and I haven’t checked this, it seems that even at the time the verses above were written, the “re’em” was rare if not extinct.  Here’s a map of the aurochsen peak distribution:

By made by Christophe cagé 11:24, 22 March 2007 (UTC). Based on several authors, as T. van Vuure. – Based on image in: Van Vuure, C. (2005) Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow., CC BY-SA 3.0,

This clearly includes the Middle East and represents the distribution in the early Holocene, the epoch immediately after the last ice age up until the Industrial Revolution.  The species initially evolved in South Asia in the early Pleistocene and spread to cover the extensive grasslands of Eurasia which appeared after the land bridge between North and South America formed, leading to the Gulf Stream and global drying due to the build up of snow in the Arctic locking up much of the water.  The last wild aurochs seems to have died in Poland in 1627, although domestic cattle are descended from them, some being more primitive than others such as the Northumberland Chillingham Cattle, as painted here by Landseer in Victorian times:


There used to be quite a few species in Europe and the Med which aren’t around any more but were common in ancient times and existed recently enough to have been recorded in writing.  One typically sad example is the European Lion.  Greek myths, such as that of Herakles, mention lions, although the Greek sphere of influence included Asia Minor, and the last European lions seem to have been the ones who killed Christians in the Colosseum, which probably weren’t very healthy judging by skulls full of the marks of dental abscesses for example.  This actually reflects the tendency for Europe to become less “African” as time passes.  Woolly rhinos and mammoths are further examples, although there are many others.

From the perspective of biodiversity, the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture first arose, suffered earlier in many ways than the rest of the planet from human activity.  That said, animals often seem to have been either hunted, accidentally killed in runaway forest fires started by humans or simply unable to compete with us for food, way back into the Old Stone Age.  Compared to the early Pleistocene, mammals now tend to be smaller and more likely to be nocturnal all across the planet.  Even so, the Middle East suffered particularly badly at the dawn of written history, before the locus of Western civilisation started to shift northwest.  Consequently, although the Tanakh mentions the word re’em a number of times, when the time came for the text to be translated into English nobody really knew what the word meant.  Consequently, it was translated as “unicorn”.

Another aspect of this is the nature of how the West saw natural history at the time.  Whereas Europeans would have been aware of animals in distant parts of the world such as elephants, they bracketed them with the likes of dragons and unicorns, and their approach was, and this is important, not scientific in the way we would understand the word nowadays.  It was more important to them to learn lessons from the living world, and this was reflected in bestiaries.  I’ve been into this before, but I’ll illustrate it with a couple of examples, one of which is from the Bible, Proverbs 6:6-8 (KJV 🙂 ):

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:  Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.

Later on, the beaver is given as an example of an animal who will sacrifice its lust to survive by castrating himself and leaving the gonads for hunters to recover, which is more an allegory than something which was literally supposed to happen.  This can be seen in particular in tales about such species as horses, very familiar to the readers of bestiaries but still used to teach morals in their behaviour, which was probably known not to be literally true by the writers and readers and never intended to be taken as such.

Hence the appearance of the “unicorn” in Scripture.  Whether or not the translators actually believed there was such an animal, the point is that it’s used to illustrate an allegory.  The actual cause of it being mentioned at all is down to the fact that human activity had reduced the biodiversity of the regions where the Tanakh had been compiled, but it doesn’t actually matter that much.

For the record, the NIV says “wild ox”.

5750000 Easter Sundays


Today is Easter Sunday, which is of course the primary “movable feast” in the church fullcyclecalendar, which is of course relevant to the other movable feasts.  Easter Sunday is supposed to fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox because it’s connected to the Jewish passover.  That’s complicated enough as it is, and it’s further complicated by the fact that it varies in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Western Churches, and complicated again by the fact that both the Vernal Equinox and the full moon are defined by the Church rather than by looking at the actual sky.  The equinox is fixed on 21st March and the ecclesiastical full moon, which is what the full moon as defined by the Church, is the fourteenth day of the ecclesiastical lunar month.  This differs from the real full moon, intervals between which can vary between 29.27 and 29.83 days.  There is a calculation referred to as computus which was instituted in 1583 by the Roman Catholic Church when it fixed the Vernal Equinox.  In 2015, Pope Francis proposed harmonising the date with the Orthodox Church, whose calendar is still Julian rather than Gregorian like ours, as a show of support.  The Julian calendar is around a fortnight behind ours because it treats all years ending in two zeroes as leap years whereas ours skips the ones which are not divisible by four.

It’s all a bit complicated and peculiar.  The “movable feasts”, whose dates depend on the dates of Easter, include, in the Western churches the days of rogation, the Global Day Of Prayer For Peace, Pentecost, Whitsun and the other Whit Days, the Feasts of Christ the Priest and the Crown of Thorns, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, Petertide, Sea Sunday, the Day Of Prayer For The Peace Of Jerusalem, World Communion and Mission Sundays, All Saints’ Day (which is surprising as Hallowe’en is  not movable), Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Quadragesima, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Quinquagesima, and no, I don’t know what all of those are.

As time goes by this planet rotates more slowly.  This is because it’s slowed by the Moon (I’m resisting calling it Cynthia although it does feel wrong to call it the Moon still), and as that happens the Moon moves outward from us and the month consequently gets longer.  This is because the energy of Earth’s spin is gradually being transferred to the Moon, which causes it to orbit faster and therefore move out and take longer to orbit.  Meanwhile, the date of the Vernal Equinox varies because the ellipse that is our orbit round the sun gradually moves like a spirograph pen would.  Various other things happen as well.  Consequently, the question arises of how many Easters there can possibly be according to computus.

How can we know how long the day was in prehistoric times?  The answer is that there are certain living things, and other processes, which occur in daily cycles, and rings can be counted in shells and corals which also have seasonal variations according to hot and cold.  Also, layers of silt can be laid down and baked seasonally, forming a primitive calendar.  The further back you go, the more days there are per year.  This would mean either that the days are getting longer or that the years are.  However, if the years were getting longer it would mean our orbit used to be smaller and the planet would have been much hotter unless the sun was warming at precisely the same rate as the orbit was widening.  For some reason the day, though it lengthens constantly, doesn’t do so particularly steadily.  At around the time of the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, the day was around twenty minutes shorter than it is now, so there were around 370 days a year.  That was 65 million years ago.  Go back to the beginning of the age of dinosaurs, which was 120 million years earlier, though, and the day was only half an hour shorter than it is now, so it’s not slowing in linear terms.

The year currently lasts about 365.25 days.  Incidentally, there is no definitive day length because it depends on whether it’s measured by when the sun, stars or Moon rises, all of which are different.  Leaving that aside, the question arises of when there were last 366 days in a year and when there will be exactly 365 days.  The answer to the first question is that it was true around 20 million years ago, when there were definitely apes but none of them were particularly human-like.  With reference to Easter and Passover, that point isn’t particularly important because this is about religious festivals.  However, since we do now have Abrahamic religion, the question arises of how long it would make sense to adhere to such a calendar.  This calendar, with its leap years generally every four years skipping one every few centuries, will cease to make sense once there are exactly 365 days a year.  By that time the month will also be longer and the date of the Vernal Equinox will have changed – it will in fact have cycled completely round the calendar a couple of hundred times.

The answer is that it will be roughly 5 700 000 years from now when Easter, along with various other aspects of this calendar, ceases to make sense according to that reckoning.  By an interesting coincidence, it so happens that if the days, years, position of the Vernal Equinox and length of the month are all assumed to be constant, the cycle of possible dates on which Easter Sunday falls repeats exactly over the same period of time – 5 700 millenia.  Hence the cycle coincides quite closely to the number of possible dates on which Easter can fall before which the calendar as it currently stands stops working completely.

The bar graph at the top of this post represents the number of possible Easter Sundays in this cycle.  It so happens that this is also the actual number of possible Easter Sundays in all time, from the first Passover right up until the sun becomes a red giant and wipes out the Earth.  Easter as we know it will by some quirk happen roughly 220 875 times on 19th April, standing out as more frequent than the other possible dates.  The rarest date, 22nd March, will only take place 28 500 times or so.  The first year it occurred on 19th April after the Council of Nicaea, which determined the date in 325, was 330.

As a Christian, I just slightly wonder if that 19th April date was the actual date of the first Easter Sunday, but I haven’t done the maths on that and I should probably just leave it.

Another consequence of movable feasts is that they mean that the years on which the same dates occur on the same days of the week, for instance 1978 and 2017, are nevertheless different in other ways.  Easter Sunday 1978 fell on 26th March.  Therefore any “perpetual” calendar (which isn’t, because of what I just said) would need to take the date of Easter into consideration to be genuinely reliable from the perspective of a Christian-influenced culture.

The other thing this makes me think, though, is how Easter could possibly have any meaning at all in getting on for six million years from now.  I mentioned in the last post that there are different “theories of atonement”.  Similarly there are different theories of eschatology, the study of the end of the world, and where these are Christian they don’t all require the Day of Judgement will come to pass at all.  It still seems to me that for Christianity as most Christians currently understand it to be true, surely it would’ve blown it if the Second Coming still hadn’t happened by the year 5 700 000 AD.  I don’t know what I think, but I do think there is no way there will be 5 700 000 celebrations of Easter Sunday.