Hoverhome, Sweet Hoverhome

Life is a bridge: build therefore no house upon it

– Fake Buddha (also attributed to Jesus and others)

This is a painting of what I’ve generally thought of as the “In-Between House” in the Lake District town of Ambleside, previously in Westmorland though that county along with the Furness peninsula of Lancashire merged with Cumberland into Cumbria in 1974. This fact makes it a little harder to establish what I thought I knew about this edifice, which was that it was deliberately built between two counties on a bridge in order to avoid paying dues to either side. I now doubt very much that this is true because I don’t think it was on a border between two counties.

London Bridge also springs to mind in this respect – almost an entire town built on a bridge with its own gates and certain of its own rights compared to the rest of London. It was started in 1176 at Henry II’s behest, in memory of Thomas Becket, who had recently been murdered due allegèdly to him being overheard – well, I’m sure you know the story so I won’t go on. The point is that London Bridge actually did have buildings on it, up to two hundred, some dangerously overhanging the river and in any case a major fire hazard, with waterwheels in the arches which slowed the water enough, supposedly, for it to freeze over more often than it otherwise would’ve done, thereby enabling frost fairs on the Thames itself. Notoriously, it was also used to display the heads of executed people pour encourager les autres, as can be seen in the above picture at Traitor’s Gate at bottom right, and is said to be responsible for traffic driving on the left in these isles, with the single exception of Savoy Court:

(Note the position of the van).

Arthur C. Clarke once imagined that where we were going we wouldn’t need roads, because by the 1990s wheeled vehicles would be a thing of the past and hovercraft would’ve taken over. This is quite possibly the wrongest thing anyone has ever said, except for all the other things people have said like that, such as “guitar bands are on their way out, Mr Epstein”. It didn’t happen. It’s like airships but the other way round, because unlike those, which are highly fuel-efficient, Ground Effect Machines (GEMs) or Air Cushion Vehicles (ACVs) are extremely fuel-hungry, noisy and don’t turn corners easily. Active noise cancellation could make them somewhat quieter – you play the usual noise something makes but “turn the waves upside down” as it were, cancelling it out. They seem to be intrinsically noisy, which is very saddening, partly because noise, being energy, suggests they could potentially be made more efficient by making them quieter. The difficulty in steering makes them hard to use as routine modes of transport. The terrible fuel economy is offset a little by the fact that they would render roads obsolete but it’s not enough. They’re chiefly useful on surfaces which are not firm such as marshland and water.

The ground effect, which is the increased lift and reduced drag experienced by pilots just above a solid or liquid surface in an atmosphere, is also exploited by another type of vehicle which is though much rarer even than a hovercraft: the ekranoplan. This is basically a heavily-built plane which never gets above the level at which the surface effect is significant. It has wings but doesn’t really fly. They’re more efficient than aeroplanes or ships, avoiding drag from water and benefitting from the lift near the surface and travel faster than ships but are practically unknown outside the former Warsaw Pact countries.

Back to hovercraft though. I used to be so keen on hovercraft that as a child I had a blueprint of the SR.N-4 on my bedroom wall on an enormous piece of tracing paper. Even as an adult, Sarada once gave me a toy working hovercraft, which unfortunately I broke almost immediately by getting my hair wrapped round the fan. I also once had a crush on someone whose father was a hovercraft pilot, which is a demonstration of what it was to live in the one part of Britain where hovercraft were actually used in earnest – there used to be a significant number of hovercraft pilots in Kent. Later on, it came to me that there was a problem with living on the land or the water because in the former case you either have to buy land or pay rent which ultimately ends up in the pocket of the person or organisation owning the land, and in the latter you have to pay mooring fees or keep moving. In other words, you have to pay to live aside from the need for food, clothes and shelter, which is problematic because it may not be possible to approve what’s then done with the money. Dropping out of the rat race won’t work either because in order to get there you have to have been able to derive an income from somewhere so you can buy the land you need to build your house on or live off, so it could very well be “dirty money” which you’ve acquired by doing harm to the world and society. Living on a boat usually means you have to pay people to stay in a particular place unless you stay on the high seas, which brings its own problems.

The solution would therefore seem to be to live on a hovercraft. Since you’re not actually on a surface, you don’t need to pay anyone rent or mooring fees. The drawback is that you constantly have to burn fuel, or use whatever energy source you had before, because as soon as you let your craft sink to the ground or water you’re going to start incurring debt. Arthur C Clarke’s solution was efficient electrical storage or nuclear batteries, and the latter would work but at the cost of being very hazardous and polluting. Fusion power would also work but apart from the slight snag that it doesn’t exist, it is actually quite wasteful as the onslaught of radiation would make any housing brittle and needing to be replaced regularly.

This is not, however, a solution even if the energy problem is solved (and personally I wonder if the answer is to go into international waters and float for a bit, but it probably isn’t). This is because a hovercraft doesn’t count legally as a ship or road vehicle but as an aircraft, and is therefore subject to Civil Aviation Authorities. It’s also illegal to drive them “over” roads, which is a little unfair because the wear and tear would be minimal compared to wheeled vehicles. They’re subject to road vehicle regulations under the Hovercraft Act 1968, but the DVLA won’t tax them and car insurance firms won’t insure them, so although they would be legal, they can’t actually be piloted over the public highway. In view of the noise and the cornering problem, this probably isn’t a bad thing, but in themselves, they’re very safe. There’s only ever been one fatal hovercraft accident since they were invented, although it should be borne in mind that they’re not very common so this may be misleading.

There are no wheeled animals. Rotifers seem to have wheels but in fact these are halos of cilia which beat in a rotary fashion, and those only work because they’re small. Larger animals wouldn’t even be able to use those for locomotion. There are organisms whose locomotory organs or organelles are not directly connected to their bodies, which is one of the problems a living thing would encounter with a wheel if it needs to move it. Muscles, nerves and blood and lymph vessels would all get twisted unless the entire organ is “dead”. The rotary motion of bacteria and other microörganisms is achieved by positive and negative charges on the rotor and its housing, propelled by the usual reaction pathways which liberate energy from food. They don’t need anything like a blood supply or nerves because bacteria and other organisms with them are so small. It doesn’t scale.

By User:Fir0002 – own work of Fir0002, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1391928

Hovering, though, is something animals can do, hoverflies being an obvious example, although what a hoverfly does has little to do with the surface effect. Ekranoplan-type hovering, close to the ground with wings, is presumably how the earliest birds started to fly unless they began as gliders. Closer to hovercraft are the gastropods – slugs and snails. Even closer are the turbellarian flatworms such as the planarian, who secrete a layer of slime near a surface underwater (usually, there are also land-living flatworms) through which they swim using so-called “flame cells” on their undersides. These are cells with beating cilia which they use to push them along. Neither gastropods nor planaria, though, use an air cushion.

I have a vague memory of an idea for a non-sentient alien called a “hoverduck”. This was a duck-shaped animal who did move around on an air cushion, and the idea isn’t mine although I have recently elaborated it rather. Hoverducks have duck-like bills on their heads but lack jaws. Instead, they employ the wide slit at the front of these rigid bills to suck air in, containing small organisms and other living matter such as pollen and spores but also tiny aerial plants and flying or floating animals. These get stuck to filters in their pharynxes, where they go on to be digested and they then expel the air and waste products through their undersides to provide themselves with lift. They move around by aiming jets of air in various directions. Like ducks on this planet, they live on water, breathe air and can in a sense fly. In fact they superficially resemble ducks. I’ve been haunted by this image for over forty years and have no idea where it originates.

In conclusion then, there are a lot of nice things we can’t have. We can’t have airships and we can’t have hovercraft. We can’t even have hoverhomes, although we can live in airships, perhaps on Venus (but that’s another story). But one thing we could have, or rather encounter, is hoverducks, so all is not lost.

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The One Without The Zeppelins?

Airship-filled skies are a cliché of alternate history fiction, to the extent that were we to take them as literal samples of possible worlds, our own timeline could be accurately characterised as “The One Without The Zeppelins”. In the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’, the famous detective notices “the dog that didn’t bark in the night”, which is of course an inspiration for Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime’. Before I get too scattered, I want to ask the crucial questions: Is the general non-use of airships in our timeline relatively improbable? Does our non-use of them depend on an event which could easily have gone differently? In the jargon of alternate history fiction, what’s our POD – Point Of Divergence?

One reason we don’t really have airships nowadays apart from the occasional advertising blimp such as the Goodyear Airship is that because they were filled with hydrogen, they got the reputation of tending to explode. There were two reasons for using hydrogen rather than helium. One was that the mass of molecular hydrogen, or at least protium, that is, hydrogen-1, is only half that of helium and therefore it’s somewhat more buoyant, and the other is that helium is much more expensive than hydrogen because on this planet it’s much rarer, even though it’s the second most abundant element, making up something like ten percent of all atomic matter in the Universe. This is because helium does not readily combine with other elements and therefore rises after its formation through the atmosphere and ends up in space. However, unlike most other non-radioactive elements, helium is constantly being produced by the rocks of this planet. This is due to the fact that helium consists of neutralised alpha particles, which are pairs of protons and neutrons bound together and are a common emission of unstable elements. Helium is occasionally trapped in deposits of natural gas because the rocks above them don’t let the gas through, and this is the main source of helium for us. By contrast, hydrogen is readily available despite being lighter than helium because it combines easily with other elements, forming compounds such as water and crude oil, and in fact hydrogen is present in more compounds than any other element, even carbon. It can fairly easily be extracted by passing a current through acidified water, or by the action of strong acids on metals. It’s also the most common element of all, comprising around nine-tenths of all atoms. That said, its eagerness to combine itself with, for example, oxygen, also known as combustion, does make it potentially very hazardous.

There are currently only about two dozen blimps in the world, of which only half are operational. The Hindenburg disaster put paid to their use as passenger craft, and was not the only calamity. The R101 above, publicly-funded rival of the private R100, was on its way from Bedfordshire to Karachi when it crashed in France, the immediate cause being a sudden downdraught, although there was a major fire which killed most of the people on board. There were other factors involved, such as the possible lack of experience of the crew, and it put paid to any further attempts by the British to develop passenger airships. That was in 1930, and the Hindenburg crash was in 1937. Although the R100 was more successful, it made no more flights after the R101 crash and was decommissioned. However, by the time of the Hindenburg disaster, heavier than air flight had been much improved and the chances are they would’ve been superceded anyway.

Airships were the largest flying machines ever built. They were often over two hundred metres long, in other words the same kind of scale as ocean liners and supertankers. To me at least they have an immense romantic magnetism to them and it really saddens me that they didn’t, er, take off. It must have been an amazing experience to see a vehicle of that size fly over, and an even more remarkable experience to fly in one. I have to confess that I don’t know what improvements were made in heavier than air craft which would’ve enabled them to take over anyway, so right now I can’t answer the questions I posed myself above. However, clearly if heavier than air flight had been developed later this would have extended the career of airships.

Airships are slower than planes and need to be much larger to carry the same weight because the entire mass of the airship with passengers and cargo has to be lighter than the equivalent volume of air. Air has a density of 1/800 that of water. The largest airship ever built was around two hundred metres long and thirty-three metres in diameter. Assuming this to be a cylinder, the equivalent weight of air is 206 tonnes. This is the maximum weight an object of those dimensions can have in this planet’s atmosphere at sea level and still be passively buoyant, as opposed to having to use some other force to hold or push it up. A cylinder of that size consisting entirely of hydrogen would weigh almost thirty and one of helium sixty tonnes. This gives the designer a completely laden additional weight of only 176 tonnes in the first place and 146 in the second. There are other possible lifting gases, the most obvious being ammonia, methane and neon. Neon weighs about half as much as air and is very rare on Earth despite being the fifth most abundant element in the Universe because like helium it doesn’t combine and it’s light enough to leave the atmosphere easily without being easily replenished. Methane and ammonia both weigh about the same as neon, but methane has the same drawback as hydrogen of being highly inflammable. Ammonia is quite toxic but only slightly inflammable and, like methane, can be produced by biochemical processes, although the Haber process is usually how it’s produced industrially. Even so, an ammonia-filled airship of that size has something like a hundred spare tonnes for the structure, cargo, fuel and passengers and to me looks like the best option. It might also be feasible to improve the buoyancy of an airship by turning it into a giant wing which provided some lift, or possibly by heating the lifting gas to reduce its density, which would then need to be kept away from oxygen.

Airships have one major advantage over planes – fuel economy and everything which follows from that, namely much reduced pollution. There are even pedal-powered airships, although much smaller than the Hindenburg or R101. This could lead to their adoption for air travel over planes at some point, although their speed is somewhat problematic as they’re much slower. Another advantage is that they can transport people and goods to inaccessible locations without the need to build roads or rail and without disrupting points between with noise and other pollution to the same extent.

Zeppelins were used for air raids in the Great War. This photo shows the aftermath of the sort of accidental bombing of Loughborough on the night of 31st January 1916, which killed ten and injured 150. This happened because the blackout had been enforced successfully in Leicester but not here, making us an easy target. The bombs were dropped on the Rushes. Apparently they thought they’d hit Liverpool and Sheffield, which strikes me as very odd because it’s hard to imagine that their ability to navigate was that primitive at that point. I’m probably missing something.

Air raids of that sort were ruled out in the Second World War due to the advances in aeronautics and the fact that slow airships filled with hydrogen were ridiculously vulnerable to attack. War also tends to give technological change and to some extent progress a boost, meaning that the War dealt the death blow to the already ailing dirigible. Hence with a little tinkering with the Treaty of Versailles, World War II could have been prevented and this might have slightly extended their lifetime, although things were already looking grim for them at this juncture. But without the War, perhaps they could have lasted into the 1950s, though a rather different 1950s than in OTL (Our Time Line).

There are niche applications for airships, such as the advertising function of the Goodyear Blimp and cruises and safaris, but Zeppelin World has widespread airships all over the place in the present day, so that doesn’t cut it. There is a slight advantage in the availability of lighter materials in recent times, and another is that they can moor over urban areas, unlike planes which for a long time needed to land away from cities, although this requires them not to explode. If they used for tours, it might make sense for tourist hotspots like London to have dirigible-filled skies, so the scene near the start of ‘Rise Of The Cybermen’ is realisable but not necessarily Lumic travelling there by airship, which suggests that they’re a routine, though possibly luxury, mode of transport. This is cheating though, because we’re clearly supposed to imagine widespread use.

Maybe the situation could arise by slowing the development of planes rather than accelerating that of airships. This would probably need a serendipitous discovery or two to go the other way. Again I don’t know enough about the history of aviation to suggest such a change. Or, maybe it could slow for social or political reasons. For instance, just as a major disaster was a minor factor in the end of airships, something like the early development of passenger planes resulting in multiple crashes, or maybe even an early 9/11-type scenario, would result in a taboo surrounding planes. A third possibility is lobbying or the failure to discover fossil fuel resources. On the whole, like my Caroline Timeline, an apparently simple change in the present day can only happen due to multiple changes in the past and vice versa.

Hence a series of PODs could lead to airships being routine, at least in niche uses, steadily later. The Treaty of Versailles being altered to be more sympathetic to the losers would have prevented Nazism, the Second World War and the Cold War, and as a side-effect, slowed the advance of heavier than air aviation, probably allowing a dirigible-dominated 1950s. The use of helium rather than hydrogen could also be a factor here, though only a minor one because in fact the Hindenburg disaster was only the final nail in the coffin. Conversely, early development of heavier than air passenger flights with a series of crashes would put the public off planes, although it might just make them generally more fearful of flying. A “helium lobby” active in government, fewer fossil fuels being found, environmentalism taking off earlier, all of these things could have propelled them further forward.

Or, it could just be as simple as Thomas Cook deciding to invest in airship cruises and tours and successfully marketing them, meaning that the more picturesque touristy parts of the world would just have them without a general adoption for more routine purposes. This, in the end, is probably the simplest scenario.

When it comes down to it then, we aren’t “The One Without The Zeppelins” at all. The ones with them are the odd ones out, not us.

Zeerust

The real Zeerust is a town in South Africa, but like “derby” and being “sent to Coventry” the name now has a life of its own, although perhaps only in a select circle, being one of the words in Douglas Adams’s ‘The Meaning Of Liff’ which was adopted and given a new meaning, namely the oddly dated feel which “futuristic” style acquires after a few years. It would be retrofuturism, but unlike that it isn’t doing it on purpose. Analysing the word, clearly “rust” represents the corrosion or patina forming on something after some time, like verdigris, and “zee” has the futuristic or alien Z at the beginning, which is perhaps trying too hard or has a kind of dated element to it where it was once thought to be a good way of demonstrating the shape of things to come. Once.

During my childhood in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, Art Deco seemed absolutely dreadful. It seemed to be trying to be ultramodern, but before a time when anyone even really knew what modern was yet. It had a kind of distinctive uncoolness like the one mysteriously acquired by parents just as their children enter adolescence, and it hadn’t yet been able to make its peace with the latter days as it now has. Somehow, this has managed to reinvent itself as something which is quaint rather than irritating. This is in contrast with the products of the ’60s:

This is the SUMPAC – the Southampton University Man-Powered Craft, dating from 1961, hence the sexism. In the series of various human-powered vehicles, this was the first one which to me looked “modern”. Earlier craft looked to me like bat-waterlily hybrids, but this one, and even more so its contemporary HMPAC Puffin, whose royalty-free image I can’t find, actually looked contemporary to me. The SUMPAC suffers a little in this respect due to the wooden frame. Later still there came the Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross, which to me looked beyond contemporary:

This photo doesn’t do the aircraft justice, and looking at it now, it does actually look a little old-fashioned, but I wonder if this is to do with the ageing of the materials from which it was made rather than the vehicle itself. This effect leads to a misleading impression of the past, that it looked shabby and worn out, when in fact it didn’t. The past was bright and colourful, often streamlined and, well, youthful is one word which springs to mind. Machines, buildings and other artifacts do wear out of course, so we have the grainy, scratched, dust-covered black and white cinematography now, but it hasn’t always been that way, and all of this was not only fresh in terms of technological development but also in its general appearance and performance. Even taking all this away, I can convince myself that this is in fact rather old-fashioned.

A particularly vivid personal example of how media ages intrinsically is the Tornados’ ‘Telstar’, alleged to be Margaret Thatcher’s favourite record. This is the real Telstar 1:

This was the first active communications satellite able to relay television, launched in 1962. The single, to me, had a kind of utopian, “ages of plenty” feel as satirised by Donald Fagen in his ‘I.G.Y’, and yes, even in the early 1970s and beyond it did feel futuristic to me. Then at some point my brother told me, “you were born in 1967” and I realised that the only reason I liked it was that I was past it.

James Laver, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum who died in 1975, made an interesting observation regarding this process referred to today as “Laver’s Law”. Although he applies it to fashion in clothing, it can probably be applied more widely with a bit of modification. He claimed that the process of acceptance and rejection went through the following processes over the timescale mentioned:

  • Ten years before coming into fashion, something is considered indecent. One example would be the wearing of apparent underwear on top of outerwear which occurred in the 1980s but would definitely have been considered indecent in 1975 (notably before punk took off)
  • One year before coming into vogue, a sartorial decision would be considered shameless. It’s attention-grabbing in a way which shocks people, though not quite enough to get you arrested. Surprisingly from our perspective, there’s a possibly aprocryphal tale that when the haberdasher John Hetherington first wore a top hat in public in 1797, he was arrested for causing a breach of the peace. If this is true it suggests that it hadn’t even reached the point of shamelessness by that stage.
  • When in fashion, styles are considered smart. I’m not sure this is true because punk, for example, or the fashion of wearing denim with holes in it, isn’t supposed to look smart. I think this is either a rule of thumb or considered inaccurate. It doesn’t necessarily work even for Laver’s own area of focus because during the Restoration, for example, men’s fashion was about exuberance and to some extent shock. Nonetheless, I can see that this is often true although it often takes a while for clothing to get adopted into the formal mainstream.
  • One year after being in fashion, it’s considered dowdy. This raises further questions in my mind because it isn’t clear how long something stays in fashion and why. Nonetheless this kind of makes sense, although “dowdy” doesn’t feel like quite the right word. It’s more that the cognoscenti would see someone as out of touch with the latest trends.
  • A decade after, previously fashionable items become hideous. The classic example of this is of course flared trousers as considered in the ’80s, and it took a pretty long time for them to become rehabilitated. These along with wide collars, sideburns and kipper ties were absolutely iconic of hideous fashion as considered in about 1985. Likewise, the same applies to padded shoulders in the mid-1990s – they were a decade out of fashion and considered ugly. Personally I still think they’re ugly but that’s probably just me.
  • Another decade later, the fashions have become ridiculous. One again I would cite kipper ties in the ’90s and shoulder pads in the ‘noughties. Presumably it also means that in the post-war period, the “flapper” silhouette would also have seemed that way, but I wasn’t there.
  • A decade on from that, they become amusing, and certainly that can be seen with early 1990s trends nowadays. However, it isn’t clear whether this prevents things from coming back into vogue in an ironic way, like T-shirts with heavy metal band names on them for example.
  • Two decades further still, they have become quaint. With my just over half century of life, this places what was “in” at the time of my birth into the quaintness zone, so this would mean the military jackets and miniskirts of the late ’60s. Again, I’m not clear that those are now quaint.
  • At the century mark, romanticism is evoked. This would be 1920s fashions, more or less, at this point, but to me this would seem to range further, into the War years, possibly due to the separation of lovers and the danger involved giving lots of opportunities for that kind of thing.
  • Finally, a century and a half after something is in style it’s considered beautiful.

That’s fashion, perhaps substantially different to other aspects of daily life such as popular culture, architectural styles, gadgets and so on. This also illustrates that there’s a link between our feelings about this stuff and events of that era, and at times our perception of those events can strike chords in contemporary experience. For instance, someone living in the ’60s or ’70s would probably find the pessimistic and cynical tone of ’30s literature, such as ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’, harder to relate to than they would a decade later, assuming they had themselves moved with the times.

Attempting to apply this to design styles of the past, Art Deco, popular in the 1920s and 1930s, ought to look romantic to us now, and it probably does, but the imagery I have in mind right now is Fritz Langs ‘Metropolis’, which in fact seems quaint, although it seems to have done so for at least four decades now.

Much of this nowadays is presumably manufactured and manipulated by capitalism and its need to get people to throw things away and buy new products all the time. Fast fashion might also be expected to accelerate that, and it clearly does apply to retro tech and the like. Here’s my current mobile phone:

(Excuse the fingernails). This is the updated Nokia 3310. Around decades ago, we owned the original 3310:

This is of course considered a design classic, and although there are similarities between the current “3310” and the original, it seems to be considered that nowadays people wouldn’t be able to put up with the lack of features on the above device. This is true to an extent even for me, although I find the inclusion of a camera very irritating because the only time I use it is accidentally when I’ve pressed the wrong button. The main point is, though, that there are only seventeen years between the announcement of the first version and the revival. This is quite concerning in view of the ongoing ecological catastrophe. It’s notable, though, that our daughter’s car and my mobile have a similar aesthetic:

By Vauxford – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69773718

This similarity, which is accidental, is nonetheless interesting because it suggests that our daughter and I have similar tastes, although commercialism circumscribes the pool of choices.

The extent to which fashion has no progressive context is another point. One criticism of Kuhnian views of scientific change is that they don’t seem to allow for the idea of advancement. A scientific theory is entrenched and then demolished when the new generation reaches a position of influence, without there having to be much to choose between the two theories, and this has been compared to the vagaries of fashion. In fact I’m not convinced they just happen, because such influences as fast fashion, for example, mean that the terribly unsustainable and environmentally hazardous polyester is currently extremely popular and the fact that so many clothes are bought online currently means that consumers don’t get to see and touch them, meaning that how they can be made to look in online images is more important than how they actually look and satisfy the other senses on being worn. Then again, because so much of our interaction is online anyway nowadays, it might matter less personally because they really do primarily have to look good in selfies and on YouTube and Facebook anyway, perhaps “appropriately” filtered. Nonetheless there is progress in fashion, for example the late nineteenth century Rational Dress Movement aiming to make clothing more practical and comfortable. And sadly, in the realm of architecture appearance can become more prized than safety and people’s lives, as the Grenfell travesty demonstrates. We may not be crushing the lives out of our viscera with corsets nowadays, but we’re still choking people with flammable cladding for aesthetic purposes.

By J-P Kärnä – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28007325

I’m conscious of a shift in what counts as futuristic. As a child in the 1970s, my initial understanding of the futuristic included white and silver streamlining with round portholes, rather like the above Futuro house designed in the late ’60s and made of fibreglass or Cousteau’s Conshelf experimental underwater dwelling. Then I became aware of a second style of “futurism” which I thought of as “blue and silver”, with a kind of rectilinear approach similar to the illustrations of spacecraft made by Chris Foss. However, for some time I thought of these two as two visions of the futuristic rather than one being more futuristic than the other, although eventually “blue and silver” won out. This is also associated with airbrushing – precise control of quantity and direction of pigment popular in the 1980s.

I want to finish by returning to Douglas Adams. I think I’ve quoted exactly this before on here but unfortunately I don’t tag anything so I’ll just do it again. You may wish to join me in applying it to your own life:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Yoga – Fabric Of Reality

Sarada is of course a very dedicated and adept Yogi, whose practice has been consistent back to 1990 at the latest. Although my own practice of Yoga is much longer than this – it goes back into my early childhood in a sense – I am terribly spotty and inconsistent in terms of doing asanas. But Yoga has eight limbs, including in particular Karma Yoga, and to some degree I’ve been more consistent there.

In recent years there have been attempts to claim intellectual property regarding certain activities referred to as “yoga” and I’m not going to dignify those by naming them. From about twenty years ago I noticed that when I mentioned Yoga people would sometimes ask me what kind I meant. My answer would be along the lines of which of the eight limbs I was referring to, but they tended to have some kind of “brand” in mind. This if anything shows that we are in the age of Kali Yuga, the final age of Discord ushered in, to some, by Lord Krsna’s departure.

I’ve been accused of cultural appropriation for even discussing carvaka and samkhya. Another move in India is to declare Yoga an Olympic event, which to a subculture focussing on avoiding end-gaining seems contradictory. It could of course be that our Western version of Yoga is not that close to Indian takes on it, and it’s been said too that the Indian practice tends to be more rajasic because that’s what they need compared to the Western rajasic culture, which needs a more sattvic approach. And with that I’ve mentioned two of the three guṇas. I’ll come back to those.

I would say this about cultural appropriation in this context. Both carvaka and samkhya are asserted to be metaphysical systems which embrace the whole of reality, in a similar manner to the Standard Model of nuclear physics. That model is used in all sorts of ways world-wide, such as in the treatment of cancer, the manufacture of lasers, nuclear power stations, heart pacemakers and nuclear weapons. Not all of these are morally justifiable but they are simply part of the fabric of reality as Western science sees it. It’s completely absurd to claim carvaka or samkhya as one’s own, and for the same reasons Yoga belongs to the world. But it’s also part of the fabric of reality, in a similar or perhaps even identical manner to nuclear physics.

CERN has a statue of Śiva representing the cosmic dance of subatomic particles and its parallel in Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, the cosmic dance, hands in gajahastra mudra and abhaya mudra. Abhaya means “fear not” and the arm doing it is entwined by a cobra. Gajahastra represents Ganesh, the elephant god, remover of obstacles. In fact the whole statue, which is a common feature of Hinduism, is replete with symbols, which often vary between depictions.

A mudra, incidentally, is a gesture, often performed with the hands or fingers, and I’ve used them in my herbal practice, particularly with respiratory issues, as I have pranayama, as they can be used to change patterns of breathing. The breath is a link between the consciousness and the body because it’s partly under voluntary control and partly not, to a greater extent than many other bodily functions, at least as far as novices are concerned.

Yoga is not just meditation (Raja Yoga), asanas (Hatha Yoga) and breathing (Pranayama) although it includes all of these. It also includes Kriyas – cleansing practices – and much more wide-ranging aspects, although it might be said that Raja Yoga, involving as it does unity with the Cosmos, is in itself pretty wide-ranging. The awareness it brings of the body is awareness of a physical object, a manifestation of the Divine (we are made in God’s image and one with Brahma), and our awareness of ourselves and our place as part of the world can bring with it consciousness of the ground of the real. The dietary aspect of Yoga, for example, involves vegetarianism because everything has a consciousness and we need to practice ahimsa. Jainism would of course say that there are subatomic particles called karmons which adhere to the soul and weigh it down, and that our detachment is a physically mediated process like discharging static electricity and enabling a statically-charged object to shed its dust. Jain physics and cosmology is potentially quite in conflict with the Standard Model for a number of reasons, as is its assertion that Earth is flat and at the centre of the moving part of the Universe with India at its own centre.

There’s a tendency to label all traditional Indian thought as Hinduism unless it’s specifically Sikh, Jain or Buddhist. This leads to the interesting phenomenon of including Carvaka (radical scepticism) and Samkhya (my own ontology) in Hinduism. It could also be said that one of the idiosyncracies of Western ways of looking at religion is that we tend to think of “religions”, i.e. a series of items which are separate both from each other and everyday life, rather than the religious aspect of our lives which we all share, because it’s “binding together”, the literal meaning of religion. Talking of binding together, Yoga is cognate with the word “yoke” and means “to join”, as Yoga joins together mind, body and spirit. And this is where one might be expected to run into difficulties if one is Christian, because Christianity is meant to have all the answers and Yoga would therefore be superfluous. There are, though, two proble Ims with this. One is that there could be a deep unity between faiths, and the other is that if Yoga is like the Standard Model in being a working apprehension of reality, not practicing Yoga is a bit like refusing to use electricity for religious reasons. And that is a valid position, but it doesn’t seem to be seen by most Christians who are opposed to Yoga as such.

Even so, it can help to ground Yoga in a wider perspective about the nature of reality, and to me there is in fact some hard to eradicate discomfort about its apparent spiritual implications. I’m comfortable with seeing Christ as a Yogi who among other things was able to command the wind and the waves and overcome real death (not a “swoon”) because of his realisation of the Godhead. In Him, the Divine and the human are the same, so He practices Yoga. They’re yoked and the same thing. It has unsurprisingly been claimed that in the missing period of Jesus’s life, he went to India and became a guru, but it’s not necessary to suppose that because Christ’s oneness with God is accessible everywhere in the Universe and at least available to us through Him, and it seems to me that very few Christians would disagree with that. A sufficiently advanced Yogi, though, would indeed be able to heal the sick, raise the dead and turn water into wine, because such a Yogi would be unified with the Universe.

That would probably sound blasphemous to many Christians, and I don’t wish to detract from Christ’s divinity in saying that. It makes me uncomfortable as well, and for this reason Sarada and I may have what amounts to a minor disagreement. It’s just about the fundamental nature of reality, that’s all, and what’s that amount to within a marriage? We haven’t talked about it for a long time, but my understanding is that Sarada is Vedantist. Vedanta translates literally as “wits’ end”, as it means “the end of the Vedas”, and the Vedas are wisdom, i.e. “wit”. It’s one of the six schools, astikas, of what’s referred to as Hindu philosophy but may be better thought of as the philosophy found in the Indian subcontinent. Now I’m not passing judgement at all, but I prefer not to involve the idea of deities in my view of Yoga because to me it seems there’s a potential risk of conflict with Christianity, and since deep down I know there’s no incompatibility there I choose to go the other way and instead adopt Samkhya.

Incidentally there are also the nastika, non-Hindu, schools of philosophy, namely Jainism, Buddhism, Carvaka, Ajivika and Ajñana. Because we tend to use Greek and Latin in our terminology in the West, the last three might sound like obscure branches of outdated and irrational thought, but in fact Carvaka is empiricism and Ajñana radical scepticism, perhaps even Pyrrhonism. Rejecting them merely because of the name is tantamount to the racism which leads people to pronounce “Kyoto” “kie-oetoe”. Oddly, it would also parallel the Hindu nationalist tendency to ask us to reject the same, and maybe one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend.

Samkhya is closest to Yoga and therefore fits it very well. If you want to think of Yoga as primarily Hatha Yoga, i.e. asanas, you can maybe look at those as discoveries or inventions like batteries, radio receivers or light bulbs applying the fundamental principles underlying the Universe to address issues in everyday life, including physical and mental health. Hatha Yoga and the rest partakes of the fabric of reality, and consequently thinking of it as distinctively Indian or Hindu is like thinking of the Standard Model as distinctively Christian or Western. The Universe consists of puruṣa (consciousness) and prakṛti (the physical world). That is, as a panpsychist, I recognise that consciousness is an inextricable property of matter, or more broadly the physical Universe, and a Jiva, which for me is any physical entity, is one in which there’s an entanglement between consciousness and the physical. One never occurs without the other in the physical Universe. The idea of God is seen as irrelevant to the physical Universe. Whereas I don’t agree that that’s true, to continue the analogy with the Standard Model, if the collapse of quantum superposition is ignored, God is indeed irrelevant to the workings of the Universe in this sense. It never helps to say “Goddidit” in science, and likewise it never helps in Yoga, even though it is ultimately true. I don’t believe in a God of the gaps although I do believe in a God of the “gapped”. I also believe in a God who sustains reality, but not in a creator God except in the sense that God creates the Universe at every instant, as God is the author of time and a good author probably wouldn’t include themselves as a character inside their book. You don’t usually start a novel with something like “Zerothly sat down at her notebook and picked up her pen.”

Samkhya prominently uses the three guṇas of sattva, tamas and rajas, the three “strands” of reality which inhere in every physical phenomenon in varying proportions. These are respectively the brightness, heaviness and power strands, and they correspond to an extent to bosons, fermions and the exertion of forces although this is more an extended metaphor than literal. Nietzsche envisaged a rather similar situation when he asserted that there is nothing but the Will To Power. That is, he recognised rajas and rejected the two others as illusory. In the primordial state of the Universe, the strands are in harmony and unified, then one leaves the balanced state and an instance of the Cosmos comes into being. After a prodigiously long period of time while the three strands get themselves sorted again and return to balance, unity and harmony, this condition returns, only for the process to repeat after a further inconceivably long interval.

This is in fact how I understand the Universe to operate. It’s even conceivable that this is really what the fermions and bosons of the Standard Model are, and it’s one reason I don’t believe in the Big Bang as the origin of the Universe. I do, however, also have a rational argument against that too which I’ll return to.

Think of the history of the Universe as we know it. It appears to have begun in a hot, dense state, then nearly fourteen thousand million years ago expansion started, and since then the initial disentanglement (not in the quantum physics sense) has continued to unwind in the form of the conscious physical Cosmos. Eventually, after the stars have died, black holes have absorbed baryonic matter and evaporated and so forth, the Universe will once again become quiescent, and but this quiescence there will be occasional truly random fluctuations in space, until at some point the conditions for another “Big Bang” come to pass and a Universe will begin again. This is strongly reminiscent to me of Samkhya cosmogony.

And this is why I don’t believe the Universe started with a Big Bang. Given eternity dominated by quiescence, the “condensation” of the Cosmic Egg out of the false vacuum will happen, if it happens at all, an infinite number of times, and a Universe as we know it, kind of, will play out over a period of time which is also unimaginably long. Given that, the chances of us currently being at the beginning of the Universe, only fourteen thousand million years from the Big Bang, are not just effectively but literally zero, and what we see as the evidence of the Big Bang is in fact just evidence for one of an infinite number of such events.

Hence I believe in Yoga as part of the fundamental structure of reality. Unfortunately, I still don’t do it enough. Sorry.

Young Earth, Old Earth, Evolution, Creationism

I accept that evolution is true and that this planet is around four thousand million years old. In fact I positively embrace these facts and see them as important to my faith. Creationism is a barrier to evangelism because it asks people to ignore their reasoning and believe in absurdities which are not in the spirit of the Bible (as opposed to those absurdities which are thoroughly Scriptural in nature), and also feeds pride, which is of course a sin. As mere humanity, we should accept our humble place in creation among the other animals, plants and other organisms, and believing that this world is ours to dominate rather than serve and that Earth was created for us is the height of arrogance. God cannot surely bless such attitudes.

Like Donald Rumsfeld’s “Unknown Unknowns“, the age of the planet and the denial or acceptance of evolution forms a kind of four-paned vitreous grid like the Johari Window, with four possible options. There’s Old Earth “evolutionism”, also known as “Reality”, Young Earth Creationism, those two being the most popular options, but also the relatively bizarre Old Earth Creationism and the apparently absent fourth option of Young Earth “evolutionism”. Maybe the final item is in fact represented by “Last Thursdayism”. I’m going to explore the common combinations first.

Old Earth “evolutionism” is the truth. “Teach the controversy” is an example of false balance. There is in fact no controversy. Instead, there are people who are well-educated and able and willing to use critical thinking skills, and there are people who are either poorly-educated in that area and do not think critically with respect to the subject. It does, however, make sense to study the conflict between the acceptance of well-established scientific facts and their rejection by various people and groups. I would claim, of course, that consistent elimination of false balance would lead to the acceptance of Green libertarian socialism and that claims to the contrary often result from propaganda against the acceptance of certain social and political facts such as anthropogenic climate change, but in the meantime the denial of the fact of evolution and an old Earth represents an interesting phenomenon.

Of the three other claims, the most frequent is Young Earth creationism. One of the odd things about the idea of the Universe or Earth being only a few thousand years old is that it was a minority opinion in ancient times and is only espoused by adherents to the Abrahamic religions and Zoroastrianism. Indian cosmology, and therefore the spiritual traditions associated with it, use vast timescales spanning aeons, and the Maya calendar likewise uses dates millions of years in the past and future from the heyday of their civilisation. Zoroastrians traditionally believed there were four three thousand year ages to the world, with a total duration of twelve millennia. Ahura Mazda created the cosmic egg to trap evil, and after three thousand years created the spiritual within that world. A decisive stage in the history of the battle of good and evil occurred with the birth of the saviour Zarathustra at the end of the third age, and the fourth age will end with the arrival of the Saoshyant, the final saviour who will usher in the Day of Judgement and the new world. This has obvious resemblances to Abrahamic faiths and seems to be ancestral to them, and it’s also somewhat Gnostic. By contrast, Jain cosmology deals with immense wheels of time (kalacakra) where the Universe exists ab æterno and goes through an endless succession of ages consisting of two half-turns of the wheel. The first is an ascent and the other a descent, lasting an inexpressibly long period of time, in whose penultimate and second worst phase we are currently living. It will be followed by a phase where people are only about one foot tall and live twenty years, after which things can only get better.

Hence the odd one out amongst cosmologies is the apparent view of the Abrahamic religions that the Universe and Earth are only a few thousand years old. However, it’s notable that the use of numbers in Indian thought is often not so much literal as an exercise in hyperbole. The sagaropama of Jain cosmogony is unimaginably long and doesn’t seem to be defined further. The more specific numbers used by Hindus such as the kalpa, do have specific lengths, in that case 4320 million years, are again not really there for mathematical purposes and it’s mainly our own science-influenced mindset which makes them seem like they’re, well, how to put it, meant in earnest? In fact they are meant in earnest, but that’s not the same as being intended literally. The larger numbers of Mayan and Indian cosmology are not really about the numbers. Likewise, our own attitudes towards the “begats” and the like of Biblical cosmology, adding them up and making the claim that the Universe was created at sunset on 22nd October 4004 BCE according to the Bible is the product of modernist rational thinking. What the Hebrews were trying to say to themselves in this has similarly tenuous connection to the actual duration apparently being measured. There are some points where it does become relevant, such as the telescoping of life spans before the Flood so that everyone dies at the same time, the steady shortening of life expectancy after the Flood and the “fact” of fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile and fourteen from the exile to the birth of Christ, but these are not chronological points. The deaths of Methuselah and Lamech in the same year indicate the Flood’s virtual obliteration of the human race, the shortening of life expectancies afterward the same kind of general decline and perhaps cursèdness after the Flood, and the equality of generation number may be something to do with God’s timing. The real difference between the Abrahamic use of dates and the Indian use of the same is that the rhetorical devices used are different. Both the Jains and the Christians agree that we are living in an age of decadence and degeneracy which is shortening our lives (and in the Jain case also our stature). It’s really not about the numbers themselves, and it’s only because we now have such a rationalistic approach to calculation that some think it has today. Hence that aspect of fundamentalism at least is a modern imposition on the text.

The precise articulation that Earth was created on 22nd October 4004 BCE was first made by Bishop James Ussher in 1654. John Lightfoot had calculated a similar claim in the 1640s when he said the year of Creation had been 3929 BCE (actually BC of course). The Jewish calendar, whose current year is 5779, uses a similar dating system, with the Messiah due according to some by the year 6000, which is 2239-2240 in our Gregorian calendar. Jehovah’s Witnesses have also made that claim, but according to the 4004 BCE reckoning, which places it in 1996, and is therefore a claim they no longer make. It makes sense that each millennium corresponds to a day of the week and the year 6000 ushers (no pun intended) in the ultimate Sabbath. I have myself seen the twenty-third century as the period of time when veganism becomes practically universal, which is a somewhat similar idea.

3761 BCE is not merely considered a date whence years can be numbered, but the actual year of the creation of the world, Anno Mundi. One of the reasons for these discrepancies is that there are different versions of the genealogy in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Tanakh) and the Vulgate (official Latin Bible) as well as different ways of counting the ages. Nonetheless doing this at all is a mistake which misunderstands the purpose of a sacred text.

Muslims are also often creationists who believe in a young Earth. In fact there are many officially Islamic countries where more than half the surveyed population are Young Earth Creationists (YECs) and there are Islamic biology textbooks which concentrate on producing evidence for creationism and against evolution. My sociology dissertation ‘Islamic Societies And The Great Transformation’ attempted among other things to examine the problems that might result from the apparent discrepancies between the cultural practices, often seen as religiously motivated, in societies regarding themselves as Islamic and the practice of science and technology, associated with a culturally post-industrial perspective in the West. This would be a possible example to the extent that evolutionary theory and geological support for the great age of the planet have technological and research implications.

Earth’s age was slowly revised upward. Edmund Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame, argued that Earth could not be infinitely old based on how salty the ocean is. The reason sea water is salty is that soluble minerals in rock, soil and the like are dissolved by fresh water in rain and rivers, and if the rate at which this occurs can be established, the idea was that it would enable one to calculate a limit to the planet’s age. However, this method wasn’t used until 1890, nearly two centuries later, and it gives a result of about 100 million years.

The eighteenth century geologist George-Louis Leclerc heated spheres of iron and timed how long they took to cool down, then extrapolated that to an iron sphere the size of this planet, which gave him an answer of seventy-five millennia. During the same century, James Hutton realised that the assumption that Earth was gradually wearing down from an initial “perfect” creation was incorrect because rocks were formed as well as eroded and weathered, and concluded that evidence for how old things were would be destroyed by these processes, meaning that Earth was very old but it was impossible to determine its age. This means that Hutton was one of the first people to assert that time was much longer than the Christian West had previously supposed, although he also decided it was unknowable, which nowadays is seen as incorrect.

With Charles Lyell, one of Hutton’s students, my own family history starts to get phased in because his classic Principles of Geology was actually bought new by one of my family and has been around in our various houses ever since. The latest edition dates from 1872. He was able to establish that rocks were sometimes laid down in successive layers and that in these layers different kinds of fossils were found according to their ages. The principles of change and the laying down of rocks really refutes the idea of an accurate figure being arrived at via Halley’s method, because a sea bed might dry out and become a salt flat or rock salt could form, potentially lowering oceanic salt, depending on how fast it gets added to by other processes.

In the late nineteenth century, Lord Kelvin threw a massive spanner in the works which is a good illustration of how the Kuhnian model of scientific change might operate. Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific revolutions occur when younger mavericks reach positions of influence, so that their ideas become accepted, and that scientific change is held back by old fogeys set in their ways. Lord Kelvin, unsurprisingly considering his name, was an important figure in the development of thermodynamics and based his estimate of Earth’s age, along with the age of the Sun, on that science. His belief that the Sun derived all of its heat and light energy from gravitational collapse led him to conclude that it was only twenty million years old, and that Earth must be between twenty million and four hundred million years old. He also tended to revise down his estimates. These were at odds with Lyell’s findings and since evolution was now accepted it began to seem rather unfeasible that our planet had only been around for that long. Nonetheless Kelvin’s beliefs tended to be accepted because he was so influential and respected even though to me it looks like he’d lost it by this stage. The reason for this discrepancy, it eventually emerged, was that at the time nobody knew about radioactivity and didn’t realise that both the Sun and Earth have a separate internal heat source caused by the fission (in our case) and fusion (in the Sun’s case) of atomic nuclei. This discovery, along with the awareness that different types of nuclei decay at known rates, enabled the age of the elements making up the rocks, and therefore that of the planet, to be estimately quite accurately at a little over a kalpa. In a way, the Indian philosophers were right, although they probably weren’t trying to be.

An old Earth is needed for evolution to work as an explanation for the development of life forms from the simple microscopic ancestors of all life into avocets, passion flowers and puffballs unless it took place very fast. One of the limits on the speed of evolution is how long it takes an organism to reproduce, which is one reason antibiotic resistance is becoming a problem now rather than in thousands of years’ time – some bacteria can reproduce within twenty minutes. Hence old Earth and evolution work together well.

But here’s the quandary. It makes sense, to a limited extent, for belief in a Young Earth to be coupled with creationism because there isn’t then time for evolution to make as much difference to what’s living here as what we actually see in the fossil record. However, this means that the option which nobody at all apparently believes in would be fine in this context. If life had just been created six thousand years ago, the larger organisms haven’t had much time to evolve. For certain species of tree this is only one or two generations. Therefore, ignoring the real evidence for evolution in genomes, the fossil record, cancer cells and bacteria and just going on what’s observed directly in the “zetetic” manner Flat Earthers are so keen on, there isn’t really a problem believing in evolution as a Young Earther. But that particular zetetic elench doesn’t exist for some reason.

And there’s more: Old Earth creationism doesn’t work either. There’s a thing called “Day-Age Creationism”, advocated by certain nineteenth century scholars and to some extent still, which equates each of the six “days” of creation mentioned in the E document of the Torah to a geological period. This is quite similar to the idea of six millennia followed by the Messiah and the four age Zoroastrian chronology. But there is a huge problem with Old Earth creationism – the background incidence of mutations. This makes it even less plausible than YEC because over the kalpa of the history of life we’re expected to believe that there has been no significant change other than the catastrophic divine intervention at the end of each stable period, which I assume is basically a mass extinction. Even if mutations are expected to increase entropy rather than being occasionally selected for, this would mean a gradual decline in the fitness of life forms rather like the situation of the last mammoths, who were plagued with various congenital issues due to their small population. Around the time of Sargon of Akkad, in about 2300 BCE, Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea in far eastern Siberia, not that far from Alaska, which is about thrice the size of Lewis and Harris, hosted a population of the last mammoths. There were about three hundred of them, albino, likely suffering from gastritis, having lost the ability to mark territory with urine and generally on their way out and unable to cope with life. This is effectively genetic entropy, resulting from a small population, and Old Earth creationism would need to explain how evolution didn’t happen, and if it didn’t, why this kind of genetic entropy didn’t, over the thousands of millions of years the biosphere has been in existence.

To summarise then, although Earth is old and evolution is a fact, many people believe it’s young and that evolution doesn’t occur. A few people believe it’s old and evolution doesn’t occur, which makes even less sense than YEC, but for some reason nobody seems to believe it’s young and evolution does occur in a significant way, although some people do believe in microevolution without realising that it’s not qualitatively different from macroevolution. Sorry I haven’t explained what those are but you can probably work that out for yourself eh?

How Soon Is Plenty?

There has always been enough for everyone. Although at some point there may have been production and supply problems, these are now long gone and provided we all act with restraint, which we will if we are emotionally healthy, the planet will provide, and in fact already has.

This post could be about two different things. One is the political issue of always having enough and the manufacture of artificial scarcity. The other is the “technical fix” side of the issue. I’m actually going to concentrate on the latter, but I want to cover a bit of the former, just briefly.

There used to be a lot of concern about the population explosion. In fact this is not cause for concern within certain limits, which we haven’t yet reached. Each of us has a footprint on Earth, and those of us in the richest parts of the planet often have one so big that she just can’t cope and will take steps to rid herself of us. As Mahatma Gandhi once said:

The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.

For once, mirabile dictu, this quote attributed popularly to a famous figure was really uttered by that person!

The Powers That Be, which are not in fact powerful but that’s a conversation for another time, would have us believe that our resources are limited in a real sense, in the sense, that is, that we can’t provide everyone with an adequate standard of living. Well in fact we can, there is also no population problem and the real problem is lifestyle and to some extent how production works. If we just took three steps, we’d be pretty close to solving the problem: go vegan, don’t use aircraft and don’t drive. Of course there are structural problems built in to this, such as the difficulty of living near paid workplaces, but essentially those would sort most of the problem, and it could be taken further, for instance by subsisting largely on tanks of algae and yeast plus a bit of permaculture, and this kind of measure is applicable over most or all of the inhabited planet.

As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s been claimed that by the mid-1970s, enough matter and the right elements had all been obtained and were recoverable from, for example, landfill given the right techniques. Whereas today’s technology uses many elements rarely or never used four decades ago, such as lithium, indium and tantalum, often because of properties hard to obtain otherwise, this is likely to be substantially the result of the appropriate technology not being developed in the meantime. There is a more-firmly based thermodynamic problem in the fact that our waste products constitute an increase in entropy which some kind of net energy input would be needed to reverse, but there’s an almost limitless fusion reactor sitting on our doorstep in the form of the Sun and also the energy input provided by the hot interior of our planet and Cynthia’s pull on Gaia, so that energy is available. The fact that it seems to require currently non-existent technology is due to the fact that the political will is not there. There is in a sense no technological fix because the problem itself is not technological but social, and it always has been.

Nonetheless, this isn’t really what I want to talk about right now, important though it is, and whereas you might not agree with my politics or my views regarding this issue, I hope you can look past this to consider what the technical problems actually are and how close humanity is to solving them.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is all the junk, also known as resources, currently floating around in the oceans or stuffed inside the stomachs of endangered species. Although this isn’t my main focus, I’d like to point out that nanotech and biotech are potential answers to this issue, and since I’m vegan the former appeals to me more than the latter. Considering also that we all do need to go vegan, the biotech issue can be addressed, for example to produce fuels and raw material for plastic or substitutes, but certain measures such as genetic engineering are ruled out by ethics, though probably not by the likes of safety or environmental considerations. It remains true, however, that you can’t have both capitalism and ethical biotechnology, so that’s going to have to change. Nanotech brings its own problems, but that’s once again beyond the scope of this post.

This brings me to replicators. In case you haven’t seen ‘Star Trek’, a replicator is a device which can produce any object perfectly, such as a rose, a pair of headphones, a cup of hot Earl Grey tea or a bar of chocolate. Given that it can produce anything, presumably it would also be able to produce a living human of any kind, which raises a number of questions. Clearly if you coupled this with a distant device which could internally and externally scan an object and transmit the information, you have either a cloning device or a teleport, depending on how okay you feel about murdering people. It may of course turn out that such a scanning process inevitably destroys the scanned object or that it takes thirty years to transmit the necessary information or something, and an identity problem arises if you decide to use the matter of the object itself to transmit the information in the form of subatomic particles, because you’d then have an identical human at the other end made of the same stuff, but I’m not really interested in exploring this angle right now, which is in any case pretty hackneyed. I am, however, interested in the idea of a device with patterns of various objects on file which can then constitute them from matter stored in a very general form, a bit like the alchemical materia prima.

Materia prima is the Greco-Roman natural philosophical idea of the original universal matter from which the Universe is composed. It’s a very old idea, and in a sense it did exist, assuming you believe in the Big Bang theory, in the form of the various inchoate phases through which the Cosmos passed before the formation of atoms, stars and planets. George Gamow, in an early version of the Big Bang theory, referred to this stuff as “ylem”, claiming that it was an ancient Hebrew word but in fact it seems to be a form of the Greek hylē or “substance”. Before atomic theory was readopted, matter was considered to be continuous “stuff”, infinitely divisible without change to its general properties, and in a sense atomic theory is a detour which has led us to imagine that “stuff” consists of particles when quantum theory tells us it isn’t.

During the Quark Epoch, which took place roughly between the end of the first picosecond of time and the end of the first microsecond, if, that is, you believe in the Big Bang theory (I probably should talk about my concerns there at some point on here but not yet), matter is thought to have consisted of a quark-gluon plasma. This is in a sense materia prima, the fundamental “stuff” everything is made from. It consists of quarks, which are the particles making up protons and neutrons, and gluons, which are the carriers of the strong nuclear force which bind them together into atomic nuclei. You may have noticed that electrons seem to be missing from this picture, and I understand their origin to be rather mysterious but possibly the result of the breakdown of neutrons about a quarter of an hour later.

Assuming you could store matter as, or actually convert it to, quark-gluon plasma as a kind of materia prima usable for the creation of most familiar types of matter, there may be a risk of strange matter production. This is a stable form of matter, technically a liquid consisting of bond up, down and strangeness quarks rather than atomic nuclei and electrons. There is no chemistry in strange matter and therefore no “life as we know it”, and it could also be infectious, converting nearby atomic matter into more of itself, if it turns out that it’s more stable. Thus until the risks have been investigated, it probably wouldn’t be good to store or produce strange matter, and in any case strangeness is not needed to make atoms, which consist of protons, neutrons, electrons and their binding mesons known as pions. Protons and neutrons are triplets of up and down quarks. In any case, quark-gluon plasma contains no electrons as such and it would probably be necessary to wait for a few minutes for them to be generated by free neutrons formed from up and down quarks as the matter decompresses.

It would be more sensible to start with somewhat more formed matter in the form of protons, neutrons and electrons, or perhaps a plasma of a mix of various atomic nuclei with electrons. In this respect, the easiest matter to get hold of in this form is probably alpha particles, which are helium 4 nuclei, beta particles, or electrons, and protons. Given this raw material it would be possible to make hydrogen, helium and helium hydride, and I suspect TIPUET (This Is Possible Using Existing Technology). Of these three substances, helium hydride is the most powerful possible acid, as it will effectively attack any other atom or molecule with which it comes into contact, and this is a useful if terrifying property. Helium is clearly also useful, as is hydrogen, although not as an energy source as the energy required to make free protons and beta particles is much larger. At best it would be a very inefficient way of storing energy. It would also be possible to make beryllium-8, which has a half-life of a few attoseconds and is therefore practically useless. However, it would be possible to make molecular hydrogen, and presumably to construct solid objects out of that via 3-D printing, which would however boil at around -253°C (I’m guessing there). Nonetheless it seems feasible that this could be done, although I have no idea what the physical properties of frozen hydrogen would be.

Hence we get onto the subject of 3-D printing. This is within the reach of many domestic budgets now, and is beginning to become routine. It can be literally a replicator, to a limited degree, because the devices can copy photographed objects and I would expect that some would be able to scan things in 3-D. A variety of filaments are available such as wood effect and conductive ones with graphene, so we’re at least some way towards being able to replicate. With an MRI scan, it would even be possible to replicate an object including its interior, at least with certain kinds of object where the precise composition wasn’t important. That means, for example, that anatomically accurate mannequins could exist.

This is of course nowhere near being able to place individual atoms or molecules of your choice in specific places, which is what a true replicator would need to do. This would have to be done in an inert atmosphere or a vacuum in order to prevent reactions, and considering the enormous number of atoms present in even a speck of dust, it would have to be done very fast indeed. There are short cuts of course. For instance, reactions to synthesise or produce certain compounds wouldn’t have to happen inside the actual replicator – they could be made off-site or in other parts of the machine. That said, it’s hard to imagine a “total synthesiser” as it were, that is, a device which can make any substance.

If individual elements can be stored in gaseous form, perhaps like the interstellar medium, it becomes relatively simple to synthesise many liquids and gases. The interstellar medium, that is, the very, very rarefied gas between the stars, which has maybe ten molecules a litre in it, is known to contain a minimum of somewhere between one hundred and two hundred different substances. Some of them are incompatible with others, for instance hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride would both become extremely corrosive acids if combined with water and would in any case react with many of the other molecules. Nonetheless, they’ve formed spontaneously in surroundings which are usually fairly quiet in many ways. It’s notable also that many of these compounds are organic, which brings up the issue of the Miller-Urey Experiment.

This attempted to reproduce the Earth’s primordial conditions, and consisted of water sealed in a sterile flask which also contained ammonia, hydrogen and methane, through which electrical sparks were driven. It was found that eleven amino acids could be produced easily and quickly by this means, and also cyanide, formaldehyde and various other simple organic compounds. Many organic molecules have left- and right-handed versions which in solution refract light in opposite directions, but the preference only exists in living things. This, not being a living system, produced what’s known as a “racemic mixture” of amino acids: a mixture of left- and right-handed forms in about equal amounts. This also happens in drug synthesis, and in that situation both forms are usually left together unless one turns out to be toxic, but there is a way of sorting them, although I don’t know if that’s generalisable or different techniques need to be developed for each type of molecule. Because there’s no sulphur in the substances involved, the crucial sulphur-containing amino acids such as methionine and cysteine, which create bridges between the components of proteins and allow them to take more organised forms, are absent, so any attempt to make something like meat or enzymes from this mixture would be a non-starter. Also, the poisons would have to be removed.

We’re surrounded by raw materials to some extent in various forms, namely argon, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and water vapour. These contain every element found in the Miller-Urey experiment plus argon, which being a noble gas isn’t particularly useful as a structural element, although it is in other ways. It’s all too easy to make nitrogen oxides, and these pollutants raise another aspect of replication: the cradle-to-grave analysis of the activity, which right now applies mainly to 3-D printing.

I’ve already mentioned the extraction of cyanide and formaldehyde from the mix of amino acids from which proteins might be produced, and something like that would have to be either converted, used or disposed of safely in order not to become a pollutant. The production of strange matter would be the ultimate environmental hazard, as it could convert the entire planet into a different, lifeless, form of matter. Whereas an apparently easy solution to the neutralisation of hazardous substances is to use plasma gasification, that is, the use of superheated pressurised gases, actually plasmas, such as argon to break up the molecules, this is likely to be very energy-hungry, which is another possible problem with a replicator, and in monetary terms one of the costs associated with it. Applying this to 3-D printing, the problem of raw materials arises. There are various options, notably PLA, or poly-lactic acid, which is biodegradable and found in nature – for instance it can be extracted from algal blooms, which seems to be a win-win situation environmentally – but PLA is not suitable for everything and another option, the plastic ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), may be hazardous if particles are inhaled during the printing process and is not safe in a fire because it will release toxins. I’m afraid this is a work in progress and I don’t know much more.

It seems to me to be feasible, and maybe here comes Dunning-Kruger again, to make 3-D printer filament from waste plastic, particularly polypropylene and high-density polyethylene, but I don’t know enough and I’m somewhat concerned that it may use virgin plastic. Translating this into replicators, since the first law of thermodynamics states that energy, and therefore matter, can neither be created nor destroyed, there will always have to be raw materials, and this is where replication comes up against capitalism.

When you replicate something, you do it from raw materials without buying a physical product. This has the environmental benefit of avoiding packaging and to some extent transport, since only the raw materials need to reach the replicator, which for all we know right now could be the air itself or recycled waste. However, this is a disincentive for capitalism because it means the raw material could be placed at a premium, since ready-manufactured objects no longer have any intrinsic value. Makers of conventional printers have of course pursued their outrageous gouging of selling printer ink and cartridges at extortionate prices and disabling their printers and multi-function devices in various ingenious ways. In theory there could be a flatbed printer which deposits a variety of pigments onto a wide range of flat surfaces without creating an unnecessary need for printer ink, but the capitalist system prevents this from being successfully produced. A similar problem with a true replicator would be the difficulty of turning a profit on it. Arthur C Clarke said of the replicator that the first one would cost £1 000 000 000 000 but the second would be free because it could be made by the first. This would end capitalism taken by itself, but there may be ways round this. One is the production of a raw material which would be rejected unless it was in some way “signed” by the manufacturer, another is to make the energy source extremely expensive and a third is intellectual property. If the designs of objects, i.e. their forms, are patented and a charge is made for each object produced, or perhaps to licence the design for private production, profits can still be made and the poor can be kept poor and so forth, so it could be business as usual during alterations. Right now, that might look outrageous, but this is because the necessary brainwashing which keeps the system running hasn’t kicked in yet.

Assuming that the beneficial side-effect of destroying capitalism can’t be overcome, there is still a potential problem. Right now I have quite a few ebooks languishing because they are so easy to obtain for very little, and the same would apply to some extent to “fast fashion”. We don’t want to get into the situation where it gets so easy to make stuff that it just lies around never being used. Hence we need to prepare ourselves psychologically for replicators, and right now this very household needs to prepare itself for the advent of 3-D printing. Very often, the problem with making things easier through technology is that its value-neutral nature, to the extent that it is, because as I’ve said, this is potentially highly iconoclastic to a system based on greed and overconsumption, throws us back on our own neuroses and hang-ups, leading us, for example, to engage in retail therapy or hoarding, and as such the replicator can’t cure us of that. Then again, the printing press did wonders for the education and entertainment of the general public and ultimately contributed to near-universal literacy, meaning that although individual tomes may now be less valuable, and ebooks even less in terms of the material they’re composed of, more people treasure them. The same applies to music, although it does perhaps mean we’re less focussed in the moment. Some kind of similar or perhaps unanticipated social effect could supervene on the replicator.

Replicators, and in fact even 3-D printers to some extent, can circumvent built-in obsolescence and vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in is the practice of ensuring that, for example, only Gillette razor blades can be used with Gillette razors by making the way they slot into the handle unique and not allowing other manufacturers to make blades using that system. It is of course evil. Another way this is done is by giving screws unusual heads which need a specific rare type of screwdriver to unscrew them. A 3-D printer or replicator could get round this by making the requisite parts in the right form, and similarly, where a particular component fails, leading to an entire machine being disposed of, it could simply be replaced. All of this, of course, depends on the vendor lock-in not being applied to those parts.

Ultimately, the question raised by the replicator is this: would it push us inevitably into indolence and ennui or is that just a vicious myth created by a scarcity-based society?

Poemophobia

This is, I’m afraid, going to have to be a pretty personal blog entry because it’s about a big personal issue of mine, though also one which I hope connects to some people too: my fear of literature.

I’ve just made up the word “poetophobia” incidentally, and it’s supposed to mean “fear of poetry” and consists of two Greek words but not particularly in a very Greek style. It must be weird being Greek because all the technical terms which seem high-falutin’ in English are probably just normal everyday words chucked together. Then again, lots of German technical words are just calques of Greek and Latin words and that doesn’t seem odd to me, so maybe not. Maybe it’s just weird being an English speaker and I don’t realise it.

When I was about sixteen, I was in the depths of an argument about humanities vs. science which was very frequent at the time, and I remember coming up with the point that science and technology were really just there to support arts and humanities, which were what human life was really about. I mean, it’s right there in the name! This was going too far of course, because in fact I’m interested in science and technology and recognise the ingenuity and creativity involved, and even at the time I thought that way, but sometimes arguments force people into polarised positions, as we currently experience so much.

Incidentally, I feel a continual sense of déjà vu on this blog because I’m aware that I repeat myself a lot, and I’m doing that now to some extent. The reason for this is that I don’t use tags at all and it’s hard even for me to remember what I’ve written. Forgive me then if this is repetitive.

Hearkening back to sixteen results from my later loss of confidence regarding my ability to appreciate literature. That’s how far back I have to go to find self-belief in this area. At that time, I was a star pupil in my school as far as Eng Lit is concerned, and this is in fact problematic because as I’ve previously mentioned the teacher who saw me in this way is now serving fourteen years for serial child sexual abuse. The only thing I can make of that so far is that people are complicated. But given that the humanities are about being human, how do you deal with the fact that such a supposedly problematic individual had such an appreciation for the finer things in life, as it were? Having said that, my time in the limelight was short and even while I was doing my O-levels there were problems. I was notably good at composition and a deft turn of phrase, the latter of which sadly left me when I studied for a Masters in continental philosophy with its notoriously obscurantist prose, particularly in French. I did find myself writing a précis of Orwell’s ‘1984’ rather than a piece of lit crit, and in fact generally let myself down in terms of essays with the exception of my piece on Beckett’s ‘Malone Dies’, which on reading it more recently makes me feel like Krapp listening to his old tapes and becoming acutely aware of his best years being gone. And I would have them back.

Going on to A-level English literature, I was sufficiently enthusiastic to consider reading for a BA in English and Philosophy at St Andrews or Stirling (yes I know, opposite ends of the spectrum), and had I kept things up that probably was a realistic prospect, but I rapidly found myself falling from grace subjectively and objectively, although one of my essays of poetry appreciation was used as a model of how to write such an essay by my teacher. Subjectively, I found that it didn’t seem to matter how much evidence I provided to support an opinion I expressed in practical criticism, the teachers refused to accept that my opinion was valid. It’s certainly true that sensitivity to art could make one see patterns that weren’t there and I know I did this. For instance, in Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, the description of three mourners sitting in one pew and another sitting in another I saw as describing the synoptic gospels versus the gospel of John, which is clearly just my thing, but it’s more complicated than that. When I read Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’, I found myself completely unable to identify who were supposed to be the central characters and who were cardboard cutouts or talking heads, and ended up writing an essay on a protagonist widely seen as peripheral. I don’t think this is a problem with the novel but with me.

Another issue was one of excess emotional involvement. For instance, ‘Moby-Dick’ to me is fundamentally about the wholesale slaughter of majestic and intelligent marine mammals, and given that setting, how could it ever happen that I would have any sympathy with any of the human characters? It would probably be feasible, and in fact it’s probably been done, to write a story eliciting sympathy for Nazi concentration camp workers directly involved in mass murder of the inmates which portrays them sympathetically, but it would be a very hard read and even more difficult to apprehend if the author, as opposed to the protagonists, didn’t appear to have any problem with the Holocaust. That would put it in the same bracket as Mein Kampf, which maybe needs to be studied as a dreadful warning but in the case of Melville’s novel there seemed to be no note of criticism or disapproval in how we were expected to study it. On reflection, I suppose it might be seen as an example of the carnage resulting from the acceptance of the concept of Manifest Destiny. I also had a major problem with Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Equus’ because to me it was so emotionally vivid and touched me so intimately that it felt like baring my soul to write about it. I ended up writing a brief paragraph on it which was entirely inauthentic because to be honest I cared far too much to allow what I wrote to be read and judged clinically by teachers and examiners.

The thing about literature is that it’s intimately connected to being human in a way other subjects are not. Probably the most significant aspect of Homo sapiens is its use of language, which incidentally I think we’ve stumbled upon – I largely reject Chomsky’s views on language because I see them as speciesist. Nonetheless we are defined by language. The whole human species lacking language would only be able to impart culture and learning to its immediate social group and the wisdom acquired would die within a couple of generations. Everything about us is to do with language. For instance, we are physically weaker than other mammals of the same size because we can protect ourselves in various ways imparted by communication, and by communication itself. Our canines are smaller for the same reason and we may have a menopause because of the value of grandmothers in acting as knowledge banks for future generations. Language is our essence, and therefore the epitome of humanity is the successful and high-quality art of language, in other words literature, and within that poetry, as the pinnacle of literary creation. Therefore, failure to appreciate literature is way more serious than not caring about or understanding mathematics, science, philosophy or even music or fine art. If you can’t appreciate literature, and particularly poetry, you actually are in a very real sense not fully human. You are an inferior being in some way which is not equally true of someone with an aversion to, say, science or, well, nerdy stuff generally.

Certain aspects of literature do get “under the radar” for me. For instance, most of what I was exposed to, mainly via school, before the age of sixteen is fine, though rather limited, such as Orwell (most of whose novels I’ve read), G K Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, some of Dickens, Emily Brontë, F Scott Fitzgerald and the poet W H Auden. Where science fiction veers into literature, I can also manage this, so for example ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ are fine, as is everything by the author of ‘Last And First Men’. Song lyrics and at one stage the librette of operas were also fine and I don’t have a problem with Kafka or, as Sarada pointed out earlier, Nietzsche. By the way, I limit my knowledge of non-English literature because I don’t trust translation, so my awareness of actual long continuous texts in other languages than English is limited mainly to Germanic and Romance works, although I have read the occasional haiku and tanka and bits of the Kalevala, Iliad and Odyssey. Speaking of which, I’m familiar with and enjoy various Greek bits, like Nonnus’s ‘Dionysiaca’, and other fragments of poetry slipped through too, such as the whole of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ and in English, Ben Jonson’s ‘Hymn To Diana’, in the latter case because Mike Oldfield used it in ‘Incantations’. Song lyrics generally are in a sense a form of poetry which I often feel I appreciate and understand, and they don’t induce anxiety and insecurity to the same extent as others, partly because I usually don’t see them as highbrow. This gets me Leonard Cohen in particular.

Besides this, and to my shame I do in fact read this in translation on the whole, it needs to be borne in mind that the Bible is a collection of literary works. The fourth century archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom once said that “God has given man the capacity to understand Him” [sic], and whereas I don’t really agree that that’s usually true because God is clearly beyond human understanding, I do agree with him to the extent that God has chosen the styles of language used in Scripture to speak to us, and therefore that it must be possible for at least the vast majority of the human race to appreciate those literary forms, which include myth, parables and poetry. Consequently, when I read the Bible I do so with confidence that God will help me understand even the Psalms, or to appreciate the Song Of Songs. Even so, I haven’t found myself able, although I believe in reader-response criticism and continuous revelation, to get to grips with almost any poetry outside the Bible or in other religious forms such as hymns. Nonetheless it is true that there are certain forms of creative writing which I do appreciate and possibly even understand.

It’s been said by someone in the know (i.e. an Eng Lit graduate other than Sarada, although I’m not deprecating her in this respect at all, just saying that love is blind) that my problem is that I’m mainly familiar with practical criticism. And I have to admit that I do have a problem with it. I don’t understand, for example, how there can be anything like a universal or even majority response to a piece of writing. I don’t know why there would be because people are so different from each other. The fact that it seems to work for many people presumably means I’m wrong, but it’s like so much of life, that there’s an unwritten book of rules everyone has read except for me. Presumably one of the chapters in that book concerns itself with the appreciation of literature, but I never got and never will get the memo. Universalism is another mystery to me. There seems to be some mysterious ability for certain people to write a kind of “ink blot” novel, play or poem which can somehow be appreciated by people living thousands of years later on the other side of the planet, and I simply don’t understand how this can possibly happen, but somehow it does. To other people.

Mentioning drama brings up that other exempt area: although I don’t appreciate novels or poetry, drama’s a breeze. I don’t know why this is, because the same cloud ought to hang over it as prose and poetry, but somehow it doesn’t. I do appreciate all sorts of drama: Stoppard, Ionesco, Ibsen, Beckett, Priestley, Shakespeare. You name it, I’m fine with it. Goodness knows why.

An additional problem of mine is that I can’t distinguish between lowbrow and highbrow mainstream novels. To me, a novel is just a novel. I don’t perceive anything in it which influences its quality in general terms and I don’t understand how the standard can be known more widely. This is reflected, for instance, in my current total obliviousness regarding ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ – is it just a piece of popular fiction or a work of some literary merit? How could anyone know, and also, isn’t the quality of the reader’s imagination and what she brings to the work at least as important? If universalism exists, surely it has to be something “inside” the reader rather than somehow “in” the text? The text would have to contain universalism not in the form of something intended by the author but in the form of a talent to produce something which can trigger the perception of patterns in the reader’s imagination. This would mean that good works of literature would be those which only unknowingly suggest, like a dimly-lit room full of unfamiliar objects or the flames of a campfire, but it also seems to me that if there’s any truth in this, the reader’s own character is at least as important.

And in the case of the dominant reader in my adolescence, who was a notorious active paedophile with considerable charisma and a genuine appreciation of good writing, the question of quality becomes complicated because that appreciation, as with many tyrants, despots and general “bad eggs”, doesn’t seem to inform their moral character at all, in which case what’s the point? Or is there something about deliberate acts of child sexual abuse which is acceptable? I don’t think so.

This is an example of my own Dunning-Kruger Effect. To me, and I have studied it to A-level so I’m not completely ignorant, and in fact I even considered writing my Masters thesis on Beckett, the appreciation of literature really feels like smoke and mirrors, even though I know it isn’t.

Finally, I worry that novelists might also be, along with poets, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, as Shelley once said, and that these laws are oppressive. Literary conventions and tropes, and depiction of characters and their motives, and all that stuff, subconsciously or consciously influences our behaviour and appraisal of each other, but maybe it’s always unrealistic, and maybe very little we do is really authentic or practically helpful because we all buy into this depiction of what it is to be human. An example, rather less universal because it kind of has to be so we can see it: Shakespeare’s Macbeth is influenced by the contemporary understanding that ambition was sinful, something which incidentally I sympathise with to a considerable extent. This is because God gives people their stations and roles in life, and to try to reach beyond those roles is sinful because it’s rebellion against God. I would expect this attitude to be fairly harmful to society because it’s likely to waste talent and stifle progress, and of course keep the poor poor and the rich rich. Robert Hooke looked down his microscope and saw microörganisms in water. What if some peasant in Shropshire had had that same opportunity and noted that the water from the village pump tended to have more comma-shaped bacteria than elsewhere, and that in that particular village lots of people died of dysentery? This didn’t happen of course, and one of the reasons for that is that peasants only learnt what they needed to learn to till the fields, and that’s partially because ambition was seen as sinful. What if there are all sorts of expectations instilled in us by novels which stop us from doing things which would benefit us and others? How do we know they don’t trap us in unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling and relating to each other? It needn’t even be the people who read them. Such attitudes might infect the whole world. We really do not know if we’re doing harm. What if we unwittingly behave as fictional characters and this diminishes us?

There’s plenty more I could’ve said, but I’ll close with the original thought which provoked this post. I only felt able to précis ‘1984’ because it seemed perfect to me, and to attempt to comment upon it at all would only detract from that perfection. If that’s generally true, the quality of literature is probably related to it being impossible to add to or subtract from, which is what comments on it seem to me to be. In which case once again I’m going to have to quote from Wittgenstein and say that whatever we can’t speak of we have to pass over in silence.

But of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about do I?