Category Archives: International

Sweden causing harm by trying to be nice

I wrote late last year about how it is necessary to judge policies not by their intentions but by their outcomes. The (relatively) new Swedish Government is finding that out the hard way – adopting policies of no doubt noble intention which are actually causing considerable harm.

(Relatively) new Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom intervened several times in recent weeks on the topic of Israel’s “extrajudicial killings”. What she said was absolutely justified. However, it has seen her banned from Israel, and that is a serious problem – Sweden has traditionally been seen as a neutral broker in moving the Israel-Palestine process forward, but has now succeeded in removing itself from that role. This is all for the sake of a few words which, while justified, were actually never going to help move things forward. They drew and inevitable response from Israel which will result in more damage than good.

Of course, more well known is Sweden’s ludicrous immigration policy. It was no doubt a policy of fine intention for Sweden to throw its doors open to refugees from across the Middle East and North Africa. However, the outcome has been vast pressure on Sweden’s public services, huge difficulties at the borders of the European Union as people seek passage through, and most of all that refugees have arrived in the “promised land” with no realistic prospect of building a career there. News that police have been covering up prosecutions for crimes, most notably sex attacks, committed by refugees from Afghanistan, is just a subset of this tendency – it is well intentioned to try to stop news of such things spreading fear among the broader population, but in the end it makes this far worse when the news does spread.

To be very clear, this very blog will show that I have been opposed to Israel’s current government’s warmongering, and supportive of accepting more refugees than we are in Northern Ireland. However, going too far, even with good intentions, can have negative and even dangerous consequences.

Countries like Sweden, which have not always been in position to provide moral leadership but may feel justified in doing so now, need to do better than naively pursuing policies whose negative practical consequences anyone can foresee. Europe’s response to the Middle East in general is an incoherent mess, but while we have a duty to get this right morally, we also have a duty to get it right practically. To fail in the latter is to contribute to worsening the problem, not solving it.

Judge policies by outcomes, not intentions

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has drawn significant support from other populist hard left groups, like Sinn Féin. This is the same Sinn Féin which backed Syriza before it wrecked the Greek economy just as it was entering recovery mode and, of course, the same Sinn Féin which backed Hugo Chávez and his faction in Venezuela.

Chávez’ policies have just been rejected by the Venezuelan electorate. Astoundingly, it turns out there is rather more to delivering fairness and equality than just talking about how nice it is. It is reasonable, indeed necessary, to take account not of Señor Chávez’ intentions (regardless of how you view them), and look instead at the outcomes.

Venezuela 1999-2015

Ahem. Poverty up, crime up, access to goods down, corruption up, economic development down. And all this in a country with vast natural resources whose neighbours have been doing well on most or often all of those measures. Oh dear.

Who governs a country actually matters surprisingly little, which makes it truly astonishing when a government manages to wreck a country completely. But that is what Chávez managed in Venezuela. That is the same Chávez endorsed all the way by Sinn Féin, who are now busily endorsing Corbyn. The voters of Ireland and, in due course, the UK, will take note no doubt.

Outcomes not intentions, remember?!

BBC a jewel which must be protected

The BBC has its faults – its priorities can be exasperating; it can engage in odd capital projects; its news focus can be unhelpful. However, it is quite possibly the single biggest accomplishment of the post-war UK – a global phenomenon, respected and even revered everywhere.

Quite why any government would seek to tamper with that mystifies me.

I was driving towards O’Hare Airport in Chicago late one night in 2001 when the local radio went over to through-the-night coverage provided by the BBC. I arrived at a hotel in Copenhagen in 2007 to find the computer used for internet access had its homepage set to the BBC. I noted in Cologne last year that BBC-branded Attenborough videos were prominent among potential Christmas gifts. Is there any UK business which has attained anything like this level of global coverage and automatic respect?

To us within the UK, we have an impartial news service; an outstanding history of drama and comedy; protected sports events; superb entertainment (both internally and externally sourced); and magnificent documentaries and learning programmes – all available on an array of TV and radio channels, via On Demand services, or on an outstanding web site.

The Economist recently reported, on the basis of a range of sources, that the UK has the largest “soft cultural” reach and influence in the world, bar none. The BBC is the corner stone of that – in addition to its outstanding range of local and national broadcasting and web services within the UK.

The BBC is a jewel. Only a fool would risk it.

Tackle China to tackle Climate Change

I do not write much about environmental issues for the simple reason that I am not an environmental scientist and, thus, know very little about them. That does not mean I do not think them important; it is simply that I prefer to choose subjects about which I am at least halfway informed.

However, there is one straightforward statistic about the share of global greenhouse emissions accounted for by each of the world’s three largest economies:

  • China 24%
  • United States 13%
  • European Union 9%

Of course, there are more people in China than in the United States and Europe combined – the United States in particular still emits more greenhouse gases per person than China does (although that is no longer true of the European Union). However, China’s economy is roughly the same size as the United States’ alone, or as Europe’s alone (i.e. all three are about equal size with each other), and yet China accounts for more harmful releases into our atmosphere than the United States and Europe combined. In other words, if China’s exponential economic growth continues and its (car-driving, factory-building, plane-flying middle class grows as expected by hundreds of millions), even its per capita emissions will come vastly to outstrip even those of the United States.

So the problem is not really ours, right? It is up to China to put its house in order?

Sort of. There is no doubt that China, and the Far East generally, will be much more dangerous to the environment than North America or Europe in decades to come. Any direct action taken by the West to limit climate change could be rendered almost irrelevant by Chinese growth. Yet it may still be decades before a burgeoning Chinese professional class is in a strong enough position both to recognise the problem and persuade compatriots to do something about it.

However, on what basis is the Chinese economy (and thus potential to damage the environment) growing? Well, by selling “stuff” to the West, in large part.

So, there is something quite obvious we in the West could do to protect the environment. We could stop buying this “stuff”. By doing so, we would limit the growth of the Chinese economy (thus giving more time to find a means to grow it without rapidly rising emissions from a country accounting for more people than North America and Europe combined), and we would even reduce transport costs.

That is a “win-win”, surely? Well, of course, it would mean the “stuff” we did buy would be made in Western countries with employee rights, health services and welfare systems as opposed to one where these basics do not exist. We would be doing our bit not just for the environment but also for human rights, but that “stuff” would, therefore, be considerably more expensive.

So, what about it…?

 

Solidarité – but with Beirut too

When three people were murdered in a terrorist atrocity in Boston, Twitter went in to meltdown. When 147 students were gunned down in Kenya in April, however, we just scrolled on.

This is something which is not completely irrational, but it should concern us.

"ISIS" also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

“ISIS” also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

Likewise, at the weekend Daesh (or “ISIS”) carried out attacks of unimaginable brutality in Paris and Beirut. The former got almost all the public attention.

This is understandable. More of us have visited Paris and were likely to know people currently in Paris than Beirut. Paris is also more like us – a Western city in an established democracy.

In the case of Paris, we in the West (many familiar with the city) were able to relate better to acts of inhumane brutality but also of astonishing kindness and heroism (and superb journalism too, not least by some of our own). We were genuinely shaken by such fear and terror so close to home in every sense. Of course we connected to it more closely than to the attacks in Lebanon.

However, it is also greatly disconcerting – or, at least, it should be. What we are saying really is either that we place an economic value on life (therefore people killed in the West are more important than people killed on the Developing World); or worse still that we care more about those who are like us. Or both. To emphasise: this is not irrational – but it matters.

The fundamental implication is that if we accept that we care more about those who are close to us or about those whose lives have economic value, we accept that social justice is impossible. Logically, we tell the rest of the world, even the best educated in poor countries, that in fact we do not care about them. They can burn hundreds at a time for all we care. How do we expect them to respond to that?

Worse, how does this notion that we care primarily about those who are like us play out even within our own homeland? Do we care more about those of the same class, or same locality, or same religion, or even same race? Is this not all on the spectrum somewhere? If so, we probably need to address it, at least to some extent.

To be clear, I had hardly noticed Kenya and I probably noted Beirut only because refugees from there were among my childhood friends. I am as guilty as anyone else. However, we do need to ask ourselves what the implications are of who we care about and who we don’t.

Non, ce n’est pas la guerre

I tweeted the other day that, frankly, I have no idea what to do about Daesh (or “ISIS”, as the terrorists themselves like to style themselves).

I do have a few thoughts on what not to do, however – sadly, France seems committed to doing most of them.

Firstly, do not declare “war”. This is not a war in any sense that the public will understand the term. 1939-45 was a war. What the US and assorted allies have been up to in the Middle East since 2003 is some sort of completely incomprehensible grubby conflict which has cost us lots of young lives but does not appear to have achieved an awful lot other than feed terrorism.

Secondly, do not declare endless states of emergency or periods of martial law or even constitutional changes. Restricting our freedoms is exactly what this is all about for the terrorists, who will revel in their ability to force a mighty power like France to change its constitution on their account.

Thirdly, do not say you are closing your borders. You will find some of the terrorists came from within your borders anyway; others will easily be able to skirt through them on fake IDs and such like; so again, the only freedoms you are restricting are those of law-abiding citizens – just as the terrorists would have it.

Fourthly, do not talk about wiping groups from the face of the planet. It is too easy for those of less virtuous aims to take that to mean entire sects, rather than specific terrorist groups. Again, the terrorists want to turn this into a “clash of civilisations” (so that as many people as possible gave no option but to turn to them) – the whole purpose of the response must be not to allow this.

Fifthly, do not talk about mercilessly annihilating groups which exist in the Middle East. The Middle East will never be democratic and will always be inherently unstable, short of Western powers intervening and engaging in decades of nation-building (or “colonisation”, as that would also be justifiably called). The terrorists want talk of “merciless annihilation”; it allows them to promote it on their side too. The objective, in fact, is containment (in many senses).

Sixthly, do not base strategic intelligence missions or military action in the Middle East on nation states. They have no meaning there. “Governments” there are themselves just sects; borders are irrelevant (and were mostly drawn in the wrong place anyway). Nation states are a European obsession. Get over it – the terrorists have.

Finally, do not base your response on an immediate emotional reaction to an attack. Again, that is exactly what terrorism is designed to achieve. Instead, respond in an inclusive, civilised and rational manner ensuring as few people as possible are inclined to turn to the marginalised extremism which feeds such attacks in the first place – all while remembering never to expect the same from terrorists.

Inclusive, civilised and rational – that is who we aspire to be, and at our best that is who we are. We must never let terrorists make us think otherwise.

Sinn Féin still struggling with Catalonia and the border

Sinn Féin and other Irish Nationalists like to talk in terms of the improvements that could be made by “removing the border”, from stopping duplication of services (in their view) to, er, stopping cross-border fuel smuggling (okay, that’s just bizarre and not the topic for today’s blog).

This is odd, however, because it was Irish Nationalists who insisted on creating a border within the British Isles. They may have had very good reason, but it remains the case that once it became inevitable that there would be a border between the Irish and British, the position of that border would be contested. There is no particular logic which places that border in the Irish Sea, any more than it places it where it is, given the pattern of settlement.

However, even of we accept the logic that land borders are a particular problem (whereas somehow sea borders aren’t), because of duplication or smuggling or whatever, it does lead to a peculiar problem with Sinn Féin’s stance: why on earth does it advocate independence for Catalonia? Indeed, far from creating a land border with the inevitable duplication and potential fuel smuggling that would cause, should Irish Republicans not instead be trying to unite Spain and Portugal to abolish one?

There is a blatant inconsistency here. It is very difficult to take Sinn Féin’s positions on anything seriously until such obvious contradictions are sorted out.

After Mars water, is there life elsewhere in the galaxy?

NASA’s announcement that there is currently water on the surface of Mars is potentially the greatest discovery in the history of humankind. On Earth, where there is water, there is life. The ultimate question for humankind is whether we are alone, or whether there is life elsewhere.

The deposits, most markedly in fact those slightly to the left on these photographs, are (in the opinion of NASA) conclusive proof of current, running water on Mars.

The deposits, most markedly in fact those slightly to the left on these photographs, are (in the opinion of NASA) almost conclusive proof of current, running water on Mars.

Of course, the really ultimate question is whether there is complex, intelligent, communicating life elsewhere. That is certainly not currently the case on Mars. Yet, unbeknownst to many, we have closed in remarkably quickly in the last two decades on finding it (or, at least, correctly assessing the odds of it). For what it is worth, I remain doubtful that we will find any (at least, any relevant to us) but, given the scale of the question, it is worth assessing what is happening and what our chances may be!

Mars

Mars is not particularly relevant to the quest for complex, intelligent life, but the discovery of any form of life would give us a significant clue as to the likelihood of finding that complex, intelligent life elsewhere.

The big question wpuld then be whether life on Mars exhibits the same DNA as life on Earth. If it does, then either all life in the Universe has the same basis, or life on both Mars and Earth originated from the same place. If it does not, life may develop in radically different ways in different parts even of the same stellar neighbourhood.

We should note, of course, that water does not necessarily equal life on Mars, just because it does on Earth.

Drake Equation

The best known conversation starter to determine the likelihood of current, complex, intelligent, communicated life elsewhere in our galaxy is known as the “Drake Equation” (after American Dr Frank Drake).

There is no need to complicate the matter with the full mathematics here (not least because I am no mathematician), but essentially this sets out to calculate the number of stars created in our galaxy, and then determine which proportion of those have planets (or moons) capable of harbouring life, then those which actually do harbour life, then those on which that life has become complex or intelligent, and then those on which that intelligent life has chosen to communicate its existence into space – then putting all that into an equation alongside the probability of that communicating life actually coinciding with us in time.

We can begin, better than Drake himself could when he set out the equation in the early 1960s, to answer some of these:

  • there may be as many as 250 billion star systems in our galaxy (perhaps 400 billion stars – but around half of stars are part of multi-star systems, a point to which we shall return), with seven stars created annually on average;
  • it is now reasonably inferred that very few star systems do not have planets (and moons);
  • it is now reasonably inferred that a significant proportion, perhaps over a quarter, of star systems have a planet in what is known as the “Habitable Zone” (sometimes also known as the “Goldilocks Zone” – not too hot, not too cold, just right for life);
  • it is now reasonably inferred on the basis of the discovery of nearly 2000 confirmed planets in the last two decades and nearly 5000 candidate planets (most of which, historically, have subsequently been confirmed) that somewhere between a fifth and a half of all sun-like stars have at least one planet of around Earth’s size in the “Habitable Zone”.

The Mars findings are notable because, on Earth, where there is water there is life; therefore we may reasonably now increase the proportion of potentially habitable planets which actually are inhabited by living organisms (albeit not intelligent or even complex ones).

Put those numbers into the equation and most experts had already come up with a number in the thousands – i.e. that there must be thousands of civilisations (complex, intelligent life forms) in our own galaxy alone.

Fermi Paradox

This leads inevitably to the “Fermi Paradox” (after Italian Dr Enrico Fermi), which in fact just pre-dates the “Drake Equation” but runs neatly from it. This infers that there should be thousands of civilisations in our own galaxy alone, but then asks the simple question: “Where is everybody?

The relatively simple argument is this: humankind has advanced as far as spaceflight in just 12,000 years from the end of the last glaciation (“Ice Age”) and subsequent beginnings of irrigation; or even “just” 2.8 million years from the first bipedal hominid (recently discovered in Gauteng). This is the blink of an eye in cosmic terms – the Universe is 13.8 billion years old; the solar system 4.6 billion; life on Earth 3.8 billion; and it is even 33 million years since the most recent “extinction event” (and even that was comparatively minor). Given those time scales, and what we have recently accomplished technologically, surely we will accomplish inter-stellar travel within the next 12,000 years (or even 2.8 million)? So, then, why has nobody else?

There are a number of answers to this, of course. Firstly, perhaps they have, and we have not yet noticed. Secondly, perhaps they reached a stage of development where they realised it was best to keep themselves to themselves (after all, coming into contact with Europeans did not do slightly less advanced American Indians much good). Thirdly, perhaps there is a certain level of technological advancement beyond which it is impossible to go (simply because it becomes practically impossible, or because any civilisation attempting it destroys itself in so doing – this is often known as the “filter theory”).

Fourthly, though, it is just possible that the development of complex, intelligent, space-age life on Earth is just an absolute fluke – this is normally known as the “Rare Earth Hypothesis“.

(I personally counter the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” on admittedly more philosophical grounds: what is the point in all these spectacular supernovae, nebulae, galaxy mergers, pulsars, dust clouds, rogue planets and all the rest of it, if there are no sentient beings around to experience them? Call it the “Parsley Paradox” – sounds pretty good!)

Cosmic Scales

It is worth, firstly, assessing the cosmic scales of such things. This is usually done by measuring space and time based on the speed of light – around 300,000km per second.

On this scale, the moon is just over one second away (the exact distance varies slightly as the moon’s orbit is not precisely circular – it is at its closest right now, hence the “Red Moon” event last weekend) – meaning we see the moon as it was just over a second ago.

The sun is just over eight minutes away.

The brightest planet in our night sky and nearest neighbour apart from the moon, Venus, can be as close as around two and a half minutes, although it can drift to over ten minutes if it is at the opposite side of the sun during its orbit – Venus is, for reference, almost exactly the same size as Earth. Mars, topically, can come as close as just over four minutes and go as far as over twelve. The furthest easily visible planet, Saturn, is over an hour; the New Horizons space probe has made it out to Pluto at around four hours. At least one comet orbits the sun from over a light year away, and there are probably many more – but they are of course only visible from Earth (or any inner planet) when much closer (within a few minutes of light travel) on their occasional approaches.

The very nearest star system – actually a three-star system with two stars similar in size to the sun and one much smaller – is four years away on the same basis. To compute that back to Earth, if each of the main two stars were the size of a grain of sand, the sun would also be the size of a grain of sand nearly seven kilometres (four miles) away!

Often quoted as being of most immediate interest is the area within around 80 light years – that is the area from which the sun itself would be visible with the naked eye from a planet orbiting another star. In that area alone, current detections indicate there are on average two or three Earth-like planets in the Habitable Zone of Sun-like stars (including one candidate “just” 12 light years away).

Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across, and four light years is a fairly typical inter-stellar distance. There are also some small satellite galaxies a few tens of thousands of light years further out. Not all of this is visible – about a sixth is hidden behind the busy Galactic Centre.

The nearest major galaxy, as noted above, does not appear in the current equations but, for the record, is over 2.5 million light years away. (The distance to the end of the Observable Universe is over 45 billion light years, but that’s just incomprehensible so let us not go there!)

Time Scales

However, in addition to scales in space, we also have to consider scales in time. If a very advanced civilisation existed in our galaxy five billion years ago; or exists in our galaxy five billion years from now; there is every chance we will know nothing about it.

The age of the Universe is current projected to be 13.8 billion years, give or take a few hundred thousand. As noted above, the solar system is around 4.6 billion years old, so has existed for around a third of that time. However, humankind’s presence would only have been easily detectable in space from 1895, and possibly not definitively until 1937. This is a tiny period, obviously.

Obviously different planets can have come into existence at any time in the past 13 billion years or so. Therefore, even assuming (and it is a big assumption) that other civilisations develop at a similar rate from formation of the planet and the beginnings of basic life (i.e. over billions of years), the chances of finding a civilisation at almost exactly our stage of development (i.e. which is obviously detectable but not significantly advanced) are millions to one – even assuming one can exist elsewhere at all. Realistically, this leaves two options: that we detect life by detecting biology in the atmosphere of other planets (or stars); or we will find a civilisation vastly more advanced than we are. The latter is less likely, particularly anywhere “nearby”, because it would surely already have found us…

Focus

It is worth noting that around 85% of stars in our galaxy are red (or orange) dwarfs, invisible to the naked eye (particularly in urban areas) here on Earth. These are not a focus for seeking life because they are much older and cooler, meaning the “Habitable Zone” is much closer to the star than it is in the Solar System – so close, in fact, that any potentially life-harbouring planet would be “tidally locked”, showing one face to the star all the time (as the Moon does to Earth) and thus not experiencing day and night (assumed by many to be necessary for complex life, notably through photosynthesis, to develop). This accounts therefore for maybe 340 million or so of the 400 million in our galaxy (and then even a sixth of the remainder are practically invisible to us as noted above). Although the contention that planets or moons could not possibly develop complex life is contested, they are not seen as prime candidates – after all, if the only planet known to have complex life is Earth, it makes sense to look for star systems and planets like Earth.

Of the remaining 15%, it is currently estimated that around half are multi-star systems (although there is a fair measure of doubt about this, as multi-star systems tend to be easier to detect but there may be some dispute about whether the stars really are part of the same system). As noted above, the closest to us is a three-star system. Again, these are not seen as prime candidates – it is unclear whether complex life could develop with the complexities of two or more stars. For the record, there are some planets which orbit the entirety of such a system (one even orbits four stars at once); there are others which orbit only one of the multiple stars in the system. The latter would probably be more stable and may be candidates for complex life, but they are currently not generally prioritised.

Of the remaining 7-8% or so, some (albeit a minority) are far too big realistically to support life within their system. These may be hundreds or even thousands of light years away, and tend to be short-life stars anyway, around which complex life may simply not have had time to develop (their lives can be a short as tens of millions of years, whereas life has existed on Earth for several billions). They would also be extraordinarily hot, forcing their “Habitable Zone” well out, potentially into areas vulnerable to objects such as comets.

That leaves around 5% – although a third of those easily visible with the naked eye – which are sole stars (or at least wide orbiting binary stars) of average age like our Sun. These are themselves split into three categories – “generally Solar-type” stars, of which there are a few dozen within 20 light years, are roughly the same age but may have little else in common; “Solar Analogs”, three of which are sole star systems 10-20 light years away, are quite similar in many ways but may have a significant discrepancy in heat or make-up; and “Solar Twins”, the nearest of which is just under 50 light years away, are very similar indeed in all regards (age, heat, size, metallicity etc), and thus have a very similar “Habitable Zone” to the Solar System’s. The focus of our search understandably focuses on these, as they provide conditions nearest to those which we already know support intelligent life.

The first planets found outside the Solar System (known as “exoplanets”) were confirmed in 1992, but these were around a pulsar, not a star. They began being found around stars from 1995, with particular advances being made by the Hubble Space Telescope (a wide detail telescope placed in orbit around the Earth, although its focus was more on the origin of the universe rather than the search for life) and the Kepler Mission (which chose a particular area of sky in our neighbourhood in the galactic “suburbs” known to host a high proportion of Sun-like stars to look for exoplanets, with a particular aim of establishing roughly how common they are).

(The Solar System is in the galactic “suburbs” about two thirds of the way from the centre to the edge, excluding the much less populated outer “halo”. It is therefore well away from the more populated and potentially more dangerous centre, and even from other denser “arms” of stars coming out from that centre. Many astronomers argue such a galactic location is essential for life to develop over the long term to the levels of complexity and intelligence now found on Earth.)

Exoplanets

As the only complex life we know exists on a planet, those seeking life outside our solar system focus on planets (and occasionally their moons).

Despite vast advances, it is too early to be definitive about all of the trends we are finding, but we can say some things:

  • very few stars have no planetary system at all;
  • so-called “Hot Jupiters”, large gas giants orbiting closer to their star than the inner Solar System planet Mercury does to the Sun and thought to inhibit the development of complex life, are not as common as first thought (they were found in great numbers early on because they are the easiest planets to detect) – probably fewer than 3% of Sun-like stars possess one;
  • the most common size of planet may in fact be one which does not exist at all in the Solar System, between the size of Earth (the largest inner planet) and Uranus (the smallest gas giant); and
  • nevertheless, small (potentially Earth-like rocky) planets may be very common, existing in the “Habitable Zone” of perhaps over  30% of stars.

For those seeking life, the balance of these outcomes is surely positive. Furthermore, we have found confirmed planets over 20,000 light years away (and we even have candidates in other galaxies).

One notable negative is that early indications are that the eccentricity of the orbit of planets is much higher than the Solar System average. Earth’s, itself below the Solar System average, ranges from almost zero to nearly 0.06, averaging just under 0.02 (it is currently slightly below this, and decreasing for the next ten millennia). However, the average for exoplanets appears to be 0.25 – much higher even than Mercury, by far the most eccentric planet in the Solar System. This is a problem because it would create significant seasonal discrepancy between hemispheres, among other things. However, this figure will likely decrease as more exoplanets are found, not least because it may become apparent that some orbits put down as belonging to the same planet in fact belong to two different, albeit nearby, bodies.

Life

One obvious question in all of this is an incredibly simple one: what is life? As a hopeless biologist, I am in no place to answer this directly!

One thing which is apparent is that we make an assumption that Earth is ideal for the development of complex, intelligent life (certainly exponents of the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” base their whole argument on this). I would instinctively dispute this. It strikes me that Earth is hit by asteroids (like the one which destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago) rather more often than the “ideal”; Earth’s eccentricity is fairly low but still not zero; and the variations between glacial and non-glacial periods over hundreds of thousands of years may be relatively extreme. Earth is also, arguably, a little on the small side for supporting intelligent, energy-sapping life.

On the other hand, it is clear that some freak occurrences have enabled intelligent life to develop, some of which may yet prove to be unique. Life itself appears only to have developed once on Earth, as has intelligent life capable of making itself known to outer space. One of the main drivers of our advances has been industrialisation, itself dependent on some remarkable and potentially freak advances right back to someone having the foresight to rub two stones together fearlessly. Another main driver, of particular interest to me, was the development of complex language which seems unmatched elsewhere in the animal world (tied seemingly to humankind’s unique voice boxes, although the fundamental origin of language remains poorly understood), and which may be essential to reach our level of technology. There is also a real question over whether nature in fact rewards intelligence at all, given the length of time dinosaurs dominated the land and sharks have dominated the seas – could the coming to prominence of intelligent homo sapiens be nothing more than a complete fluke? Contrary to these, it does appear that complex organisms have developed on over 40 separate occasions on Earth; and it does appear that some other mammals at least share our broad sense of wonder about the world and even universe around us, hinting that the fundamental pre-requisite to great understanding (and philosophical and industrial advances) may not be unique.

Basic disputes even remain over whether “life” need necessarily be “biochemical”. These are well beyond the scope of my own knowledge and comprehension!

Conclusion

The presence of water on Mars indicates the possible, perhaps even probable, presence of life on Mars – possibly even currently living organisms of some sort. This coincides with the discovery of vast numbers of planets orbiting other stars, many of which are in the “Habitable Zone” also capable of developing water and very possibly therefore also basic life of some sort.

That we are in all probability not the only place where life has developed leads to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: are we alone in this galaxy as complex, intelligent life forms capable of indicating our presence into outer space? In this piece, I have tried to establish some of the parameters of how we may seek to answer that question based on current, rapidly expanding human knowledge.

The parameters are that life needs certain conditions to begin and then thrive, and that these conditions are almost certainly met on planets (and even moons) orbiting other stars, particularly stars like our own Sun in single-star systems like our Solar System. However, this life may develop a long way or even a long time away from where we are.

However, that is no guarantee that the conditions to develop complex, intelligent life to our level of philosophical and technological advancement exist anywhere. Evidence from the history of Earth is patchy, and evidence from elsewhere in the galaxy (not least the apparent absence of any advanced civilisation) suggest it is in practice odds very much against in any given system, even where theoretically ideal conditions exist.

What we do know is that we are in a position to focus in the right areas in the search for life elsewhere, with a real chance of making exciting discoveries very soon.

As a final note, the sum of human knowledge expands twenty-fold every twenty years. So, what we can say for certain is that twenty years from now our understanding of our own planet, of our own Solar System and of our own galaxy will have expanded beyond anything that is even currently imaginable, just as has happened since the first confirmed discovery of a planet around another star in 1995. We may very well know by 2035 how common life is elsewhere in the galaxy – and even specifically where it exists.

It is a most remarkable human endeavour, and we are privileged to be living in such an age of discovery.

Big Bang Theory needs a literal rethink

I wrote this piece 20 months ago and, unlike most things here, it has stood the test of time – its subject, the Big Bang Theory, which looks increasingly dubious.

Welsh astronomer Isaac Roberts took this picture of the 2.5m light-year distant Andromeda Galaxy in 1899 - a generation before it was realised that there even were galaxies other than our own Milky Way

Welsh astronomer Isaac Roberts took this picture of the 2.5m light-year distant Andromeda Galaxy in 1899 – a generation before it was realised that there even were galaxies other than our own Milky Way

Firstly, there has been a slight but detectable turnaround in the scientific community towards disputing it and, specifically, disputing the idea that everything (including space and time itself) began in a single infinitely dense location 13.8 billion years ago. After all, the notion of the “singularity” requires the laws of physics to be broken (something no one disputes), so it is somewhat mysterious that we cling so heavily to it.

Secondly, we have now not only found structures that are simply too big to exist within the Universe’s time frame, but we are increasingly finding stars whose average estimable age is in fact above 13.8 billion years. In each of the latter cases, there is a lower end of the estimate which falls below 13.8 billion years, but it is becoming increasingly unbelievable that all stars with an estimated age of, say, over 14 billion years are actually aged below 13.8 billion. The likeliest solution to this, by the way, is not that the age of the Universe is wrong but that the age of the stars are, but that has vast implications for everything we are measuring much beyond our own supercluster. We have already been surprised by the dimness of far-away supernovas, indicating the Universe may be expanding faster than our current model.

Thirdly, no one dares challenge the notion of “dark energy” and “dark matter” which, we are told, make up 96% of the Universe. This really isn’t good enough. We actually have no direct evidence that either exists, merely that mathematical models based on the Big Bang (and a concept which is known to exist, “gravitational leasing”) seem to require them.

For what it’s worth, I am increasingly leaning towards the view that there has been more than one creation event (i.e. more than one Great Inflation as per the Big Bang Theory). It is quite possible that we are in a galaxy all of which (or the vast majority of which) began 13.8 billion years ago, but we need to investigate possibilities that this is overlaid on something which already existed; or that we are now seeing things in other galaxies (or, more to the point, filaments) which originated from different creation events (or which belong, fundamentally, to different “universes”).

We have, after all, been fooled throughout human history into thinking we are the centre of everything (it remains a fact of human nature that we all believe ourselves more important to events than we actually are). We believed that our planet was everything; then we believed that everything roasted around our planet; then we believed that our galaxy was everything; now we speak of an “observable universe” placing us by definition at the centre. This notion that we are the only thing, or the centre of everything, has never served us well in the last. So why believe we are at the centre of the accessible universe or even in only universe now? Why must everything around us share the same common origin?

This is a hugely exciting time for astronomy. Vast improvements in telescopes and innovations in space proves have brought us knowledge about the universe I never imagined possible even in science fiction even 20 years ago. But it often takes us a long time to comprehend what we see because of the limitations we have imposed upon ourselves in current thinking – hence we were able to photograph clearly other galaxies in the 19th century, but we did not recognise their existence until the 1920s (passing them off completely erroneously as star clusters within our own galaxy in the meantime)! In the same way, what we are seeing now is quite different from what we expected to see, and it will be decades before we truly adapt to it by moving beyond current thinking.

So it seems to me we need to prepare to think in a way quite different from how we expected to think…

#JeSuisCharlie won’t #BringBackOurGirls

French President François Hollande called Sunday’s match in Paris a clear demonstration of our “opposition to terrorism”. It was no such thing. It was in fact a demonstration of our opposition to terrorism as it affects Western interests. 

It is for that reason that the march took place in Paris and not Abuja; that the Western media’s focus was on terrorism in France which left 17 dead not on terrorism in Nigeria which left a hundred times as many dead; and that we are now all talking about #JeSuisCharlie rather than #BringBackOurGirls – remember that?

#BringBackOurGirls is now nine months old. It was a staggering successful social media campaign concerning the kidnap of 230 girls from a school in Nigeria. However, the girls were never actually brought back. In Nigeria this week alone, perhaps 2000 people were massacred. We don’t care.

But is that not the crux of the issue? Of course the West is more liberal, more civilised and more socially advanced than the societies from which the Islamic terrorist threat ultimately originates. It is no less hypocritical, however. Terrorism in France may affect our social and economic interests, so we report it widely and demand a response – ironically, the type of response which restricts the very freedoms #JeSuisCharlie wants protected! Terrorism in Nigeria, well, here’s a lovely picture but, you know, beyond hitting ‘RT’ you can’t seriously expect us to do anything?

image

As it happens, 57,000 is a reasonable estimate of the number killed during the Boko Harem insurgency in northern Nigeria – Africa’s largest country by far – over the past twelve months.

We don’t care. Ultimately, when it’s not in our interests, we’re a bunch of illiberal hypocrites. It would help if we at least stopped the pretence.

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