Humans seem to have a strong bias toward narratives. We like stories. This is obvious when you read sports columns. Most of the time there’s really no substantive value-add. If you want substance, just check box scores. But we want a story. So sports columnists give us a story. Usually something mildly counter-intuitive, general platitudes and conventional wisdom with just a twist. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, no one cares. How many people remember Bill Walton talking about how Shawn Bradley was a better basketball player than Shaquille O’Neil?
Much the same applies to political punditry. There was no point in speculating whether Rick Perry would, or wouldn’t, do well as an aspirant nominee of the Republican party for the presidency. We’d know sooner or later. I really got tired of Texas pundits like Eric Greider going on about how we shouldn’t underestimate him. Aside from the fact that he was smart enough to be an air force officer, everything else implies that he’s not too sharp, validated especially by his recent debate performances. But we wanted a story, so there was a demand for pundits from Texas talking Perry’s prospects up. Now we have pundits like Ross Douthat echoing the line that Mitt Romney is inevitable as the nominee. Great. But remember when Ross and Matt Yglesias simply couldn’t imagine a scenario in which Hillary Clinton wasn’t the nominee in December of 2007? I do.
So we love stories. That’s a human universal. As human beings we have particular cognitive orientations which are general across our species. Our facility for language for example. An appreciation of art and other cultural productions which don’t seem to have immediate utility. But there is also variation. Our tastes differ. But sometimes we forget that. I thought of that when reading this piece in Slate, For the Love of Science Fiction. The author begins “…I disdained science fiction for many years, considering it too short on humanity and too long on pointless technical specs.“ There is definitely going to be a mention of Ursula K. Le Guin. The author concludes:
In my post below where I focused on patent law it was noted that even more obviously blatant abuses of the spirit of intellectual property occur in copyright. So I was interested to see that George Lucas has lost a law suit in the United Kingdom in relation to the idea of “storm troopers”:
Nevertheless, the High Court rejected the multi-billionaire director’s claim and the focus switched to design rights, specifically whether the helmets sold were works of art or merely industrial props.
If Lucasfilm could convince the courts the 3D works were sculptures, they would be protected by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.
If not, the copyright protection would be reduced to 15 years from the date they were marketed, meaning it would have expired and Mr Ainsworth would be free to sell them.
The High Court and Court of Appeal found in Mr Ainsworth’s favour, and despite Lucas being backed by directors Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson, the Supreme Court has now followed suit.
Someone on twitter quipped that Lucas should be paying royalties to the Germans for the idea of stormtroopers. But I immediately recalled that many of the ideas which set the frame for the Star Wars series are actually lifted whole cloth from pre-World War II pulp science fiction. In particular the ideas of E. E. Smith and his Lensman series.
But perhaps the most interesting and exciting aspect of all this is what it implies. The Milky Way galaxy is composed of about 200 billion stars, and is 100,000 light years across. The fact that we found a planet that is even anything like the Earth at all orbiting another star only 20 light years away makes me extremely optimistic that earthlike planets are everywhere in our galaxy. 20 light years is practically in our lap compared to the vast size of our galaxy, so statistically speaking, it seems very likely it’s not unique. I don’t want to extrapolate from a data set of two (us and them), but if this is typical, there could be millions of such planets in the galaxy. Millions.
So we don’t know if this planet is all that much like Earth — the surface gravity may be quite high if it’s dense and small, for example, or it may not have any air, or it may have a thick atmosphere like Venus — but what it’s telling us is that smaller, lower mass planets at the right distance from their star for liquid water are almost certainly common in the galaxy.
I assume this means we can play around with the Drake equation? In any case, I am now reminded of Poul Anderson’s essay “The creation of imaginary worlds: the world builder’s handbook and pocket companion.” You can read most of the essay online at Google Books. Or, find it in Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy. For us “squishy science” lovers the biochemist Hal Clament has an essay which follow’s Anderson’s which outlines how to create imaginary life.
Really interesting trailer for a movie which is premised on a “secret history” where a group of Nazis flee to the far side of the moon at the end of World War II, and are returning imminently in the near future from their exile.
Wired has the back story of how this group of film makers generated broad-based funding for their project. Of course they’re Finnish….
Science fiction dates as quickly as any genre, and Bradbury is not entirely immune to this. The futuristic rocket ships he wrote about in 1950 look a lot like the first-generation NASA rockets; the music of the future is Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington; and in the terrifying “Mars is Heaven,” the planet bears an eerie resemblance to Green Bluff, Ill., right down to Victorian houses “covered with scrolls and rococo.” But the reason Bradbury’s stories still sing on the page is that, despite all his humanoid robots, automated houses, and rocket men, his interest is not in future technologies but in people as they live now—and how the proliferation of convenient technology alters the way we think and the way we treat each other.
Change is quite in the air today, whether it be climate change or human induced habitat shifts. What’s a species in the wild to do? Biologists naturally worry about loss of biodiversity a great deal, and many non-biologist humans rather high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also care. And yet species loss, or the threat of extinction, seems too often to impinge upon public consciousness in a coarse categorical sense. For example the EPA classifications such as “threatened” or “endangered.” There are also vague general warnings or forebodings; warmer temperatures leading to mass extinctions as species can not track their optimal ecology and the like. And these warnings seem to err on the side of caution, as if populations of organisms are incapable of adapting, and all species are as particular as the panda.
That’s why I pointed to a recent paper in PLoS Biology, Adaptation, Plasticity, and Extinction in a Changing Environment: Towards a Predictive Theory below. I am somewhat familiar with one of the authors, Russell Lande, and his work in quantitative and ecological genetics, as well as population biology. I was also happy to note that the formal model here is rather spare, perhaps a nod to the lack of current abstraction in this particular area. Why start complex when you can start simple? Here’s their abstract:
Many species are experiencing sustained environmental change mainly due to human activities. The unusual rate and extent of anthropogenic alterations of the environment may exceed the capacity of developmental, genetic, and demographic mechanisms that populations have evolved to deal with environmental change. To begin to understand the limits to population persistence, we present a simple evolutionary model for the critical rate of environmental change beyond which a population must decline and go extinct. We use this model to highlight the major determinants of extinction risk in a changing environment, and identify research needs for improved predictions based on projected changes in environmental variables. Two key parameters relating the environment to population biology have not yet received sufficient attention. Phenotypic plasticity, the direct influence of environment on the development of individual phenotypes, is increasingly considered an important component of phenotypic change in the wild and should be incorporated in models of population persistence. Environmental sensitivity of selection, the change in the optimum phenotype with the environment, still crucially needs empirical assessment. We use environmental tolerance curves and other examples of ecological and evolutionary responses to climate change to illustrate how these mechanistic approaches can be developed for predictive purposes.
Matt Yglesias muses on the possible influence of Isaac Asimove’s Foundation series on the way he looks at the world. Interestingly, Paul Krugman admits his debt to this series as well in getting him interested in economics. Unlike Robert Heinlein or mentor John W. Campbell Asimov was a political liberal. It is not uncommon for nerdy males, who are disproportionately represented in the pundit-class, to go through a science fiction phase in their youth. It would be interesting to see how interests in various authors tracked their current political positioning (I’d bet money that Poul Anderson is more popular with people who work at the Cato Institute).
Note: William Sims Bainbridge’s Dimensions of Science Fiction explores the various demographic trends which characterize the science fiction subculture. Politically there’s a bimodal distribution between liberals and libertarians, with more traditional conservatives such as Jerry Pournelle being the exception.