Your article 'Why do we move forward in time?" (Issue 3037, 5th Sept 2015, pg34) makes it clear that physics has no clear answer as to why time passes. The article reminded me of an ancient Zen Koan. Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving." A Zen master, walking nearby, overheard them. He said, "It is not the flag nor the wind that is moving but your minds." The idea that our minds experience the four-dimensional 'landscape' of physical reality in a chosen time direction would explain the phenomenon of time passing without violating any physics. Perhaps the Zen master was right philosophically and scientifically?
The man's medical records were quite clear. His case was hopeless. In the space of three years, he had had five operations to remove a tumour from his neck. The last was a failure: it was impossible to remove the whole tumour. He would die soon. As if that wasn't bad enough, the poor man then suffered two attacks of erysipelas, a skin infection that produced a lurid red rash and a high fever. But when the fever broke and the man recovered, his tumour had vanished. Seven years later, he was still alive and well. There could be only one explanation: whatever had caused the fever had also destroyed the cancer.
At the end of this month (Sunday May 30th), Simon Ings from the New Scientist magazine is hosting an afternoon of talks and short films on the subject of our ‘science fiction future’ and ‘why stories, games and falsehoods may be our best guide to tomorrow'. This event is part of the 'Sci-Fi-London' festival. The highly successful science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds will be giving the keynote talk and that’ll be followed by short films and panel discussions. The event is taking place on the South Bank in London at the British Film Institute.
The title and strap-line for the event has got me thinking; what is our science-fiction future? More broadly, since a lot of people think science-fiction is about the future, with special emphasis on techie stuff, the question really becomes: What is our future? (note: remember to talk about techie stuff).
Examining the possibility of a world without fossil fuels, Michael Le Page comes to the conclusion that global warming may be an inevitable result of any industrialised civilisation, as fossil fuels are an unavoidable phase of that development (18th October pg34). He also reports that this might explain the apparent absence of extraterrestrial civilisations despite the high probability that they exist, as each planet offers once chance at transitioning from reliance on finite fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.Perhaps it would be useful to consider a sentient race that could control its population? If our global population had stabilised at a healthy 7 million, rather than 7 billion or more, it's perfectly feasible that we could have passed right through our fossil fuel phase without wrecking our planet's environment.
The editor writes: We will never know for sure. But it is likely that a critical mass of people as well as energy is needed to reach something we would recognise as an industrialised civilisation.
The map above (courtesy of the Wikipedia page) shows the extent of the Roman Empire in around 100 AD. It was big. Surely if our global population was the same as the population of the entire Roman Empire, we'd be able to keep going technologically? Around the time of Christ, daily life in Roman Empire wasn't significantly different from today. They had water supplies, sewage systems, household heating, international trade, docks, cranes, pottery and metalwork and a quality road network. They had developed mathematics, researched complex astronomy and created steam-power prototypes. If the Roman Empire was the only civilisation in the world and its population had stabilised at that point and it had been given enough time, surely it would have been capable of advancing past us? It is true that a lot of technological development in Europe was thanks to developments outside Europe, particularly from the Arab world but the Arab world gained many of their technological developments from Egypt and Greece, which were both part the Roman Empire. For a scientist trying to decide on a critical mass of people required to develop into a modern industrial civilisation, the population of the Roman Empire would seem an adequate amount.
Here's the rub. The population of the Roman Empire, east and west together, in 400 AD, was 70 million people. The entire population of the world at the time of Christ was about 170 million people. Our current global population is a hundred times larger than the population of the entire Roman Empire.
It's very strange that the subject of population is very rarely mentioned when people talk about climate change. It's almost a blind spot and yet population is the elephant in the room. For example, for every extra person in Britain, we need to spend £140,000 more on infrastructure; roads, houses, hospitals etc. Extra people are a big burden. For anyone interested in learning more about the effects of population increase, I recommend visiting the population matters website. Population Matters is a charity that works to educate and inform people about the effect of population on our planet and ourselves. The '£140,000' fact comes from a recent study they conducted into the effects of population growth.
There's a dark final point to the matter of a sustainable global population. It would seem that 70 million people (or 1% of our current population) is a believable global population for survival and development. We've grown fifty times larger in the last two-thousand years and we're still growing, but all the evidence points to climate change putting us back down to that figure in the next five hundred years if we don't do it ourselves. That reduction will be brutal and ugly if we don't find a way to do it ourselves humanely. The choice is ours.
"In her article exploring whether dolphins live up to their reputation for intelligence, Caroline Williams tells of being forcefully rebuffed by a dolphin after attempting to connect with it (27th September, p46). In this era of climate change, the possibility that dolphins don't want to be friends with humans makes them seem more intelligent and emotionally developed than ever."
"In re-evaluating Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher argue against the popular view that most people will willingly shock someone to death if an authority figure asks them to (13th Sept, pg28). These psychologists might change their mind if they watch the 2010 French/Swiss televisions documentary 'Le Jeu de la Mort', in which participants in a fake game show were asked to shock a contestant who answered trivia questions incorrectly. The participants knew there was no scientific benefit. Yet only a fifth of them stopped before inflicting what they thought were lethal level shocks."
In your recent article 'artificial tendons help you walk' (issue 2953, pg21), Yong-Lae Park and colleagues of Carnegia Mellon University made 'a robotic device with artificial muscles that could help people with cerebral palsy strengthen their foot and ankle muscles'. There may be another potential use for such robotic devices; helping ordinary people develop their muscles (get ripped) without having to actually move their limbs themselves. In the future, someone may simply climb inside a full-body version of the device and develop a bodybuilder physique without (literally!) lifting a finger.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog article about the excellent Forks over Knives documentary. The documentary made a fascinating and convincing case for the connection between major illnesses and a diet high in animal proteins. As a follow-on from that entry, I thought I’d mention a new article in this week’s New Scientist magazine. It reports on some very interesting new research. To quote:
Switching to a diet based exclusively on animals or plants triggers rapid changes to the microbes that rule your gut. This knowledge could help fine-tune diets to improve health, as well as reduce the risk of illnesses like inflammatory bowel disease.
Today’s article comes from New Scientist. In it, a man named Graham attempted suicide but his bid failed. Afterwards, he told everyone around him that he regarded himself as dead. He no longer gained any joy from life, from normally pleasurable activities, and saw no point in continuing to exist. The mental problem that Graham was suffering from is known as Cotard’s Syndrome.
What is fascinating about this particular patient was that the researchers took the step of analysing Graham’s brain using the latest scanning techniques. They found that portions of his brain that should have been active, since he was clearly alive, showed virtually no activity at all. He had the brain activity of someone who was unconscious or in a coma, and yet he was walking around conscious and living like anyone else. Only his depression and his view of the world was different.
Being an ardent fan of the New Scientist magazine, I couldn't resist entering its caption competition. The picture is as follows:
My entries were:
'Are you sure this'll be okay, Dr Jekyll?'
'And with that final drop, they had created the world's strongest espresso'
New Scientist are running one every week for four weeks, no purchase necessary!