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Alt-J (Photo: gyduxa / Flickr / CC Licensed)

My initial experience of Alt-J nearly drove me mad. I happened upon “Hunger of the Pine” in September 2015; downloaded it, and it kept me awake for nights afterwards. This haunting tune locked itself into a dark recess in my brain, resilient to all my attempts to dislodge it. A sleepless embrace indeed. It was such a powerful melody I had to skip over the tune on my playlists for a while, just to increase my chances of getting some proper night rest.

But it found its way back and the more I listened to it, the more I fell in love with it. It’s like a classical tune, changing and developing at the song goes on. I was intrigued – what else had this band produced? I listened to the full album “All This Is Yours” and I was immediately hooked. Then quickly “An Awesome Wave“, then, then – no! That’s all they had. This band only released their first album in 2012. There is a maturity to their music that would imply they had been around forever,

The songs are sublime. Tesselate, Breezeblocks, Left Hand Free, Something Good, Taro and Every Other Freckle are some of the best songs in my library. I never get tired of them. The musicality, the complexity, the dreamlike nature of many of the tunes – it’s mesmerising. I’ve become a fan.

So, 2017 is wonderful on two fronts for me. Firstly, they are coming to Dublin in July and secondly, they have just released their third album “Relaxer“. I downloaded it with some trepidation – what if it wasn’t as good as the previous two? I shouldn’t have worried. It’s brilliant.

There is not a duff song on the album. Echoes of Pink Floyd and The Clash on some songs perhaps, but the music is very much their own. I particularly love Deadcrush, Adeline and In Cold Blood.

And soon they will be in Dublin! They are playing in Trinity College on July 11. I cannot wait. I might even buy the tee-shirt.

We shouldn’t be alone. 

It should have been the case, that when astronomers first pointed their listening devices into the stars, they would have heard sounds, blips, buzzes and screams from all corners of the universe. An unintelligible cacophony, akin to leaving a tape recorder in a rainforest. A universe alive with civilisations, some much older than us, more wise, more knowledgeable. 

Instead, we heard nothing. We continue to hear nothing. 

The signals we receive are repetitive, inorganic, mechanical. Products of immense forces, for sure, but not intelligent. No rainforest. More an arctic wasteland, stretching to infinity.

This, I think, is strange. Nobody doubts that intelligent life, capable of communicating across the galaxy, is a rarity. It took billions of years to emerge on our planet, but there are multiple trillions – quintillions – of stars out there, many with their own multi-billion year stories. These numbers overwhelm the improbability of our existence. Yet all we hear is silence.

Maybe we are listening to the wrong frequencies. Maybe our devices are not sensitive enough, or fast enough. Maybe they are using physical phenomena well beyond the reach of our technologies. Maybe advanced civilisations have no need for broadcast signals. Maybe civilisation is too short lived to get its sounds out there. Maybe you learn Maxwell’s Equations, then you learn to split the atom, then you die. 

Or maybe we are just this one time cosmic fluke. A brief flash of awareness, before the cosmic dark once again envelopes the universe. A fortuitous event in one planet, at one time, never to be repeated.

In the absence of knowing for sure, we become immensely significant. We are nothing in this vast amphitheatre of stars, yet what we know, what we represent, is precious beyond all imagination.

63 million Americans voted for him. 63 million people deciding that a racist, TV addicted sex pest should rule their country. A man with autocratic instincts to his very core. A man who fawns over dictators, seeks enrichment, cares little for the media or the courts and sees his family as next in line.

The only problem: he’s an incompetent ass. All bluster and show. He possesses neither the wit nor the guile to take on the mantle of sole ruler and saviour of a fractured nation. To him, the presidency is a part-time job; a distraction from his golf outings. No governing on weekends thank you very much. 100 days in, and still no sign that he has what it takes to run the White House, let alone the wider nation.

But, 63 million Americans voted for him. If not for the man, what he represented. They were looking for someone who could change the country to the way they wanted it to be. Full of cruelty and horror, but who cares when you are on the winning side? This ideal appears undiminished. If anything, it has been given legitimacy and a strong voice in recent times.

Out there, standing in the wings, another person may be waiting. Biding his time, learning from the missteps of his predecessor. A more intelligent person, more manipulative, more strategic. The Caesar to Trump’s Sulla.

And at the right time, when he gets his chance, he will start his campaign, using the same ticket that Trump used. The same exploitation of fear and nurturing of hatred. He will come to power some day and soon afterwards, American democracy will finally end. 

This is my worry.

And yet, it moves.

Galileo is alleged to have said this as he was being lead away from the Vatican Inquisition, to be subjected to house arrest for claiming that the Earth and all the planets moved around the Sun. The Earth was moving, not fixed and immobile like the authorities wanted to believe.

400 years later, we are here again. This time with a Presidency that does not believe in global warming. For all their insults and their rhetoric, for all their attacks on science and scientists, for all their clever economic arguments and their power plays, it doesn’t change a goddamn thing. The Earth is warming, and it’s us humans who have caused it. We broke it, and if it’s fixable, it’s us who must fix it.

The US government can deny all this. It’s their prerogative. They can lie, cheat and denigrate. They can censure, silence and control the message. They can burn the books and hide the evidence. They can do all these things, and more. And worse.

And yet, it warms.

Eppure diventa più caldo.

On a walk today with my teenage kids, I found myself talking at length about science and astronomy: meteor impacts, dinosaurs, evolution, genetics, putting humans in space, the prospect of alien life. I was on a roll. This is the kind of stuff I have been interested in since I was a kid. The whizz-bang story of how we got here and where we are going. Like a great opera, the story of our universe stretches across spacial dimensions and time scales that are literally incomprehensible to the human mind. This is the stuff of dreams, of awakening, of wonder.

It got me thinking: as an occasional sceptical communicator, am I doing it wrong? Are we, as skeptics, sometimes doing it wrong?

Important though scepticism is, there is an unavoidable negativity about it. We are in the business of bursting balloons, raining on parades and exposing emperor’s clothes, when the science and evidence tell a different story. We are the debunkers, the critics, the nay-sayers. We play the bad cop, leaving ourselves open to anger, ridicule, smears and legal threats. We lose friends and find ourselves isolated, simply because we dare challenge an orthodoxy that is based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Conflict is inevitable, because many people have built reputations and fortunes on magical thinking and delusions. 

I greatly value scepticism, but I didn’t arrive at scepticism from day one. First came the wonder; the amazement that came with science and discovery. Astronomy was my passion, and remains so to this day. The scepticism appeared later, when I started to appreciate the importance of science, how it was being misrepresented and how easy it is for us to be fooled by empty rhetoric and soothing words. Scepticism is incredibly important, but without a sense of wonder it can be a very difficult message to convey.

Maybe as a sceptic, I need to spend more time talking about the things that got me into science in the first place, and less time, at least up front, pointing out the flaws in other people’s thinking. Persuasion is rarely accomplished by enemies or rivals. It’s easier to accomplish when you are a friend. So much science is accessible and uncontroversial, that this should be the main ingredient of science-based conversations. Give people a chance to feel your passion; to sense your humanity. Then you have a much better chance to open their minds to other ideas and help reconsider their beliefs.

The most powerful science communicators talk about their passions first and foremost. They are successful communicators because people have a sense of affection for them. Their thoughts on scepticism come later, often only when trust is long established. 

There is a lesson here for me: to talk more forthrightly about my passions, to give the listeners a chance to get to know me and to allow respect to flow both ways. It’s easy, it’s fun and there is a better chance that they will take on board the important messages we need to convey.

mars

Courtesy ESA

Last week, the White House announced that humans would aim to set foot on Mars by 2033, just sixteen years from now. As a longtime space lover, I found this news momentarily exciting, but then I paused. Is sixteen years in any way realistic? I think not.

Taking people to Mars – and back again – is a massive engineering problem, on a scale we have never before encountered. I believe it’s possible to do it, but if we try to rush it, it will end in calamity. It breaks down to a number of key problems:

Radiation

Without sufficient protection, astronauts will be subjected to intense radiation from the sun and from cosmic rays for the entirely of their journey. It goes without saying that space is a hostile environment, but, given the absence of a strong magnetic field, so too is Mars. We have very little experience of the effects of long term radiation exposure on humans outside of Earth, so a huge effort is required to gain more knowledge before we go. Frequent trips to or around the Moon would help, but given the absence of any such journeys in the last 40 years, we are starting practically from zero.

Supplies

A crew of people will need to be sheltered, protected, fed, oxygenated, medicated and kept warm for up to three years from start to finish. They will need to have all the equipment they need to do their jobs, plus replacements, if something goes wrong. This implies a support structure to be in place – around Mars, on the way to Mars, on the way back from Mars and on the surface of Mars itself – before the astronauts begin their journey. That’s a lot of work – much greater than anything encountered by the lunar astronauts. Of course a very large craft might be able to bring people and supplies along in one go, but getting all this out of Earth’s gravity well and into the International Space Station will be a challenge in its own right, not to mention landing so much of it on Mars.

Getting off the surface of Mars

Apart from the Moon, we have never attempted lifting equipment – not to mention people – from the surface of another planet. The Moon, with its weak gravity, is much more trivial a problem than Mars would be. Consider the problems here on Earth. We have yet to conquer routine space launches. They require months of preparation and testing with teams of engineers to execute. Costs per launch are still in the millions of dollars. And even then, things can go wrong: launches fail regularly or are scrubbed in the last few seconds. Now imagine having to do this on Mars, where a failure, no matter how small, might mean you are left on the planet for good. We need a lot of practice at this, on Mars, before we attempt to bring people along.

Leaving them there

Sure, we could forego return craft and find volunteers to go to Mars for good, but without any prior experience of living on Mars, my guess is that they would not survive there for long. We on Earth would be treated to a real-time Truman Show of suffering, sickness and eventual death. This would quickly wipe the shine off mankind’s’ great achievement.

Contamination

Right now, we still don’t know if life exists on Mars. Even though it’s unlikely, given the harshness of the Martian environment, it cannot be completely ruled out. Small traces of methane have been detected that deserve proper investigation. If we put humans on Mars – or god forbid, leave human corpses there – we lose our chance to find alien life there forever. We will have contaminated Mars with our own DNA, making any subsequent reports of life there highly suspect. We have the opportunity to make a truly extraordinary discovery on Mars. We owe it to ourselves to search hard for Martian life before we put boots there.

Let’s take our time

I get the feeling that this sixteen year trip to Mars is a kind of prestige project for Trump, as opposed to a genuine mission of science and discovery. I would love for us to visit Mars one day, but I think sixteen years is far too soon. We have a lot of learning to do and a lot of infrastructure to build before we can proceed with a manned mission that has a reasonable likelihood of success. Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I think that the first successful landing is less likely to be sixteen years from now, and more likely to be sixty.

Yippee. I was meant to be going to America next week, but I pulled out of it. I can do my work from Ireland instead. I have no desire at present to visit the US. I expect I’m not the only person who thinks like that. 

Our Taoiseach (Prime Minister / head honcho) was in Washington schmoosing and plámásing the Trump administration, on the day they have announced draconian cuts to public service broadcasting, meals on wheels and food programs for school-kids. He even invited the King of Orange to Ireland, presumably on our behalf.

I feel ashamed. Tomorrow is our national holiday and while we are used to the top of the morning tooralloo bullshit from our American neighbours, this feels like abject prostration in front of our betters for the sake of a few bob. Echoes of when Ireland was an English colony with us poor peasants doffing our hats at the landlords in the big house. 

I’m sure Enda Kenny had his advisors telling him it was better he kowtow to Trump as it was in the nation’s strategic interest to do so, but where does it end? It makes us all feel weak. Strong people across the US are taking difficult, principled stands against the type of government Trump represents, and our principal representative has ignored them. Our nation is almost entirely anti-Trump, yet Enda has blithely ignored our views too. Even worse, he has invited Trump to Ireland on our behalf. Surely he realises that this could be a public relations disaster?

The art of politics is in marrying the furtherance of vital strategic interests with managing national sentiment. Politics fails when the two are divorced. In embracing Trump so wholeheartedly, he has shown how out of touch he is. This can fan the fires of populism. 

We can only call ourselves a nation when our representatives are willing to take principled stands for what is right. Some years ago, in confronting the Vatican, there was hope that Enda might surprise us. Alas it was too much to hope for.

The world is in the middle of a hurricane right now. A torrent of viciousness has been unleashed. Great damage is being done. Severe pain is being felt. The carnage is not yet over – not by a long shot – but I have decided to stay optimistic. I might not be right, but I remain optimistic all the same.

Here are twenty reasons for staying hopeful.

  1. Because nothing lasts forever. Not even 70 year old orange haired monsters.
  2. Because for every action there is a reaction, and the stronger the action, the more forceful that reaction is likely to be.
  3. Because good people exist. In their millions and millions and millions.
  4. Because he will be unable to sustain his momentum. Sooner or later, even the strongest efforts run out of steam. That momentum, once lost, may rebound against him. Powerfully.
  5. Because career criminals and sociopaths can’t help stabbing their allies in the back, given half a chance. It’s in their nature.
  6. Because he is no Putin. It took Putin years to take total control of the Russian state apparatus. He doesn’t think long term and he can’t wait that long.
  7. Because America is not Russia. It has known two hundred and forty years of democracy and constitutional law. Such freedoms are not surrendered easily.
  8. Because too much piling on of straw in too short a time tends to break the backs of even the most patient camels.
  9. Because he has no real friends. None at all. Will his ‘allies’ be there for him should things turn against him? Don’t bet on it.
  10. Because he is not as popular with the public as he thinks he is. His enemies grow by the day. His supporters? Look at the inaugural crowds.
  11. Because most things fail, and the bigger, the more complex the changes, the more likely they are to end in chaos.
  12. Because he has offended and insulted strong people who have spent decades fighting for recognition and parity. Let him try roll back the progress they have sacrificed their lives for. Let him try.
  13. Because events, dear boy. How he handles the many crises to come will dictate so much. 
  14. Because of women, immigrants, blacks, Latinos, gays, Muslims, Jews, thinkers, educators, liberals, professionals, students, scientists, feminists, environmentalists and all those who strive for fairness and equality. This is their America too, yet he has decided to wage war on all of them at once.
  15. Because the millions of people he has made enemies of have collectively deep pockets. They can damage all those who support him, simply by deciding judiciously where to spend their money.
  16. Because music, art, comedy, satire and independent journalism will continue to speak the truth and erode his authority, despite anything he tries to do. 
  17. Because when the going gets tough, the tough get creative.
  18. Because this is not a revolution. It’s a cynical counter-revolution, instigated by elderly and middle-aged men on the young. If you are looking for energy, longevity and staying power, you will not find it in the ranks of the victors.
  19. Because it’s one thing to give out about ideas, but when real people – friends, colleagues and neighbours – get hurt by him, allegiances will change too.
  20. Because of the shame he has inflicted on America. The deep shame so many now feel while he rules the roost. Land of the Free? Right now, those words ring very hollow. It’s not what freedom is about. It’s not what America is about. 

Because of all this, and possibly more, I feel hopeful. The game is not over. It’s barely even started.

After the hurricane, it’s the good people who are left to pick up the pieces. To heal the wounds. To comfort the broken. It’s the good people who clear away the mess, building new structures on the old. It’s the good people who bring back hope, sowing new life amid the ruins.

Don’t expect goodness from the loudmouths, the braggards, those with their flags and their fists. They are worth nothing but fear and fury. Their legacy on this earth are the shameful stains of their actions. Where are they when the work of rebuilding has to be done? 

The stronger and more violent the hurricane, the sooner it blows over, a trail of catastrophe in its wake. Then the good people will set themselves to the task ahead. And they, in the comforting hugs, the gentle encouragements, the soothing voices, will prevail.

Many of them love the trappings of freedom. The flags. The anthems. The guns. The pagentary. The solemn vows. The hands placed meaningfully on their heart.

They are not so gone on freedom itself. Live and let live. Rights for all citizens. Giving everyone a fair chance. Hearing every voice.

If it’s just the trappings of freedom, it’s not freedom. It’s a hollowed out husk. An empty cask, to be filled with whatever poison you care for. It’s not freedom. It’s something quite the opposite. It’s fascism.

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