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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.

Among the things I think about sometimes is how we got here as a species, and where we’re going.

We tend to think of ourselves as a young species, having only discovered writing (and with it, history itself) in the past 5,000 years, and civilisation (with its permanent monuments) 5,000 years before that. Earlier than this, our history as a race of humans goes quite dark. Archaeology tells us a few things, but the further back we go, all we have are fragments from our past. We can quite easily forget that we are a very old creature indeed. How long ago was it since we discovered language, since we started singing, since we started praying, since we discovered a sense of humour? It’s hard to say, yet it’s quite probable that such traits predate homo sapiens, going back through multiple ancestral species. Were we to travel back a couple of million years, maybe we would still see ourselves in our austrolopithical forebears.

I remember reading a book some time ago, that one group of our ancestors (or possibly close cousins) spent over a million years fashioning an early stone tool with practically no development in all that time. That’s tens of thousands of generations just hammering away with little sense of innovation. They were rooted in the animal world – lives full of fury, struggle and passion, but not one given to legacy or creative accomplishment. Maybe there were stirrings there. Maybe, every so often, one of them came up with an idea, but they were quickly hit over the head, or eaten by a lioness, before that idea (or their genes) had a chance to spread. 

I ask myself if that’s where we’re ultimately going back to. If anything has been successful in the long term on this planet, it’s been that patient toiling away with little progress through the generations. Among all the animals, a sense of constructive wonder seems to be selected against. In the single case where it has succeeded, it’s lead to an exponential increase in technological development, resulting in a potentially untenable situation full of nuclear weapons, over-population, resource depletion, multi-species extinction and the prospect of disastrous climate change. Maybe our ultimate fate (if we survive this time at all) is a return back to the animal realm. Maybe, 90,000 generations hence, our distant children will be back in the trees, or scurrying around in holes, or hammering again on rocks with little thought for art and music. 

I think about the last person in that line, looking around at her species and wondering about it all, before death finally takes her away and the universe once again becomes dim and distant to humanity.

If you can’t see any flaws in the arguments of those you agree with, and you can’t see any merit in the arguments of those you disagree with, then chances are you are in the grip of confirmation bias.

It’s not easy to cross rivers when you are looking in the wrong direction.

I recently arrived at my 48th year on this planet. With a good bit of luck, I can make it to 2050. Thirty five years. It’s as far away from me now as 2015 was when I was 12 years old.

In 1980, people wore jeans, t-shirts and runners. They had colour TVs, digital watches and Tupperware. Star Wars was already a thing. The big difference, of course, was computerisation and mobile technology, but even so, there was a familiarity about those times. In the same way, 2050 may not be too foreign to modern sensibilities when it eventually arrives. We are well on our way to this future date.

By now, it should be obligatory for me to tell you that the years fly by too quickly, and that I remember the 1980s like they happened yesterday. But honestly, it was a long time ago. I was a child back then. I can’t lay claim to that title anymore, however hard I have tried to delay the onset of adulthood.

I think this feeling of ‘tempus fugit’ is something of a delusion. Life doesn’t fly by as fast as we think it does. Days might whizz by, but there are a few hundred of them in each year. It’s a lot of time. 10 years is a whole heap of time and 30 years practically an eternity. It’s just that our brains make the past seem so much closer than it really is.

I’m pretty sure that this sense of time passing by quickly is a function of a memory system that best remembers the things we remember the most. Music, particularly the most popular tunes, seem recent only because we hear them often. So too with places visited regularly, like my mother’s home, or local schools and shopping centres. We recall distant events there clearly only because we are minded to remember them quite often. The gap in time is shortened only because we frequently remember the memory, not the event itself.

Maybe it’s where I am now in my life. With my children now passing into teenagehood, I seem to remember their earlier years as a transient blur. But in reality, I don’t think it was quite so speedy. There was plenty enough time there for my father to fall sick and pass away; for my marriage to crash-land and for a while, chaos to take the place of security. It’s just that I have forgotten so much. Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of ageing: so many experiences have been scattered to the four winds. What remains now are bare threads.

Life is long. It’s long enough for us to make big mistakes and to recover from them. It’s long enough to breach the surface after diving the depths of despair. It’s long enough to see green shoots where once there was bare earth. Even in middle-age, there is still time to find peace; to make life more livable for those around us; perhaps to yet follow our dreams. 

Despite the awfulness of forgetting, maybe  there is more time there than we normally appreciate. And in that, I think, there is hope.

While I consider myself to be liberal in attitude, I read a newspaper article today that had me shaking in anger and wishing he utmost evil to befall the perpetrator. The story concerned a violent rape in Dublin, where the rapist threatened to kill the victim’s child if he didn’t get his way. The woman was then raped repeatedly while the young child was abandoned in a public park. The whole story was horrific – the mark of a warped, twisted mind.

My instinctive reaction was to wish we had a death penalty, so he could be done away with.

Circumstances such as these are often difficult for people with liberal or progressive values. Conservative commentators love these stories, because they make liberals seem like idiots. OF COURSE they should be flogged, flayed and scalped, dragged through town by galloping horses, then thrown in a dungeon to suffer a painful and lingering death. What reasonable human wouldn’t condone such a course of action? Surely, taking a different position makes it seem as if you have more sympathy with the perpetrator than with the victim?

Such argumentation is misleading on two counts. It’s a classic case of a false dilemma: if you do not accept the stated position, then you must be a wooly headed liberal, with all the baggage that entails. Can you not be for strong punitive action and yet remain committed to liberal values? Questions like these have no place in such rhetoric. Secondly, it’s a classic straw man – if you exaggerate the liberal position as much as you can, you will make it seem ludicrous. The real liberal position can therefore be safely ignored.

I still wish nothing but evil on those who would enact these crimes. I guess it’s a human reaction. However, I feel that our justice system needs to be as fair and as well designed as it can be. It should allow for mistakes to be corrected. It should not veer towards witch-hunts and “guilty until proven innocent”. Even a small bit of research will expose great difficulties in capital punishment, corporal punishment, revenge punishment and torture. Systems that treat people with impunity are all very well until they reach beyond the confines of the violent psychopaths and into the realm of public misdemeanours. Controls and checks need to be in place. As our societies improve, we need our systems of justice to improve with it.

This doesn’t mean we leave criminals off the hook or ignore the needs of victims and greater society. People need to be protected from those who have the means and intent to do great harm. Some people should not be allowed back into society where there remains a substantial risk to the public, no matter how long they have been incarcerated. Sentencing needs to take victim impacts into account. Harshness where appropriate.

Resorting to the whip, the cane and solitary might seem appropriate in some circumstances, but our understanding of psychology indicates that punishment, as a deterrent and a means of reform, is highly inadequate at best. People can get used to most things given time. Cognitive dissonance acts to minimise culpability, even in the worst situations. Mental illness in prison has its own dynamic, often seeing to it that the punishment and the crime are totally unrelated to each other.

We need a justice system that balances these concerns. We need people to be protected from those who wish us harm. We need for criminals to be rehabilitated, so they don’t pose a threat to others. We need a system of justice that embraces the complex needs of society. What we don’t need are brutal solutions introduced that seemingly make one aspect better, while making everything else worse.

“If people only knew how hard it is to be wounded, to die, they would all be meek and gentle, would not split into parties, would not incite mobs to attack one another, and would not kill. But when they are in good health they know nothing of this. When they are wounded, no-one believes them. When they are dead, they can no longer speak.”

Mihajlo Lalic

(from the German graveyard in La Cambe, Normandy)

Photo via Marino González (Flickr : Merlin1487) CC Licensed

Over the weekend, Carol Hunt wrote a thought provoking piece about the prospect of the Irish Catholic Church going its own way, free from Vatican influence. Plenty of food for thought. In an article covering 1500 years of Irish history, she explains how the “Romanisation” of Irish Catholicism, with its contorted theology, unquestioned paternalism and petty proscriptions, is a relatively recent phenomenon; emerging primarily from the aftermath of the 1847 potato famine. Irish Catholicism had ploughed its own furrow for centuries, she argues. Maybe, it’s time for it to return to its roots.

Fascinating though a wholly Irish Catholic Church might be, I can’t see it happening soon. Even if the Vatican insult the lot of us when they respond to Enda Kenny’s Dáil speech, I don’t see the bulk of practicing Catholics here doing anything about it. Ultimately, it comes down to inertia. Many of those most likely to have had the energy to change the church from within have long since left the church in disgust and frustration, with no intention of ever going back. The remainder are split unequally along two lines: a core of deeply committed Catholics who prefer to believe that the whole scandal is a secular assault on their religion and a larger, more moderate group who, while affronted by the behaviour of the clergy in the past two decades, are unwilling to do anything about it.

There are likely to be a multitude of drivers motivating the second group to do nothing. For many, obedience to the Church is the respectable thing to do. Public dissent and argument have always been strongly discouraged within the Church, so why raise your head above the parapet? Some are keenly mindful of their “Catholic” identity, as opposed to a “Protestant” identity, in an island where too much blood has been spilled over these minor theological differences. In the background is the lingering fear of damnation, both in the putative next life and this one too. In the end, no matter what anachronistic pronouncements are uttered from on high; no matter what will emerge from the scandals of the future, most moderate Catholics will put up with it all for the sake of an easy life.

It’s not as if home-grown Catholicism, as opposed to Roman Catholicism, isn’t attractive to many within this second group. Most Irish Catholics would do away with the failed ban on contraception in the morning. They would welcome married clergy and women priests. They certainly wouldn’t mourn the passing of Vatican countenanced clericalism and secrecy, particularly when we have all seen its devastating effects in Ireland and around the world. It’s just that, for Irish practicing Catholics, desiring something and doing something about it are two very different things.

Protests and dissenting voices have been limited and sporadic.  Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, has been highly critical of the Catholic hierarchy’s behaviour and is an uncompromising advocate of reform. He has been a lone voice, however, increasingly marginalised even if he is saying what many Catholics are privately thinking.

When a few trogloditic priests around the country revealed their true colours over the past few weeks – comparing Enda Kenny to Hitler and referring to the Cloyne aftermath as being part of a secular Jewish agenda – a few brave souls walked out of Mass and there were a small number of letters to the newspapers. The vast bulk of people remained silent. It seems that the spirit is willing, but the motivation to do anything about it is about as strong as a wet straw.

So, no. I don’t expect any real changes any time soon. Irish Catholicism will continue to ally itself with Rome, despite what outrages might emerge involving the Vatican in the coming years. The prognosis for this church is a slow and steady decline into irrelevance and backwardness while old age and disillusionment steadily swabs up the remaining bulk of congregants.

* Photo “Broken Cross” by Merlin1487 (Marino González) on Flickr (CC Licensed)

So, the date of May 21, 2011 came and went rather uneventfully, as was to be expected.

The 21st of May had been heralded for some time as “the Day of Judgement” by a tiny, but well financed Christian doomsday cult in California. The figure at the centre of the doomsday prediction was an eccentric civil engineer called Harold Camping. He had confidently predicted that the world would come to an end on May 21, allowing “no possibility” for failure. It was numerology bullshit at its finest and it should have been given no credence nor attention. Such trashy predictions have happened many times before, after all.

Instead, the opposite happened. It became a media and Internet sensation – very possibly the biggest reported doomsday story the world has ever witnessed. I couldn’t watch the news, nor look at my favourite blogs, nor read my timeline on Twitter without someone, somewhere talking about it.

The vast, vast majority of people exposed to this story laughed it off, right from the outset. From what I can see, It was never taken that seriously even by the most fervent of evangelical Christians. But, for whatever reason, it captured the world’s imagination.

Perhaps the certainty of the supporters was the problem, as attested in the accompanying video below. Perhaps it was that they had spent so much money and effort getting their message out there. In any case, they became the laughing stock of the world. Many of them must now be deeply ashamed of themselves. Some of them must be in great trouble if they made financial commitments on the back of this ridiculous story.

Some of them may be able to laugh it off or rationalise it away. There have been many studies into how true believers get through failed predictions such as these. Many of them come up with excuses such as God letting them off the hook, or there being a problem with the calculations etc. Soon, we are bound to see a rash of articles and documentaries on how the followers of Harold Camping adjust to life, now that they find themselves still here.

But inevitably there will be some people who cannot cope with the news. I think this story has the potential to do great damage to many of these people whose only real fault was to set aside their critical thinking abilities and follow an impossible dream.  The results are withdrawal, depression, mental breakdown, and possibly suicide in some cases. These are the private tragedies that we will never hear about, the legacy of which will be felt by families and friends many years after the world’s cameras have turned away from this particular story.

We all can laugh, but it really is a case study in how unfettered belief can be enormously destructive. I feel no schadenfreude this morning.

If there is one thing that defines humanity, it is our beliefs. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about God, health, death, the government or our purpose in life, among many others. Beliefs can rule our lives. They can be shared and replicated amongst billions. They can persist for thousands of years, passing from parents to children, generation after generation. Beliefs can be sensible, such as the world being round, or certifiably insane, such as a world dominated by lizard people. People will kill, maim and die because of their beliefs.

Beliefs do not require facts. They can exist in our heads, completely separated from reality. Most beliefs are wrong, either completely or in part. Furthermore, most people accept that beliefs can be wrong. All they have to do is to read a newspaper, listen to other people, or turn on the TV. It is ironic then, how convinced so many people are that their own beliefs are perfectly right. They will often cling to them as if their lives depended on them, and no amount of evidence or argument will change their views.

Beliefs are strange. They are simultaneously fragile yet unremittingly tenacious. They are products of our psychological make-up. Where we acquired such mechanisms is hidden in the depths of time.

Why is it that beliefs are so difficult to get rid of? Why is it so rare to hear someone saying “ah, yes, I was wrong about all that”. How often have you heard someone admitting that their most strongly held beliefs were a load of baloney?

Perhaps beliefs are investments. The bigger your personal stake in your belief, the more you are likely to lose: reputation, friends, money, influence. You must, therefore, defend your beliefs at all costs. It could be that the consequences of not having closely held beliefs are too difficult to countenance. Maybe we defend our beliefs because they are held by people we respect and we cannot ever imagine them ever being wrong. Possibly we are fooled by confirmation bias, a well known psychological effect where our brains filter out contradictory our viewpoints. Or it could be that we just don’t like thinking about things so much.

Beliefs should never be sacrosanct. All beliefs should be challenged, allowing the well supported ones to thrive, while the flimsier ones are discarded. Beliefs that need threats to survive are the ones in most need of analysis and criticism. Poorly supported beliefs prevent us from learning and progressing. They can cause conflicts where no conflict should exist. If beliefs were more easily discarded perhaps this world wouldn’t have so many problems.

Have you ever had a set of beliefs that you subsequently relinquished? What caused the rethink? Why didn’t you discard them earlier? How did you feel about losing your beliefs?

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

– Roger Ebert
(via Pharyngula)

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