A Historical Intellectual Frame

In September, Jill Lepore’s book, These Truths: A History of the United States, will come out as a Norton publication. Yesterday, I heard the last of her three Priestley lectures at the University of Toronto respectively on Facts, Numbers and Data, the core material that went into that book. The lecture yesterday was on data. The volume offers an account of the history of the United States in terms of shifts in what counts as the key evidence for establishing what we can believe in successive eras – the Era of Truth, the Era of Numbers and the Era of Data. It is a bold neo-Hegelian thesis, and, in that very mode, runs counter to what is accepted as history by most historians.

The book, and the lectures, argue that societies change as the technologies change as the concepts embedded in those technologies change and offer new ways through which to view the world. Thomas Jefferson called “these truths” upon which the U.S. republic was founded political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. I will map onto her lectures the development of these truths, each as the primary core of the three eras she discusses and to which she only alluded in the lectures. I will not offer the political, economic and social dimensions of society arbitrarily. Instead, I will superimpose on her intellectual framework the core thesis of a French philosopher and intellectual historian, Marcel Gauchet, another rare neo-Hegelian. His ideas were put forth in his four volume, Avènement de la démocratie (The Advent of Democracy) published between 2007 and 2017, the same ten years in which Lepore developed her thesis.

If that is not complicated enough, I will superimpose my own institutional history of the university on that intellectual framework and use the Lepore and Gauchet frames to elaborate on the emergence of successive ideas of the university over the same period. As any Hegelian will do, Lepore writes of a nation that begins in contradiction and the fight over the meaning of history informed by the central preoccupation of the United States with race that brings about the special anxieties and anguish that trouble America. Given Gauchet’s work and my own, my thesis will be broader in one sense but narrower in another since my prime reference will be the emergence and development of the university worldwide but primarily by reference to that institution as it develops in Canada.

To make matters more difficult, I will first work backwards by initially discussing the third of her Priestley lectures on data that she gave yesterday and then move backwards to discuss numbers and facts. In that context, I will put forth the core idea of the university as a Social Service Station (SSS) first and then go back to discuss the idea of the University as a Sanctuary of Method and, previous to that, as a Sanctuary of Truth. Before I offer that intellectual guide map, I will present a triptych of Lepore’s, Gauchet’s and my framework in a static mode of simple succession. Only then will I go back and move forward to depict the dynamic progression of contradictions that plague each era and help yield the next stage. I will include the final stage of the university as a supermarket of ideas and a post-truth world in a separate discussion at the end of the series.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American history at Harvard. She is also a staff writer for The New Yorker and I may have referred to those writings on such varied subjects as barbie dolls and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in previous blogs. Relatively speaking, Lepore is a rising bright star in the intellectual heavens having received her BA in English in 1987 from Tufts, her MA in American culture in 1990 at the University of Michigan in 1990 and her PhD at Yale in 1995. In just over two decades, this sprightly and down to earth historian of popular culture has cut a swath through academe. The triptych presented below, without the additions of Gauchet and my own conceptions, is what she presented in her Priestley lectures as the character of three very different ages of determining what we know, how we know it and why we know to explain the character of these shifts.

Stages (what?) Facts Numbers Data
Themes
Modes (how?) Discernment Measurement Patterns
Goals (why?) Truth Power Prediction
Rough dates 1800’s 1900-1960 1960-2020
Primacy People Science Progress
Realms Civil Society Economics Neo-liberalism
University Sanctuary of Truth Sanctuary of Method Social Service Station

In one sense, the above depicts the stages of the birth and development of historical consciousness in modernity. For modernity itself since the development of the nation-state in the sixteenth and seventeenth century has prioritized change over stasis, a vision of dynamic transformation over pre-existing truths. In the mediaeval period, the dominant idea of the polity was of the King’s Two Bodies that provided the essential characterization of the politics of a society built on the divine right of kings, the very conception that gave rise to the notion of a ‘body politic.’ (Cf. Ernst H. Kantorowicz The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Mediaeval Political Theology; the book was first published in 1957 and was one of the seminal works that informed my own thinking – a revised edition, which I have not read, was published recently by Princeton University Press) The core thesis, which I quote, is the following:

The king’s natural body has physical attributes, suffers, and dies, naturally, as do all humans; but the king’s other body, the spiritual body, transcends the earthly and serves as a symbol of his office as majesty with the divine right to rule. The notion of the two bodies allowed for the continuity of monarchy even when the monarch died, as summed up in the formulation “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

As in the contemporary era, the university went through four stages in the mediaeval period with its own version of a Sanctuary of Truth, A Sanctuary of Method, a Social Service Station and a Supermarket of Knowledge. (See Howard Adelman, The Holiversity) In that period, there were two radically different realms, the eternal one above that ruled over the changing one below, the realm of eternal and the realm of transience.

Gauchet dubs it the state of heteronomy in contrast to modernity governed by the concept of autonomy, the capacity for self-determination and the ability to make one’s own laws and self-legislate. According to Gauchet, in the period of modernity, democracy emerged as the prime political system and the nation-state the prime political unit to express this idea. In my view, not elaborated in this series, what we find is the rediscovery of the ancient Israelite conception of the nation-state via the Dutch thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries now wedded to a revised version of the Greek concept of democracy.

In Gauchet’s version, modernity begins the process of leaving religion behind in the dustbin of history. Gauchet is an avowed French secularist. In my own view, in modernity the divine re-enters history as a process of self-revelation rather than the view of an unchanging deity ruling from a transcendent perch on its wayward and contentious empire below. On the surface, and on the surface only, modernity gives the appearance of leaving religion behind but really re-incorporates religious notions in a sense of spiritual revelation over time. The religion left behind is that of the totem of hunter-gatherer societies in which fate lies in the hands of the supernatural Other, either embedded in a world of natural spirits or disembodied from the natural world first by nomads who are not hunter-gatherers but move their domesticated flocks alongside them.

To jump to the present, we have entered a period in which democracy is in crisis, in which the university is in crisis and in which a sense of powerlessness has become the defining notion in radical contrast to the original vision of autonomy and self-determination. The symptoms include an obsession with an apocalyptic outcome and destruction of the natural world that lies at the core of environmentalism and the predominant mode of the new fiction and sci-fi movies. Instead of individual self-determination, politics has become for us liberals identity politics. Instead of politics as a collective enterprise of communal self-realization, it has become the realm in which personal fulfillment is the dominant mode. As a consequence, the core of a democracy, has been sucked from the plum to leave behind a dried and wrinkled prune. As privacy disappears, so ironically does the sense of the public.

One final note on Hegel and neo-Hegelian thought. Hegel has been radically misinterpreted through a Marxist lens and my own scholarship on Hegel focused on a reinterpretation to unpack the central religious themes of Hegel. While the dominant populist intellectual belief was that Hegel was convinced that history led to a terminus, to a final point of unity. I, and the rest of the Toronto Hegelian school, contended that history was not about the absolute as the end of history, for the absolute was always with us from the start. At each stage of historical self-revelation, the absolute takes on a new chimera and projects a new illusion of unity that will soon be fractured by its internal contradictions. Rather than coming to the end of history, rather than Hegel pronouncing on the character of that end, he wrote that, “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Contrary of the current character of the world of data preoccupied with its positivist emphasis on prediction, in history, we can only understand it backwards. That is the perpetual tragedy of history. As soon as we recognize the contradictions of an era we have moved on to a different age with its own internal contradiction. Hence, not a new unity but new forms of fragmentation and forces of dissolution.

I will begin next week with describing the age of data, the process of its emergence and the forces within it of dissolution with a focus on the dissolution of the Social Service Station that is in the process of being transformed into a supermarket of knowledge. Let me try to be clear. Each stage is not a discrete unit separate from the previous stage. It emerges out of the contradictions of that early stage out of elements of technology, of communication and of a mind-set emerging in that earlier stage. In this alliance of convenience of two successive stages, the defined enemy is always, not the previous stage, but the stage prior to that. It is a way of covering up current contradictions while displacing blame on that which has already been cast into the dustbin of history.

I will go back to trace the series of crisis that develop out of the contradictions in each stage to try to provide the background of why, when we have accumulated not only more knowledge than at any previous time, but the means to access even much more while, at the same time, we perhaps have never felt so impotent accompanied by the feeling that society has careened out of control. What happened to the idea of autonomy and self-determination. In the film Annihilation that I wrote about in the last blog, the central conceit hidden behind the martial mission film genre and the horror film genre was a conception of alien forces, not only taking possession of our selves and our brains in the world of big data, but of the very DNA of life in the whole of the living natural realm by becoming the ultimate body snatcher and controlling the central messaging system of our DNA to create new monsters, hybrids and mutations.

It is the roots of this dystopia of impending doom and its emergence that we need to come to understand. Just when we seem to have become the masters of our destiny, society is more than ever pervaded by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in spite of the bursts of volcanic energy from high school students in America and women in America. Is it possible and how can we recover the original bold claim that we are masters of our destiny?

One last caveat. After Lepore’s lecture, which one of my grandsons attended with me, we went out to dinner together. He expressed an unbridled confidence in the wonders and indeed miracles that reside in the new realm of data. In my account, I will have to explain this overwhelmingly utopian vision in juxtaposition to the dystopic one that I sketched above.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Sunday: Facts, Numbers, Data: The Social Service Station

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

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The Nightmare

The Nightmare

by

Howard Adelman

The nightmare is not over; it has just begun.

I went to bed last evening at 9:30 p.m. My stomach was churning at what I saw coming, not just a win but an overwhelming win. One did not have to be a seer to know the outcome of last night. I woke up at midnight hoping that I had not had a nightmare. The horror was worse than I had ever imagined.

A man who denies climate change has been elected president of the United States. A serial liar has been elected president of the United States. A man who admires Putin has been elected president of the United States. A man who promises to make America great again because of a false narrative of national decline has been elected president of the United States. A man who claims crime has increased when the evidence points to the opposite has been elected president of the United States. A man who would build America’s military much stronger but who will no longer use that military to protect allies (unless they pay) or offer humanitarian protection for civilians is about to become president of the United States. A man who spreads illusionary fears of Syrian refugees has been elected president of the United States. A billionaire who promised to lower the taxes of the rich will become president of the United States.

A man who denigrates Mexicans and promises to build a wall just when more Mexicans are moving back than seeking entry into the United States has been elected president of America. A man who boasts about groping women and forcing himself upon them has been elected president of the United States. A man who saw two black men counting money before his casinos went bankrupt and insisted that they be replaced by Jews with kippas has been elected president of the United States. A man who promises to initiate destructive trade wars and demolish the existing international economic order has been elected president of the United States. A man who insists that the American political system is broken and/or rigged has been elected president of the United States by that supposedly rigged system. A man who denigrates constitutional norms and promises to resurrect torture has been elected president of the United States. A man who attacks and derides the media and threatens to introduce libel laws to shut down criticism has been elected president of the United States. A man who insists, “I alone can fix it,” a man who says that he knows more about ISIS than the generals, a man of such megalomaniacal proportions has been elected president of the United States. A man who will now control the nomination process of judges to the Supreme Court and over 4,000 federal administrative appointments, a man who clearly demonstrated that he has taken over the Republican Party from the economic conservatives and the Tea Party right, a man who claims that American democratic institutions are corrupt has been elected president of the United States.

What happened?

When Donald gave his acceptance speech at about 3:00 a.m. in the morning, he was gracious towards Hillary and congratulated her on a well-fought campaign. He promised to represent all Americans of whatever race, religion, background or belief. He promised to reach across the aisle and work with both Republicans and Democrats. He promised to rebuild America’s inner cities, its roads, its bridges and its infrastructure. He promised to work with and on behalf of all Americans, whether white or black, whether Latino or Muslim. And he promised to work on behalf of America’s interest but in cooperation and fairly with all other nations willing to get along with America. His tone stood is sharp contrast with the voice of his campaign, the voice of anger, the voice appealing to fear.

Reagan won as the smiling candidate of optimism combined with a hawkish foreign policy. Trump won as the candidate of anger combined with pushing America’s withdrawal from the world much further than even Barack Obama. Yet he was humble and conciliatory and thanked many others for their role in his victory. He insisted that the victory belonged to “us” and not to himself. Will the real Donald Trump stand up? But perhaps there is no real Donald Trump, only the man who needs mass admiration and adoration.

How does my nightmare compare with the dream Donald sold to the American public? It is not as if this would-be pharaoh dreamt of zombie cows eating healthy fat ones with no benefit to themselves. Instead, he dreamt of elites acquiring power and getting rich in the dot.com age and leaving the cattlemen, the farmers and the industrial workers to rust away themselves in the backwaters of America. It is not as if this would-be pharaoh dreamt of thin stalks of wheat devouring healthy ones. Instead, he dreamt of zombie intellectuals, wimps, nerds and members of the chattering class eating the downtrodden people of small towns and the underemployed workers in the rust belt and called for reversing the tables. Further, he had his own court Jew, his own Joseph with the coat-of-many-colours, his son-in-law, to help him interpret his nightmares.

This would-be pharaoh was told that the nightmares had revealed what had been the case, not what would be the case. Further, the nightmare he envisioned in the inner cities and in the rust belt and in rural America was prophetic for the neo-would-be pharaoh elected by pent up anger and resentment, this would-be pharaoh was about to bring about the catastrophe that, as a fabulist, he had invented about the past. The catastrophe he envisaged as having taken place was but an adumbration of a catastrophe about to be visited upon America. “You see. What I said has been unequivocally been proven.” And to correct the catastrophe, he will appoint czars to all his ministries and create a very powerful centralized government. He did so, not because he despised a central and powerful government as traditional Republicans do, but because he resented the overseers who previously ran the dysfunctional central government and who were unable to read the fears and hopes of the populace.

The dream of America, the dream of its founding fathers, has turned away from real hope towards an ersatz hope, turned away from vision towards glitz and advertisements for Trump, turned away from the staggering but irresistible march of a nation towards equality and a flawed but still beautiful dream and turned it into a nightmare fuelled by a whitelash of resentment against minorities and women seeking equal status with men. And women who do not enjoy such equality joined the whitelash. There was a spread of white non-college women voting for Trump over Hillary of 28 points. That added to the spread of 50 points of white non-college educated whites made it impossible for Hillary to bridge the gap without really stimulating minorities and college-educated women and men sufficiently and probably without winning back enough of the millennials who supported Sanders.

So I woke up this morning and saw that my nightmare did not belong to the darkness but was now part of the daylight. The catastrophe I hoped would be averted is upon us, not only Americans, but the whole world. Could Canada be a refuge for hapless dreamers and disillusioned thinkers, creative inventers and conscientious but cautious entrepreneurs, for students and scholars wanting to live lives in an environment that celebrated truth, that celebrated trust and faith, that celebrated a world of progress rather than the art of the deal?

The problem is that Canada with a few other countries like Chile, finds itself to be an oasis of order and good government. But how can Canada float above the tsunami that will inevitably wash across our borders?

Again, so what went wrong?

Muslims are fearful as are the children of African Americans and Latinos, but the biggest and first losers in the election yesterday were our modern futurologists, our pollsters, our prognosticators who declared Hillary had an over 80% chance of winning the presidency. In their estimates of probable and possible outcomes, they had declared that Donald Trump had a few but highly improbable routes to the presidency. They were proven dead wrong. His victory has been overwhelming in the Electoral College. The electoral map was upended in key states. More specifically, the blue wall in the rust belt was breached, not just in one place, but Republicans burst through in two and possibly three breeches.

Donald Trump is the oldest person ever elected to be president, the only president-elect with no experience in public office, the only president-elect whom over 60% of the American population thinks lacks the experience and qualifications to do the job and who does not even have the temperament to do the job. For a candidate who made deporting illegals a central plank in his platform, over 70% of Americans believe there ought to be a legal route to citizenship for these foreigners living in America. Yet he won Florida where that pro-legal route to citizenship was favoured by a majority. They rersent immigrants and illegals because they believe they receive benefits to which they themselves are not entitlDonald Trump made immigration a central and perhaps the central plank in his platform. But there is insufficient evidence to indicate that this is why many voters supported him.

Donald Trump made terrorism another central plank. Trump promised to immediately wipe out ISIS once he took office. But ISIS and terrorism, other than for the alt-right, hardly appeared on the electoral screen. But trade was his third central plank. And the issue of trade did count. And count overwhelmingly. Americans elected him as their president because he opposed the trade agreements and because a very large number of Americans agreed that those trade agreements were the source of the weakening of America.

Sanders, the populist on the left of the Democratic Party, also blamed the trade agreements. American workers had fewer and fewer well-paid manufacturing jobs available to them. Between outsourcing and robotics, they have been displaced. What will happen when they learn that Trump’s promises of restoring those jobs are a chimera? But Sanders was defeated in the primaries because of the way the rules worked and because he was not given a prominent voice at the beginning of the campaign. Would a Democratic populist have won against a Republican populist? Possibly. My youngest son is convinced that this would have been the case. Hillary lost because she could not energize minorities – Hispanics and African Americans – sufficiently to outweigh Trump’s appeal, not only to white working class Americans, but to white working class females. And Trump not only energized his own unique movement, but forced traditional Republicans into a corner where most were unable to do much but back him lest they themselves go down to defeat at the hands of his supporters.

Will Trump cancel the Iran nuclear deal? Other than the alt-right, it did not loom as a huge issue. But the foreign policy establishment in Washington is totally afraid of Trump. And Washington gave Clinton 92.8% of its votes. In the end, Donald not only proved that he could stage a coup and take over the Republican Party, but that with both the width and depth of his support, he could win the White House. As he promised, “the forgotten will not any longer be forgotten.” Most Americans wanted radical change and Hillary came across, not as a change agent, not as someone breaking through a glass ceiling, but as someone who had constructed a mirrored wall around herself so that she was easily branded as a shape shifter.

As one pundit put it, Hillary died the death of a thousand cuts.

Given the economic state of the world, the Obama-led rescue in 2008 will soon appear as a blip as America comes face-to-face with the credit debit crisis. The direction Donald wants to take the economy ignores the underlying rumbles of an imminent earthquake. And instead of the Republicans trying to put their party back together, it has been totally remolded by Donald Trump. It is the Democratic Party that walks away licking its wounds and trying to figure what went wrong and how to re-create itself.

In all this chaos, I will be going back to my nightmares retreating, for my daymares seem so much worse.

With the help of Alex Zisman

II: The Science of Interstellar

II: The Science of Interstellar

by

Howard Adelman

As far as I can recall, there is no mention in Kip Thorne’s book, The Science of Interstellar, of the science of ions of interstellar origin as documented by the Solar Wind Ion Composition Spectrometer on the spacecraft Ulysses. One wonders why since the connection with the thrust of the movie as a modern day Odyssey is so obvious. Further, the Ulysses spacecraft was designed to study interstellar space, specifically, the poles of the sun and the interstellar space above and below the two poles. Further, the spacecraft, Ulysses, with its two stage rocket and its smaller thrust engine, could easily have been the model for the space craft that rendezvoused with the spaceship, Endurance.

Instead, the shuttle used in Interstellar to reach the Endurance appeared to rely on chemical rockets rather than alternative forms of thrust that would be needed to propel a spaceship into outer space, possibly a laser-powered ion propulsion system or, at least, a nuclear powered spacecraft or even fusion propelled spacecraft. Alternatives could have relied on beamed lasers mounted on asteroids and laser reflectors, or a plethora of small spinning microsails. However, Interstellar is not about traveling between suns or from our solar system to the nearest one, Alpha Centauri, a triple system closer than any other star. It is about traveling to another galaxy altogether through a wormhole.

The reason is that even by using these alternative forms of energy propulsion to travel between solar systems, it would still take far too long even if such systems could be perfected in the next two centuries. The probable speed would be from 1/13th the speed of light to 1/5th the speed of light. Even if the latter were achieved, it would still take forty years to reach Alpha Centauri, and that solar system does not seem to have any planets that could support life. Working in any of these directions would take far too long if Earth were dying as a habitable planet and, in any case, even when such systems were developed, would take decades, even a century, to get to and back from that other solar system to report on whether there was a habitable planet.
However, if one envisioned traveling to a planet within this solar system to move proximate to a wormhole, if one were to be located there, this offers an option far more feasible and closer to technology currently available and under development. What appears as a disconnect between the old fashioned mode of thrust portrayed in the film and more credible alternative systems for interstellar travel, is, in fact, more credible than the far-out thought experiments for interstellar travel. Further, a movie viewer would not have recognized these innovative propulsion systems as characteristic of interstellar travel. Ironically, travel to another galaxy seems to be more scientifically plausible than interstellar travel. I presume that is why Chris Nolan opted for the portrayal of old-fashioned chemically-propelled thrust rockets which accord more with viewer expectations as well as with scientific evidence. The problem is the verisimilitude of traveling to a wormhole, going through it and still being able to explore another solar system in a different galaxy to find livable planets.

Is this important to the movie? It is the scientific crux on which the plausibility of the whole film depends. If verisimilitude and plausibility are goals, then far out solutions, such as traveling the immensely greater distances between galaxies rather than the relatively short distances between nearby solar systems, is the better option. The stated aim of the movie is to be as true to scientific actuality or possibility as movie makers can manage. Where there are deviances, as when Amie Brand in her argument with Cooper over which planet they should travel to next, offers a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, the viewer who has some familiarity with the science does not know whether she is making a scientific mistake (unlikely, since she is so advanced as a scientist) or whether she is just being emotional at the time because she wants to find her lover, or, most plausibly, she is just bullshitting Cooper who is an astronaut and pilot and not an astrophysicist. Thorne, the famous astrophysicist who first co-conceived the movie and served as a consultant and executive producer for the film, claimed that the science in the film was either established fact, an educated guess or speculation, but in either of the latter options, never impossible.

But that is not how one experiences the opening pre-story of the film that Jonathan Nolan developed in his script of a world in which blight has attacked one crop after another so that corn remains the only cereal crop left and we soon learn that it too will soon be ravaged by blight. The population on earth has been devastated. Human civilization has gone in reverse mode and almost everyone is a farmer or services agriculture. America is the 1930’s dust bowl ten times over with the landscape ravaged by huge dust storms. This is the dystopia with which the film begins, not the current wave of environmental disasters caused by humans, but one wrought by nature itself.

Kip Thorne wrote that, while such a scenario was highly unlikely, it was not impossible. At least that is what he and fellow scientists at Caltech with whom he consulted concluded – including an expert on plants in general, a top cell biologist, a microbe expert and a fourth Nobel-Prize-winning biologist. However, what is highly unlikely is not verisimilitude or even plausibility. And to entice us if the movie is to be an exercise in science fiction and not science fantasy, “highly unlikely” is an unacceptable criterion. So the movie starts on a wrong note and then leads us into the world of astrophysics. Instead of establishing a really possible if not probable foundation, we are led into a strange world that, for most movie goers, seems far closer to fantasy than it should or could have been.

Why is the opening dystopia implausible even though not entirely impossible? Well it is not presented as an all-out dystopia, uncomfortable perhaps, but baseball continues. Education deformed by dogma prevails, but there is still education. But it is a form of education in a country that has lost its way, a society in defensive mode, a society that has lost sight of aspiration in favour of mere survival. The last is the least plausible. Having studied and written about genocide – in Rwanda and the Holocaust – in societies far worse than the extreme dust bowl of the opening scenes, even these societies, where genocide is widespread, evince more hope. Further, the calamity is set in America, the land of hopes and dreams, where a Jewish son of immigrants from Eastern Europe could write America’s most famous and best-loved song about imagining somewhere over the rainbow way up high, a place where skies remain blue, where the clouds are far behind and dreams that you dream of really do come true.

Certainly pathogens can mutate, certainly monocrop agriculture is more fragile and more prone to attack at the same time as scientifically produced seeds have developed inner systems for protecting against pests and lethal microbes. The mutant microbe IS part of our everyday fears. The melting ice cap could release an ancient pathogen that could overcome all current defence mechanisms. These, and many other scientific scenarios, are possible, if highly improbable. What is not probable or even plausible is the passive surrender to a virulent natural disaster. Nothing we know about America, as self-destructive as it has become, prepares us for such a presumption. The problem is not in the natural science but in the political science, the sociology and the psychology. And the movie offers no preparation or plausible account for that shift.

Nothing wrong with that if the movie is a true dystopia. But the movie leads us into recovering our scientific dreams that have continued to take place in secret. Cooper, through the “magic” of the moved books and the magnetic arrangements of the sand from the dust storm, is offered the message of where, surprisingly within a relatively short driving distance, a secret NASA operation continues to build manned spacecraft for flights to outer space. A scenario of blight feeding on the enormous supply of nitrogen in our air and wiping out all crops, a blight in which microbes are both 100% lethal AND transferable to all vegetation, is not plausible given what we know of biological science. Such a scenario is theoretically possible, but Kip Thorne agrees is highly unlikely. So why start with such an opening if the movie intends to restore our faith in science?
I protest too much. After all, this is science fiction. But Interstellar is supposed to be science fiction that is as close to fact or at least to possible fact as possible in exploring the cosmos. It is not science fiction that strays off into the fantasies of a disaster movie. Instead of setting the audience up for truly believing in the possibility of the exploration of outer space taking place via travel through a wormhole, the opening pre-story undermines that goal. This is quite aside from the contradictory messages received from that fifth dimension that tells Cooper he should stay but, at the same time, gives him the clues that will enable him to resume his career as an astronaut.

Professor Elliot Myerowitz offered some plausible scenarios for a nature-caused die off – enormous algae blooms as a result of ultraviolet light getting to earth through the ozone hole; a recurrence of the cyanobacteria that produces oxygen rather than carbon dioxide and once managed to kill almost everything on earth. He also offered the suggestion of a microbe that attacks the chloroplasts in plants that, on the one hand, produce the carbohydrates a plant needs to grow and, on the other hand, releases via photosynthesis the oxygen from carbon dioxide which humans need to breathe. So a scenario of excess production of CO2 is much more plausible than nitrogen (already 80%) increasing at the expense of oxygen. Further, it is a scenario that is part of our daily fears, for CO2 need only increase to 2% in our atmosphere to radically change how we can live.

But this is science fiction. Who cares whether the science is credible! When it comes to science, moviegoers are credulous. But credibility, plausibility and verisimilitude are not only important to Kip Thorne who conceived the movie, but to the absorption of the audience in the dramatic action. I have no idea why a more realistic political and biological foundation was not provided for the film. What we observe is very entrancing, but it does not lead us to expect a realistic – or as realistic as possible – excursion into outer space. For science fantasy is an escape genre. Science fiction, on the other hand, prepares us for enlarging our aspirations, the central message of the film. A world where aspiration and vegetative life have been exhausted may serve as a great counter to a restored faith in science, but if it leads us to believe that science is sheer fantasy, then that purpose has been undermined. And my very small survey of viewers of the film is that they saw the movie as science fantasy which they equated with science fiction. In other words, instead of strengthening the human belief in science, the movie undermines it. And there are so many more plausible scenarios that could have pressured humans to seek a new home on another planet.

When we get to the science of leaving earth and reaching another galaxy, the scenarios, however unfamiliar, are scientifically much more plausible. Tau Ceti, the nearest sun with a possible planetary system with a possible earth-like planet is 11.9 light years away. (Proxima Centauri, the nearest sun, is only 4.24 light years away, but it does not have planets conducive to supporting life.) So if spaceships could travel at the speed of light, that planet could be reached in just under a dozen years. But space travel at the speed of light is just implausible in science. So the problem is not just the distance of alternative solar systems, but the difficulty in getting there within a reasonable time. Voyageur 1 has been traveling for 37 years and is only 18 light hours – not 18 light years – from Earth. As Thorne has written, this is like traveling to downtown Manhattan from midtown when your destination is Perth, Australia.

Hence wormholes. Traveling to the moon, the only space body to which humans have traveled, is fact. Traveling to Mars is within range of achievement. Traveling to Saturn, though much more difficult, is feasible. An advanced version of Voyager I, using gravitational slingshots as Voyager I did around Saturn and Jupiter to give the spaceship a boost, make such travel possible. If we can get to Saturn, and if there is a wormhole near Saturn, travel to another galaxy becomes plausible. Not yet feasible, but scientifically plausible.
The movie set in what is no longer Oklahoma or the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz, which blames nature rather than humans for the extinction of life on earth – in contrast with Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction – has universal appeal because the message is acceptable to both tree huggers as well as the anti-environmentalists who believe that environmental science is a religious cult. But if the effort was intended to seduce the anti-environmentalists into at least accepting the validity and superiority of science as an awesome enterprise through the beauty and fascination of the power of science as well as a love of nature’s magnificence, the film lacks coherence, which is as important to the credibility of science as Thorne’s preoccupation with a correspondence theory of truth.

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in the dystopian pre-story poetically laments that, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Unfortunately, the opening pre-story does not help restore that faith in science. Aim higher, break barriers to ignorance, reach for the stars, explore, pioneer and persevere. Most of all, as Dr. Brand intones repeatedly like a sledgehammer that sucks the music out of Dylan Thomas’ great poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” For although wise men know that death – personal or of the Earth itself – is inevitable, humans cannot and should not lie down before the awesome inevitability.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That is why this movie is deeply religious, not in terms of organized religion, but in terms of its spiritual message. Jesus did not go raging into that good night. He accepted his crucifixion with equanimity. But he refused to passively accept the death of others whom he raised from the dead, such as the young girl who supposedly died in Luke 8:49. Jesus insisted that she was only sleeping. While everyone around was wailing and weeping, Jesus woke her up. So Jesus spoke with a forked tongue, a tongue which offered two opposite lessons at the same time – total acceptance of his own demise while quietly raising others from the dead.

Dr. Brand, who we learn in the movie has spoken with a forked tongue in a very different sense, as both a liar and a man who believes that radical alternative choices have to be made when two roads diverge in a wood. He is given those precious lines of Dylan Thomas’ villanelle as his motto to pass onto future generations. But the Welsh poet’s message to his own father is a rant against acceptance of death by the other, whereas Thomas was a fatalist alcoholic when it came to his own death. So which are we to believe, the forked tongue of Dr. Brand in which science has to operate via the use of Plato’s noble lie or Cooper’s raging efforts to live up to the vow he made his young daughter?

Cooper could have recited lines from another famous poet, an American one, to counter that of Dr. Brand, the last verse of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Next Blog:
Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel
Speed, Distance, Navigation, Communication, Long Duration, Propulsion and Time Dilation