Sunday, May 29, 2011

Energy Source To Be Identified

I’m still thinking about Leslie Kean’s book on UFOs,1 which cites the testimony of credible people who believe that perhaps as many as 10% of the sightings to date represent real, physical, unexplained objects—perhaps not evidence of little green men, but objects flying under conscious, intelligent control all the same. If this is true, and these objects function as described, then they suggest a technology and energy source unknown to humans. That tells me someone, somewhere in the universe, has different ideas about, perhaps a different take on, the laws of physics. And that intrigues me.

The UFOs as described hover without wings or thrusters, accelerate at rates which would turn any organic occupant into people paste, achieve speeds well above supersonic without creating sonic booms, and appear to control electrical phenomena like cockpit electronics and missile circuitry at a distance. They range in size, from dimensions of a sports car to those of an aircraft carrier. As evidence of intelligent control, they react differently during encounters with commercial and military aircraft. And they seem to be curious about, if not actually studying, us.

To me, the most basic question—aside from concerns about their origins and intentions—is the nature of the energy source these flight dynamics represent. But before we can consider that, we need to think about how humans generate and use energy.

Energy Through the Ages

Here’s my catalog of human energy use, other than our own muscles and those of animals we can persuade to work for us.

Burn something like wood or wax, charcoal or camel dung to create heat for warmth and cooking, and light for protection and for seeing what you’re doing after sunset. All burning involves the breaking and remaking of covalent bonds through oxidation (that is, combining with oxygen) of an organic molecule such as cellulose or fat.2 We also speak of “burning” the fuel in a nuclear reactor, although all we’re doing is bringing fissionable atoms (that is, breakable atomic nuclei) into proximity so that they break more readily, and then we use the resulting heat.3

Boil something like water or naphtha or some other working fluid, using the heat from that burning fuel, or from nuclear fission and focused solar rays. Heat makes the molecules in the fluid move faster and expands the volume they occupy. Push the expanding gases into an enclosed cylinder attached to a connecting rod, or against the vanes of a turbine, and you can create circular motion that will drive a machine or turn a generator. That circular motion spins magnets inside a wire coil to make an electric current, which you can tap for various useful projects.

Explode something like gasoline or ammonium nitrate or ammonium perchlorate. An explosion is really just a notably rapid oxidation, usually involving molecules with unstable, and thus fragile, bonds that release great amounts of energy when they break. Use the resulting explosion of expanding gases to drive a cylinder or turn a turbine. Or use the direct force of the explosion to break up rock in a mine or tunnel, or feed the reaction chamber of a rocket to create thrust.

Capture a flow that already exists in the environment. Use a paddle to turn the flow of a stream into circular motion to drive a grinding mill or other machinery. Use a propeller to turn the flow of wind into circular motion for a generator. Use a sail or shaped foil to create differential pressures in the wind that will provide propulsion for a ship or lift for an airplane. Use the ion instability of a silicon substrate to turn the energy of photons in sunlight into an electric current. Use the flow of electrons from any source to create heat and light through resistance in a wire, or to create motion by spinning magnets inside a wire coil (the generator in reverse), or control other machines and information by chasing through a circuit etched in silicon with bistable (that is, on-off) gates.

Create a flow by using expanding heat energy to move charged particles across an alternating series of north-south magnets and create an electric current—that is, magnetohydrodynamics. Or use an electric current to power a series of alternating magnets and move charged or magnetized objects (everything from the fractured atoms of ions to ferrous-clad payload projectiles) in a straight line—that is, a linear accelerator or rail gun.

Have I missed anything? Burn something, boil something, push something. It all comes down to one of three forces: (1) certain molecular bonds are unstable and break with a useful release of energy, usually through oxidation; (2) hot things have more kinetic energy than cool things and push harder against their environment; (3) spinning magnets create a field that can push against electrons and so induce the flow of an electric current, and vice versa. Oh, yes—and gravity makes things fall down, and you can sometimes catch a ride with it, as falling water turns a paddle wheel, or the resistance of a glider’s wings to the rush of air convert its fall into forward motion and so a source of lift.4

These forces are all controlled by the laws of thermodynamics. They state, first, that energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed, but they can change from one form to another (the law of conservation). As an example of the first law, think of the bonds of gasoline molecules exploding to create motion by pushing against a piston. Second, that while energy cannot be destroyed, it can be lost for useful work as the system progresses from a state of order to one of disorder (the law of entropy). As an example of the second law, think of the waste heat that an internal combustion engine or a light bulb creates, or the kinetic energy lost as a sailboat’s hull pushes water molecules out of its way.5

Implications for UFOs

For anyone moving around the sky, the available energy sources described above imply that, unless you are riding the terrestrial wind with a wing, or the solar wind with a sail, or somehow catching a ride with gravity, you must carry some kind of fuel. This fuel can be a supply of energetic molecules that you break up or combine in a rocket engine, or a supply of charged particles that you accelerate magnetically for thrust in an accelerator (plus an energy source or battery to drive the magnets). The first law of thermodynamics says you can’t make those molecules or particles out of nothing. The second law says you can’t immediately capture and reconstruct the broken molecules, or somehow re-collect the accelerated particles, and so give yourself an inexhaustible supply of energy. So the first implication is that if you need a fuel supply, it will be limited.

For anyone moving at any speed, the laws of thermodynamics imply that the more energetic your actions—making rapid accelerations and reaching high speeds—the more energy you will need to consume over a unit of time. Anyone who drives an automobile knows, or soon learns, that jackrabbit starts and displays of speed are more costly than gradual accelerations and sedate driving. You may save time, but you don’t save fuel. So the second implication is that dazzling aerial performance is going to require you to carry more fuel rather than less.6

For anyone flying through the air, the laws of thermodynamics imply that larger and therefore heavier vehicles—presuming they are made of metal or a similar solid material—require more energy to lift and move than smaller, lighter vehicles. The fuel-based energy sources described above are generally scalable—able to do more work using less fuel through improvements in efficiency—but not infinitely so. Somewhere in the engineering mix is a limit to the optimal vehicle size in terms of its performance and fuel-carrying ability. At some further point, such as trying to lift an aircraft-carrier-sized vehicle by means of chemical rocket engines, you give up and look for another power source. So the third implication is that size matters, and eventually fuel costs in terms of weight and supply will limit your capabilities.

All of this is bad news for the UFOs. They come in all sizes and they expend energy like nobody’s business. Even if the builders had access to pocket-sized reactors fusing hydrogen nuclei or annihilating matter-antimatter particles, it’s still hard to imagine a vehicle performing the feats of lift and acceleration ascribed to the UFOs. And harder still to imagine them doing this while suppressing secondary effects like hard radiation and sonic booms.7

So either the UFOs and their capabilities are a fantasy after all—and even if they have an explanation, they turn out not to be, ahem, real—or the builders know something we don’t. That is, they don’t obtain their energy merely by creating an efficiency advantage with the energy sources we already know about, such as chemical bonds or nuclear forces.

Perhaps the builders are not governed by the laws of physics known to humans, including the principles of thermodynamics, simply because they do not observe them. If you believed, contrary to human observation and numerous equations, that matter and energy can be created, or manipulated without increasing disorder, could you get a free ride?

Perhaps, also, the builders have a deeper understanding of the elementary components of physics, such as space and time, and their interaction through gravity, than humans have been able to achieve. Space, time, and gravity are structures that have assigned quantities in human physics, but we can only describe them without actually explaining them. There are even suggestions in quantum mechanics that space and time are merely outgrowths, secondary aspects, of reality.8

The human mind and its creations—among them the laws of physics, the principles of mathematics, the esthetics of balance and proportion in music and the arts—are among our highest achievements. Without them, we’re hard pressed to explain our superiority over the ants and earthworms. So I don’t lightly suggest that our powers of observation and theory are trivial or worthless.

But maybe, by relying so much on the theoretical structures we’ve created in our physics and chemistry, we might be blinding ourselves to a deeper understanding. It’s possible that untold sources of energy and capability, at the very least, are hovering right outside our awareness, just beyond our mental reach, if only we could look at things in a different way.

1. See More Thoughts on UFOs from May 1, 2011. The fact that I’m still thinking about this subject indicates (1) I don’t take lightly the possibility that something we don’t understand is going on, and (2) Kean’s book has passed the nose test for flagrant and irrational fantasy.

2. There’s also energy to be had in simply making covalent bonds; the commonest example is hydrogen and oxygen coming together as water. This is the vastly exothermic reaction that drove the Space Shuttle and the Atlas rocket engines.

3. You can also create impressive amounts of heat and light by forcing hydrogen nuclei to fuse into helium—and then forcing helium nuclei into heavier atoms, with loss of various particles—all under great pressure. Unfortunately, the necessary pressures for a profitable reaction seem to be unavailable to us humans, outside the intense gravity well existing deep inside a star.

4. There’s also the notion—I hesitate to call it more than that—of a “vacuum energy” or “dark energy” that resides in empty space and is related to the expansion of the universe and the spontaneous creation and annihilation of virtual particles. At present, this seems to me a theoretical concept, driven more by mathematical equations and cosmic recordkeeping than by measurable physical phenomena. How such energy might be used on Earth, amid the swarm of particles and fields we call everyday life, is a matter of conjecture and—so far—fantasy.

5. In addition to the first and second laws quoted here, there is a “zeroth” law, describing the relationships among systems that are in thermal equilibrium—that is, unchanging over time—with respect to each other, and a third law, describing the entropy of a perfect crystal at a temperature of absolute zero. While these laws may be useful in cleaning up a physicist’s calculations, they don’t seem to directly affect the change in energy states that concerns humans.

6. Another implication is that anyone catching a ride with the wind or gravity will experience limits imposed both by the force inherent in the environmental effect and by the efficiency of the vehicle’s capture strategy. For example, a sloop-rigged sailboat can actually move faster than the wind, based on the dynamics of its sail design, but that differential is relatively fixed. The boat’s optimum sail arrangement and angle to the wind might yield a speed differential of two or three times wind speed, but it still won’t go anywhere when the wind dies, and it can’t go 150 mph in a 30-mph gust.

7. They do emit a lot of light—flashing lights, colored lights, focused beams of light—and emit this light when it might be more prudent to remain invisible, such as sneaking around a missile silo. Is that a clue? Could the light be some kind of necessary emission of their propulsion system, as smoke and flame are emissions of a chemical rocket?

8. Consider that, from the perspective of a proton, there is no space or time. No proton has ever been seen to decay, so the particle is virtually immortal. Time does not affect it. And once the proton is safely tucked inside an atom—even one so primitive as a hydrogen nucleus, consisting of a single proton—it is shielded under the energy potential of multiple electron shells. It’s not going anywhere on its own. Space does not affect it. So, in a sense, space and time are effects that only arise through the interactions of collections of particles, as observed from somewhere outside them—the human perspective.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Where Have the Adults Gone?

It’s a popular notion that American popular culture has fallen apart and become an embarrassment to a nation that claims superpower status. It’s also widely known that we have become a culture that celebrates youth, even as our population itself is aging. Amid all this dissonance, I look around and wonder, where have all the adults gone?

Some time ago I read in a movie review1 the lament that young people used to go to the movie theater to find out how adults behave. You watched Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy trade banter to see how adults interact verbally. You watched Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to see them interact sexually. You learned something about playfulness and seriousness, but you also learned about honesty and honor.

In Key Largo, when Bogart backs down before Edward G. Robinson’s gangster and is offered the face-saving notion that he must have known the gun in his hand was unloaded, because of its weight, he admits that, no, he didn’t know. That’s an adult speaking, acknowledging a painful truth. Imagine any one of our modern young actors facing up to a moment of hesitation and fear. The teenage bravado currently portrayed by men in their twenties and thirties—the twinkling grin of Leonardo DiCaprio comes to mind—won’t let them. Their shtick is all about “attitude.”

Women don’t have it any better. We see a clutch of actresses in their thirties and forties—epitomized by the perennially hopeful Jennifer Aniston—playing boy-girl dating games. They’re still trying to find love at an age when most people’s hormones are under control and they are going about the serious business of building lives and raising families.

The characters and values shown in the movies can’t help but affect real people.

In recent years I’ve heard several professional women in their mid-thirties refer to their “boyfriends.” The word always causes me to do a psychological double-take, because it’s diction I last heard in high school, along with “going steady” and “heavy petting.” Mature women have husbands, or they speak discreetly of their friends and sometimes of their lovers: men they have chosen as their own, not pretend relationships that are still on trial and probably due for a tearful breakup.

I see men and women both adopting the attitudes of rebellion and rage against society. The movie hero today is invariably a loner with special access to information about corruption and conspiracy, beset on all sides by doubters and the minions of a foolish and stagnant social order.2 That makes for a good story line, and inevitably the hero or heroine wins.3 But it’s just the leitmotif of teenage rebellion.

Rebellion is good for young people. It’s how they separate themselves from their childhood backgrounds and grow. Rebellion is the essence of making new choices for oneself. But like any part of growing up, there’s a time to rebel and a time to put away rebellion, pick up your spear, and join the tribe as a member that others can depend on. Having made your choices, you decide to live with them. Real choices have consequences.

But continual churning, rebelling for its own sake, and complaining at age thirty or forty that the society you live in is a corrupt place not worth your allegiance—that’s a fantasy. Like putting the men in your life on trial as boyfriends, pretend lovers, instead of trusted partners. Worse, continuing the rebellion and adopting the attitude of alienation are an admission of powerlessness: you are unable to change conditions where you can with strength and bravery, and unable to accept conditions as they are with grace and wisdom. Adults make the world and live in it.4

The result of all this movie fantasy we can see in real people delaying the choices that adults make and stick with: committing to a wife or husband, a career, a course of action. All around us are grown children, ending the decade of their twenties and entering their thirties, who are still in school, still dating and trying to find “the one,” still sampling lifestyles and opportunities, still undecided about the direction of their lives. As if they had all the time in the world.

On the one hand, this looks like freedom. You’re not bound yet; you haven’t made a final choice; you’re not required to stand and die for anything. On the other hand, it looks like emptiness.5 Though our culture may celebrate the lone wolf and the rogue elephant, those are both highly social animals who have rejected their pack and herd. The loner doesn’t build society or much of anything. The loner is seldom remembered as a staunch friend, a benefactor, a parent.

So what does it mean to be an adult? I like the definition Robert A. Heinlein gave: someone who knows he’s going to die.6

When you accept—fully, completely, internally, soberly—that you will one day cease to exist, that the temporary reversal of entropy which is life is not a perpetual motion machine, that you are not special, that where everyone else has gone, you too will go, then you change.

If your days are numbered, then you don’t have all the time in the world to decide what kind of life to live, whom to bond with, how to make your mark. Creating meaning in your life and then fulfilling it is a long, slow process for any human. Best to be on your way and moving forward.

For some, this realization is a darkness, a deep hole to be avoided. They react in one of two ways. Either life is meaningless because it will inevitably end; so live for today, gather the rosebuds, stuff your face, and shut your eyes. Or life is so precious that every minute must be preserved; so guard against misadventure, worry about every cough, avoid spicy foods, and avert your eyes.

Either path is a mistake. Because life is limited and sure to end one day, make it count. You can’t go on forever, but you can build something, write something, paint something, raise children and grandchildren, make a stronger society, help your friends, right a wrong, vanquish a lie. Then something bigger and better than you will go on.

It’s this understanding that enables soldiers to go off to war, police officers and fire fighters to walk in the path of trouble, and women to undertake the risks and pains of childbirth. Each in his or her own way accepts that sacrifice may be necessary to live a complete life. What is precious must be risked in order to achieve greater reward.

Those are the deep stories that touch us most: where bravery and sacrifice, love and loss, tell us what it is to be human. Ephemeral, yes, but with some consequence that is everlasting.

1. I’d like to cite a reference here, but this one is lost in the gigabits.

2. When was the last time you saw a police officer, and especially an FBI agent, portrayed as a good guy? Maybe in The Silence of the Lambs. Today they’re all overblown goons in uniform or in dark suits who haven’t yet gotten the word that society is a cesspit and the only option is out.

3. At one time in my writing career, I studied screenplays, thinking they might be a market for me. While every movie story has three acts—hero’s routine life suddenly changes; hero fights against all odds to recover or correct the situation; hero discovers solution to problem and/or achieves vindication—the structure is, in English-major speak, that of a traditional Greek or Roman comedy. The hero is tested and may be inconvenienced, but his losses are temporary and restored in the end. The movie business abhors a true tragedy, where the hero is brought low, loses something that cannot be restored—a wife, a family, personal honor, belief in God—and learns a deeper truth through this suffering. Movie heroes experience suffering, but they do not grow. And the complete consequences of their choices are never realized.

4. I am reminded of the Union leaders after the disastrous first day at Shiloh. General William T. Sherman said to the commander, “Tough day today, Grant.” And Ulysses S. Grant responded, “Yes, but we’ll whip ’em tomorrow.” They could remain steadfast in adversity.

5. Janis Joplin sang in “Me and Bobby McGee” that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Having nothing to lose means there’s not much you care about or stand for. While that kind of emptiness might be the goal of a Zen master … who actually trusts and depends on Zen masters? They, too, stand outside of society and the business of living.

6. I believe this was in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but I can’t find the reference. More gigabits of overload.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Working Backward

One of the most valuable techniques in problem solving I learned in the third grade. But it certainly wasn’t a lesson my teacher intended.

On a day with time to kill between the morning session and lunch bell, she passed out mimeographed sheets with a maze on them and told us to complete it. Busywork for nine-year-olds. Everyone picked up their pencils and began at the start. I looked at the maze for a moment and then—I don’t know why—began at the end, the goal. All the possible traps and dead ends in a maze are designed for the pencil moving forward. Moving backward, I found, was a clear path to the starting point. I was finished in about a minute.

When I took the paper up to the teacher’s desk, she was stunned. “How did you do it so fast?”

“I worked it backward,” I said. “I started at the goal.”

“Thomas!” she said loudly enough for the class to hear. “That’s CHEATING!

I walked back to my desk, thoroughly embarrassed. Everyone was looking at me with an expression of triumph (“Aha, she caught you!”) or pity (“Don’t you know how to be good?”) or confusion (“How do you cheat on a maze?”).

Fortunately, although I was chagrined and abashed, I didn’t really take the teacher’s verdict to heart. After all, she had simply posed the maze as a problem. She didn’t say, “Start at the beginning.” That’s kind of assumed, but it wasn’t made into a rule. Working problems backward has served me well ever since.1

Take, for example, my third job out of college, as technical editor in an engineering and construction company. Only part of the technical editor’s work was to clean up the engineers’ spelling and grammar and make a collaborative effort like a proposal bid or technical report sound like one voice. The most critical task was to coordinate production. Since turning the engineering group’s findings into a deliverable document is a job that no one else cares about, because most engineers hate to write, and since all of this comes at the end of the process of doing the actual engineering, the technical editor was always working under a firecracker deadline.2

It was not uncommon on Monday morning to be assigned to a 500-page, multi-volume proposal that had to fly out on Friday afternoon. That’s less than five days to receive the engineers’ scribblings, edit them, have them typed fresh, get them printed along with charts and graphs, which also have to be professionally prepared, and have everything collated and bound. These days the work is done on word processors and graphics programs that format perfect pages and are attached to printers (“document centers”) that simultaneously print, collate, and bind perfect copies. But when I was working in the mid-’70s, engineers wrote with a pen; I edited with a pencil; teams of typists and graphic designers made the page masters; the print shop produced stacks of individual pages; collating was racks of stacked pages in order, with people running around the table pulling off individual sheets; and the final binding was done with a punch press and plastic combs. Every step was a separate event that the editor had to schedule.

If you sat there on Monday wondering when you were going to get copy to work on, you were already dead. So we had to plan backward. Final step: the courier leaves for the airport at 4 p.m. Friday.3 Immediately preceding activity: collating, binding, and packaging, which normally takes two hours on a job this size; so now we’re back to 2 p.m. That means all printing has to be finished by 1:30. With a mandatory one-day turnaround in the print shop, that means the bulk of the pages must be delivered by noon Thursday. Before then, the typists and proofreaders will want a minimum of an hour per page, times a team of—how many? Ten typists, working two shifts. That will push us back to about three p.m. Tuesday. So the bulk of the text has to be out of legal review and in my hands by noon Tuesday and leaves me about fifteen minutes per section for editing. … Better talk to the project manager to establish these deadlines and cutoffs.

This kind of thinking backward applies not just to publishing rush documents but to any project that supports a work breakdown structure. When you work a schedule backward, you’re forced to focus on the irreducible minimum time for each step. You also discover the dependencies—the links of “gotta have this before I can do that”—which leads you to slippages and float times. Just like the maze, all the traps and dead ends work for the pencil going forward. Moving backward, you’re dealing with the straight path. There’s no guessing about where you start: the starting point is suddenly staring you in the face.

The same principle works for storytelling and novel writing, too. If you plot backwards from your climax scene, you know who has to do what to get there. However, I don’t always follow this method, because my stories tend to evolve, moving forward in time. Also, I wouldn’t try to write the story backwards, because too much of what’s going through the character’s mind depends on what he or she has already experienced.

But if you have a tough plotting problem, or get stuck along the way, it’s a useful exercise to think about where the story is going to end up. That’s the goal at the end of the maze. Then you’re forced to think about what steps your characters need to follow to arrive there. And with the straight shot back to the start in mind, you have the leisure to invent dead ends, false turns, and red herrings for the reader’s entertainment. Plotting backward also lets you test the logic of your story, to make sure no one misses a critical step.

So, is working backward cheating? That would depend on the rules, wouldn’t it? And with most problems, from chess plays to project planning, you’re presented only with certain realities: the catalog of assets in place and goals to be achieved. The rules you have to make up for yourself.

1. I used this story verbatim in my first novel, The Doomsday Effect, when the cyber Jason Bathespeake explains how he solved the problem of dislodging various asteroids in order to manipulate the orbit of Ceres.

2. Remember that old Federal Express ad—“when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight”? That’s the world of engineering reports and proposals. The document is due in Athens by nine o’clock Monday morning. One minute late, and you’ve failed to bid on a project worth billions, representing weeks or months of proposal preparation costing thousands of expensive labor hours. Cut-rate delivery service isn’t even an option—you need a dedicated courier with the box of documents riding beside him on its own airplane seat.

3. Oh, I wish. Couriers can take the red-eye out of San Francisco. That plane flies at 10 p.m. For five years running I never got home on a Friday much before 9 at night.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Morality Without Religion

As noted elsewhere,1 I’ve been an atheist most of my life. I’m not the foot-stamping, church-hating, more-rational-than-thou kind of atheist. Those people lack the basic obligation to show politeness in their dealings with fellow human beings of the religious persuasion. But, somewhat sadly, I find myself unable to consign my inner being to—or obtain personal consolation from—an all-knowing, all-powerful supreme being.

This causes consternation in some of the believers I know. For them, the root of all morality is obedience to God’s commands or, conversely, fear of divine and eternal judgment. They associate people who live without boundaries—engaging in sexual excess, drug and alcohol abuse, intentional cruelty, and criminal forms of negligence—with being in a godless state. The believe such bereft people are either ignorant of the will of their creator or heedless of the judgment that will be passed on them after death. The essence of their contention is that, once a human sheds belief in a god, then there are no rules or inhibitions and no reason for following any codes that might linger from a religious childhood.

According to this contention, an active and intelligent mind cannot find the way to a moral life on the basis of observation and reason alone.

First, let’s parse the definition of morality. Certainly, in any religious code there is a certain amount of rendering unto God the things that are God’s. These are the injunctions about falling into blasphemy and idolatry, keeping the sabbath, paying the tithe, praying in certain ways and in certain circumstances. Maintenance of religious views and practices as part of morality falls on an atheist’s deaf ears. The subject “does not compute,” as they say. However, a proper gentleman does not mock the gods of others and learns to remove his shoes, uncover and bow his head, maintain a dignified silence during services, and otherwise comply with local practice as a matter of courtesy to the believers.

But these religious matters are separate from the elements of morality that touch on interpersonal relations: dealing fairly with other humans, avoiding conflicts and violence, restraining appetites for sex and stimulation, living a clean and sober life. How we treat each other and ourselves is a matter of importance to everyone. Can a human being find a moral code, personal honor, boundaries and rules as to what one must do or not do—without being watched and judged by a divine intelligence?

I believe so. I believe our primate ancestry puts us in the class of social animals. Our physical development and our mental and emotional construction require us to deal with other humans—first with other family members, then with our age-related peer group, next with members of our local community, and ultimately with all humanity and the collective life on this planet. We are not isolated beings, like sharks cruising for their next meal. We live in and adapt to groups, like whales forming a pod.

But even in the family, the peer group, the community, and the world, we are still individuals. This is the human condition: conflict inevitably arises between one individual’s beliefs, values, needs, and desires and those of another individual or the norms of the group. Resolving these conflicts is the basis for morality.

The individual forms a personal code, which is a set of choices among all the various rules forced upon him or her by the various groups to which the individual chooses to belong. A person who wants to live a long and happy life will rationally adopt the personal code “I always stop at red lights and stop signs.” Anyone who blithely chooses to ignore this rule of the group known as vehicle drivers soon sees more than his share of blood and crumpled metal. It does not require an all-knowing supreme being or fear of eternal judgment to see the necessity for obeying the red-light rule.

Of course, being an individual with personal needs and beliefs, a free-thinking human being might comply with the red-light rule on his or her own terms. That’s the point of making the code your own. A driver in a hurry who pulls up to a four-way stop with clear visibility in all directions and nothing coming might consider it perfectly safe to obey the red-light rule with a rolling pause rather than coming to a complete standstill. The difference between this personal observance and the law as it is written will then become the subject of discussion with the traffic cop who’s waiting around the corner.

Traffic rules and possibility of impending death, if not police supervision, make for easy moral choices. But what about more complicated interactions?

No human interaction becomes more complicated than sex. Some men will go through life with the personal code of obtaining all the sexual gratification they can, regardless of the feelings of others. This attitude arises from the biological imperative for a man to spread his genes. But biology is not destiny, as they say. And a man who grabs for anything he can get will fail to find the emotional fulfillment of drawing close to a particular person whose happiness counts for as much or more than his own.

If we were born blind and unaware, like oysters, then this lack of attachment would not matter. Grab, get, and enjoy with gusto. But a rational person of average sensibility will quickly see and understand that a life of me-first sexual predation is lonelier and less meaningful than giving and receiving happiness together. A rational mind can interpret and respond to this reality without a divine injunction to care for one another.

Similarly, a person of average sensibility will see that a society resolving interpersonal conflicts through contracts and courts offers a better life in the long term than one sunk in anarchy and plunder. And a tradition of offering help to others eventually produces the help that an individual will one day need. The young in their initial rebellion against rules and traditions may prefer the anarchy in which a strong, daring soul will temporarily thrive. But sooner or later a person’s strength and luck run out, illness catches up, and the kindness of strangers means the difference between life and death. Such a social order can emerge without the commandments of religion.

The personal code will also undertake continuous review and revision of the rules. When I was a boy, I was taught that a gentleman should be mindful of the needs and capabilities of women, children, the aged, and the infirm. As a matter of courtesy, if not actual obligation, I should open doors and wait to let these others pass, assist them with chairs, and surrender my seat on the bus. These were small daily courtesies. Behind them was the greater social obligation to use my larger, stronger male body to protect them, surrender my seat on the lifeboat, and ultimately sacrifice myself for their benefit.2 A generation of feminism has taught me that holding the door for a woman is not always appreciated as a courtesy, and many in our society no longer obey this norm. Society will not fall because ladies—women—are are forced to adjust their own chairs and remain standing on the bus. (However, I still believe at heart that my ultimate sacrifice may be necessary at any time.)

From this, many people will say that morality is just the way we are taught. That is true: we first learn the basic rules from our parents and then from our peer group. On this basis, believers will say that, since this country is still sustained by Judeo-Christian principles, then modern morality ultimately derives from belief in God. But I note that my parents, while raised as Protestants,3 did not base their teachings on religion. Mother never said, “Don’t do that because God wouldn’t like it.” She said, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

I believe it is possible for a person, or a society, to arrive at a workable interpersonal morality on the basis of observation and reflection. Anyone who attains the age of six or seven and moves beyond the family circle to contacts with peers at school and on the playground soon learns that you can work with other people or against them. Sometimes you must do one—“going with the flow,” and “going along to get along”—and sometimes you must do the other—“standing up for yourself,” and “standing up for what is right.” Spend enough time in the swirling conflict of needs and values and beliefs that is childhood, and a keen intelligence and self-awareness will discover the basis of what works and what doesn’t.

This is not to say that human nature left on its own is all sweet enlightenment. There will always be war, plunder, and stupid cruelty on both the personal and societal level. The 20th century certainly taught us that. But for every incident of murder and genocide, you can also find countering incidents of average people kneeling to help a fallen stranger and foundations established to cure diseases from which the founders did not personally suffer. In this, people are responding to other people as much or more than to the commandments of a distant god.

1. See One True Religion from April 15, 2011.

2. As Robert A. Heinlein wrote in Time Enough for Love, “All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly, which can—and must—be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a ‘perfect society’ on any foundation other than ‘Women and children first!’ is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly—and no doubt will keep on trying.”

3. I’m the child of a mixed marriage. Father was raised a Presbyterian, Mother a Methodist. So they were largely silent on the matter of religion.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

More Thoughts on UFOs

I recently started reading Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record (Crown Publishing, 2010). Call it my last-ditch effort to understand the UFO phenomenon.1

As advertised, the book presents the testimony and conclusions of sober, respectable people—most trained professionally to observe and report—from many parts of the world. The contributors have either encountered unexplained aerial phenomena themselves or were charged with investigating these phenomena on behalf of their government or military. The consensus among these people is that, while 90% to 95% of sightings are either naturally explained or proven to be hoaxes, approximately 5% to 10% are unexplained. The further consensus is that these are physical objects,2 demonstrating flight capabilities currently unknown to human technology, and moving under intelligent control. The uniform presumption, although this cannot be proven, is that they represent visitors from beyond our solar system.

Kean and her contributors are a bit coy about attributing the phenomena to extraterrestrial visitors, because the term “UFO” has become negatively associated in public and official minds with alien spacecraft and little green men. The author insists that while those 5% to 10% of sightings represent good evidence that these are real, physical objects, there is no proof of the alien spacecraft hypothesis. Kean wants a new agency to undertake further official study on the basis of “militant agnosticism” about the origins of the phenomena. That is, they’re there, but no one yet knows what they are.

Okay. I’ll play along. Let’s call them “electric angels.”

Although I obviously don’t agree with many of the author’s conclusions and proposals, I’m inclined to think this is an honest work of investigative journalism, and that the contributors may well have had real encounters. On that basis, the material in the book prompts a number of thoughts.

Impossible Flight Characteristics

The electric angels exhibit flight without obvious means of lift and propulsion like jet or rocket engines and aerodynamic surfaces. They hover soundlessly. They zoom away suddenly. They achieve impossible accelerations and speeds several times that of sound, all without generating a sonic boom. They sometimes appear on radar and sometimes not.3

This is as puzzling to me as it is to everyone else. The only phenomena in human experience that act this way are non-physical: reflections and projections of light from objects that are actually someplace else. (Think of the erratic movements of Tinker Bell’s light beam in the Peter Pan stage play. An operator moves a spotlight to make the beam do impossible aerial maneuvers.) The UFO observers who report faithfully may be seeing images that appear real and yet reflect solid objects that are not actually present in the observer’s own space and time. The object-as-reflection hypothesis would also account for lack of appropriate sound and radar effects.

A second thought occurring to me is that gravity nullification—such as associated with thrustless hovering—and rapid acceleration to high speed may be attributes of a technology that can locally manipulate time. Gravity, as described by the equations of standard physics, is nothing more than an acceleration toward the center of a nearby mass. Acceleration is speed (unit of covered distance over unit of elapsed time) changing over elapsed time (which adds another time component to the equation). If you can locally manipulate time, so that your seconds appear to be longer than seconds in “normal” spacetime, then you can accelerate faster and move faster than people operating in that “normal” frame of reference.

But how you manipulate time is a mystery. A second mystery is how you obtain the initial impulse to change hover elevation and induce acceleration without obvious mechanisms of lift and thrust.

I also recognize that all this is playing the same number games I derided in my blog Fun with Numbers (II) from September 26, 2010. Just because you’ve got an equation that describes a physical event, like falling in gravity, doesn’t mean you’ve explained the event. And playing with the terms of the equation doesn’t mean you can change the event. Still, it’s fun as an intellectual exercise—which is what most of physics has become these days.

The Question of Intent

The actions of the electric angels as described in Kean’s book raise disturbing possibilities. As I noted in Where Do Aliens Come From?, I find it improbable that intelligent beings would cross the gulfs of space between the stars—or in the case of angels, descend from Heaven—and yet act as described in virtually all UFO encounters. They seem to creep around without making an effort to announce themselves and greet us. One would expect such courtesy from intelligent visitors from another civilization or plane of existence.4 At the same time, they take no real effort to cloak and conceal themselves, causing overt anxiety among many of the people who encounter the phenomena. One would expect more discretion from scientists studying a new-found and perhaps fragile society, or caretakers from a benevolent higher power.

Kean’s book and its contributors all report the strong feeling that these physical objects are under intelligent control, either on board or by remote sensing. The electric angels can distinguish between human commercial and military aircraft: merely shadowing commercial passenger jets but actively engaging in aerial maneuvers—although apparently without hostile intent—with military craft sent to intercept them. One Peruvian Air Force pilot reports firing a machine gun burst into a UFO without effect or hostile reaction. Other military pilots report obtaining a missile lock and then seeing their own aircraft’s electronic systems go dead for the time it took the angel to evade. These electric angels have also been reported hovering over U.S. nuclear missile silos, and the missile circuits subsequently going dead.

This sort of playful, non-hostile activity reminds me of how humans interact with the lower animals: teasing a cat with a sparkly toy, or dabbling our fingers in the water near a goldfish. You may play with a cat or goldfish, but you don’t actually send an embassy or seriously consider communicating with it as an equal. Nor do you much consider its rights and feelings if you want to move the fishbowl or sell the house.

The second thought that occurs, especially with respect to the aerial maneuvers and attention paid to nuclear missiles, is that the electric angels are testing us. One dogfight with a military jet, one flyby of a nuclear silo, should be enough for any advanced intelligence to analyze the current state of human technology and capability. But perhaps the angels don’t trust what they see. We fly confidently across our skies, but not as fast or as smoothly as they do. We create and store big bangs suitable for all-out war, but don’t use them. Are humans really this weak? Or just some of them? Or are our feeble jet aircraft and simple fusion bombs concealing a more sophisticated technology that we don’t regularly demonstrate. All of this requires more testing, more forced encounters.5

Testing for what? If the electric angels have really been coming here for more than sixty years, then they must know a lot about us, even accounting for the vast differences between us and them in terms of communication technique, language, mind structure, and constructive reality. They know a lot about us, and we’re still not even sure we actually see them.6

I’m beginning to hope that Leslie Kean’s book may turn out to be an elaborate literary hoax.

1. See my Where Do Aliens Come From? from March 6, 2011.

2. A military policeman who encountered a UFO on the ground actually touched it and confirmed that the object was made of metal.

3. The erratic nature of the radar evidence, as explained in Kean’s book, may be due to the way air traffic control (ATC) radar actually works. The radar antenna itself sweeps a circle or an arc of sky over a period of several seconds. Each human aircraft also carries a radio transponder that uniquely identifies the plane. Computer software in the ATC center puts together the timed radar blips with directional detection of the plane’s transponder signal to paint a picture on the operator’s screen of continuous movement by an identified craft. A solid object with no transponder, either hovering or moving at unexpectedly high speeds, will tend to appear and disappear with the radar sweeps and so confuse this software.

4. Much of Kean’s book describes the actions—or lack of action—by the U.S. government. While governments in Britain, Belgium, Brazil, and elsewhere actively collect UFO sightings and encourage reporting, the United States after closing the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book in 1970 began actively debunking the UFO phenomenon, refusing to take reports, and offering lame explanations for any public sightings that do attract media attention. Yet indications also exist that this country is tracking sightings elsewhere with great interest through various government agencies. The conspiratorial thought occurs to me that the U.S. government may know much more about UFOs than it admits, perhaps has even made formal contact, and wants to keep everything a secret. But of course there’s no proof of any such thing. And if the electric angels already have a deal with the U.S. government, why are they still blithely flitting around in the airspace of other countries?

5. Another thing I notice from Kean’s book is that, generally, the UFOs visit one location or area and then don’t return. The visit may be a “wave” of sightings and encounters covering days or weeks or even months. But once the wave ends, it does not seem to recur. Each part of the Earth—rural Belgium, the Hudson Valley, central Arizona—gets its moment of special attention, and then the focus moves elsewhere. This certainly looks like testing.

6. Why am I reminded of the quote from Ellen Ripley in Aliens? “God damn it, that’s not all! Because if one of those things gets down here, then that will be all! Then all this—this bullshit that you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye!”