Sunday, July 28, 2013

Communicating with Aliens

One of the biggest questions facing humankind today—at least among those of us who were raised on science fiction and still concern ourselves with its propositions—is whether we humans are alone in the universe. And from that come a number of subsidiary questions: What will beings from another world look like? Will they be friendly explorers and traders or raiders and plunderers? How will we deal with them?

Science fiction has been divided on this issue. Everyone assumes that any self-aware entity able to cross the voids between the stars will have certain characteristics. They will be at least as intelligent—able to think and plan, use technology, identify and solve problems—as we are and probably more so. They will have power sources greater than ours and a technology likely more robust than ours. They will have a reason for coming here. And if they have any reason to bother with visiting humans on Earth, then they will have physical requirements based on conditions of gravity, atmosphere, and temperature—at the very least—which are similar to Earth’s. This tends to rule out giant space slugs that are born inside nebulae and travel between the stars naked to the vacuum of space under their own kinetic thrust. It also rules out vaporous membrane creatures who might be more at home in the swirling atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, or ice-crystal beings that would feel at home on Europa or Titan or out among the Oort Cloud.

But that still opens a lot of territory. H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds proposed “vast, cool intelligences” in octopus-like bodies. Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers proposed arachnoid “bugs” with hive-like organization. Note that most of these representations are still drawing on elements of terrestrial anatomy: octopi that live in air rather than water, and spiders with human-scale intelligence or greater in bodies larger than ours.

Much science fiction, and especially that appearing in movies and on television, presents alien life forms born on other planets as basically humanoid. The invaders—because most of the encounters are hostile—are about our size and weight, move upon independently functioning limbs, have sensors clustered on one side of their brain cavities, and manipulate their technology with something approaching hands or paws or claws. And, of course, there’s the Star Trek universe, where everyone’s a humanoid of some description, usually identified by minor anatomical anomalies and skin coloring—things that can easily be applied in a makeup chair.1

Positing aliens as near-human is a useful plot device. It means that human readers and viewers can identify them as “the other” without guilt: close enough to human to be intelligible as evil-doers, but not so close that they deserve our respect and pity. In an age when we’ve finally realized that characters like Geronimo and his red Apache tribesmen, Shaka Zulu and his implacable black warriors, or Fu Manchu and his devilish yellow henchmen are genetically first cousins to the white Europeans who oppose them, and so should not be dismissed and demonized, we still need enemies that our fictional heroes can mow down with distain. Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians will do for now. And when those humanoids have all been civilized and read into the Federation, there will always be zombies.

We’ve come a long way in the last two hundred years or so. Not only have we finally, officially recognized humans who have different habits of dress and hygiene, not to mention unusual religious and family lives, as basically the same as ourselves. We have also come to understand that we are not so different from this planet’s animals as well. Once we thought that any creature not capable of human speech, thought, and writing—that is, any animal—was inherently different from humans. We domesticated dogs, horses, and elephants but felt free to beat and kick them. We hunted whales for their blubber because it made good lamp oil. Yes, certain religions made icons of cats and jackals, monkeys and elephants, and granted to certain of their characteristics a human-like godhead. But we knew they were essentially different. We believed that humans, with our capability of self-recognition and self-awareness, with our ability to divide time into past, present and future—whereas most animals are presumed to live in an eternal now—and with our sophistications of language, writing, trade, and technology, were not just more advanced than the animals but intrinsically different. And better. We have immortal souls.

It was only in the last hundred years or so that we began to recognize intelligence as a spectrum. At one end are the single-celled creatures that can sense and react to a light source and avoid areas of damagingly high or low pH. Along about the middle of the spectrum are creatures like cats and dogs that can hunt for themselves, care for their young, groom themselves, sense danger, seek advantage, and perform other rudimentary survival tasks. Finally, out towards our end are creatures like the great apes that communicate in complex ways, use available tools to dig out food, set traps, and pass rudimentary discoveries from one individual to the next. And then, still on this scale but on the near end at the highest level of development, are the wondrous human beings, who speak in complete sentences with complex verb forms, wonder about the stars, build radio sets and rocket ships, and stand halfway to being angels and gods ourselves.

We still don’t know exactly what the family dog is thinking, but we assume that when it wags its tail and licks our hand, it’s certainly showing respect, possibly gratitude, and perhaps even the bonding of love. Many of us can read the shape of our dog’s mouth and just know that it’s smiling. We still can’t understand the language of dolphins and whales, but we sense a complexity in those repeated whoops and clicks that must be meaningful at some level. We can read the dances of bees and marvel that those tiny, hard-wired brains can send and receive such complex and pertinent messages.

But we are still limited in our appreciation of the senses. Most of us haven’t quite grasped that for many animals, sound and vocalization are not the mainstay of communication. Dogs read more complex messages about their world in scents than in barks. Bats see better with their ears, by echolocation, than with their eyes. Octopi and creatures living deep in the ocean communicate with colorful light shows that rival the marquees of Las Vegas casinos.

And yet these are all creatures with whom we share a basic chemical nature. I once suggested,2 that because every living creature on Earth shares the same DNA/RNA/protein coding mechanism, with no apparent evolution—that is, no competing systems left lying around that might use different chemicals or a different arrangement of the codons, suggesting evolved alternatives or experiments that once were tried and failed—then perhaps this complex DNA-based system actually developed somewhere else in the cosmos and either drifted into our solar system at the bacterial level, or was seeded here on purpose, or was left by accident—the “astronaut’s glove” hypothesis.

If life here on Earth is the product of some kind of bacterial seeding program, then we might meet our first aliens as some kind of distant cousin. They might be chemically similar to us. But their forms—the evolutionary branchings which on their native planet, with its own unique conditions, had chanced to arrive at superior intelligence and technical capability—might be no more similar to us than a tube worm or a turtle. All we can know by applying logic is that any cell-based life form would need to attain a certain size, a certain level of differentiation among its component cells, a level of complexity in their cohesion,3 and an expressed energy level that enables it to develop interpersonal communication and cooperation, technological sophistication, and the will and desire to travel which would enable them to cross the voids between the stars.

But if the DNA/RNA/protein system is unique to Earth, if any competing chemical systems have simply disappeared because the DNA system that won is so superior and the chemistries that lost simply dissolved in the rain, then all bets are off. Space-faring aliens would still need a level of complexity in cohesiveness and a level of energy expression to make complex decisions. But their organizing codons might be based on silicon chemistry rather than carbon chemistry. Their energy might come from breaking arsenate bonds rather than phosphate bonds. Or they might use some completely unique form of chemical organization. They might exhibit bizarre physical and mental characteristics and capabilities—or deficiencies—undreamed of in terrestrial life forms.

We might not be able to communicate with such aliens, given that we cannot yet communicate at any detailed level with our nearest carbon-based relatives, the great apes, dolphins, and whales. We might not even be able to recognize their motivations, let alone assign them any kind of morality, where discovery and trade equate with “good” and “benign” activities, while extermination and plunder equate with “bad” and “hostile,” just as we have a hard time assigning motivation to viruses, algae blooms, termites, and army ants. We might not even recognize these bizarre aliens as being alive.

The universe is a vast and varied place. We can expect to see signs and wonders. But we have to keep our eyes and ears, not to mention our imaginations, open and questioning. And after all that, wouldn’t it be disappointing if the first alien race we encountered were Vulcans with pointy ears, sugar-bowl haircuts, and a tinge of green makeup about their eyes?

1. I believe the producers once floated the idea—although I don’t have a reference for it—that all of these humanoids derived from a single strand of DNA that had scattered throughout the near quadrants of the galaxy and only later evolved these minor physical alterations on each world. This ignores the vast chemical similarity of human beings to all other life forms on Earth and our anatomical similarity to most land-based animals of the phylum Chordata.

2. See DNA is Everywhere from September 5, 2010.

3. Think of all the chemical signaling back and forth that allows various kinds of cells to function as a whole. For example, to initiate a simple process like blood clotting at a wound site requires a twelve-step cascade and interplay of various molecules so that the amount of clotting is proportional to the amount of damage.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Death of Nuclear Power

I was recently talking with a group of friends who are intelligent, well-read, and historically minded. They were surprised to hear my views on nuclear power, and I was equally surprised that they were surprised. It seems that in the long lull since the last time people rallied in opposition to nuclear power, we have conveniently forgotten a thing or two. And now some of the advocates of clean energy are promoting new and presumably safer reactor designs in order to address greenhouse gas concerns.

It ain’t gonna happen. For a variety of very good reasons, just … no.

America’s use of nuclear power for generating electricity started in the 1950s with the Atoms for Peace program under the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC was a booster. They promoted atomic energy to public utilities as being “too cheap to meter”—that is, energy so clean, efficient, and inexpensive it would be a waste of time making people pay for it. This was also the time when the USS Nautilus sailed under nuclear power and crossed the North Pole beneath the ice. Plans were even afoot for nuclear-powered aircraft.1 I remember seeing a magazine article describing the wonders of nuclear fuel: the picture showed just a handful of these little black pellets, leaving the impression that the power plant, ship, or whatever could operate for months or years at a time on just those few magic beans.

The first commercial nuclear generating station in the United States was at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, and ran from 1958 to 1982. Since then, public utilities have built more than a hundred other reactors at 65 plant sites, producing about 20% of the country’s power needs at their peak. But they ordered no new nuclear plants after 1974, and by that time they were converting many of the nuclear units they had in the planning or construction stages to other fuels.2

Many people think the 1979 accident and partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island was the death of nuclear power, but the nuclear enterprise was on the ropes five years before then. The utilities had discovered that—rather than being too cheap to meter—nuclear power was too expensive to build and operate.

The first I knew of the problem was an article I read in Fortune magazine in 1968.3 It suggested that the energy conversion efficiency of nuclear fuel is less than one. That is, if you divide the energy you can get out of a bundle of manufactured fuel rods by the energy you must put into making that bundle, the result is a fraction less than one. You’ve just discovered a way to go broke slowly.

Making nuclear fuel is a complicated process. You first have to mine the ore and remove the rocky waste, converting the remainder into pure uranium oxide, U3O8, or yellowcake. Then you move the yellowcake to a concentration facility where you turn it into a heavy gas, uranium hexafluoride, UF6, and run it though high-speed centrifuges to separate the fissionable isotope U-235 from the more stable isotope U-238. Since U-235 is only about 0.72% of most naturally occurring uranium, you have to do a lot of concentrating, which consumes a lot of electricity. Finally, you convert the enriched gas into uranium metal, mold it into pellets, insert them into stainless-steel tubes inside a clay matrix, and bind the tubes into bundles with a specific configuration of the enclosed pellets. Needless to say, shaping and handling enriched uranium must be performed under precisely controlled conditions and generate a lot of low-level waste.

By the time you’ve done all that, you have put more energy into mining, trucking, converting, centrifuging, and manufacturing than you get out by radioactively fissioning—also called “burning”—the pellets. The only advantage to this tradeoff is that the pollution from this invested energy is spread out. You are burning diesel in excavators and trucks at mines out in the desert or in transporting the interim products along country roads, rather than burning coal or oil at your nice, clean nuclear plant in or near town.

And that power plant doesn’t come cheap, either. A gas-powered turbine or a coal-fired boiler may put out carbon dioxide and, in the case of coal or oil, soot. But if it has a breakdown, you only lose some of the plant operating time and have to repair some damaged equipment. A nuclear reactor, on the other hand, can go bad in astounding ways—not the great, glowing gopher burning through bedrock of “China syndrome” fame—but a mess of radioactive materials and hot pieces and parts that take a lot of cost and effort to clean up. And if your containment is compromised, an accident can release radioactive materials to the surrounding countryside.

Public utilities discovered that nuclear plants were far more expensive to build and maintain than any other power source. To give just one example, the rebar in the containment structure has to be tracked stage by stage, from manufacture through storage and shipping down to installation on the site, with a level of documentation that approaches the chain of custody for evidence in a criminal trial. Every weld in the plant piping has to be x-rayed and documented. Safety measures are complex and narrowly scrutinized. And everything is subject to observation and adjustment by federal inspectors who don’t always agree among themselves about best practices and interpretation of the rules. A “nuke” can be five or six times as expensive to build as a fossil fuel plant of comparable capacity.

And yes, the nuclear fuel will power it at full capacity for a long time—usually about a year and a half—before it needs refueling. But during that time the operator must keep a log of the wear on every pump, valve, and pipe and track every reported issue and problem. Then, during refueling, the utility doesn’t just change out the fuel rods but generally takes down and rebuilds the whole steam supply system and other plant systems. And during that rebuild, all the original construction documentation requirements are still in force.

By 1974, the utilities themselves had figured out that nuclear power was hardly worth it. They only completed the plants on order because of their sunk investment costs. By that time, too, the Atomic Energy Commission had been abolished and its functions handed over to two different agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to manage the nuclear power plants in existence; and the Energy Research and Development Administration, to investigate new energy technologies. Three years later ERDA became the U.S. Department of Energy.

France and Japan make nuclear power work economically because they reprocess their spent fuel. Exhausted fuel rods still contain fissionable material. Some of the U-235 atoms haven’t split during criticality. Some of the U-238 atoms that leaven the fissionable material have had a few neutrons knocked off and so become unstable U-235, and some have picked up a proton and become fissionable plutonium, Pu-239. Reprocessing closes the nuclear fuel cycle by extracting these unused and newly created fissionable materials and putting them to use in new fuel rods. That extends the energy capacity of the previously mined and processed uranium.4 Recycling also creates low-level wastes such as the steel and clay from the disassembled rods and high-level wastes from the fission products, mostly radioactive strontium and cesium. Low-level waste can be packaged and buried. High-level waste is normally mixed with molten glass to render these isotopes chemically inert and then disposed of by burying in geologically stable ground.5

France also maximizes the efficiency of its nuclear resource by using a standardized design in all of the country’s plants and servicing them during refueling with a flying team of experts trained in the special skills required. Compare this to the U.S. practice, where two different basic reactor designs—from either Westinghouse or Brown & Root—are used indiscriminately, and the plants built around them are designed according to the whims and specifications of the parent utility. Refueling in the U.S. is a matter of temporarily turning the operating staff that knows the plant best into refueling and reconstruction experts.

Without disassembly and reprocessing, spent fuel rods must be stored in their existing form. These rod bundles are both thermally hot, because their residual radioactivity is a form of energy, as well as radiationally hot. The low-level waste in the rods—the steel and clay—have a radioactive half-life of between five years and a few dozen years, depending on the material and its exposure to high-energy neutrons. If these wastes were removed in reprocessing, they would be packaged and buried at one of three registered disposal sites in South Carolina, Utah, or Washington state, which currently take wastes from fuel processing and handling. The high-level waste—the spent fuel isotopes—have half-lives on the order of tens of thousands of years. If these wastes were removed in reprocessing, they would be vitrified (i.e., mixed with molten glass) and stored deep inside a stable geological formation like Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

However, in 1977 President Carter issued an executive order that deferred indefinitely the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, because it would add to the world’s stock of plutonium and might lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons. Unprocessed spent fuel rods might once have been stored in back-filled pits deep in tunnels at Yucca Mountain, but work on that facility was terminated by an act of Congress in 2011.

So now all the spent fuel removed from America’s hundred or so power reactors sits waiting. Initially, the hot rods are stored on site in highly filtered “swimming pools” until they thermally cool down.6 After that—and here “cool” is still a relative term—they can be stored above ground in dry casks. Neither is a permanent solution. Either form of storage requires continuous monitoring. And of course, once the nuclear power plant itself is decommissioned, the reactor vessel and the “hot” side of the nuclear steam supply system and associated facilities must either be disassembled as hundreds of tons of low-level waste or put into some kind of continuously monitored mothball state for hundreds of years.

The people working on Yucca Mountain were grappling with how to warn future generations—50,000 or 100,000 years from now, or roughly ten or twenty times the length of recorded human civilization—about the dangerous wastes stored below ground. “Go away. This is not a place to be. If you do try to enter here, you will fail and also be accursed. If you somehow succeed, then do not complain that you entered unwarned, nor bother us with your deathbed prayers. [signed] The Gods.”7 Without such a long-term solution, the utilities that once owned and operated nuclear power plants will have to remain as functioning entities, or be acquired by governments or charitable organizations that will remain functioning entities, for the next 100,000 years or so in order to monitor and protect these abandoned sites. Any bets on that happening?

Before any public utilities succumb once more to the siren song of “safe and clean” nuclear power that is “too cheap to meter,” they will need some iron-clad, rock-hard—and made of rock more durable than Yucca Mountain—guarantees from federal regulators that a solution to the waste problem will be found and made economically viable for them. Otherwise, nuclear fission is a nonstarter in this country.

What about nuclear fusion? Physicists and engineers have been promising practical nuclear fusion “within the next twenty years”—for at least the past thirty years. Whether by magnetic bottles or laser-blasted glass pellets filled with deuterium and tritium, you still have to put more energy into compressing the fuel than you get out from the fraction of hydrogen isotopes that actually fuse. And whether you are dealing with lines of magnetic force or angled laser beams, the problem seems to be uniformity in heating the fuel. Nothing works as consistently as the pressure of gravity, which is how the only sustained fusion reactions we know—those taking place inside the Sun and other stars—actually work. And if the fire could be successfully lit in a reactor on Earth, there would still be the problems of feeding in more fuel and extracting heat energy to drive a working fluid. Fusion energy is a long way off—if it ever becomes practical.

No, the government can run all the reactors it needs for aircraft carriers and submarines and nuclear weapons development. They have ways of preparing and monitoring those wastes. But no commercial energy corporation operating under the profit motive and with shareholders to protect will lift a finger to play again with such a dangerous and politically volatile resource.

1. It was to have been powered by a gas-cooled reactor. The entire plane would be radioactively “hot,” and the pilot—sitting in a lead-lined capsule—would be inserted and extracted through a hatch in the belly. No one’s thinking got so far ahead as to imagine what would happen if the plane ever crashed. Thankfully, the project was mothballed at the conceptual engineering stage.

2. With the promise of new and “inherently safer” designs coming into parlance about 2002, five new reactors at existing plant sites were ordered. The first of these is scheduled to come on line in 2020. However, with new natural gas and oil resources flooding the North American market, whether the owners will actually complete these units or convert them to cheaper fuels remains open to question.

3. And no, I do not have a reference.

4. For a while the federal government also experimented with fast breeder reactors. These are reactors designed to create nuclear fuel by turning large amounts of stable U-238 into fissionable U-235 and plutonium. One of the drawbacks, however, is that using water as a coolant slows down the fast neutrons that accomplish this trick. So, for cooling, they would have circulated liquid sodium metal. Of course, hot liquid sodium is a stage prop from Hell, and the potential for damage in case of a coolant leak was too great to contemplate.

5. The difference between low-level and high-level waste is simple. Low-level waste is normal material—the rod’s clay and steel, plus any tools and equipment used to handle fissionable materials—which has been exposed to high-level radiation so that its atoms have become unstable. They now kick off alpha and beta particles and gamma rays. These materials are dangerous to be around and will make you sick with prolonged exposure, but they will not make you or anything else in their vicinity in turn become radioactive. High-level waste is radioactive isotopes—the unstable uranium, strontium, and cesium—which in addition to alpha, beta, and gamma kick off high-energy neutrons. They will not only make you sick but will make you glow in the dark.

6. The water must be continually filtered because, while water itself is relatively inert and a good source of radioactive shielding, any dust or debris circulating in the pool would become highly radioactive.

7. To borrow a warning from Roger Zelazny’s delightful novel of the Buddha, Lord of Light.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Enlightenment and Easy Answers

Right now, western civilization is dealing—not entirely successfully—with a rise of Islamic politicization based on religious fundamentalism. We are concurrently dealing with a continuing streak of fundamentalism among some Christians—and this in the religion that has otherwise done much to shape our modern western views. The ensuing conflicts, both on a global and social scale, represent a problem that cannot be directly addressed by argument or appeals to reason. That means we in the West are headed for a frustrating couple of years—if not decades or even centuries.

First, let’s define the term “fundamentalism.” I take it to encompass those people who have gone back to their source materials—the Quran or the Bible—as the sole basis of their beliefs. They accept their respective religious texts as representing absolute truth, the word of God made visible. Religion necessarily plays a big part in their lives, and they believe that by adhering to its established, published view of the world they have arrived at an intellectual safety zone. To borrow a phrase, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Not much to argue with there.

Why are these people so different from the rest of us western thinkers? I believe it’s because western civilization has passed through the period of intellectual turmoil in the 17th and 18th centuries called “the Enlightenment.” We came out the other side of this period with a new understanding. Fundamentalists either balk at the process or reject it outright.

To fundamentalists of any denomination, post-Enlightenment thinkers are “secularists,” “humanists,” or simply “unbelievers.” To them, we in the West put the interests of men before the commandments of God. We have become neglectful of our religion and decadent in our ways. We are lost in the darkness. The best they can say of us is that we are skeptics, doubters, blind fools who will not accept the truth that shines so obviously before our eyes.

But the driver of the Enlightenment is not skepticism or doubt for its own sake, which is general and undirected. Instead, the post-Enlightenment mind rejects easy answers and divine rationalizations in favor of the tested products of observation, logic, and quantification.

In the view of pre-Enlightenment clericalism, the world, the universe, and everything in it,1 are the work of a creator God who has set out a plan for its development through the end of time. Humans are created beings operating within that plan, and they differ from the beasts only in having rational minds and the ability to make choices and perform actions that are not in conformance with the plan. That is, they can act sinfully—in fact, the first sin, the original sin, was to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that stood God’s perfect garden. By gaining knowledge, humankind infringed on God’s prerogative. The beasts and the rest of nature, on the other hand, have no such knowledge and so they innocently live according to the plan. The wise course, then, is for humans to remain obedient to the plan. Or, in the Islamic version, submit to the will of God.

In this view, much of the universe and the way it works is simply God’s business, meant to be mysterious, forever off limits to human understanding. We must accept the evidence of our eyes that the realm above the atmosphere, God’s realm, is perfect, filled with perfect, unchanging spheres following perfectly circular, unchanging orbits, with the stars affixed at some distance, and music filling all the space in between. Affairs down here on the planet are chaotic only because humans are disobedient, sinful, and blundering.

The Enlightenment marked a turning point in humankind’s intellectual development. Those two centuries saw a sudden flowering of human thought in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry.2 We began looking out, to that perfect world above the atmosphere, and inward, to the previously invisible world in drops of water and bits of everyday matter.3 We began a civilizational enterprise of attaining knowledge, not from the conjectures of priests and shamans, but from direct observation and the application of rational thought to what we saw.

Out of this collective effort came the greatest prize of the period, the Scientific Method. As an approach to knowledge, to bootstrapping our ideas and understanding, starting in a dark room full of ignorance, it cannot be surpassed. 1. Observe what’s actually going on around you, not what you think you should see or what you’ve been told to look for. 2. Question the what, why, and how of the everything you see, both in their static nature (what they are) and their current activities (how and why they operate). 3. Form a hypothesis—or an informed guess—as to what may be happening. 4. Think of an experiment, limited both in scope and scale, which will test that hypothesis by trying to prove it wrong. 5. Predict the outcome of that experiment if the hypothesis happens to be correct. 6. Perform the experiment and report your results accurately so that others may try it for themselves. 7. Modify your hypothesis and repeat Steps 3 through 6 as necessary.

The Scientific Method rejects any calls to orthodoxy—except in terms of its own strict requirements. It recognizes no authority or consensus or appeals to “common knowledge,” folklore, ethnic or societal imperatives, or deeply held beliefs. It supposes—perhaps as part of its own deeply held belief system—that everything has a cause, rather than a purpose in some pre-established plan; that observation and logic can find and prove the answers to any set of questions; and that nothing in the universe—and now perhaps even outside of it—lies beyond the human mind’s ability to ultimately know and understand.

The Scientific Method ignited a voyage of discovery that continues to this day and will probably last until our civilization falls into apathy or chaos. It has opened realms of knowledge and technology that either never existed before, or existed only in the imagination: powerful engines and energy sources, new materials like aluminum alloys and plastics, transmission of information through the air, moving people and cargo by flying them far above ground level, traveling easily across oceans and under water, curing age-old diseases, analyzing and describing the molecular nature of life itself … the list goes on and on, indicating how different the life of the 21st century is from that of the 15th. And discoveries and changes in the future will only be more incredible.

Western thinkers who are still believers in a God and His plan for us, yet who accept the premise of the Scientific Method and the discoveries emanating from the Enlightenment, must modify their beliefs. As science has opened a wider sky and an older creation, full of billions of galaxies each filled with billions of stars, each with the potential for churning out a different kind of life, believers must adopt a longer viewpoint and a less personal approach to God as He is found in the Bible or Quran. For example, they must reinterpret the Bible’s creation story, encompassing a mere six days, as representing the limited understanding of its human authors rather than an accurate depiction divine achievement. They must seek the essence of the religion and let go of the exact details as described in scripture.

More than that, the post-Enlightenment mind is forced to accept partial and provisional answers. The modern view is that, while all questions may ultimately be answered, some exist for which the answers are still waiting to be found, either because we are starting in the wrong place, or because the answers lie at a deeper level of complexity than we have yet penetrated. Some mysteries are only partially unraveled. And sometimes each discovery only shows that the complexity of life and the universe goes much deeper than we first thought.

Even when we suspect that some scientists might be barking up the wrong tree,4 we accept that barking is a valid exercise and that the right tree is out there waiting to be found.

Accepting the Enlightenment means being able to tolerate messy solutions and conclusions, a scenario that’s still developing, and uncertainty about the final outcome. Not everything has to be perfect and harmonious. We in the western tradition now prefer a riddle and a solidly proven, if inexact and incomplete, finding (e.g., the irresolvable number pi, the fractal nature of the universe) over a neat and perfect answer that requires an invisible and unprovable divine author (e.g., perfect circles and finite numbers). We know that perfection is a product of the human mind and imagination, not what is happening in the real world.

Accepting the Enlightenment is a kind of faith: in the enterprise of science to uncover the ultimate mysteries and the capability of the human mind to finally understand them and use them wisely. In this view, humans are not sinful, fallen beings, but seeking and ascending intelligences.

The Scientific Method is the projection of a system of thought forward into chaos. It represents a preference for some measure of barely understood chaos over a neat and comforting priestly story that we know or suspect may not be so.

1. And it’s a small place, with the Earth at the center, the Moon, the Sun, and the planets circling around it affixed to nested celestial spheres, and the thousands of stars hanging like candles in wall sconces on the furthermost sphere. It was created in its current form a long time ago—it’s almost 6,000 years old!—and has not changed much since.

2. And some, like Sir Isaac Newton, made discoveries in all three branches of knowledge. It was a time of geniuses and polymaths.

3. Interestingly, good optics in the form of ground and polished glass lenses set in the newly invented telescopes and microscopes formed the basis of our observational peerings in both directions.

4. See The Unriddling of Quantum Bayesianism from June 9, 2013, as well as my previous blogs that challenge some aspects of science and mathematics. I have never denied the validity of the scientific enterprise itself, merely questioned some of its outlying positions which court rational absurdities.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Being an Artist

I don’t actually consider myself an artist. Nothing so grand. I’m just a person who fell in love with words and language. My greatest satisfaction is to knit them together into a solid structure of logical transitions, or a scene of tight action, or a back-and-forth dialogue among clever and purposeful characters. If at the end of the day I’ve produced 1,000 words of durable prose, I’ve done my job. I also enjoy producing something that never before existed—people, actions, events, and situations—that readers far off in time and place can see in their minds and, if I’m good enough, they care about.

Being an artist, creating something out of nothing from your own imagination and the skills you’ve learned for manipulating it, is a tricky thing. Unlike almost anything else you can do with your time, from auto repair to carpentry, tax accounting, or planting a garden, the end result of creating art—fiction, painting, music, or whatever draws from your insight and imagination—is not always under your control.

It’s easy to be a writer or poet, painter, sculptor, or composer if your mind flexes that way. But making a living—or even any money at all—through writing or another art form is hard, because so much is beyond your control. You can control, to some extent, the nature of the book or painting or song you produce.1 But you cannot control how others will perceive it, how closely it will match to the zeitgeist, or even how many people will find it—on bookstore shelves, at the art gallery, in the album you’re handing out at street fairs—and then whether they will like it and tell their friends about it. So much of that discovery and liking is a matter of luck that finishing a book-length manuscript in the hopes of fame and fortune resembles spending a year of your life to buy a single lottery ticket.

Given the chanciness of the market,2 it’s easy to fall into the trap of credentialing. You attend writing or painting classes. You go for a Master of Fine Arts degree. You look for workshops to attend. You congregate with other writers, artists, or musicians and hope to create a name for yourself by association with them. But no amount of dissertation and theory makes you an artist. No names you can drop into everyday conversation will confirm you in your trade. No amount of scholarship will touch people’s hearts in the way a novel, painting, or song can.

The only way to be an artist—writer, poet, painter, sculptor, composer—is to do it. You can’t talk about it. There are no tests for it. You can’t claim a potential that you don’t prove by doing. You have to do it, persist in doing it, push and struggle and work through all the twists and turns of learning how to do it for long after family and friends grow tired of smiling and after agents and publishers grow tired of saying no. You have to do it when to continue doing it seems like obsession, or stupidity, or vanity, or madness. And if you do, then maybe one day it will mean something—or maybe not. But if you don’t do it, then it doesn’t happen, you will never be it, and you’ll fade away like every other hopeless bastard who lived obscurely and died quietly. But maybe, maybe, one day long after you’re dead, you’ll become immortal and a bit of what you’ve seen and known and thought and believed and loved will live on after you’ve become smoke and dust. And that’s why you do it.

And when you’re done, you still won’t own it. The value of your work will be in the perception of your readers, viewers, or listeners—your receivers. But they will never know exactly what you intended your words to say, see the grand or shadowed vision behind what your hand drew, or hear the music as you heard it. You’ve gone through those first, second, and third thoughts and attempts, seen the work grow and change, seen the pieces come together. Your reader, viewer, or listener only sees the last attempt.

The trap of being an artist is that you do the work from the inside. You see the inside of the mask, the bony structure of the story. You remember the pieces that fit into the grand design and—tragically—the pieces that never quite worked and you had to discard along the way. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you see every stitch and suture that holds your monster together. Like a mason building a wall or assembling the arch of a bridge, you know which stones didn’t quite fit, and so you had to cheat by cutting an odd-shaped angle or using a bit more mortar. You know the parts of the story, or the corner of the painting, or the transition in the song that—for anyone who has lived as deeply with the work as you have—doesn’t quite work and sticks out by a mile as an embarrassingly bad job. Finding those places and fixing them is an endless task, a kind of artistic whack-a-mole, where the moles get ever smaller and more precise, the holes get farther and farther apart, but—Damn it!—there’s another one.3

No one can see the work the way you do: as something left over when you tried to create your dream and think you succeeded or failed, or when you stumbled onto a good idea and could only take it so far, but not where you thought. And, seeing the work from the inside, knowing it could have been so much more, you are plagued by doubt. Positive reviews, awards, and soaring sales are one thing, but still there is doubt. Do they really understand what you were trying to do? Did you achieve anything real and meaningful? Was your effort good enough?

Right now, I’m tender on this subject. I’ve started the next novel. I know what I want it to be, although the grand vision and full sweep are still a bit sketchy. Details are waiting to be discovered. But I now have about 60,000 words of the opening section,4 and they feel solid, a good start, a firm abutment for extending the bridge over the river, toward whatever’s on the other shore. But, as with any story, I still wonder: will these scenes, these actions, these characters make sense to anyone else? Are they strange and wonderful? Or banal and stupid, dull as ditch water? And always: is there some gaping hole, some big soft spot, a blind area that I don’t know about but that I’m unconsciously writing around or gliding over? Will the bridge stand? Or will the mortar crack and the stones come tumbling down?

Being an artist—even on the workaday level of a writer of stories, commercial illustrator, or composer of movie scores—is a life full of doubt. You must move forward into the unknown. You have your skills and experience, but those are from the places you’ve been, and you’re not going there again. This time, you’re going someplace new that you’ve never visited and perhaps can barely see. That takes a kind of courage. But nothing else you could do with your time and effort would make any sense at all.

1. However, as anyone who’s tackled a novel knows, the wonderful idea you start out with is almost never the book text you end up with. Your first thoughts prove to lack depth and crumble into banalities; they seldom survive the first or second twists in the plot needed to carry the story forward. The characters grow in your mind and acquire what some would say are their own natures, but I prefer to think of as the logical extension of their previous thoughts and actions; as a writer you get to know them, and you understand the responses that your characters will, or will not, make to the hazards you throw at them. The original time and setting prove too small for the action you planned—or too big and amorphous—and so you must restage and re-imagine. Writing is a process of discovery, and you cannot plan the details in advance.

2. The good news, in these days of the internet, is that every artist has more chances to be read, seen, and heard. Your book does not have to pass the commercial judgment of a handful of agents and editors serving the major publishing houses but instead can go on sale electronically under your own imprint. Your drawing or painting doesn’t languish inside the four walls of a gallery, limited to the few people who can visit during business hours. Your song travels farther than the dozen or hundred or thousand people who might hear it at a gig. They can see and hear your work in China. The bad news these days is that the internet is crowded with suddenly unleashed talent. You need extraordinary luck to rise above the mass of people who are merely good at their art.

3. My mother always said it takes two to create a work of art: one person to do the painting or sculpture or whatever, and someone standing behind him with a two-by-four to hit him over the head when he’s done.

4. It’s going to be a long book, and perhaps I’ll have to sell it in sections. That’s another thing the internet gives you—freedom to plan your own marketing, with the knowledge that no editor can cut short your series because the sales figures on the last book didn’t meet expectations. It’s your dime. It’s your lonely freedom.