“Boring is good”
Leon and I were nervously awaiting a video-link with the Lowell group. He was fiddling with some of his favorite nerd-ish gaming software, I found myself day-dreaming. Even if there were just one chance in a million that we were wrong, I thought, we had to make sure we understood the risk in making such an announcement in a world so preconditioned to distrust modern science. Seen from 2042, the twentieth century up to the 1980s seemed to me like a golden era of scientific advancement and discovery. The sociological environment for scientists then was almost the opposite of that in recent decades. Somehow our capital of public trust had been spent, stolen, or perhaps both.
In those “glory days”, societies worldwide were benefiting from scientific discoveries leading to new technologies and medicines of real value. Penicillin, insulin, polio vaccines, chemo- and radio-therapy, discovery of the structure of DNA, the beginnings of immuno-therapy. These were all life-changing advances that had benefited those societies which could afford them. Nuclear technology, the promise of almost infinite power from fusion, Sputnik, Apollo, lasers, semiconductors, powerful batteries. These were technologies developed from “pure science” that made lives easier, more convenient, across the world. Yet uneasiness permeated the public’s mind, as the dark sides of Nakasaki and Hiroshima, Dolly the Sheep, new chemical and biological weapons, and fetal stem-cell research started to taint the “innocent” motivations behind science.
If, in the public eye, the earlier decades of the twentieth century were of scientific glory, science in the first half of the twenty-first century was decidedly tainted. Ethical questions arose only too easily, since it was always possible to engage some scientists in less innocent applications. But there was yet more lying under the surface to drive public distrust. Basic science had opened up the door of genetics, unleashing realities foreseen by Mary Wollstonecraft two hundred years before. Seen with these dark-adjusted eyes, there arose another less honest and previously unheard of distrust of science. The politicisation of science, and the universal “citizen scientist apps” more or less guaranteed that everyone with access to any information had an opinion.
I felt that scientists were all too often to blame, and that there was plenty of blame to go around. Intense pressure from society to predict the unpredictable, the tendency of scientists to promise such predictions, these natural human actions had steadily eroded scientific credibility. The consequent premature release and over-selling of new results, mis-representation of the meaning of statistical predictions, poor refereeing, these all were areas in which scientists were sometimes guilty, under the pressure. Pundits with different agendas were handed rare but damaging evidence of scientific exaggeration, unmet promises, even fraud. Actual, demonstrable fraud was very rare, but disastrously damaging.
So it was natural that, when observed from the outside, there developed a more general distrust of scientists and even science itself. I for one could not really blame society for a certain amount of distrust. As a human activity, such problems in any discipline are natural and should be expected. We are all imperfect, “science” simply try to offer a way to whittle away the imperfections by looking at reproducibility, part of the school child’s “scientific method”, with a highly skeptical eye.
But what was completely unexpected, was the manner in which the attacks on science and scientists were made, quite unlike attacks on other human endeavors. These attacks were made not because of known problems within the scientific community. They came from a far simpler human state-of-mind. In one word, they came from denial.
The seeds of this new kind of scientific “skepticism” were already recognizable as small plants growing in the political landscape of the 1990s. In the public arena, scientists prepared for debates armed with their weapons, the same weapons that had killed pre-Newtonian concepts and which led to the beginning of physics. Cause-and-effect. Data, hypothesis testing, model development, model rejection, model refinement. In this new era the scientists were embarrassingly naïve, in hindsight. Physics concerns natural law. Remarkably (to a scientist at least) politics does not always respect natural law.
Sometimes I would think of science to a pride of lions in prime condition, the top of a food chain. No lawyer can change the laws of physics any more than they can advance up a food chain. If they try, the pride will act, for nature cannot do otherwise. They may succeed in injuring or killing an individual lion, but in the end the pride of lions wins. Always. The “Indiana Pi Bill”, an infamous attempt to set pi equal to 3, never made it through to law, but it remains a source of entertainment for science students. One singularly reclusive classmate of Leon and myself made just a single comment in 3 years of math lectures. He shocked the heck out of all of us, none of us had ever heard him speak. “I would not have wanted to ride in a car with wheels made in Indiana.” The voice was deep, authoritative, quite different from the character behind it. The voice was never heard again, which I and others thought was a shame.
But lions with teeth and claws removed are no threat, merely big kitty-cats. Big cats are also expensive to keep. Scientists entered political debate as lions that were to have teeth and claws removed. This was particularly tragic and ironic for this era, because in the 1980s and 90s, political rear-guard action on a serious hole in atmospheric ozone had succeeded. Refrigerator coolants were found to blame, which was not convenient for some. But we had been lucky, that time. The atmosphere had the decency to change almost as fast as presidential elections, the refrigerator business was small compared with “Really Big Business”. The problem got prompt attention and action.
Science had fought a significant battle, and had won.
The remarkable success of this “science in service to society” was made totally irrelevant within a mere 20 years. The difference this time was that the “global warming problem” was of a slightly different nature. The tragedy of it was simply this. Global warming simply took just a bit too long to occur. As a physics student, I believed it really was that simple. Now I believe I am a little less naïve.
In this new fight, the rules of engagement were changed by politicians, with the blessing, gratitude even, of the silent majority. Even the name, “global warming” was deliberately altered to “climate change”, to allow natural effects to slip subliminally into the collective consciousness. This was merely the first step, the lions’ teeth and claws were slowly but steadily eroded with sweetly acid words and popularly seductive argument. Tools of rationality dissolved on the smooth tongues of legal geniuses with the explicit approval and money of short-term profit-makers. Scientists were portrayed merely as “interested parties”, along with the tobacco and fossil fuel companies, for example. Anyone with access to the internet could see after a few seconds of browsing that there was no real difference between these camps. Scientists had an agenda, just like everyone else.
As scientists we had no chance. Lions, real lions, were almost extinct by 2035. A Nobel Laureate famously said that he felt as if he were invited to play table tennis, only to find that the opposition were there fully armored to play football. They changed the rules of the game. I liked to conjure up an image of a powerful corporate CEO, addressing his board.
“These scientists are clever, what with MIT and Princeton, Stanford and the rest. They are politically naïve, which is good for us, but they are not stupid. The question is, how can we genuinely disempower them? I want someone to come up with a slam-dunk plan. I want to invite them to a game of basketball against the Knicks. After all, they cannot train to be 7 feet tall!”
Laughter in the board-room.
“They can train to be strong, to be smart, to be fast, to be devious, and I even believe they might even deserve to win, because they may even be right.”
Groaning from around the table.
“But gentlemen, oh and gentle-women (my apologies Ms. Grant), we cannot afford for them to be right. These are our wallets and those of our stockholders that I am talking about! We already control a decent fraction of the Senate, we have helped pay for our President. Err – don’t minute that please Ms. Grant”. Nervous grumblings, shuffling of feet, rustling of papers. “If we can deliver on this, and I expect us to, again, if we can indeed change the rules of the game, then we will win big.” Cheers and chuckles around the board-room. Applause.
I could not help but be reminded that Mark Twain had quoted the phrase
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics
Yes, statistics remains a tricky business. On the other hand, a century or so later, a shameless but perhaps observant scientist had said additionally
There are three kinds of statistics: statistics, damned statistics and politics
I resonated with both quotations. In light of all these recollections and thoughts, I felt that our 24 hour moratorium was pathetically short when faced with the corporate and silent majority’s freedom to use all of future time to deny inconvenient scientific truth. I felt a little sick, sweaty, light-headed. Deep breath.
“You OK?” asked Leon.
“Yeah, just thinking, that’s all.”
“Then stop it. It does not look good on you.”
I giggled, and during that short moment of release, I began to feel that we might have one advantage that nature had given us, but could not quite identify it. The star system from which the laser signals originated was extremely dull, containing an old-ish run-of-the-mill star with almost no activity at all. The system was about as boring as most astronomers like me believed stars to be. Indeed, it was even less interesting than our own un-exciting Sun! Little ultraviolet light with even less X-rays, very few flares, made for a deathly boring middle aged star, living in a boring part of the galaxy. One would have to have very good reasons indeed to study such an object.
“Michael, Mike. The folks at Lowell are ready,” said Leon, interrupting the small world in my head. The final telecon began.
For no particular reason, I could not help saying that tau Ceti was just so dull, uninteresting to our group during a lull in our conversation. Then, with deep foresight, or just plain canniness, Leon expressed something I would never forget.
“But, wait. Let me see, how to say it… I think that boring is good? No, it’s really good! It’s exactly what we want. I think. It’s just what the doctor ordered.”
Leon got my immediate attention. For those in the game of searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence, he was right on the money. He had made my heart jump, this was a way for the lions to keep, maybe, some of their deadly weapons. In that moment I realized that our lives would never be the same again. Boring is indeed not just good, it was necessary, and it provided me with the crutch that I felt I had needed to go public.
For you see, in our universe, “interesting” is far more dangerous for life than “boring”. Yes, we all knew about Urey and Miller’s primordial soup experiments of the 1950s, with heat, lightning, UV radiation, etc., leading to the formation of some building blocks of life. But compared with “interesting things” in the universe – the middle part of the Milky Way, for example – Miller’s soup was ridiculously benign. Amino acids are delicate things. “Boring” is indeed very good for life.
Shortly after I awakened on the morning of our press release, I looked at the Sun rising as it had done for the past four and a half billion years. I remembered that we live next door to a charmingly boring star. Over the eons, it didn’t change very much, its radiant heat changed very slowly. It blew off smallish bubbles of ionized gas, it flared occasionally, but it didn’t blow off massive winds or blast out copious amounts of sterilizing radiation or particles. It allowed our atmosphere and its delicate biosphere to survive intact. It had been a dull, constant companion, giving Earth the time needed for creatures to crawl out of the oceans, stand up, and appreciate the Sun’s dullness. It may even have helped to sparked life itself, perhaps with just the right amount of UV light at just the right time.
We were being deliberate and conservative in our approach to the press release, I thought. Skepticism is a foundation of scientific method, we had tried very hard to debunk our astonishing conclusions. Upon reflection, I found it very strange that there was and still is a group, particularly influential in the United States, who identified themselves as “Skeptics”, “Climate Change Skeptics”. I for one had never met anybody more skeptical of the science of climate than climate scientists themselves. After all, disbelief is a major part of the job. But skepticism means different things to different people.
The science community tried to change the word “Skeptics” into “Deniers” when it came to global warming. But this group insisted that they were simply “more skeptical” than scientists. So, if skepticism was good, more skepticism was clearly better. It was almost that easy, politically, to de-claw that particular lion. They simply hijacked and abused one simple word in the English language to that end.
The willing majority bought it, hook, line and sinker. They lived in quiet, content convenience. For them, “more skeptical” was more than good enough. The check-mate seemed a fair outcome to many, after all it would help free up corporations from the meddling of over-educated people who did not seem to contribute to society. Also, scientists were, after all, too close to their subject to be objective. In fairness, the passage of each new generation was not quite long enough to reveal clearly the slow rise of the oceans. The rising did not dramatically affect a lifetime of vacations to the Bahamas or Myrtle Beach. Subtle changes were the things humans were accustomed to dealing with. No, the climate had not changed. If it had changed, God was still in his heaven, all was still well with the world. Most parts of it, anyway.
I wondered what the willing majority would have concluded, if biology had allowed us to live just twice as long, like a giant tortoise? For then, some of us could go to Myrtle beach for 150 years of vacations, along with our great-great-great-great grandkids. The global warming issue was becoming poetically tragic, for in 1975, with global CO2 levels rising 0.4% per year, and the global sea level rising about 2-3 millimeters per year, Supertramp released “Crisis, what crisis?” The Skeptics believed that they were quite right, they were bloody well right!
I jolted from my reverie to the sound of a microwaved egg exploding in the kitchen. There is no other noise quite like it. I had set the power to low, its quiet hum had a mesmerising effect, I had forgotten about the microwave’s slow injection of heat. It took me an hour to get the microwave out of the mess, with a lot of energy spent on four-letter-words.
I had to laugh at how life has a way of making us feel stupid. A humbling moment of learning. Crisis? What crisis?
But why was it also that I seem always to be so distracted? On the other hand, was this a trait that helped to make me a competent and unimaginative scientist? These were more questions without answers. So I gave up thinking, and met Leon later than I had wanted at the observatory. We grabbed a morning coffee, and joined a telecon again with the Lowell guys. We had been faced with a choice: go public and face the vitriol of a “trial by Internet”, or sit on the data and wait for somebody else to make a discovery of first importance to humanity’s collective consciousness. We counted down the last moments of our 24 hour moratorium to zero. Leon took a deep breath, dialed, and spoke nervously into his cell phone. After five minutes convincing staffers that the editor really needed to know the news he was giving them, (although “national security” was stretching things a bit, I thought), he spoke to the editor of the New York Times. The NYT was translated into 137 languages upon producing the “final edition”. It was our voice-piece of choice. To hell with the bureaucrats of the International Astronomical Union. This was not IAU business. It was the World’s business. Leon had dealt the IAU’s meddling before, and his opinion was not terribly positive. “I’m not damned well dealing with those self-serving, show-stealing bastards.” He had a unique way of, shall we say, getting to the point. I had to admit that I liked this trait. He was a good, very good friend. I was lucky to count him as such.
The NYT editor happened to know a trusted friend living in the vicinity of the observatory, turning out to be both a personal friend and confidant. This fact was to be important for us. We did not quite appreciate our fortune at the time. Within an hour Michelle Darcy had arrived at our doorstep, intrigued but rather puzzled by a strange phone call from her friend The Editor. She was instructed to find out what was going on at McDonald Observatory. The visual telecon link with Flagstaff was still up and running, and I started and ended the presentation by showing one slide. The nanosecond signatures from tau Ceti. Darcy was a free-lance journalist with a fierce reputation for integrity, honesty and skepticism. With no knowledge of astronomical instrumentation, within 15 minutes she had shot at us with everything she had. On the fifteenth minute, she looked at her watch and dialed the NYT Editor. “Hello Margaret, I need one four inch long column on the front page tonight. No leaks, insert the piece at the very last minute. My text will follow.”
“OK, are you sure? What’s your title?”
“Prime numbers from space”
“Not quite, but other-worldly all the same.”
“Sounds very, err, `interesting’. Well, thanks for your work, again, I sure as hell hope you will turn out to be right, as usual. This is going to be, well, you know. So I’ll be dealing with this directly, myself. Fire when ready, my personal email only.”
The US Army Corps of Engineers had abandoned Miami in 2039. Their engineering skills and resources were prodigious, second to none, propped up by state and federal government emergency funds across the United States. Charities raised almost half a trillion dollars. But in spite of robots the size of football fields, no amount of funding could halt the otherwise benign waters, famous for their luxurious bathing.
New Orleans went long before, a large fraction of Florida was now gone. Lost through no innocence of their own.
For a while, some people succeeded in living illegally in and on the shells of buildings that were once Miami. Moving in kayaks and makeshift tub-boats, these “hermits” subsisted upon produce from rooftop gardens, rooftop farms and fishing. A hard core of Floridians refused outright to leave, causing worries for authorities concerned about their responsibilities to keep people safe. This was resolved when, with the stroke of the Governor’s pen, the State line was re-drawn close to new high water marks. Anyone over that line was no longer part of Florida, the US, and so was `no longer our concern’. The first tropical cyclone took most of the hermit population to cholera. Lucky ones escaped on boats to Cuba. Even those Floridian refugees of Cuban origin were rather upset at their reception on the beaches. After some astonishment and refreshments from the locals, the Cuban authorities rounded them up, and interrogated them as CIA agents. Their answers quickly convinced authorities they were dealing with an entirely different kind of american. They were granted temporary asylum and flown as asylum seekers with no country of origin, to Washington DC.
The power of the mighty USA was illustrated in a cartoon in the English newspaper, the Guardian. Sitting at the desk of the Oval Office, but facing East into the Atlantic, Uncle Sam raised his new Executive Order high, ankles deep in water, seaweed, dead fish and garbage. Backed by over-crowded beach tents baring three ram-shackle signs of “House, Senate, Supreme Court”, and entirely engulfed by a brightly lit car dealer-ship, the bill read “I command thee to stop!” “Sorry Sam, but we had someone already try that a thousand years ago.” Read the caption.
“Kings, Emperors, Governments. All must paddle in the rising waters”, read the editorial’s opening sentences.
The Pride of Lions was preening, resting in the warm sunshine.
“Prime numbers from space”
The NYT editor placed a private call to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and another to the CIA. After a couple of hours, she was assured that there were no assets of any kind known to lie in the sky near the constellation Cetus. The next day, there appeared the following column on the front page of the NYT, with an image of Leon and I in front of the two-meter telescope’s dome:
New York Times, September 2nd 2042 “Prime Numbers from Space” Astronomers from McDonald and Flagstaff observatories continue to monitor fast pulses of laser light from a nearby stellar system. Leon Adamson and Michael Kerr of McDonald Observatory discovered these signals accidentally, several days ago, coming from the star system tau Ceti. The system is only 12 light years from Earth, containing a star like the Sun. The pulses are not of a natural origin, they occur in bursts beginning with blips in groups of 1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17. These are the number one plus the first 7 prime numbers, a universal pattern, not produced by natural processes in sequence. The remaining blips may or may not be random, they are being investigated. One sequence that has been repeated again and again is freely available at the NYT web site. The laser light lies in the lowest parts of a deep dip in the yellow part of the star’s spectrum. This correspondent is convinced of the integrity of the astronomers, their data, and concludes that the signals are of intelligent, extraterrestrial origin. Kerr, when asked about the tau Ceti system, said that it was “even more boring a star than our own Sun”. Adamson quipped, “For life to get going, boring is good.”