The title of this post isn’t meant to ask where you are in a spatial location, but in terms of time. Where are you—where are we all, for that matter—in the life of this universe? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. We all live on a rather attractive blue, white, green and brown planet circling a rather ordinary yellow-white star in a rather ordinary galaxy somewhere in the middle of billions of other galaxies which together constitute what we affectionately refer to as the “universe.” This universe arose from a massive expansion of all matter and energy some thirteen billion years ago, and is rapidly expanding and expanding, apparently to go on forever, driven apart by wild forces within itself. It will go on for time immemorial, never to return to its original state. That’s, at least, the current thinking.
Here we are, sophisticated, sentient human beings, watching this all unfold, trying to make sense of it. I’ve wondered, ever since I heard of the “big bang” hypothesis, which is the current favorite explanation of how we got here, if there isn’t an alternative explanation, that the universe will eventually run out of steam and collapse back onto itself in a sort of “big crunch,” or “big splat,” from which it would rebound into another expansion and another universe, and so on, ad infinitum. That seems to me to be a more logical way for the universe to run than just one “bang” which blows up like a balloon and dissipates out in the nether regions, never to be seen again. The “single bang” theory doesn’t explain what came before the expansion, nor what will come after it. But that may be the way it really is. Dark energy seems to be pushing the galaxies apart faster than dark matter can keep them together.
Philosophically, this is mind boggling. We are the only species on this planet that really understands, to any degree whatsoever, the goings-on out there in space. We’ve been watching the skies for thousands of years. We’ve sent satellites into orbit to observe it. We’ve sent men to the moon. Do you think that cat or dog or goldfish or parakeet in your house cares much about the big bang? Do the deer and the wolves in the forest understand that the little red dot in the sky is a cold, solid planet rather than a blazingly hot star? Or even what a star is in the first place? No, just us. Yet we humans make up such a miniscule percentage of the universe, it’s difficult to estimate how many zeros I’d have to put down to the right of a decimal point to give that percentage. We humans are what I might call “universe sentient.” We know where we are, though we can’t travel very far in it. We’ve seen the stars, the Milky Way, and some of the other galaxies that make up our universe. We have a lot to learn, granted. But we are capable of learning it. We have the mathematical skills and computer skills to master the intricacies of the universe. No dog or cat, or even chimpanzee, has that. Most likely, other civilizations exist in our galaxy with similar skills, perhaps even more advanced. (Maybe they can tell us if dark matter and dark energy really exist.) But philosophically we are alone, and, I suspect, will remain alone for the foreseeable future.
A few days ago I watched the movie “The Caine Mutiny,” for about the fourth or fifth time. A great movie, and a solid member of my Favorite Movies list. (You can see the list on this blog site.) But as I watched the movie, a couple of strange and odd things gnawed at me. I can remember thinking about this during some of those times I watched the movie before, so I decided to explore these questions in a little detail.
As a movie (released in 1954), it’s one of the all-time greats of World War II naval movies. It was based on the Pulitzer Prize-(1952)-winning novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. The Executive Officer of the USS Caine (played by Van Johnson) is moved to relieve his captain, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, during a storm at sea. The executive officer is court-martialed (of course), but is acquitted. Much of the evidence against Cmdr. Queeq is based on the idea that Queeg is “mentally unstable,” to use the words of his most senior crew. And throughout the first several months that the Caine is commanded by Queeg, they document in detail several incidents they feel establish Queeg’s mental illness. They say these incidents show he’s “paranoid,” even they don’t really know the meaning of the term. During the court-martial, testimony reveals that three Navy psychiatrists have examined Queeg and declare him to be free of mental illness, and the conspirators get called on their “armchair psychiatry”. How could they make such a diagnosis? They’re not medical doctors. But my viewing of the movie has consistently led me to wonder if Queeg isn’t really just scared. That’s what it looked like it during the storm, when Van Johnson took over command of the ship. The terror in Bogart’s eyes, and the fact that Johnson had to pry the captain’s arm from around some object on the bridge of the ship, perhaps the compass housing, as well as the fact that Queeg issues all sorts of unrealistic orders, orders that could conceivably sink the ship in the storm—all these point more to cowardice than paranoia. At least, that’s the way Bogart played the character, and Bogart is a fine actor. I don’t know if it was Bogart’s decision to play Queeg that way, or the director’s, Edward Dmytryk. This is where the first difficulty comes in.
During the trial, the defense attorney, played by Jose Ferrer, states quite explicitly that a Captain in the US Navy could never be guilty of cowardice on duty, because he has to rise through the ranks to command his own ship, and anyone who ever exhibited any evidence of fear or timidity would be cut long before he reached command rank. Yet that’s the way the captain was played, and it brought a question to my mind just exactly what the movie was trying to say.
The second difficulty I had with the movie was that the “real” reason the Executive Officer took over command of the ship had to do more with the manner in which the captain was handling it, not his paranoia. All of that didn’t seem to matter at the time, though. The ship was in imminent danger of capsizing, and only Van Johnson’s orders kept the ship upright and brought it safely into port, especially after it had sustained major damage. I got the strong feeling from the movie that this was the “real” reason for the mutiny, not the Captain’s mental illness, but it never came up in the trial. That seems rather odd.
As a somewhat introverted person and aspiring novelist, I have a tendency to sit in front of a computer and watch the world go by electronically. (Isn’t it amazing what electrons can do for us?) Like many introverted people, I spend a lot of time alone. Not lonely, mind you, but alone—there’s a big difference. And from what I understand, many other writers are also introverted to one degree or another, and like to work alone. That’s what you might call the “default” mode of writing. That is, the single writer sitting alone in his/her apartment/house/office toiling away at the desk with whatever writing tools suit him/her best. Computer, pen and ink, pencil, and paper—they’ve all been used in the past. But now the internet has been added to that writing situation and it begs the question: how has that changed writing?
The internet allows an introverted person to interact with the world around him without having to be involved in it. More than just a window onto the street in front of his/her house, the internet brings the world to the writer. I wonder how writers such as Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson would have liked the internet. Charles Dickens, not noted for being particularly introverted, wrote about the poorest of the poor in England in the 1800’s, and was familiar with the times because he experienced them first-hand. He was out in it. But would he have used the internet (assuming in the manner of a science-fiction novel that it was available back then) to enhance his experience? In comparison, Emily Dickinson might just be the most introverted writer of all times. She rarely left her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and became a recluse early in her life. Yet she was a brilliant poet, and we still read her writings today. What would she have thought of the internet? Could she have used it to enhance her poetry? It certainly would have brought her more than the view from the window of her home. I wonder if there are any other writers as introverted as her.
In any event, I don’t feel as bound to the house as Ms. Dickinson, nor do I get out as much as Mr. Dickens is reported to have. Yet I do get out, and enjoy the experience. Many introverts refuse to interact with more than a few friends, but I enjoy the outdoors, though I don’t interact with people as well as, say, an extrovert. The internet is a way to get research done, keep up with the news, find out what friends are doing, keep in contact with family, market books, set up readings, look for bookstores and other markets, advertise one’s wares, and, generally, stay connected with society. All of that is very important for the sophisticated writer, and all of that can be done at home. But getting out is still very important because you can experience things you can’t get on the internet. Riding the train on the internet isn’t the same as riding it in person. I speak from experience. Still, you won’t find me hobnobbing with the rich at a high society ball. I’m not into that.
I’m not by nature a political person. I do have my own strongly held convictions on the political issues of the day, and I vote in every election I can get my hands on, but I generally refrain from discussing politics in person, in writing, on Facebook, or in this blog. I’d much rather write about writing or science or the environment. Those are topics I feel much more strongly about, than, say, the length of Donald Trump’s ____. (You fill in the blank.) But in this day and age, politics is all about us, like a miasma that infects every aspect of our lives. Ignoring it is difficult. Everywhere you turn, you are pummeled with facts, pseudo-facts, opinion, pseudo-opinion, and all manner of intellectual graffiti, designed solely to influence you to believe someone else’s opinion. My feeling about all this is: I have my own opinion; don’t mess me up with yours.
Perhaps that’s why I became a scientist. I like the rigidity of the scientific process. Sure, there’s room for opinion in science; in fact it’s full of it. But your opinion in science is supposed to be based on the facts. You have to quote chapter and verse in order to be believed in science. You have to be able to list the reasons you believe something. No “alternate facts” here, just the realistic facts and data that support and bolster your opinion. Do viruses cause cancer in humans? What are the facts concerning the existence of dark matter? What is the evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly in newborns? And so forth. Just the facts.
Politics, on the other hand, is largely reactionary. I’m not talking about extremely conservative politics which wants to take us back to the 1700s or 1800s, but reactionary in the sense that it rarely generates anything new, but mostly reacts to what has come before. Science, on the other hand, is progressive. It is what generates the forward motion in many fields. Science found the Higgs boson; politics has yet to react to it. Science showed that chlorine kills bacteria and viruses in water; only later did political organizations make it mandatory that drinking water be treated to reduce the number of water-borne diseases in the US. Science developed the transistor, the integrated circuit, the computer, the internet, and now politics has to regulate it. Science is on the cutting edge; politics trails and many times cuts itself on the cutting edge.
That’s not to say politics isn’t necessary in our lives, and I’m not trying to say here that politics is unnecessary. Politics concerns itself with the relations between various groups of people, and regulates and restricts those relations. Important, certainly. Politics also takes it upon itself to codify the important discoveries and make them law. In many cases that’s also necessary. But it’s far more satisfying, enjoyable, and rewarding to be in the front of discovery, to be doing what no one else has done before, and to know facts that no one else knows. Especially the politicians. Science is like being in the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River. Can you imagine how exciting that must have been? Especially after they crossed the Continental Divide and began to work their way down the western side of the Rocky Mountains toward the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean. No white man had ever been there. I would like to have been there. I couldn’t, obviously, so I explored the interactions between virus particles. It’s the explorer in me.
Damn the politicians—full speed ahead.
Recently, over I-don’t-know-how-many-years, maybe ten, the word “impact” has become a verb. It’s now commonplace to hear how something “impacted” something else. We even hear it used on the usually staid evening news. We hear how a hurricane “impacted” a state or town. We hear how new federal regulations will “impact” our daily lives. The use of the term “affect,” or its almost identical twin “effect,” has been replaced by “impact.” Do you remember the difference between affect and effect? Affect is a verb, in the sense of “to affect someone or something.” Effect is a noun, as “the effects of fluoride on dental caries.” But now, impact has replaced both in a number of situations, partly, I suspect, because impact can be used as either a noun or a verb.
At first, I was against the use of “impact” in this way. I figured, if we’ve got two perfectly good words that can be used in place of “impact” and are well-known and well-characterized, why change? But there’s a subtle contrast in the definition of the word “impact” between it and the affect/effect duo. That contrast has to do with intensity. Impact is stronger in its meaning. It’s used when the speaker or writer wants to show a heavier “impact,” rather than a simple “effect.” A tornado has an “impact.” A gentle breeze has an “effect.” That may be because impact has always carried with it the image of collision, or force, or a real punch or shock. (This is getting tricky; it’s hard to define “impact” without using “effect” or “affect.” And vice-versa.)
Now I’m coming around to being more accepting of the use of the word “impact” in situations where a speaker or writer wants to show a strong force. “Affect” and “effect” may go out of style, but I suspect they will be relegated to milder situations. In my writing, I will probably still use the older two, perhaps because I’m so used to them. But “impact” may have a big impact (effect?) on the writing of others. The wave of the future.
I wonder, though, about the term “affectations.” Will we eventually have “impactations”?
But don’t get me started on the word “impactful.”
Could life ever arise on the planet Venus? That is, Venus as it exists today. Venus is a hellish place, with temperatures of around 462°C at the surface, rain composed of sulfuric acid, lava-flows over much of the surface, and an atmospheric pressure around 90 times that of Earth at sea level. It’s not a pleasant place, and a manned spacecraft would find it difficult to land there, and it might be even more difficult for humans to get out and walk around. In fact, I think we can dispense with the possibility of humans walking on Venus’s surface for the foreseeable future.
Many billions of years ago, some scientists speculate, Venus may have had a climate similar to Earth. Water may have been present in abundance, enough to fill relatively shallow oceans. An atmosphere of oxygen may have existed that could have been conducive to life. But if it did, under the influence of the heat from the sun (Venus gets about twice as much sunlight as Earth) the oceans boiled away, the water was split by ultraviolet light into hydrogen and oxygen, the hydrogen escaped into space, and the oxygen combined with carbon on the surface to form carbon dioxide, and the greenhouse effect took over. That pushed the temperature into the stratosphere. So to speak. And here we stand today.
But the presence of water making life possible on Venus in the distant past isn’t what I want to hypothesize in this post. I’m thinking about the possibility of life on Venus as it exists now. Yes, in the presence of all that heat, lava, pressure, and sulfuric acid. Earlier, on March 13, 2011, in a blog post entitled “Life–A New Definition,” I suggested that life on any arbitrary planet should be defined as “that which arises . . . under the influence of the energy from its sun over and above any other milieu . . . .” That’s without regard as to what the life forms look like, or what they’re composed of, or how they replicate, or any other limiting factor we may require to define life on Earth. We can’t think of life on other planets within the limited range we find here on Earth.
So, what would life on Venus look like now? Under the influence of that tremendous heat and pressure, chemical reactions are running wild, at least in comparison with Earth. That might be a good thing. It might be the very factor that makes “life” viable on the surface. Lava may stay liquid all the time on Venus. Possibly a life form could arise composed of lava globules that slowly creep across the surface, consuming other bits of the ground, extracting necessary elements, metabolizing them by sulfuric acid digestion, and eventually dividing into smaller globules that continue the process. And that’s just one scenario. I’m sure others could be visualized by those who are better at chemistry than I, so there’s no sense in me speculating much further here.
I certainly realize that the chance of “life” actually existing on the surface of Venus is probably very low, and that speculating about what it looks like could be a somewhat unscientific pursuit. But the real reason for looking at Venus this way (sorry about that) is that it gives us a different way of looking at life in general all across the galaxy. (Think what it would mean if we did find some sort of life on Venus.) Life certainly exists on (a few? many?) other planets somewhere in our galaxy because there are so many of them, and we should always be aware that it won’t necessarily look like us. It may be so vastly different that we may not recognize it at first, and we have to remain open to any possible physical form, and any possible metabolic form. Temperature and pressure won’t necessarily be a limiting factor.
Not long ago I happened to overhear someone say they like to write, and were starting to write short stories. They didn’t ask me this question specifically, but I began to wonder, what would I say if someone asked me, “How do I go about becoming a writer and get published?” It helps, of course, to have a modicum of talent, but barring that, what should a newbie do to start a writing career? I’m assuming you want to go all the way and get published somewhere, but even if you only want to write for yourself and never show it to others, what can you do? Here are a few suggestions I have to readers of this blog as to how to start. Take or reject any or all.
- Start writing. Just sit down and start. Whether you write on a computer, on a legal pad, on a typewriter, or on a mirror with the blood of a vampire, it doesn’t matter how good it is, just get it down. You can revise it later when you’ve learned more about the craft. Put your ideas down before you forget them. Make notes to yourself. If you’re doing a family history, get Uncle Joe’s reminiscences down before he croaks.
- Read writing magazines. There are several good writing magazines out there. I have subscriptions to Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poet’s and Writers, but several others exist and you shouldn’t be limited to these. Writing magazines such as these are the most concentrated form of information about the art and craft of writing you can get. I started with a subscription to my first one almost as soon as I started writing.
- Read books and stories in your genre. But, and this is very important, read outside your genre. If you want to write prose, read poetry. And then decide you will write prose in as lyrical style you can, influenced by the poetry you read.
- Read books on writing. A hugely popular book is William Strunk, Jr., and E.B White’s The Elements of Style. And it won’t break your budget to get a copy. But there are others, such as Stephen King’s book On Writing, Donald Maass’s books, in particular, Writing the Breakout Novel, and Writing 21st Century Fiction, or Oakley Hall’s How Fiction Works. But don’t be limited to these. Check online and check your library.
- Join a critique group. Find a group that either accepts all forms of writing, or at least is limited to your favorite genre. Submit your work to the others in the group and listen to what they say. But also, read and critique the others. This gives you experience in looking for what works and what doesn’t in a manuscript. Some critique groups are online. Check out Lit Reactor.
- Join a writing group. Preferably one that has regular meetings. If they have a guest speaker, listen to what the speaker has to say. Some groups have open mic nights where you can read, and sometimes get feedback. Go. Listen. Enjoy.
- Start attending writer’s conventions. You can find these listed in many magazines. Look for one in your area. Or look for one that specializes in your genre. There will be an expense involved, but it may be tax deductible. There will be speakers who will have a lot of good info in what you are interested in, and there will be speakers who don’t have much to say to you. Listen to all.
- Get an MFA in creative writing. This may take several years, but many universities have low-residency programs where you only have to be on campus for a short time each year. But they are intense, and you will learn a lot. Plus, you get those letters after your name.
- Round up beta readers. You are the alpha reader of your work. But you will eventually need someone to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback. This is someone you trust to be objective, yet ruthless. No one in your family is that person. You will want someone at a distance, yet someone you know and trust. You may even find someone online.
- Read other writer’s manuscripts. In other words, be a beta reader for some other beginning writer.
- Start a list of where you’d like to submit your manuscripts. Usually in your genre, although you might be submitting to a magazine that publishes works of many genres. Do you like dogs? Submit to the dog magazines. Poetry? Many literary journals take poetry. You can find lists of magazines (there are thousands out there) in the backs of writing magazines, and in reference books. Check your bookstore or library.
- If you have completed a manuscript, start looking for agents or publishers. Start this list even before the manuscript is complete and thoroughly revised and edited. Again, writing magazines have lists of these, and reference books abound with lists of agents and publishers and what they’re looking for. Try online too. Check each agent or publisher’s website for what they want.
- If you prefer, start looking into self-publishing. You can publish your own book, and not be bothered by agents and publishers. But beware, you’ll want to have your book edited by an independent editor, and a good cover designed by an independent artist. Remember, you’re taking on the job of publisher yourself, and, let’s face it, you, as a beginner, aren’t a good editor or publisher. Get others to help you.
- Talk to other writers. Network to get the inside scoop. Tips and suggestions that no one else talks about.
- Set up a website or a blogsite to advertise your book. Start thinking about this even before your book is published.
- Visit the library. ‘Nuf said.
- Don’t quit your day job.
Stop reading this and start writing.