Archive for May, 2017
Back in February, 2017, an interesting article appeared in that month’s issue of Scientific American. Written by Anna Ijjas, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Abraham Loeb, the authors presented some evidence for a “big bounce” in the life of our universe, rather than the much better known “big bang.” The universe as we know it is thought to have started by a rapid inflation of all matter and energy from a point so small it would fit inside an electron with room to spare. Thus the idea of the “big bang” was born, though it was probably a quiet “bang” since there wouldn’t have been any air around to transmit a sound. The authors of the article give some evidence (not overwhelming by any stretch of imagination) that the universe has been alternately expanding from a point, then contracting to another point and expanding again. Ad infinitum.
Well, later several other physicists, thirty-three to be exact, including Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth (who, by the way is the pioneer of the inflation theory) wrote a letter stating their opposition to the evidence in the article, and reaffirming their belief that the universe started with one and only one big bang. Their evidence is that the universe is not only expanding, but is expanding at an ever increasing rate, and either already has or soon will reach a “point of no return” where it can only continue to expand, and never will contract. Too much dark energy pushing the matter in the universe apart. It’ll go on forever.
Two competing theories. I emphasize that the Scientific American article did not state that the authors thought the Big Bang theory was wrong, just that they thought it did not explain everything, and a rebounding universe was a possibility. Okay, so much for that.
My interest in this discussion between the “Uni”-verse theory and the “Multi”-verse theory isn’t to try and distinguish between them, or even try to add my name to one or the other. I’m not a physicist and haven’t got the faintest idea which is correct. I’ll let those more competent than I figure that out. But as I began to think about the concept of a rebounding universe, my thoughts took a philosophical turn, and I began to wonder where we all fit in such a scenario. The universe expands from a point source and grows larger and larger, to eventually result in our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, our cities and towns, and us. It goes on for billions of more years, and reaches a tipping point. It begins to contract and drops back to a point, and the cycle starts all over again. All of that is conceivable by the human mind. But what isn’t conceivable is the idea that this has been going on forever, and will go on into infinity. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog called “Wrap Your Mind Around This…” in which I pointed out a few examples of things that are so out of the ordinary in today’s world that they were impossible for the human mind to comprehend. This rebounding universe is another. (See the earlier blog at https://rogerfloyd.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/wrap-your-mind-around-this/) Although I can see a universe that starts with an inflation and continues on only to dissipate into infinity, I can’t begin to envision a universe that bounds and rebounds, like a tennis ball that will not stop bouncing. Such a universe violates the laws of physics. The most difficult part to envision is that there has never been a beginning, and there will never be an end. How does something never have a beginning?
I wonder, does the universe play the same thing over and over with each rebound? Did we exist in all those past universes? Or, is each universe different?
The universe in which we currently exist is so large, we are almost infinitely tiny in comparison. Our galaxy, which is so much larger than us, is itself only one of billions, even, perhaps, trillions. But to put all that in the context of a universe that rises and falls like a bouncing ball, and has been going on forever—no beginning, no end—just makes the comparison even more difficult to understand.
Over the past few weeks or so, I’ve noticed on Facebook several posts about how climate change has caused warming in the northern parts of the Earth, especially in northern Canada and Siberia. The posts give information about how carcasses of dead animals (and, possibly, humans) are being exposed for the first time in ten, twenty, thirty, or forty thousand years (or even more) because the permafrost in that area is melting. Potentially, many of those animals or humans died of infectious diseases such as anthrax, plague, or other highly communicable diseases, and the threat to us humans today is that a new outbreak could be started if we exhume the bodies without taking careful precautions to prevent spread. They even give an example of an anthrax outbreak in Russia when an infected animal carcass was exhumed. I fully agree.
I have two real comments to make about these stories. Both points are short and simple, because I don’t have the space here to go into any detail about how to handle the exposed carcasses. I’m not an expert in that, and there’s a lot of boring detail I’d have to list anyway. My first point is that these stories are calling the agents that cause the diseases that could be exposed as being caused by “viruses,” even though the all the ones they list are actually caused by bacteria. Viruses are not “bacteria.” Viruses are submicroscopic organisms that cause disease, while bacteria are larger, and can be seen in a microscope. I hope we will begin to use the two terms properly in order to avoid any confusion in the future.
Having said that, there are possible situations where real viruses might be uncovered by permafrost thawing (“permathawing”?) I can conceive that sometime a carcass of a human who died of a virus disease (such as smallpox, influenza, polio, rabies, ebola, etc.) might be uncovered. These are real viruses, not the “viruses” listed by the writers of the articles mentioned above. Some of these might be dangerous. But there’s a caveat, and this leads to the second point I want to make.
Viruses, on the whole, are easier to kill than bacteria. It is true that both viruses and bacteria can be preserved for a long time by freezing. A dead body, whether animal or human, which is frozen soon after death to a temperature well below zero (and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Fahrenheit or centigrade here; cold is cold) can preserve any infectious agent reasonably well. But the agent will begin to die off as time goes by. Bacteria will generally be preserved longer. Viruses I suspect would become inactivated more easily. But there are so many variables—how soon after death the body was frozen, how deep in the frost it was, what the temperature was throughout the frozen state, how long ago it died—that I can’t even begin to make generalizations. For some viruses, like influenza, for example, I suspect that if a prehistoric human who died of a strain of flu as potent as the 1918 strain were exhumed, it might not be too infectious, since the flu virus can be destroyed relatively easily. But I can’t be sure. There is one virus I would be very suspicious of, were a human carcass infected with it were to be uncovered, and that is smallpox. In lab studies, smallpox is more difficult to kill than most other viruses, and this could raise some serious issues. The problem is made worse by the fact that we don’t immunize people against smallpox any more, and that means that any researchers under the age of about thirty or forty who might be working with recovered human remains from permathawing could be at risk for the disease. Perhaps this is a good reason to bring back smallpox immunization, at least for people working in this area, if not the population at large.
In summary, let’s start using the terms “bacteria” and “viruses” correctly to avoid confusion in the future, and let’s be careful exhuming any dead carcass, human or animal. Diseases have killed animals probably for as long as animals have existed, and those nasty “viruses,” potentially at least, could come back and do it again. We might even uncover a virus we’ve never seen before.
In this blog post I want to talk a little about putting tension and conflict into story telling. I’ve just completed reading two science fiction novels (written by the same author) in which I believe the concept of tension was handled badly. I’m not identifying the novels or the author for two reasons. One, this is not a book review, and two, I’m not trying to cut down or disparage the books (you may actually like them); I’m only trying to make a point. The problem with the books as I see them is that the author placed both protagonists in a state of high tension and internal conflict, and kept the unfortunate person in that state for virtually the entire book. I found this situation almost unreadable. Trying to read through this, page after page, chapter after chapter, was emotionally taxing on me as well. Many times I wanted to toss the books away and not finish them. (I did finish them, however, because I figured if I wanted to critique them, I’d better read the entire book.) In short, that’s a terrible thing to do to your protagonist as well as to your reader.
Placing a novel character in such a state is so grossly unrealistic and unbelievable I find myself wondering how it got past the agency and the editor in the first place. I’m surprised someone didn’t stop it before publication, or at least question it. I certainly would never put one of my characters in such a desperate situation. I might put them in that plight for a chapter or two, or three, but not for the whole book. Tension and conflict are essential in a novel, of that there is no doubt, and it may be true that I don’t have enough of either in my books. But tension and conflict should rise and fall like the tides. Keeping a character in eternal tension is unrealistic, and even science fiction has to be “realistic,” at least to a certain degree. Raise the tension occasionally; keep your characters sane (unless insanity is a part of the story). If this is what it takes to get published in this day and age, I don’t want to have any part of it.
As a good example of the variation of tension, I offer the Alfred Hitchcock movie “To Catch A Thief.” Not because it’s such a great example, but merely because I watched portions of it last night. In the movie, a cat burglar has been retired for fifteen years, but now a copycat has started burglarizing the homes of the wealthy, and the retired burglar has to clear his name and prove to the police the break-ins weren’t his doing, or go to jail. In his words “they’ll throw away the key.” (Yes, even Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t above using a cliché.) High stakes, no doubt. But Hitchcock intersperses humor and lightheartedness throughout the movie, even though it takes the main character most of the movie to identify the real burglar. I think that’s one thing that makes Hitchcock such a movie favorite; he knew how to handle tension.
As an unpublished author, perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe lack of conflict and tension are my problem. But I do know what I felt when I read the books, and I didn’t like it at all. And that’s enough for me.