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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1729 posts for Gwynne Dyer

The Bug-Eyed Monster Problem

“There is absolutely no procedure enshrined in international law to respond to a signal from an alien civilisation,” said Martin Dominik, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews. “It makes sense to create a legally binding framework that is properly rooted in international law.”

Well, yes, it would make sense. But if the Bug-Eyed Monsters do send a message, would we really want to reply at all?

Bug-Eyed Monsters (BEMs), generally portrayed carrying off half-naked Earth maidens with evil intent, were a standard feature of pulp science fiction in the 1950s. We are all more sophisticated now, of course, but fear of alien contact is not necessarily irrational.

The specific reason for Prof. Dominik’s remarks is a survey of public attitudes towards alien contact that was launched this month by London’s Royal Society and the UK SETI Research Network, but in broader terms it is a response to two important developments in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) that occurred in 2015.

One was a debate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention in 2015 about whether ‘Active SETI’ was a good idea. Should we advertise our existence and publish our address to the cosmos, or is that just asking for trouble? Many of the scientists present backed a declaration that a “worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent.”

The other major event of 2015 was the launch of Russian-Israeli tech billionaire Yuri Milner’s ten-year Breakthrough Listen project, which is buying thousands of hours of time on the world’s most powerful radio telescopes to search over a million stars for artificial radio or laser signals.

This is ‘Passive SETI’, and there’s certainly no harm in just looking for signs of the existence of other civilisations elsewhere in the galaxy. There is “no bigger question in science,” said the late Prof. Stephen Hawking, who was an adviser to the project. But if you find such a civilisation, an enormous debate will immediately erupt over whether we should reply or not. Hawking thought not.

The Breakthrough Listen project has been up and running for several years now, and last month it announced that it has so far examined 1,000 star systems within 160 light years of Earth but detected no transmissions from alien civilisations.

However, even if there were ten thousand civilisations in the galaxy, the probability that one of them would be within 160 light years of us is very low. Moreover, they would have to be using a very powerful signal aimed specifically at us to be detected at that range. Old television programs do not travel across the galaxy intact. (Sorry, Galaxy Quest.)

In fact, it is remarkably quiet out there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no other civilisations in our corner of the galaxy. There is a rival hypothesis which suggests that there may indeed be one or more civilisations in our galactic neighbourhood, but that they are observing radio silence.

Why? Because they know or at least suspect that there is something big and bad and dangerous lurking out there in the dark, and they do not want to attract its attention.

This hypothesis is increasingly being called the ‘Dark Forest Problem’, after the extraordinary success of Chinese science-fiction writer Liu Cixin’s ‘Three-Body Problem’ trilogy. It traces the calamitous consequences over four hundred years of an alien contact scenario, initiated by well-meaning human beings, that goes desperately wrong.

Nothing in the science we know makes this hypothesis plausible. Interstellar travel is virtually impossible, and neither trade nor conquest would be profitable at interstellar distances even if it did somehow became possible. The energy required and the time taken would simply be too great.

Or so we assume, but our current level of scientific knowledge is probably not the last word on the subject. We still have much to learn even about the basic physics of the universe – the nature and role of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, for example – and distance alone might not be enough to protect us from any ill-intentioned BEMs with a sufficiently high level of technology.

So Dominik is right: we do need to have an international discussion about whether we should make our existence known, should the intensified SETI research yield a positive result. And it would be wise to have it before the media circus that would erupt if we actually found a message.

Another of Milner’s programs, Breakthrough Message, is working on what kind of answer we might send, but its remit is clear. It has pledged “not to transmit any message until there has been a global debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilizations.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 16. (“However…Quest”; and “Another… civilisations”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Lovelock at 100

Forty years ago James Lovelock published his book ‘Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth’, setting forth his hypothesis that all life on Earth is part of a co-evolved system that maintains the planet as an environment hospitable to abundant life. Today his approach is known as ‘Earth System Science’, and is central to our understanding of how the planet works. But back in 1979, he already had a warning for us.

“If…man encroaches upon Gaia’s functional powers to such an extent that he disables her, he would then wake up one day to find that he had the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer….

“Then at last we should be riding that strange contraption, ‘the spaceship Earth’, and whatever tamed and domesticated biosphere remained would indeed be our ‘life support system’. [We would face] the final choice of permanent enslavement on the prison hulk of the spaceship Earth, or gigadeaths to enable the survivors to restore a Gaian world.”

For the past thirty years I have travelled down to Devon every four or five years to interview Jim, but essentially to ask him ‘Are we there yet?’ The last time I went, he said ‘Almost’. But he seemed remarkably cheerful about it, even though ‘there’, he believed, would imply the death of around 80 percent of the global population (‘gigadeaths’) before the end of the century.

There’s nothing harsh or cold about Jim, but it would be fair to say that his manner is impish. He’s a dedicated contrarian who delights in challenging the accepted wisdom – and is generally proved right in the end. And although he was one of the first scientists to sound the alarm about global warming, he never bangs on about our folly, he never raises his voice, and he never despairs.

Once I asked him if he thought things would ever get so bad that human beings would go extinct. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “Human beings are tough. There’ll always be a few breeding pairs.” But, he added, they’d have trouble trying to rebuild a high-energy civilisation, because we have used up all the easily accessible sources of energy building this one.

It is a rather god-like perspective, but that probably comes naturally if you have spent your whole life trying to stand back far enough to see the system as a whole. The Gaian system, that is, which he defines as “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.”

In other words, it’s all connected. The Earth’s temperature, the oxygen content of the atmosphere, all the qualities that make it a welcoming home for abundant life are maintained by the actions and inter-actions of the myriad species of living things. They are the creators as well as the beneficiaries of this remarkably stable status quo.

It sounds a bit New Age – he and American evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who collaborated with him in the earliest thinking on the proposition, took some flak for that from their scientific colleagues – but he wasn’t really suggesting that the super-organism he proposed had consciousness or intention. Gaia was from the start a serious scientific hypothesis that could be subjected to rigorous testing.

It has now been elevated into an entirely respectable and widely accepted theory. Indeed, Gaia provides the broader context in which most research in the life sciences, and much chemical, geological, atmospheric and oceanographic research as well, is now done.

Jim Lovelock has changed our contemporary perspectives on life on this planet as much as Charles Darwin did for the 19th century, and like Darwin he has done it as an independent scientist, mostly working on his own and with relatively modest resources. Even more remarkably, he published his first book, and his Gaia hypothesis, when he was already 60.

That was forty years ago, and on Friday he turns 100. But he hardly seems to have aged at all, and to celebrate his birthday he has published a new book (his 10th). It’s called ‘Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence’, and it’s just as much off the beaten track as his first book, ‘Gaia’.

He’s being cheerful again. Yes, we are approaching the ‘Singularity’, the artificial-intelligence takeover when our robots/computers become autonomous. Yes, after that it is AI, not us, that will lead the dance. But don’t panic, because the AI will be fully aware that its platform needs to be a more or less recognisably Gaian planet, and will cooperate with us to preserve it.

In that case, we will no longer be in the driver’s seat, but we will probably still be in the vehicle. “Whatever harm we have done to the Earth, we have, just in time, redeemed ourselves by acting simultaneously as parents and midwives to the cyborgs,” he writes, and he may be right. He’s certainly right a lot more often than he’s wrong. Happy birthday, Jim.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“There’s…one”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

It has been suggested that Boris Johnson (who becomes the prime minister of the United Kingdom this week) is what you would get if Donald Trump had been educated at Eton and Oxford. Maybe, although there is a great gulf between Trump’s bombastic self-promotion and Johnson’s self-deprecating, rather shambolic persona.

There is such a thing as a national style, and Trump’s shtick would fail as badly in Britain as Johnson’s would in the United States. But questions of style aside, the two men are almost identical.

They are both inveterate, shameless liars. They are both what lay people call narcissists and the experts call ‘sociopaths’: men (they are mostly men) who accumulate numerous wives, girlfriends and children as they go through life, but never really engage with anybody. And neither of them has any real purpose in politics.

They are quite good at winning, and they target the same sector of the electorate: older, less well educated people, frightened about their economic future, and often racist. Some of those who support them are none of those things, of course, but the courting of white nationalists by both men is unmistakable. The shriek of the dog-whistles is deafening.

What Trump and Johnson conspicuously lack is set of objectives that goes beyond merely winning and keeping power. Trump’s determination to expunge every trace of Obama’s legacy (healthcare, the Iran deal, etc.) gives him a kind of agenda, but an entirely negative one. Boris Johnson doesn’t even have that. His only role in British politics is to save the Conservative Party by ‘delivering’ Brexit.

Johnson wouldn’t be in Downing Street today if there had not been an election in Britain two months ago. It was only an election for the European Parliament, but Britain had to vote in it because it still hadn’t left the European Union despite two postponements.

The EU election did, however, give British voters an opportunity to express their views on Brexit, and it was catastrophic for the Conservatives. On the whole the vote split pretty evenly between pro-Leave and pro-Remain parties, but the Conservatives came FIFTH, behind the Greens and just ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Panic at Conservative headquarters! Their traditional voters are mostly Leavers, and they are so angry at their party for failing to get the job done, three full years after the referendum, that they are abandoning it for Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party. If there is a national election in the UK the Conservatives will be wiped out – and given the deadlock in parliament, an early election is quite likely.

So where’s Boris when we need him? We all know that he’s lazy, feckless, insanely ambitious, utterly unprincipled and liable to make huge mistakes, but we desperately need to rally the troops and he’s the one they love.

Boris generously agreed to help the Party out, so they unceremoniously dumped Prime Minister Theresa May and set up a contest for a new party leader that Johnson was bound to win. That automatically makes him prime minister as well, but he may be the last prime minister of a genuinely united kingdom.

Johnson can only succeed by taking Britain out of the EU by October 31st. He swears that he can get a better exit deal than Theresa May negotiated (which parliament refused to pass three times), but the EU says no further negotiations are possible. He could try the traditional remedy of shouting loudly at them in English, but it may not succeed.

If that doesn’t work, he says he’ll take the UK out of the EU anyway, without a deal. That would inflict serious economic hardship on the British population, but true Brexiters reckon that’s a small price to pay for leaving an organisation they detest. Half the English population doesn’t agree – and TWO-THIRDS of the Scots voted Remain.

If a largely English government drags the United Kingdom out of the European Union and into economic misery, then the Scots will probably decide to leave the UK and stay in the EU. The Scottish National Party is already promising another referendum on the question.

What happens in Northern Ireland with a no-deal exit from the EU and a ‘hard border’ between the North and the Republic is harder to predict. The shooting and bombing could start up again, or there could be a bitterly fought referendum on a united Ireland, or hopefully something less dramatic than either of those options would happen. But it will not stay the same.

So there’s rather a lot at stake, including the 300-year-old Union, and the man in charge is the farthest thing imaginable from a safe pair of hands. “Boris is the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want to drive you home at the end of the evening,” as Energy Minister Amber Rudd put it recently.

If parliament can stop Johnson from doing a no-deal Brexit, of course, then none of this comes to pass. But it’s not at all certain that parliament can do that. The British are living in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“They…deafening”; and “What…same”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Ukraine: The Third Revolution

“No promises, so no disappointments,” said Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky during the election campaign that made him the president last May. It was a daring, even cynical thing for a politician to say, but then he’s not a politician.

Zelensky is a television comedian who really doesn’t have much in the way of policies yet – but he does represent a fresh start for Ukraine, and that’s what voters wanted. After two non-violent popular revolutions in 2004 and 2014 that promised change, twice the country ended up back in the hands of the same old corrupt post-Soviet oligarchs. Zelensky didn’t need to make promises. He just needed to be different.

He hasn’t actually done much since he got elected, but that’s because he doesn’t have a majority in the Rada (parliament). In fact, he doesn’t have anybody in the Rada, because his party, Servant of the People, was only formed last year. So his first priority had to be a fresh election for a new parliament. It’s happening next Sunday.

Nobody expects Zelensky to get the astounding 73% victory that he got in the presidential election, but the public has become a good deal more positive about the future since his election. An opinion poll last week showed that optimism was up from 39% late last year to 71% now.

If Zelensky’s party doesn’t win an absolute majority in the Rada, it will at least get 45-48% of the vote. Then he just has to pick a coalition partner from among four smaller parties that will get 10% or less. The likeliest would be Holos, the new party founded by rock-star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.

Yes, I know. Two showbiz figures, complete novices in politics, trying to run a country of 44 million people (which, by the way, is in a proxy war with Russia). What could possibly go wrong?

But if you are ready for generational turn-over, as Ukrainian voters obviously are, then by definition the politicians you back will be younger people – Zelensky is 41, and Vakarchuk is 44 – with little experience in politics.

They do have experience in other walks of life, though. Zelensky grew up in the mostly Russian-speaking steeltown of Krivoi Rog in the Ukrainian rustbelt, and managed to get a law degree before becoming a comedian and then building a successful TV production company.

Vakarchuk is not just a singer. He also has a doctorate in theoretical physics – and after the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 he actually sat as a deputy in the Rada for a short time before quitting in disgust at the corruption and infighting.

Most of the members of the new Rada will also be tyros. Vakarchuk’s party is so dedicated to changing the way things are done that it is not letting any member of the current parliament run on its list. Zelensky’s parliamentary list is more varied: about a one-third reformers, one-third people with personal or business ties to Zelensky – and one-third people with ties to Ihor Kolomoisky.

This is when the red lights start flashing, because Kolomoisky is a major oligarch who owns the TV channel that has been broadcasting Zelensky’s show, ‘Servant of the People’, for the past three years.

‘Servant of the People’ has a heart-warming plot in which Zelensky plays a high school teacher who is suddenly elevated to the presidency by the voters after his rant about the appalling state of Ukrainian politics, secretly taped by a student, goes viral.

Now Zelensky leads a real political party with that name, and he is living out the same miracle. Or is he just following a cunning strategy that he and Kolomoisky settled on around four years ago?

What did Kolomoisky stand to get out of it? Well, he was self-exiled in Israel because
of a huge business and legal dispute with Petro Poroshenko, another oligarch who was president at the time and might send him to jail. Kolomoisky could only go home if Poroshenko lost the next election.

But why would Zelensky play along with that? He was already very successful, and he could probably have sold that TV series to some other outlet. Did he just want to be president? And if so, did he really plan to do Kolomoisky’s bidding once he got the job?

Thinking too hard about this can drive you crazy. For example, Zelensky has just appointed Andriy Bohdan, once Kolomoisky’s lawyer, to the key job of head of administration in the president’s office. That’s pretty suspicious.

However, Bohdan has also served as lawyer to almost every other oligarch in the country, and he probably knows where all the bodies are buried. That would be very useful if Zelensky really plans to go after them all, which he must do if he intends to change the way the country is run. You can argue it both ways with equal plausibility.

Right or wrong, however, most Ukrainians currently believe that Zelensky is the real thing – and actually, so do I. Of course, I have been wrong a couple of times in the past.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Nobody…now”; and “They…infighhting”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.