Out There

The night sky is more provocative when viewed from the countryside. In the city we barely notice it, but not only because there are more delightful things to distract us from looking – the night sky is obscured by the sodium yellow of streetlights and the glare of the high street. In the Dordogne, in the south west of France, the cosmos is harder to ignore, and  when I looked at it the other day it occurred to me that my feelings and thoughts probably didn’t differ markedly from the feelings and thoughts of prehistoric man as he gazed at the Milky Way 25,000 years ago from the mouth of his cave.

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He knew less about the world, about himself and about the universe, I suppose, though I’m sure he knew his constellations rather better than I know them (I only know the Plough). He had no other visual entertainment, at night, other than the embers of his fire. But he didn’t know anything about what he was looking at, about planets, galaxies, dark matter or the dark energy that is tearing the universe apart at every greater velocity, though, to be frank, we too know almost nothing about dark energy.

Perhaps he imagined that the stars spoke to him somehow, and augured good or ill for the weather or the availability of mammoth meat. Sadly, we know now that they didn’t and don’t. Millions of hours of signals analysis by SETI programs running whilst our PCs are at rest have as yet failed to find evidence of a signal in the noise.

But if there is one thing  I wish for in my lifetime (apart from world peace, the end of fundamentalist religions, universal democracy, a cure for cancer, the abolition of the unaccompanied madrigal and the Peruvian flute band) it is the discovery of extra terrestrial intelligence. Not just life, which would be interesting but neither amazing nor surprising, but intelligent life.

It will happen one day, though perhaps not soon. It won’t be communication, and it won’t be conversation unless we discover something even more remarkable, such as a Star Trek style warp drive that could take us or our signals faster than the speed of light. But simply to receive a ‘signal’ would be the most remarkable thing, to know that there are others out there, like us. And I believe they would be like us. Not to look at, of course, though I suspect they would have at least two eyes and at least two hands, but in terms of the cluster of things that go with intelligence.

Intelligence, the purposeful pursuit of knowledge, control and cooperation, is unimaginable without language, self-consciousness and thought, and the recognition by every intelligent creature that there are other intelligent creatures like them. Indeed language could only develop in a community of conscious creatures. And I believe that ethical systems inevitably follow, because one creature must, in virtue of language, be able to imagine itself as another. Perhaps even religion follows, at least for a while, until intelligence prevailed, though, to my mind, religion is false as science and a misleading foundation for value.

There must be intelligent life out there somewhere. We can’t be alone when there are billions of galaxies containing billions of stars. Even if intelligent life arrives late in the evolution of living things and doesn’t last long it would surely last long enough for there to be some ‘chatter’ radiating outwards (episodes of the alien version of The Archers, the Eurovision Song Contest, the speeches of Fidel Castro, and other entertainments) even if there were no formal signal replete with indicators of intelligence such as the atomic weights of the elements.

But if they set about sending a signal, what would they want to tell us? How to make fusion work? How to avoid annihilation? And what would we send them?

If I were the editor of transmissions into the unknown I would want to convey both knowledge and the idea of value. I doubt that intelligent life could evolve without both. So I would transmit the energy levels of fundamental particles, such as we currently understand them to be (or some such quantity if what I’ve suggested doesn’t make sense). These would indicate how far we’ve progressed in understanding the framework of the universe, and I presume they would be immediately recognisable in virtue of their ratios to each other. And I would send the whole of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

What else would be worth saying?

 

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Control Freakery

I was astonished and appalled to hear of Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, especially because of the reasons he gave for it – that ‘Vladimir Putin has his country under control.’

I was reminded today, at the Gardens of Marqueyssac (8.80 EUR and open every day of the year), of how much I dislike control. The gardens comprise several acres of topiary overlooking the Dordogne. My friend Caroline and I bicycled from Siorac en Perigord, an easy mild up and down of about 20 km, on empty roads in bright late summer sunshine through a largely uncontrolled landscape. Uncontrolled, but not unmarked by man.

These gardens, by contrast, illustrate man’s appetite for crushing domination, his determination to tame, torture and distort nature so that nothing of wildness, or colour, or spontaneity remains. Of course, Topiary can be an amusing adjunct to a garden that is more than simply sculptural or architectural, a garden, for example, containing borders and flowers. Perhaps, for a very few moments, if you’re in the right kind of mood, a bush that looks like a bunny rabbit can amuse.

But if all that you can do with your trowel and your master’s degree in landscape architecture is trim and shape, then it’s not enough. If you like box and little else then these gardens might indeed be your Garden of Eden, but if you find it a gloomy shrub, and if its imperfections worry you, or if you dislike its sour smell, then these gardens will depress you, unless, in your view, control is the highest aspiration of mankind.

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I greatly prefer the illusion of wildness that the English Garden cultivates. If there is control (and of course there must be) then it is subtle. It is exerted only so that flowers and shrubs can thrive as themselves. Set the starting conditions and step back, barring a little weeding and dead-heading.

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So should it be in politics. What is it that Trump could possibly admire about the kind of control that  Putin has achieved, or, in fact, failed to achieve. Total control of the press, of the judiciary, and the political landscape. Total control over his own wealth. Total control over his henchmen – well, perhaps not entirely. Is Russia a country to emulate – where corruption is rife, where bureaucracy stifles enterprise, where homophobia and racism thrive and are not discouraged by the state or by the police, where lies surround every foreign military adventure?

Is that what Trump wants for his own country? This kind of total control?

Look at these ailing, distorted box hedges and lament. Gardens need freedom, as do nations.

 

Hardly Surprising

It is hardly surprising that prehistoric men and women selected the Dordogne as their get-away destination of choice 25,000 years ago and more. The roads are empty, the landscape is beautiful, the climate is pleasant, the food is delicious (though goose features a little too often on the menu), and the land is fertile and well watered. It must have been the perfect place for painting and sculpting, hunting woolly mammoths, or simply chilling at the mouths of caves – a haven then, as now, from the filth and pollution of the city. And property prices are not high.

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You can even get a moderately good cup of tea, which I put down to the English influence between 1154 and 1453 (the anglophile Eleanor of Aquitaine, in particular, so splendidly and authentically played by Katherine Hepburn in A Lion in Winter, poured tea with great delicacy, and was particularly fond of Darjeeling, which I do not prefer). And if cave life palled in prehistoric times, the area is dotted with beautiful country hotels and restaurants. True, there were no digital networks, but there were spears.

How like ours their hands were! Five fingers!

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Human life hasn’t changed in its essentials in 25,000 years. Judging by this prehistoric cave mural humans looked roughly the same then as now. After all, only around 1,250 generations of human life have come and gone since then (if we assume that most children were born to mothers aged around 20). Evolution has rendered the male jaw less resolute, but you probably needed more of a jaw to hunt the woolly mammoth than you need in today’s gentle work place. But the leather miniskirt is still popular.

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Then, as now, humans probably sat at the mouths of caves (once they’f finished hunting or gathering) to talk about how so-and-so said such-and-such a thing about so-and-so to so-and-so. Gossip has always been the mainstay of human life and no doubt it provided the impetus that got homo sapiens through the ensuing 25,000 years.

I and my friend Caroline are bicycling in the Dordogne for a week. It is quite hard work, rather up and down, and the temperature is high. But it is glorious countryside. We don’t bother with cave paintings and the other dank delights of pre-history. We got that sorted at least twenty years ago. But yesterday we were pleased to pass through the village of Sireuil where a replica of the great Venus of Sireuil  stands by the road as you approach. The original was found in 1900 when a local famer stumbled over the remains of a pre-historic art gallery. Even then, the countryside was attuned to the possibilities of tourism.

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