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.

theplough

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?

 

‘Ram Packed’

Language is a slithery thing, as everyone knows. Try to hold it down and it will wriggle from your grasp. It’s said that the French try the hardest to catch and throttle it, and the Icelanders have had a go at it too, but prescribing how language should be used, and banning the use of new and imported words is a hopeless task. Language changes all the time. The best you can do is describe, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, not prescribe. Even proud nations such as Hungary, with a language that slithered into Europe a thousand years ago from somewhere terrible beyond the Urals, and which belongs to a group to which few other languages belong, is a hotchpotch of words borrowed locally from the Turks, the Slavs and the Germanic peoples.

You notice changes to your own language most if you’re an expat, as I am. Or, I suppose, if you’re the child of a minority language group exiled to another country. It’s like seeing friends again after many years have passed. They suddenly look older, though the people you see every day never age.

And I remember working with Americans of Hungarian descent in Budapest during the early 1990s. Some were second generation Americans, the children of those who fled in 1956,some third generation Americans, the grandchildren of mostly Jewish emigrants from Hungary in the 1930s, or of survivors of the Holocaust who found a new home in the USA after the Second World War. They were eager to practice the language they’d learned from their parents or grandparents and which some of them had used at home. But what they found was that this was a charming, utterly out-of-date variant of the language spoken in the streets of Budapest today or twenty years ago.

I write this because I was perplexed by an expression Jeremy Corbyn used to describe the crowded train he boarded a couple of weeks ago. There’s a controversial video of him sitting comfortably on the floor of a railway carriage, having walked past a number of empty seats (some of them unreserved), complaining about the overcrowding of Britain’s railway services. ‘The train is ram-packed,’ he said, or something like it.

ram-packed

I’m unfamiliar with the expression. I know ‘crammed’. I know ‘packed’. I know ‘cram full’, perhaps even ‘cram packed’, but I don’t know ‘ram-packed’. It brought to mind those white-gloved train packers who cram or ‘ram’ passengers into the carriages of Tokyo’s metro, but I don’t think Virgin East Coast has yet resorted to that kind of violence.

I put it down to a local dialect that Jeremy might have acquired as a child, though he grew up in the Midlands and went to the same primary school that I went to, but perhaps his ears were better attuned to the streets than mine, as they are now to the shrill street-activists who support him.

But then I read the same word today. Not exactly the same, but a similar usage unfamiliar to me. In an article on low footfall over the Bank Holiday weekend at Britain’s shopping malls – http://www.bbc.com/news/business-37212179 – a man called Mr Nathan is quoted as saying, “It certainly looked very busy yesterday – the restaurants were rammed.” (I must have been desperate to be reading an article about retail statistics, but the headline caught my eye as perhaps a sign of post-Brexit-decision economic decline.)

Dictionaries appear to be more up to date than I am…

rammed

So ‘rammed’ and ‘ram-packed’ must be words that have slithered into use whilst I’ve been away and inattentive. Or rather, they’re new usages, since I know what ramming means. It worries me. I still intend to return to live in Britain someday soon, but will I understand my fellow citizens, and will they understand me? I have no wish to sound quaintly anachronistic.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right about the trains. They are ram-packed and someone ought to do something about it.. I only just found a seat on the train from King’s Cross to Peterborough last Tuesday. It was dog eat dog.