Rocket Science


November 25, 2011

Multiple Pages

A few years ago I received a telephone call from a college fundraising creep looking for a handout. I don’t have any money to spare, but I innocently inquired how they’d use my hypothetical contribution. The first thing that came to her mind was their new Hindu Department. Since I’m still annoyed I never learned the Latin and Anglo-Saxon my parents were taught in high school, that wasn’t much of a selling point for me. She pointed to a glorious new program where one could text-message questions to a physics lecturer, “like Twitter.” I couldn’t see the purpose in this unless the Physics Department was afflicted with quadriplegic mutes unable to raise their mitts in the air like we did in the old days. They’ve never called me back. 

Perhaps I am a greedy grouch who should fork over my hard-earned dough to perpetuate the rich marbling of useless administrators at my old university. Maybe I should fork over some payola for professors of make-believe subjects who are hostile to everything I hold dear. Possibly I really should pay for the mute flipper babies in my old Physics Department who can’t raise their hands to ask a stupid question. You’re never going to get me to willingly pay for flâneurs who pretend to be scientists. Those guys really harsh my hairdo.

“I’m not sure what ‘sustainability’ actually means, though in the common usage it seems to have something to do with eating gruel and driving a lousy car.”

A couple of perfumed princes of academia made the news a few months ago for publishing the idea that space aliens might cross the vastness of space to blow up the Earth because too many rednecks drive big trucks. The authors are from the Penn State Geography and Meteorology Departments and a NASA planetary-science division.

This paper’s authors seem to have gotten their ideas from one of the later, preachier Star Trek franchises. In fact, the authors of this paper explicitly and repeatedly reference Star Trek in their paper, along with other pop-culture sources such as District 9, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Independence Day, War of the Worlds, and the deservedly obscure movie K-Pax. The wacky idea that aliens might wipe us out because we don’t listen to the dire warnings in The New York Times’ editorial page is admittedly only one of this paper’s several peculiar speculations, but the entire thing is polluted with the same sort of mush-headed thinking one finds in popular science-fiction television. The paper’s authors seem to think a hypothetical spacefaring race of all-powerful aliens would also value “diversity” (yes, they use the word—four times) as highly as modern white American academics. They think it unlikely that spacefaring races of alien beings would not be terribly aggressive—except when it comes to people polluting the ecosphere. These learned men also suppose that aliens are concerned with SWPL virtue words such as “sustainability.” This vacuous word is used a whopping 30 times in a 33-page paper. I’m not sure what “sustainability” actually means, though in the common usage it seems to have something to do with eating gruel and driving a lousy car.

The paper never mentions how interstellar travel could actually work. Humans have a pretty good idea of how to cross interstellar space; it is something theoretically possible with current technology. It involves building really enormous objects; things the size of aircraft carriers or much larger. It also involves spraying radioactive waste all over the place. Launching such things into orbit, even with chemical rockets, pollutes the atmosphere. So does building things the size of aircraft carriers. It has been speculated that a really advanced spacefaring race would build giant space elevators or enclose the sun in a Dyson sphere rather than relying on rockets, but such ideas do not seem real Gaia-friendly to me. Yet the fellows who wrote this bit of speculation seem to think our hypothetical race of fastidious space aliens are willing to commit interstellar genocide because we have too many Buick farts in our atmosphere.

Putting aside the actual physics of space flight, we presently know things about spacefaring races such as the Russians and the Chinese. They don’t tend to be too concerned about sustainability or how much SUV stink is in the atmosphere. By contrast, America is now a land run by gruesome risk-averse “diversity” ninnies like these hypothetical environmentalist aliens. Since such spiritless geldings took over the management of the planet’s most technologically advanced nation, we’ve consistently failed at manned space exploration. Why would an alien race with such an inward-looking philosophy develop space flight? Why would they develop planet-destroying technology? How would they actually get here? Will these super-advanced beings cross the enormity of interstellar space using good intentions and non-polluting pixie dust?

It is possible I am experiencing a failure of imagination by constraining myself with the known laws of physics and observations about human culture. Maybe our hypothetical environmentalist godlike aliens will develop pixie-dust death-ray technology. It is a much smaller intellectual leap to suppose that aliens able to violate the known laws of physics might have rather different psychological makeups from SWPL academic ticks. Your average Xhosa tribesman (or even your average Mexican cabdriver) thinks differently from the soy-latte-and-Prius crowd, even though they share the same basic biological heritage. Wouldn’t chlorine-breathing octopus creatures able to violate the laws of physics be even more psychologically different? It seems to me they would be, well, even more alien than world-sick creeps who wish electric death on the environmentally unaware. My own pet theory is that when the space-jockeying cephalopods show up, they’ll inform us that Lemmy of Motörhead is our most spiritually advanced human being. Crossing the vastness of space to smoke methedrine and leer at sleazy women with Lemmy makes about as much sense to me as the idea that aliens with godlike powers are genocidally concerned that we are not recycling our coffee grounds properly.

I think that paper would be appropriate for an obscure blog post or an article in a science-fiction fanzine. But I don’t think anyone on the public dole should publish such silliness, nor should they expect us to pay for “peer-reviewed” nonsense. Keep this paper in mind the next time your old university rings you up for a handout or some creep tries to frighten you with horror stories about the defunding of scientific research. A great deal of “scientific research” consists of welfare for people who should be engaged in productive private-sector work repairing computers or picking potatoes.


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