Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Climate Change: 'Outside Context Problem'

Protests in Paris are now officially banned, so the world's corporate leaders are now free to meet the world's political leaders without any pesky protesters getting in the way.

There may well be the odd scientist wandering around looking lost, and a few representatives from the world's better behaved NGOs, but mostly this will be an occasion for those who run the world to meet those who own the world.

It will no doubt be a jolly occasion.  After all pretty much everyone present will agree on three things at least: that taxes on wealth should be low, that markets should be lightly regulated, and that economic growth must continue forever.

It will also, for the most part, be completely pointless. As George Monbiot put it earlier this year the entire twenty five year process that has brought us to COP21 has mostly involved "hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives".

The reason is not that global warming is an insoluble problem, but for those meeting in Paris Climate Change will be an outside context problem. Let em explain.

Outside Context Problem

The term Outside Context Problem was coined by the late, great Scottish science fiction writer Iain M Banks for his 1996 novel  Excession. This is how he defined one:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
For the high priests of Neoliberalism, whose response to problems is to cut taxes, sign free trade deals and, when the worst comes to the worst, invent some new money in the form of Quantative Easing,  Climate Change is a problem about as welcome as Cortez was for the Aztecs.

When faced with an Outside Context Problems cultures usually try two strategies in relatively quick succession; first pretend it doesn't exist and secondly try to placate the gods with a bit of magic.

We've been engaged in the first activity for a while now. Many of the key players have retired from the game, but a few with nothing better to do with their lives still soldier on. No doubt some will show up in Paris, but I suspect it will be their last, forlorn stand, because now we are well into the second phase.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, having spent a quarter of a century explaining very patiently to its backers that the scientists were in fact right about Global Warming in 1988, produced in December last year its Synthesis Report, which attempted to square the science with the economics.

The report contains 400 scenarios that show how to give a 50/50 chance of limiting Climate Change to 2 degrees by 2100 whilst still being "economically feasible". That means, no excessive taxation, no excessive regulation and economic growth continuing forever. This where the magic comes in.

In 344 of those scenarios emissions will drop at some point to less than zero. In 56 scenarios, emissions will peak in 2010. I shouldn't need to point out that at the present time it is impossible to emit less than zero CO2, and that by the time the report was published 2010 was nearly five years in the past, and emissions most definitely did not peak then.

So, without non-existent technologies or time travel, how many scenarios did the IPCC come up with that were "economically feasible"? Precisely none.

The ideas that increasingly individual wealth is not a reliable measure of personal wellbeing, that we'd all be better off corporations worked for our benefit and not the other way round or that the way the global economy has been run for the last thirty years is the only way it could ever be run, are apparently as alien to the people who run the world as the steam engine and the Maxim gun were the occupants of Mr Bank's metaphorical island.

All of which suggests we need to make an urgent choice as to whether we follow the rules of physics, or of economics. We need to get Climate Change in context because otherwise, as Iain M Banks said, an Outside Context Problems is one "most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encounters a full stop."


Duality in Climate Science by Professor Kevin Anderson 
IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report
Excession by Iain M Banks

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Bang Goes The Climate

What causes big holes in Siberia and could be a huge problem for the climate?

Alas, this is not a joke, but a scary new dimension to Climate Change.

The Hole Story

Earlier this year what appeared to be sink hole opened up in Yamal, in the Siberian tundra.  Shortly afterwards two more appeared. Sink holes are a well known phenomena when the rock beneath our feet gets dissolved and suddenly a giant hole appears which can swallow cars, houses or in Manchester's case a road.

The holes in Siberia were bigger than most sinkholes - the first one found was 260 feet across - but there were other differences too. When scientists had a good look they found, not material slipping into the earth, but coming out of it.

Something from deep within had been released, violently.

Waking the Giant

The immediate finger of suspicion pointed at the gas methane, trapped below the frozen tundra in the
form of methane hydrates. As Climate Change warmed the Arctic, the permafrost melted and the gas was released.

This was a problem. Methane doesn't remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but whilst it is there it is a far more potent Greenhouse gas. 32 molecules of carbon dioxide are generally considered to have the same effect as one of CH4, so more of the stuff in the air is a very bad idea.

The question was, how much more was down there? Until this year everything I read said that most methane more than 200m below the surface and it would take a thousand year of warming to release it.

But that was before the Siberian holes appeared.

The Climate Bomb

But there had been Siren voices warning us to beware of the methane.

Paleo-climatologists, who study the deep history of the earth's climate, had looked to methane hydrates as the cause of two of the world's great extinction events: the Permian-Triassic 252 million years ago and the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago. They speculated that a release of methane could cause runaway global warming in the timescale of a human lifetime.

The Permian-Triassic event cleared the world of giant insects and paved the way for the dinosaurs, whilst the PETM event led to the spread of mammals around the world and the rise of the Primates. Could a similar event mark the end of the planet's dominant Primate?

Into The Abyss

A couple of weeks ago a team of Russian scientists finally ventured into the first crater. With winter
approaching the ice walls had refrozen, making it safe to explore. Still, I expect nobody smoked.

They are not going to release their results until the work is completed, but at the bottom they found a frozen lake of gas and water, more than ten metres deep, just as they expected.

But the real question remains to be answered: how many more?

Worry, but...

So reason to be worried, but possibly not a reason to focus too much on Siberia. Methane Hydrates remain one of the 'known unknowns' of Climate Change, but there is enough we do know to press for action now, rather than waiting for more data.

As the Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University, and fellow Leicester University Physics Graduate, Dr Grant Allen told me earlier in the year:

My current personal take on the science here is that the phrase “ticking Arctic time bomb” is over-used and alarmist. There is a lot of science still to be done ... Empirical fluxes of CH4 from hydrate are simply not known with any useful uncertainty. But of much greater significance (in my opinion) are the changing source strengths in Arctic (and tropical) wetland methane emissions as a result of warming, as well as growing anthropogenic emissions.
In other words before worrying about the boost to Climate Change nature might provide, lets deal with our own Greenhouse gas emissions, which are running at rate that will fry the planet without any help from natural feedbacks.

However if you want a reason or three why we should not be smug about climate change, why we should act as quickly as we can and why we should not be confident that two degrees of warming is either a safe or stable level, then you just have to look at the big holes in the formerly frozen north.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Top Five Songs About Vikings

The BBC adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom is currently causing me a bit of a crisis of loyalty: should I cheer for the pagans or the English?

Well both, obviously.

Meanwhile, how about a list of Viking themed music. 

(Click on the title to listen to the song).

5. Horrible Histories Literally

Who better to start us off than the best thing to ever come from CBBC: Horrible Histories?

There is of course some real history here, but far more fun is counting the rock and pop references in the Queen-meets-Lordi video.

4. Hel Eldsjäl

Of course you couldn't do a list like this without including some real Vikings. Viking Rock is a major genre in Scandinavia. Some of it is so heavy you need special ears to listen to it, and some has so many folk elements you think you're listening to a Spinal Tap parody.

That still leaves plenty of decent stuff though. However as I'm a sucker for female-fronted-rock I'm going for Eldsjäl, which means 'fiery soul', by Swedish rockers Hel.

3. Iron Maiden Invaders 

Power Metal may be alive and well and living in Scandinavia, but it has it's roots in this country.

When punk started to falter in the late seventies, a deluge of bands collectively known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal arrived. Working Class and utterly introverted, Iron Maiden were one of the few bands who escaped this sub-culture and made it megabig.

They were fond of songs about history, and this one is from 1982's breakthrough The Number of the Beast album.

2. The Darkness Barbarian

If there is any band today that channels that spirit of eighties rock excess it is Norfolk's The Darkness.

Hailing from a part of England well and truly trashed by the Vikings, lead singer Justin Hawkins has now stopped getting trashed himself and the band have survived the curse of the Christmas single to become the sort of really together rock outfit they should have been ten years ago. 

1. Led Zeppelin Immigrant Song

But before all of the above got into the act Robert Plant was singing about Vikings on 1970's Led Zeppelin III.

The title is ironic, given the racial problems of 70s Britain, and even more ironically the word 'immigrant' is itself an immigrant, having popped across The Channel from France to steal the job of an Old English word. The real Anglo-Saxons would have referred to the Norsemen - when they were being polite - as ingangers

Anyway, Last Kingdom is on again on Thursday, so we can find out how Alfred deals with the ingangers, but it has a rubbish soundtrack compared to these songs. BBC please take note.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Peak District National Park at risk from fracking.

Eighty-three years ago my grandfather took part in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass which led to the creation of the National Park. If anyone tried to frack under the Peak District there could be a second mass trespass to save it.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Greek Disaster

Painting by Alexandros Alexandrakis
75 years ago Britain ceased to stand alone against fascism.

True, 'alone' had a rather broad meaning as we had Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the rest of the British Empire on our side, but from the fall of France on 17th June 1940 until 27th October 1940 we were the only nation in Europe not conquered, collaborating or neutral.

Then, unexpectedly, we had an ally.

How Not To Run A War

Fascism was supposed to restore the vitality of a decadent Europe. Dithering democracies would be
replaced by decisive leadership. Reason, and the other trappings of the Enlightenment, were to be ditched in favour of Will.

The results were some of the worst decisions ever made by the leaders of nations at war. Hitler's decisions to declare war on first the Soviet Union and then the United States were, with hindsight, ghastly mistakes. His decision to pursue the Final Solution was not just objectively immoral, it was also subjectively stupid at a time his nation was fighting for its own survival and Jews were willing to serve. Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbour led inevitably to the nations defeat and ruin. On the other side Stalin's decision to appease Hitler rather than prepare for war almost ended his rule.

Meanwhile Churchill's decision not not to surrender in May 1940 and Roosevelt's choice to aid Britain were clearly the right things to do. Democracy, the evidence suggests, is a better way to make decisions.

However of all the bonkers choices made by dictators in the Second World War, Mussolini's decision to attack Greece is possibly the daftest. But this mistake was not just the error of a vainglorious fool. It was the result of a rotten political system.

The Other Dictator

El Duce had once been the leading fascist in Europe. By 1940, with Hitler having conquered half the continent in a series of successful gambles, El Duce was looking very much like the junior partner. He had joined in the invasion of France, but the French threw in the towel after a week in which the Italians had done little more than drop a couple of bombs on Corsica. This wouldn't do for the man who wanted to found a second Roman Empire. Mussolini wanted his piece of the action. What's more he believed he had the men to do it.

The reality was that the Italian army was a joke that everyone got except him. One observer in Milan on the eve of war noted:
Everyone thinks only of eating, enjoying themselves, making money, and relaying witticisms about the great and powerful. Anyone who gets killed is a jerk ... he who supplies the troops with cardboard shoes is considered ... a sort of hero.
But if the Italian Army was seriously lacking in trouser, it more than made up for it in mouth. Mussolini's generals could certainly talk a good fight, and the great dictator was more than ready to listen.

The Braggart ... 

The obvious target for Italy was Egypt.  If they could capture the Suez Canal Britain would be cut off
from most of its empire and the fascists would have free reign in Europe.

What's more, with Britain fearing invasion across The Channel, the Middle East was seriously short of troops and equipment.

Italy had 300,000 men next door in Libya and 200,000 down the road in Ethiopia. Britain had 35,000 in Egypt, half of whom were pen pushing admin staff. However things didn't go well. First of all General Balbo, the Commander-in-Chief, died after being shot down by his own anti-aircraft guns, then when Italian tanks met British armoured cars on the border the crews, in the words of the report afterwards, 'dispersed'.

Balbo's replacement, Graziana was at least smart enough to realise his army was pants. However, rather than deliver this unwelcome news to his boss, he took the opposite course of bigging up the British forces he was opposing until he claimed he was facing more soldiers and armoured cars in Egypt than existed in the whole empire.

When the advance actually began General Maleti, who liked to be known as 'the old wolf of the desert', got lost before he'd even crossed the Egyptian border. The only part of the Italian operation that actually worked was the catering. If an army really did march on its stomach the Italians would have reached Cairo in a week. In the event they crawled across the desert at a snail's pace.

The advance ground to a halt, and just to add injury to insult a surprise attack by Royal Navy carrier aircraft sank half the Italian fleet in harbour. Mussolini though was not bothered. He declined Hitler's offer of specialist troops to help and had every confidence Graziani would finish off the decadent Brits.

... And The Fool

However Graziana wasn't the only one around shooting his mouth off. Up in Italian occupied Albania there was Lieutenant-General Visconti Prasca. Highly ambitious he also appeared to have a fairly vague grasp of reality. It was to be a fatal combination.

Like most Italians at the time, he had a fairly low opinion of the Greeks. Prasca talked of 'liquidating' and 'shattering' the nation with his 'iron will'. A war would be little more than a 'rounding up' operation. The Italian High Command estimated it would require 20 divisions to capture Athens. However as a junior general Prasca was only allowed to command five, so he refused to allow his command to be reinforced.

Presca's fellow officers knew he was talking out of his fundament, but he had the ear of El Duce and in fascist Italy that was everything.

Fateful Choice

With his Egyptian expedition stuck in the sand Mussolini was looking for someone else to fight.

Yugoslavia would have been his first choice, but the target varied so often his generals fully expected to have to draw up plans to move on Iraq.

Then on 10th October he found out Hitler's had made a deal with the Romanian fascists that saw German troops deployed to Bucharest.

Worried Hitler would gobble up the Balkans the same way he'd snatched France from him, Mussolini made the fateful choice two days later to invade Greece. He wasn't going to wait either, and so he gave his staff two weeks to make the plans.

The tactical and logistical difficulties of invading a mountainous country with few modern roads in autumn would have challenged a Rommel or a Guderian. It was completely beyond the Italian general staff. Never-the-less Presca informed El Duce that the operation had been prepared 'down to the most minute detail and as is as perfect as is humanely possible.'

That was enough for Mussolini.  He would have his triumph, and his revenge.
Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli. This time I am going to pay him back with his own coin. He will find out from the papers that I have occupied Greece. In this way the equilibrium will be re-established.
Ancient Greece gave the world democracy, but by 1940 modern Greece had a dictator - Metaxas - who was possibly the dullest man to ever hold that title. Ancient Greece also gave us irony, and on the morning of 28th October 1940 Metaxas, who was a great fan of both Germany and Italian fascism found himself being told by Mussolini's envoy to occupation or invasion. Popular legend has it he replied with the single Greek word "Οχι" ("Ochi" - "No"). In reality he answered in French for some unknown reason: "Alors, c'est la guerre" ("Then it is war").

The Disaster

And so at 6AM on 28th October 1940 Prasca's men crossed the Greek border. Demoralised, badly equipped and disorganised they waded through the mud of a Balkan autumn and crashed into a Greek army bravely defending its homeland.

A week later the attack had fallen apart. Another week and the Italians were being pushed back into Albania. When the front eventually stabilised Prasca's men were thirty miles behind where they had started from. The news electrified Europe. For the first time since Hitler had occupied the Rhineland, the fascists had been defeated.

To rescue Prasca the Italians sent as many men as they could from Africa to Albania. They felt that they had little to fear from General O'Connor's puny force. General Berti even went back home to get his piles looked at. He never saw his troops again.

On 8th December O'Connor attacked and in the next 8 weeks his 25,000 men captured 150,000 Italian soldiers, 400 tanks and 1200 guns. Many of those taken prisoner were found to have packed their suitcases in anticipation. As Sir Anthony Eden said

"Never had so much been surrendered by so many to so few".

Big Ripples

Ultimately the Greek adventure turned out pretty badly for everyone. Hitler had to divert troops from the invasion of Russia to rescue his ally. The British Army entered Greece to fight them, but was defeated and had to be rescued by the Royal Navy.

Prasca was relieved of command after two weeks. In 1943 he joined the Italian resistance. He was captured by his old allies the Germans and sentenced to death. This was commuted to life in prison. He escaped and completing a bizarre journey from fascist to communist as he ended up joining the Red Army and taking part in the Battle of Berlin.

Mussolini found himself in a war that he could neither win nor control. Italian soldiers followed the Germans into Russian and died horribly in the snow. Italy was invaded and occupied.

Greece, meanwhile, endured occupation, starvation and repression. Relatively Greece suffered worse than any other European nation except Poland. In 1945 World War was followed, not by liberation, but by Civil War. Italy fared little better. The weak underbelly of fascist Europe she was invaded, changed sides and fought over by almost every nation involved in the war. Mussolini was imprisoned, rescued, captured again and ended hanging by his heels in front of a jeering mob.

But Mussolini's decision to invade Greece was one of the decisive factors that led to the defeat of the

fascists. It wasn't just that those early Greek victories inspired the resistance to fascism. Had Mussolini seen sense and concentrated on Egypt Italian troops might have taken Cairo, and with no distraction on their southern flank German forces then might have reached Moscow. The war may well  have taken a very different turn.

But Italian fascism, rather than restoring the greatness of Rome, had created a system where sycophancy had replaced merit, fantasy had replaced reality, and where decisions of national importance made on the basis of one man's vanity.

We should be profoundly grateful for the courage, skill and sacrifice of the Greeks who fought fascism, but perhaps we should be more grateful to Greece for giving us the weapon that really defeats totalitarianism: democracy.

A trusty tool, it still serves us well today.

Fateful Choices by Ian Kershaw
Military Blunders by Georffrey Regan
Inside Hitler's Greece by Mark Mazower

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Quantum of Sustainability

The man stroking the white Persian cat touched a button on the arm of his over-sized swivel chair and said coldly "Send in the new Number Two."

The door open and a woman appeared. Her sober business suit failed to hide a sleek and elegant figure. Raven-black hair that cascaded over her shoulders, but there was a fierce intelligence behind the black rimmed glasses.

Number One remembered the hideous features of the previous, and now sadly deceased, Number Two and wondered if there were any women in his organisation that just looked 'normal'? Were they all either angels or gargoyles?

The new Number Two took a seat in front of him, a thick ring binder file resting on her long legs.

"Welcome to SPEKTRA, Number Two," he said in an accent that started somewhere east of the old Iron Curtain.

"Please call me Mary," she replied politely. "I find the personal touch leads to more effective meetings. May I call you Ernie?"

"No you may not," he replied sternly. "You will call me Number One." He stroked the cat. " are probably wondering why the Special Executive for Kidnapping, Terrorism, Revenge and Assassination has chosen to employ a Director of Corporate Social Responsibility."

"I assume you think there is some room for improvement?" Mary replied.

Number One nodded. "It has come to my attention that recent failures have been the result of poor management, so I have decided to learn from the best modern business people. However I am still sceptical that an organisation such as our really needs to 'integrate social and environmental concerns into our business operations'".

"Well Number One, I disagree," said Mary. "I have looked at your business plan and frankly, this organisation is going nowhere.  I mean, what is the core business of SPEKTRA?"

"Assassination, kidnapping, torture..."

"Well exactly. This is a very crowded market. What's more, the state sector is heavily involved. They are not required to make a profit and enjoy considerable freedom from the legal restrictions on a corporation like SPEKTRA. It is very difficult for a private company to compete."

She paused and saw Number One looking rattled. His finger began to reach for one of the buttons on his chair. Quickly she continued. "However I believe that CSR can save this company. By promoting ourselves as sustainable we can develop a unique brand image that will allow us to compete in a challenging market."

Number One looked at her. "You believe SPEKTRA can become 'sustainable'?"

 "Oh yes," said Mary.

"Well, I have my doubts." The cat purred. "However you come highly recommended by your previous employer. I hope he is out of prison soon."

"If he'd listened to me he wouldn't be in jail," said Mary.

"That's what he said. However I must warn you, you may find SPEKTRA is very different from the motor industry."

"I have experience of a wide variety of corporate structures," Mary replied.

"I'm not sure you realise what sort of an organisation SPEKTRA is. We blackmail governments to get our way".

"The oil industry is very similar," Mary said. "However I was still able to help them improve their Human Rights record."

Number One looked at her. He continued "The people who work for me, I do not care if they live or if they die."

"The garment industry was the same".

Number One dispatched the cat with a wave of his hand. "I believe you have a report?"

Mary tapped the large file on her knee. "I have taken the time to study SPEKTRA and evaluate its performance against a range of criteria."

"And what have you found?" asked Number One.

"First I looked at the environmental impact of our operations. The clandestine nature of SPEKTRA's operations have resulted in a surprising small ecological impact whilst your pioneering use of nuclear power has reduced our carbon footprint." She paused. "Although there have been problems. The explosions that destroyed our Caribbean and Japanese operations has caused widespread radioactive fallout, although as these are being blamed on the actions of the British Government we have so far escaped any legal responsibility for this."

She continued. "On Human Rights our record is far from perfect, however for a large company it is relatively good. When I looked at Human Resources though it was a mixed picture. On the one hand we have a highly motivated and diverse workforce and employ people with disabilities in senior management roles. I note though that no employee leaving the organisation has ever filled out an exit questionnaire."

"That's because they are all dead," replied Number One.

"Well I think that means we are losing a valuable opportunity to learn from the people who know us best, our own staff. May I suggest we stop executing ex-employees and start interviewing them?"

"I will ... consider it. Do you have anything else?"

"Oh yes. It appears a large number of our staff die in work, mainly due to elementary failings in health and safety. Given the high cost of recruiting new staff, especially with the highly specialised skills we require, we really need to do better."

Number One nodded. "Is that all?"

"Oh no, not by a long way." She uncrossed her legs. "But let's move on to what we're going to do about making SPEKTRA sustainable."

"What do you suggest? Lead-free bullets? Biodegradable poisons?"

"Supply Chain Management." Number One raised an eyebrow. Mary continued. "At present SPEKTRA employs renegade assassins from government intelligence agencies and international terrorist groups on a 'no questions asked' basis." Number One nodded. Mary shook her head. "I'm sorry, but this won't do. This lax approach is do doubt responsible for the very high failure rate of our contractors, which results in serious damage to the SPEKTRA brand image. It is vitally important that all the agencies we deal with share our values and ideals."

Number One looked at her. "Anything else?"

"Corporate governance," said Mary. Number One raised his other eyebrow. "It's obvious that most of our recent failures are poor management in our local offices and project teams. It is essential that all regional franchises operate to same high standards."

"Is that all?" asked Number One.

"No, I have a dozen other recommendations."

"And I need to hear them?"

"Oh yes," Mary replied. "Believe me, this report could save SPEKTRA."

"Well I regret that it must wait for another day. You must excuse me Num...Mary, I need to make my latest demands to the United Nations. Igor will show you to your office."


An hour later Mary was sat at her new desk thinking about her report. She was sure there was something she'd forgotten.

A small window over the desk looked out onto the interior of the volcano that was the SPEKTRA base. She noted with interest the monorail efficiently carrying the armed guards to their stations, and the zero emissions electric vehicles ferrying the nuclear warheads about.

Was the job really worth it? Was there an easier way to earn a living, to change the world? Would an NGO suit her better, possibly an environmental one? No, CSR was what she'd chosen. Here she was at the heart of the machine with a chance to make it better. Even if she could only shift SPEKTRA the tiniest atomic distance towards sustainability, it would make a huge difference to thousands of people. She would carry on.

Besides, she was looking forward to meeting the assassins. She's always liked dangerous men, far better than those macho do-gooders from the Green groups who were only interested in...

Suddenly the window to her office exploded in a shower of glass. A figure swung in through the gap. Unfastening his climbing harness he turned and faced Mary. He was dressed for a rather more formal occasion than her.

"Good afternoon," he said, in an accent that came from several parts of the British Isles simultaneously. "I'm here to save the world." He looked Mary up and down. "But I think I have a few minutes to spare." He started to remove his bow tie.

Oh no, thought Mary. Not another one.

The man leaned in close.

She hit him over the head with her report.

Mary looked done at the body sprawled on the floor. Suddenly it came to her. She flicked open her laptop and started typing: New policy on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Five Times Science Thought It Had Found ET

The possibility that astronomers have discovered evidence of huge alien structures orbiting a nearby star has set social media alight this week.

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is potentially one of the most important scientific endeavours ever undertaken. As the late Arthur C Clarke put it "Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."

I don't suppose 24 hours goes by without someone, somewhere claiming to have had a close encounter with ET, and no year goes by without a film about aliens. However claims by scientists to have found intelligent alien life are much, much rarer.

Here is a run down of the top five occasions scientists have claimed they might have found ET.

5. "I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another"

Speculation about life on other planets has a long history, but until the dawn twentieth century it was just speculation. The astronomer Percival Lowell thought he could see canals on Mars, but although this caught the public's imagination he was always a bit of a lone voice. Other astronomers looked and saw nothing.

A rather more serious claim to have heard ET calling though was made by the scientist Nikola Tesla. Tesla, who was played by David Bowie in the film The Prestige, is one of the most important characters in the story of electricity. However he also had enough wacky ideas, and made enough grandiose statements, that he has a place at the heart of many Conspiracy Theories. His claim in 1899 to have picked up signals from space, which he attributed to intelligent life on Mars, generally feature in quite a few.

Tesla was certainly ahead of his time in realising that radio could be used to send signals between planets. What he picked up though is somewhat more uncertain. Possibly it was nothing, just interference caused by his own equipment. Possibly it was the radio signals given off by astronomical objects themselves, something that wouldn't be seriously studied until after the Second World War.

Or maybe ET really did drop by to give the great man a personal message.

4. "A civilization in possession of energy on the scale of its own galaxy"

Once astronomers did start seriously studying the radio signals from space they son found that the universe was far stranger than they had realised. Radio stars and radio galaxies became the new subject of study.

In 1963 though astronomers at the California Institute of Technology discovered something that took their breath away. CTA-102 was both more distant and more active than anything ever found before.

At about this time the Soviet Union was just starting its own SETI program, and the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Semenovich Kardashev became particularly in CTA-102. He postulated that this was an extremely advanced alien civilisation. Kardeshev even came up with a handy scale to rate how advanced alien civilisations were. We are Level I, these signals, he thought, came from a Level II or III.

But it wasn't so. Quasars turned out to be formed by violent events at the heart of ancient galaxies. They were monsters from the dawn of the known universe, but they were natural.

With more exciting quasars being discovered all the time, CTA-102 soon became yesterday's quasar and old news. However is not entirely forgotten, as The Byrds paid a folk-rock tribute to it with a song on their 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday, complete with unintelligible alien dialogue.

3."Little green men"

Quasars, like most radio objects, just pumped out white noise. But in November 1967 astronomers found something a bit different

Jocelyn Bell was working at the Cavendish laboratory on a project to map Quasars. However Bell soon noticed what she called "scruff" on the radio telescope's recordings.

Eventually she worked out where exactly this "scruff" was coming from and when she was able to record it properly, the "scruff" turned out to be discrete pulses of signal exactly 1.3 second apart and as regular as a metronome.

The duration of the pulse was so short that it must have come from something small, no bigger than a planet. The team nicknamed the new phenomena LGM - 1 for 'little green men'. Bell wasn't impressed:
"Here was I trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us"
Bell was wondering how to break this news to the astronomical community without being laughed at when she found another, similar radio source in the sky. Then another. Then another. It now seemed clear these pulsars were natural, and shortly afterwards a convincing explanation was found. They were neutron stars, the super-dense collapsed cores of old stars that had died in massive explosions exploded called supernova.

The mystery had been explained and Bell was the most famous female astronomer in the world. She had designed and built the telescope, analysed the data and discovered something completely new.

However the Nobel Prize committee decided to give its award to her, initially sceptical, supervisor and not to her. It was an injustice, and a poorreward for what has been called "the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century".

2. "Wow!"

At the Ohio State University they used to have, until it was demolished to make way for a golf course, a radio telescope called appropriately, although not poetically, Big Ear. From 1963 onwards Big Ear started listening for signs of alien life.

At 3:30PM on 16 August 1977 Elvis Presley was pronounced dead at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis. A few days later volunteer astronomer Jerry Ehman was checking the logs of the Big Ear when he noticed something unusual record at 22:16 EST on the night before Elvis passed on.

The signal was narrow and focussed and in the 1420MHz bracket which SETI researchers had identified as being the most likely frequency to be used for interstellar communication, as it has the least amount  of cosmic background noice. It is also not used by terrestrial radios for this reason. The signal had lasted for 72 seconds. An excited Ehman scribbled "Wow!" on the printout.

Big Ear could not be pointed like a normal telescope and just used the rotation of the earth to track across the sky. A single point in space is audible to its detectors for 72 seconds. At the time of the Wow! Signal it was pointing to the constellation of Sagittarius.

The signal contained no data and nobody has ever heard anything else from Sagittarius again. It has been analysed and analysed, and no explanations, either terrestrial or extra-terrestrial have been forthcoming.

It remains a tantalising mystery.

1. "WTF?"

And so we move on to the latest claim to have possibly found evidence of intelligent life in space.

One of the most amazing advances in astronomy since I graduated with my rather pathetic B.Sc. (no hons) in 1991, is the ability to discover planets outside of our solar system.

This is done either by watching for very tiny wobbles in a star's orbit, or by spotting the tiny dip in a star's brightness as a planet passes in front.

The Kepler space telescope has been using the second technique since 2009 and has discovered dozens of exo-planets. Then, on 14 September this year, the team announced they had found something extremely odd.

When a planet passes between it's sun and us the light of the star it orbits drops by less than 1%. When Kepler looked into the constellation of Cygnus, at star KIC 8462852, it found something was passing between us and it every 750 days that blotted out up to 22% of the starlight and took up to 80 days to go past.

Whatever the thing was, it was huge. If this was a newly formed star the explanation would be a cloud of dust, but KIC 8462852 - now known as 'Tabby's Star' after astronomer Tabetha S Boyajian - was a venerable old star. There are possible natural explanations; a massive cosmic pileup of asteroids or comets or something, but no natural structure this size could survive for long in star's gravity field. Either we are lucky enough to see this event just after it has happened or ... the structure is not natural.

Dr Boyajain's paper, entitled Where's The Flux? (abbreviated to WTF) makes no such claim.

The most likely explanation, she says, is a very large clump of comets, although she admitted to journalists she was also exploring "other scenarios".

What that might mean was spelt out by Jason Wright, a SETI searcher from Penn State University who told The Atlantic magazine that the finding were consistent with "a swarm of mega-structures" built by an advanced civilisation. The sort of thing he had in mind was a Dyson sphere like the one on Star Trek, or possibly something like the titular object in Larry Niven's Ringworld.

It is far too early to tell if this will be another false alarm like pulsars and quasars. However unlike Tesla's messages or the Wow! Signal we do at least know where to look for more evidence, and no doubt soon other telescopes will be being pointed at Tabby's Star to find out more. This mystery will almost certainly have a resolution.

Either it's alien or it isn't and, as Arthur C Clarke might have said, either answer will be interesting.