Our es­ti­ma­tion of dis­as­ter has evolved ... ev­ery­one is more of a snowflake now

Belfast Telegraph - - REVLIIEFWE -

the su­per-com­puter of 2001, A Space Odyssey fame, comes to the con­clu­sion that it would be log­i­cal to get rid of hu­mans be­cause they’re bound to screw up the mis­sion. And he surely had a point.

Look­ing on the bright side, my favourite among utopian thinkers is the French vi­sion­ary Charles Fourier, who dreamed up the “Pha­lanstery” and, shortly af­ter the French Rev­o­lu­tion, fore­saw a world in which the oceans would be turned to lemon­ade. In the Age of Har­mony (some dis­tance in the fu­ture), there would be so much to eat and drink that we’d have to stage culi­nary Olympics. And — a first in hu­man his­tory — ev­ery­one would be sex­u­ally sat­is­fied too (with an AA call-out ser­vice for any­one a bit des­per­ate).

So is ev­ery­thing get­ting bet­ter or is it re­ally get­ting worse? The fact is we are now liv­ing in a quan­tum world where both of th­ese propo­si­tions are true. The clas­sic quan­tum thought ex­per­i­ment re­volves around a cat (Schrödinger’s) whose fate is de­ter­mined by the in­de­ter­mi­nate, in­dif­fer­ent be­hav­iour of a ran­dom par­ti­cle. Is the cat alive go­ing un­der. With cor­re­spond­ing ef­fects on mi­gra­tion. And a sense of re­sent­ment. This asym­me­try partly ac­counts for why the es­cha­to­log­i­cal vi­sion of “end times” is so ap­peal­ing, be­cause at least it lev­els the play­ing field and solves all ex­ist­ing prob­lems.

Mar­tin Rees points out that our so­cial and sub­jec­tive es­ti­ma­tion of dis­as­ter has evolved over the ages, so that ev­ery­one is more of a snowflake now. “Back in the Mid­dle Ages, the Black Death wiped out as much as half the pop­u­la­tion in Eu­rope. But peo­ple car­ried on be­cause there was not a lot they could do about it. Now, in the event of a pan­demic, if only 1% of the pop­u­la­tion were to die, the whole health ser­vice and the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem would col­lapse.”

On one hand, we are faced with truly global phe­nom­ena, go­ing far be­yond borders, on the other, in our fear and anx­i­ety, we are re­treat­ing be­hind our picket fences, as if that could save us from an im­pend­ing tsunami. A quan­tum world driven by a quan­tum men­tal­ity.

I as­sume the ex­is­tence of aliens. If you can have life flour­ish­ing in the vol­canic vents at the bot­tom of the deep­est ocean, there must be scope for life in the vicin­ity of the (ap­prox­i­mately) 10 stars in the known uni­verse.

The only ques­tion is are they like the Mekon, Daleks and Alien, or cuter, like ET? Or gi­ant jel­ly­fish? I’d re­ally be scared if they turned out to re­sem­ble the most vin­dic­tive and mur­der­ous species we’ve come across so far, ie hu­mans.

“The prospect of an end to the hu­man story would sad­den those of us now liv­ing.”

So says Mar­tin Rees in his book. But he is some­times al­most too ra­tio­nal. Per­haps even stranger than strangelets is that we are suc­cumb­ing to a pre­ma­turely ter­mi­nal way of think­ing. In our mythic, sym­bolic way of think­ing, we are re­ly­ing on a star in the Vega sys­tem, or a vis­it­ing as­teroid, or aliens land­ing on Earth, or the Sec­ond Com­ing, or fasterthan-light star­ships, or plain old death and tran­scen­dence, to come up with the fi­nal fix.

There is a bril­liant short story by Arthur C Clarke in which two com­puter en­gi­neers mock the be­lief of a group of Ti­betan monks who reckon that the point of ex­is­tence is to ut­ter “the nine bil­lion names of God”, af­ter which the uni­verse will sim­ply cease to ex­ist. But at the end of the story, as they are cross­ing a high Hi­malayan pass, they look up into the night sky (for the last time) and no­tice that “over­head, with­out any fuss, the stars were go­ing out”.

It’s beau­ti­ful and ele­giac, but we need to get out of the cos­mic grave­yard. We can’t help think­ing of how, one day, it will all be over. Maybe, like Mar­tin Rees, we need to think more in terms of stay­ing alive a lot longer.

The Earth has been around for a few bil­lion years and, strangelets and Ti­betan monks notwith­stand­ing, will al­most cer­tainly stick around for a few more. Ru­mours of its demise have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated. It’s not apoca­lypse now.

It’s more carry on, but don’t nec­es­sar­ily keep calm.

If you re­ally want a fu­ture.

Andy Mar­tin is the au­thor of Reacher Said Noth­ing: Lee Child and the Mak­ing of Make Me. He teaches at the Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge. On the Fu­ture: Prospects for Hu­man­ity, by Mar­tin Rees, is pub­lished by Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press

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