Friday, November 30, 2007

A neat, old, science fiction story, and science fiction in the service of ideology

I was listening to the old science fiction series "X-1" on XM radio last night, when they played an episode from 1956(?) entitled, "The Tunnel Under the World." It's taken from a short story by the (still-living) Frederik Pohl about a man who keeps repeating the same day, June 15th, but with slight variations. I won't spoil the entire plot, in case you get the chance to hear or read it, but you can read a summary of the short story in the first link above, which is only slightly different from the radio version. The story is a fascinating one and creepy when you discover the twists and revelations.

Anyway, I was impressed and looked up Pohl when I got home. It turns out that he was high-school friends with Isaac Asimov and that both were early members of a group of science fiction fans called the Futurians. Checking up on what the Futurians were, I found that they were a splinter group from another New York City sci-fi fan club, and they advocated sci-fi fans to push for ideology. Inevitably, this meant communism:

At the time the Futurians were formed, Donald Wollheim was strongly attracted by communism and believed that followers of science fiction "should actively work for the realization of the scientific world-state as the only genuine justification for their activities and existence".[2] It was to this end that Wollheim formed the Futurians, and many of its members were in some degree interested in the political applications of science fiction.

Yeesh! Nothing like the phrase "scientific world-state" to give you the creeps. Especially in the '30s.

Pohl himself was an outright member of the Communist Party, until he was expelled in '39. It was either because, as some say, the Party thought science fiction was escapist and didn't contribute to the building of the dictatorship of the proletariat or whatever, or, as Pohl says, that he rejected the Party line over the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Either way, he apparently remained a true leftist, and his writings display a satire of capitalism and advertising. Actually, I've got to say that the bit that comes through in "Tunnel" is well done and could have been written by a conservative, as well.

There's a whole weird history to this science fiction fan activity, something that I've never gotten into. I enjoy my sci fi movies, but I've rarely read any such books. Funny for an astrophysicist, right? So outside remarks by friends, I'm unaware of what all has gone on in this world. At one level, it seems so trivial (they're fan groups--not necessarily even writers, though many became such), but these guys clearly saw themselves as doing important work, and the Futurians were even claiming it was all in the service of the future "scientific world-state"!

Well, I'd intended to write more about the connections between "scientific socialism" and science fiction, but I'll just have to save it for later. I ought to close this off with the connections "Tunnel" has with other works: Simulacron-3 (1964; made into the movie "The Thirteenth Floor" in 1999) has a similar premise (I'm guessing the writer was familiar with the earlier work), and it in turn influenced "The Matrix" (1999). Interestingly, Stanislaw Lem wrote a short story in 1960 that dealt with some aspects of the same premise. Lem also wrote Solaris, which was made into the George Clooney movie a little while back. I just read the book, which is thought-provoking.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More new exoplanets

A nice article in the NYT about the discovery of a fifth planet around the star 55 Cancri (a faint star in the constellation Cancer). This is, I believe, the most extensive solar system yet found, outside of our own. It's exciting to see this many planets around a star, but beyond that, this helps us understand more about planetary system formation.

Until 1994, the only example we had of a planetary system was our own solar system. So when you read in textbooks how planets formed around stars, there was a lot of theory but only a single example. Now, knowing the laws of physics, we weren't just feeling around blindly. But it's always better to have multiple data points to test your predictions.

Now, we've found over 250 extrasolar planets (or "exoplanets"), we have a better idea of how they tend to look. But we still need to find more examples of multiple planets around a single star--a solar system. When we see the range of properties of solar systems, we'll be able to test the theories of planetary formation in greater detail. For instance, the presence of a single massive planet, like Jupiter, can affect or even inhibit the formation of other planets nearby. Witness the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Jupiter's tidal forces have prevented a major planet from collapsing from the debris there. In the 55 Cancri system, there's a similar wide gap near its largest planet (at least as far as we can tell today). In how many other systems will the same feature appear?

And there's always the chance that the now-crank Bode's Law has some natural basis. It's a particular power-law distribution of the planets, and while we don't expect that it has any force in and of itself, there are theories that would account for power-law distributions in general (cited at the bottom of that Wikipedia article). The discovery of new solar systems gives us more data to test these theories, too.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The travails of Antioch College

I'd read earlier in the year about Antioch College planning to close. This article says they may remain open a while longer, but things still aren't looking good. I'd never heard of Antioch until I was in college, myself, and Antioch became the subject of ridicule for their sexual harassment policy, which required explicit "verbal consent" at each stage of...let's say, "interaction." ("May I proceed to nibble on your ear, now?")

It wasn't a disapproval of premarital sex, of course. That was all well and good; you just had to stop and do the paperwork (so to speak) at each step along the way. To avoid a rape charge the next day, I reckon.

I've always thought keeping your pants on before you were married was a better solution to the problem, really, but that would be to impose a moral system on the whole enterprise, heaven forbid.

Anyway, though surprising that any college had put such a silly rule in place, it's not surprising it was Antioch that did it. Liberal bastion they:
The alma mater of Coretta Scott King, "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling and two Nobel Prize winners, Antioch College doesn't grade classes, encourages students to develop their own study plans and combines academic learning with experience through a co-op program in which students leave campus to work in various fields.

The reasons for their current problem confuse me a little. I simply don't expect 150-year-old colleges with their reputation(?) to leak students so badly. But I've read it could be from the administration's losing focus on the college and branching out too far with...well, "branch" campuses and other programs.

Link for Pakistan post

I forgot to link below. Here's the BBC story on Bhutto calling for protests against Musharraf's emergency rule. I reckon the big news is her split from Musharraf, after their earlier negotiations for her return.

The trouble in Pakistan

Grrr. Musharraf is breaking promises again, or it sure seems like it. Is it a coincidence that his declaration of martial law occurs just as Bhutto has returned for a revived political career?

I don't know...maybe it is simply a result of the Islamist attacks recently; it's so hard to tell from the news reporting whether there's been a sharp increase in their number since Bhutto's return or not. Obviously there was the large attack on Bhutto's arrival itself, but I haven't been aware of what else is going on in the country, differently from before.

I would have to think that Musharraf knows his arrangements with Bhutto (to run together, as it seems, for elected office) put him in a very public commitment to going ahead with democracy. Is he really going to turn opinion that strongly against himself for this?

Of course, he'd promised to hold elections a few years ago, too, and look where they are now. I really hope he upholds the deal that Bhutto's return implied. Pakistan's going to need democracy, and it's going to need to marginalize the radical Islamist elements within the society. Maybe the Musharraf/Bhutto arrangement could do that.

Clinton on Clinton

So Hillary's campaign is having to back away from some of Bill's comments on her rivals. Interesting. I remember that Hillary was occasionally an albatross around Bill's neck during his campaigns, and they'd have to hide her for a few months until the election was over. I'm a little surprised that Bill is now the one making comments they've got to repudiate.

Well, maybe that's too strong a word. Folks on the conservative side had wondered how helpful Bill would be to her campaign, but for different reasons. Which would have the stronger effect on people--his charisma and personal popularity, or memories of his behavior and the scandals?

Now Bill's compared Hillary's rivals' criticisms of her "candor" (they noted that she's been contradicting herself, so which of her statements are we to believe?) to the Swift Boat Veterans' ads against John F. Kerry. I'd like to say that that's an outrageous comparison...because it insults the Swift Boat Vets, but really, both were honest criticisms.

The AP article I've linked to (via Drudge) says that the swift boat ads "questioned John Kerry's patriotism," but I don't remember that at all. They certainly reminded people of his wild and apparently baseless accusations of war crimes against his compatriots and of the way in which he puffed up his war record, maybe dishonestly (the ads flat out said much of it was a lie).

Now, that's still a tough criticism, and Hillary's opponents haven't been that hard on her. If her campaign, Bill included, is going to make out that she's beyond any criticism, that criticism is beyond the pale, they're going to have a tough time selling that to the public.

Still, back when she ran for the Senate, she was at her most popular when she played up her victim status, wasn't she?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lawsuit against Regnery

Hmmm...there's some unhappiness with Regnery Publishing's sales methods. They're accused by some of their authors of steering sales to outlets they're tied in with, thus cutting down on authors' royalties. A few, including Joel Mowbray, Bill Gertz, and Richard Miniter are even filing a lawsuit against the parent company.

Shame to see, regardless of what the truth is. I've got a couple of their books, and I like that they've been willing to publish conservative authors. They've been really helpful to conservative politics, and I'll be happy to see any rift here fixed.