Sailing Into the Mystic

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How tempting is our Amazon Product du Jour? A mere $4.99 for the Kindle version! Description:

The Neanderthals had brow ridges to keep the sun out of their eyes, but why don't we? When a leading scientist walked into a wall and broke his nose, he decided to find out. In this fascinating and wide-ranging book, Dr. Ellis Silver examines the evidence that's all around us ... and discovers that we evolved on a world distinctly different from the one we live on today.

Just about everything on the Amazon page is wonderful. The author's bio contains:

He is fascinated by our human origins, has amassed a wealth of evidence which proves we couldn't possibly have evolved on Earth, and has had the privilege of meeting one extraterrestrial and one alien-human hybrid - neither of which he had expected to meet, and he curses his luck that he didn't have a camera with him.

People meeting ETs never have their cameras with them, do they? (Let alone alien-human hybrids. Hey, like Spock!) (Hm, could Silver have simply wandered into a cosplay session at a Star Trek convention?)

But I discovered that product while searching out appropriate eye candy for today's actual topic springboard, which is a Quillette essay from theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, entitled Astrobiology: The Rise and Fall of a Nascent Science.

Astrobiology, we hardly knew ye.

Need a definition? According to this NASA page: "Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe." And their intro is kind of a downer:

Ask most anyone whether life exists on other planets and moons, and the answer you’ll get is a confident “yes!” Going back decades (and in many ways generations), we’ve been introduced to a menagerie of extraterrestrials good and bad. Their presence suffuses our entertainment and culture, and we humans seem to have an almost innate belief-or is it a hope-that we are not alone in the universe.

But that extraterrestrial presence on regular display is, of course, a fiction. No life beyond Earth has ever been found; there is no evidence that alien life has ever visited our planet. It’s all a story.

"Innate belief". "Hope". "All a story". Are you beginning to see a problem?

NASA confirms an observation I've made before: there are a lot of people who want to believe. Not just in life "out there" but intelligent life. They have a deep emotional longing for supporting evidence, which is so far totally absent. (Unless, of course, you are Ellis Silver PhD.) Sober analysis is described as "heartbreaking" and "crushing".

Science can stil happen in the field (see that NASA page), but as Krauss says:

So why on Earth, or, rather, why in the Milky Way would I cast any aspersions on this emerging field of science? The problem is that it is an emerging field, and that implies three important things: (1) the development and use of rigorous scientific standards characteristic of more mature fields has not yet been universally established; (2) unfounded claims are too often made, and they gain support in the popular press; and (3) small groups of ideologically driven researchers can have, and have had, an inordinately large impact, hindering progress and potentially pushing the field backwards.

Krauss, being an actual scientist, has evidence of all three. But let's look at that third issue:

The first inkling of the emerging emphasis of ideology over science in astrobiology came from the support by so many members of that community for the protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. In 2000, the National Academies of Science had identified the project as a top priority for the US astronomy community, and they  recommended that it be built within the decade. Almost immediately, after the dormant volcano Mauna Kea had been selected as the proposed site, local protests began. In spite of the fact that Mauna Kea is the most sacred mountain in Hawaiian religion and culture and was known to Native Hawaiians as the home of Wakea, the sky god, numerous large telescopes had already previously been built on the mountain. Conflict between the priorities of the scientific community and Indigenous religious myths, which had erupted from time to time in the past in Hawaii, escalated after the construction of TMT was set to begin.

While the conflict between science and religious myth is ubiquitous, as witnessed most recently by efforts in New Zealand to teach “Indigenous Knowledge” on the same level as science in high schools, one might have expected the scientific community to support the TMT project more or less unanimously. However, a new generation of young astronomy activists has begun online efforts using the hashtag #ScientistsforMaunaKea, and they consider protecting the sacred nature of the mountain to be more important than the possible scientific benefits of this trailblazing project.

Among those scientists is Pun Salad favorite, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, on the physics faculty at the University Near Here. A sample of her output on the topic:

In The Disordered Cosmos, I write about how the fight for the Mauna was life altering for me and has shifted my view on what science was and what science needs to be. Often framed as anti-science spiritualists, the kiaʻi are not just fighting to protect the Mauna from further desecration but also to transition from a colonial scientific practice to an ethical science, as Keolu Fox and I argued in The Nation. I think the piece that first really opened my mind about this was Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada’s “We Live in the Future. Come Join us.” where he writes:

That short-sighted model of “progress”—that we seem to be standing in the way of—hinges upon all of us, all of Hawaiʻi’s people, all of the Pacific’s people, all of the world’s people losing connection to land, to sea, to other human beings. The less you feel these connections, the easier it is for you to be convinced that unrestricted development is the highest and best use of land.

Part of what Bryan is writing about is the idea colonialist, racist idea that kānaka are backwards people who, by refusing the telescope and its potential economic gains, are refusing progress and inclusion in modernity. But who is really backwards here? It is in thinking with the kiaʻi and kanaka intellectuals that I came to fully understand that global warming is a technological development. Is that progress? Is modern life successful in a globally warmed world? Maybe technology isn’t actually synonymous with progress. A more modern viewpoint of the land is the one articulated by kanaka ways of seeing the world, understanding our interdependence on the land, our family.

My guess is that actual science might be carried out in astrobiology. Just maybe not in this country, thanks to scientists like Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and Ellis Silver. There's way too much woo-woo afoot here.

Last Modified 2023-05-31 4:56 AM EDT