the sunport vista:



The Samuel Pepys of the OSS...

2023 June 5th:


Having provided the answer to the latest Guess The World scene - see Wielding a machete on an insect on Venus - the reader who contributed the excerpt, Lone Wolf, has informed me regarding the story (Tenderfoot in Space by Robert A Heinlein, Boy' Life, May-July 1958): was published in three parts in this boy scout magazine (the excerpt is from part 3 from July 1958). It seems that it was written a year earlier and then republished only after the death of the author [Heinlein died in 1988]. I am not sure to which of his versions of Old Venus it is related (he seems to have created several), it could be that from Space Cadet, but in an earlier age, since some amphibian creatures called "kteela" are mentioned here, although in this story it is not sure whether they are intelligent and there is no contact with them yet. 

It's interesting what says Heinlein himself in a short introduction, added to the manuscript he sent to the library (according to the information here ):

" This was written a year before Sputnik and is laid on the Venus earthbound astronomers inferred before space probes. Two hours of rewriting—a word here, a word there—could change it to a planet around some other star. But to. what purpose? Would The Tempest be improved if Bohemia had a sea coast? If I ever publish that collection of Boy Scout stories, this story will appear unchanged."

Comment by Zendexor: This sensible attitude is worth a round of applause!

2023 May 29th:   


A pleasant, sunny Bank Holiday Monday - what used to be the Whitsun Bank Holiday and coincidentally this year is actually the day following Pentecost - today was full of warm sunshine where I live (Heysham, Lancashire, England, Earth) and I sat out some of the time re-reading some of David Fromkin's In the Time of the Americans, a sort of multiple-biography centred around those decision-makers who moulded America's foreign policy and directed America's rise to world power in the years 1900-1960.  It's a great read.

It got me thinking, wouldn't it be great if a book of the same structure could be written about the great American SF writers of the Golden Age, say 1920s to 1960s.  It really cries out to be written: a big fat book interweaving the biographies insofar as they can be interwoven (and much could be done in that line; a lot of the writers knew each other) and taking all available opportunities to link the various life-stories to the history of the time.

It could be a wonderful book.  The explosive efflorescence of the sf imagination in those years bears comparison, in my view, with the sudden leap in human thought in the sixth century BC (the Ionian philosophers and the Buddha, and possibly Zoroaster)...  but as a culture we're too close to the phenomenon to appreciate it in perspective.  Indeed a book which tried to deal with the whole thing might try to generalize so much as to seem dull; but one which concentrated on the USA and on the anecdotal / biographical approach could be a riveting read.

2023 May 15th: 


I'd like to share with readers a recent email I received from Guess The World's contributor, Lone Wolf.

It concerns the way some pre-Space-Age writers have scored hits or near-hits in their descriptions of other worlds.  Lone Wolf writes:

I remember reading somewhere in the OSS Diary on the site about C.S. Lewis describing a blue sunrise on Mars (I hadn't noticed this when I read the book in the early 90s, when there still weren't pictures from the space probes available to view) [note: this was in Eastern Europe]. Recently I was rereading O.A. Kline's Martian novels and found something similar, although quite short and without any details. In "The Swordsman of Mars" there is such a passage:

"Presently the sun, heralded only by a brief dawn-light in this tenuous atmosphere, popped above the horizon, its blue-white shafts instantly dissipating the cold, and swiftly melting the shell of ice which covered the canal. " 

It's probably just a fluke, but still curious. 

Then, while reading A.K. Barnes' story "Trouble on Titan" (from "The Interplanetary Huntress" series), I stumbled upon another curious piece:

"Saturn loomed gigantic in the sky. Its eternal rainbow rings looked so near, it seemed almost as if one could reach out and break off a piece."

No more details again, but I don't remember any other author mentioning the "rainbow rings" of Saturn before the pictures taken by Voyager 2. 

Perhaps there can be made a whole collection of such right or almost right guesses from the old SF, together with that of Lewis and also Carl Selwyn's description of the moons of Pluto, which I sent you some time ago. ["The three moons of Pluto hung low in the east and the enormous Great Moon, the nearby satellite of the planet, arose beside their departing light, a darker green." From Exiles of the Three Red Moons (see What to see on Pluto).]

It remains for me to confess that I am ignorant of the two Martian novels of Otis Adelbert Kline, though I hope to repair this lack some day.  I have read some of his Maza of the Moon, but so far have not been motivated to finish it - though perhaps this was due to being in the wrong sort of mood...

desertion jovian globe

2023 May 2nd:   


...Yes, they could find things.  Civilizations, perhaps.  Civilizations that would make the civilization of Man seem puny by comparison.  Beauty and, more important, an understanding of that beauty.  And a comradeship no one had ever known before...

On re-reading the above passage in Desertion - Clifford Simak's immortal ten-page classic - I got to focusing more sharply than before on the possibilities of a civilization created in the vastness of Jupiter by the long-lived and multi-sensory Lopers.

Such a civilization wouldn't be characterized by physical cities; on the tale's version of Jupiter, the construction materials and techniques for building would not be available.  Nor would they be needed.  Lopers are so strong, they can live in the open, the giant planet's howling maelstroms being mere gentle breezes to them. 

Nevertheless these creatures' bodies and minds are so equipped, that they could create realms and empires of awareness.  Here's how I imagine it might work: if for example a Loper notices some new relation or aspect of his environment, he can share that connection with his fellows, who in turn might build on it with further bolt-on bits of awareness, till a new "city" of appreciation arises, as firm and solid in the mind as London weighs on the banks of the Thames.

Then again - who knows - maybe I'm wrong to dismiss the chance of material buildings: in addition to the edifices of mind, mind-over-matter might also enable the construction of new types of physical cities too, types which can withstand the worst that the Jovian weather can hurl.

No doubt about it, Desertion is an open-ended tale par excellence.

2023 May 1st:   


More thoughts from my re-reading of The Master Mind of Mars:

I took the trouble to note an unexceptional paragraph which seems to embody the unobtrusive enchantment of the author's style.  It's not quite a "conversational" style - though, more often than not, it goes with first-person narration.  Rather than "conversational", I would pick a term like "loose, flexible and relaxed", with the proviso that it's not at all rambling or diffuse; and it can vary its direction like a yachtsman is able to tack to and fro while keeping his aim in view.

Here is the paragraph - it's from page 38 of my edition of the book, and is from the chapter entitled "The Compact":

But I was presently to learn that he had an excellent reason for what he was doing - Ras Thavas always had an excellent reason for whatever he did.  One night after we had finished our evening meal he sat looking at me intently as he so often did, as though he would read my mind, which, by the way, he was totally unable to do, much to his surprise and chagrin; for unless a Martian is constantly upon the alert any other Martian can read clearly his every thought; but Ras Thavas was unable to read mine.  He said that it was due to the fact that I was not a Barsoomian.  Yet I could often read the minds of his assistants, when they were off their guard, though never had I read aught of Ras Thavas' thoughts, nor, I am sure, had any other read them.  He kept his brain sealed like one of his own blood jars, nor was he ever for a moment found with his barriers down.

Now to mark each of the four supple inflection points [SIPs] - the tacking-style changes of direction - in this piece of prose:

But I was presently to learn that he had an excellent reason for what he was doing - Ras Thavas always had an excellent reason for whatever he did.  One night after we had finished our evening meal he sat looking at me intently as he so often did, as though he would read my mind, [SIP] which, by the way, he was totally unable to do, much to his surprise and chagrin; for unless a Martian is constantly upon the alert any other Martian can read clearly his every thought; [SIP] but Ras Thavas was unable to read mine.  He said that it was due to the fact that I was not a Barsoomian.  [SIP] Yet I could often read the minds of his assistants, when they were off their guard, [SIP] though never had I read aught of Ras Thavas' thoughts, nor, I am sure, had any other read them.  He kept his brain sealed like one of his own blood jars, nor was he ever for a moment found with his barriers down.

The "But" at the start of the paragraph could also count as a SIP, relative to the narrator's preceding thoughts, so, really, the total is five SIPs, five loose-jointed inflections, accumulating the narrative's easy lope.

I wish my own prose was as hammock-swayingly relaxed as this.  I'm unfortunately too law-abiding, for example, to start a paragraph with "But".

Master Mind of Mars lab

2023 April 30th:   


In general my trouble with re-reading the Barsoom books is that I know them so well, I can hardly read them anew...  but a few days ago I did, after all, find within me a yen to re-read The Master Mind of Mars.  It appears I chose the right moment.  The ever-rolling stream of Time had finally reached the stage where I was ready to be refreshed by volume 6 of the Barsoomian saga.  Indeed some details I had forgotten...  a sign it was about time for a re-charge.

However, something else also happened.  It occurred to me for the first time, the risk Xaxa was taking in getting Ras Thavas to give her old brain a new body.  For a despotic ruler to undergo a radical change of outward appearance, in a culture which is based on the personal recognition of that ruler, is more or less to invite rebellion. 

I mean to say, just consider the issues if England's Henry the Eighth had had the services of Ras Thavas.  Henry in his mid-fifties, going to pieces physically, might well have yearned for a younger body - but would he have dared to go for the option?  I very much doubt it.  Perhaps if the operation had been carried out in a blaze of publicity, with observers ready to attest that the King's brain was the one placed in the young body, he might have tried it.  On the other hand plenty of people might have had motives to cast doubt on the proceedings.  Look what happened at the birth of the son of James the Second.  People didn't want to believe the baby was his, or that there was a baby at all; so they invented the "warming pan plot".

Now then - am I criticising Burroughs and accusing him of implausibility?  Perish the thought.  I am not accusing but praising him for his implausibility; admiring him for the way he bamboozled me for so long.  One test of a great writer is how far he can suspend not only our disbelief but our critical faculties.  

Besides, you could say it just goes to show how old Xaxa's nasty personality shone through.  Even when she was no longer ugly to look at, her courtiers had no doubt it was she.

So, come to think of it, ERB can be awarded his certificate of (psychological) plausibility after all.

2023 April 28th:   


Recently re-reading an old favourite, Clark Ashton Smith's The Door to Saturn (due to be discussed in Sunday's up-coming podcast), I came across the jarring use of "hardly" in the final paragraph:

At length they were recalled by a special dispensation from the hierophant who had been chosen as Morghi's temporary successor. But the result of the whole affair was hardly regrettable from the standpoint of the hierarchy of Yhoundeh. It was universally believed that Eibon had not only escaped by virtue of the powerful magic he had learned from Zhothaqquah but had made away with Morghi into the bargain. As a consequence of this belief, the faith of Yhoundeh declined, and there was a widespread revival of the dark worship of Zhothaqquah throughout Mhu Thulan in the last century before the onset of the great Ice Age.

You can tell, I'm sure, that "hardly" can't be the right word to make sense in this context.  We want something which means more or less the opposite.

I was reading the tale in my much-loved old Panther Books edition of volume 2 of Lost Worlds.  Probably it's not the first time I noticed the mis-matched word.  This time, however, I checked it against the online text in the Smith website (a great, convenient-to-use site) and, despite my habitual pessimism, the text of the tale contained what must be the right word - 

...the result of the whole affair was highly regrettable from the standpoint of the hierarchy of Yhoundeh...

Sigh of satisfaction.

2023 April 17th:   


I can't resist telling people of a recent instance of the above principle: I was busy on my trawl through past episodes of Uranian Throne for my ongoing compilation of an index of proper names, when I came across a word that I'd typed as "heroid" instead of "heroic".

By golly I like that one, thought I - always on the look-out for free accidental help in the world-building business.  Must think: what could "heroid" mean?  A heroid is someone who is ambiguously heroic, uncertainly or marginally heroic; relating to the main word as "humanoid" relates to "human" maybe.  Anyhow, it stands as it is and goes into the Reference Page.

How fortunate that the "c" and the "d" are close to each other on the keyboard.

2023 April 10th:


It would have been good if I had spotted the following passage yesterday: it would have made the perfect life-affirming Easter entry for the Diary.  Still, better a bit late than never; Easter Monday will have to do.

...I lay, still awake, still watchful, looking up at the star-filled sky, and considered a form of life that had never been on Earth.  On Earth no life could exist that was born of dryness, that dissolved and became something else at a touch of moisture.  Even on Mars only a narrow region, a valley sheltered by hills from cloud and moisture, could have been its birthplace, and that near the equator of the planet.  Thinking of it, and seeing the inevitability that life would be born in, and adapted to, all conditions, I wondered what form what we knew as life would take on gaseous bodies like the sun, on worlds of snow and ice and frozen gases like the planet Neptune.  For what I had seen seemed to imply, to me, that life was not a unique thing, existing only in a form adapted to the special conditions of our planet, Earth, but a fundamental regenerative quality of all matter...

What a marvellous phrase: a fundamental regenerative quality of all matter.  I've read Rex Gordon's No Man Friday more times than I can count, but this shows that even now I can still find things in it that I hadn't noticed or appreciated before.

It makes one think whether, even now, we might find truly alien life in the Solar System.  It's a half-justification for seeing the OSS as real.  Only half, because we know we won't find terrain in which Earthmen can wander about without wearing pressure suits... though perhaps (depending on the temperature gradient) there's the possibility of ballooning in one's shirtsleeves in the clouds of the gas giants!

2023 April 7th:   


Arthur C Clarke's Profiles of the Future is a delightful work of non-fiction that ought to charm any reader.  I possess the original which came out in 1962 and the 1982 revised version.  Despite some differences between them, I find the similarities more interesting.

One which I noted just when browsing today, is a surprising bit of carelessness in the 1982 edition.  In speaking of the difficulties of planetary colonisation on page 118, Clarke says that Mercury

...has such a slow rotation period that the sun takes 88 of our days to cross the sky.  As the solar radiation is also ten times more intense than on Earth, the temperature at the centre of the illuminated hemisphere must rise to 700 or 800 degrees Fahrenheit.  And on the dark side, where the only heat received is the feeble glow of starlight, it is as least four hundred degrees below zero.

This doesn't sound like an account written by someone who has been apprised of the lamentable discovery, made in the 1960s, that Mercury in fact does not have sun-synchronous rotation.  I might playfully apostrophize: "Who'd have thought my retro-sf yarn Valeddom would be backed up by Clarke, of all people!"

He took more care when revising his earlier thoughts on the possibility of finding ancient Martian life.  In the first edition, back in 1962, he had approached the topic this way (p.91):

The existence of extra-terrestrial life is, of course, the greatest of the many unknowns awaiting us on the planets.  We are now fairly certain that there is some form of vegetation on Mars; the seasonal colour changes, coupled with recent spectroscopic evidence, give this a high degree of probability.  As Mars is an old and perhaps dying world, the struggle for existence may have led to some weird results.  We had better be careful when we land.

Where there is vegetation, there may be higher forms of life; given sufficient time, Nature explores all possibilities.  Mars has had plenty of time, so those parasites on the vegetable kingdom known as animals may have evolved there.  They will be very peculiar animals, for they will have no lungs.  There is not much purpose in breathing when the atmosphere is practically devoid of oxygen.    [Shades of Rex Gordon's Martians!]

Beyond this, biological speculation is not only pointless but distinctly unwise, since we will know the truth within another ten or twenty years - and perhaps much sooner.  The time is fast approaching when we will discover, once and for all, whether the Martians exist.

The twenty years went by, and in 1983 he introduced the topic as follows:

The existence of extra-terrestrial life is, of course, the greatest of the many unknowns awaiting us on the planets. Venus, with its searing temperatures and poisonous, high-pressure atmosphere, is a total write-off; but the case of Mars is still an open question.

Now that we have mapped the whole surface of the planet from space, we know that there are no large-scale artefacts - cities, road systems, canals...  The two Viking landers, which surveyed a few acres on a world whose area equals that of all Earth's continents, found no trace of life, or even of organic compounds.  Today, Mars seems to be dead; but there is evidence that at one time it had running water and a much denser atmosphere.  Why should Nature, which never misses an opportunity, have overlooked this one?

Scattered over the face of a world with a topography at least as varied as our planet's may be many oases harbouring life, like the thriving colonies recently discovered around the hot springs on the bed of the Pacific.  Mas has continually surprised us in the past; long-held preconceptions have been overturned again and yet again.  Until we have explored it thoroughly, we cannot dismiss the possibility of Martian life forms - even, improbable though it now seems, of "Martians".

It is much more likely, however, that if Mars ever produced intelligent life, we have missed it by geological ages...

I titled this diary entry "Dating the Demise", but it seems from the above extract that the idea of Martians may not be dead even now.  For what we know about Mars in 2023 isn't decisively different, as far as that question is concerned, from what we knew in 1983.

To finish, I'll cite another quotation from both editions of Profiles of the Future: a universe of a hundred thousand million suns, almost any possibility is a certainty - somewhere, some time...

Could it be that somewhere, some time, some beings invent how to bring wishful thinking to life?  

2023 April 4th:   


Both the above works are among my super-favourites, of which I have long lost count of the re-readings. 

Last night I regretfully came to the end of yet another re-reading of The Sands of Mars, and wondered if I might manage to say something about Clarke's novel that hasn't yet been discussed on the site.  Today it came to me that there is room for a surprising comparison.

Ostensibly it would seem far-fetched to link the writing of the profoundly religious C S Lewis with that of Arthur C Clarke, whose intellectual grasp of theology never advanced beyond caricature.  Yet in one respect the two masterpieces mentioned above are akin.

I myself would gladly live either in Clarke's Martian colony or in the unfallen Venusian realm which Lewis describes, and my reasons for taking those options would be that my life would be sustained by an endless glow of wonder and sense of purpose.

Purpose - that is what critics of Lewis' vision fail to take into account: those who call it a "candifloss paradise" (I believe someone called Mike Ashley used that term) are ignoring the care that the author took to emphasize that there is a lot more to Perelandra than the realm of Tor and Tinidril: an additional largeness exemplified by the protagonist's glimpses of the world of the deeps and the underland.  Besides, a fairly non-entrepreneurial type like me would be happy on the idyllic floating islands, since I see no inherent value in bustle and hustle while a numinous value shines its infinite and gratuitous light through everyday things.  But in any case, as is explained towards the novel's ending, Venus is going to be prepared, over the ensuing ten thousand years (Venusian years, presumably) for an eschatological outcome, a battle against the evil of the Silent Planet.

Therefore, against the superficially ambition-less life on Perelandra must be weighed a huge cosmic destiny.  And something immensely positive can likewise be weighed against the restrictions of life on Clarke's Mars.  Thus, if I were going to live there I would say to myself, the landscape might (though beautiful in its way) be more monotonous than Earth's, and life has to be lived with fewer embellishments, but in return for that I'd be accorded the fantastic privilege of participating in the renewal of a world, as the years go by and I can watch and experience the gradual warming of the planet in accordance with Project Dawn.

Purpose and meaning - they show, when they are so brilliantly portrayed, that Clarke's irreligion did not reach downward into his heart.  At the deepest level his work accesses that same spiritual spring from which Lewis' fully conscious vision flows.

2023 February 23rd:   


I am currently re-reading Barrington Bayley's The Rod of Light, his sequel to Soul of a Robot.  Both volumes of the duology are equally stunning.  In the sequel, Jasperodus, the construct into whom consciousness has been ducted, strives to prevent robotkind from learning the secret of stealing the souls of men.  As in the first volume, the action takes place on Earth several thousand years in our future. 

The OSS-style relevance to Earth-considered-as-a-planet comes from an event some eight hundred years before Jasperodus' career:

...The hill, a huge lump of iron, nickel and other metals in lesser amounts, including rare earths, was the source of all the building material in the robot city, and had also supplied the bodies of many of its inhabitants.  It was, in fact, an impacted asteroid shard, one of hundreds scattered about the world.  Jasperodus had pieced together the story of their arrival on Earth, and they were testimony to the most risk-ridden period in all history.

The bombardment dated from the last days of the Rule of Tergov.  Earth's minerals were long since exhausted: for centuries she had imported all her raw materials from elsewhere in the solar system.  Evidently there had been someone in those last desperate days - someone who still commanded resources and had the power to act - who knew that organised society was irretrievably lost and that the Dark Period, as it became known, lay ahead.  That same someone had also realized that, without metals, Earth could never again give rise to a technological culture.

The solution was a ruthless programme to reprovision the planet before it was too late.  A number of ferrous asteroids had been deflected from their transmartian orbits and placed in near-Earth orbit, where they were broken into smaller pieces and directed into the atmosphere...

Jasperodus has no proof of who had decided upon this drastic scheme, which must have involved appalling loss of life.  But, he concludes:

...No human would have had the nerve for it - it was too horrendous.  A human would have hesitated, delayed, hoped for another solution... until finally there was no longer the possibility for taking action.

It must have been robots.  Robots, servants of Tergov with an undending sense of duty...

And so some extra mountains of stuff were added to Earth's mass. 

Now for a statement in Sky and Telescope magazine's July 2006 issue:

All things considered, says meteor specialist Peter Brown (University of Western Ontario), roughly 40,000 metric tons of interplanetary matter strike Earth's atmosphere every year.

Most of this consists of tiny particles of meteoric dust, but even so, it adds to Earth's mass, since presumably it gradually falls to the surface.  This is fact, not fiction: our planet is increasing, is gradually being augmented.  Of course the increase is tiny compared to the total existing mass of our world, but even so, it's real, it's something.  In say a hundred million years, it would (if the increase was kept up) amount to 4,000,000,000,000 tons of extra material. 

This, in round figures, is roughly a million millionth of the mass of the Earth.  Distributed evenly over Earth's surface, how much would such an amount of rock and metal increase the surface area of our world?  Two hundred million square miles divided by a million million means... duh... (readers please check my arithmetic) an extra one-five-thousandth of a square mile, or about 5500 square feet.  Oh well.  Enough for a good-sized detached house and garden, I'd say.

But of course if the robots of Tergov take a hand, it might be more.

2023 February 16th:   


Re-reading Barrington Bayley's masterpiece Soul of a Robot - the action of which takes places almost entirely on Earth, with a short scene in low Earth orbit - I noticed this time an aspect which I'd previously overlooked. 

It's in the press report of the Emperor Charrane's rash attempt to extend his rule to Mars.  I have put the key words in bold:

"...It is now little over a year since explorers first discovered that human communities still exist on Mars despite having been cut off for eight centuries from the mother planet, basing their way of life on the deep fissures and rills in the Martian surface where they have learned how to maintain a breathable atmosphere..."

I'm slightly surprised I hadn't swooped on this reference in previous readings, as it gets me going on one of my hobby-horses, namely the idea of separate pockets of atmosphere, as contrasted with a continuous envelope of breathable air.

So far as I know, there is not a single novel in OSS literature which is centred on the possibilities of this theme, though it would richly allow the blend of two types of thrill: that of a voyage between worlds, and that of a trek across a planet - since if a surface trek involves crossing a vacuum from one air-pool to another, the fascinations overlap. 

I can think of a couple of stories which touch on the theme: Weinbaum's Redemption Cairn, involving a trek across Europa, and Brackett's Shannach - The Last, which (if memory serves me correctly) contains the suggestion that habitable valleys in Mercury's Twilight Belt are cut off from one another by airless ridges.  I dare say there are others.

Preponderantly, however, the idea remains virgin territory - so my advice to literary geniuses is, go to it!

2023 January 29th:   


For my birthday my brother game me Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee, and since then I've been reading it with enthralled fascination.

Perhaps it has played its part in nudging me to instantiate or reify [good words, these; just can't resist them] my tendency to regard Pluto as a proper planet despite the 2006 IAU decision which demoted it to "dwarf planet".

First, to explain where Chaucer fits in:

For my A-level English course in the sixth form at Hemel Hempstead school, one of my set texts was Chaucer's long poem in seven-line stanzas, Troilus and Criseyde.  Appreciation of this medieval work naturally involved learning something about what and how people of that period thought about the world.  One aspect I found memorable was their view of the mechanics of eyesight: that's to say, of what actually happens when we see something.

It's the opposite of our modern scientific view.  Chaucer's characters believe sight occurs by means of a beam of radiance shooting out from the eye and impacting the object of vision, not the other way round.

The implications are thought-provoking, to say the least.  It would mean that the more people look at a thing, the more that object gets splattered with the force of the various glances or stares. That ought to have some actual physical effect, if we apply Einstein's e = m c-squared and rearrange the equation to show that m [the gain in matter from reception of the radiation] = e [the energy of the process] divided by c-squared.  The effect is small of course.  But over time it should amount to something significant, I should have thought, in some cases; and here I tend to get diverted into one of my favourite unanswered questions, that of Earth-accretion.  I ponder how the Earth must must have gained a measurable amount of mass from all its bombardment by solar radiation over the ages... though maybe in the Earth's case this gain is smaller than the net loss caused by atmospheric leakage due to being knocked about by that same solar radiation... but hold on, I'm digressing.

Back to the Chaucer-Pluto line of argument, I shall develop the theme from that of sight as agency, to that of thought as agency:

The people who considered Pluto to be a planet, during the years 1930-2006 when officially it was so regarded, were affecting it physically, splattering it with their belief.  Every thought-missile hurled at it helped to accumulate its load of planethood.

Such an idea seems fanciful, yet reading Bryan Magee's book makes me more inclined to take it seriously (though that's not to say Magee would).  The distinction between observer and observed is, as we're frequently told, blurred in physics; but also I increasingly doubt the sharpness of the distinction between one object and another.  Without degenerating into some kind of monist mush, I nevertheless think that a kind of slurry, in which objects never achieve total separation one from another, is rather like how it is...  and so it's not so hard to view the planet Pluto and the folk on Earth who think about it as in a sense part of one ramshackle linked system.

The term "planet" is a cultural one anyway.  A planet is whatever people decide is a planet.  One can make up rules, but they are akin to descriptions of how we tend to feel, rather than scientifically meaningful constraints.  I suggest that apart from the giant Galilean satellites and Titan, a planet is an object with an average diameter of at least 1,000 miles [note this useful swipe at the metric system] which orbits a star, or (in the case of rogue planets) doesn't...

2023 January 14th:   


A remark in an email some weeks ago which I received from my correspondent and contributor "Lone Wolf", has prompted me to tell any readers who may not already know, that the nineteenth century saw some fascinating thought given to the possibility of getting in touch with the Moon and Mars by means of visual signalling.

By searching for "Gauss' Pythagorean triangle proposal" you can find a long Wikipedia article which examines the possibility that the great mathematician proposed drawing a great right-angled triangle in Siberia which would be visible from another world.  The idea, in that pre-radio age, would be that the aliens might then respond by drawing a figure of their own, which we would recognize.

What haunts and fascinates me most about these old episodes in intellectual history, is the idea of how in those distant days circumstances allowed us to contemplate a solar system that was so enormously greater in human terms, compared with the probed and traversible one which we have now.

Also, it seems that Gauss in the 1820s was interested in using the visual technique to signal our neighbours in the Moon!  Imagine looking up at the Moon and seeing not a dead world but one which, according to prevalent ideas, was fairly likely to harbour intelligent life.

In a letter of 25th March 1822 to Heinrich Olbers, Gauss (according to the Wikipedia article) said: 

"With 100 separate mirrors, each of 16 square feet, used conjointly, one would be able to send good heliotrope-light to the moon ... This would be a discovery even greater than that of America, if we could get in touch with our neighbors on the moon."