Ere Be Dragons


Natural Order of the Cosmos

Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air.  We shall lay our hands upon the Basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad's head.  Champing his gilded oats, the hippogriff will stand in our stalls, and over our heads will float the bluebird, singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be.

- Oscar Wilde

Et in Articulo Mortis

Humankind still has need of dragon slayers

by Han Yu

The Chinese had a tradition about eclipses.  Such things happened, they said, when a dragon tries to swallow the Sun: but the dragon would go away if people shouted at it.  The Chinese were, of course, correct.  There really are dragons that swallow suns, and they will go away - but you have to shout very loudly indeed.

The first signs of dragons came in 2618 of the Common Era (Nebular Year 4667532109 ± 1044 Calibrated), when several nearby stars ceased to exist.  The first were red dwarfs far beyond naked-eye visibility.

A greater disturbance came in 2633 with the extinction of Lac 9352, a ninth-magnitude class-M2 dwarf less than 12 light years from the Sun.  This star had three Earth-like planets that the Yerkes Automatic Heliospheric Optical Observatory (YAHOO) was mapping, when the star simply vanished.  Instrument malfunction was blamed at first, but analysis of YAHOO images taken just before the event showed several black shapes converging on the star.  And then, in 2634, Sirius vanished.

After that, things happened very quickly.  After centuries of quarrel, the various schisms of humanity agreed to move the entire population of the Solar System into spun-geode asteroid habitats.  In 2667, humanity started to quit the home of its birth.

Only after the complete depopulation of the System, and the observation (in the rear-view mirror, as it were) of packs of dragons approaching the Sun - were other seemingly unrelated facts considered.  The Exodus Fleet was a vestige of a species reduced by a disease which was only much later connected to the plague of dragons.

The first case of postembryonic oolithic petrosis (POP) was recorded in a military hospital on Phobos in 2596 during the Second Palladian War - humanity's final internecine conflict.  POP was, at first, thought to have been a contagion bred in the death camps of the late Director of Pallas, Napoleon Ireneo Funes III.

The first victim of the disease stiffened, as if frozen.  His skin became covered in scaly welts that grew until they became confluent, swaddling him in a jet-black shell of adamantine hardness.  At first the shell measured the contours of the body beneath, but then contracted to become a perfect, utterly inert, X-ray-opaque sphere 35 centimetres across.  The corpse (if that is what it was) was dissected - but the contents were found to be a gelatinous matrix secreted by roving amoebocytes.

Other cases of POP came to light around 2600, at first in ones and twos, and then in whole communities.  Despite intense work, no cause or trigger was identified.  After about 30 years, POP took off in a terrifying, surging pandemic.  By 2632, the populations of the Moon, Iapetus, Mercury, Callisto and Australia ceased to respond to communication.  A Mesoamerican expedition to Britain in 2635 reported the country deserted, the population reduced to quiescent, black spheres.

By 2667, the population of the Solar System had shrunk to the two billion of the Exodus Fleet - the remainder left behind, the unresponsive globes thought to represent the terminal phase of POP.  The last habitat in the Exodus Fleet crossed the heliopause in 2699.

Finally left to themselves, the spheres - the remnants of nine billion souls - changed.  The gelatinous contents reorganised and developed.  Genes in the innocuous-looking amœbocytes - genes silent for the entire span of organismal evolution and thought to be 'junk' - were, at last, transcribed.  Within the core of each sphere, matter itself changed its shape, unlocking tiny doors into the heart of the cosmos.

In 2815, the Alpha Centauri system was consumed by a pack of at least thirty thousand dragons.  When the signal reached the Solar System in 2819, there were no eyes to see.  But it did not go unnoticed.  As if on command, nine billion spheres cracked open.  As one, they rose into space, each surrounded by an actinic aura and spitting gamma radiation.  As if choreographed, nine billion spheres converged in space to form a cordon around the Sun.

In 2845, dragons entered the Solar System and joined battle.  The dragons were defeated, but at great cost.  The effect on the Sun of absorbing 30,000 dragon carcasses, each one an organised lattice of neutronium, was predictably catastrophic.  The Exodus Fleet was hurried on its way by a supernova blast wave.  Even had it wanted to, humanity had no home to come back to.

Years later, we observers on the Exodus Fleet finally put the facts together.  The key was found in ecology.  Over decades, ecologists had amassed cases of prey species which, when threatened by even a hint of an approaching predator, would change dramatically in form and turn against the aggressor.

The first brood of dragons hatched when the Universe was born.  The living creatures on the early generations of planets were easy prey, but natural selection worked its remorseless logic.  Planets of species evolved to fight dragons by generating castes of dragon slayers, leaving a small inoculum to spread the species to other planets, other stars.

We were just such an inoculum, furthering life in the cosmos, keeping one step ahead of the dragons.  POP was not a disease.  It was part of the natural order of the Cosmos.  And so will it be until Ragnarok.

Han Yu lives in Cupertino, California.  A collection of essays, The Ghost of Jorge Luis Borges Which Can Also Be Used As a Table, is published by Unicorn Gardens Press.

Source: Nature 4 May 2000

See also:

bulletYearning to Be a Nobody - for another speculative future from the pages of Nature magazine

Earthlings May Be Too Young to Talk to Aliens

An Australian astronomer may have discovered why intelligent life from outer space has not been in contact with Earth - Earthlings are too young.

University of New South Wales researcher Charles Lineweaver calculates that Earth-like planets orbiting other stars are on average about 1.8 billion years older than Earth.  That would put Earthlings on the same evolutionary scale as bacteria to any far more developed neighbours, which would be unlikely to communicate via a primitive medium like radio waves.

Dr Lineweaver looked at a host of factors that determine the formation and destruction of planets, including the presence of heavy atoms such as iron, which were not present in the early universe.  Heavier elements are released only when old stars explode as supernovas, and rocky planets cannot form around a star without enough heavy atoms in the dust it is made of.  However, too many heavy elements lead to giant planets orbiting so close to their parent stars that they destroy newborn Earth-like planets.

Using this theory, planets can be dated.

Dr Lineweaver concludes that ¾ of all Earth-like planets must have been around longer than Earth and that the average age is 6.4 billion years, compared with Earth's 4.6 billion years. - The Australian

Source: The Dominion Friday 12 January 2001

A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible versus the Volcano

by Cornelia Dean

The fight over evolution has reached the big, big screen.

Several Imax theatres, including some in science museums, are refusing to show movies that mention the subject - or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth - fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures.  The number of theatres rejecting such films is small, people in the industry say - perhaps a dozen or fewer, most in the South.  But because only a few dozen Imax theatres routinely show science documentaries, the decisions of a few can have a big impact on a film's bottom line - or a producer's decision to make a documentary in the first place.

People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theatres say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including Cosmic Voyage, which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; Galápagos, about the islands where Darwin theorised about evolution; and Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor.  Volcanoes, released in 2003 and sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University, has been turned down at about a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, said Dr Richard Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer who was chief scientist for the film.  He said theatre officials rejected the film because of its brief references to evolution, in particular to the possibility that life on the earth originated at the undersea vents.  Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said the museum decided not to offer the movie after showing it to a sample audience, a practice often followed by managers of Imax theatres.  Ms Murray said 137 people participated in the survey, and while some thought it was well done, "some people said it was blasphemous."  In their written comments, she explained, they made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence."  On other criteria, like narration and music, the film did not score as well as other films, Ms Murray said, and over all, it did not receive high marks, so she recommended that the museum pass.  "If it's not going to draw a crowd and it is going to create controversy," she said, "from a marketing standpoint I cannot make a recommendation" to show it.

In interviews, officials at other Imax theatres said they had similarly decided against the film for fear of offending some audiences.  "We have definitely a lot more creation public than evolution public," said Lisa Buzzelli, who directs the Charleston Imax Theatre in South Carolina, a commercial theatre next to the Charleston Aquarium.  Her theatre had not ruled out ever showing Volcanoes, Ms Buzzelli said, "but being in the Bible Belt, the movie does have a lot to do with evolution, and we weigh that carefully."

Pietro Serapiglia, who handles distribution for the producer Stephen Low of Montreal, whose company made the film, said officials at other theatres told him they could not book the movie "for religious reasons," because it had "evolutionary overtones" or "would not go well with the Christian community" or because "the evolution stuff is a problem."  Hyman Field, who as a science foundation official had a role in the financing of Volcanoes, said he understood that theatres must be responsive to their audiences.  But Dr Field he said he was "furious" that a science museum would decide not to show a scientifically accurate documentary like Volcanoes because it mentioned evolution.  "It's very alarming," he said, "all of this pressure being put on a lot of the public institutions by the fundamentalists."

People who follow the issue say it is more likely to arise at science centres and other public institutions than at commercial theatres.  The filmmaker James Cameron, who was a producer on Volcanoes, said the commercial film he made on the same topic, Aliens of the Deep, had not encountered opposition, except during post-production, when "it was requested from some theatres that we change a line of dialogue" relating to sun worship by ancient Egyptians.  The line remained, he said.  Mr Cameron said he was "surprised and somewhat offended" that people were sensitive to the references to evolution in Volcanoes.  "It seems to be a new phenomenon," he said, "obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science."

Some in the industry say they fear that documentary filmmakers will steer clear of science topics likely to offend religious fundamentalists.  Large-format science documentaries "are generally not big moneymakers," said Joe DeAmicis, vice president for marketing at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles and formerly the director of its Imax theatre.  "It's going to be hard for our filmmakers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know going in that 10% of the market" will reject them.  Others who follow the issue say many institutions are not able to resist such pressure.  "They have to be extremely careful as to how they present anything relating to evolution," said Bayley Silleck, who wrote and directed Cosmic Voyage.  Mr Silleck said he confronted religious objections to that film and predicted he would face them again with a project he is working on now, about dinosaurs.

Of course, a number of factors affect a theatre manager's decision about a movie.  Mr Silleck said an Imax documentary about oil fires in Kuwait "never reached its distribution potential" because it had shots of the first Persian Gulf war.  "The theatres decided their patrons would be upset at seeing the bodies," he said.  "We all have to make films for an audience that is a family audience," he went on, "when you are talking about Imax, because they are in science centers and museums."  He added, however, "there are a number of us who are concerned that there is a kind of tacit over-caution, over-protectiveness of the audience on the part of theatre operators."

In any event, censoring films like Volcanoes is not an option, said Dr Field, who said Mr Low, the film's producer, got in touch with him when the evolution issue arose to ask whether the film should be altered.  "I said absolutely not," recalled Dr Field, who retired from the National Science Foundation last year.  Mr Low said that arguments over religion and science disturbed him because of his own religious faith.  In his view, he said, science is "a celebration of what nature or God has done.  So for me, there's no conflict."

Dr. Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer, recalled a showing of Volcanoes he and Mr Low attended at the New England Aquarium.  When the movie ended, a little girl stood in the audience to challenge Mr Low on the film's suggestion that the earth might have formed billions of years ago in the explosion of a star.  "I thought God created the Earth," she said.  He replied, "Maybe that's how God did it."

Source: 19 March 2005

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