Monday, August 14, 2017

SHINING A LIGHT ON FERMI’S PARADOX



            Back on June 4th, 2017 I wrote about the West Virginia county where CELL phones and other electronic appliances give way to a giant telescopic “ear” with which earthlings listen for interstellar messages. Since then I have given much thought to some of the possible implications of Fermi’s Paradox, which that research pointed me toward; an invitation as it seemed to explore some subject matter I would not ordinarily take the chance of boring my readers with. The name of Enrico Fermi, the father of the nuclear age, has been well-known to me ever since I came under the influence of a New Jersey junior high school teacher who was devoted to educating her students on much more than the Math her contract specified.
             Fermi, an Italian-born physicist and Nobel laureate who escaped his fascist homeland just in time to head up the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, had the chance in his short lifetime (he died of stomach cancer at age 53) to think logically of possibilities beyond the earth’s sphere and even the outer reaches of our galaxy. In a discussion with some of the best scientific minds of his day, he discussed what has famously become known as The Fermi Paradox. I note here that there are those who argue that the “question” is not a true “paradox”, and that beyond that, it does not have any support in established science.
             Because I am a story-teller and not a papered professor with a scholarly reputation on the line, I feel free to continue anyway.
            At the heart of the so-called paradox is the increasingly evident fact that not only are we surrounded in our galaxy by billions of other planetary systems – that is a central star (or two) such as our sun, around which a family of circling and associated planets have organized – but that many of them are similar enough to our own to suggest the possibility of a life-sustaining, earth-like environment. Add to that the likelihood that many of them would be older – perhaps much older – than our planet’s teenage level of maturity.
            The big question that possibility poses for an earth-bound thinker boils down to this: If there are other human-like populations in advanced development stages elsewhere who know about us and “our world”, and have the technological prowess to do so, why haven’t they made contact with us?
            Setting aside all the cosmic and scientific hypotheses which make Dr. Fermi’s list of 22, I am fascinated most by these two:
1.      It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.  And . . .
2.      It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy others.
If either or both of these be true, perhaps potential “visitors” may have destroyed themselves just about the time they might have said “hello” to us; OR perhaps they observed just enough of our earthly doings from a distance to decide they couldn’t afford to get involved with folks who were building big bombs and exhibiting so limited a respect for the doctrine of “loving one’s neighbor”.
            [In 1954, I was briefly tasked by the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigation (OSI) to interview citizens reporting UFO sightings near Washington’s Hanford Atomic Works as part of Project Blue Book (UFO investigations 1949-1969). Since “declassified”, I will still only mention that most of my reports came from experienced pilots, control tower operators, aviation professionals and on one occasion a gathering of 50 adult RC (radio control) hobbyists who all saw the same thing. Please don’t ask me what I think of all this; I really don’t know what to say.]
            As an octogenarian who reads history, has seen war, watches several hours of TV news every day, and has a large and loving family, I am a worrier. Why then do I work so hard at what I do every day?  I still believe that living a good life and loving my neighbors, and doing everything I can to contribute something worthwhile is important. I hope you feel the same.
                                                                                                           

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

ON THE LOOKOUT FOR LIFE’S MILESTONES



            The place known to its non-resident owners as Melody Ranch embraced some 400 acres of mostly hilly and heavily-wooded northern Vermont countryside. Its many mysteries included long-abandoned  barns and outbuildings, the remains of a prohibition-era whiskey still, and a “bottomless” pond whose black waters were said to hide a wagon and team that had fallen through thin ice one long-ago winter.
            For several years of our young married life, the rambling 13-room farm house which presided over Melody Ranch was our home, and we were the designated “care takers” of the premises. Exploring the vast and diverse acres of that 200-year-old “homestead” was a never-ending adventure, and by the end of our tenancy, we had still not seen it all.
            One day, while wandering among a mixed stand of maples, beeches and other hardwoods far from farm buildings or any roadway, I literally stumbled over what I thought at first was some random piece of stone poking its way above old leaves and forest duff. It seemed though to be out of place surrounded otherwise by a carpet of relatively unbroken woodland floor. Bending to look more closely I saw that it was the top of a square granite post, obviously hand cut to shape. There was a two-digit number barely visible through the time-encrusted build-up of lichen on the stone’s top, and I found that the whole thing was firmly and deeply set into the ground. Looking around, I could find no similar object anywhere in the area, and I thought it unlikely that any surveyor would go to such pains merely to mark a boundary line.
            The trees whose spreading canopy I stood beneath were up to a foot in diameter, and I knew they were not “Johnny-come-latelys”. In northern New England hardwood trees are what plant scientists call the “climax forest;” that is they do not just spring up on available land, but follow in orderly progression a complex series of preparatory steps. First come berry bushes and ground covers, followed by birches and poplars, beneath whose protective umbrella the conifers – spruce, hemlock and pines – make their appearance. Only after this lengthy environmental metamorphosis do the hardwoods emerge, eventually denying sunlight and moisture to the underlings they dwarf. What I was standing under was a forest which must have been more than one hundred years in the making.
            The incident played in my mind for some time until one day at the general store in the village of Worcester, I mentioned it to an old-timer. “Oh”, he exclaimed with no particular surprise, “what you came across was a mile marker on the old Hardwick stagecoach line. It used to go right through this country in the early 1800s. Every so often there was a granite post to let the driver know just where he was on the old turnpike.”
            “Old Turnpike”! I marveled. Right through what was now an unbroken forest stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions.
            That unexpected woodland discovery took place sixty years ago, and if some farmer with a chainsaw hasn’t come along to change things, those sugar maples are now probably two feet in diameter, and that old granite marker completely covered by forest detritus. Ever since that day though, I have looked at human history from a very different perspective, and as I have traveled this wide, wonderful and disparate land of ours, I have looked for the “mile markers” – in whatever guise -- along the way. In the process, I have become a pilgrim; not a mere tourist.