Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Berlin

Berlin ! The city of.... uhh, the Brandenburg Gate ! The Berlin Wall ! And probably some other stuff, too, I shouldn't wonder... Naturally, when invited to visit a friend on an internship in Berlin, I jumped at the chance. How could I refuse the chance to visit somewhere with both famous landmarks ?

So I found an inexpensive hotel - Berlin, somewhat surprisingly, is full of them - booked a bus ticket, and filled my suitcase with 10 litres (17.5 pints) of beer. Why on Earth would I take beer to Germany, I hear you ask. Isn't that like taking coals to Newcastle ? Not if your friend is Czech, it isn't. To suggest to a Czech that any other nation's beer is superior is like calling a Glaswegian English or telling an American that guns are really actually quite dangerous things and they should put them away. It's not something you want to do if you value your continued existence.

Anyway, said friend has been teaching me how to drink beer, a statement which is likely to have given several long-term readers heart palpitations. In fairness, there are - it seems - many beers which do not have the disgusting aftertaste that makes me think beer drinkers are otherwise completely mad.


Hauling near enough twenty beers up several flights of stairs was somewhat gruelling work. I was rewarded with a rather fine sunset at the train station in Berlin shortly after my arrival.


Unfortunately the pleasant sunset was in no way compensation for the massive inefficiencies of the Berlin public transport network. Instead of taking 30 minutes to get to my hotel it took an hour. Much worse than this was that instead of simply delaying the train from reaching the station, the train simply stops at the station. Everyone gets on.

Then the train doesn't go anywhere.

The train continues not going anywhere for about 15 minutes.

Yep, that's right, it just sits there.

It's 37 degrees Celsius and at this point it was still full daylight. It was not fun.

I also soon noticed other flaws in the public transport system. The front of the train labels the destination, but of course you only see that for a moment as it rushes past. Inside the train (or bus) the electronic screen doesn't say anything until the train leaves the station, so for a confused tourist it's of little help. When it does move, it only says the next station, not the final destination. And often it just doesn't work at all, and in one case it got stuck after about three stations.

The good news is that to get through this muddlesome mess, God created the German people. Anyone even looking like they might possible have any doubt is sure to rapidly encounter an extremely helpful German person who will make sense of it all, or at least try to. You don't even have to ask for help, just look slightly confused and someone will soon get your sorted out*. Perhaps the Berlin transport network was designed knowing that it wasn't necessary to make it simple to use because the Germans would happily explain it to everyone who didn't get it.

* I've begun to wonder if this would work in other circumstances. Like, if I could contrive an expression that very clearly says, "I'm really not sure if my smooth particle hydrodynamic code is giving me numerical artifacts or interesting results", maybe a German person would just magically turn up and explain it.

Eventually I reached my hotel and the situation rapidly improved. I was given a free upgrade to a larger room, for no reason, and though the air conditioning was underpowered the room was at least 15 C cooler than outside so my brain was able to re-congeal into something basically functional once again. Really, the last time I was this sweaty and disgusting I was in the frickin' jungle.

No, I'm not wet because I went swimming. Yes, I know that's disgusting. Topical paradise, my foot.
Shortly afterwards I began another full hour of travelling to reach the visitor's rooms near the DLR, where I was treated to a delicious Czech meal of potato pancakes followed by beer and more beer. I made it back to the hotel around about 2ish, where after a full eight hours of travelling (and precious little sleep the night before for some reason) I swiftly collapsed.

I suppose just for the sake of comparison I should also mention that the brief riverisde walk outside the hotel the next morning was a lot nicer than the harrowing death march to reach the Tanama river in Arecibo. It wasn't anything special, but at least when I took this photo I didn't feel like I was starting to liquefy. Unfortunately, I've lost most of my tropical climate adaptations, which means I'm back to complaining bitterly whenever it gets over 30 C.


I met up again with my Czech friend and housemate-whose-name-neither-of-us-can-pronounce for lunch (bratwurst) by the Brandenburg Gate. Gosh, that sounds classy, doesn't it ? It should. It's a classy place.



This being my first full day in Berlin, wandering around the city center was essentially obligatory. And a very nice place it is too. I mean, it's not Cardiff, or even Prague, but it is well worth seeing. Just around the corner from the Gate is the Holocaust Memorial. It is, of course, right and proper that a huge piece of real estate, in the center of what is essentially the capital of Europe, is given over to recording one of the worst atrocities in human history.


... but on the other hand the monument itself perhaps does not command the air of solemnity its designers probably had in mind. In the above picture I've recoloured it to give it some sense of atmosphere, but on a bright sunny day it isn't like that at all. Signs say "no jumping from one stele to the next", which is a rule continuously flouted because most people are, at heart, about five years old. And that's a good thing. Maybe it's even the reason we haven't gone extinct yet.

A little further on from this we came to Potsdamer Platz in search of the Cafe Gelato. Which we found. We also found part of the Berlin Wall and a small exhibition about it inside the shopping center.

Leaving the British sector ? Hah ! I AM the British sector !
Yeah ? Well, screw you, sign ! You're not the boss of me !


As shopping centers go, it's tough to beat having part of the Berlin Wall just outside and an exhibition about it inside. It really is astonishing to consider the scale and speed of the changes that have happened so recently. Less profoundly, it also had really good ice cream - although you weren't allowed to sit at a table to eat it. Because walking around with melting ice cream is obviously a much better idea.

From Potsdamer Platz we headed back to reach the Berlin Victory Column. Along the way we encountered the Soviet War Memorial.


The memorial is flanked by two tanks and small artillery pieces. Presumably the Soviet artists, like their later German counterparts, saw no reason a monument to some utterly horrific events couldn't also be a) intimidating and b) fun for tourists decades later. Because who's going to resist the chance to pose with a tank, right ?


Sorry people, but I'm not going to show you my much prettier Czech friend posing with the tank. You'll just have to make do with me instead. And very grateful you should be too, because glamorous blonde scientists don't often pose with tanks for your amusement.

Moving swiftly on, the Victory Column. It's a dramatic sight - 67m tall, built to celebrate three 19th century German (Prussian) victories against the French, the Danes and the Austrians.... none of which I know the slightest thing about. I doubt anyone else does either. That would be like visiting Big Ben because you're fascinated by clockwork - entirely legitimate, sure...but, well... weird.



After the Victory Column, the TV tower. We didn't go up - it's expensive - but it is impressive to see, and less ugly than Prague's giant space rocket covered in deformed babies with giant heads (that is its official name). What I would have liked to have seen is the dome of the Reichstag, but unfortunately it was already fully booked for the weekend.

The church is one of the oldest in Berlin.
We ended the day near what I'm calling the half-church... because it's half a church. And whadayaknow ? Typing, "Berlin half church" into Google finds the correct result. It's great looking building, but it's almost a shame it's in Berlin. It would have made for a perfect movie location if it was out in the countryside somewhere.


However, as far as awesome movie locations go, the next day won hands down. Unlike the above, you won't find Teuflesberg listening station on any "must see in Berlin" lists. And I have absolutely no idea why, because it's an extraordinary place. It was just about visible from the Victory Column so we decided to try and get there.

I reserved a place online... but here's a word to the wise - I really don't think it's necessary. Their website may look flashy on a tablet but it's very amateurish on a regular PC, and I seriously doubt the place even has internet access. They probably just check their email on their phones. Also, though their site says the tours stop at 4, this didn't seem to be the case either. If you can't get there by 4pm, I'd email or call them to check. Possibly you do need a reservation for the 2.5 hour guided tour (weekdays only, once per day), though.

A bright white geometrical dome poking through the forest... quite a familiar sight, in some ways.
Teuflesberg ("Devil's Mountain") is an artificial hill 80m high built from the rubble of Berlin after the war. It's named after the nearby Devil's Lake, although it even has a rather fiendish connection of its own, despite being only a few decades old. I didn't have time to read up on it beforehand, but the wikipedia article is quite fascinating :
Its origin does not in itself make Teufelsberg unique, as there are many similar man-made rubble mounds in Germany (see Schuttberg) and other war-torn cities of Europe. The curiousness begins with what is buried underneath the hill: the never completed Nazi military-technical college (Wehrtechnische Fakultät) designed by Albert Speer. The Allies tried using explosives to demolish the school, but it was so sturdy that covering it with debris turned out to be easier. 
OK, so it's an artificial hill that covers the ruins of a Nazi military college. Appropriate name after all, then. Apparently the forest is also full of wild boar.

From the approach we took, the listening station "Field Station Berlin" was rarely visible through the forest. A very nice forest it is too, though methinks some of the holiday homes take their security a tad... seriously ?

Maybe those wild boar can jump.
Even when you reach the hill - after a brisk 45 min walk or so - you can't see much from the entrance. The site is now a sort of reservation for graffiti artists, presumably to keep them safe and protected from the real world. Which is exactly the same function universities serve for scientists.

The angry dog will guide you on your mystical forest journey.


OK, the scrawls at the front aren't up to much, though I did appreciate the ironic angry dog. But pretty soon you're rewarded with real artistry. It varies in quality, of course (not all of it was to my taste), and it certainly isn't family friendly. Much of it isn't friendly to anyone. In fact I would even say it's overtly hostile, but almost all of it is interesting.

Graffiti ? No, it's the original colour, honest.
Generally good advice.

Some of the doodles are little better than what you get scrawled on the side of a subway (though at this point I have to point out that Cardiff's graffiti can be amazing, seriously click that link). And some of it is genuinely good art.

Immortan Joe's forest-dwelling cousin ?


I was almost half-expecting just to be able to walk around the site, because the buildings are not in a good condition. But, nope, you get everything. Right to the top of the tallest tower*. You don't get much in the way of hearing about the history or function of the building, unfortunately, but what you do get is a graffiti art gallery built in the ruins of an NSA listening post built on the ruins of Berlin built on a Nazi military college. And come on, that's tough to beat for 7 Euros.

* Is it safe ? Well the guide described it as being "not idiot proof" which I take to mean "hell no".


The title of this painting is definitely, "Giant naked sea goddess attacks defenceless island using giant swans". Definitely.
"Fuck condoms" ought to win an award for irony.

At the top, the geodesic domes. The outer fabric is half-ripped away and billows in the wind, making the whole place sound like you're inside a giant tent with a view of the whole of Berlin. Actually what I was most impressed with was not Berlin itself (which is fine enough) but the fact that in some directions the forest stretches right to the horizon.

A.k.a the forest moon of Endor.






OK, it was an NSA listening station, so perhaps the anti-America stuff is to be expected. Still, I don't really get it... or the "freedom is beautiful like a brick in the face of a cop" slogan*, or the various anti-Obama messages. I mean, come on people : you've been given this huge structure overlooking Berlin as a toy ! And you've been allowed to do this by the system you're against ! It just strikes me as incredibly self-righteous and suffering from a massive dose of the Nirvana fallacy. If you've been given somewhere like this to do what you love, and all you can express is anger at the system, well... aaargh. Maybe I'm just not taking it as tongue-in-cheek enough.

* Thus spake the angry dog. I preferred his other slogans, "The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read" and especially, "Who left the bag of idiots open ?".

That's enough ranting. The finale at Teuflesberg is the very top of the tallest tower, where the dome is completely intact. It's lit only by a single window and you're greeted on entry with open arms :




But the weirdest thing by far is the sound. The acoustics in the dome are... well, awesome. Wherever you stand, any noise you make is reflected back to you - loudly. It's like listening to your own voice through a microphone and speakers, without the microphone and speakers. When we entered the dome it was filled with a cacophony of  whoops, whistles, laughing, animal noises... everything, really. I only wish I'd thought to record it sooner, but it was a such an arresting experience that it seemed more important to just listen.

video

The center chair is even more remarkable. Despite the din, any sound you make in that spot becomes audible to you but not necessarily anyone else. I looked on in bemusement while my friend just sat there, tapping her foot. Foolishly I yelled at her to say something. She kept tapping her foot, grinning like a crazy person*. Only when I tried it for myself did I finally understand - this extremely quiet sound becomes massively amplified to anyone sitting on the chair. It can't be recorded, you have to experience it. Lord knows what music would sound like at that spot.

* Oh thank Gods for anonymity.

Teuflesberg, then, ought to be very high on anyone's must-see in Berlin list. The only thing you don't get on the one hour guided walk is much in the way of any historical information about the place. I can't vouch for the 2.5 hour tour but if I ever go back there for more than a weekend (why this option is weekdays only I have no idea) then this would be top of my list.

This extremely pleasant, more sedate day was followed by more delicious Czech food* and quite a lot more beer. I reached my hotel room around 3:30am, learning the hard way that the S-Bahn doesn't run on Sunday evenings ! Although really it was Monday morning... grrr.

* Fried cheese. The Czechs have great sympathy for vegetarians, and they're determined that they should be able to enjoy incredibly unhealthy fattening food as much as the rest of us.


Anyway, though its public transport service doesn't hold a candle to Prague - I suspect nowhere does - Berlin is a fine city, completely different to Prague or Vienna. While I wish Teufelsberg had provided a bit more information on the place, being kept as a reservation for graffiti artists gives it really unique character. Maybe that angry dog should occasionally quote snippets of interesting information about the place. He could even keep his trademark anti-capitalist, anti-American ranting, I wouldn't mind it so much if I got a bit of an education as well.

Tracing the outline of the angry dog took a surprisingly long time for a cheap joke, but meh.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

It's a planet, DEAL WITH IT.

A zebra is a type of horse. A lion is a sort of cat. A PC is a type of computer, and a platypus is a particularly weird mammal. A dwarf, without any other qualifying description, is a person.

But apparently Pluto is not a planet, because dwarf planets somehow aren't planets.


NGT and I got off on the wrong foot. For American readers, NGT is not much of a thing in the UK (neither was Carl Sagan actually). I've never got on with his I'm-delusional-with-excitement-about-everything attitude, and the first time I ever saw him on TV he was ranting with a pointless, surprisingly humourless fiery passion about why Pluto isn't a planet. I instantly failed to take him seriously.

The trouble is - amongst other things - is that such an uncompromising attitude is not conducive to rational debate. In fact it encourages the exact opposite, hence this post.

There are lots of different sorts of stars : yellow stars, red stars, blue stars... all are stars. No-one disputes this. There are grey areas like brown dwarfs, which don't shine by nuclear fusion, but, in most cases, one can look at a big bright shiny thing and say, "yep, that's a star". One can then go on to specify exactly what sort of star it is. And of course the same can be said for horses, cats, computers, and so on.

Image credit : me.
But not planets, apparently. That's because the IAU's definition of planet is - linguistically if nothing else - dreadful. Instead of defining different types of planets, it says that some things are planets and others are merely "dwarf planets". How can you have a dwarf thing that isn't a type of that thing ? That's like saying that dwarfs aren't people.

All dwarf planets are bastards in the IAU's eyes.
Then there's this bizarre idea that what a thing is depends on its environment - the famously ambiguous part of the definition that says a planet "must have cleared its orbit". Which Earth and Jupiter haven't, for instance. Now "moon", well, OK, but we all know what a moon is - something orbiting a planet. Being a moon isn't somehow demoting that object just because it happens to be orbiting something else. "Moon" is really only a specification of what the object is doing, not what it fundamentally is. The moons of Mars are likely captured asteroids; no-one thinks they've become magically different just by orbiting a planet.

But "planet" is different. We use it to distinguish it from other, very different objects like comets, nebulae, stars and galaxies. Saying that "planet" depends on its environment is like saying that someone could be counted as a dwarf if all their friends are very tall. It's nuts.

He's no Tyrion Lannister, that's for sure.
I propose a much simpler system. Sure, there will be grey areas, just like everything else, but here's a stab at something that should work well enough most of the time.

Let's use "planet" to mean anything that is large enough to be round but not so large that it shines by nuclear fusion. We'll have to agree on a precise definition of "round", but that's something of a detail. Anything smaller than this would be a comet or asteroid or possibly a stellar remnant.

The key is not to stop there. Instead of "planet" and "dwarf planet" we should have "giant planet" and "dwarf planet". Thus, both are very explicitly on equal footing. They are both types of planets. No inferiority is implied, they're just different, just as a whale isn't any better than a mongoose but both are mammals*. We could also have "terrestrial planets" and "gaseous planets" or even "ice planets". Yes, this would mean the Solar System would have a lot more planets, but it wouldn't have any more major planets. We can make as many sub-categories as we like, and make them as complicated as we like. We could even allow some moons to be types of planets.

* One may of course argue that the same is true of the current definition of planet/dwarf planet. Perhaps this is true, but I think it's a lot clearer if you label the giant planets as giant planets, not just planets.

Some people like to point out that Pluto would have a tail if it was closer to the Sun, and therefore it's not a planet but a giant comet. Uh, yeah, well, Earth would have a tail if it was close enough to the Sun. Anything would, because the Sun is jolly hot. We've known about Jupiter-mass evaporating planets for over ten years. No-one's claiming those are giant comets, because that's just plain silly.


Of course, there are very important fundamental differences in both composition and formation mechanism of the various "planets" in this system. Pluto orbits above the plane of the other planets, sure, but so what ? This taxonomic system in no way prevents you from classifying things in a very specific, detailed way : Pluto might become a "giant non-ecliptic minor ice planet", or something. But you retain the word planet to mean something that's already widely-accepted without confusing the heck out of the general public. You instantly convey to people that you're talking about a big round thing that's within a certain size range and not a star*. Which is surely the important thing.

* And of course we've been using terms like "gaseous planet" and "rocky planet" for decades, without confusing anyone. Again, the only reason people object to "dwarf planet" is because it's somehow not supposed to be a sub-category of planet but a distinct object.

Having a funny orbit shouldn't matter to what we define as a planet. Planets can be tidally ejected from their star systems altogether to become rogue planets - they don't stop being planets, they are now just, like moons, doing something a bit different (it's possible that some rogue planets might even form without a star at all - we don't really know as yet).

And no, being in the asteroid belt does not automatically make something an asteroid, any more than going into Church makes one a Christian. Ceres is, maybe, a small planet that happens to be in the asteroid belt. Sure, it may just be the largest asteroid - and here's where we reach a grey area. We don't really know what the difference between a planet and asteroid is (things are even worse when we include comets). But, while the proposed definition of planet may be unambiguous, being able to define-sub categories gives a lot of flexibility. As we learn more, perhaps we'll define the largest asteroids to be a special class of planets. So we haven't restricted ourselves in any way with this wide-ranging definition.

The spectacular results from New Horizons don't really make any difference to whether Pluto is a planet or not, but they do emphasise that this is a world. "Dwarf planet", given that "planet" is a separate term, sounds somehow condescending and just plain weird.
The point is, stop trying to say things aren't planets when they are quite clearly just different varieties of planets. Maybe they are radically - perhaps even fundamentally - different varieties of planets, but this broad definition doesn't prevent us from labelling them as such when we know enough about them (just as a whale is really quite a radically different animal from a mongoose). Right now, we don't have that information.

People also ask why people are vitriolically concerned about Pluto but don't give a monkeys about Ceres or other large Solar System bodies. Well, OK - but isn't this attacking the motivation rather than the argument ? Sure, Pluto is far more of a poster child than Ceres because History, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't re-evaluate our definitions.

Does any of this matter ? Yes and no. It doesn't really matter as far as the science goes because what you label something as doesn't change what it actually is. However, "stars and planets" are the two things most people think of when they think of astronomy. If we can't agree on the definition of "planet", then we look a bit silly. And it seems to me that a bit of common-sense understanding of the English language offers a simple way out of this unnecessarily complicated mess.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Time Machine, again (III)

Part Three : Socialist Fiction

Let's recap. In part one, we looked at the surprisingly good science of The Time Machine. The most important aspect of which is that the Earth in the year 802,701 has been terraformed into a self-sustaining paradise. So perfect is the environment that the need for any kind of labour whatsoever has been eliminated.

In part two (which I strongly advise reading before this one) we looked at the effect this had had on the humans. Bereft of any requirement to work even to sustain their basic existence, humanity had degenerated into the stupid (but happy) child-like Eloi. We examined the plausibility of this and looked at why sating all our desires leads to a glorious utopia in Star Trek, but a ruined dystopia in The Time Machine. Star Trek posits that human ambitions will simply keep expanding as our mundane tasks are removed, and that universe has many reasons why intelligence must be maintained. The Time Machine does not. With no outlet for intelligence, it becomes a weakness.

But we also saw that this last point looked like it was on very shaky ground. Even with the mundane chores now a thing of the past, there's no obvious reason why intelligence should be a hindrance or why evolution would select against it. Or is there ?


Enter the Morlocks




The Time Traveller soon discovers that this false Eden really does have more in common with Star Trek's Risa - an artificial pleasure planet - than he first suspected. The conquest of nature is far from as perfect or as complete as it seemed (which doesn't invalidate the initial speculation - it just so happens that the world didn't turn out that way). Neither intelligence or the need for it has been eliminated after all:
I must confess that my satisfaction with my first theories of an automatic civilization and a decadent humanity did not long endure. Yet... I could find no machinery, no appliances of any kind. Yet these people were clothed in pleasant fabrics that must at times need renewal, and their sandals, though undecorated, were fairly complex specimens of metalwork. Somehow such things must be made. There were no shops, no workshops... They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping. I could not see how things were kept going.
The Time Traveller soon discovers the source of the Eloi's clothing : a foul race of pale ape-like creatures known as Morlocks who shun daylight and live underground. The Morlocks operate machines, although exactly what the purpose of the machines is is not made clear (beyond providing for the Eloi), and so are clearly more intelligent than the Eloi. But the extent of the underground caverns is vast (likely global), and the machines equally so. And how many sandals can they Eloi possibly need ? Have they also evolved into a race of shoe-hungry crazy people ?

MOOOAAAR SHOES !
My impression is that mankind hasn't managed such a perfect, self-sustaining Eden after all - it's the machines which are keeping everything balanced. If Wells were alive today, I think he would probably have them be devices for climate control.

Humanity, then, has split in two. The decadent Eloi have everything they need brought to them on a whim. The servile Morlocks are condemned to a life of squalor, servitude and darkness. The rich have gotten richer, and the poor poorer - it's the absolute epitome of social inequality, a speciation event. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, while the Eloi are the masters of the Morlocks, they are also absolutely dependent on them. While the Eloi may initially have been the more intelligent of the two, that situation has long since been reversed. The Eloi have become so dependent on the products of the Morlocks that they have almost completely lost their own intelligence, while the Morlocks are still maintaining a global network of machines.
At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position... even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Industry had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end--! 
While the mere stupidity of the Eloi was enough to turn mankind's dream of an effortless future into a sad, ruined Utopia, this splitting of the species is altogether different and darker.
Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people--due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor-- is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.
And this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich--will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. 
The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man. 
The Morlock's likely experience the same evolutionary selection pressure to keep their machines running as in the technologically-dependent societies of Star Trek. It's just that here they are compelled to remain in perpetual servitude to the now brain-addled, over-privileged Eloi. But how can this be ? If the Morlocks are now more intelligent than the Eloi, surely they have the advantage. Of course, this turns out to be exactly the case.

The Time Traveller's initial speculations about the Eloi weren't exactly wrong - they do have all their desires fulfilled - just incomplete. And it's not an absolute triumph of man over nature, more an ongoing war. But although the Eloi have indeed degenerated, this is only in part because they no longer need or want much of anything - it is very far from a full view of the year 802,701. Something much more sinister is going on.


Om nom nom



The first scenario, in which the entire species has degenerated due to technological dependence, might be tenable if natural curiosity could be selected against. But the Time Traveller has only vague notions of why this might be, and indeed that turns out to be wrong. However the second scenario, of having a race of intelligent workers in perpetual servitude to stupid people, is far more difficult to support - the Eloi possess not one single advantage over the Morlocks. And of course, we soon find that the Time Traveller was being too hasty in his conclusions.
The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away. The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They still possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Morlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at last to find the daylit surface intolerable. And the Morlocks made their garments, I inferred, and maintained them in their habitual needs... They did it as a standing horse paws with his foot, or as a man enjoys killing animals in sport: because ancient and departed necessities had impressed it on the organism. 
But, clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear. And suddenly there came into my head the memory of the meat I had seen in the Under-world.
The Morlocks are carnivores who rear the Eloi like cattle. It's the ultimate revenge of the downtrodden masses. Most likely, the reason intelligence never re-evolves in the Eloi (or for that matter they never become any stronger or faster, which would give them an edge over their Morlock predators) is because the Morlocks eat those who pose any sign of a threat. They are the selection pressure keeping the Eloi docile.

Importantly, the Eloi haven't fallen from grace because of some political revolution : they have fallen because of their own over-privileged position. Their utter dependency on their Morlock servants has been a fatal weakness. Sheer, unchecked wealth inequality has proven fatal not because the Morlocks objected to it but because it is an inherently flawed system.

One important detail that's somewhat glossed over is that initially the Eloi were indeed more intelligent than the Morlocks : "this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process". How then is it that Eloi have lost their intelligence ? While the Morlocks could easily maintain their Eloi flock in docile servility by eating the smartest, it's difficult to see how how they could have caused this state in the first place. Perhaps, as their lives got easier and easier, the Eloi stopped bothering to invest in the now-unnecessary education of their young - they all became like the twerps one might see on My Super Sweet 16. Maybe the Morlocks were consciously working toward this final state : after all, they think on global scales, so perhaps they think on long timescales as well. We'll have to let that one go.

And yet while the Morlocks are intelligent, they are also horrific. The Time Traveller is far more accepting of the Eloi, who, though stupid, have retained some vestige of warmth and compassion. But Wells was a socialist - why, then, did he make the workers of the far future into ghoulish monsters ? It certainly makes for a gripping story. But perhaps mainly it's a straightforward warning : carry on like this and it's not going to end well for anyone.


Relevancy & Conclusion 



The Time Machine explores several interesting scenarios about the way in which the future could develop :
  1. A return to Paradise. The cost of bliss is stupidity. This scenario turns out to be untenable in the novel : intelligence is a genie that's difficult to put back in the bottle.
  2. Uber-privilege. An unchecked growth in wealth inequality doesn't end well for anyone - it leads to degeneracy even of those supposedly at the top of the pile.
  3. Social "justice". The final, horrifying result of the second scenario is that the masters become the slaves - not through political revolution but simply because the system of massive inequality is fundamentally flawed.
All of these are of course still relevant. I personally don't see some measure of wealth inequality as a bad thing - people like and deserve rewards for doing good. But rampant, unchecked wealth inequality - totally unrestricted capitalism - is insane. One should remember (for several reasons) that the working conditions back in 1895 were considerably worse than today. There was no minimum wage. Child labour was just beginning to be abolished. There was no limit to the number of working hours an employer could set in a week. There was no National Health Service, overall hygiene was poor. These things didn't happen because the market demanded them*, they happened because of campaigns and government action. Without this, it was quite conceivable at the time that the rich would continue getting richer while the poor got poorer, in absolute terms.

* Mind you, it's important to remember while some industrialists were the stereotype oppressors, not all were

I don't propose to try and answer the question as to whether there is greater or lesser wealth equality now than there was in 1895, fascinating though that may be. Relative wealth is a difficult concept. But in purely absolute terms, in Western Europe it is simply not true that the poor have gotten poorer (generally speaking), though the rich have certainly gotten richer. The poor have access to a wealth of technology, resources and social safety nets that simply did not exist in 1895; it's hard to imagine Morlocks with smartphones and healthcare plans. It's that vital combination of compassion coupled with technology that Star Trek explores so well - sometimes technology makes manual labour unnecessary, sometimes laws prevent it. And so Wells' dark vision does not look likely to come to pass.

Or does it ?

Both Star Trek and The Time Machine present answers to the question : "What would it be like if we had all our desires fulfilled ?". Because of the details of the futures they explore, their answers are radically different. Star Trek says that we will keep changing our desires so that we always want something new; The Time Machine says maybe not. In both worlds, human intelligence is still required - except in the first scenario the Time Traveller concludes. In that situation, there is no differentiation of the human species but rather the reverse : a continuous trend toward uniformity and stupidity. It's not the horrific future of carnivorous Morlocks farming their Eloi stock, but it's a dystopia nonetheless.

There is currently an ever-increasing trend towards automation, as examined in Humans Need Not Apply. One may argue that the timescales are debatable, but like Wells, one should try and take the long-term view. It certainly will not take eight hundred thousand years to automate a lot of jobs that currently rely on human labour, nor even eight hundred - probably somewhere between eight and eighty, but no more than that. The wealth inequality Wells' feared won't come to pass, but the lack of a need to think just might.

There are possible solutions to the employment crisis posed by automation. One is a guaranteed universal basic income : all your most basic needs to survive provided by the state. And why not ? The point of robots is to prevent people from having to do manual labour; if people don't benefit from this then there's really no point in robots at all. There is surely no moral reason why you should be forced into doing things you don't want to do just to stay alive, especially in a world where everything can be provided for you with no human labour required. Life is short - it is morally bankrupt (pardon the cliché) to demand that people don't enjoy it, to insist that they suffer solely because of your ideology.

I'll admit that I was initially staunchly opposed to the idea of UBI and was slightly outraged by this famous Buckminster Fuller quote. Yet now I find myself in almost full support. I still think it needs more trials, but, when you get right down to it, what exactly is the point of making people do work they neither want nor need to do ? Perhaps a UBI wasn't possible twenty years ago - in another twenty it may be unavoidable.
A second approach is to trust technology to solve its own problems : perhaps we will all be able to live entirely independently. 3D printers could allow us to fabricate new items and even food, we might grow our own power sources, transport could be fully automated. Thus in both cases people might not need to work at all, but get on with doing things they actually enjoy. The need for a UBI is circumvented in this case - indeed it becomes difficult to see what on earth money itself would be used for in such a situation. This prospect is probably rather further down the line, but it no longer looks at though we'll have to wait for the 24th Century to reach a moneyless society.

But... both of these overlook the question of artificial intelligence. They assume that there will still be a need for people to maintain all this advanced technology because the robots won't be able to do much for themselves. At the very least, in these scenarios, humans will still be the only entities capable of philosophy and higher reasoning - a situation that many feel is, in reality, only temporary. Basic income doesn't necessarily solve a damn thing if machines can also do all your thinking for you. Can we still maintain human ambition (which as we saw was a vital element in Star Trek's utopian vision) is machines can do everything for us, even our thinking ?


Traditionally, sci-fi explores A.I. through killer robot uprisings. Perhaps a more interesting question would be not what happens if the robots take over, but what if the robots do exactly what we want ? If you had a machine that could answer any question for you, would you become more and more curious about the world, or would you stop caring altogether ?

Star Trek dodges the question since in the Trek universe only humans are capable of understanding. The Time Machine doesn't explore artificial intelligence, but does look at what happens if humans no longer need to think, which is basically the same thing. That is why a 120 year-old novel which doesn't feature artificial intelligence is directly relevant to the modern world. Would we really stop thinking if we didn't need to ? I mean a complete and utter lack of need - literally no problem a computer couldn't solve more quickly than a human.

I don't know. Even though I'm fortunate enough to enjoy it, there are certainly some parts of my job I'd happily let a computer handle all by itself. There are also parts of my art projects I'd like assistance with. But not all. That a computer could have emotions and express itself wouldn't prevent me from wanting to do the same.  But if I could formulate any question, say, "Is ram pressure stripping the dominant gas loss mechanism in galaxy clusters ?" and have a robot go away, plan the necessary observations, build the best possible instrument to answer the question in some time allotted, and knowing that its conclusions would be both better and faster than my own... would I even want to ask the question ? Without any effort on my part, what's the reward of knowing the answer ? That, not killer robots, is the real challenge presented by A. I.

A guaranteed universal basic income coupled with A. I. looks an awful lot like the scenario the Time Traveller first proposed : not just having all humanities needs fulfilled, but all its desires as well. Again, there wouldn't be any selection pressure against intelligence - but there would be essentially the reverse situation of Star Trek. Rather than encouraging intelligence, technology might, in this case, actually encourage people to be lazy, to not bother using their natural abilities and let them waste away. Instead of being born stupid but then educated into intelligence, the exact opposite might happen.

But would a world without any intellectual pressure simply degenerate into nothing but physical and emotional enjoyment, with no drive to self-improvement, no urge to explore, no need to seek answers to higher questions ? I don't know. Yet I cannot imagine doing nothing all day except lounging around eating fruit and having sex. Well, I say that...

I mean, fruit is rubbish, and I've got to watch Game of Thrones as well, right ?
I'm not saying a universal basic income isn't a very good idea in the short term, just that it might not a complete solution to all the problems on the horizon. Something more may be needed.

I don't know if we'll ever reach a state of total utopia or dystopia. There is, however, a glimmer of hope suggested from universal basic income studies : when people have their base needs provided, they don't become fat and lazy. Instead, they generally shift their goals to something more ambitious - entrepreneurship actually increases (video is worth watching if you've got a spare half-hour). Will this also hold when the machines can think as well as doing the dirty jobs no-one else wants to do - when absolutely every task can be automated ? Will we have no choice but to endorse cybernetics - preserving our will, our souls if you like - whilst gaining power that computers might otherwise take away from us ?

Maybe. Advancing technology, of course, doesn't necessitate a moral deterioration. For now at least, academic jobs aren't under the immediate threat that robots pose to physical labour - a UBI is still at least a valid solution. But make no mistake : you can't stop the future. The only sure conclusion is that to avoid a dystopian future, and to have any chance of a utopia at all, we need one thing above all : a beer-drinking cat. Err, compassion, I meant compassion ! Yes. And possibly a beer-drinking cat.