Friday, September 23, 2016


But how could such material possibly be formed?"

It can be formed only in some such gigantic cosmic body as this, our green system, formed incalculable ages ago, when all the mass comprising it existed as one colossal sun. Picture for yourself the condition in the center of that sun. It has attained the theoretical maximum of temperature – some seventy million of your Centigrade degrees—the electrons have been stripped from the protons until the entire central core is one solid ball of neutronium and can be compressed no more without destruction of the protons themselves. Still the pressure increases. The temperature, already at the theoretical maximum can no longer increase. What happens?


Precisely. And just at the instant of disruption, during the very instant of generation of the frightful forces that are to hurl suns, planets, and satellites millions of miles out into space—in that instant of time, as a result of those unimaginable temperatures and pressures, the faidon comes into being. It can be formed only by the absolute maximum of temperature and at a pressure which can exist only momentarily, even in the largest conceivable masses.
                                                           (Skylark Three, Chapter 11, Pages 170-171)

     Chapter 11 of Skylark Three is one of the most fun to read, if only for the sheer artistry of the thing, let alone its over-the-top display of “Super Science” (as it was termed in those days). Seaton and his Norlaminian colleague, in order to make use of the levels of energy necessary to accomplish their work, must make their way into the very heart of the hottest star in the neighborhood, there to mold and fashion an optically perfect lens out of a material Smith had only imagined to exist (but which we now know does in fact exist, deep beneath the surfaces of white dwarf stars). The chapter is chock-a-block with gems such as “Like a welding arc raised to the Nth power those two immeasurable and irresistible forces met exactly in opposition - a meeting of such incredible violence that seismic disturbances occurred throughout the entire mass of that dense, violet-white star. Sunspots of unprecedented size appeared, prominences erupted to hundreds of times their normal distances, and although the two scientists deep in the core of the tormented star were unaware of what was happening upon its surface, convulsion after titanic convulsion wracked the mighty globe and enormous masses of molten and gaseous material were riven from it and hurled far out into space.”

Like I said - fun, right?

          Well. thirteen years after the publication of Skylark Three, British cosmologist Fred Hoyle first proposed a radically new concept in how the universe’s heavy elements came into being. At the time, what would eventually come to be known as the “Big Bang” Theory*** was gaining in popularity among astronomers, but Hoyle remained adamantly opposed to the notion of there having been a beginning to the universe. He countered with a then-plausible alternative explanation of the origin of the cosmos - the Steady State Theory, which assumed an infinitely old universe that remained (on a macro scale) unchanged over time. Basically, said Hoyle, how the universe looks today is how it has always looked, and how it will look forever.

Illustration of galaxies moving away from each other in a Steady State Universe

     But Hoyle had a problem. Where did all the heavy elements that make up the Earth (and a good deal of the rest of the cosmos) come from? The “Big Bangers” simply assumed they were all formed in the initial event that created the universe (and therefore saw no problem). But for the Steady State Theory to be true, some ongoing mechanism, active even today, was required to account for their existence. Hoyle, in collaboration with three other Cambridge physicists in the years leading up to 1957, developed the concept of nucleosynthesis, whereby the existence of “heavy” elements (i.e., everything other than hydrogen, helium, and lithium) could be accounted for by their having been forged in the hearts of long vanished previous generations of stars. According to Hoyle’s calculations, the conditions deep within a star just moments prior to its going supernova were exactly what was required for all the elements heavier than iron to be formed. The exploding star would then seed its galaxy with the materials necessary for rocky planets such as the Earth and for carbon-based lifeforms (such as ourselves) to appear in subsequent generations of star formation.

     Now here’s a bit of Pure Speculation. Fred Hoyle was a known devotee of science fiction in the years when it existed almost exclusively within the lurid covers of pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories or Astounding Science Fiction. He became himself a major contributor to the genre in his later years. (His 1957 novel The Black Cloud is indeed one of the finest works of science fiction ever to be written.) Since Skylark Three was one of the most widely read SF novels of its decade, there can be no doubt that Fred Hoyle had read it and was well familiar with its ideas. And as can be seen in the quotation that heads this posting, Smith had imaginatively proposed an idea remarkably similar to the nucleosynthesis theory propounded by Fred Hoyle,, a quarter century later. Is it possible that Smith may have planted the germ of an idea in the head of Hoyle, who then ran with it and provided the mathematical and observation framework to justify its acceptance?

     And so whatever, Fred Hoyle finds his way into the Pantheon of Mankind’s greatest minds, for his theories about how heavy elements are formed have been now fully accepted by all scientists everywhere, and we have the observational evidence to confirm them. It’s strange to think that it took a radically mistaken idea about how the universe came to be (the Steady State Theory) for this fundamental fact about How the World Works to have been discovered at all. For had not Fred Hoyle been so adamantly opposed to the “Big Bang” theory, it’s entirely possible that no one would have ever bothered to discover just how the various elements that make up the periodic table came to be, because the Big Bang theory required no explanation (and its going-in assumptions just happened to be entirely wrong).

     And I can't help but wonder whether "Doc" Smith had a hand in Hoyle's discovery.

*** Fun Fact: Fred Hoyle is responsible for the Standard Cosmological Model (its official name) being known as the “Big Bang Theory”. On the 28th of March, 1949, he used the expression for the first known time in a discussion on BBC Radio about rival theories concerning the origin of the universe. Contrary to the popular conception that Hoyle was using the term in an insulting manner, the transcript shows that he was merely attempting to make the concept understandable to the radio audience. Unfortunately, the name stuck.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


       “The herald now entered, bringing in the worthy poet Demodocus, a singer upon whom the Muse had showered every gift of wondrous song. He had been given the power to rouse the soul to ecstasy and to delight the ear. But not without pain had he received her boon, for the Muse had taken away his sight that he might better attend to her song”
                                                           (The Odyssey, Book 8, Lines 71-75)

          Ever since their chance encounter with the Fenachrone battle cruiser (way back 
in Chapter 4), Seaton and his companions knew that the fate of the galaxy hung on the merest thread. For they had learned that the doomed ship had, just moments before its destruction, managed to dispatch a torpedo to its home planet with an account of the battle. There was no doubt whatsoever that once that message was received, a terrible vengeance would be wreaked upon both the Earth and Osnome unless Seaton could somehow learn of a way to combat the Fenachrone superiority in weaponry in time. 
But the clock was ticking, and every hour that passed only brought their seemingly inevitable doom that much closer.

     But once they had made contact with the Norlaminians, and their staggering knowledge of matter and energy became apparent, the crew of the Skylark could breathe a sigh of relief, assured that their quest had been successful. They would triumph. Seaton called for a celebration:

“We ought to be able to take ‘em, with the Norlaminians backing us. … I’ll bet they’ll be able to work out some solution. Relieved? That don’t tell the half of it, guy – I feel like I’d just pitched off the Old Man of the Sea who’s been riding on my neck! What say you girls get your fiddle and guitar and we’ll sing us a little song? I feel good – they had me worried – it’s the first time I’ve felt like singing since we cut that warship up.”

     And sing they did, uninhibitedly, under the (totally mistaken) assumption that, billions of miles away from the nearest listening ear, they could sing for pure enjoyment and not for an audience.

     Two days later, as the period for exercise had ended and that of relaxation begun, Orlon, their Norlaminian host, asked whether they’d care to hear some of his world’s music, “it [being] so different from your own.” At the end of the performance, Orlon asked Mrs. Seaton what she thought of it. The ensuing exchange, being arguably the finest writing Edward Elmer Smith, PhD, a.k.a., “Doc” Smith, would ever achieve in his long and illustrious career, bears quoting (practically) in full:

     “What did you think of it, Mrs. Seaton? Orlon asked, when the symphony was ended.

     “Marvelous!” breathed Dorothy, awed. “I never imagined anything like it. I can’t begin to tell you how much I like it. I never dreamed of such absolute perfection of execution, and the way the lighting accompanies the theme is just too perfectly wonderful for words! It was wonderfully, incredibly brilliant.”

     "Brilliant - yes. Perfectly executed - yes. But I notice that you say nothing of depth of feeling or of emotional appeal." Dorothy blushed uncomfortably and started to say something, but Orion silenced her and continued: "You need not apologize. I had a reason for speaking as I did, for in you I recognize a real musician, and our music is indeed entirely soulless. That is the result of our ancient civilization. We are so old that our music is purely intellectual, entirely mechanical, instead of emotional. It is perfect, but, like most of our other arts, it is almost completely without feeling. … Attend!"

     At one end of the room, as upon a three-dimensional screen, the four Terrestrials saw themselves seated in the control-room of the Skylark. They saw and heard Margaret take up her guitar and strike four sonorous chords in "A". Then, as if they had been there in person, they heard themselves sing "The Bull-Frog" and all the other songs they had sung, far off in space. They heard Margaret suggest that Dorothy play some "real music", and heard Seaton's comments upon the quartette. "In that, youngster, you were entirely wrong," said Orion, stopping the reproduction for a moment. "The entire planet was listening to you very attentively - we were enjoying it as no music has been enjoyed for thousands of years. … When you have time, in some period of labor, we would appreciate it very much if you four would sing for us again, would give us more of your vast store of youthful music, for we can now preserve it exactly as it is sung. But much as we enjoyed the quartette, Mrs. Seaton, it was your work upon the violin that took us by storm. Beginning with tomorrow, my companion intends to have you spend as many periods as you will, playing for our records. We shall now have your music."

     "If you like it so well, wouldn't you rather I'd play you something I hadn't played before?"

     "That is labor. We could not..."

     "Piffle!" Dorothy interrupted. "Don't you see that I could really play right now, to somebody who really enjoys music; whereas if I tried to play in front of a recorder I'd be perfectly mechanical?"

     " 'At-a-girl, Dot! I'll get your fiddle." … 

     Dorothy swept into "The Melody in F", and as the poignantly beautiful strains poured forth from that wonderful violin she knew that she had her audience with her. Though so intellectual that they themselves were incapable of producing music of real depth of feeling, they could understand and could enjoy such music with an appreciation impossible to a people of lesser mental attainments; and their profound enjoyment of her playing, burned into her mind by the telepathic, almost hypnotic power of the Norlaminian mentality, raised her to heights she had never before attained. Playing as one inspired she went through one tremendous solo after another—holding her listeners spellbound, urged on by their intense feeling to carry them further and ever further into the realm of pure emotional harmony. The bell which ordinarily signaled the end of the period of relaxation did not sound; for the first time in thousands of years the planet of Norlamin deserted its rigid schedule of life - to listen to one Earth-woman, pouring out her very soul upon her incomparable violin.

     The final note of "Memories" died away in a diminuendo wail, and the musician almost collapsed into Seaton's arms. The profound silence, more impressive far than any possible applause, was broken by Dorothy.

     "There - I'm all right now, Dick. I was about out of control for a minute. I wish they could have had that on a recorder - I'll never be able to play like that again if I live to be a thousand years old."

     "It is on record, daughter. Every note and every inflection is preserved, precisely as you played it," Orion assured her. "That is our only excuse for allowing you to continue as you did, almost to the point of exhaustion. While we cannot really understand an artistic mind of the peculiar type to which yours belongs, yet we realized that each time you play you are doing something no one, not even yourself, can ever do again in precisely the same subtle fashion. Therefore we allowed, in fact encouraged, you to go on as long as that creative impulse should endure—not merely for our own pleasure in hearing it, great though that pleasure was; but in the hope that our workers in music could, by a careful analysis of your product, determine quantitatively the exact vibrations or overtones which make the difference between emotional and intellectual music."

      Read that final line again, and this time not just for the humor of it, but for what it says about all of our ever-so-misguided debates over the supposed “conflict” between science and religion. Sadly, for all the ink spilled and syllables uttered on the subject, there ought never to have been any conflict. For just as one would never dream of using a hammer to drive in a screw, or a wrench to dig a hole - in the pursuit of Truth, different tools are required for differing tasks. If you wish to know the mechanics of wave erosion on a beach, nothing beats precision measurement and accurate recording of data. If you want to find out whether a new medicine will benefit those suffering from some ailment, there’s nothing better than a double blind test with a control group and use of placebos to obtain unbiased results. But when you want to know whether a particular business practice is ethical or not, no amount of laboratory testing is going to help you in the least, whereas a quiet hour or two with Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, or perhaps Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, could well give you the answer you’re searching for. If you’re agonizing over whether you ought to propose marriage to the woman you think you love, don’t hope for a solution from any computer simulation or chemistry textbook. Your time would be better spent listening to Rachmaninoff’s Symphony Number 2, or in sitting under a shady tree in the nearest park, watching the clouds pass overhead. And if you’re agonizing over a job offer that means upending your life for the prospect of an increased income, a bit of extra time spent in silent prayer before Mass, or a Rosary or two before bedtime, would assuredly give you a more definitive answer than working out the variables using a Bayesian Decision Model.

     The Norlaminians may well have attained to the summits of scientific knowledge, but somewhere along the way they lost track of their soul, and that loss was keenly felt. It took the sublime art of Dorothy Seaton (who not that long before her bravura performance told her husband the following: “I'm going to leave you for a while. I can't really understand even a radio, and just thinking about those funny, complicated rays and things you are going after makes me dizzy in the head.”) to help them recover it… That is, if they did. Orlon’s closing words cause one to doubt.

     Not long ago, I chanced upon a letter that British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams had written to Swaffham Primary School, after he learned that a House there was to be named after him: “I am very much pleased to think that one of your Houses is going to bear my name. I am myself a musician and I believe that all the arts, and especially music, are necessary for a full life. The practical side of living of course is important, and this, I feel sure is well taught in your school: such things teach you how to make your living. But music will show you what to do with your life. It is necessary to know facts, but music will enable you to see past facts to the very essence of things in a way which science cannot do. The arts are the means by which we can look through the magic casements and see what lies beyond.” (my emphasis)

Odysseus, the great teller of tales, launched out on his story:
“Alcinous, majesty, shining among your island people,
What a fine thing it is to listen to such a bard
As we have here – the man sings like a god.
The crown of life, I’d say. There’s nothing better
Than when deep joy holds sway throughout the realm
And banqueters up and down the palace sit in ranks,
Enthralled to hear the bard, …
This, to my mind, is the best that life can offer.”
                                                           (The Odyssey, Book 9, Lines 1-8, 11)