Sunday, September 11, 2011

Anti-Copernicus (I)

“There was nothing special about her. She was as perfectly ordinary as anybody else in the world. And the world itself was perfectly unexceptional, ordinary, banal, in cosmic terms a Copernican un-wonder.”-- Anti-Copernicus

Anti-Copernicus is a short novel E-published by Adam Roberts. It's a work about where the center is. Since the center is in the Western tradition troped as an exceptional place, it's also about what is ordinary and what isn't.

I've chosen to write about Adam Roberts' novels within arbitrary formal structures – for this piece, that means I've written within sections labelled according to the spheres of the Ptolemaic system: Earth, Moon, Mercury and so on. But in the comical reversal that often accompanies formally structured attempts of this sort, I found myself writing more and more; Adam's shortest novel-like work will go with my longest blog post. So I'm just going to post the first section now, “Earth”, and follow with the rest later.


Anti-Copernicus, and Adam's own introductory post about it, mention dark energy and the Fermi Paradox. SF has this idea that it is a literature of ideas. The text doesn't mention, oddly enough, the Anthropic Principle.

I think that a plot summary is required. (And yes, these are spoilers.) Ange Mlinko is a space pilot, considered for a First Contact mission with the only aliens who humanity has yet encountered. Instead she gets sent on an ordinary commercial run. An ordinary space voyage for her, of course, is not ordinary for us the readers. During the course of her trip to Mars to deliver a cargo of barnacles, a series of accidents kill the two other crew members on board, and a in a final accident that threatens her own life, she meets one of the aliens after all.

The alien explains that all other intelligent life in the universe has one creature per species (or one hive mind per species, but in any case only one intelligence), and that the three aliens who banded together to contact Earth are not representatives, but each their entire species. They are aghast at the billions of humans living on Earth, because intelligence produces dark energy, and the tremendous amount of dark energy produced by humankind will over a long term destabilize the cycles of expansion and contraction of the universe, leading to continual expansion of the universe and its effective destruction as a support for life. Therefore Earth is really the center of the Universe, or at least a very special place unlike any other; the dark energy isn't and hasn't been produced in these quantities anywhere else. But it is a destructive center. The aliens die, overwhelmed by the effect of so many nearby intelligences, and Ange, a rather withdrawn person, decides after her near-death experience to have a child.

It's a satire, of course. But at the center are these ideas, which work through SF escalation to treat overpopulation as more than Earth-ecosystem-threatening -- as universe-threatening. Does this work as hard SF?

Having posed the question, I'll immediately qualify it. I was an astrophysics grad student ABD (all but dissertation) when I left that field to do environmental work. As a result, I'm weirdly overqualified to comment on this particular text. Hard SF is very difficult to do well for a reader with scientific training, or perhaps only I find it so. The only hard SF that I've found very convincing is Stanislaw Lem's, and, fitfully, Kim Stanley Robinson's (though his still has its gaffes, as with his Mars windmills that heat up the planet). With this text, I immediately thought that the “intelligence generates dark energy” idea was extremely doubtful. It relies on a lot of handwaving about the observer changing the observed that's part of a continuing misunderstanding of quantum behavior beloved by science popularizers, because after all it puts we the observers at the center through the fallacy of equivocation, treating “observer” used as a physics term of art as the same as “living, intelligent and perceiving creature”. In terms of biological science, too, I wondered how it was that these aliens were so verbally communicative, so fluent. Why would they have evolved the capacity for speech when there was literally no one else on each of their home planets to talk to? For that matter, how could they evolve at all, when their singular nature means that there's no population for variation and natural selection to work on?

But this is a story, and unlike Kepler's Somnium (the first work of SF, possibly) the science ideas are in the service of the story, not the reverse. So the question is, do the scientific ideas help make the story work? In particular, a lot of the impact of the work is the reader's bogglement at the idea of each intelligence being a whole civilization, solitary and self-contained and rare. That seems unlikely, doesn't it? – the idea that our multiplicity is unique, and that makes the Earth unique. Shouldn't we trust our intuition that it's really unlikely that we live in a one-of-a-kind place?

It turns out, we shouldn't.

“The phrase "anthropic principle" first appeared in Brandon Carter's contribution to a 1973 Kraków symposium honouring Copernicus's 500th birthday. Carter, a theoretical astrophysicist, articulated the Anthropic Principle in reaction to the Copernican Principle, which states that humans do not occupy a privileged position in the Universe. As Carter said: "Although our situation is not necessarily central, it is inevitably privileged to some extent."

That's a quote from wikipedia. It's so apt that I'm I don't know whether Adam didn't encounter it, or chose not to include it, but in any event it's one of those rare cases in which an astrophysical concept will illuminate a story rather than serving as backdrop.

How to explain the Anthropic Principle? It says that an observer – in the sense of “living, intelligent creature”, this time – requires an environment that supports its existence, or there can be no observation. Why does the Universe have fundamental constants that support our kind of life? We don't know why, but we know that it has to – otherwise we couldn't be here to see it. Therefore, if there was some kind of random variation or multiplicity of universes with different fundamental constants, we would only see the universe that supports us, no matter how unlikely it was, or how long it took for that universe to appear. We can't appear and observe it until it comes into existence. What if the conditions that created life on Earth were incredibly unlikely? Well, we wouldn't know if they were, because we can only appear on Earth, even if it were the only such planet in the multiverse.

This is a strange, de-centering principle for scientists. We're used to thinking that if we have no information at all, the safest guess is that we're in the middle of a Gaussian bell-shaped distribution of some kind – many things look like bell-shaped curves, and it gets increasingly unlikely that you're out on one of the tails of one. But it doesn't work that way in this case. Would life be likely to appear on planets like ours? We can reason from our knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology that the same kind of processes that produced us would work elsewhere. What we can't do is just look around and say that we're more likely to be average than not. Scientists seem not to like the Anthropic Principle; they grumble about it being unfalsifiable, not really part of science at all, and it's rather stuffily been classed as part of philosophy.

I like the Anthropic Principle. When I was young it was one of the first things that I really got about astrophysics; a paper or conference presentation that someone had summarized claimed that since we saw some kind of astrophysical object nearby, it was likely that they were common. But you can't do that, I said, at least not in cases where the object could have some possible connection to life on Earth. Nearby supernovas? They create heavy elements which later became part of our planet, so if life requires an old supernova within a certain distance, then we will see one at the right distance, even if that's really rare. Large moons? Some people theorize that our moon was important for the emergence of life because of the tides that it creates, so, again, if what we needed was an unusually large moon for a planet of the size of the Earth, we'll see one, even if they almost never appear around other planets.

I remember my realization about the Anthropic Principle occurring when I was a freshman or sophomore in college, 17 or 18, which seems young and perhaps my memory is falsified to a later event from grad school, but at any rate what matters in something trivial like this is what I remember, not what really happened. Why am I bothering with telling this personal story now? Because a significant sub-thread in Anti-Copernicus is how supposedly rational decisions are really made on the basis of very basic biological drives. When I had my realization about the Anthropic Principle, I was in a serious relationship with a girl a couple of years older who'd already decided on astrophysics as her field. She was impressed that I'd seen something wrong with the paper that she hadn't. At the time I had no idea what area of physics I wanted to go into. I only knew that I didn't want to go into anything that could lead to weapons development. So... astrophysics seemed interesting enough, a safely theoretical field without the necessity of working for some defense contractor someday. My rational decision to go to grad school in astrophysics was probably more about the warm glow of admiration from my first sexual partner than anything else.

To get back to general matters. The odd thing about what Brandon Carter in the quote above describes as our inevitably privileged position in the Universe is that it acts rather like “privilege” does, as used casually in accusations on the Internet when someone is supposed to be writing out of social privilege of some kind. It's there, but we just can't see it. It's always been part of our environment, and we're so used to getting its benefits that they're part of our assumptions; we have difficulty imagining anything else. And unlike the various forms of social privilege, there really isn't anyone else we can compare life experiences with. A white, heterosexual, middle-class etc person can meet other people and begin to see that what they thought was normal is really a set of special benefits that they get that other people don't. No contact with aliens means that in a larger sense we can't do this; we are solitary despite our multiplicity. Maybe other intelligent life really is all singular while ours is multiple. It seems very unlikely to me, for various physics-chemistry-biology reasons. But we can't tell simply through introspection, because even if our kind of life is really rare, we'd be there to see ourselves. A radical distrust in our intuition is what's required by the Anthropic Principle.

And now back to SF. The whole point of SF being a literature of ideas is not that it's supposed to be ideas about geosynchronous satellites that people later actually invent. Well, some fans think that it is, but I don't. It's supposed to be about ideas that de-center you, make you rethink where you are in ways that more realistic literature can't, because reality as we know it doesn't furnish what we need to see our position of privilege. Hard SF is supposed to do that with scientific ideas, ideas that have force because, as far as we know, they're really true. That is what is essential to hard SF, not scientific plausibility in all of the story's supports.

So, does Anti-Copernicus work as hard SF?

I think it does.


  1. The trouble with taking Anti-Copernicanism as your theme is that nearly all fiction (and especially science fiction) is already Anti-Copernican: the hero or heroine really is at the centre of the fictional universe; the events of the universe really are set up just so that they can save the day.

  2. Thanks, Gareth. I think that Adam Roberts does try to address this within the text as explicitly as he can without getting overtly metafictional. I'll write more about it in a later section.

  3. You did not like the "making sense = generating dark energy" idea? I loved it. Shannon meets Perec kind of stuff.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous. I sort of liked it. But as I imply above, I'm an awful science snob; it's hard for me to shift from thinking of dark energy as something you study to thinking of it as a metaphor or as a 'pataphysical joke. Are the Shannon and Perec that you mean Claude Shannon and Georges Perec?

    By the way, are people having technical difficulties in commenting here? I can't comment on my own blog when I use Firefox; I have to use Safari. If you're commenting anonymously because of that, I can try to look for a workaround.

  5. That idea is not new of course, I remember Bob Shaw had a novel in which love was one of the fundamental forces of the universe, counteracting the expansion of the universe. Silly then, silly now.

    " It says that an observer – in the sense of “living, intelligent creature”, this time – requires an environment that supports its existence, or there can be no observation. "

    Which is right as far as it goes, but this principle should never be taken as meaning that therefore we are special, as it usually is. People look at all the things have to be just right to get to us, usually overstate the unlikeliness of it all, then decide this means something profound.

  6. Adam Roberts is hardly a "Hard SF" author, as he himself has admitted, and has been mocked many times for the basic scientific howlers perpetrated in his work. I think of him as more of a Magic Realist, despite his use of SF tropes.

  7. Thanks, Martin and yammerhant. Martin, your'e right that the Anthropic Principle certainly shouldn't be taken to mean that we're special. It means that we can't tell, merely by looking at our environment, whether we're special or not. We could be the most common type of basic life-form in the Universe, and that would be just as consistent with the Anthropic Principle as if we were a one-off.

    yammerhant, I think the mocking was in the context of his book Gradisil, which was his attempt to write in the basic story-type of Heinlein if I remember correctly. For trying to do so, he came to the attention of Heinleinesque fans... but in any case, yes, I agree that he's not a hard SF author in general. He tries out different styles on occasion, but I'd describe him in general as a literary SF writer. Magical realism doesn't fit; there's nothing magical-realist about, say, New Model Army to take only one example.

  8. The anthropic principle, in its various flavors is essentially tautologous and contributes little to any empirical world-view.
    Its main merit is that it does draw attention to the high degree of "fine tuning" and directionality which is observed, not only in the much vaunted physical constants, but even more strikingly in many facets of chemistry and biology. The appropriate and timely availability of the prerequisites for the evolution of technology is a particular aspect underlined in the wide evolutionary model advanced in "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?" (free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website)

  9. Thanks, Peter. You're right that the Anthropic Principle is often said to be tautologous; a good deal of math is as well, but that doesn't keep it from providing insight.

    I notice that you've been flacking your book in a number of blog comments on various blogs. That's all right, I suppose, since you're taking the trouble to write a pretty-much-relevant comment each time, and since after all it's a free book. But a few minor matters: 1) if you're referring to a Web site, might as well give the URL, 2) you're using your name, which is good, but it's still polite to say something like "I'm recommending my book", 3) on the off chance that you're not a crank, I should point out that your Web site is in Universal Crank Style (weird font sizes, sentences of different colors, one rhetorical question after another separated by space, with no indication of what your answers will be without going to a long text somewhere), 4) you provide three different e-book formats, none of which my computer supports (and I'm certainly not loading a reader). What about a plain Word or even ASCII file? See number (II) in this series.