Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Somebody up there like me

By Alan Coren, from Bumf;




Anyone who knew me in the days when I was a free-floating polymer blob will tell you I'm a changed man. Taller, more shoes, all that. Even those who remember me in later years, as a sixty-foot fruit--eater covered in trim triangular slabs and sporting a rather fetching rockproof ruff, would pass me in Fleet Street today with hardly a second glance.
I have come on a bit, since then.

Nor need we go that far back in order to launch this particular little poser. Why, it is scarcely three million years, if the good Professor Leakey is to be believed, since my fun-filled time in the Olduvai Gorge, loping from hummock to hummock and wondering whether, my ground-grazed knuckles were Mother Nature's way of telling me it was time to try something a little more erect. Four feet tall and a parting right down the middle of my back - goodness me, if my friends could see me now!

Look at the poignant little sketch above, and prepare to catch my drift. You will, I know, have already recognized it, since it is as engraved upon our memories as ineradicably as it is upon Pioneer 10: it is Mr and Mrs Man, or as Guardian anthropologists might have it, Ms and Mr Woman, stark naked and off on a mission to embarrass the more prudish inhabitants of interstellar space. For, just a short while ago and amid the falling tears and popping corks of Houston, the happy couple broke from the constraints of our backyard solar system and set off on their illimitable wander.

Free, white, and twenty-one, as it were. I'll come to that later. They were gummed to Pioneer 10 a long time ago, of course, in 1972, when it first found lift-off. This probably explains the somewhat dated hi-tech Habitat-austere furniture on their patio. It probably also explains the fact that it is the man who is saying hallo to the things out there; today, twelve years and a whole heap of raised consciousness on, they would both be saying hallo, otherwise Congress would bow to feminist pressure and take the money back.
Just shows you how far we have come in twelve years.

And do you know how long Mr and Mrs Man are going to be out there on their intergalactic Grecian urn, forever panting and forever young? 'Scientists have estimated Pioneer's shortest possible lifetime at 2 billion years’, according to The Times. The italics, as they say, are mine. Two thousand million years is how long they're going to be out there, at the very least; however, 'moving through frictionless space, where the chance of collision with another body is so remote that it is beyond imagination, Pioneer 10 could continue its journey to infinity.' I did not bother bunging in any italics that time; if a thing is beyond imagination, it is certainly beyond mere typesetting.

Not, mind, that every aspect of the matter is beyond imagination, else I should not be buttonholing you today. For it is clear that an outside chance exists of Mr and Mrs Man bumping into something between now and infinity, else NASA would not have thrown good money away on Benvenuto Cellini Jr. You know the kind of rigorous scrutiny the poor souls come under, there is always some interfering busybody trying to make out a case for feeding Ethiopia or curing cancer rather than sending a tin postcard into the unending void.
So, then: we are presented with the very remote possibility, but a possibility nonetheless, that sometime in the next infinity or so, an intelligent thing from out there will hear a bump in the night, if they have nights, and go downstairs, ditto, and find itself facing the picture in question. If they have faces.
Now, let us first trim assumptions, for the sake of space. This space, not that. Let us not go down that road which starts with the reflection that the thing out there - could be a smart flower, could be a sapient gas, could be a god in a shower of gold - will take one glance at the figures and not recognize them as Earthlings at all, but as, what? A trade mark, perhaps? After all, thinking along NASA's cockeyed lines, if you sent a Mercedes-Benz into outer space, might not the welcoming committee on, say, Betelgeuse assume that the inhabitants of Earth were all three-pointed stars?
No, let us give the designers the benefit of the enormous doubt and accept that when the inhabitants of some unimaginably distant speck takes his eye out of his pocket and examines, the NASA plaque more closely, he will jump to the immediate conclusion that here is a snapshot of that nice young couple from across the universe.
Fine, fine; first hurdle successfully negotiated.
You have, I would guess, already picked up my scattered inklings about the second hurdle. We shall not even go so far as to say that all this is happening at the minimum survival limit of two thousand million years, we shall be generous and say that Pioneer 10 will bump into alien clever dicks in a scant million years from now.
Folding evolution's Rorschach test back on the hinge of 1984, have you the remotest idea what Earthlings will look like in a million years' time, given how they were a million years back? Even if the Greenham Commoners are wrong and the handful pf ennucleated survivors have not been mutated into polka-dotted gastropods with seventeen heads and a talking navel, are there not solid grounds for assuming that natural evolution will have taken a heavy toll of the NASA artist's impression? To cite the tiniest example: in Britain, the average height of a man over the past hundred years has risen by three inches. Do you have a calculator handy?
See?
I am not of course guaranteeing that our descendants in 1,000,1984 AD will all be 2500 feet tall, you can never tell about evolutionary roulette, some of them may be no taller than the Eiffel Tower, but whichever way you slice it, it is going to be extremely misleading to the things gathered round the wreck of Pioneer 10. Or take shape: glance again at the rather plump 1972 lady in the picture. Is she not unquestionably pre-diet boom, pre-Fonda, pre-F-plan? Today, she would be twenty pounds slimmer; in a million years time, she could well be a thousand feet of thread, wound, perhaps, on a large reel for convenience, and living on amoebae.
Mind you, diet could well be a passing fad, just like employment: by 1,000,1984, such world as there is could be entirely run by robots, leaving the thousand·foot humanoids nothing to do but eat. Our grandchildren may very well turn out to be fifty-ton lumps of suet, capable of nothing but rolling around and watching breakfast television.
If Warfarin-resistant rats haven't taken over, of course, or malathion-gobbling giant greenfly, grown huge and clever and nasty. The mutant options, the evolutionary permutations, the protoplastic swings and roundabouts are unimaginably limitless; compared with speculating about them, thinking of infinity is a doddle.
As for the odds on Pioneer 10 not heaving-to alongside something intelligent before the further end of its two-thousand-million-year manufacturer's warranty, the guesswork should not even be embarked upon without a doctor's certificate. We Earthlings could, by then, be itinerant warts, we could be chattering fungi, we could all be members of the Labour Party National Executive. .
So, then, what might be the outcome of all this? The things from Planet X, beside themselves (unless, of course, they are already built that way) at the thought of intelligent life ten billion billion miles away, will hop/crawl/bounce/ drip into their own spacecraft, and set out on the long trip Earthwards. A thousand million years later, and sick of tinned food, they will chuck open the hatch and hurl themselves onto the surface of this planet, gabbling: 'Take us to your leader! Where are the women with the big jugs?' What will happen to this already battered old globe when they discover the truth, I dare not even begin to imagine. Regret at evolving beyond free-floating polymer blobs won't be the half of it.

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