I want to be considered a rationalist but I find it very hard to defeat the hormones that often provoke me to irrational responses. I don’t want to be accused of being an alarmist but there really are some cataclysmic things we should worry about.
I wrote the following comment the other day in response to a comment posted on my journal. The subject was the concept of knowledge.
‘I’m of a rationalist persuasion and believe that closely examining nature is hugely beneficial. I have no more idea of what constitutes my consciousness than I do of what’s the other side of a black hole. But I’m human, so I’m evolved to be curious. I expect that there will be testable hypotheses for these in a future beyond mine.
I’m certain that infinity is finite just as I’m sure that there was a time before the Big Bang. I have confidence in these vague limits by extrapolating from the work of others. Perhaps these are untestable, unprovable but they are not irrational.
In short, I’m not an epistemologist and I remain unsure what knowledge is but I expect it to be testable, truthful and accepted. Knowledge should have at least these three qualities.’
I was also wondering about the global response to pandemic when I was thinking about rationalism (which in English has an unsettling rhyme with nationalism). I don’t consider humankind’s response to the Covid-19 disease rational. I think it’s becoming increasingly irrational which is an irony given that humans have been relatively successful in suppressing the contagion.
We saw Mars shining bright and rusty red just before midnight last night. I think that the red planet is a useful place to consider during our pandemic. There is probably no life on Mars and that’s because Mars lacks perhaps the most important thing that we have on Earth. Some will jump to the importance of water but no, Mars has lost its magnetic field.
I want to emphasise the magnetic shield that field Mars has lost rather than the absence of it. It used to have one, it seems to once have had water judging by the fluid-carved topography.
Back on the first night of September, 1859 the sun did something that we shouldn’t forget. There was a massive solar coronal mass ejection that induced the largest geomagnetic storm ever recorded here on Earth. You probably don’t really appreciate how important space weather is to life on this planet. Given our reliance on electricity and magnetism, you should pay attention to the many the storms that have damaged power grids, radio stations and electronic communications and that none of these were as big as in 1859.
There was an associated white light flare that was observed by British astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson and today, such super-flares as in 1859 are named Carrington Events.
There is no PlanetB has been the refrain of environmentalists in recent years. It might be that the biggest threat to us is not a virus and not our insatiable appetite for devouring the resources on the planet. It may well be the Sun. Perhaps a Carrington Event will be the broom that sweeps the planet clean of us and our viruses.
Eugene Parker proposed a model to explain space weather in 1957. It was hugely contentious when published yet was fully excepted within six years. It helped Parker that the Russians beat him to the evidence by sending out a probe in 1959 where they confirmed the solar winds he predicted. Not just occasional puffs or gusts of wind, there is a constant stream of wind from the sun. Hideously powerful, dwarfing the hurricane winds that cross empty oceans here on earth. Solar winds are made of plasma rather than air and you love the auroras they create when they impinge on our planet.
Let’s also mention the case of tsunamis where water carries the energy. Some people were accepting that science could describe the mechanisms behind the earthquake that caused the 2004 tsunami but not ‘why’ it happened. Many seemed to need to invoke a spiritual hand. Richard Dawkins wrote a letter in rebuttal. ‘Not only does science know why the tsunami happened, it can give precious hours of warning. If a small fraction of the tax breaks handed out to churches, mosques and synagogues had been diverted into an early warning system, tens of thousands of people now dead would’ve been moved to safety.’
There are a plethora of forces that are indifferent to life as we know it. Tsunamis are not considered to be the fault of the nation in whose territory they originate. We don’t name and shame a country of origin for a typhoon. How do you blame a meteor for wiping out the dinosaurs? We surely can’t blame the Sun for coronal mass ejections. But we can blame a country for a disease?
Seriously, humans need to work together rather than in national isolation. The global space research programs actually do this surprisingly well at the moment. And this research is vital if we are to survive.
We need more of the same international cooperation to enshrine public health justice and climate change justice as universal, fundamental human rights.