The Long View 2006-04-28: The Fermi Paradox; Atlas Shrugged; Oil Spike

Why are we alone?

Why are we alone?

Since John points to his 1996 essay on Noospheres here, I went and updated that essay with a table of contents and hyperlinks.

I've always found the Drake equation to be something of a category mistake, but I at least appreciate people attempting to think things through.

The Fermi Paradox; Atlas Shrugged; Oil Spike

The Fermi Paradox has become more paradoxical if this report is to be believed:

Gamma ray bursts, or GRBs, are focused beams of gamma radiation emitted from the magnetic poles of black holes formed during the collapse of ancient, behemoth stars. They can also form when dead neutron stars merge with each other or with black holes.

It's been speculated that if a GRB went off near our solar system, and one of the beams hit Earth, it could set off a global mass extinction.

But in a new study to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers found that GRBs tend to occur in small, metal-poor galaxies and estimated that the likelihood of one occurring in our own metal-rich Milky Way is less than 0.15 percent....But in their study, Stanek and colleagues found that GRBs tend to occur in small, deformed galaxies that are poor in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium...Planets need metals to form, so a low-metal galaxy—while more likely to have GRBs—will have fewer planets and fewer chances for life.

Readers will recall that the gamma-ray hypothesis had become the leading explanation for why intelligent life did not long ago overrun the observable universe. (To paraphrase Enrico Fermi: "If extraterrestrials exist, then where are they?") The answer to the paradox was thought to be that Earth is the one-in-a-million biologically active world that escaped gamma-ray sterilization: Simon Conway Morris himself seemed satisfied with this logic. Now we are back to square one. I have my own explanation, of course.

* * *

Speaking of alien life forms, I note this news about Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged:

Lionsgate shrugging--'Atlas' pic mapped

Though I was never a Randian, I always thought that The Fountainhead was charming. Atlas Shrugged is not charming, but it does have a certain appalling fascination. For the life of me, though, I cannot imagine the mainline film industry making a movie about the evils of high marginal tax rates and the intrinsic turpitude of affirmative-action programs. (Rand was prescient in foreseeing those, though in her book they are designed to mitigate disparities of wealth rather than the effects of race and gender discrimination.) In any case, the interesting thing will be how a film handles the religion question: John Galt's Speech, remember, is the most sustained attack on religious belief in 20th-century popular literature. A sufficiently malicious screenwriter could divert the film from economics to the menace of the Religious Right.

* * *

Ayn Rand would have loved the current run up in gas prices; which is to say, she would have been vastly amused by the futile pandering reflected in headlines like G.O.P. Senators Hurry to Quell Furor Over Gas:

Senate Republicans tried on Thursday to get the upper hand in the escalating political battle over high gasoline prices by proposing a $100 rebate for taxpayers and by suggesting that they might increase taxes on oil-industry profits.

Rand is no longer with us. We do have Ann Coulter, however. Though more conventionally partisan than Rand, she is also sometimes right:

When the free market does the exact thing liberals have been itching to do through taxation, they pretend to be appalled by high gas prices, hoping the public will forget that high gas prices are part of their agenda.

There are proximate causes for the current price spikes. One is a regulation (just relaxed) that required refineries to use a new gasoline additive; the refiners handled the transition badly. Another is the increase in petroleum price futures occasioned by geopolitical fears. The remote causes, however, are that demand for oil is up worldwide and there are no cheap ways to increase supply. No doubt the current spike will decline again, but we will get more of these events, some of them much more serious, which will move us away from a petroleum economy. This is the reality of which "Peak Oil" is a parody.

* * *

Many of you have asked yourselves, whatever happened to Bertie Wooster, the slow-normal young gentleman whose life was made possible only by the perpetual intervention of the omnicompetent Jeeves? Well, he went to medical school, moved to Princeton, acquired some post-vocalic "R"s, and now he's Dr. House

The penny dropped about this just yesterday and I still find it hard to believe.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the May issue of First Things, Fr. Neuhaus has this ominous reflection:

I've never seen anybody remark on this American habit of calling the children of the baby boomers Generation X, while those who are now under age 25 or so are called Generation Y. There is only one letter left. The assumption is that the next generation will be the last? Just asking.

Of course, we are still not quite sure about those gamma rays.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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