Tag Archives: Star Trek

Any Fool Can Do It

SurvivorOn October 9th, 1989, I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Survivors” that made quite an impression on me. In it, Captain Picard and his crew encounter an elderly couple living in an unnatural oasis on a devastated planet. It turns out that the wife is a phantasm, an unknowing replica of the actual wife, now long dead. She was conjured by her husband Kevin, a godlike being who was devoted to her before her death and who has remained so centuries after.

By the way, Kevin was played by the iconic character actor John Anderson (see here). You probably don’t know his name, but if you watched any television from the early 50’s to the early 90’s, you cannot fail to recognize his distinctively Lincoln-esque countenance and voice.

Anyway, at the end Kevin reveals his shameful secret. When the planet he was living on with his wife was attacked by hostile aliens called the Husnock, he tried his best to use his powers to trick or dissuade them. Those efforts failed. Refusing to take any life, even those of the deplorable Husnocks, Kevin stood passively by as they devastated his planet and killed his wife along with the rest of her people.

The anguish of this loss caused him to lose control of himself, releasing a momentary outburst of uncontrolled rage. As Kevin told it:

“I went insane. My hatred exploded, and in an instant of grief, I destroyed the Husnock. I didn’t kill just one Husnock, or a hundred, or a thousand. I killed them all. All Husnock everywhere.”

What touched me was not merely the poignant tale of grief and loss and shame and regret. What touched me was what was implied by the story. What touched me was what else the story of Kevin teaches us.

Take note that Kevin was essentially a god. Unlike Thanos, Kevin didn’t need to expend all the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. It only required one stray thought for Kevin to selectively exterminate billions of lives. He was that powerful.

So after watching this episode, I asked myself the logical question. Given all that power, and given Kevin’s deep love and mourning for his wife, why didn’t he simply think her back into existence? Why didn’t he bring back all her people and restore her planet? In fact, given his deep regret, why didn’t he bring back the Husnock and direct them along a better path? Of course he would have… if he could.

The only answer is, he couldn’t.

So the truth, the revelation, the epiphany for the viewer must be that any fool can destroy. Tearing down is easy. It can be done with one errant thought. But even an omnipotent god cannot easily create. Even one as powerful as Kevin cannot in a million years ever recreate what he can mindlessly destroy in an instant.

We humans are certainly not gods, but in this regard we are the same as Kevin. We can easily, even unthinkingly, break a dish, crush a rose, tear someone down, shoot a gun, dash a hope, take a life, smash a historical relic, burn a building, bomb a city, nuke a country, even devastate a planet. Any fool can destroy. But it is immensely difficult, even impossible, to create or restore any of those things.

And what makes us immeasurably worse than Kevin is when we take pride and joy in destroying. When we believe that destroying makes us powerful. It does not. Any fool can destroy. Fools destroy because it makes them feel powerful.

However, it takes real strength and true genius to create.

This applies not only to physical things but to ideas. Any fool can knock down ideas. Any fool can pick them apart and tear them to pieces.  It takes an exceptional person to conceive new ideas and to build on the ideas of others rather than take delight in crushing them.

And this applies to ideas like Democracy as well as to our institutions. It required generations of strong and wise people to create our democratic ideals and institutions. But it only takes a few short years for a weak-minded and craven fool like Donald Trump to mindlessly tear them all irretrievably asunder. Feeling power and even pride in the “dismantling of the administrative state” – without building something stronger and better upon it – is the work of fools.

And we have no shortage of fools.

What Aliens Look Like

We aren’t likely to ever meet an alien. As I argued in a previous post, although it is a statistical certainty that alien life must exist, the laws of physics simply make it implausibly improbable that they could ever visit us or we them (see here). The most likely way we might learn what aliens once looked like would be if we happen to pick up an interstellar message in a bottle from some distant ancient civilization, their own version of Voyager with candid snapshots and videos from back home.

But we can make educated guesses based on the fundamental design constraints of the elemental building blocks and physical processes that apply throughout the universe. For example, intelligent aliens must have a lower and upper size limit based on fundamental constraints of molecular dimensions and gravity.

We can similarly surmise much more. For example, any intelligent alien species is likely to be highly mobile – for that they require large bursts of energy – for that they require a fluid chemical transfer system – for that they require a variable speed pump controlled by a central nervous system that adjusts the amplitude and frequency of pumping based upon a large amount of sensor data – and that control mechanism would have to be autonomic so that the pumping controller is highly responsive and unaffected by their state of consciousness.

So, intelligent alien species are likely to have circulatory and nervous systems that are mechanically and functionally quite similar to our own. For vision they are likely to have two sensors placed up high for optimum line of sight and depth perception. They are likely to be similarly similar in the design of their other major systems. In short, after looking past superficial differences, alien life would almost certainly be quite familiar to human physicians and biologists.

It would be foolishly egotistical to imagine that all alien life will be exactly like us and the other species present on Earth. Certainly there would be dramatic and astounding variations that we cannot begin to imagine. But it would also be equally foolish to imagine that the bulk of species in the universe would not evolve following much the same processes with much the same results as life here. A human exobiologist could almost certainly be trained to understand, diagnose, and treat almost any form of alien life.

hortaIn Star Trek, after Doctor McCoy got over his initial revulsion (You expect me to treat that thing Jim?!?), he was able to patch up even the exotically alien silicon-based Horta with some simple spackle compound.

But apart from exceptions like the Horta, Star Trek and most every science fiction universe depicts very human-like aliens. This implicit assumption of similarity is made mostly so that alien creatures will be relatable and to make them playable by human actors with minimal make-up and costumes.

AlienBut we create human-like creatures even when there are no technical constraints. The astoundingly terrifying alien created by HR Giger is remarkably human-like with 2 arms, 2 legs, a head, a tail, a mouth, and so on. Despite having acid for blood, his alien follows the evolutionary design model of a human quite closely. It is likely not the case, as many imagine, that such alien depictions represent an unimaginative human conceit and lack of imagination. Rather, it is likely that such physics-defying aliens are actually much more fanciful than evolution is mechanically capable of producing – on any planet.

And let me be clear. Its unfathomably unlikely that any alien could remotely pass as human and walk amongst us undetected – that’s purely a movie fancy as unrealistic as aliens with acid for blood that can eat through feet of metal. However, they will be biologically similar in function if not form. They will not have any superpowers or godlike abilities that defy basic chemistry and physics because they can not. If they can fly they will need wings. And as any dolphin can tell you, there is a fundamental limit to how far they could advance without appendages that allow them to manipulate their environment.

Even many of us who are wise enough to understand that god cannot exist are still far too willing to remain agnostic in insisting that there might be aliens out there with what would effectively be godlike powers.

If my hypothesis of fundamental similarity is true, and I suggest that it must be more true than not, it should encourage us that we’re not actually missing out on as much as we might imagine because we are effectively bed-ridden here on Earth. Aliens would be marvelous to see, but evolution has offered us a pretty representative sampling of the range of life typically found in the universe.

Unless a message in a bottle lands on our Earthly beaches, we’re unlikely to ever know for sure how typical we are. Even then, that would give us only one more example of life. But we can make some pretty good assumptions about the nature of life in the universe without direct experience. And it is likely that the range of actual life in the universe is no where near as wide as our unconstrained imaginations.

So what do aliens look like? Probably a lot more like us than we might imagine.