Andromeda’s gonna get you!

21 Jun

Mathematician and astronomer Fred Hoyle rejected the big bang theory (coining that term in a radio interview put-down) in favour not of creationism but of panspermia – the idea that life on earth originated in micro-organisms arriving from outer space.

Which put Hoyle on a collision course – more on collision courses in a moment – with physics orthodoxy but not, in its fundamentals, with the idea of evolutionary change occurring through the natural selection of random genetic mutation.

He wrote – or co-wrote – decent sci-fi, most famously A For Andromeda, originally as a 1961 TV drama starring Julie Christie with support from Frank Windsor (Sergeant John Watt to Stratford Johns’ Inspector Charlie Barlow in the Beeb’s ground-breaking cop drama, Z-Cars). A year later, A For Andromeda was published as a novel.

(It was on my school reading list in 1964-5. I enjoyed it even though, with the exception of John Wyndham, I was not as a child much drawn to the genre.)

In 2006 it returned to the screen as a film for television starring Tom Hardy: mesmerising as the Jewish gangster in Peaky Blinders, and in Taboo as the resourceful James Keziah Delaney, thorn in the side of the East India Company and its machiavellian chairman, Sir Stuart Strange, better known as Jonathan Pryce. It also featured Paul McCartney’s old flame, Jane Asher.

Of course, these actors have done bigger and arguably better but aside from Pryce and Christie (not the murderer nor the auctioneers, but she of the Madding Crowd) the roles I cite are what made them household names in Britain. But see how I rabbit on! Bet you didn’t know there are more stars in our galaxy than blades of grass on earth. Still less that there are more galaxies in our universe than stars in our galaxy.

One being Andromeda, once thought to be a nebula – an embryo galaxy – but now recognised as the real deal.

Bet you didn’t know, either, that at 2.5 million light years away,1 Andromeda is the most distant object visible – when night sky conditions play ball – to the naked eye. Though, of course, what we are seeing is how things stood in that neck of the woods two and a half million years ago.

And its even less likely you knew that Andromeda’s on a collision course with our Milky Way. Not the chocolate bar but the galaxy housing our solar system. This crunch is set to happen a mere 4.5 billion years hence.

Why the media silence? Does nobody care?

* * *

  1. Getting our heads around the vastness of space is famously difficult. I found a site that converts light years to miles but the resultant figure contained way too many commas and nought-strings. We get some idea of how far 2.5 million light years really is from the fact that, since light travels at approximately 180,000 miles per second, it takes a shade over five and a half seconds to do a million miles. Give it a full hour and it will clock up a respectable 648 million miles. How many miles in two and a half million light years? A tidy few so, if you’re tagging along, take plenty of victuals and don’t count on being home before nightfall is my advice.

19 Replies to “Andromeda’s gonna get you!

  1. I was a bit confused by your definition of “panspermia” as “the idea that life on earth originated in micro-organisms arriving from outer space” as a rival theory to the Big Bang since the BB was a theory that supposedly “explained” how the universe itself came to be and not just how life emerged on Earth. But the Wiki link says,

    “Panspermia …. is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by space dust, meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and also by spacecraft carrying unintended contamination by microorganisms. Distribution may have occurred spanning galaxies, and so may not be restricted to the limited scale of solar systems.”

    So panspermia is a theory of how life emerged rather than how everything did – although it seems to presume that everything, including life, was always here already.

    • You’re right! I always was shaky on scientific stuff. While I’m at it I may have to retract what I said about creationism. The site Famous Scientists says this:

      [Hoyle] coined the phrase ‘Big Bang’ while strenuously denying there had ever been one. He argued for an expanding Steady State universe with no beginning or end.

      A controversial, often outspoken scientist, he never received a Nobel Prize, even though his work on the creation of chemical elements undoubtedly merited one.

      He delighted in taking dissenting positions on many of science’s big questions: he argued that the physical and chemical properties of the universe had been intelligently designed, and that life on Earth had been seeded from space.

      Still, I stand by my assertion that Andromeda’s gonna get us in the end!

  2. Hoyle also wrote another very good book, called “October the First is Too Late” in which the Earth splits into different time zones. In one zone we get a look into the future where war, pollution, over-exploitation of the land and sea and overpopulation ruins civilisation on two or three successive occasions until stability is achieved. A rather chilling little attempt at forecasting, but at the time of writing Global Warming was still in the future, otherwise he might have seen worse coming.

    • If I find the time I might give it a read, Jams. But my kindle is full of books – non fiction and fiction alike – started but not completed. My ideal read these days is the five to ten thousand word essay. That gives the writer sufficient space to get into his or her subject, and me a fighting chance of finishing it in a single sitting. Which is to say, finishing it period.

      Though never really a fan of scifi – not that I disliked it, more that I was too deterred by its geeky image to give it a fair shot – I glimpsed its potential back in the early eighties. Where most realist fiction is compromised by individualist worldviews, sci-fi paints on a bigger canvas. Doris Lessing no less was drawing similar conclusions as her late novels took her down that road.

  3. There is plenty of intelligent science fiction around. I would recommend a JG Ballard short story called “The Subliminal Man” in which the author takes a capitalist consumer society’s constant programme of artificially induced appetite to a nightmarish extreme. There is a Marxist cultural theorist called H. Bruce Franklin who wrote an excellent essay on Ballard which you can find here.

    Of the aforementioned short story, Franklin says:

    “In “The Subliminal Man” Ballard did something extraordinary for him and unusual for any Anglo-American writer of science fiction: he subjected this future automobilized monopoly capitalist society to a rigorous analysis, showing how the psychology of the people within it is determined by the political economy.”

    Granted that Ballard is hardly a Marxist writer, although as Franklin says, his work can nevertheless be revealing for its underlying class point of view. A writer who self-describes as Marxist is China Miéville who’s vast “Perdido Street Station” I’ve read and I was impressed how it had a keen sense of how different forms of society are produced by different environments. Ursula Le Guin was good for that kind of writing too.

    • Apologies if I come across as arrogant but whilst typing in about J G Ballard, I remembered a comment I made about that author on the WSWS. I have located that comment and paste it in here (with a bit of cleaning up):

      Ballard once said, “Marxism is a social philosophy for the poor, and what we need badly now is a social philosophy for the rich.” This may be a key to his work. Obviously he identifies with the rich but feels they lack something that Marx provided for the poor. I would say that what Marx provides is optimism – a progressive approach. And the time when the bourgeoisie could claim to be progressive is long gone. Since they no longer believe in a future, the temptation is to escape into a rose tinted view of the past. To his credit, Ballard never did that. But his visions of the future were tremendously bleak. (Admittedly his Vermillion Sands stories portray a pleasant landscape full of idle rich. But they have little idea of how to fill in their time. And the menials needed to support them are oddly absent.) However, curious though it may sound, I don’t think that Ballard was really writing about the future at all. His answer to the bourgeois dilemma (can’t go back, can’t go forward) was to freeze time – sometimes quite literally as in “The Garden of Time” and “The Crystal World”. It is this that creates that hauntingly static atmosphere throughout his fiction. But that stasis seems to have a sense of dread behind it. It’s as if Ballard intuitively felt that, no matter how much you pretend to have frozen time, time is running out.

      • Possibly by “a social philosophy for the rich” he meant that not in sympathy with the rich, by giving them a tool to develop themselves, but instead that he wanted them to develop a social conscience towards others?

    • Thanks George. I’ve sent the Franklin essay to my kindle. At 10,000 words it stands a fair chance of being finished by me!

      The poly lecturer who introduced me to Marxism also ran a module on sci-fi. I’d already realised, through such as Frank Herbert’s Dune – hugely popular in the hippie culture I still had one foot in – that the genre went far beyond the robots and spaceships of its image but this lecturer offered a critically historic perspective.

      Plus I was at that time – late 70s – reading women writers – Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy and, as noted before, Doris Lessing – who were finding the genre useful for exploring systemic oppression. That’s not easily explored within the realist tradition as a whole, in which almost all sci-fi sits. See my review of Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo, for the why of that.

      • Did you get round to Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”? Fascinating look at a possible anarchist society.

    • An interesting article about Ballard, with much one can agree with. However, I baulked at:
      ” the Marxist rather than the Malthusian view of the population question (i.e., that the world’s ability to support the standard of living for each human being is rapidly increasing, rather than decreasing, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future”

      It has been evident for quite a while now that the worlds “ability to . . . foreseeable future” is made possible only by wholesale destruction of the environment and the driving into extinction of many of the other species which share the planet with us – which will also lead to our own extinction if carried through for much longer. And I disagree that there is a Marxist viewpoint on this. Even if there is, somewhere, Marx would not have been able to foresee the circumstances we find ourselves in now.

      (That is the main point made in Fred Hoyle’s book which I mention above).

  4. You gave me a scare there Phil. When you said,

    “Plus I was at that time – late 70s”

    I thought – you can’t be THAT old! Then I realised you were referring to the 1970s!

    • Totally mortified. We writers strive so hard to avoid inadvertent ambiguity.

      John Lennon too had his moments. Working Class Hero begins with the momentous observation that, “as soon as you’re born, they make you feel small …”

      • That same song also features the line

        “But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see”

        which, if you take the “f” word as a verb instead of an adjective, gives a rather different picure!

          • Lennon’s original intent has been lost. In his assessment, the working class hero has false consciousness and is distracted from his ‘peasant’ status (John was not much given to Marxist distinctions) by consumerism.

            But soon after, the term was repurposed to depict inverse snobbery of the kind lampooned in Monty Python’s – still very funny – 4 Yorkshiremen sketch.

            Later still it was used in Jaws when, not long before we get to the immortal “we need a bigger boat”, Roy Scheider’s Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper and Robert Shaw’s Quint are getting drunk onboard. Quint turns nasty, goading Hooper over his coddled background and blissful ignorance of life’s hardships as experienced by Quint.

            “Don’t give me that working class hero crap”, Hooper retorts.

            • Just checked, to find an anachronism. 4 Yorkshiremen was 1967, Lennon’s song 1970. Am again mortified but the wider point stands. Lennon coined the term and it is still used, albeit with the different meaning implied in both 4 Yorkshiremen and Jaws.

            • Also don’t forget the especially deep antipathy towards Marx in the US, the “land of unlimited opportunity” as Trotsky sarcastically called it!

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