Fred Hoyle An observer of the world and a ponderer on its problems ...
In March 1987 Hoyle wrote a talk called - Paradox in religion, mathematics and science - given at IBM in London.
I shall begin, cost what it might in reputation, by admitting that I was always an indifferent student of the English language. My lack of attention to English came from what I believed to be a sound reason. When I was seven or eight or thereabouts at school my class was given a lesson on the use of the article which is to say when we should associate 'the', 'a' and 'an' with a noun. Part way through the lesson we were told by the teacher to write down examples of sentences employing these various forms of article. With this done, we were then required to read our creations aloud to the rest of the class. What set the schoolroom in an uproar, and changed the course of my life, was when a boy called Johnny Whittingham
"We have an pig at the bottom of our garden."
Instantly I thought to myself: "If Johnny Whittingham had not suffered this lesson he would never in a month of Sundays have written anything as foolish as "an pig". Therefore, this teaching of English is misleading claptrap. Therefore I will have nothing to do with it from now on!" It may possibly seem surprising but this is one of the childhood resolutions that I have adhered to throughout the rest of my life. Since mathematics and English language carried almost equal weight in the early educational system to which I was subjected, this meant that I laboured under some disadvantage, a disadvantage that came within a whisker of losing me my first scholarship. Even so, I ploughed on regardless, never at any time learning such intellectual baggage as parts of speech - tenses and declensions, subjunctives - and that sort of thing. Because I had to make up in mathematics what I lost in English, my resolve had the happy consequence of doing my mathematics quite a bit of good.
From early on I realized that to get away with it I had to spell words at something approaching a middle-of-the-class level of competence. So I gave some attention to spelling, enough but not too much. As the years have passed by I have worked out a system for spelling that has deceived the world into thinking I can spell tolerably well. This I do by dividing words into two classes, those I know I can spell and those I know I cannot. For words like 'fuchsia' or 'diarrhoea' I go instantly to a dictionary, hoping I can remember enough of how such words begin to be able to find them. Just occasionally I get caught out with words like 'sycophant' which I mistakenly think of as 'psychophant'.
In my way of doing things, knowing what to write is dead easy. Like Joan of Arc I listen in my head. Punctuation is also easy. If a voice hesitates I put a comma. If a voice comes to a clear stop I put a full stop. And I do not like to use fancy punctuation marks other than commas and full stops. Then again if a voice sort of loses its direction a bit I start a new paragraph.
The voices come I suppose out of what pschological bigwigs call the unconscious, which in my way of expressing things means out of an immense memory bank which the words I have heard and read throughout my life is stored. Just as we store what we see in some highly organized and clever way, which gives computer software writers severe headaches when they try to imitate it, so our aural memories seem to he organized in a subtle way, with ideas acting in my case as files into which all sorts of words and expressions are put together. The effect is that a specification of an idea gains access to many words all in a moment. But specify a word instead of an idea and I hear nothing, which is why I am quite unable to do crossword puzzles. All I get when a word is specified as an input is a sort of matrix invasion in which the ideas which have been associated with the word in question flick through my mind, but not other words. If I want a synonym for a word I have to go a long way round.
word ⟶ idea ⟶ word
So the way things are stored in brain has been determined by what I have heard and read over more than 60 years.This has happened without my having any knowledge of what words are supposed by linguistic pundits to mean. Strictly speaking, you could say I don't really know the meaning of any word. Of course if you challenged me with easy words like 'house' or 'horse' or even 'horse radish', quite likely I would manage to get by. But there are more than a few words about which I could not tell you whether my notions of what they mean agree even approximately with what the pundits say they mean, words like 'transmogrify', for instance. As long as I use words like 'transmogrify' instinctively, by listening the voice in my head, I have no qualms, but if my attention is drawn by someone else to such words I get a sort of fuzzy feeling. So what it comes down to is that, if you feed me with words instead ideas, I have a straightforward class like 'house' and 'horse' and I have a class like 'transmogrify', rather as I have words I can spell and words I cannot. The point of this rather extended preamble to my paper now emerges into what I hope will be the clear light of day. For when I was asked to speak on 'paradox', I knew in a flash that this was a word in my fuzzy class.
With all that time in the world which older people are supposed to have at their disposal but do not, I sometimes play with fuzzy words. I actually go, after all these years, to some big, powerful dictionary and see what the literary cognoscenti have to say about it. Hence in the first moment when I began to design this talk I rushed to the larger Oxford dictionary, confident that I was due for a good laugh. For 'paradox' there were, as is usually the case, several supposed meanings:
1. Paradox; n. A statement contrary to received opinion.
This did absolutely nothing for me, because it is not at all what I have stored as the meaning of 'paradox' in my mental storage bank. Statements contrary to received opinion are what I call 'unorthodox' or 'dissident" according to whether the opinion in question is of an intellectual nature or a matter of sociology or politics.
2. Paradox; n. A statement seemingly self-contradictory or absurd, though possibly well-founded.
This is closer to what the voice in my head would use 'paradox' to mean, but it is still not quite right.
3. Paradox n. A phenomenon that shows some conflict with preconceived notions of what is possible.
Here was something interestingly different from what I had expected. I had always thought of a paradox as arising from an argument in the head, not from an experiment or observation. When experiment or observation contradicts what we expect from theory, which is to say from preconceived notions, I think of the situation as a 'discovery'.
But this was all to the good, because if I had found in the Oxford dictionary what I take 'paradox' to mean my paper would be at an end. Indeed this whole meeting would be ended, and neither the IBM Corporation nor Leslie Banks would be pleased in the least.
Before I dismissed the dictionary, big and powerful as it was, I did something I always like to do with dictionaries. I took a look at associated words and at words which are spell rather like 'paradox', but which are not in the least like it in meaning. In this enterprise I came up with the following pleasing result:
Paradoxian; n. A genus of large extinct trilobites from the Middle Cambrian
I only came to appreciate paradoxes in later life. When I was young, quite a lot or older people used to try to put me down with elementary mathematical tricks, like formulating a problem verbally which at first sight seemed to require you to find the mean value of some quantity, when all the time it was the mean value of its reciprocal that gave the correct answer. After I had fallen into this kind of trap once or twice, I always worked things out properly instead of giving the wrong answer, which the verbal semantics had been designed to suggest. The older people then lost interest, saying I was not playing fair, and so I lost interest too. And since people referred to this silly kind of misleading semantics as paradoxes I come to think as disparagingly about paradoxes as I did about semantics.
My interest in paradoxes stirred a little when as an undergraduate I encountered somewhat more subtle proposition games, such as betting someone that with 25 people chosen at random at least one pair among them will have birthdays on the same day of the year. Actually with 25 people in the room the odds are distinctly in your favour, for a bet that most non-mathematicians can be persuaded to accept. In fact at 25 people in the room the odds are above 1.25 to 1 in your favour, which is much better than the casinos at Monte Carlo take for themselves. I came on this kind of situation in the depression years of the 1930s when most of us had no money to speak of, so it naturally fascinated me to think that some people actually managed to live quite well on this kind of fairly elementary proposition gambling. But such tricks are not at all what today I would call paradoxes. They were only slightly clever forms of deception.
Nor were the visual tricks which one often saw what nowadays I would call true paradoxes. Even so, visual tricks had the interest that they demonstrated the possibility of our being deceived by what we genuinely believe to be a correct perception, and this indeed is an essential component of a true paradox, namely that we are deceived by what we genuinely believe to be true.
I come now to what I take to be the meaning of true paradox:
Paradox, n. Contradiction reached from two arguments, both of which proceed from premises believed to be true by reasoning thought to be valid.
The value of true paradox is to demonstrate that at least one of the premises or of the modes of reasoning which have been used must be wrong. Paradox does not tell us what is right, but it tells us that something is wrong, and consequently that it is essential to make an effort to sort things out. As in the game of hunt-the-thimble paradox tells us that a thimble is really there to hunt. But it does not tell us where to hunt.
Returning again to my youth, I entirely missed the significance of the first true paradoxes I encountered, the paradoxes of Zeno. So long as the slow tortoise is given a handicap in a race with the swift Achilles, Achilles can never catch it, because by the time Achilles reaches the place where the tortoise is now, the slow tortoise will have advanced, if only by a little, and so Achilles will not have caught it. And so on by endless repetition. Whenever Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise was previously, the tortoise will have moved on, leaving Achilles still with a gap to close. Of course, nobody had any doubt that in a true race any human runner, let alone Achilles, would easily catch a tortoise. Zeno's challenge was to find the error in the argument. To me at the age of 18 or 19 the error seemed obvious, because I knew, or thought I knew, that a finite interval can be subdivided by an infinity of moments of time. What Zeno was doing I felt was to divide the interval required for Achilles to catch the tortoise into an infinity of time values corresponding to an infinity in the distinct moments at which the position of Achilles in relation to that of the tortoise was considered. So far so good, but there was actually a tricky point that I overlooked. As Achilles overhauls the tortoise the gap to be closed becomes smaller and smaller, ultimately becoming infinitesimal. Yet the infinitesimal gap still contains an infinity of points.
This may be fine to someone familiar with a modern course on mathematical analysis, but was it fine for the ancient Greek philosophers? Let me go back for a moment into prehistory, to the days when vast forests covered North Europe and human activities were largely concerned with animal husbandry and carpentry. Joiners would have learned to cut poles and to split timber to approximately specified lengths. They would realise that lengths were satisfactory with certain margins of error. They would also realise that lengths of actual timber were never exactly the same. So the concept of there being many lengths in an interval between some acceptable upper limit and an acceptable lower limit
would have been clear to every working joiner. Somebody might have asked "How many such intermediate lengths could there be?" Since nobody had ever seen more than a finite-number of pieces of timber there would have been no compelling reason for thinking the answer to the question was more than some large finite number. Indeed, society could probably manage better in those days by not troubling itself with the concept of infinity. But then to such a community a paradox of the Zeno type would be a true paradox. In Zeno's actual case the situation was somewhat more subtle, because of the gap between Achilles and the tortoise becoming infinitesimal, but the situation was similar. From this example, it is clear then that a true paradox is to be taken relative to the accepted beliefs of the time. A paradox which genuinely puzzles people in one age does not necessarily puzzle people in a later age.
Zeno is said eventually to have suffered execution, a typical reaction of all societies against uncomformist opinion. Zeno's fate suggests the following little story: To discourage spies, an ancient Greek city in time of war passed a law which required every stranger seeking admission to the city to state the purpose of his visit under pain of execution by hanging should the stated purpose be shown false. One day a stranger, on being required to state the object of his visit to the city, replied: "My purpose in coming here is to be hanged." This paradox comes close to limits in our present day thinking.
It must have been around the year 1950 that the late Sir Lawrence Bragg urged universities to broaden the education of scientists. This was something of a laugh, because over the years since Bragg made this suggestion, accompanied, as you might expect, by a fanfare in the media, university courses for scientists have become ever more specialized in their content, to an extent where at Cambridge examinations are now about a year more advanced than they were in Bragg's day. Be this as it may, in the 1950s the idea of broadening the minds of scientists had a momentary vogue, as a consequence of which we were required to set a general essay paper for science candidates in the Cambridge Entrance Scholarship Examination. It fell to my lot to be involved in this enterprise. In combing my wits for some suitable general subject, I hit on the story of the stranger who told the guards at the gate of the ancient Greek city that his purpose in coming there was to be hanged, suggesting to candidates that they might care to offer comments on the story. Not a single one out of some 250 of them chose to do so, which is how I know that the story goes outside the limits of most people for logical thought. I was not in the least depressed about this outcome, since I had no scripts to mark. Meanwhile my colleagues who had set topics such as "Discuss the reign of Queen Victoria" had 250 scripts to mark, demonstrating that while clever schoolmasters at splendid schools such as Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Manchester, and so on, had thought deeply about Queen Victoria they had not thought about strangers arriving at the gates of ancient Greek cities.
Another paradox of the same sort is:
(1) This talk has lasted 200 minutes.
(2) The speaker on this occasion is the Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Spencer-Jones.
(3) The statements 1, 2, 3 are all false.
Paradoxes of this kind. which greatly worried mathematicians in the early years of the present century, arise from mixing a criterion for the classification of certain entities, whether statements or physical objects, with the entities themselves, as in the case of the village where all men are clean-shaven, and in which the male barber shaves man who docs not shave himself. The trouble comes the barber involved both in the criterion of
shaving and as an entity to be shaved. Were the village barber female, there would be no paradox.
It is easily possible to see that we let ourselves in for serious difficulties whenever we use words like 'all' or 'every' or 'complete' Consulting my dictionary again I found:
Complete, a. Having all its parts, entire, finished. unqualified.
Every, a. Each, all,
Both 'complete' and 'every' are thus derivative words from the word 'all', for which the dictionary has a very much longer entry.
This really was quite laughable. It showed that the compiler of even one of the most reputable of dictionaries had not clear idea of the meaning of one of the most widely used words in the English language. The lexicographer could do no better than give us an immense list of examples, hoping that we would be satisfied thereby without any struck definition being attempted. Often enough we use 'all' and 'every' in ways that cause no trouble, as with the examples given in the dictionary. But once we generalise only a little from cases for which there is no trouble, we instantly hit paradoxes by the score, as in the case of our village barber.
I included 'religion' in the title of this talk, because in recent research interests I have become impressed by the deep unease most scientists have for this particular word. It is currently reported that 82 Nobel Laureates in the United States are in the process of addressing a brief to the US Supreme Court protesting the activities of so-called 'creationists' in the State of Louisiana. 'Creationists' you will recall are people who believe the Earth to be less than 10,000 years old, a belief I would have thought to be more a matter for amusement than for submitting a brief to the US Supreme Court. It makes the situation still more amusing that a sizeable fraction of the 82 Nobel Laureates are themselves 'creationists', in the respect that they believe the whole Universe was created all in a moment, a view which I suspect future generations will think just as farcical as the view that the Earth is less than 100,00 years old.
The curious thing about this incoherent opposition to religion is that it is hard to find anybody does not have an in-built sense of religion, the real issue being the way in which we express our in-built feelings. When I search the obviously deep-felt motives those who march in opposition to nuclear weapons, try as I will I cannot find an adequate explanation in terms of the politics of the left. Among the marchers there are evident marxists, and there are some who, while not being overtly marxist, have been persuaded by the marxists. But at the end of the day I have to feel such cases to be a minor proportion. The major proportion, unable to express themselves because they have no understandable words in which to do so, are responding I suspect to a species instinct for its own preservation, a special instinct which for want of a word one might call 'religion'.
The 'religion' we get from the priest in the pulpit is an old-fashioned attempt to cloak what I have called the religious instinct in words. The words, however, come from earlier less knowledgeable cultures than our own, cultures for which the paradoxes of Zeno really are paradoxes. Consequently it is inevitable that what we hear from the pulpit should be out of date. Without in any way suggesting that we can infuse the word 'religion' with anything much better than the priest in the pulpit, we can at least say that the road to an increased understanding, does not lie that way. The very words used by the priest are just the ones we have learnt to be exceedingly cautious about, the very words that lead to confused thinking and to paradoxes by the score, words all-highest, all-powerful, all-seeing, evermore, everpresent, infinite wisdom, infinite bliss, words we cannot define properly and which lead those who use them into such absurd logical closed-loops as 'I am I'. It is no wonder that scientists feel a deep uncase about this deliberate flight from meaning, which impose a pressure on our culture to retreat rather than to advance. The same backward directed pressure exists today in all those worldwide movements which go the name 'fundamentalism', so that 'fundamentalism' has come to stand for mental degeneration. In seeing such movements as a threat I find myself the 82 Nobel Laureates in their brief to the US Supreme Court. Where I differ from them, however, is in their perception of where the threat lies. It does not lie in statements that the Earth is less than 10,000
old. This is too explicitly and clearly wrong to pose threat. The danger comes I feel from promulgation of undefined words. The danger in this respect is much wider than so-called fundamentalism and it exists and is widespread within science itself. It is to open one's mouth without words like 'all' and 'every'. More than 99 times out of 100 we use such words in a valid way with a defined meaning. But let there be only a small move from acceptable usages and we can find ourselves plunged into paradoxes and errors which lie at the limit of what our culture can cope with.
Let me end by drawing attention, however briefly, to another dubious word, the word 'origin'. Scientists, nowadays at least, are more responsible for using the word 'origin' than religious folk, so that the situation here is more our responsibility than theirs. We are perpetually talking about such matters as the 'origin of the Universe', the 'origin of life', and so on. The striking thought occurs to me that I have never seen even a halfway decent explanation of any such 'origin'. Even such lesser matters as the 'origin of cosmic magnetic fields' or the 'origin of galaxies' have no successful explanations, a situation that once led my Tommy Gold to observe caustically that the Universe is what it is because it was what it was. Certainly as Gold's remark implies, we can sometimes trace in our science the beginning of a correct explanation of a phenomenon from a previous phenomenon, but of a real origin of anything at all I have never yet heard tell. This makes me wonder if 'origin' is not another deceptive word. I find it interesting to contemplate the profound impact it would have in one's thinking if the word 'origin' were banned from all science. I suspect the way might then be opened to a great measure of progress.
In 1968 Hoyle gave a talk at a Symposium on the Requirements of Leadership in the 1980's at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
My problem tonight is to look ahead to the environment in which leadership will have to operate in the 1980's. My terms of reference are urbanization, technology, social structure, population and world structure, all pretty powerful stuff.
When we try to look ahead into the future, we usually begin by looking in the exact opposite direction-into the past. We try to foresee the world a hundred years from now, not by looking a hundred years ahead, but a hundred years back. We instinctively set up the equation
Future - Present - Present - Past.
The future will differ from the present in much the way the present differs from the past.
It is easy to calculate the right hand side of our equation. Think of a chap from the year 1867 suddenly plunged into our present day world. Think what would hit him in the eye-figuratively if not literally: obviously the blaze of technology. Returning to our equation, we proceed to argue that the future will differ from the present technologically. Technology will develop from its present day white heat into an ultraviolet heat, or perhaps even into a δ 6 heat-once again, we hope, only figuratively. We tend to think of the future as a science fiction fantasy, crammed with outrageous technological marvels. True this will not have been completely reached by 1980, but by then we shall be somewhere along the road. How far along? - and still using our present-past equation we can continue to estimate the future.
Actually, this equation is like the parson's egg-part good, part bad. History shows that human societies evolve in part continuously, in part by abrupt changes. Apply the equation in an age of continuous change and it will work very well. Apply it just before an abrupt jump and it won't work at all. The situation is a little like the British weather. If you simply say tomorrow's weather will be the same as today's weather, you will be right three times out of four. Not bad, you think at first. Then it dawns on you that your mistakes will happen on precisely those occasions when it is most important to be right and you will be ignorantly though innocently coatless when lightning flashes unexpectedly across the sky and the thunderous deluge descends on covered and uncovered heads alike. Roman society evolved more or less continuously for many centuries. Then it cracked up suddenly, almost overnight. This is the danger in our equation. It blinds us to the possibility of sudden discontinuities. It may even blind us to the possibility of catastrophic disaster.
The difficulty of foretelling the future is illustrated in a recent RAND Corporation report on the nature of the future. The predictions in this report seem to me either too science-fictional or so close to the present as to be happening right now. For example, its suggestion that in the future personality-changing drugs will be used is hardly a prediction, since this is already happening among a certain section of the younger generation. Clearly there are no hippies on the RAND Corporation pay-roll. Or again, one reads that the medical profession will fit inorganic components within the human body, something that has already been done for quite a number of years now.
Swinging then to whole-hearted science-fiction, the report predicts that somewhere around the year 2000 humans will be able to communicate directly with computers. I mention this particular prediction because it raises a question of very general interest: How far can we expect the human body to succeed in adapting itself to wholly new conditions? This question in turn introduces biological ideas that help greatly toward an understanding of wider social problems.
We have become used to physical performances by the human body that go far outside anything that earlier generations would have thought possible-the four-minute mile, performances in skiing, climbing, and so on. Around the year 1880, not 1980, a fashion was started in the English Lake District, to see how far a man could walk and climb in twenty-four hours. The record set up by the best mountaineers of that time was about fifty-five miles of walking and 13,000 feet of upward climbing. Pretty good, you might think as they doubtless did. But today the record stands at about seventy five miles of walking and 38,000 feet of climbing. This kind of improvement could persuade us that the human body is capable of almost anything, such as adapting itself to conditions on the surface of the Moon, or communicating directly with a computer. But when you look a little more closely at the problem you see that all these improvements concern just those physical activities-running, climbing, etc. - for which humans have been biologically selected over a time span of many millions of years. We are good at these things because we are made that way. It is just that in past centuries a rather static agricultural civilization tended to make humans forget how good we can be at natural free movement.
This is very different from saying that humans will turn out to be good at activities for which we have not been biologically selected, something we have no right to expect. It may possibly turn out that astronauts will be able to adapt themselves very well to conditions on the Moon, but if so it will be a fluke. The same thing applies to the concept of communicating directly with an inorganic computer. It is true that the computer and the human brain probably have much in common, but the common factors are all concerned with logical principles, not with the manner in which the logical principles are given physical expression. This is so different in the two cases that the concept of direct communication within the terms of anything we know cannot be taken more seriously than as a science-fictional guess. How the human body will stand up in conditions for which it has not been selected must be a guess, and mine, personally, is that the answer will turn out poorly. If it were possible for an animal to adapt itself casually to a wholly new environment, like the surface of the Moon, then the whole fierce process of biological selection would seem to have been superflous - which surely it was not.
Besides emphasizing the powerful influence of biological selection the question of man communicating with computers brings us to a critically important problem: the problem of the total relationship between man and machine. Actually, we do not need to look to anything as far-out as communication with a computer to find an issue that will certainly affect the world of the 1980's. We have only to take the example of transportation. Man's relation with the internal combustion engine is working its way to a crisis. I read a little while ago that forty-eight percent of the surface area of Los Angeles county is now given over to roads. Even though aerial photographs of the city more or less force me to believe this, it still seems incredible. Considering the space also needed for offices, public buildings, gardens and ball parks it appears that the people of Los Angeles require more space for their cars than for their beds. But after all, it is possible for people to sleep piled one above the other, whereas cars cannot be driven on top of each other, in spite of the earnest efforts of the motorway engineers with their flyovers and clover leafs.
Looking at transportation in general there is no suggestion that our improving technology is likely to work miracles, as it sometimes seems to be doing in other fields-electronics for instance. It is easy to state in terms of straightforward principles what has been happening to transportation over the past century and a half. The first great transportation system, the railroad, was a linear system. It consisted in connecting a comparatively few points, the big cities, by more or less straight lines. It was essentially a one-dimensional system. It lost out in a large measure to the automobile because the road system which evolved was essentially two-dimensional. There are so many more roads than rail lines that we can travel by car from one place to everywhere else. It was this gain of an extra dimension that gave road transportation the edge over rail transportation. And of course travel by air added still a third dimension. The essential features of transportation lie in geometry. A two dimensional system is better than a one-dimensional system for most purposes, and a three-dimensional system is yet better than two dimensions. This has proved to be true in spite of the obvious hazards of £lying at high speed through the air. Features outside of this geometry are relatively unimportant-the kind of aircraft you fly in, the brand of car you elect to buy. Of course this isn't what the commercials tell us so incessantly, but it is precisely because what they tell us is irrelevant that they have to work so hard at it.
The point of all this is that from now on there really isn't anywhere new to go. Space has only three dimensions. Once you have them all you have them all. This is why there just won't be more miracles in transportation. The human species has had transportation, just as it has had digging coal, and just as it has had cheese. You notice I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with cheese. Not at all. What I am suggesting is that if you are planning now a research program designed to reap a great financial reward in the 1980's you will be unwise to choose the production of new kinds of cheese. It is very likely that the best possible kinds of cheese have already been found. It is also likely that the car of the 1980's has already been made.
Much the same thing applies to aircraft. There is no future here. The air is already full, as an hour spent at O'Hare in Chicago or Kennedy in New York will readily convince you. Governments are not quite up with this concept. Governments, particularly in Europe, often imagine faster planes will open up a brave new world. They won't, and policies built on this fantasy may well lead to more and more roar and racket without getting anywhere constructively.
Here indeed we have a typical delusion of national authorities toward the future. Because transportation has expanded almost explosively over the past century they imagine, true to our formula, that expansion will continue into the future. I am suggesting quite seriously that it will not, for the very good reason that all the possibilities in this particular field have now become exhausted.
The demand for transportation will continue, of course, and insatiably. The people of Los Angeles will build bigger and better freeways until at last they have consumed not merely forty-eight percent of the area of their county but the whole lot. They will sleep in structures erected on stilts above the freeways. All this is clear enough, and it is also clear that it won't lead us into a brave new world. It will only lead us into art appalling technological slum.
By the 1980's, and perhaps before then, an outcry to do something about this slum will have arisen. All manner of ineffective remedies will be tried, based on modifications and restrictions within the transportation system itself. But to be effective, something new must be tried. No particular gift of perception is needed to see that effective steps must depend on developments still far from being fully developed. This means that a wholly new concept is needed. I will try to anticipate what this might be.
Occasionally I spend an interesting hour browsing through a magazine or newspaper belonging to the 1880's, not the 1980's. I am always amazed at the high cost of simple industrial products in a comparison, for instance, of the cost of a typewriter in 1900 with the cost of a house.
In a similar way what we pay for some products in our present day society will appear absurdly expensive to people of the future. Such products will belong to unsaturated industries-to those activities where great possibilities of development still remain. The electronics industry is the example I have in mind. In particular we can expect that in the future the cost of transmitting information will fall steeply, quite possibly producing a kind of social revolution.
Today the cost of a telephone call to Europe is about $3 a minute, enough to deter me from calling home except in special circumstances. Suppose the cost fell to ten cents a minute. Immediately the interchange of information on an international scale would no longer be confined to wire services and business houses. Everybody would call overseas whenever they wanted to do so. In any new technology the pattern is always the same. At first it is available only to the few; finally it becomes available to everybody.
Should the cost of this overseas call fall to one cent a minute, this would be so trivially cheap that we would almost certainly prefer to pay more and to get more. We would prefer to have a picture of the person to whom we were talking. Being able to see the person speaking would not be just a trivial addendum to a phone call. It would change the whole concept of receiving information from a person at a distance. In normal conversation we take in a great deal of information with the eyes. Indeed eyes and ears function naturally together. It is just because we are forced to break this natural association in an ordinary telephone call that so many of us find this medium of conversation intensely irritating.
Then there would be many occasions on which it would become unnecessary to travel. Today, should you want the information in a man's head it is cheaper and more convenient to transport the man than to transmit the information. In the future the reverse will very likely be the case. The solution to the transportation problem then is to change the whole concept of information transmission: transmit the information electronically. Industrial workers would need to travel only if they were actually involved physically, for example actually fitting a bolt into a bolt hole. But since manual operations are likely to be replaced more and more by automated operations the need for a physical transportation of people would hardly arise. The flood of motor traffic on the highways between seven and nine in the morning, and between five and seven in the evening, would become quite irrelevant. So long as you have access to the information in a man's head there is no reason to have access to his person. Actual physical travel could very well become confined to vacationing and to other personal issues.
I have concentrated on transportation as an example of a social problem where I can see a solution becoming possible in the future. Such cases arise only when the potential exists for the development of new techniques, as I am sure it does in electronics. But by and large the physical development of technology is approaching saturation. The world of the future will not in my view experience the same startling physical changes that the past century experienced. Physics was the first science to achieve quantitative maturation, and technology has in a large measure already taken advantage of this. In a large measure the human species has had physical technology, and it is to quite other directions we must turn if we are to anticipate the more startling developments of the future.
The biological sciences are obviously poised for a great advance.
Basic qualitative understanding of some of the most subtle problems, heredity for example, has been achieved in the past decade. No doubt this will lead to far-reaching changes. For instance, one can conceive that it may one day be possible to change genetic composition artificially - to remove the genetic cause of bad eyesight, for example. But this is to look much beyond the 1980's. Before anything of this sort could be contemplated there must come many decades, perhaps a century or more, of patient quantitative consolidation of the general principles that are now being understood for the first time.
At a less fundamental level than genetics we can take a quick look at likely medical improvements. In the treatment of an otherwise healthy person suffering from some one trouble, either disease or an organic defect, I think we can expect a steady advance. There is no reason why future advance should be less slow than it has been in the past. But where more far-reaching issues are concerned the case may be different. I do not see the ultimate running down of the body due to old-age as a problem that can be much alleviated by an extrapolation of present-day methods. Something basically new is needed here. It could perhaps happen by the 1980's, and if it did we should have one of those sudden social discontinuities that upset all our preconceived notions.
There are two ways of looking at this medical problem. The medical expert can bring all his detailed knowledge to bear on the issue, or we can appeal to a broad-based biological argument. I am not myself competent to follow the first route. The second proceeds once again in terms of the general concepts of natural selection. The lifetime of any human-designed machine depends to a large extent on the quality of the servicing arrangements we make. Waste products accumulate and must be removed. The efficiency of removal is always critical. Now a biological machine must be serviced internally. Although the emergence of the modern hospital has changed the definition of this servicing, it is still true, as it has been throughout the long period of biological evolution, that the lifetime of the biological creature depends on the efficiency of its internal servicing. Service channels occupy space in the body and they add to its weight. They add little or nothing to its short-term performance, only to its long-term lifetime. It is natural to expect that servicing arrangements in the body have been rather skimped, since short-term performance has been of very dominant importance throughout biological evolution. Unless you could run fast enough to catch your prey you starved to death and a prospective long life became irrelevant. A prospective long-life was also irrelevant to a herbivorous animal unless it could escape its predators. The best compromise was being an all-purpose animal that could feed itself and protect itself without needing to run very fast - i.e. without needing high performance, so the elephant and ourselves have come out rather well, particularly the elephant with all that room inside for the best quality servicing channels.
The implication is that old-age in humans arises from a failure of service channels, rather than from an actual wearing out of the main organs. The failure of lens accommodation in the eyes around the age of forty-seven is so unavoidable and so specific as to suggest the failure of a particular channel. Since this age of forty-seven is much less than the age of general deterioration, usually about sixty-five, it seems clear that all channels do not fail at the same age. Should it prove the case that deterioration at sixty-five is due to a single channel failure, a channel that nevertheless affects everything else, a breakthrough in external servicing could come at any time. Medical science could succeed in solving the ageing problem. Should it do so, a whole avalanche of social problems would overwhelm a world that is already being half-battered to its knees by social unrest. It is to these social problems that I wish to give over the second half of what I want to say today.
We are now familiar with the economic revolution that has taken place over the past thirty years due to the understanding and adoption of the Keynesian outlook in economics. Governments act now to tread the tightrope between inflation and deflation, so as to prevent the gross swings of the 1920's and 30's. From a physical point of view this development is rather simple. It amounts to no more than the recognition of a positive feedback situation-inflation, left to itself, tends to accelerate, and so does deflation -therefore governments must introduce oppositely designed action to combat the gross swings. The real point is that, although the intellectual content of this controlling process is simple, it represents perhaps the first time that human societies have acted purposively to control themselves in a non-physical respect. We are all well-used to the physical limitations imposed on us by society - you may not punch your neighbor or drive your car on the wrong side of the road - but it is something new for societies to impose economic constraints on themselves. I expect this is the direction the future will take. More and more, communities will accept constraints on social behaviour, in order to achieve certain prestated objectives.
I also expect this direction to create much trouble and anguish. Although prestated objectives may be achieved, the manner of achieving them may frequently introduce worse ills than those it aimed to cure. It is nowadays the fashion to regard the Keynesian doctrine as a good thing, to believe that we are better off today than people were in the old boom and slump days. I myself am rather doubtful about this. Purposive action by any community frequently depends on everybody being prepared to take a sudden downward drop in the standard of living. Communities that operate on the Keynesian doctrine develop an outlook whereby a one or two percent downturn becomes an economic, disaster. Economists rush to Washington for Presidential consultations, columnists predict dire consequences six months from now, and everybody on TV appears with baggy eyes. The effect of all this is that the community becomes powerless. Britain today is far richer than she has ever been, but at the same time is far less powerful than she has ever been because the British people will not tolerate the smallest downturn. In the opposite direction, the economic confrontation between the United States and Cuba has not been a disaster for Cuba, just because Cubans have accepted something like a twenty percent downturn. A medium-sized country with inhabitants ready to accept a twenty percent downturn must be reckoned a powerful country, just as powerful as a country with a far greater GNP (Gross National Product) but with inhabitants who are unwilling to accept any significant downturn. One can indeed write a kind of equation:
Purposive action = GNP x Downturn acceptable by community. Because the Keynesian doctrines put us in a frame of mind where we are terrified by downturns, purposive action is reduced essentially to zero.
I can already hear critics saying: What about our defence budget? Surely the huge defence budget exists for precisely this purpose, to give communities the scope for action, should action become essential. No. Defence budgets do not permit one to cope with any actual situation. As soon as a country actually has to do something the defence budget must be increased. Everything is neatly arranged, by military and government adjustments, so that normal defence budgets only keep the engine idling. If you wish to press the gas pedal you have to pay more. Professor Parkinson would have no difficulty in explaining how this comes about. In effect, permanent establishments-whatever they may be-always consume whatever they are given in merely preserving the status quo.
The reason why downturns are not permitted in our so-called advanced societies lies in the processes by which we elect our governments. People as a whole will not accept any worsening of their economic position because soft living-soft by the standards of past generations-has made them greedy. Consequently they will not vote for any leader who proposes a downturn. The chronically unhealthy British economy could be cured by a five percent downturn. The British Prime Minister has indeed been trying to bring this about over the past year, with the result that the popularity ratings of his party have sunk from being well ahead of the rival Tory party to being well behind. Political survival for him may well depend on abandoning the only effective way of putting the British economy in balance.
This is a bad state of affairs, because the world of the future is very certainly going to need strong purposive action, whereas our whole political system is loaded to prevent purposive action by our leaders. The root of the trouble lies in the curious notion that by merely being alive a man is entitled to certain important rights, rights to a minimum wage, rights to vote, rights to reproduce, rights to freedom, liberty, equality and fraternity. Try this philosophy on the road tomorrow. Treat yourself to the luxury of storming every red light in the interests of liberty and equality. You will soon find out that it doesn't add up. We all understand that it doesn't add up where the physical world is concerned. My point is that it doesn't add up socially either. Rights have to be earned-they do not exist automatically.
It needs only a short extrapolation of the present-day trend in the United States to see what will undoubtedly be the world situation in the mid-1970's. Enormous pressures are now building up to remove the differences between privileged and under-privileged here in the United States. The same pressures exist everywhere throughout the world, not just to remove differences within individual countries, but also to remove differences between one country and another. Just as the present domestic situation here in the United States would have seemed impossible a generation ago, so the present situation in regard to food shipments to Asia would have seemed impossible. Famine in Asia is now being prevented through continuing shipments of grain from the United States. The essential point of importance is that it is most doubtful whether the U. S. government could terminate these shipments, even if it wanted to do so. Almost without realizing it, the United States has become committed to keeping the people of Asia alive. I have little doubt that, seen from the 1980's, this unwritten and almost unrealized commitment will appear far more important than the present situation in Vietnam. More and more the United States will have become committed to the raw biological problem of maintaining the survival of a considerable fraction of the human species. Since it is calculated that by the 1980's it will require the whole present-day grain output of North America to prevent starvation on a huge scale, it is clear that the world of the 1980's is not going to look at all like the world we see today.
The purpose of this opening session has been to state problems which the leaders of the future are likely to encounter. So far as I can I have now done this and although it is not my duty to propose solutions, I think you might like me to devote my final remarks to the directions in which solutions might lie. Men have been discussing the problems of leadership since Plato, and perhaps even before that. Everything seems to have been tried - kings, dictators, the magisterial appointments of the early Romans, Democrats and Republicans, Tories and Socialists. Plato discussed the problem very much from the point of view of the psychology of the leader himself. This does not seem to me to be right. The problem is very much an interrelation between the people and the leader. There is an old saying that every country gets the government it deserves. This is more correct, but it does not quite bring out the basic principles of the matter. Partly because of training and partly because of genetic differences people differ quite a bit from one another. Some are good ball players, others possess the remarkable equanimity of temperament needed to run a hotel, others are poets and musicians, and so forth. It takes all sorts to make up the world, to quote another old saw. Whatever qualities a community demands of its leaders, some will be found who possess those qualities to an unusual degree, and it will be from such people that the leaders emerge. You see the generality here, the analogy to biological selection. The mutations, the variations, are already there. The selection comes from the particular qualities demanded by the community; in more scientific terminology the community supplies the gate through which the leaders must emerge. Any subsequent flaw in the leader represents an error in the way the people have determined their gate. Change the gate and the leader will change. For example, if communities were to demand as an essential quality that their leaders should be sizeable poets then leaders would become very different from our present-day leaders.
Now what we do today, in the developed countries, erect as our gate for the choice of our leaders? Specifically, that they should win elections. The trouble is that little, if any, correlation exists between the qualities needed to win elections and the qualities needed to provide effective government once the election has been won. In theory, elections are supposed to hinge on great debates concerning the problems of government. In fact, this does not happen. In fact, elections are being won more and more through public relations techniques.
Actually the winner of elections must possess certain qualities, but these are more negative than positive. Because a considerable majority of people regard science with distrust it is impossible for a scientist to win an election. This explains why there is no real scientist in any government anywhere in the world. Don't misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting a scientist-far-government movement. Scientists are too much interested in other things for this to be a reasonable possibility. But it is clearly wrong in a world where science and technology play so important a role that our leaders should have only a very blurred view of the environment they are supposed to control.
A still more important negative aspect of the electoral gate is that we always choose leaders with a horror of discontinuities. The quality we demand more than any other at the time of an election is that candidates should be status quo men, they must not be the sort of fellow known to like rocking the boat. The trouble here is very fundamental. When you look over history it is only too obvious that society evolves largely by discontinuities, and only very partially by slow continuity. Our status quo leaders are exactly the men most unfitted to deal with significant changes whenever they arise. Discontinuities come, leaders fail to cope with them and are replaced by others. Should the discontinuity be big enough we have to get rid of our leaders in a great hurry, like the replacement in Britain of Chamberlain by Churchill. But for the war, Churchill could have tried for a million years to have won an election from Chamberlain and he would never have succeeded. Churchill was a known boat-rocker.
This brings me close to my final point. Unless we, the people, change our ideas about the qualities we want in our leaders, unless we understand that the status quo will not be preserved in the years ahead, unless we demand leaders who are competent to deal with discontinuities, unless we permit the Churchills to defeat the Chamberlains, I believe the social problems of the late 1970's will prove too much for our civilization. History shows us that civilizations do not last forever. Our present civilization can be considered to date from about 1500 A. D., about the time of Columbus. Four to five centuries of durability has been fairly characteristic of past civilizations, so there would be nothing exceptional in our civilization drawing to its end at about the termination of the present century.
When I was first asked to speak at this Conference I replied saying that I wasn't at all sure I was the right person for the job, because I didn't happen to take a particularly optimistic view about the future. Now you see this is true. But of course my suggestion that civilization may be near its end really isn't shocking, because you all know it is too outrageous to have any chance of being true. This is what my friends have always said-at first. Then the symptoms begin to strike them-the technological insanity that now overwhelms us in our daily lives, the running as hard as we can just to keep in the same place, the stridency and meaninglessness of much of the arts, the moral collapse of a section of the younger generation, the sheer irrelevancy of much of current political argument. After a cool consideration of factors like these, my friends often end up more convinced than I am. Try it for yourself. Give this civilization of ours a thorough going over in your mind and see what you come up with.
Let me repeat my own conclusion. If the problem is faced square on, as a biological one, it can be solved. Collapse occurs when problems are avoided or deliberately misinterpreted. No civilization ever collapsed through facing a challenge in an honest way. The danger obviously lies in misinterpreting a biological problem as if it were a military one.
A Personal Approach to Nuclear Waste by Fred Hoyle
and Geoffrey Hoyle
It is easy for the anti-nuclear activist to make up stories about the dangers of the waste products of the nuclear industry, because if one wishes to do so it is easy to make up stories about the dangers of any aspect of technology. To be hit by a stream of molten steel would be instantly fatal. Society does not deal with this problem by disbanding the steel industry, however, but by concentrating steel-making plants in such a way that the public at large does not come into contact with molten iron. In a like fashion, the nuclear industry concentrates its reactors, and the waste products from the reactors, so the public is not exposed to serious radioactive hazards.
Waste products can be turned into a glassy material that does not leach easily in contact with water. The vitreous material can be shaped into cylinders about a foot in diameter and ten feet long. Enclosed in strong metal casings, the cylinders can then be buried below ground at depths of 3000 feet or more, when for all practical purposes they could just as well be 3000 light years away from us.
There is an atavistic superstition, however, which helps the anti-nuclear activists to spread the notion that something darkly horrible will happen if nuclear waste is buried underground. We all tend to be repelled by he concept of an 'underworld.' Since time immemorial, the dead have been buried underground. Hades lay below ground in Greek mythology, and modern preachers are still given to pointing downward in making their references to Hell. We can almost bring ourselves to feel that burying nuclear waste deep at 3000 feet would be worse than burying it shallow - it would be nearer to Hell - whereas deep burial is objectively better than shallow burial.
It will be a help towards getting an instinctive feeling for the scale of the waste disposal problem if we rediscuss the whole matter from a more personal point of view. Suppose we are required individually to be responsible for the long-term storage of all the waste that we ourselves, our families 2nd our forebears, have generated in an all-nuclear energy economy.
It will be useful to think of waste in terms of the following:
- Lifetime (years)
High-level waste is carefully stored over its 10-year lifetime by the nuclear industry. This is done above-ground in sealed tanks. It is not proposed to bury nuclear waste underground until activity has fallen to the medium- level category. Instead of underground burial, however, we now consider that medium-level waste is delivered for safe keeping to individual households.
We take the amount of the waste so delivered to be that which has been generated over the 70 years from 1990 to 2060. If by the mid-21st century the promises of those who favour so-called soft technologies have borne fruit, or if solar-power satellites have proved economically viable, or if there really are vast stores of methane waiting to be tapped inside the Earth, society can dispense with nuclear power should it wish to do so.
Over this period a typical family of four would accumulate 4x70=280 person years of vitrified nuclear waste, which for an all-nuclear energy economy would weigh about 2 kilograms. Supplied inside a thick metal case, capable of withstanding a house fire or a flood, the waste would form an object of about the size of a small orange, which it could be made to resemble in colour and surface texture - this would ensure that any superficial damage to the object could easily be noticed and immediately rectified by the nuclear industry.
The radioactive materials would stay put inside the metal orange-skin. Indeed the orange would be safe to handle freely but for the gamma rays emerging from it all the time. The effect on a person of the gamma rays would be like the X-rays used by the medical profession. If one were to stand for a minute at a distance of about 5 yards from the newly-acquired orange, the radiation dose received would be comparable to a medical X-ray.
Unlike particles of matter, gamma rays do not stay around. Once emitted, gamma rays exist only for a fleeting moment, during which brief time they are absorbed and destroyed by the material through which they pass. If a gamma-ray-emitting orange were placed behind a well-made stone wall 2 feet thick, one could lounge in safety for days on the shielded side, and for a wall 3 feet thick one would be safe for a lifetime.
Our family of four would therefore build a small thick-walled cubicle inside the home to ensure safe storage of the family orange.
After several generations, the waste inside the orange would have declined to the low-level category, when the orange could be taken out of its cubicle and safely admired for an hour or two as a family heirloom. It could also be returned to the nuclear industry for reprocessing into a considerably smaller object of the size of a gull's egg, and the family could specify which particular species of gull it should be made to resemble.
We could go into details on the construction of the cubicle, how it could be arranged to conduct out the small amount of heat generated by the nuclear waste, how it could be reinforced to withstand earthquakes as well as fire and flood, and how it could be monitored for safety by external controls. But manifestly the problem for our family is not primarily one of safety. The problem would be boredom, the boredom of storing a gull's egg down many generations.
Such individual tedium would of course be avoided if the waste were stored communally. For 100,000 families making up a town of 400,000 people there would be 100,000 eggs to store. Or since it would surely be inconvenient to maintain a watch on so many objects the town would have the eggs reprocessed into a few hundred larger objects of the size of pumpkins or vegetable marrows. The whole lot could be fitted into a garden-produce shed, except that instead of a wooden wall, the shed would need to have thick walls of stone or metal.
This, then is the full extent of the nuclear-waste problem that our own generation is called on to face. If by the mid-21st century it has become clear that nuclear fission is the only effective long-term source of energy, society will then have to consider the problem of accumulating waste on a longer time-scale. For the town of 400,000 people, a shed of pumpkins would accumulate every 70 years, until the oldest waste fell at last into the very low-level category, when it could be discarded. After 7000 years, there would be a hundred sheds, which could be put together to make a moderate-sized warehouse. In 100,000 years there would be about 15 medium warehouses, which could be accumulated into two or three large warehouses. Thereafter, the problem would remain always the same, with the oldest waste falling into the very low-level category as fast as new waste was generated. Of course, the 'warehouses' would be deep underground, and there would be no contact between them and the population of the town.
It is to be doubted, however, that we should worry ourselves too much about the far-distant future. Our problem now is to get through just the next generation or two with an on-going new energy source coming into full operation as fossil fuels decline. Unless this problem is solved, there will be no far-distant future worth worrying about.
The nuclear-waste problem, if not exactly trivial, is plainly not a cause for serious concern. The risk that each of us would incur, even if called upon to store our own waste, would be insignificant compared with the risks we routinely incur in other aspects of our daily lives.
Excerpted from the book Commonsense in Nuclear Energy.
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