Of socks in black-holes and wasted stone tablets

Dennis Overbye, one of the New York Times‘s star science writers (the other being Carl Zimmer), had a curious piece up November 19 about why “we should leave some mysteries alone” and what mysteries he would like to leave alone personally. He wrote,

Jim Peebles, the famed cosmologist at Princeton University, once told me that if someone offered him a tablet of stone that held all the answers to the mysteries of the universe — how old it is, where it’s going — he would throw it away. The fun, he said, is in the attempt to find out. So here are some stone tablets that I would throw away.

The ‘curious’ aspect was made more so because Overbye was the author: he has a reputation as a lucid and articulate science writer. However, this piece is kind of a swamp.

The fundamental basis for Overbye’s provocative suggestion is that we “might be disappointed by the Big Reveal”. I’m not sure I agree with it – although it is in fact Overbye’s opinion and there is nothing I can or want to do about it.

I would choose differently for two reasons.

First: We will always have fantasies about the things around us, about the things we do or do not know of. Overbye says he does not want to know what is inside a black hole because finding out might force him to stop believing that a pair of socks he lost might be there. This is a perfectly harmless belief today. And I think it will be a perfectly harmless belief even after we find out what black-hole guts are made of.

Overbye doesn’t write serious science articles about his socks being inside a black hole faraway even though we don’t know what is inside black holes. This is because “we don’t know” is also a state of knowledge. It is not a void, an empty vessel to be freely populated with our whimsies, but an area carefully fenced-off and with restricted entry. When “we don’t know” isn’t stopping Overbye from assuming his socks are there, there is no reason “we do know” should.

If you are going to say, “It is because we might know how hot it is inside a black hole,” let me stop you right there. A logical breakdown is not helping anyone – and certainly not Overbye. Otherwise, his fantasy would have collapsed the moment he stopped to consider how his socks got inside the black hole in the first place. He is free to believe, as he does, that his socks are just there.

I personally believe the cheela really exist and that there are some kinds of stars out there whose outer surface is simply a curtain hiding a very advanced alien civilisation living on the inside. Because why not?

Second: I also firmly believe there will always be something we don’t know we don’t know – a.k.a. ‘unknown unknowns’ – and/or something we just don’t know – a.k.a. an unanswered question. We might be disappointed by the next “Big Reveal”, and the one after that, and the one after that, but I’m willing to bet it is turtles all the way down. There is never going to be a last “Big Reveal”. Which means we can always hope that the next reveal will be a big one, and we can always nurture this or that fantasy.

Now, the more interesting thing I wanted to discuss about Overbye’s piece was one line towards the end. Like many parts of his piece, it has a problem – and this one’s is elitism:

If we’re not smart enough to figure out [some futuristic tech by ourselves but instead do so by decrypting a note of alien origin], we don’t deserve to survive.

I realise this is a species-wide aspiration that Overbye is articulating and he probably means that we should deserve what we have. But it is too laconic for a line in its situation because it elides over human politics and suggests, at least to me, that every person only deserves to have what they have earned for themselves. If this is what he, or anyone, actually believes, then I do wish some kind of alien intervention proves them wrong with the hope that it levels the ‘playing field’.

We don’t deserve what we earn, we deserve what is right. It is hard to define this “right”; it could stand for different things in different contexts and cultures. The British writer George Monbiot provides a fitting example: ‘private luxury, public sufficiency’ might have been reasonable words to live by in a fully egalitarian society but in the Anthropocene epoch, they need to be ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’. ‘What is right’ is also certainly fair(er) because it addresses our moral responsibility to eradicate inequalities instead of pandering to the pseudo-superiority of biological smartness.

I would certainly enjoy reading a fantasy novel about an alien message being discernible only by adivasis because of some special vestment they acquired thousands of years ago, and for them to suddenly ascend to the top of the political pyramid. Would the adivasis have “figured it out”? We don’t know. But would the adivasis have deserved it? Absolutely. (Is everyone happy about it? Of course not, and for various reasons. Read the book to find out.)

What this means for Overbye’s wish is that we would deserve to survive if we figured out future technologies by reading an alien note instead of figuring it ourselves. This is because our own entirely human world already works this way. The inequalities we have perpetrated ensure that some people may never experience a better quality of life without quick and important interventions that empowers them to leap over systemic barriers. Whether that’s affirmative action or an extraterrestrial doodle doesn’t matter.

Even a very charitable interpretation of Overbye’s line above doesn’t come off properly. Will someone somewhere ever solve some of humanity’s problems to its overall benefit and availability? Definitely not. The prevailing world order does not admit it. In fact, as things stand, one of the wishes expressed in his article might just come true but not in a way Overbye might like. He writes:

And if we ever do stumble upon a message from some extraterrestrial civilisation, I don’t know want to know what it says. Knowing that aliens exist and imagining what they were up to would be enough to keep us busy for centuries.

We might not know that aliens exist if they do. The Atlantic recently had a wonderful feature about how the Chinese are likelier than any other to make first contact. If this does come to be – assuming it hasn’t already – what’s to say they won’t just keep the message to themselves? They have no obligation to share it with all of humanity, and their national government has cultivated the kind of authority necessary to keep such information a secret for however long it deems necessary.

In all, it seems Overbye’s reality is already populated with things that would be fantasies for most of the rest of the world, and the line he draws between what is already true (“what we do know”) and what he has a choice to believe (“what we don’t know”) is blurred by socio-political brushstrokes that he seems blind to. As a result, the choices he makes about which “stone tablets” he would throw away to preserve the mysteries surrounding them quickly becomes pernicious to those of us for whom many of these tablets are what we need to enjoy the kind of life that Overbye already has.

In this world – of not just the Chinese but more generally of those doing an atrocious job of balancing economic development with social justice – some stone tablets just should not be thrown away, sir.