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Pathfinders: Watch This Space…

Space flight dominated last month’s science reporting, with the embarrassment of an exploding Antares rocket and a crashed Virgin Galactic plane being rapidly pushed off the front page by the media hoo-ha over the Philae probe, which bounced around on a comet, sent back half a dozen pictures, drilled a hole then expired.

The Philae landing was undoubtedly quite a feat, like pinging a peanut across a continent and having it land in an eggcup. A tweet immediately went viral inviting cynics everywhere to complete the phrase ‘they can land on a comet but they can’t… (e.g. stop war, solve world hunger etc) but such cynics are missing the big picture. Drilling into a comet could tell us whether our water came from outer space, and even more importantly, whether life could have come from outer space, and even more importantly than that, whether humans can feasibly strip-mine speeding space rocks so that fat future profits can also come from outer space.

Now UK news services are abuzz with a new crowd-sourced bid to send a British probe to, er, the moon and drill a hole in that too (BBC Online, 19 November). The enthusiasm seems quite out of proportion to the aim, but it’s a chance to put one over on the Chinese and besides, space travel is a good deal more sexy than fixing Earth’s problems. Indeed it tends to bring out the silly or downright suicidal in some people, as witness last year’s Mars One project. Not a space probe but a Dutch company, Mars One sought volunteers for a one-way manned trip to Mars, the costs being recouped through TV coverage and sponsorship deals. Not one person in their right mind would go for this, you would think, especially as you had to pay a €30 deposit. Over 200,000 people signed up. Socialists might be desperate to escape the capitalist prison, but we’re not that desperate. The only red planet we want to live on is this one.

… Oddity

A cover version of David Bowie’s famous song Space Oddity, done by a Canadian astronaut in a very odd accent aboard the International Space Station, has been reposted to YouTube after having been taken down due to licensing restrictions (BBC Online, 4 November). Bowie himself had no objection to the cover, describing it as ‘poignant’. What stood in its way were the rules of terrestrial capitalism. As the singer, Chris Hadfield, explained: ‘The Space Station was built by 15 countries, and depending on where I floated while singing and playing, whose copyright laws applied? Which Space Agency owned the recording? Whose jurisdiction was I in?’

If aliens ever visit and like any of our pop music, let them beware. It’s a minefield down here.

Toys R Us(eless)

Continuing the space theme, the Telegraph was recently keen to report the apparently astounding fact that ‘There is more computer power in some of this year's top Christmas toys than the first moon mission’ (5 November). Big deal. There’s more computer power in your washing machine too, and your phone, and if you’re a true early adopter, your glasses.

At the risk of resorting to Christmas grumpy mode, what is all this computer power doing? Making crappy dolls to emulate babylike simpering tones while talking to your iPad, and plastic dayglo smart watches that store 900 photographs an inch wide. How cool, how awesome! What a load of utter rubbish, all designed to last two weeks and all designed to cost a fortune, paid out by overworked parents who can’t afford it but are trying to make up for ignoring the kids all the rest of the year.

What would children really want for Christmas, if they had the knowledge and imagination to ask for it, and any expectation whatsoever of getting it?

They might want their two front teeth, like the old song. More likely, they might want parents who aren’t permanently stressed out with bills, debts, overwork and each other. They might want siblings who can be friends instead of rivals. They might want to live in a house that it’s affordable to heat properly in winter, in an area where they won’t get beaten up by local gangs if they go to the shop. They might want a say about whether they have to go to school, about where they go, and what they do when they get there. They might want to feel safe, and secure, and understood, and cared about. They might want to feel that they have a future worth looking forward to, that strangers are just friends they haven’t met yet, that they are not too fat or too thin or too stupid but just right, that alive is a good thing to be.

But this year, if they’re lucky, they’ll just get capitalism rammed in their stocking, just like every other year. Ho ho ho.

The only way is ethics?

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges recently produced a report arguing that doctors have an ethical duty to prevent waste in the NHS (BBC Online, 6 November). It’s not hard to understand the argument. Billions are wasted every year that could pay nurses more or buy extra equipment. Doctors of course being no strangers to ethical codes but frequently being utter strangers to budgets, the AMRC naturally thought a spot of moral arm-twisting was in order.

The idea of waste being ‘unethical’ is a fairly novel one, considering how profligate nature itself is. But it’s not the first thing to be morally stigmatised by a civil society anxious to change our behaviour – two recent examples being smoking and drink/driving.

Since socialists are anxious to change the behaviour of civil society, perhaps we ought to use ethical arguments more. The trouble is, the whole subject makes us slightly nervous, because of the problem of moral relativism.

What’s ethical to you isn’t necessarily ethical to him or her. And while ethics can be based on empirical reasoning, as with the doctors, it doesn’t have to be. It could be based on mystical dreams, or God’s word, or a Hollywood film script. Building a case primarily out of ethics is like building a shed primarily out of blancmange.

Some scientists think that moral relativism is a myth and that we are hard-wired to be moral, pointing to the activities of mirror neurons in the brain’s motor cortex, which fire off in sympathy at certain observed behaviours in others and trigger similar responses in us. The strongest of these effects is seen in yawning, however, an activity not normally related to questions of morality unless you’re intensely bored with the subject.

Still, there’s not much doubt that people are only motivated to act when they perceive that something is ethically ‘wrong’, not just scientifically ‘incorrect’.  The Proto-Indo-European root steig (prick or pointed) gives us stick, stigma and instigate. What other behaviours can we expect to see stigmatised in the future, with a view to changing behaviour? Using fossil fuels, probably. Eating fat or meat or sugar or being a couch potato, possibly. One key social norm which we would be in a hurry to see stigmatised is the ‘right’ of a small group of people to exist as a parasitical social elite at the expense of everyone else and the environment. It’s about time people realised that’s not just incorrect, it’s damn well wrong.

PJS