Reflective

About the process of doing a PhD and perhaps being an early-career researcher.

Record of a Spaceborn Few : on stories

A few days ago I finished reading Becky Chambers’s novel “Record of a spaceborn few“. I already mentioned this book in my last post, because of something she wrote in the first few pages that struck me. But it turned out to have more that belonged on this blog. I’m not going to get into the plot here, but the setting is the Exodus Fleet: a series of generation ships on which part of humanity embarked when Earth became unable to support us. Here’s a lengthy quote:

“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one. When our planet started dying, our species was so caught up in stories. We had thousands of stories about ourselvesā€¦but not enough of us were looking at the reality of things. Once reality caught up with us and we started changing our stories to acknowledge it, it was too late.

It is easy to remember that story here, in the Fleet. Every time you touch a bulkhead, every time you tend a garden, every time you watch the water in your hex’s cistern dip a little lower, you remember. You know what the story is here.”

Humans run on stories, not reality. We can see this by looking around us; it’s something that populists and propagandists understand well. But I hadn’t thought about it quite like this before.

There’s optimistic SF out there that shows what a sustainable civilization on Earth could look like. Becky Chambers wrote some of it. This is important. But there’s not much that gives us stories of getting from here to there. That feels like something we’re missing. It’s probably very hard to write those, because it’s not obvious how to do that. Star Trek does offer one narrative if one gets into the backstory, but it involves WW3, so it’s hardly aspirational… perhaps until we have popular / folk narratives that people can relate to that show the sort of change that we need – systemic, disruptive, society-wide change – actually happening, rather than having happened, it’ll continue to be very hard for most of us to really engage on a path of sustainability and transition at more than an intellectual level. We need a story to follow. We need to change our stories to acknowledge reality.

Of course, none of this is new or groundbreaking thought. Humanities folk, and any storytellers and folklorists in particular, who read this will no doubt be saying “duh, obviously”. But it’s some new thinking for me, at least in the sustainability domain.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that a lot of the stories we have about dealing with shorter timescale threats are either historical, or grounded in things that have happened. It’s a challenge to do this with climate change. Science fiction can help us, perhaps. While history doesn’t give much that’s comparable at global scale, it’s hardly the first time that a civilization has been threatened by a self-inflicted change in its environment. But we remember those that fell, not those that successfully changed their behaviour and survived.

“Make sure people don’t forget. Make sure people remember that a closed system is a closed system even when you can’t see the edges”

Posted by simon in Reflective

Overview effect

Overview effect” is the name given to something experienced by some, but not all, astronauts, when they see the Earth from space. The view of the whole planet, and hence the whole human race, from a distance can bring about a marked shift in perspective, in attitudes, in thinking, that favours peace and cooperation and values the environment 1. It’s probably more common in those who have seen Earth from a great distance – most famously the Apollo astronauts – than those who have only been to low earth orbit, although it certainly happens there too.

View of the Earth rising over the lunar surface, taken by William Anders on board Apollo 8.
Image: Earthrise, William Anders / NASA, 1968. Public domain. Taken on board Apollo 8.

The famous “Earthrise” photo of 1968 probably helped some people feel the same, although looking at a picture is hardly the same as being there and knowing that the rest of humanity is beneath you.

Carl Sagan’s “Pale blue dot” photo and the powerful accompanying speech were (among other things) presumably an attempt to bring some overview effect to the masses. More recently, some wealthy space tourists have spoken about seeking out the effect.

I mention this now because I’ve recently started reading Becky Chambers’s novel, “Record of a spaceborn few“. In it much of humanity lives, and has lived for generations, on a fleet of huge spaceships. This speech is something like liturgy:

“We destroyed our world, and left it for the skies.
Our numbers were few. Our species had scattered.
We were the last to leave.
We left the ground behind. We left the oceans. We left the air
We watched these things grow small. We watched them shrink into a point of light.
As we watched, we understood. We understood what we were. We understood what we had lost. We understood what we would need to do to survive. We abandoned more than our ancestors’ world. We abandoned our short sight. We abandoned our bloody ways. We made ourselves anew.”

This version of humanity experienced the overview effect en masse, as a species, far too late. Let’s not do the same as them.

[1] As I’m currently between jobs, I don’t have journal access. So these two links have been included on the basis of their abstracts.

Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world

Moving on : New job news!

Cartoon of a penguin carrying a bindel

The Friday after next will be my last day with the University of Hull; after a bit over 3.5 years, I’m moving on and fulfilling the ambition that I’ve had for a while to move back to Scotland.

In my time here I’ve kept a programme running, with positive evaluations, through a pandemic and then an overnight tripling of student numbers, as programme director and while teaching three modules. I’m proud of that, but it has come at a cost – both to my research trajectory and to my health.

I’ve learned a lot at Hull, and worked with some great people, many of whom I hope to continue collaborating with. Hopefully this will all help me in my new role, as Assistant Professor of Energy Technology at Heriot-Watt University. More specifically, I’ll be based at their Orkney campus, where I’ll be heading up the MSc Renewable and Sustainable Energy Transition. I have history there, as it’s where I did my PhD, so it’ll be nice to go “home”, and I’m excited to work with my new colleagues – both those I know from before, and those who have arrived there more recently. The intention is that I will also spend a portion of my time at the main campus in Edinburgh, so for central belt people out there I won’t be far away for all of the time!

I don’t have a Heriot-Watt email address yet, but I’m always available by the routes on the Contact page.

Before I leave Hull I’ll be attending Global Offshore Wind on their behalf – so if you’re going to be there next week and would like to meet up, give me a shout!

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective

Graduation! (not mine)

Today was my department’s winter graduation ceremony, and despite three years as a lecturer it was the first one I’ve attended in which I wasn’t receiving a degree (first everybody had Covid and so we had no graduations, and then I had Covid last summer and missed that one).

I went in without too much in the way of expectations – I’d had an unproductive day for mental health reasons (no big deal, it happens sometimes) so I wasn’t in a great mood, and I was anticipating a slightly boring ceremony, but wanted to support the students.

I was wrong. It was a joyous affair. It was wonderful to see my former students cross the stage and stand in front of their friends and families with proud smiles on their faces. Wonderful to see those who had excelled throughout, and those who had struggled a bit along the way. In the reception afterwards I was able to congratulate them in person (sometimes with difficulty – the music was loud!); many of them introduced me to their families, took selfies with me, etc.. Graduation selfies have worse lighting than field trip selfies, but much smarter clothes šŸ˜‰

I left after some hours with a big happy smile on my face, lifted up by other people’s celebration. So now I shall look forward to future graduations… and if any of today’s students are reading this, congratulations again!

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

I try to keep this blog focused on the professional, or at least the energy-related, and so I doubt that I’ve ever mentioned my love of speculative fiction (a broader term for what might, in the past, have been named “science fiction and fantasy”). But in the last few days, after many recommendations, I’ve been reading Becky Chambers‘s “A Psalm for the Wild-Built“, and that deserves mention here. So here’s this blog’s first book review. Sort of.

The book is short, and enjoyable, an easy read, and excellent in many ways that I won’t get into here. I’m not going to discuss most of its themes, nor even its plot; what has made me post is the world in which it’s set. It’s “bright green”, but beyond bright green. It’s what some would now call “solarpunk”. It’s a society that has de-industrialised and become sustainable, and has completely changed in order to do so, but rather than doing that by reverting to a pre-industrial way of life it has done something new: it has retained technology, but without consumer culture or (we assume) mass production.

“It was a good computer, given to them on their sixteenth birthday, a customary coming-of-age gift. It had a cream-coloured frame and a pleasingly crisp screen, and Dex had only needed to repair it five times in the years that it had travelled in their clothes. A reliable device built to last a lifetime, as all computers were.”

This is, I assume, the kind of world that many environmentalists yearn for – especially those who want to decentralise, for villages to live locally and within their means, and so forth. This is sometimes expressed, at least by those in the first world, as a yearning for the past, for pre-industrial society, which is something that I can’t get behind for fairly obvious reasons. But some also see it as a brave new future, as something that hasn’t been tried before. The huge missing piece is usually a plan to get from here to there…

Anyway. The book is lovely, and provided me with a calm and enjoyable few hours. You should read it, not just for the setting but also for the many other things it explores.

“Farmers and doctors and artists and plumbers and whatever. Monks of other gods. Old people, young people. Everybody needed a cup of tea sometimes. Just an hour or two to sit and do something nice, and then they could get back to whatever it was.”

A glass cup of herbal tea, presented on a hemp mat.
Photo: rawpixel.com, CC0 public domain
Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world