mad science miscellanea

Chariots of the Muses

Consider, for a moment, alternate history.

We’re speaking here not of a particular history, but of the genre, the speculative fictions that ask: What if things had been different?

There are many variations on this theme. Perhaps an important event has a different outcome (Persia crushes the upstart poleis of Greece, wiping democracy from the historical stage), or a strange development changes everything (Jean-Marie Jacquard follows up the principles suggested by his earlier invention and creates a general-purpose Ciphering Loom, ushering in a Napoleonic √®re de l’information). Quite often, the change selected for the story is a small one, and the interest is in working out the complex ways that things might change further down the time-stream. (For encyclopedic, alternately-historical fun, check out Uchronia or the bite-sized glimpses into nearby universes dished out at Today in Alternate History).

Perhaps these phantasies are more science fiction than one might think at first: in the July 2 issue of Nature, Peter Turchin writes (behind a paywall, unfortunately):

…[W]e need a historical social science, because processes that operate over long timescales can affect the health of societies. It is time for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science…Rather than trying to reform the historical profession, perhaps we need an entirely new discipline: theoretical historical social science. We could call this ‘cliodynamics’, from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms

Shades of Asimov’s psychohistory!

Ken Hite, in his Suppressed Transmission column, often writes of Clio and alternate histories. (In fact, I suspect that a search of his essays might turn up a prior coining of the term ‘cliodynamics’.) In “An Alternate-Historical Alphabet”, he propounds the following theory:

All Change Points (q.v.) from Xerxes (q.v.) to the last presidential election, create worlds with clean, efficient Zeppelin traffic. Changing history may produce Zeppelins as an inevitable by-product, much as bombarding uranium produces gamma rays. Often, the quickest way to tell if you are in an Alternate History is to look up, rather than at a newspaper or encyclopedia. From this premise, it is not outside the realm of Plausibility (q.v.) that our history between 1900 and 1936 was, in fact, an Alternate History. It would, at least, explain a lot.

With this in mind, how are we to interpret this recent New York Times story?

As the cost of fuel soars and the pressure mounts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, several schemes for a new generation of airship are being considered by governments and private companies…[B]ecause of new materials and sophisticated means of propulsion, a diverse cast of entrepreneurs is taking another look at the behemoths of the air.

Clearly, these are parlous times, and the cold, hard light of Science reveals a looming Change Point.

Watch the skies!

Arise, Cliodynamics!” article via Complexity Digest

Zeppelin article via Gizmodo.

Image of a Zeppelin-Luftschiff LZ 127 courtesy Schockwellenreiter.


Get it off get it off getitoff!

My workplace is located conveniently close to Valley Forge Park, so I typically head out for a lunchtime hike. I’ve walked the trails for quite a few years and have had a number of Aldo Leopold moments: an immense swarm of ants executing a slave raid against another nest; a daddy long-legs feasting on a still-twitching beetle; two fawns nursing at their mother’s teat.

Pennsylvania is tick country, and after each hike I try to remember to perform the requisite self-examination, making sure nothing has latched onto my pants or socks. I’ve never actually seen a tick while doing this, but I’m a responsible guy and it’s just part of the drill, right?

Today, I was caught in a drenching downpour when I was a good half-mile out in the woods, and I was thoroughly soaked by the time I slogged back to the car. A bit later, sitting in my cubicle, I reach up to rub my forehead, and something falls, something arachnoid that scuttles under my laptop. Yergh. A tick.

Looking underneath the machine does not reveal it, as it had quickly scuppered off somewhere amongst the cables and papers. I’m not particularly squeamish about insects or spiders, but I have to admit to the newly-discovered fact that ticks give me the willies. A careful check of my trousers, legs and arms revealed no further hangers-on. The tick emerges from a pile of papers, so I trap it in a plastic container. It’s a big, perhaps a bit larger than a pencil eraser, so I’m relieved that it’s probably not a Lyme-infested deer tick.

A bit later, I rub my neck and find a lump, something that feels a bit like a mole. In full acarophobe mode, I find a mirror and, yes, around the back quadrant of my neck a large tick has attached itself, nearly out of sight. YERGH. One should never pull out a tick with one’s fingers, so I vibrate in my seat during the fifteen minute drive over to to visit the company infirmary, remaining CALM, because it doesn’t matter that I have a PARASITE embedded in my flesh.

Later, back at my desk, I find there’s something crawling across the lens of my glasses. Taking them off to look more closely, I find a third tick. Thoroughly creeped out, I put it in the plastic container with the first and check myself again. No ticks, but that’s not particularly reassuring by this point.

Now, one thing I’m a bit worried about is my hair. Once I pass my Ph.D. candidacy exam, I expect I’ll be required to join the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (the club for scientists who have, or believe they have, luxuriant flowing hair). Flowing, perhaps, but could it be a haven for vermin?

In short, yes. Upon returning home, M—— checked my scalp and, sure enough, a fourth tick had embedded itself in my left temple. YERGH! Was the rain knocking them off the trees?

I think it’s time to buy a new hat.

CC-licensed image of a wood tick courtesy of bogdogmax, as I didn’t have my camera and didn’t really feel like keeping my specimens around for purposes of nostalgia.