Out There

The night sky is more provocative when viewed from the countryside. In the city we barely notice it, but not only because there are more delightful things to distract us from looking – the night sky is obscured by the sodium yellow of streetlights and the glare of the high street. In the Dordogne, in the south west of France, the cosmos is harder to ignore, and  when I looked at it the other day it occurred to me that my feelings and thoughts probably didn’t differ markedly from the feelings and thoughts of prehistoric man as he gazed at the Milky Way 25,000 years ago from the mouth of his cave.


He knew less about the world, about himself and about the universe, I suppose, though I’m sure he knew his constellations rather better than I know them (I only know the Plough). He had no other visual entertainment, at night, other than the embers of his fire. But he didn’t know anything about what he was looking at, about planets, galaxies, dark matter or the dark energy that is tearing the universe apart at every greater velocity, though, to be frank, we too know almost nothing about dark energy.

Perhaps he imagined that the stars spoke to him somehow, and augured good or ill for the weather or the availability of mammoth meat. Sadly, we know now that they didn’t and don’t. Millions of hours of signals analysis by SETI programs running whilst our PCs are at rest have as yet failed to find evidence of a signal in the noise.

But if there is one thing  I wish for in my lifetime (apart from world peace, the end of fundamentalist religions, universal democracy, a cure for cancer, the abolition of the unaccompanied madrigal and the Peruvian flute band) it is the discovery of extra terrestrial intelligence. Not just life, which would be interesting but neither amazing nor surprising, but intelligent life.

It will happen one day, though perhaps not soon. It won’t be communication, and it won’t be conversation unless we discover something even more remarkable, such as a Star Trek style warp drive that could take us or our signals faster than the speed of light. But simply to receive a ‘signal’ would be the most remarkable thing, to know that there are others out there, like us. And I believe they would be like us. Not to look at, of course, though I suspect they would have at least two eyes and at least two hands, but in terms of the cluster of things that go with intelligence.

Intelligence, the purposeful pursuit of knowledge, control and cooperation, is unimaginable without language, self-consciousness and thought, and the recognition by every intelligent creature that there are other intelligent creatures like them. Indeed language could only develop in a community of conscious creatures. And I believe that ethical systems inevitably follow, because one creature must, in virtue of language, be able to imagine itself as another. Perhaps even religion follows, at least for a while, until intelligence prevailed, though, to my mind, religion is false as science and a misleading foundation for value.

There must be intelligent life out there somewhere. We can’t be alone when there are billions of galaxies containing billions of stars. Even if intelligent life arrives late in the evolution of living things and doesn’t last long it would surely last long enough for there to be some ‘chatter’ radiating outwards (episodes of the alien version of The Archers, the Eurovision Song Contest, the speeches of Fidel Castro, and other entertainments) even if there were no formal signal replete with indicators of intelligence such as the atomic weights of the elements.

But if they set about sending a signal, what would they want to tell us? How to make fusion work? How to avoid annihilation? And what would we send them?

If I were the editor of transmissions into the unknown I would want to convey both knowledge and the idea of value. I doubt that intelligent life could evolve without both. So I would transmit the energy levels of fundamental particles, such as we currently understand them to be (or some such quantity if what I’ve suggested doesn’t make sense). These would indicate how far we’ve progressed in understanding the framework of the universe, and I presume they would be immediately recognisable in virtue of their ratios to each other. And I would send the whole of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

What else would be worth saying?


Beauty on a Small Scale

There’s a lovely new exhibition at the Hunt Kastner Gallery here in Prague of drawings, designs and photographs by Dalibor Chatrny (1925-2011), an influential artist and teacher who studied in Prague shortly after the Second World War, and who spent most of his career based in Brno where he taught, until 1986, at the School of Applied Arts.

The Hunt Kastner exhibition displays collections of designs that Chatrny published privately in small pamphlet editions, as well as photographs, some his own, some by friends and students, that he delightfully ‘enhanced’ with drawn lines and strings. There is great beauty in these small scale works.


In recognition of the profound influence of Dalbor Chatrny on artists in the Czech Republic (and no doubt in Slovakia before the separation), guests at Friday’s exhibition opening were invited to bring their own small-scale works inspired by the artist’s work, together with some explanatory text. Sadly, few complied, and the few works that were contributed by aspiring or established artists (or perhaps complete unknowns) served only to illustrate how difficult it is to create works of simplicity and beauty that don’t need justification through pretentious conceptualist explanation.

Fine works by Dalibor Chatrny


Rubbish (in my opinion) by guests at Friday’s Exhibition Opening

No Dalek

no dalek

Artist David Davros writes: For a child, all is the ‘other’. It is only through a process of secondary familial and public socialisation that a child can construct his or her necessary public and moral structures containing other: LOVE and other: HATE and at the same time  (re)configure his or her symbolic understanding of other: TERRESTRIAL and other: ALIEN. The child will all too often and all too easily reach for a palette of anatomically incomplete, sometimes conventional, sometimes degenerative, quasi-distorting representative forms to defuse the power of the hidden multiverse.

Breaking Wave (oil and modelling clay)

breaking wave

I am fascinated, writes Qi Qi-Di, by the relationship between object and representative medium. The wave breaks, just as its representation breaks, cracking and flaking dynamically as the clay dries. And as our cortical synapses progressively fail, and our own perceptions and memories break and fade,  object, medium, perception: are conjoined in oblivion. In the contemplation of the unending cycle of our striving and failing to convey, lies our only hope for peace, both in ourselves and in the world.

Out of Box


Out of Box, writes Ahmed Oud from ArtOffensiv Kolektiv, challenges the underlying strictures of representation, whether figurative or symbolic. Medium may itself remain untransformed by the assertion of the artistic object. Literally, nothing becomes the object when representation lies outside it. It is a message not through art to the world, but from art to the world.

These eccentric contributions have been incinerated (a condition of their contribution, apparently) so you need have no fear that your pleasure in Dalibor Chatrny’s work will be spoiled by the work of his overly cerebral and practically untalented followers.


Marvellous Nonsense – Davros, Creator of the Daleks, is Back!

‘I try not to understand,’ says the Doctor. ‘It’s called an open mind.’

This is the kind of seductive and playful nonsense that makes Doctor Who such compelling drama. It’s a clever remark, has the ring of truth about it, but doesn’t bear examination. After all, understanding is what makes us unique. If we hadn’t tried to understand we’d still be living in caves.

But that’s Doctor Who. It’s not actually proper science or serious drama, even if it feels like it. The fun lies in how plausible it’s made to sound and how seriously it’s played.

‘It’s a psychic projection, or something‘ says an underling at UNIT, as the face of Missy looms out of a TV screen. UNIT’s commander is clearly irritated by ‘something’, but entirely at ease with ‘psychic projection’.

The first episode of Doctor Who Series 9 on BBC 1 on Saturday night was as good as it’s ever been. Davros and Missy (the re-gendered, regenerated Master) are back from the dead (‘Death is for other people, dear,’ says Missy), and I’m even beginning to enjoy Peter Capaldi in the role of the Doctor. What more might we ask for?

Certainly not logic. Doctor Who plays a game with us. For the nerds who know the twist, turn and dialogue of every episode it weaves an apparently consistent fabric out of everything that’s ever happened and everything the Time Lords have ever said about themselves. It’s a complete and coherent account of their planet, their history and their nature. Whatever happens there’s always an apparently plausible reason that makes sense within the structures and assumptions of the show. After all, we want it to make sense. We want it to be real. That’s drama.


A mixture of solemn moralising, fanciful sci-fi, heroism, pathos and horror, in fact Doctor Who has it all. What it lacks, of course, is real logic. The logic of time travel is one of Steven Moffat’s specialities (remember the brilliant and prize-winning  Blink from 2007), and he manages it with incomparably greater brilliance and humour than Back to the Future ever did. But whilst, again in this episode, he’s having fun with the future causing the past, he’s also having fun ignoring the more basic and inconvenient logical problems of time travel (can you imagine, I actually studied some of the logical issues of time travel during my philosophy course at Oxford?).

The central fact of Saturday’s episode is that Davros is dying, but if you’re a time traveller with no particular commitment to any particular time Davros is always dying, and always being born. Why the call from the future or the past should come ‘now’ as opposed to ‘then’ is anyone’s guess. But who cares? The fun is in half believing it makes sense.

Another problem. ‘Where is the Doctor?’ doesn’t make sense, either. The Doctor belongs nowhere at any particular time, or may be in more than one place at once if he’s wherever he is  ‘at this moment’ more than once in his own timeline. Indeed, we’ve seen him in one place more than once.

But it’s churlish to find fault. Half-logic, half-plausibility, half-science, half-seriousness is the point of it, and I’ve suspended my disbelief every Saturday since the 1960s when the Doctor first appeared.

There’s half-morality too. Hackneyed though they are, the moral dilemmas these stories raise seem real enough at the time. The troubled figure of the Doctor (is he really a good Time Lord?) wrestles with moral choice as any realistic hero might, and in Doctor Who there isn’t always a good choice. (Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, by contrast, possesses a moral compass (an American one, obviously) that never fails to point him in the right direction.)

“if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?’

A flashback to Tom Baker’s Doctor of the 1970s illustrates the dilemma the current Doctor faces in this first episode. Should he rescue Davros the child, trapped in a ‘hand mine’ field, knowing, as he does, what Davros, inventor of the Daleks, will become? And does he rescue him, or abandon him? This first episode leaves us guessing.

I suspect we’re in for a morally subtle logical twist. It will be because the Doctor abandons him that Davros becomes the monster he becomes.

Such (fanciful) moral dilemmas (morality on holiday, as Wittgenstein might say) remind me of a 1975 science-fiction story Let’s Go to Golgotha, which describes a group of tourists time-travelling back to that moment when Pontius Pilate asks the crowd to choose between Christ and Barabbas. Cautioned about changing history and against standing out from the crowd, they chant ‘Barabbas’, only to realise that everyone in the crowd is a time tourist like them.

This first episode of the new series also shows Peter Capaldi growing into the role, or is it that we’re getting used to him? Anguish is what he does best, and in this new series they’re piling it on.  I can’t wait for next Saturday.