A SCIENTIST’S NOTEBOOK

Gregory Benford is a Nebula winner and a former Worldcon Guest of Honor. He is the author of more than thirty novels, six books of non-fiction, and has edited ten anthologies.

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COLLIDING CULTURES

This is a remembrance from 1997, when I first visited Arthur C. Clarke. It seems still relevant, though Arthur is not here any more.

Calcutta was a dry dust bowl simmering beneath a perpetual gray haze.

The drive from the airport recalled my last visit to India a decade before: endless shanties, rusting roofs, three-wheelers honking and milling in the chaotic roads, crowds stirring restlessly amid heaps of garbage and mysteriously common broken concrete.

The smells came out to greet me, classic third world tropical: spices, coal soot, cabbage, musty bare concrete, low-octane gasoline, dried sweat, urine, cheap perfume, unwashed frying pans, wood smoke. The aroma of history, and plenty of it.

Not an auspicious beginning for the International Conference on the Synthesis of Science and Religion, which was paying all my expenses. I began coughing within hours of my arrival on January 6, 1997. Every other day I had a massage and steam bath to feel clean again. I had thought myself seasoned by my three weeks in India in the mid-1980s, but this visit was different. A sense of a vast, brooding continent pervaded the streets.

It is easier to think like a scientist in the crisp West, with its air conditioning, ample lighting and orderly habits. The East seethes with age, musty atmospherics and a sense of how contingent anything is. Arrangements dissolve, distinctions blur. Western technology often seems an intrusion which will be digested while leaving the society unchanged. In the West, we often feel shaped by our technology, its pace driving us.

I tried to send an e-mail back to my secretary, going to the conference’s sole computer. As I worked with the unfamiliar software I could look down into a courtyard where a cart pumped urine out of an underground vat. It collected there for harvesting; boiled, it yielded valuable chemical salts. The contrast between technologies was striking, and easy to smell.

Seeing a sleek Mercedes waiting at stoplights beside rickshaws drawn by men, and bullocks towing carts behind in the next lane, yields a sense of cultural vertigo. Technology inevitably gives birth to such dislocations when it collides with vast, distant cultures. In the West we tend to think of our technology as wedded to our time. That luxury the East cannot afford; centuries elbow each other for your attention.

Mature technology is discreet, simple, quiet, sinuously classical, even friendly. When it fits in, its use remains as obvious as a hammer, its effects as cheap as a floppy disk. Both it and its users have educated each other. New tech, though, strikes an oddly religious echo. The e-mail I used could only be accessed by one of the men who worked at the conference center, a devotee of the Hare Krishnas. Already he had become like a priest of the machine. The ordinary computer was central yet mysterious and the workers treated it with a hushed attention, like a sacred artifact of unknown powers.

Still, I had to remind myself that some of our Western abstractions are mere mannerisms, not essential. Why say 12:00 hours or 24:00 hours when noon and midnight work clearly?

***

Calcutta seemed an unlikely venue to discuss science, a purely Western invention. We moved amid a world where religion seemed to shape the entire society. As with my 1980s visit, the longer I stayed the more alien the great subcontinent seemed. The veneer of the Raj, with its railroads and inventions bringing order, wore away. India has produced great scientists such as Bose and Chandrasekhar, but such names came from the tiny class at the top of a great population pyramid.

Coincidentally, English prime minister John Major was visiting Calcutta, and the anxious city managers cleared the streets of the homeless. Several hundred thousand live in downtown Calcutta; from my hotel room I could see them bed down for the night on the sidewalks. I got caught up in the Hawker’s Union demonstration against this temporary deportation to the suburbs; it was a fairly orderly march jamming the entire downtown, thickly patrolled by police. The hawkers demanded the right to sell in the streets and dwell there as well, at least during weekdays.

Meanwhile, the conference leaned heavily toward the more New Age brand of science; to me, New Age should be pronounced to rhyme with “sewage.” There were plenty of references to cosmological issues and interpretations of quantum mechanics. Often, the subtle issues of distinguishing between observers in wave mechanics leads to a kind of verbal segue into consciousness-as-primary thinking.

This can easily slide into a view that intelligence is the most important property in physical theories, and so Mind truly holds sway over Matter. Eastern religions like Mind over Matter, so there were many talks about connecting modern physics to age-old doctrines from the major Asian faiths, especially those in the Vedantic tradition. The Hare Krishnas are the newest emergent group from those based on the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism.

I reflected, though, that the physical sciences also strived for a goal which was, if not The Truth—for such was impossible, in the common sense—then at least the most complex yet elegant, chimpanzee view of the world. And the gut feelings which guide scientists have an aesthetic base that does not differ fundamentally from the inchoate yearnings that emerged from many of the conference speeches.

Even in arcane ornamentation, there are similarities. The Krishnas have an elaborate cosmology with vast, long ages of humanity and “emerging essences,” an arcane history.

Compare with one current quantum field theory, which begins in eighteen dimensions, and then “rolls up” all but four, so that fourteen are unobservably small—perhaps a billion billion billion times more tiny than an atom. Then the universe proceeds more or less as Einstein’s gravitational theory dictates.

In this picture we are living in a universe only apparently three-dimensional in space; infinitesimal but real dimensions lurk all about. Without such an early rolling up, any resulting universe could not support life, for there could be no stable atoms. Further, only in odd-numbered dimensions can waves propagate sharply, so three dimensions are favored over two. So we live not only in the best of all possible worlds, but the only possible one.

Such surrealistically bizarre images came from considering the form and symmetries of abstruse equations. In such chilly realms, beauty was often the only guide. The embarrassment of dimensions arose from seeking a mathematical clarity in eighteen dimensions, then hiding the extra dimensions from actually acting in our physical world.

To physicists, “natural” has come to mean how equations should look, their beauty. Aesthetic considerations are in the end a mask for chimpanzee preferences. Religions are constrained in the same, basic way.

***

A long day of listening to quantum queasiness demands some time off. One evening we speakers at the conference went to a posh estate tucked into the bleak cityscape. Through iron gates guarded by tough-looking men in suits, through a plush house festooned with tasteful art, into an ample yard where dozens of servants presented a wide-ranging Indian supper, some of it not recommended for the timid alimentary canal. Ancient dishes simmered in modern serving-table hardware, quite agreeably. No culture conflict here, I thought, digging in.

Our host was one of Bengal’s leading industrialists, who said he supported the Communist (“Left Front”) government that had been in power for more than two decades. I found his continuing support difficult to believe, since the regime had driven Bengal into poverty, but the host felt that, after so long, the communists at least knew how things worked. I asked, “You mean, who to deal with?”

The well-dressed jute baron smiled. “Economics here is not markets, but personalities.” He saw economics not as the working out of laws, but of wills. Going back to our hotel, the bare sidewalks were covered with sleeping bodies, some in muddy rags. Some were erecting new shacks, which the police would eventually sweep away. Nobody thought matters might someday be better. “India’s path is different,” I heard often. This seemed to mean that it had flatlined.

***

One of the Ayatollahs of Iran spoke at the Conference, giving little away except platitudes about how Islam was more scientifically forward-looking than the Judeo-Christian faiths. His evidence proceeded rather obscurely from Genesis. That evening I pointed out to him at that in Genesis, God’s first charge to Adam is to name the beasts—zoology, if not biology.

He blinked and said, “What would it take to make the United States friends with Iran again?”

The connection to Genesis was not obvious. Off the top of my head I said, “Remember that the U.S. doesn’t forgive or forget enemies if it doesn’t defeat them. Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam…you’re in that club.” I wondered why he was asking me, a scientist.

“But there must be something we can do?”

“Cut out supporting terrorism and don’t deploy weapons which can command the Persian Gulf, I’d say.”

“The fundamentalists cause the terrorism.”

Interesting, that he didn’t try to deny Iran’s role. “So?”

“The Jews are behind all the fundamentalists of Islam.”

He seemed surprised when I laughed. It was an honest mistake; I had thought he was joking.

Despite modern communications, Iran lived not in the real world but in a culture of imagination. All the TV and email the West could inject could not dispel illusions held fast in hard minds. Later I realized that nearly all his thinking revolved around conspiracies of some form, that history was indeed the result not of blunt economic forces and individual invention, but of collusions large and small.

***

After a week I began to see in a gut-deep way how much Indian society yearns to be free of the material world. Not surprising, considering how awful much of it is there, but the revulsion goes deeper, leading to a rejection of the body itself. Their myriad faiths all stress suppressing appetites; perhaps a shrewd move, in a place where satisfying them isn’t on the menu. Here Marx seemed right, for once: religion keeps the swarming masses in the choked streets well laced with its opiate.

My instincts are utterly opposite. I grew up in a religious home, but early on learned a proper skepticism, the comfy doubt of frayed religiosity. The church has a polite glacial veneer that coats a flat disbelief in all things super-natural or super-human. Plainly this is not enough for the increasing numbers in the advanced nations who turn to fundamentalism. They dislike the squashing of all morality into a pale, thin social ethic. No God, no order.

***

In the four-day conference we got yet more quantum mechanics, which seems to have become a passport for fuzzy thinking based on the hard results of physics. Describing the world mathematically, I realized, sometimes gives a misleading air of authority. Too many scientists and philosophers thought that numbers were sitting out there in nature, waiting to be found, sorted, totted up. With enough docile computers, they imagined, scientists could relax while the flood of number wrote their papers for them. The humanists’ work was mostly matters of opinion. Poetry might be a perpetually moving target; science was not.

But “hard” facts can soften overnight, melt away under the pressure of newer hard facts. Interpretation shifts. Concepts once abandoned, like the corpuscular theory of light or the transmutability of the elements, have to be looked at again, centuries later. Science is far more provisional and tentative than many want to believe. It is really high adventure, precarious, the wildest of all explorations—not at all like cataloging or adding bricks to an already vast edifice.

Indeed, it was science’s strangeness that drew me to it. Every era erects ornate explanations and trusts them enormously. But stiff science is harmful nonsense.

A speaker who had explicitly connected quantum effects and the religious experience came up to me at one of the coffee breaks. “Do you follow my line of argument?” He had a quick, ironic smile and pursed lips, a reserved gaze—the scholar’s look.

“Too many leaps for me,” I admitted.

“Perhaps in time these ideas will tunnel into your mind.”

“Quantum tunneling?” I asked, but he did not think this was a joking matter.

***

The conference took pains to be broad, admitting many points of view. I appeared on the program three times and quickly found that I was the Official Skeptic. I spoke on the moral/ethical problems soon to come from biotech, centering on the definition of what it means to be human, and found that the ethicists and religious figures there had done little thinking on these problems. Indeed, they were confounded by the present.

Males exceed females among the children of India by several million already, due to sex detection in the womb plus ready abortion: a classic collision of the modern liberal agenda, with its seemingly penalty-free menu. A true feminist dilemma.

What happens when urban China and the western U.S. cities produce a five percent differences between the sexes? And this sex difference arises from a decade-old technology; soon enough, parents will be able to edit out imbeciles or midgets, if they like. What boundary should society impose, or is all left to the parents?

Nobody had any answers. Nor did I, but I am not in that business. Scientists can sound the alarm; the big decisions should lie with those who lead society as a whole.

***

The more I learned of one of the conference sponsors, the Hare Krishnas, the more odd they seemed. Only in a quarter of their lives could their devotees have sex, and then only once a month, strictly for reproduction. Otherwise, they were to avoid meat, alcohol, caffeine, TV, movies, even non-Krishna books; a mental claustrophobia. Of the four stages of life (Youth, Housekeeping, Retirement, Renunciation) the latter two were the most valued, for they withdrew more from the world.

These ideas emerged from the Indian culture itself, and were not mere tacked-on measures. The Krishnas are basically a chanting cult, recruiting those adept at auto-hypnosis. Their rules constrain their followers and fuel their expansion. Vedantic culture is inhospitable to our modern scientific worldview; followers regularly assured me that humans had been around for hundreds of millions of years, contrary to the “misleading” fossil evidence.

Indeed, their cosmology has a sense of futility about it. One must go through reincarnation, I was told, many thousands of times before reaching enlightenment. Nobody I met was going to get nirvana in the next life, by any means. With goals so far away, a listlessness sets in.

If the Hare Krishnas gain more power as India subsides into a lethargic wreck, they will become important. I decided to take a look at one of their major installations.

On the long four-hour journey from Calcutta to Mayapur, a religious retreat, our driver carefully explained that if he should strike any of the many bicyclists, he would have to drive speedily away, and would we please not shout at him for doing so.

The reason was simple. Villagers commonly dragged drivers from cars that hurt locals, no matter who might be a fault, and typically beat them to death. They also beat the passengers, robbed them and stole the car.

So we should understand and not criticize if this should befall us on this trip. This little speech focused my uneasy attention on the roadway, and three times we came very close to scattering a bicyclist from our path, but at the last instant the driver swerved away. I rode most of the way with held breath.

Along the way we stopped for a drink at a shack roofed in tin with no walls. A man stirred a soup over a fire and a few men sat at a table drinking Coke. Why was this a hotel? Then I saw the cane racks set out on the roadside, where lorry drivers could sleep within a few yards of the traffic. No walls, no rooms. The sense of a hotel setting a boundary between yourself and the world was gone, a fleeting Western concept.

Walking into the dusk, I found that beyond the road lay rice paddies as far as the eye could see, no stands of trees more than a few yards wide. Figures labored over them into the night. The natural world had vanished, replaced by incessant agriculture, a solely human landscape. Much of India is the same flattened spectacle, a stage for the endlessly cyclic Vedantic drama of birth and death and around again.

At the Hare Krishna compound I ate excellent vegetarian food, watched their pre-dawn dancing worship, and toured the temples and schools. The Vedantic reverence for all life extends famously to cows; here they had airy stables. Concrete chutes carry their dung into an underground dome, where it decays and methane collects above it. The concrete blister poked above the ground next to the school’s kitchen. From the dome’s pressure trap they pipe methane directly into the stoves and ovens upon which the cooks prepare lunch. The gas burns cleanly, blue and hot. A touch of Western engineering plus a plentiful resource.

How clean was it? I asked. Very, they said.

This is certainly a better solution than the traditional, which we saw along many plaster walls and the sides of houses: dung pancakes shaped by hand and stuck up to dry. When they are ripe they fall off, are collected and stacked in ricks to dry further. Eventually they are burned in the huts for heat and cooking fuel, the smoke inhaled by the whole family.

Among the neatly arranged, traditional, thatch-roofed classrooms I saw two women spreading a brown layer on the dusty paths. One mixed cow dung in a bucket of water and the other smoothed it everywhere with a broom.

Why? Ancient Vedantic lore holds that cow waste is medicinal. It sanitizes the area, my guide said; much cheaper than Western products.

Inside one of the classrooms they were using computers. The reputation of the Hare Krishna compound was exceptional, and indeed, it had a directed, orderly efficiency that reminded me of well run private (but not public) schools in the USA. Most of the compound is run by Americans, who have struck an odd and occasionally unsettling balance between cultures.

***

Conferences never end with firm conclusions. This one had uncovered the expected oppositions between views, but without finding new pathways to reconcile them. No surprise. I was glad to escape Calcutta’s claustrophobic atmosphere, winging off for an overnight in Bombay, speaking at the opening of a new Institute for the Study of Consciousness.

Bombay is the richest, biggest city in India, predicted to become the world’s largest by 2020. The government has changed the city’s name to Mumbai but it isn’t sticking, and the inhabitants have no time to care; about half of them are homeless, and over a third of the houses do not have safe drinking water. From an air-cushion water bus, sipping drinks with umbrellas in them, you can watch swarms of the poor thronging the beaches. The trash service picks up bodies dead of starvation, hauling them away, past some of the city’s 150 diet clinics.

Charles Townes, a retired but remarkably active University of California professor, had been at the meeting and the compound. In Bombay we sat together on the platform and wondered what one could say about trying to study the bewildering problem of consciousness by blending both scientific and Vedantic ideas. Townes invented the maser, whose central idea led quickly to the laser, and won a Nobel for it. He said that he had always had an interest in the interface of the scientific worldview and others. So far, he noted, not much had come of it in his lifetime. Science steamrollered on and other views seemed to have little impact on the world.

I made a few remarks on how the history of science, and my experience of it, shows that our most valuable instrument is a ready recognition of what we do not know, and our most valuable attitude is the willingness to question what we think we do. Certainly India had underlined that; I kept colliding with ideas quite foreign and unforgettable.

I duly showed up for my flight to Sri Lanka, only to find that it did not exist. How could the airline issue a ticket for a non-flight? Shrugs; “clerk error.” But why did they then confirm the flight only three days before? “Another clerking error, sir.” A mysterious smile; of Conradian darkness?

Waiting for the next day’s flight, I watched Hare Krishna devotees in the temple next door as they ran their robot play, featuring their guru. With recordings of his voice, the guru-robot moved through little playlets, dispensing wisdom and even meeting a robot Lord Krishna.

The lifelike head and arm movements seemed unlikely to convince anyone of holy mysteries, but I found fascinating a parallel vision on the laptop at my elbow. In reasonable definition and color Terminator 2‘s robots from the future slugged it out, running from the CD-ROM drive. The ritual faith of one set exactly countered the existentialist void of the other, leaving me suspended in a techno-oblivion amid the Third World miasma of Bombay.

***

Arthur Clarke’s driver found me readily at the airport. He simply held up the hardcover jacket of the book we did together, Beyond the Fall of Night, a language-independent signal.

When I reached Arthur’s home in Colombo, Sri Lanka seemed a paradise compared with India. Arthur was as quick and merry as always, centered in his high-tech web, taking calls and e-mails and faxes from the whole linked globe. I took a photo of him playing the Rama game derived from his novel, on a laptop computer. The war of men and alien lifeforms was a useful distraction from the knowledge that a real civil war was raging right outside; I had to pass through several army checkpoints to get around the city.

When he had to rest in the afternoons he let me have his red Mercedes and driver to visit the Arthur Clarke University, allied with the larger university some miles away. Newly built, it concentrates on practical training in electronics appropriate for the region, particularly circuits that manage appliances during the nearly daily blackouts and brownouts of an infrastructure strained to supply adequate power.

Such hardnosed applications parallel Arthur’s early technological career, when he worked on radar and then envisioned communications satellites linking the planet. Even so, his fiction has often been techno-mystical, with a touch of longing for the same release from the body. Arthur has lived in Colombo since the middle 1950s, yet has never lost his faith that in expanding humanity’s knowledge and capabilities lies the secret to our destiny.

Dwelling in a culture which abhors the flesh, he none the less sings of extending the human reach to the stars. I remembered the night sky over a temple where I had stayed in Mayapur, sharp and clear, which one of the devotees described as “the gods watching.”

This uncanny sense occurred many times, the sense that in India one meets both past and future. If we continue to swell our numbers and despoil our world, we could make all the Earth like this. Something in me rebelled at the thought.

The ancient consolations would emerge: the Krishnas reminded me of a chimpanzee troop, chanting and dancing as solace. To that devotee, the stars were unattainable entities, serenely passing judgment on our failings.

To Arthur, they are a goal. The fast-moving dots of light are planets, after all. Our robots—spindly spiders, not imitation gurus—have already been there, reconnoitering. In time we could climb to them and find ourselves in the realization of our own ever-expanding horizons. Yet beside this sense of opening would always run the strains of far antiquity, heartfelt longings and seething hates alike, the consolations of a species still finding its way.

We discussed the coming of Hale-Bopp, a promisingly bright comet. While writing this memoir, it has grown enormously. As well, thirty-nine cultists have killed themselves, hoping to be picked up by a spaceship following the comet. The dark side of religion haunts us still, wearing the trappings of pop-sf with its “sci-fi” simplicities.

Clarke’s attitude, living immersed in a culture that struggles to embrace new and old, came as a breath of clean air in the tropical sun. Leaving Sri Lanka, I exhaled with pleasure. Out with the coal soot, cabbage, musty bare concrete. I banished the stinging dust and oily fumes of Calcutta from my lungs, like ancient, spoiled ideas.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Gregory Benford