A Year Ends, A New Year Begins

We are approaching the end of what for many of us has been the year 2021 but for some, the number will be different because according to tradition, the Hebrew calendar started at the time of Creation, placed at 3761 BCE. So for our current 2021/2022, the Hebrew year is 5782. Right over on the other side of this amazing world it will soon be New Year’s Day, whilst others have a few hours to wait. I will admit to finding it strange a few years ago on my lovely holiday as I crossed the International Dateline a couple of times when I ‘skipped over’ some days, whilst others were counted twice. Whatever our circumstances it has been a very trying and troubling year for so many on this world, this Earth. In years to come I wonder what we will reflect on, those who are doing so. We have both seen and experienced change, of that we may be sure. I have no doubt that there will be further change too, in the years ahead. On earlier blog posts I have said a bit about my young days, growing up in Whittlesey, where almost everyone seemed to know almost everyone else! We moved up from London, at first it was Mum, Dad, my two elder brothers and myself. Dad had managed to get a teaching job which included living in the school house and the school right next door made things easy for me! That school building is now the St Jude’s church. So that move was a really big change for us, though perhaps not quite as much for me because I was less than a year old then! A while later Nan and Pop, who were my paternal grandparents, decided to move from London to Whittlesey and retire there. So we stayed and I grew up in Whittlesey. Older brothers were growing up, one moved away having joined the army, whilst the other settled for a while but job opportunities moved him away too and this meant that I did not see too much of them or their respective offspring as they grew up. Then it became clear that whilst I was learning much where I worked, it seemed that – well, let us just say that my face just didn’t fit! As a result, when the opportunity came for me to move on to a higher grade job with the same company but in Leicester, I went. In truth it was the right thing for me as I met a lovely female and we were married for a while. Further job opportunities gave me greater experience, I moved a few times around the Midlands before finally settling in Leicester. Naturally I talked with parents regarding my first move away from Peterborough but Dad urged me to take the opportunity as he felt it would be good for me. It was then that I learned all about how my grandparents moving to Whittlesey had stopped Dad from doing what he had considered at one time, which was a teaching job right away from Peterborough. I might have found myself being brought up in Swindon or somewhere! But it was not meant to be. There are those, like many of the people I was at school with, who are still happily settled in Whittlesey and looking on Facebook I recognise names, but not faces! As I know I have said before, others moved to places far and wide like the U.S.A, Canada, Australia and to New Zealand. Equally, some of the people I have worked with moved over to England for various reasons, one lad from South Africa had moved here for job reasons but I learned that his claim to fame was as an extra in a crowd scene for a film – ‘Zulu’, I think it was. However, for some the moves were through political turmoil, with folk finding that they and their families were not welcome where they were, due to their race. That to me is absolutely awful, we are all human beings but we do not seem to be able to live peacefully together. Perhaps that day will come, but sadly I do not see it occurring for a while yet, when some people wish to be so selfish. Yet their lives too will end, in time.

So it got me thinking about early man. Many of you will have seen the film “2001 – A Space Odyssey”, where apes fight and they learn rudimentary use of bones as tools. The various ages of man have come and gone, our Earth has also changed but back then early man had no idea of what our world was like. That really is, I think, where the first ‘conspiracy theories’ started. Imagine being told that we were the centre of the universe, that the Earth was flat because they had to make sense of heir world. I am reminded of the poster advertising the “Flat Earth Society – members all around the globe”. Some years ago I bought a computer program called ‘Civilization’, where a player ‘created’ a new civilisation of their own. This ‘Sid Meier’s Civilization’ is a 1991 turn-based strategy video game developed and published by MicroProse and was originally developed for MS-DOS using a standard personal computer but has undergone numerous revisions for various platforms. The player is tasked with leading an entire human civilisation over the course of several millennia by controlling various areas such as urban development, exploration, government, trade, research, and military. The player can control individual units and advance the exploration, conquest and settlement of the game’s world. The player can also make such decisions as setting forms of government, tax rates and research priorities. The player’s civilisation is in competition with other computer-controlled civilisations, with which the player can enter diplomatic relationships that can either end in alliances or lead to war. The game has sold 1.5 million copies since its release, and is considered one of the most influential computer games in history due to its establishment of the 4X genre. In addition to its commercial and critical success, the game has been deemed quite valuable due to its presentation of historical relationships. A multiplayer remake, ‘Sid Meier’s CivNet’, was released for the personal computer in 1995 and ‘Civilization’ was followed by several sequels starting with ‘Civilisation II’, with similar or modified scenarios. I know, I had a copy and played the game for hours!

A world map screenshot from the Amiga version of ‘Civilization’.

In this game, the player takes on the role of the ruler of a civilisation. They start with one, occasionally two, settler units and they attempt to build an empire in competition with two to seven other civilisations. The game requires a fair amount of micromanagement, although less than other simulation games. Along with the larger tasks of exploration, diplomacy and warfare, the player has to make decisions about where to build new cities, which improvements or units to build in each city, which advances in knowledge should be sought (and at what rate), and how to transform the land surrounding the cities for maximum benefit. From time to time the player’s towns may be harassed by barbarians, units with no specific nationality and no named leader. These threats only come from huts, unclaimed land or sea, so that over time and turns of exploration, there are fewer and fewer places from which barbarians will emanate. Before the game begins, the player chooses which historical or current civilisation to play. In contrast to later games in the ‘Civilization’ series, this is largely a cosmetic choice, affecting titles, city names, musical heralds, and colour. The choice does affect their starting position on the “Play on Earth” map, and thus different resources in one’s initial cities, but has no effect on starting position when starting a random world game or a customised world game. The player’s choice of civilisation also prevents the computer from being able to play as that civilisation or the other civilisation of the same colour, and since computer-controlled opponents display certain traits of their civilisations this affects gameplay as well. For example, the Aztecs are fiercely expansionist and generally extremely wealthy. Other civilisations include the Americans, the Mongols and the Romans. Each civilisation is led by a famous historical figure, such as Mahatma Gandhi for India. The scope of this Civilization game is larger than most others. That is because it begins in 4000BC, before the Bronze Age and can last through to AD 2100 on the easiest setting with Space Age and ‘future technologies’. At the start of the game there are no cities anywhere in the world and the player controls one or two settler units, which can be used to found new cities in appropriate sites. Those cities may build other settler units, which can go out and found new cities, thus expanding the empire. Settlers can also alter terrain, build improvements such as mines and irrigation, build roads to connect cities, and later in the game they can construct railroads which offer unlimited movement. As time advances, new technologies are developed. These technologies are the primary way in which the game changes and grows. At the start, players choose from advances such as pottery, the wheel and the alphabet, leading to, near the end of the game, nuclear fission and spaceflight. Players can gain a large advantage if their civilisation is the first to learn a particular technology (the secrets of flight, for example) and put it to use in a military or other context. Most advances give access to new units, city improvements or derivative technologies, for example the chariot unit becomes available after the wheel is developed, and the granary building becomes available to build after pottery is developed. The whole system of advancements from beginning to end is called the technology tree and this concept has been adopted in many other strategy games. Since only one technology may be researched at any given time, the order in which they are chosen makes a considerable difference in the outcome of the game and generally reflects the player’s preferred style of gameplay. Players can also build Wonders of the World in each of the epochs of the game, subject only to obtaining the prerequisite knowledge. These wonders are important achievements of society, science, culture and defence, ranging from the Pyramids and the Great Wall in the Ancient age to the Copernicus Observatory and Magellan’s Expedition in the middle period right up to the Apollo programme, the United Nations and the Manhattan Project in the modern era. Each Wonder can only be built once in the world, and requires a lot of resources to build, far more than most other city buildings or units. Wonders provide unique benefits to the controlling civilisation, for example Magellan’s Expedition increases the movement rate of naval units. Wonders typically affect either the city in which they are built, for example the Colossus, every city on the continent, such as J.S. Bach’s Cathedral, or the civilisation as a whole, like Darwin’s Voyage. However, some wonders are made obsolete by new technologies. The game can be won by conquering all other civilisations or by winning the Space Race, reaching the star system of Alpha Centauri. The game has developed quite a bit over the years though, as I have an excellent version on my MacBook Pro which is much improved from the MS-DOS version that I used to play!

As I have said, it is a cleverly thought-out game, because it mirrors the real world so well. I really do wonder what will happen to us, to this Earth, in the future. There has been much speculation as to whether we will manage to travel to distant stars, to different planets and have interaction with other forms of life. As I said in a blog post earlier this year, life on Earth is based on carbon, perhaps because (so I have learned) that each carbon atom can form bonds with up to four other atoms simultaneously. That is a bit technical for me, but it seems that because of that, carbon is well-suited to form the long chains of molecules which then serve as the basis for life as we know it, such as proteins and DNA. In fact, research by some earth scientists at Rice University suggests that virtually all of Earth’s life-giving carbon could have come from a collision about 4.4 billion years ago between this Earth and an embryonic planet similar to Mercury. Science fiction has long imagined alien worlds inhabited by other life, but based on other elements. One example are the rock-eating Horta, a silicon-based life form as featured in the original Star Trek series. Also in that series, Mr Spock has green blood because the oxygen-carrying agent in Vulcan blood includes copper, rather than iron, as is the case in humans. For us here, carbon is the backbone of each and every known biological molecule. But life here has taken a finite amount of time to evolve, so who is to say that a life-form on another planet light-years from us has developed to the same level. Don’t be downhearted, but it is a fact, so far as our science will tell us, that stars like our Sun burn for about nine or 10 billion years. In fact our Sun is about halfway through its life, so it still has about five billion years to go. After that, the sun will run out of energy and drastically alter the whole of the solar system because oceans will be baked dry, entire planets will be consumed. And worlds that have been icy for so long will finally enjoy their day in the sun. Our star is powered by nuclear fusion, and it turns hydrogen into helium in a process that converts mass into energy. Once the fuel supply is gone, the sun will start growing dramatically. Its outer layers will expand until they engulf much of the solar system, as it becomes what astronomers call a red giant. The life cycle of the sun takes it from the life-giving star that we know today into a swelling red giant and, eventually, a planetary nebula surrounding a tiny white dwarf. Once the sun enters the red giant phase though, the solar system’s denouement is still a subject of debate among scientists. Exactly how far the dying sun will expand, and how conditions will change, aren’t yet clear. But a few things seem likely. The slow death will kill off life on Earth, but it may also create habitable worlds in what are presently the coldest reaches of the solar system. Any humans left around might find refuge on Pluto and other distant dwarf planets out in the Kuiper Belt, a region past Neptune packed with icy space rocks. As our sun expands, these worlds will suddenly find themselves with the conditions necessary for the evolution of life. One scientist believes how these may be the ‘delayed gratification habitable worlds’, as late in the life of the sun, in the red giant phase, the Kuiper Belt may be something of a metaphorical Miami Beach!

We can take an imaginary quick jaunt through our solar system in the potential ‘last days’ of the sun. Throughout solar system history, the innermost planet has been baked by the sun. But even today, Mercury still clings to some icy patches. As our star ages, it will vaporise those remaining volatile areas before eventually eliminating the entire planet in a slow-motion version of Star Wars’ Death Star. Venus though is sometimes called “Earth’s twin” because the neighbouring worlds are so similar in size and composition. But the hellish surface of Venus shares little in common with Earth’s Goldilocks-type perfect conditions. As the sun expands, it will burn up the atmosphere on Venus before it too is consumed by the sun. Whilst the sun may have 5 billion years left before it runs out of fuel, life on Earth will likely be wiped out a long time before that happens. That’s because the sun is actually already growing brighter. In fact by some estimates, it could be as little as a billion years before the sun’s radiation becomes too much for life here on Earth to handle. That might sound like quite a long time, but in comparison life has already existed on this planet for well over 3 billion years and when the sun does turn into a red giant, the Earth will also be vaporised, perhaps just a few million years after Mercury and Venus have been consumed. All the rocks and fossils and remains of the creatures that have lived here will be gobbled up by the sun’s growing orb, wiping out any lingering trace of humanity’s existence on Earth. But not all scientists agree with this interpretation. Some suspect the sun will stop growing just before fully engulfing our planet. Other scientists have suggested schemes for moving Earth deeper into the solar system by slowly increasing its orbit. Thankfully, this debate is still purely academic for all of us alive today. Even our young sun’s radiation was too much for Mars to hold onto an atmosphere capable of protecting complex life. However, recent evidence has shown that Mars may still have water lurking just beneath its surface. Mars may escape the sun’s actual reach as it is at the borderline, but that water will likely all be gone by the time the red giant star takes over the inner solar system. Now we look at the gas giant planets. As our red giant sun engulfs the inner planets, some of their material will likely get thrown deeper into the solar system, to be assimilated into the bodies of the gas giants.

Saturn as viewed from a side never visible from Earth.
(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Jan Regan)

Here, the ringed planet shows a side never visible from Earth. Cassini took 96 backlit photos for this mosaic on April 13, 2017. Because the sun shines through the rings, the thinnest parts glow brightest, and the thicker rings are dark. However, the approaching boundary of our star will also vaporise Saturn’s beloved rings, which are made of ice. The same fate likely awaits today’s icy ocean worlds, like Jupiter’s moon Europa as well as Saturn’s Enceladus, whose thick blankets of ice would be lost to the void. Once our sun has become a red giant, Pluto and its cousins in the Kuiper Belt along with Neptune’s moon Triton may be the most valuable real estate in the solar system. Today, these worlds hold abundant water ice and complex organic materials. Some of them could even hold oceans beneath their icy surfaces — or at least did in the distant past. But surface temperatures on dwarf planets like Pluto commonly sit at an inhospitable hundreds of degrees below freezing. However, by the time Earth is a cinder the average temperatures on Pluto will be similar to Earth’s average temperatures now.

Pluto as imaged by the New Horizons mission.

It has been said that when the sun becomes a red giant, the temperatures on Pluto’s surface will be about the same as the average temperatures on Earth’s surface now, because Earth will be toast, but Pluto will be balmy and brimming with the same sorts of complex organic compounds that existed when life first evolved on our own planet. Pluto will then perhaps have a thick atmosphere and a liquid-water surface. Collectively the worlds, from comet-like space rocks to dwarf planets like Eris and Sedna in this new habitable zone will have three times as much surface area as all four of the inner solar system planets combined. This might seem like an academic discussion only relevant to our distant descendants if they’re lucky enough to survive billions of years from now. However, as has been pointed out by a few astronomers, there are around a billion red giant stars in the Milky Way galaxy today. That is a lot of places for living beings to evolve and then perish as their stars consume them. Who knows what will be in the future but it is fun to speculate!

This week, as we come to the end of 2021 I am reminded of something I shared here in November 2020 and it feels appropriate to repeat.

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our
purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return
home.” ~ Australian Aboriginal Proverb

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