It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Krypton Cataclysm: Why So Few Survivors?

Most readers will know the story of Kal-El, the child of celebrated Kryptonian scientist Jor-El, who became a prominent citizen of Earth and the scourge of its criminal element. Many are aware of the few other survivors of the great planetaty explosion; the Phantom Zone prisoners, the Kandorians, and a few others, each under peculiar circumstances. Still, the most captivating of all the survival stories remains the escape of Kal-El in a tiny homebrew spacecraft built by Jor-El with his own hands. But why was Jor-El compelled to this bizarre course of action? A rocket-propelled spaceship capable of life support is obviously the undertaking of years of effort. Why, given his prominence in the community and his well-known brilliance, was Jor-El incapable of saving more of his fellow Kryptonians, including himself?

It turns out that it was not for want of trying. In the year 19989 KD, Jor-El testified before the Council of the Western Continent to the effect that the earlier theoretical concerns about Global Exploding were becoming imminent, and that the problem needed to begin to be treated as a realistic concern with policy implications. If the planetary use of Negative Zone energies were not replaced with more sustainable sources, the planetary core was likely to destabilize at some time in the 201st century. A "tipping point", after which restabilization would become impossible, might be reached in the near future.

It was based on work of the most eminent scientists. In 19979, the Cha-Ni commission (including the founder of mathematical negativology Cha-Ni, the space negativologist Su-Mi and the famed Eastern Continent liquidologist Wun-Tish) had already reported as much. Some of the most eminent Kryptonological scientists of the time signed off on that report.

Of course, industrial interests with investments in Negative Zone infrastructure were less than pleased with this information, and sought to discredit it. Commissions of scientists of somewhat lesser note but more philosophical pliability were assembled, and doubts were raised, most of them without substance. The congress, the news-plastics and the public were hard pressed to determine where the real scientific expertise lay.

However, as predicted, a period of increased seismic activity, particular in the equatorial zone, ensued. It was sufficiently prominent for the public to take notice of the predictions. The more eminent general journals published many peer reviewed plastics supporting the -Ni commission, -El's simulation group at the North-Continental Air and Space Administration, and brilliant theoretical work, notably at the Ha-Li Center on Sceptred Isle and the Ma-Sa Chu-Si Institute of Technology at Bottled City.

Nevertheless, Negative Zone industrial concerns were not inclined to take Dr. -El at his word. Doubts were cleverly raised in the public, and a constituency formed in most major Councils that supported the views of the Negative industry. Of course, care was taken to separate these views from the appearance of industry support, and to appear objective and scientific. Enough doubts were raised to force the creation of an international scientific review board, the Intercontinental Probe on Core Cataclysm Concerns, or IPCCC. Early IPCCC reports were tentative, but arriving on a five year cycle (eventually stretched to six and then seven years) they generally supported the Global Exploding position and did so with increasing confidence over the years. Eventually, evidence showed the Tipping Point was nigh.

Members of the public had difficulty believing that the Negative industry would put profits ahead of the survival of the planet. After all, what good is Krypto-currency among a vast swarm of airless asteroidal shards? So when committees of so-called Global Exploding Skeptics showed some vigor, some of the public was easy to convince that the question was not settled.

To further confuse the situation, a group calling itself "Shakists" appeared, which asserted that while the planet's core would, in fact, probably explode, the consequences weren't likely to be very severe. Nevertheless, it began to appear that the political vigor of the various negativist groups was inadequate, and that an effort to constrain Negative Zone energy use might indeed be implemented on a Krypton-wide basis. However, there was much worry that any realistic effort might already be too little, too late.

As the Tipping Point approached, strains began to appear within the IPCCC. While many scientists insisted that the proper role of science was to report, not to advocate, others pointed out that it was increasingly looking like a matter of survival. Dry scientific texts, plastics in peer review journals, paste-ups in conference hallways, and traditional nars and semi-nars would not suffice. This group felt that the evidence was sufficiently compelling, and the popular plastics so poorly informed, that the scientific community had to move into a role of advocacy.

This resulted in a somewhat schizophrenic IPCCC fourth report, with some chapters in the usual dry voice, some even excessively cautious, and some leaning toward advocacy that was fairly strident by past IPCCC standards. The time to begin an evacuation plan, certain chapters strongly implied, had come.

It was at this point, around the year 20010, that a previously obscure effort of the Negative industry came to the fore. A diverse group of hobbyists with negativist inclinations had been discussing Global Exploding on the StegaNet. Leaders of this group, notably a retired negativist Ma-Kint and the mysterious statistician, Ms. L L, had been second-guessing a small group of scientists who had been scrounging up old seismograms to reconstruct the seismic history of the past. They questioned the statistical significance of the commonly accepted increase in equatorial seismicity. They demanded copies of all the old seismograms, which were in various formats stored in various places, scanned with various equipment, and had been painstakingly but informally collated over the years at the Kryptonography Reconstruction Unit (KRU) at a minor university on Sceptred Isle.

Ma-Kint and L L and their group managed to make life extremely difficult for these reconstruction groups, ultimately resorting to legal mechanisms to force release of mountains of obscure data of trivial importance. Then, a mysterious ally (never identified) brazenly stole a copy of all recent correspondence of the KRU, picked out a few somewhat embarrassing samples, and published them. The Negativists were peculiarly delighted by this crime. Removed from context, messages provided fodder for an array of suspicious and hostile interpretations at almost every turn. A plethora of implausible and mutually inconsistent scenarios implying various shady motivations and actions were worked out and promulgated through various channels. The press were delighted to echo the innuendo, as embarrassment to authority figures tended to sell plastics.

Jor-El, along with Han-Sin, Shnai-Da, Ar-Cha, Pyar-Mber, Shmee-Dat and other prominent scientists at first mostly ignored this fiasco. They insisted that the work of the KRU, while as far as they knew entirely commendable, was not of great importance, given that the planet was about to explode.

There was plenty of less equivocal evidence, they insisted, to that effect. This drove the Negativists into a frenzy. The equatorial seismic record was the key, they insisted, and clearly the KRU (whose members had indeed written a couple of IPCCC chapters) were the key to the key. Some even went so far as to portray the scientific community as a tool of the (in fact, essentially unfunded) IPCCC, and the IPCCC itself as a branch office of the (in fact, tiny and previously obscure) KRU. Thus they expanded their innuendo to the IPCCC itself, and the confusion was promulgated by a credulous press. Political support in various regions for de-negativization and ark-building declined.

Because a global effort was needed, and one or another prominent region could always be diverted by increasingly sophisticated negativist tactics, no ark was constructed, and any efforts toward denegativization, though paid much lip service, were sporadic, superficial and entirely symbolic. The destabilization of the core continued apace.

Committee after committee after committee found that no wrongdoing had taken place at KRU or its allied institutions in seismic reconstruction. While invariably met with relief by the small group of reconstruction scientists who were the target of the baseless allegations, this kept the rather unimportant issue of seismic reconstruction in the news, along with repeated suggestion of scandal and secrecy among the Kryptological sciences. Press reports consistently repeated the innuendo and vague implications of impropriety right along with the news of formal findings of innocence. Examination of the manipulation of the press's attentions, which would have been embarassing to the press, were never undertaken. Thus, despite the fact that the accusations proved entirely baseless, the inquiries themselves ended up by lending political support to the negativists.

The journalistic profession, finally under some scrutiny, defended itself by constructing a middle ground that while lacking scientific support had broad political appeal. With some pride the press offered itself as an intermediary, favoring partial denegativization, and postponement of ark-building until new, more cost effective space technologies could be developed. Scientists who pointed out that the universe is not always set up to reward half measures were dismissed as hot-headed and arrogant.

While the main scientific community insisted that Shakism was not a "coherent theory of the planetary core", the press eagerly recruited and promoted Shakist scientists, who developed considerable prominence and great respect among the governing classes, especially those nostalgic for a less contentious political environment. This good fortune persisted for the Shakists until the planet actually exploded.

It was during this period that Jor-El withdrew, and dedicated his remaining time and fortune to building the small spaceship for the survival of his young child.

10 comments:

mothincarnate said...

MT - this is brilliant!!! Well done! :-)
I remember reading in Clark's RAMA series that the humans were told not to use log fires - indeed the weather algorithm were such that the smoke would make weather unpredictable and it wasn't needed anyway as the habitat climate was fairly pleasant anyway, but still they continued to use wood fires and ended up breaking into the weather computer and eventually took another species habitat.
But anyway, I like what you've done here - very clever!

Oale said...

Excellent! :-), one I wish I had come up with.

Steve Bloom said...

Nicely done! Has a few typos.

EliRabett said...

We are among you

El-i

jg said...

Quite a page-turner, that is, after I printed it.
jg

Michael Tobis said...

I've been poking at it with typo fixes and minor amendments. Hopefully this is the final version as of now.

manuel "moe" g said...

Even more depressing than that. Like the tragedy of the commons, unless you think that global climate cooperation on mitigation is very likely (*), the rational personal action is to mainly work for your family and close friends to be able to survive the collapse of modern agriculture and transport, since high agricultural yields and ease of transport are based largely on climate stability. And work to be able to stake a claim on one of the places with a livable climate. Work to survive something like the collapse of the Roman Empire and the decimation of the European Black Death, rolled into one.

(*) forgive me if I don't put much stock in carbon eating trees or stratospheric salt-water douches or Doc Brown's Mr. Fusion... the musings of the leading intellectual lights, notwithstanding.

Surviving global cataclysms -- humans have done it before, and will do it again. I am just glad that it is highly unlikely that an event of the same consequence as the burning of the Library of Alexandria will happen again. Too much microfiche and print-outs and magnetic tape in retired salt mines.

To one viewpoint, nothing has changed. Work to make your family capable and resilient and morally grounded, and choose your friends and associates wisely.

Lazar said...

Heh. Artfully done.

A pale imitation...

Amid the global chaos of 2050, the AR10 was published with one line; "So long, and thanks for all the grants." Climate scientists set sail on a NASA spacecraft to establish a lunar colony and educate their children in the logic of science, ethics and responsibility. From a harem in Riyadh, Republican senators condemned this as a "vast and unethical waste of public funds". Keith Kloor was engaged in relief work. Steven McIntyre, Lucia Liljegren and Tom Fuller were still wondering where the decline is and why no one else cared.

Steve L said...

Somebody smart said something like, "The press thinks it is the referee of our little games. The press is wrong. The press is the ball."
This is true regardless of whether the press prints on paper or plastic, I imagine.

EliRabett said...

As Barry Brook commented at RR


"...Hansen's bones are quiet at last,
...No science disturbs the lucid line,
For sun-scorched Earthers tune their thought
To Offword Station 'Holocene-1'
From where they know just what they ought,
...memories of times past that should be banished
Only relics, philosophies and a parched wasteland lie below..."