ET – please phone!

In the last decade and a half, astronomy has finally realised one of its long-term goals, that of identifying planets in other star systems, and indeed the number of extra-solar planets now known far exceeds the roll-call in our own solar system. Although many of these planets are “hot Jupiters” – gas giants in close orbit around their primaries – advances in observational techniques have now located potentially-Earthlike worlds such as Gliese 581 d, a large terrestrial (rocky) planet orbiting near the outer edge of the habitable zone of Gliese 581, a red dwarf located approximately twenty light years from Earth.

If – as astronomers have long believed – Earthlike planets are fairly common in the universe, what of life and by extension, what of what are colloquially known as aliens, or more accurately as Extra Terrestrial Intelligences (ETIs)? This is a topic that has attracted so much attention from flying saucer enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists that mainstream academics tend to shun it, but there is one question that refuses to go away:

“Where are they?”

This is the question asked in 1950 by the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, and it is a very good question. Assuming we make it through the next few centuries, there is on the face of it no reason why humans shouldn’t visit Gliese 581 d or the many other Earthlike planets that will doubtless have been discovered by then. But if that is the case, why have ETIs living on these planets not visited us? If intelligent life is common, by the law of averages some of these alien civilizations must be more technologically advanced than us and already capable of crossing interstellar space.

So why are they not here? Here, in ascending order of probability, are some possibilities:

i. They visited us in antiquity, using their advanced technology to build the Pyramids, Stonehenge etc.

ii. They are here now, but there is an X-Files or Dark Skies-style government conspiracy afoot to keep the public from finding out.

iii. We have been placed out of bounds under a Star Trek-style Prime Directive, prohibiting interference in our natural development as a civilisation.

iv. Aliens are aware of us, but after monitoring our radio broadcasts, they are keeping well clear.

v. We are alone and there are no ETIs, at least in our galaxy and its surrounds.

vi. Any technological civilisation will invariably wipe itself out before interstellar travel can develop.

vii. Even with the most advanced technology, interstellar travel is extremely difficult and rarely undertaken.

We can safely dismiss possibility one: the construction of these ancient monuments was a stupendous feat, but well within the range of the Neolithic and Bronze Age technologies of Homo sapiens without any assistance from ET. And while one cannot categorically rule out the second and third possibilities, my personal feeling is that both are extremely unlikely! Possibility four is slightly more believable: Bush, Blair and Mugabe are three excellent reasons for giving humanity a wide berth, and of course that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Far more plausible is the idea that Man is alone, but my feeling is that this, too, is unlikely. Over the last few centuries, Science has demoted the Earth from the very centre of Creation to a small planet circling a medium-sized star, far from the centre of a perfectly ordinary galaxy; a planet now known to have at least one analogue in Gliese 581 d only a few light-years away. If intelligent life could emerge in such an undistinguished place, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose it has also done so elsewhere. Indeed it seems inconceivable that it has not done so.

The sixth and gloomiest possibility is bound to have its supporters. There are of course many ways in which our present civilization could wipe itself out. At the moment, the hot (pun intended) favourite is global warming, but there are other strong contenders. Even though the threat of global thermonuclear war has now receded, the possibility of a regional nuclear exchange such as one involving India and Pakistan is a very real possibility and would have consequences ranging far beyond the Indian subcontinent. Those other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Pestilence and Famine cannot be discounted either, as fears over pandemic bird flu and the alarming recent jump in world food prices show.

However, even if global civilization does collapse, it is difficult to believe that there would be no survivors, and that the descendents of these could not eventually rebuild civilization, albeit after the passage of many centuries. Even if global warming had completely altered climatic conditions, Homo sapiens is a highly adaptable species and there is no reason to suppose the survivors could not adjust to the new conditions. There is evidence to suppose that modern humans have already survived one such “bottleneck”, occurring 73,000 years ago after the explosion of the Toba super-volcano caused a “volcanic winter” during which temperatures plummeted across the globe, and conditions for life must have become extremely harsh.

Even if mankind were to become extinct here on Earth, does this imply the same must inevitably happen whenever and wherever intelligent life arises?

One possibility that suggests it might is the so-called Doomsday Argument, proposed by astrophysicist Brandon Carter in 1983, which uses purely statistical methods to predict the likely lifespan of the human race. The basic premise is that if the total number of humans that will ever exist is N, then we are most likely to find ourselves at a point in time where roughly ½ N humans have already been born. However, given that the world population is now increasing at a very rapid rate, it will only be a few centuries before the remaining ½ N have also been born, and mankind’s day will be done.

This argument can be generalized to state that once an intelligent species develops the technology to rapidly increase its numbers, its days are numbered. In the case of our own species – and almost certainly any alien species – the crucial technology was agriculture, which permitted food to be produced rather than obtained from the wild, and thus permitted far larger populations to be sustained than was possible with hunter gathering. Complex societies soon followed: chiefdoms, then city-states and then empires, all with ever-increasing populations. Eventually mechanization of agricultural methods coupled with advances in medical science led to the rapid population increases of the last century.

If Carter is correct, then the doomsday clock for mankind began ticking as the last Ice Age ended, 11,000 years ago, and the same fate would befall any alien species, once it discovered agriculture.

But is Carter correct? Personally I am highly sceptical of any argument not backed up by hard science, however hard it may be to refute on purely logical or mathematical grounds. Philosophy, for example, is full of such arguments which can be used to prove the existence of souls, God, etc. Plato’s Theory of Forms is a wonderfully elegant theory, but few would argue that it relates to the universe we live in.

There is also the problem that the argument makes no attempt to define what is meant by a “human”. Does this include the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, etc, or just Homo sapiens? If the argument simply applies to just one species, then even if it is correct a small population of surviving humans might, through what is known as the “founder effect”, become a biologically-distinct type, i.e. evolve into a new human species. (In biology, this is thought to be one way by which new species evolve.) Thus although Homo sapiens would be extinct, humans in the broader sense would not.

(This idea of a new human species arising from a small founding population isn’t new and featured in Olaf Stapledon’s classic 1930 work Last and First Men, in which the Second Men arose from a small group of survivors of the First Men (us) who were aboard a polar research vessel at the North Pole and escaped the effects of a nuclear chain reaction that wiped out everybody else.)

My personal view is that regardless of the long-term future of mankind, the notion that no species survives long enough to achieve interstellar travel must be rejected.

We turn, therefore, to the last of the possibilities listed above. Could interstellar travel be impossible or, at any rate be so difficult as to be rarely undertaken? What is known as the “technological ceiling” of the Universe defines the fundamental limits of what even the most advanced technology can accomplish. The best-known example of such a limit is Einstein’s prohibition on any object or signal exceeding the speed of light.

It may, though, one day be possible to build a vehicle capable of approaching light speed. Even so, an interstellar voyage to even the nearer stars would be a monumental undertaking. Such a spacecraft could travel from London to New York in one-fiftieth of a second, but would require over four years to reach Proxima Centauri. Or put it another way, the distance from Earth to Proxima is roughly six-and-a-half billion times the distance from London to New York. And that’s only the nearest star.

However, one consequence of the Theory of Relativity is that time would slow down for the crew of a spacecraft travelling at close to light-speed, and from their point of view a voyage to Proxima Centauri would take less than four years – possibly much less, maybe even days. In Star Trek, the warp drive would frequently be too badly damaged even for Scotty to repair, and the USS Enterprise would be forced to head back to the nearest starbase on impulse power only. Nevertheless it could still reach near-light speed in a matter of seconds and (though the point was never made in the show) take advantage to time dilation to reach its destination with comparative ease.

Unfortnately, it might not be as simple as that. It could be that our Universe has a low “technological ceiling”. On this picture, our scientists could very likely understand the underlying principles behind the technology of a civilisation tens or even hundreds of millions years older than our own. Arthur C. Clarke’s well-known Third Law stating that “any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” might turn out to be wrong.

The spacecraft featured in Clarke’s later novels couldn’t travel faster than light, but they did have some fairly exotic forms of propulsion which might in fact turn out to be impossible. Another highly speculative (and underappreciated) technology is the “inertial damper” that prevents Kirk and co being turned into strawberry jam by the enormous accelerations the Enterprise uses when getting up to speed.

Faced with these difficulties, even an ETI equivalent of Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan might be forced to curb his ambitions, and there never will be a Galactic Empire or a United Federation of Planets.

But this doesn’t entirely answer the question. Even if interstellar travel will always be extremely difficult, why has the long-running SETI program failed to pick up evidence of alien radio transmissions? The explanation for this is, I suspect, very simple. Even here on Earth, the idea of broadcasting in the strict sense of the world will soon be a thing of the past. Much television is now delivered through tight-beam satellite transmission or via cable; radio broadcasting will eventually be replaced by what is oxymoronically referred to as “internet radio”; and much communication goes via short-ranged cellular networks. None of this could be detected from space.

In other words, a SETI type program could only be successful in two situations. The first would be to listen into a civilisation during the brief interval – probably not much more than a century – between radio and broadband. This would require the incredible coincidence of a civilisation being at almost exactly the same stage of technological development (allowing for the time for its transmissions to reach Earth) as ourselves, a possibility which we can safely dismiss. The second situation would require ETIs to deliberately target Earth with a transmission.

It’s not so much a case of ET phoning home, it’s more a case of waiting for him to phone us.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Vlad and Joe’s local

The Crown Tavern in Clerkenwell, formerly the Crown and Anchor, is popular with after-work drinkers for its wide range of beers and is generally very busy in the evening. The pub’s popularity goes back a long way, and it rumoured that Lenin met Stalin for a few beers there while the two future Communist leaders were in London, shortly before the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia.

While working on the socialist periodical Iskra (“the Spark”), which was for a time published in Clerkenwell, Lenin stayed at 16 Percy Square, about a mile away.

The original building has since been demolished, but an English Heritage blue plaque marks the spot. Shouldn’t it have been a red plaque in this instance?

© Christopher Seddon 2008

7/5: The sinking of the Lusitania

The dramatic obverse design of this medal portrays the last moments of the liner RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by the German submarine U-20 on 7 May 1915 with heavy loss of life. The medal is a British copy, struck in iron, of a medal produced by the Munich-based metalworker and medallist Karl Goetz, who intended to satirize what he saw as the greed of the Cunard Line in continuing to operate the ship in a warzone whilst allowing her to be used to transport contraband military materiel from the then-neutral US to aid the British war effort.

The obverse inscription reads:

Keine Bannware!

Der Grossdampfer
Durch Ein Deutscher
Tauchboot Versenkt
5 May 1915.

This translates as: “No Contraband! The large steamer Lusitania sunk by a German submarine/5 May 1915″. The copy erroneously uses the British spelling of “May”. The medal inaccurately portrays the ship going down by the stern.

The reverse of the medal portrays a skeleton handing out tickets for the ill-fated voyage with the inscription “Geschaft uber alles” (Business before everything).

Crucially, Goetz got the date of the sinking wrong, leading to the belief among the British and Americans that the attack on the Lusitania was premeditated and the medals had been produced in advance of the sinking to glorify the destruction of the great liner – neither in fact being the case. Goetz corrected the error in later editions of the medal but the damage was done. Selfridges of London were commissioned to produce copies of Goetz’s medal in large numbers, to whip up anti-German sentiment.

It was hardly necessary. With 1,198 dead, including all but a handful of the 139 Americans aboard, there was universal outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, probably only matched 86 years later by the events of 9/11. Had U-20’s 32-year-old skipper Walther Schweiger – seen in much the same light as Osama bin Laden would later be – survived the war he would undoubtedly have been put on trial by the Allies, but he was killed in 1917.

But was Schweiger really a war criminal, or was the Lusitania – as Goetz and later apologists for the sinking imply – a legitimate target? Frankly, in the light of subsequent events, the point is moot. Was Guernica a legitimate target? Or Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Mi Lai or KAL Flight 007? During the last century, advances in technology made it ever easier to kill large number of people, and civilian casualties – hardly something new in the history of warfare – increased accordingly. The sinking of the Lusitania was simply the first instance in which a warring state had used weapons of mass destruction against the citizens of its enemies. As with 11 September 2001, 7 May 1915 merely saw Homo sapiens’ penchant for killing one another enter a new phase.

It is probably more meaningful to look at the sinking itself, and when one does, the parallels with later events – 9/11 in particular – become apparent.

When launched in 1906, the Lusitania and her sister ship Mauretania were the largest and fastest ships afloat. Cunard took the bold step of using the newly-invented Parsons Turbine in place of the reciprocating engines that were then generally used in large ships, which gave them a service speed of 26 knots. White Star’s Olympic and Titanic, launched five years later, were substantially larger, but nowhere near as fast.

To help meet the enormous cost of construction, Cunard lobbied successfully for a government subsidy. In return, the ships were built to Admiralty specifications, so that they could be armed and function as naval auxiliaries in time of war. In fact there is no way liners could ever hope to fight warships on equal terms, and although armed merchantmen did fight enemy warships with great courage – most notably the Rawalpindi and the Jervis Bay during WW II – the final outcome of such battles was always inevitable. However even by the outbreak of the Great War it was recognised that high-value units such as the Lusitania and the Mauretania would be of more use assigned to other duties, most notably carrying troops, and indeed the latter did serve in this capacity during the war.

The Lusitania, however, remained in passenger service, and on 1 May 1915 she sailed from New York, having arrived there from Liverpool on 24 April. Just days earlier, on 22 April, the German Embassy in Washington had issued a chilling warning:

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

Washington, D.C. April 22, 1915

By a strange twist of fate, the notice appeared side by side in the New York Times with an advertisement for the Lusitania’s eastbound crossing. This did lead, understandably, to concern among Lusitania’s crew and intending passengers. The liner’s experienced skipper, William Turner, 58, tried to calm fears by explaining that his ship was fast enough to keep out of trouble. The reality was the ship was operating with only 19 of her 25 boilers in use, the remainder being shut down to save coal, which reduced her speed to 21 knots; the more experienced hands from her pre-war crew had joined the Navy and been replaced with less capable men; and boat-drills on the voyage were poorly attended and casually carried out.

As with the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, Madrid and London, the chances to avoid what would probably now be referred to as 7/5 were missed.

As the ship entered what the Germans had designated a warzone, Turner failed to carry out Admiralty-designated zigzag manoeuvres and ignored two submarine warnings, apparently more preoccupied with reaching Liverpool on the right tide. The Admiralty in turn failed to send out a destroyer escort that might have deterred a U-Boat attack. Precautions were not entirely absent: lifeboats were swung out and extra lookouts posted. The ship’s watertight doors were closed. Unlike those in the Titanic, these went up the full height of the hull, but while the Lusitania would probably survived a collision of the type that sank the Titanic, they were to afford no protection against what lay ahead.

Early in the afternoon on 7 May, the Lusitania was off the Irish coast, close to the Old Head of Kinsale. She had encountered fog and was steaming at a reduced speed of 18 knots when at 14:10 she crossed the bow of U-20. Kapitan-Leutnant Walter Schweiger, barely able to believe his luck, gave the order to attack. One story states that the boat’s quartermaster, Charles Voegele, refused to give to order to fire on the liner and was subsequently court-martialled and jailed for three years. If true, this lenient sentence must have reflected the ambiguity felt in Germany over the sinking. The normal penalty for refusing to obey a direct order in a combat situation would have been death.

The Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo on her starboard side, just forward the bridge. Almost immediately, the huge liner suffered a second, larger explosion. Water poured in, and she immediately began to list 15 degrees to starboard. An SOS was sent out and Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship. But the list made it very difficult to launch the lifeboats and only six of 48 boats were successfully launched from the stricken liner. As the ship began to go down by the bow, panic broke out on board. Captain Turner tried to make for the Irish coast, in the hope of beaching the ship, but power to the rudder was out.

The oft-repeated horror-story of passengers drowning, trapped between floors in the lift in the First Class accommodation, is almost certainly apocryphal. In common with all lifts of that time, the one aboard Lusitania required an operator to work it, and both the ship’s lift-operators survived the sinking. This did not prevent a recent drama documentary about the disaster featuring the brave but hopeless attempts of an American woman to open the door of a lift with a hatpin, though this might have also been inspired by the actual escape of a group of people from a lift in the doomed World Trade Center.

The Lusitania sank in 20 minutes. It took some hours for help to arrive from the Irish coast, during which survivors clung to wreckage, including – it is said – a chicken coop. Many survived the sinking itself, only to perish in the chilly waters before they could be rescued. Like Captain Smith of the Titanic, Turner stayed with his ship until the end, but unlike the former, he was among the survivors.

The cause of the second explosion, which doomed the great liner, is argued to this day. Some claim U-20 actually fired two torpedoes, but the Imperial German Navy authorities doctored Schweiger’s log to try and mitigate the storm of international protest; others attribute the explosion to the alleged munitions aboard; oceanographer and explorer Dr. Bob Ballard blames coal-dust in the Lusitania’s bunkers, almost empty towards the end of the voyage; another theory (which seems the likeliest) is that a boiler-room explosion did the damage. Schweiger’s log in fact considers all three possibilities.

After the Titanic, the sinking of the Lusitania is generally accepted as the most famous maritime disaster of all time, but what makes it all the more shocking is that while the former was an accident, the latter was an act of war. However it is viewed, the fact remains that an unarmed passenger liner was deliberately targeted, resulting in the deaths of almost twelve hundred innocent civilians.

The final word on the Lusitania must go to the late Frank Braynard, from his 1985 work Fifty Famous Ocean Liners:

”…[the war’s] long range impact on history has yet to be properly understood. The part the Lusitania was to play had nothing to do with her qualities as a great ship. She was the victim of the war, as were the millions who were slaughtered in that asinine display of mankind’s stupidity”.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Intervention/Decoration Art Exhibition, Frome

Foreground is a contemporary arts group based in Frome, Somerset who have recently commissioned works by seven noted and emerging artists for Intervention/Decoration, an exhibition held in this attractive former weaving town.

A newly-renovated weaving shed is the setting for this fabric by Berlin-based artist Eva Berendes, whose first solo UK exhibition took place last autumn at the Ancient & Modern art gallery in London.

The work exploits the shed’s space, beams and skylights to provide a viewing experience that constantly varies and can never exactly repeat, as it interacts with the light and shadows from above, in turn casting its own shadows onto the floor below.

The division of the viewing space into two symbolises the gulf between the lives of wealthy textile merchants and the ordinary people upon whose labours they depended.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Park Street and Wills Memorial Building, Bristol

Popular with shoppers, drinkers and clubbers alike, Park Street is unusual in running up a steep incline. The street was developed during the second half of the 18th Century but is now dominated by the massive Wills Memorial Building at its summit. Completed in 1925 and part of the University of Bristol complex, it is named for Henry Overton Wills III, first chancellor of the university and father of tobacco magnates George Albert and Henry Herbert Wills, whose donations funded its construction.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Mauretania Public House, Bristol

Located at the foot of the steeply-inclined Park Street in Bristol, the Mauretania Public House is a Grade II listed building originally constructed in 1870. In 1938 a bar/restaurant complex was added, using fittings from the decommissioned liner RMS Mauretania. Although subsequently renamed Bar III the moving neon sign – the oldest in Bristol – remains, presenting an excellent representation of the legendary four-stacker that held the Atlantic Blue Riband for 22 years, during which time her only rival was her ill-fated sister ship, the Lusitania.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Hagopian’s Ark

In 1970, a 70-year-old Armenian businessman named George Hagopian created headline news across the world by claiming that as a boy, he had visited Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat twice with his uncle, in 1908 and 1910.

Hagopian was from Van, a city located on the eastern shore of Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey. His grandfather was minister of the Armenian Orthodox church there and frequently told young George stories about the “holy ship” on the “holy mountain”. Mount Ararat is sacred to the Armenians, whose traditions hold they were the first race of humans to appear after the Flood. It has featured on the Armenian national coat of arms since Soviet times, much to the annoyance of the Turks, who protested that it was part of their territory (the Soviets retorted that the crescent on the Turkish flag surely didn’t mean that the Turks laid claim to the Moon).

Mount Ararat is an extinct volcano located in eastern Turkey, overlooking the borders with Armenia and Iran. It is what is known as a stratovolcano – formed from lava and pyroclastic flow. Although its dating is uncertain, it probably forming as a result of vulcanism arising when the Tethys Sea closed, 15 million years ago.

Its northern and eastern slopes rise from the broad alluvial plain of the Aras River, about 3,300 ft (1,000 m) above sea level; its southwestern slopes rise from a plain about 5,000 ft above sea level; and on the west a low pass separates it from a long range of other volcanic ridges extending westward toward the eastern Taurus ranges. The Ararat Massif is about 25 miles (40 km) in diameter. It comprises two peaks, about seven miles apart, known respectively as Great Ararat and Little Ararat. Great Ararat rises 16,854 feet above sea level, and is the highest peak in Turkey; Little Ararat rises to 12,782 feet.

High above the Aras plain the Armenians built a monastery to commemorate St. Jacob, who is said to have tried repeatedly but failed to reach the summit of Great Ararat in search of the Ark. The monastery was destroyed by an earthquake and avalanche in 1840.

Hagopian’s uncle had been forced by a four-year drought to move from Van to a village at the foot of Ararat in search of better grazing for his sheep and young George was staying with him when one day the two of them climbed Mount Ararat in search of the Ark. They believed that the drought conditions might have melted the snow and ice that usually covered it.

On the way, they passed Ahora Gorge and the remains of St. Jacob’s monastery. As the mountain became steeper, Hagopian’s uncle carried the boy on his shoulders. At length, close to the summit, they came to something resembling a giant barge, perched on a rocky ledge and partially covered in snow. At first Hagopian thought it was a stone house, but his uncle showed him the outline of planks, and he realised it was the Ark “just like the other people had described it to him”. His uncle lifted him on to the Ark roof, telling him not to be afraid because “it is a holy ship… the animal and people are not here now. They have all gone away.” Hagopian kissed the surface of the roof, but his uncle rather irreverently fired a gun at the Ark’s hull. The bullets bounced off. He then tried to cut off a piece of wood, but without success.

After two hours, during which they looked at the Ark and ate some food, the pair returned to their village, where Hagopian related his adventure to other boys of his age, only to receive the dismissive reply, “yes, we saw the Ark too”.

Hagopian claimed to have made a second visit two years later, but by that time the Ark was largely buried in snow.

Hagopian was unable to pinpoint his journey on a map, though he claimed that if he could get back on to the mountain he could lead investigators to the Ark. Unfortunately Mount Ararat is sited at what had by that time become one of the most sensitive locations on Earth, right on the border between Turkey and the Soviet Union, and in the middle of activities by Kurdish separatists. Hagopian died in 1972 without getting the chance to lead investigators to the site.

The search for Noah’s Ark has a long history, and expeditions to Mount Ararat for that purpose have been conducted since the early 19th Century. Although there have been many claimed sightings, none are wholly convincing. Ark searchers point to the “Ararat anomaly” – an object near the summit of the mountain that appears on Cold War-era photographs taken from aircraft and spy satellites – but to be candid, these are about as convincing as the so-called Face of Mars, so popular with conspiracy theorists. It seems very strange that well-equipped expeditions and aircraft cannot locate a site reached without undue difficulty by a man and a young boy, and apparently known to many other villagers.

Logically there are only three possibilities: firstly Hagopian was lying and made the whole thing up; secondly he was telling the truth and actually did see the Ark with his uncle; thirdly he genuinely believed he had seen the Ark in his childhood, but was mistaken.

Hagopian underwent lie-detector tests, which suggested that he was telling the truth. Admittedly these tests are notoriously unreliable; and in addition Hagopian was questioned by people who clearly wanted to believe him. It has also been pointed out that in old age Hagopian had no living relatives and few friends; he may have been seeking attention. However he was known by business associates as an honest man, and let us suppose for the sake of argument that he was not lying.

Could he, therefore, have actually seen the Ark? The world-wide prevalence of flood mythology leaves little doubt that these stories do relate to real events. At the end of and in the wake of the last ice age, sea levels rose dramatically around the world. Great Britain and Ireland became separated from Europe; according to one theory the Black Sea was created by a flood occurring around 5600 BC when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus; further east the Sunda Peninsula disappeared, leaving only the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo above water. It seems highly likely that the origin of the flood mythology is tribal memories of these events, possibly conflated with accounts of more recent and more localised floods.

However this is a far cry from all the landmasses of the Earth being submerged to a depth of in excess of 16,854 feet (the height of Great Ararat): the idea is absurd. Where could all that water have come from and, no less important, where did it go?

Even if we allow some freak condition such as a tsunami to have stranded a ship near the summit of Ararat, we run into the question as to whether a vessel the size of the Ark could have been constructed in late prehistoric times, the presumptive time of the Flood, using Bronze Age technology.

It is entirely possible that Noah’s Ark existed – a watercraft built to carry animals and other goods for trade. Caught up in a flood, it enabled it crew and cargo of animals to survive until the floodwaters receded. However, the Ark is supposed to have been 300 cubits in length – about 450 feet or 135 metres. That is about the size of a present-day cross-channel ferry. For comparison, Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory measures 227 feet, Brunel’s SS Great Britain is 322 feet and the Titanic was 882 feet. The earliest ship to significantly exceed the Ark’s reputed dimensions was Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, a 690 foot leviathan launched in 1858 – after four years in the building, and pushing the envelope of Victorian technology to the very limit. While the achievements of Bronze Age people are impressive – the Pyramids are an obvious example of what they were capable of – it seems unlikely in the extreme that they would have been capable of constructing a vessel of such size – especially in a short space of time. Bear in mind too that armies of slaves were required to build the Pyramids, and even so they required many years of toil to complete.

I feel it is absolutely certain that there is not, and never has been, a 450-foot Bronze Age ship resting close to the summit of Mount Ararat. It is just as likely that the Ark was built with the assistance of one of Erich von Daniken’s alien astronauts.

So if Hagopian was not lying, and he did not see the Ark, then just what did he see? One thing that stands out to me is that the account has a disjointed, dreamlike quality to it. Hagopian initially thinks he is seeing a rock formation, but then his uncle points out the outline of planks. Crucially he has previously had the Ark described to him: only now does he see it just as he was told it would be. His uncle’s behaviour is strange: he speaks of the Ark as a “holy ship”; but then he fires a gun at it and tries to hack off a piece of it with a knife. And what is he doing with a gun in the first place? Finally Hagopian is telling other boys about the Ark, but they reply that they’ve already seen it. If the Ark was so widely known among the villagers, wouldn’t somebody have mentioned it sooner?

I think Hagopian is describing a dream – a dream so vivid he later confused it with reality.

Here is what I believe actually happened:

1.Hagopian learns about the Ark from his grandfather and – like many a boy of that age, develops an obsessive interest (at his age I was obsessively interested in ships and aeroplanes).

2.He goes to stay with his uncle and begs him to take him up the mountain in search of the Ark.

3.To humour the lad, Hagopian’s uncle eventually does take him up the mountain. They see, close to the summit, a rocky outcrop, largely covered by snow. Possibly they see the Ararat Anomaly. Hagopian’s uncle is probably by now keen to end the jaunt and never intended to go so high. He tells the boy that it is the Ark. Hagopian isn’t convinced.

4.This is in fact the only time they ascend the mountain, but in later life Hagopian recalls it as his second visit to the Ark.

5.The account of Hagopian’s first visit to the Ark is actually a vivid dream, occurring shortly after the expedition.

6.The dream recurs in Hagopian’s later life, to the extent that he eventually becomes convinced that he actually did visit the Ark as a young boy.

Many a time he would have awoken from his dream. In the fleeting moments that followed wakening, he would be convinced he knew the location of the Ark, and that he could return there. At first, the dream would fade next day – but in time as he grew old he was unable to distinguish between reality and the first occurrence of the dream.

Inevitably Bible literalists seized on Hagopian’s claims to have seen the Ark, and to this day they can be read on countless creationist websites. Most versions seem to have been simply cut-and-pasted from Bermuda Triangle enthusiast Charles Berlitz’s 1987 book “The Lost Ship of Noah”.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Signpost to the planets, Bristol

Standing ouside the Explore centre and Planetarium in Bristol, this structure is described as a signpost to the Solar System. Passers-by could use the touch screen to chose the Sun, Moon or a planet and the two arms on top of the device would point in the required direction and light up showing the current distance from Earth.

In 2006 the device was bang up to date, even indicating the newly-discovered “Tenth Planet”. By the end of 2007, the Solar System had been reduced to just eight planets. The “Tenth Planet”, by now known as Eris, had been refused planetary status and Pluto had been stripped of its. But the device had not been updated to reflect this.

In June 2008, it wasn’t working at all.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Finsbury Health Centre

Located in what was once one of London’s most deprived areas, Finsbury Health Centre is the embodiment of the Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin’s famous maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. Lubetkin left Russia soon after the Revolution but remained a committed socialist throughout his life. In the 1930s he moved to London and founded the architectural practice Tecton. A regular client was the Labour-controlled Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury (now part of the London Borough of Islington) and the Health Centre was one of a number of ambitious projects put in hand by the Council. Unfortunately not all their schemes came to fruition: one that did – rather controversially – was the erection of a statue of Lenin, which Lubetkin also designed.

Sadly this magnificent building is now very delapidated, although it remains in use.

© Christopher Seddon 2008