The sound of people breathing

Normblog comments on another blogger’s claim that when people make a noise or allow their children to make a noise in public they are stealing from us. He sympathises with the way she feels, but makes the very sensible point that beyond its use as a form of torture, there are no real rights in relation to noise in public spaces, only social conventions. He ends by saying:

And the way things have been going, socially acceptable is now more noisy than some of us enjoy.

I wonder though: is this true? In many ways i think the problem is not so much that people are increasingly noisy as that so many of us are increasingly unused to the noise that other people make. The high-tech world may have given us the leaky earphone, so often mentioned in noise-related complaints; but it has also given us online shopping, social networking and myriad other things, which tend to make us increasingly self-sufficient and reduce our need for actual contact with other human beings.

In our own private world everything is under control. Telly too loud for you? Turn it down. Don’t feel like chatting to your ‘friends’? Don’t log on. And so many of those keen to criticise other people’s leaking earphones are plugged into their own half the time, which may well leak too. How many of us ever bother to find out?

It’s a vicious circle, because the more we withdraw from other people, the more sensitised we become to them: the noise they make, the space they take up, the demands they make on us; and the more sensitised we become the less we are able to endure other people and so the more we withdraw from them. In the end it’s as much as we can take to hear the sound of other people breathing, and even that had better be quiet: no coughs please.

We lose the ability to appreciate the ideas that others may have about public space –  especially when those others are a different generation from us or from a different culture. We end up living in our universe and experiencing those around us as we would alien invaders.

When i was a child i used to get the bus with my mum or my nan. There was no option to sit and read a book, let alone listen to music – even if earphones had been invented then. Social participation in public was compulsory. You were grilled by countless old ladies about your accomplishments at school (God help you if you didn’t have any), subjected to elaborate enquiries about the health of any relative whose name they could remember and regaled with instructive stories about “the War” and “the Olden Days”. The trick, as i recall, was to fix on your face the most attentive expression you could muster and pretend they hadn’t told you the same tale the week before.

The noise and chaos of children was widely tolerated – people spent time with them more often so they were used to them; and yet at the same time it was better controlled because when people interact with one another – as opposed to ignore one another – they form a group with the power to enforce group norms.

I’m not saying i always liked it because i didn’t. I am an unsociable curmudgeon of a person and i was more than happy to move down to London where i could read my book in peace, unbothered by so much as a “Nice weather… for the time of year”; but I am coming to understand now that as much as i gained peace in the short term i have also gradually lost something. I live by myself and truly wonder if i could ever live with anyone else again. And i wonder what this bodes for me when i’m older.

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Alpha Centauri, here i come!

What is it about space travel that is so alluring? Even a ‘short’ journey in space takes a long, long time. It’s cold up there, dangerous up there and, what’s worse, for long stretches there’s nothing up there. Alpha Centauri is the star system nearest to our own and even that is over four light years away – or to put it another way 25.6 trillion miles; and yet, when you get there, most of the universe is going to look much the same as it does from Earth, because as vast as the distance from here to there sounds, in relation to the size of the Universe it’s trivial.

And yet…

Ever since i can remember i have longed to make that voyage. Alpha Centauri is my love, my other. It is all that is unattainable – the 99.999999% of the Universe which not only will i never visit, but to which a visit would be impossible.

For me but not for my descendants? Because it is conceivable that one day we – as in human beings – could make such a journey; whereas for most of the Universe no such possibility exists. We would have to become something other than human – and would therefore no longer be ‘us’ – to endure the centuries, millennia even, that even the fastest spacecraft would require for the trip to other galaxies.

Even measured in light years the distances to these can run into the billions; and at such a distance, there is no way of knowing if the galaxies are still there. After all if the picture we’re seeing is billions of years old, who knows what’s happened since? And their size! In what way is it meaningful to visit a galaxy? We live in a galaxy, but if we were to climb into a spaceship at birth and visit a planet – or even a star a day – we wouldn’t see them all before we died. 100 to 400 billion: that is how many stars our galaxy contains.

By contrast, a visit to another star system sounds positively manageable. And what an experience! Imagine seeing the Sun as a yellow pinprick in the darkness. For just as Alpha Centauri is visible from Earth, so the Sun would be visible from a planet orbiting either of the two stars* in that system. Just as astronauts, when they saw the Earth from the Moon, gained for the first time a sense of the Earth as an object separate from themselves; so from Alpha Centauri we would gain something like the same perspective on our Solar System.

Might Alpha Centauri contain an alternative Earth? Unlikely, given its twin suns, but it doesn’t stop people dreaming, especially those of us who have never felt fully at home on this Earth. The important thing is that it remains unknown and thus is the perfect playground for dreams and nightmares, much as was true of Mars or Venus before spacecraft revealed the more prosaic truth: that Mars is an empty red desert and Venus** an inferno. We may still wonder sometimes about the possibility of life on Mars, but for the most part our Martian fantasies are now not about what we might find there but what we might create there: terraforming. There’s another parallel too: just as Mars and (occasionally) Venus have been conceived as mirrors or twins to the Earth, so Alpha Centauri performs this function for the Solar System as a whole.

I think, having considered it, that all these factors play their part for me: the longing to attain the unattainable; the need to reduce the universe to something more intelligible; the desire to see the reality i live within from without; and an adult version of my childhood dreams of a passage to other worlds.

* Actually, there are three but the third, Proxima, is much smaller and dimmer.
** An atlas we had when i was a child included an ‘artist’s depiction of what Venus might look like’. It showed a lush, vaguely prehistoric looking jungle.