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David Darling's Newsletter #7


December 31, 2002


1. Meanderings
2. Attack of the clones
3. Bookends

1. Meanderings

First, let me wish you a very happy, prosperous, and, above all, peaceful New Year. I'm afraid the last on this list is perhaps the least likely given what's happening in the Middle and Far East but we can only hope that, sooner or later, the human race will come to its collective senses. Perhaps all politicians, military leaders, dictators, and so forth, should be compelled to take part in a giant international exchange program every year so that they're occasionally reminded of the other guy's point of view! (Hmm, some chance. . .)

It just occurred to me again this morning, as I started writing this, what an astonishing thing the Internet is. Here I am, sat in my little office — conveniently located next to my bedroom (it's presently 3:30 a.m.!) — in mid-state Minnesota, writing a dispatch to a group of people, most of whom I've never met and of whose whereabouts in the world I'm completely in the dark! The terms "cyber world" and "global village" start to make a lot of sense when you have situations like this. As a writer, the Internet has completely revolutionized the way I work and what I can do. It's like having immediate access to an immense (and very up to date) library and an open phone line to thousands of like-minded people all over the planet. On an average day, when colleges and schools are open, close to a thousand visitors access the Astrobiology/Spaceflight Central web site from several dozen different countries (split about 50:50 between North America and the rest of the world). It's a daily thrill knowing that people of so many different nationalities, backgrounds, and beliefs are, in a sense, stopping by to see what I'm up to, even when I'm asleep!

And speaking of thrills, I can heartily recommend the second part of the Peter Jackson/J. R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings epic. What a staggering feat to bring a book like this to life on the screen. I suppose a decade ago it couldn't have been done. The interface between live action and computer-generated imagery is so seamless that you simply can't tell where New Zealand ends and Middle Earth begins, or, in the battle scenes, which are the living, breathing actors and which are the animated characters.

Which brings me, sort of, to this month's topic. With human cloning so much in the news at the moment, some interesting thoughts spring to mind concerning the nature of individuality and what would happen if you could make an exact copy of someone, right down to the last cell.

2. Attack of the clones

At the time of writing, it isn't clear if the claim made recently by Cloneaid (which, as you probably know is a company owned and operated by a group that believes we've been genetically engineered by extraterrestrials) will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Fortunately, a simple DNA test will resolve the issue. We should know within a couple of weeks. Either way, it seems certain that human cloning is going to happen in the very near future. Whatever your ethical stance on this, the fact of the matter is that some people are willing and able to pay a lot of money to have themselves cloned, the "technology" exists to make it happen, and there are doctors and clinics around the world who are not going to wait for international approval before going ahead. The same applies to "designer babies," which are also an inevitability — and a much more worrying one — in the coming decade.

What would it be like to be clone? Of course, you could just ask any identical twin. It's like being anyone else. You're still an individual. You don't feel as if you're split down the middle or are living in someone else's body. But identical twins are a product of nature. Growing up as a bred human clone, and coming to realize that your parents selected you to be biologically identical to one of them (or to someone else), might be quite different. Would there be some resentment? Or the feeling that you'd been created to fulfill someone else's selfish desire to achieve a (dubious) form of immortality? I don't know. I suspect that some clones may have these problems. It's also possible, given their shared type of origin and unique psychological challenges, that clones will tend to be drawn to one another and to form separate groups within society. I'm afraid that the first clones, at least, will also be put under such a media spotlight (unless their identities are kept secret) that it will be hard for them, in any event, to lead ordinary lives. One can also see them being used as specimens in the nature versus nurture debate.

Cloning brings into focus the whole issue of what it means to be an individual. This was one of the main themes of my 1996 book "Zen Physics," which had the slightly presumptive subtitle "The Science of Death and the Logic of Reincarnation." Actually the book was more about psychology and philosophy than it was about physics or Buddhism, but I couldn't resist the title and succumbed to commercialism! I made the point in ZP — certainly not original but nevertheless important — that we are, to a large extent, the product of our memories. In other words, we're not so much the central character in a story as we are the story itself. George Gamow captured it best when he called his autobiography "My Worldline." So, I'd argue, if you'd been born in a different place and grown up under different circumstances, you wouldn't be "you" at all. You'd have a different worldline — a different track through space and time — but, more importantly, you'd be that different worldline. Of course, nature has something to do with it. If I'd been switched with Einstein at birth, I'm pretty darn sure I wouldn't have come up with the theory of relativity! But neither would I have been me. I would have been someone who hasn't, as it turned out, actually existed.

These kind of thoughts get to be even more interesting in some hypothetical situations, such as those involving Star Trek's famous transporter. Let's say you stepped into a transporter on Earth and, an instant later, were rematerialized on Mars. What would it feel like? There doesn't seem to be a problem. It would surely feel like just stepping through a door onto a different world. But what if the transporter went wrong, and as well as sending you to Mars, rematerialized a copy of you back on Earth. What would that feel like? Which of the two you's would "you" be? The nature of individuality is that there's a unified, single stream of consciousness. And yet here are two absolutely identical yous. It doesn't seem reasonable that "you" would be one or the other of the two because there's no difference between them. But it seems even less reasonable that you would be both or neither of them.

Ah well, something to mull over after your New Year's dinner!

3. Bookends

I'm not going to remind you that my latest book "The Complete Book of Spaceflight: From Apollo 1 to Zero Gravity" is now available from all good, and doubtless some bad, booksellers. And I'm certainly not going to mention the next two books in the pipeline: "The Universal Book of Astronomy" (forthcoming in 2003 from Wiley) and an encyclopedia of recreational maths (including such nifty topics as labyrinths, infinity, and time travel paradoxes).

Until next time,
Best wishes,
David Darling