Needle’s base:
As a child one of my little treasures was a folding knife.  It was dull.  I spent what seemed like a lot of time trying to sharpen it and rather more time thinking about sharpening it.  My mother’s sewing needles, on the other hand, were always sharp although she never sharpened one.  So it came into my mind that if a point or edge was ever perfectly sharp it would stay so forever.  I knew that wasn’t true really, but I thought about it at the time.

More recently I wonder how much importance can be attached to a single point.  You know the old saying, for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the message was lost, for want of the message the battle was lost.  So lets start on the big scale.

Our Milky Way galaxy is a large one, so that we are rich in what astronomers call “metals,” which is pretty much anything with an atomic weight greater than that of lithium or helium or something.  Anyway, you need these elements to have life.

But almost any galaxy of our size has what they call an active nucleus; it pours out ionizing radiation (radiation that can rip open any chemical bond) at a rate so that complex molecules can hardly exist save perhaps deep within the crust of planets.  Since we have never developed intelligent life in the interstices of the earth, we can assume it is difficult.  (There is a point of question here that might destroy my entire line of reasoning thus:  some years ago some geologist strolling along in the west noticed a change in the ground beneath.  The ground he was walking on had been laid down as the floor of a great inland sea that occupied much of what is now North America.  This sea floor land came to an end and harder, older earth was now exposed.  The edge was not straight and, indeed, there was a notch in the old stone, which would have been a cave when the sea was present.  He found some bones on the floor of the ancient cave.  Something had dragged a skeleton, apparently of a fish, into the cave and dismantled it, laying the vertebral bodies out in a definite pattern, which was not the pattern they had been in during their fishy career.  And another time, a few years later, somebody else found some bones laid out in a similar way under similar circumstance.  Fish vertebrae are, of course, very concave on the end surfaces.  And both patterns resembled squid tentacles.  These were, evidently, self portraits, something air breathing forms would not create until the last few tens of thousands of years.  We are going to cheerfully ignore these facts and simply say that if the surface of the planet is unfit for large chemicals, space faring life is not going to evolve.)  So if making intelligent life is easy, then this galaxy is alone.

Someone has suggested that if we were to continue to develop at the present rate, then in a million years we would be striking out to colonize distant planets or moons around distant stars.  Within five hundred million years we would be everywhere in the galaxy.  Alien life would be an undeniable presence.  If the galaxy has been able to sustain intelligent life, then were there many forms capable of space travel, about half would be more then five hundred million years older than us.  So intelligent life must be difficult.

How intelligent?  Well being able to do a little art and make self portraits won’t do it.  Our squid fellows could do that millions of years ago.  Perhaps the threshold is literacy.  Literate cultures arose, possibly independently, in ancient Sumer and Egypt.  Both societies promptly concerned themselves with astronomy and writing, and ever since astronomers have pretty much been the best paid and best supported scientists.  So let’s say books are it.  Lose them here and we lose them everywhere.

So that is the base of the needle.  Lose our literate society and the universe ceases to think about itself realistically.  It goes insane.  It’s hard to come up with anything more momentous.  So then how close are we to that?  This is the point of the needle, and we will look at it another time.

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