A Private Universe

Years ago, someone made a documentary – “A Private Universe” – in which they talked to to a gaggle of Harvard students at commencement & asked them what caused the seasons. Almost all said that summer happened when we were close to the Sun in our elliptical orbit, winter when we were farther away. Which isn’t true – not of Earth, anyhow.

Now you might think they were just jackasses, but they make up a key fraction of our intellectual/governing elite. It can’t be that simple – they can’t just be a bunch of ignorami – there has to be a deeper, more subtle explanation.

When you think about it, it’s obvious that these beings came from another planet in some other solar system. Earth has an axial tilt of about 23.4 degrees and an orbital eccentricity of 0.0167 (close to a perfect circle) but other planets could differ and have seasons largely caused by orbital eccentricity. Seasons would be some different – summer would hit at the same time in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

It’s perfectly possible for a planet to have high orbital eccentricity: most known extrasolar planets do, usually something like 0.25 , although most of those are giants that probably wouldn’t suitable for life. Low axial tilt is also possible: for example, Venus has an axial tilt a little under 3 degrees, while Mercury has almost no axial tilt. We don’t yet have measurements of the obliquity of exoplanets, but tidal theory suggests that it tends to become quite small over time for planets in the (close-in) habitable zone of low-mass stars – possibly the most common kind of habitable planet.

The Cantab planet has to have an eccentric orbit, but mildly so: 0.10? The natives don’t seem shocked by the intensity of Earth’s seasons, just confused about the pattern and cause.

What else can we deduce from the characteristics of its natives?

Likely a higher fraction of its surface is ocean than is the case for Earth. Harvard graduates have a lot of trouble accepting or understanding the idea that human populations, having been separated and exposed to different evolutionary pressures for tens of thousands of years (even longer in the case of African hunter-gatherers), have evolved in different directions. Suppose that intelligent life on Cantab originated on an island continent, such that every other significant piece of land was several thousand miles away. Something like Hawaii, but larger. Unlike humans, who expanded to most of the world well before behavioral modernity (homo erectus) and almost all of the world before the invention of writing, Cantabrians must have originated on a small continent without significant internal geographical barriers (nothing like the Sahara Desert) and then only expanded to the rest of the world after developing fairly high-class sailing ships. So in Cantab, the expansion of the local intelligent race was more like the post-Columbian European expansion – recent. People on Cantab – they’re something like people – are no more different from each other than Aussies and Kiwis, and they find the idea of more significant differences, the kind we see on Earth, alarming and hard to digest.

Cantabrians also seem to have trouble with admitting the existence of differences between the sexes. I suggest that back on Cantab, the natives may have been fairly androgynous, rather like gooney birds. Here their sex differences are much larger, nearly as large as in real humans. Perhaps something in Earth environment has triggered an exaggeration of their originally small intersexual differences. Perhaps they used something like vitamin D as a trigger for sexual development. But less of that compound was generated back in a world with a red sun, and low levels of ultraviolet. Here, under a yellow sun, sex is super-powered.

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32 Responses to A Private Universe

  1. MawBTS says:

    There was a quote that floated around creationist groups that if the Earth was even ten feet closer to the sun we’d burn up (or if it was ten feet further away, we’d freeze, or something). An extreme version of the fine-tuning argument.

    That would be a scary world to live on. The atmosphere would be made of a gas with incredible properties, to diffuse heat so quickly. You’d have to be very careful that you didn’t accidentally climb a hill, or fall into a trench. There would be elevation signposts everywhere, to prevent people from wandering out of the tiny survivable zones.

  2. caethan says:

    Partially on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrXaQu_qGeo

    They interviewed both Harvard graduates and townies from the local high school. Both had the same misconceptions; the big difference was just how confident the Harvard grads are.

  3. Lynn says:

    Very nice, thank you!

  4. Parzival says:

    A world characterized primarily by a series of archipelagos might explain Cantabrians unfamiliarity with – and distaste for – life in regions far removed from a few coastal areas. Also, a smaller or less-dense planet than Earth with a weaker gravitational field might explain their decreased capacity for physical work.

  5. Ursiform says:

    The California State University System just announced it would stop requiring intermediate algebra for graduation because it wants to increase the graduation rate …

    • Jim says:

      The whole higher education system has long ceased to make any sense even as it’s costs have soared upward.

    • dux.ie says:

      After I determined the industry standard graduation rates from some common assessment scores and pointed out some outliers, the column of graduation rate data mysteriously disappeared from the original web page which previously had the data.

  6. Jim says:

    I remember as a very young child reading an illustrated explanation of the seasons in a science book for young children and having no problem understanding the explanation.

  7. j says:

    Cantab has two distinct areas which are well differentiated morphologically:

    Coast. A coastal strip of low, wide and gently rolling valleys some 10 kilometres in width.
    Mountains. Average 2500 m over sea level, with high pampas at 5000 m altitude.

    The highlanders live in bright white homes protected against extreme environmental oscillations. The sierra is rich in lead and they have developed lead saturated neurotransmitters with excellent conductivity that accelerate their mental processes. When they move to Cantab’s coastal lowlands or to Harvard Planet, they lose lead through urination and consequently , the ability of fast thinking and then slow thinking too. Since Cantabrians lack self awareness, they keep feeling they stand on the top of the word.

  8. So what you’re saying is that people form northern Spain are disguised aliens?

  9. Cpluskx says:

    After living in extreme high altitude, cold with scarce food and more than average radiation for a very very long time a group of people evolves to have very slow metabolism, better dna repair and as a result very long lifespan (like 200 years) They live alone on a top of a mountain Numenorean style. Shorter lived mortals try to copy by living at other cold high altitude places and starving themselves but it doesn’t work for them. They start to think it has to do with Numenorean culture.

    • dux.ie says:


      “””Mattson and his colleagues have shown that periodic fasting protects neurons against various kinds of damaging stress, at least in rodents. One of his earliest studies revealed that alternate-day feeding made the rats’ brains resistant to toxins that induce cellular damage akin to the kind cells endure as they age. In follow-up rodent studies, his group found that intermittent fasting protects against stroke damage, suppresses motor deficits in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease and slows cognitive decline in mice genetically engineered to mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.”””

  10. AppSocRes says:

    Long distance sea travel with sail ships will be a real pain in the neck. There will be no seasonal change in the prevailing trade winds so sailors will have to circumnavigate the globe to return from any really long-distance voyages. The doldrums will be more or less permanent and make sea travel between hemispheres very difficult. If I’m right this would impact the planet’s history in major ways.

  11. JayMan says:

    Perhaps something in Earth environment has triggered an exaggeration of their originally small intersexual differences. Perhaps they used something like vitamin D as a trigger for sexual development. But less of that compound was generated back in a world with a red sun, and low levels of ultraviolet. Here, under a yellow sun, sex is super-powered.

    Supermen indeed…

  12. ziel says:

    Cantab the planet works – but perhaps Cantab is closer to home – I’m thinking of something akin to the system of monasteries in Anathem – with a highly selective process of choosing the “avout” from all walks of life, so that within the walls there are no effective differences based on social status, ethnicity or gender. Since they would have limited contact with the outside world, they have no reason to believe that such differences should exist there, either. Of course unlike in Anathem these earthly monasteries don’t teach math and physics but a sort of po-mo, deconstructionist lit theory, and thus our “avout” are useless at figuring out why winters are cold and a whole host of other puzzles about real life. And of course these earthly monasteries are not physically walled-off from the outside world, but nevertheless have astonishingly effective, if unseen, barriers to such contact that their residents’ thoughts remain untroubled by any facts about the world around them.

  13. JJ Elliott says:

    I still recall a similar incident with of my classics professors, a very accomplished scholar. During a reading of Xenophon, there was a passage recommending the construction of a house with a southerly aspect. He correctly noted that as we were in the southern hemisphere, this advice should be reversed, with the northerly aspect giving the same effect. He then commented that he had no idea why this is true (the difference between hemispheres). Looking around the classroom, I could see all students nodding in equal puzzlement. I considered explaining, but thought better of it.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I remember reading an article about a meeting of young scientific hotshots, types that got prestigious fellowships. etc. Someone working there routinely quizzed those young hotshots: on questions outside their field, they usually did worse than 8th-graders.

    • Something for psychologists to work on — is there a measurable personality trait, other than IQ, that would account for why some sorts of people would screw this kind of question up? When I first saw the video of the Harvard students I was shocked. At work that week, I asked two guys who seemed like they would know that kind of thing, and they both gave the correct answer. I can’t seem to wrap my head around reasonably smart people who don’t know things like that, though. You’ve got these people with decent, or even very good, IQs walking around, utterly unaware of why it gets hot or cold. What do they think about all day? What were they curious about as children? Why are they allowed to vote?

  14. Difference Maker says:

    One would think that Santa Claus visiting Australia in the summertime would be more memorable

  15. Doug Jones says:

    Maybe the students derive (suspended animation? a time portal? the hand of God?) from an unattested pre-Lapsarian population. Not only do they not understand how seasons work, but, not being descended from Adam and Eve, they are innocent of Original Sin.

    Some say he bid his Angels turne ascanse
    The Poles of Earth twice ten degrees and more
    From the Suns Axle; they with labour push’d
    Oblique the Centric Globe: Som say the Sun
    Was bid turn Reines from th’ Equinoctial Rode
    Like distant breadth to Taurus with the Seav’n
    Atlantick Sisters, and the Spartan Twins
    Up to the Tropic Crab; thence down amaine
    By Leo and the Virgin and the Scales,
    As deep as Capricorne, to bring in change
    Of Seasons to each Clime; else had the Spring
    Perpetual smil’d on Earth with vernant Flours,
    Equal in Days and Nights,

    Paradise Lost X 668-680

  16. Dave Pinsen says:

    What sort of orbit would explain the seasons on Game of Thrones, where winter can last several years?

  17. The notion that Cantabrians came from a small and isolated continent could also explain their deep aversion to human fertility, reflected in their support for birth control, abortion, and pairing with members of the same sex.

  18. Bromidian says:

    Vitamin D. Well done, sir.

  19. fizziks says:

    That documentary was from 1987 so things are probably different now.

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