We'd helped ourselves to some hot drinks (with a little help on the espressos from Galileo) and were munching our way through some delicious shortbread Lisa had baked in the kitchen when Galileo wandered over and took his ease in one of the chairs by us. He didn't say anything for a while - just listened to us talking. As it happened, we were having a discussion about dinosaurs and the recent craze sweeping the world.
"You can understand why they're so fascinating," Lisa said, "Large and glamorous. The big animals have always attracted attention."
"I just wish they'd stop pushing them at us 'til they're coming out of our ears," commented Ron in his faint Caribbean accent, cradling his orange mocha in large, coffee-coloured hands.
"Oh, lighten up," Natasha swatted at him with a free hand. "They're popular right now. No reason to hate them. Lisa's right though. They are interesting because they're so big. Well, the famous ones. And they're mysterious too. Fossil evidence and all that. A mystery novel just waiting to be read under every layer of rock."
"Sounds like we could use the Father for some input here," commented Lisa. Father Darwin is a priest who comes into Amethyst every now and then. He's extremely well read up on almost all matters of biology, and will talk enthusiastically about it if given a chance. He also takes informal confessions and offers spiritual support whenever someone needs it.
I filled the pause in the conversation. "There're two metre long earthworms in south-east Australia. That's pretty big and mysterious. You don't hear much about those."
"Urg," said Natasha - she has a real flair for words sometimes - "I think I can tell you why."
"Yah, general ickiness," Ron backed her up. "Or it could be the legless thing. Humans don't relate well to things with different numbers of limbs."
"Hmmm..." I pondered this, "Good observation. Question: do you think we'd do better if we knew something of mammalian intelligence with other than four limbs?"
"What about dolphins?" asked Lisa.
"Uh..." I thought quickly, "They have vestigial limbs..."
"They're cute too," said Natasha. "Maybe it's just an ugliness prejudice - not necessarily a limb-count thing."
"Ah," Ron made a point in the air with an index finger, "But then the question is why, in general, are non-quadru... er... limbed creatures considered ugly?"
"I like spiders," countered Lisa.
"Yeah, but you're weird," I pulled a grin at her.
"Love you too," she reached into the bag beside her wheelchair and threw a marshmallow at me. I caught the rebound off my nose and dropped it into my hot chocolate.
"Well," Natasha just ignored us, "This sort of thing also manifests in a slightly different manner in racial prejudices. It's because of different appearances. People are afraid of the unknown, and of the obviously different."
"Okay, but why?" Ron pressed.
"People are comfortable with what is familiar," I ventured. "If they don't have to adapt to new concepts or physical entities. Then they know how to behave. Something new requires adaptive behaviour - thought, if you like."
"You mean people are afraid of having to think?" said Lisa.
"Ever seen anyone enjoy taking an exam?" Natasha offered.
"Mmm... okay," Ron went with the thought, "So people are cerebrally lazy. The general state of the world seems to be evidence enough of that. But that still doesn't explain racial prejudice. Surely the non-thinking default option of treating anyone as a fellow human being is much simpler than a whole set of value judgements and behaviour modifications based on appearance."
"Heh," a thought hit me, "If non-thinking is so good, maybe active stupidity is even better. That'd explain it."
Then Galileo spoke for the first time in the conversation. "There's a long history of human cultures who have actively pursued ill-considered courses of action or lived by the unthinking beliefs of the past. Many have fought the introduction of reason, too."
"Like the world today, really," observed Lisa. "Economic and political factors outweigh things far more important to the long-term survival of humanity. I'm not sure if I prefer to think of it as sheer stupidity or just shortsighted greed."
"Greed is pretty stupid," pointed out Ron.
"But we've made some great breakthroughs recently," said Natasha. "The end of the Cold War. Peace between the Israelis and Palestineans. It takes a lot of horse sense to defuse a war." Natasha is a great believer in peace. She never would have been able to leave Moscow if the Cold War hadn't ended.
"Mmm," I swallowed some hot chocolate. "But it takes a lot more to address the global problems of population and limited resources. To date nobody in power has made a serious attempt to solve those. The human population of the planet is growing exponentially, and in the forseeable future we're going to hit a hardware limit."
"Not if we upgrade," said Ron. You can tell he works with computers.
Lisa smiled. "Nice metaphor. Yeah, space exploration is the way to go. After all, while we're restricted to one planet, the human species is vulnerable to being wiped out by a single event."
"Like the dinosaurs," said Natasha.
"No, they died out over several million years..." Lisa pointed out.
"That's not what I meant. I meant that they were restricted to a single planet too. If they'd been spread around, there'd probably still be some living somewhere."
"Perhaps," I said, "Although I still think the real problem is that we need to deal with our growth before we choke ourselves. Even if we colonise other star systems we only get an order n-cubed growth in living space - n-squared once we hit the edge of the Galactic plane - and an exponential population growth will ultimately outstrip that. We need a way to cut back drastically."
"True," agreed Ron, "Ideally dropping the average birth rate to two per female."
"Yes, but we still need to get out into space," said Lisa. "And right now there's no focus on that at all. The annual space exploration and research budget of the whole world is less than, what, twenty-four hours' United States defence budget. Even with the Cold War over. It's disgusting."
"Mmmm," the chorus went up as we sipped our drinks.
Galileo spoke up then. "My friends, listen to yourselves. Have you come here tonight be be morose and pessimistic about the future? Coffee goes down better in a contented stomach. Think of good things. People have learnt much over the centuries. As long as we live, it is not too late. Come, share your dreams, your visions of pleasures to look forward to that only the future can bring."
Ron smiled at the old man. He took another piece of shortbread and said, "Yeah, good idea. I'll start. I'm looking forward to food replicators, like in Star Trek. Then I can have Lisa's shortbread any time I feel like it."
Lisa couldn't suppress a wide smile. "Shameless flatterer. Well, I'd want to travel in space. To set foot on another world. To actually be on Mars, to feel it as a real place, not just pictures in a book or on a TV screen." We all noticed the quiet implication of her words "to set foot". Presumably medicine will one day be able to fix shattered legs.
"I think the long-promised dream of unending leisure time would be nice," I said. "Have machines and robots do all the boring jobs in the world and let all the people have the free time to relax, or travel. Yes, to see the world. All of it. From tropical jungles to Antarctica. That would be wonderful."
"Well," Natasha thought in her turn, "I think I'm a repressed Dr Alan Grant. I would dearly love to be able to see dinosaurs. If we really could clone them from preserved DNA... that would make my lifetime."
We sat in silence again for the second time in a few minutes. But this time our minds were racing with pleasurable thoughts and we were all smiling faintly at nothing in particular. With a few well-chosen words, our resident coffee expert can turn the tide of any conversation.
"Hey," Ron raised an eyebrow at Galileo, "What about you?"
The old man smiled and a wistful look appeared in his eyes. "Space travel appeals to me, too. I would like to see with my own eyes, from close by, the moons of Jupiter."