What will ET look like when we meet him/her/it?

Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

A collection of random almost-postables

Space travel would be impossible without computers.  We need to machine parts precisely, navigate perfectly, and do so many other things exactly in order to send a human into space.  Even the Curiosity required precise parts.  Humans are not precise.  We never needed to be, before the modern era.  Ergo, space took the development of computers on our part.  Could other species do without computers to get to space?  I don’t think so.  Could the computers be biological or otherwise unrecognizable? Absolutely.  Think about a bacterial computer!  Of course, the fastest computers would be electrical, because the transmission of light and/or electrical signals are faster than the movement of matter.  Even human’s brains operate using electrical signals.  Oh wait.  So Biological computers are a possibility.  Are biological computers a monstrosity? Depends on the construction, but possibly.

Our nature as humans, as mammals, as animals, is dependent on environmental constraints.  One of the most fundamental constraints is chemistry.  Certain chemical reactions are simply more efficient, easier to control and simpler to evolve than others.  I think our own water and carbon oriented reactions are a prime example of this.  I think life evolved because of the unique nature of water and carbon atoms.  However, several organisms operate on other chemical planes.  For example, there are bacteria near deep sea vents that use sulfur reactions in the same way that plants use photosynthesis.  Scientists study these organisms to hypothesize about the chemical nature of life on other planets.  As cool as this is (IT’S AWESOMELY COOL!!! in case you were wondering) we are handicapped when we use these organisms to hypothesize about extra-terrestrials, because all life on Earth has the same starting point.  If you have different starting points, it would make sense that you have different results.

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” –Albert Einstien

“A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad Manners. Lack of consideration of others in minor matters.” –Robert Heinlein

Is cultural death inevitable?  In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, mathematical genius Hari Seldon is able to predict what large masses of people will do.  (The actions of one individual are completely unpredictable, but in any group of people, most actions will fall into a predictable pattern.  A bell curve is one example of a predictable pattern that people might fall into.)  One of the things he predicts is the end of the Galactic Empire, an endlessly bureaucratic, rude culture with no original scientific discovery.  In the Galactic Empire, I saw the reflections of the USA and the Roman Empire.  After the end of the Roman Empire (as well as after the fall of the Galactic Empire), there ensued a time of barbarism for all nearby cultures.  In this era of globalization, almost all cultures are nearby.  Is the USA destined to cultural self-destruction?  Is it possible for a widespread culture to escape the fate of the Roman Empire?  I’d like to think so.

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Redemption of Octopus: Betrayal of Octopus part 2

A while ago I wrote a post bemoaning the Betrayal of Octopus.  It was indeed a foul deed.  Octopus made a hole in my wonderful argument for intelligence being the result of society and language.  Recently, I listened to an interview of David Brin on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast.  He discussed many fascinating subjects but he also declared he didn’t think aquatic species such as dolphins and octopi could develop an industrialized society.  Even worse, this podcast occurred before I started trashing Octopus.  This is tragic.  Not only did my Betrayal of Octopus post not get very many hits, it wasn’t even original.  So now I must redeem Octopus in order to regain my originality and then I can find someone else to trash.

David Brin’s assertion was that aquatic species could not form industrialized societies because they lack the ability to make fire.  He is right.  Fire does not burn underwater.  There are fires that can burn when in contact with water, but fire by definition needs oxygen in order to burn.  No fire to make steel among other things means no industrialization.  Or does it?

The reason octopi don’t form cooperative societies is because in our ocean, nutrients and oxygen are widely dispersed.  For the amount of space in the ocean (lots), there is not a lot of life in most of it.  Tropical coral reefs and the phytoplankton blooms near Alaska are exceptions, rather than the norm.  Why is this?  First of all, terrestrial space and ocean space are very different.  Both the ocean and the land are hard surfaces with a fluid space above them.  For the ocean, the fluid is salt water and for the land, the fluid is gaseous compounds.  Salt water is much denser than air, so organisms can be entirely supported by the fluid.  In the terrestrial sphere, even birds must land occasionally which is not the case in the oceanic sphere.  Humans build structures off of solid surfaces and I’m going to assume a solid surface is necessary for structures.  Second of all, most animal life on earth depends on gaseous oxygen (dissolved in water or straight up).  There is a lot of space in the ocean that doesn’t have very much oxygen.  Third of all, because there’s a lot of space without oxygen, there’s a lot of space without a lot of life.  Being sans life, means there’s nothing for animals to eat.  All of these reasons mean it is more efficient for octopi and other animals to spread out, especially a reasonably smart animal that can find food even if food is hard to find.

What if the character of our ocean were different?  What if some natural process injected enough gas for organisms to breathe in the ocean almost anywhere?  What if the ocean was as full of life as the majority of terrestrial space?  What if octopi could clump together?  I think octopi would be more social and have a capacity for language similar to dolphins.

At the start of our industrial revolution, one of the many possibly catalyzing technologies was the water wheel, a version of which I am sure Octopus (if he were the social type) could build and utilize.  There may not be fire in the depths of the ocean, but maybe octopi could utilize lava flows and smokers to work metal.  Octopus is pretty smart after all.  There you go, Octopus, I forgive you for busting up my theory because I got to make a new one!

Variability and evolution

Last post, I asked: would life in a stable environment evolve past the primordial ooze stage and what level of environmental variability is good for the evolution of intelligent life?

One of my college professors described evolution quite simply.  He wrote, “Evolution is change” and left it at that.  I’ve spent a long time trying to add qualifiers to that definition, because I, an individual, change and individuals cannot evolve.  I’ve always thought that as a model, the “evolution is change” definition is too simple to be really valuable.  Mathematically, though, that particular definition of evolution is useful.  If one defines evolution as change, finding the rate of evolution in a population becomes a calculus problem.

There are two competing theories about the rate of evolutionary change, punctuated equilibrium and gradual change.  The punctuated equilibrium theory argues that, because we see relatively few individuals in the fossil record in the process of speciation, speciation and evolutionary change happen quickly (thousands of years rather than millions).  Then species remain relatively unchanged for the remainder of their history.  The gradual change theory argues that the fossil record is not nearly complete so we should not expect to find examples of speciation, and that evolutionary change happens slowly but consistently.  I think these two theories are both present in the natural world, and the two theories can be combined.  Check out my super simplistic illustration of the concept below!

 

 

The chunks where rapid evolutionary change occurs would be caused by a big change in the organism’s environment.  Most of the time though, chunks of gradual evolutionary change would be caused by small changes in the environment and other processes on a small scale.  A stable environment could hold organisms that evolve intelligence, but I think evolution would be slow.  Instead of the 3.6 billion years it took to get us and our industrialized society, it would take what?  7 billion years?  14 billion years, the entire life of the universe?  Thankfully, our star is pretty young, so it might be possible for a species from a stable environment to evolve intelligence and then come find us as we evolved intelligence.  I don’t think it’s likely though.

What level of variability is good for intelligent life?  We can look at major sources of extinction and evolutionary change in the past to find about the stability of our environment.  Here’s a brief list of possible causes for major extinctions: Temperature shifts, atmospheric changes, shifts in our magnetic field (look at Mars!), food sources vanishing, competition.

Earth has a relatively narrow temperature band (compared to Mercury, or the prison planet in Chronicles of Riddick) from 57.8o C (136o F) to -89.2o C (-128.6o F).  Water doesn’t even get to boiling, here!  Our atmosphere has had some pretty extreme shifts in the past but it’s been pretty stable for a long time now, with a Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide, Oxygen mix that suits us well.  The magnetic field has also been consistent for a long time, preventing solar winds from removing our ozone layer.  Our ozone layer is important in preventing radiation from frying us.  Life in general can deal with extremely variable environments but intelligent life needs a relatively stable abiotic environment in order to evolve I think.  However, I also think that the biotic environment (competing organisms, prey species, etc.) needs to be fairly complex in order for intelligent life to thrive.

Sorry, folks.  This post was not as exciting as the last one.  However, if someone knows of an equation that’s been used to express the concepts above, I would give you an honorable mention in the next post if you could bring it to my attention!

Geek’s Guide To The Galaxy

I found this podcast called Geeks Guide to the Galaxy which I LOVE! You should check it out.

This week has been crazy (if anyone can explain to me the mechanism by which rear axle bearings freeze up I would be eternally grateful!) so I haven’t posted much. I am sorry Reader. I will post lots tomorrow and over the weekend!! I promise!

Question for the reader: What high school/college subject most terrified you?

For me, it was chemistry. I found math achingly simple and fun. Biology, history, English were all a breeze. But chemistry?? Whathefuk? Even worse, organic chemistry? … *shudders* You probably have noticed my lack of chemistry oriented posts. Reader I seek to change this fear of chemistry of mine but I need your help. I need ideas for chemical subjects to research and post on. So comment! Please? Help me with your ideas and my fears? Please?

Prepare to be Assimilated

 

English: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as Borg Locutus...

English: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as Borg Locutus Česky: Kapitán Picard jako Borg Locutus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

For most people, I think the scariest thing about the Borg was the whole “Resistance is Futile” bit.  Most people like choices.  It’s why Americans are so obsessed with the idea of freedom (whether Americans actually have freedom is a political discussion).  We also like the underdog and winning against impossible odds, so when Jean-Luc Picard survived assimilation we all felt good.  On my part, I was most intimidated by the loss of individual expression.  I mean being forcibly inducted into an extreme example of a technocratic society would be bad, but not being able to do your own thing afterwards?

That’s really bad.

 

 

Americans and most Western Europeans are naturally biased against collectivist cultures.  Our societies are largely individualist and we favor individual achievement, individual expression and individual freedoms.  Other cultures are generally more collectivist, favoring the achievement of the whole society and harmony over the freedoms of the individuals.  Neither culture is wrong (Prime Directive, Prime Directive, Prime Directive) but knowing which culture you belong to allows you to analyze your own biases.  It makes sense that an individualist culture would create a villain of a collectivist culture.  Of course, as I previously mentioned, I think most people were creeped out by the whole forcibly inducted bit.

 

The most extreme example of the collectivist culture requires instantaneous, probably telepathic communication between all members of the culture.  Any idea that occurs in the brain of any individual is immediately transmitted to the rest.  I might have an idea, Fred might carry it out with the will of the culture as a whole.  It’s a nice idea.  I’m an idea person.  I have gobs and gobs of ideas, which are sometimes impractical, sometimes simply impractical for me, and sometimes require a time scale and level of effort that my procrastinating self can’t deal with.  It would be nice to know that somewhere someone is carrying out my Great Idea.  However, I’m also a proud person.  I like knowing that I achieved, I created, I made.  I want credit for my Great Idea, and in the most extreme collectivist culture, that doesn’t happen.

 

 

Another way to look at collective thought was posed in the book I just bought.  The book is called This Will Make You Smarter, New Scientific Concepts to Improve your Thinking, edited by John Brockman.  The essay is called “Collective Intelligence” by Matt Ridley.  The gist of the essay is this “Human achievement is based on collective intelligence – the nodes in the human neural network are the people themselves.”  We are all of us individually incapable of constructing societies, making scientific discoveries, or even creating art without other people.  We need the people around us to inspire, motivate, encourage, etc.  We do not need to have instantaneous communication when we have writing, language and an internet connection.  Of course, the reason we seek to achieve is we get credit (and usually money) for our achievements.

 

If you do not buy that we already possess collective intelligence, the next question to ask is: Could extra-terrestrial intelligent species have collective intelligence, Borg style?  IMO, absolutely!  The idea of a collectively intelligent society is everywhere in science fiction.  It’s in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and the computer game Sins of a Solar Empire.  And of course, there’s the Borg.  Not only that, but it’s in the natural world as well.  Bees and ants (also naked mole rats) have a society where only the queen breeds with the males.  Aside from

Books I've Read: Ender's Game

Books I’ve Read: Ender’s Game (Photo credit: Myles!)

 

the queen and the males, all other individuals in the colony are sexless drones.  In some ways, the queen selects the direction of the hive and gets all the credit (evolutionary credit is expressed as genes passed on!) while the drones do all the work.  Les Fourmis (Empire of Ants in English) is a speculative fiction novel about ants and collective intelligence.

 

 

I think it’s time to wrap this post up.  Its gone on so long!  My conclusions are: The Borg are still scary, collective intelligence is not, and an alien society with collective intelligence is more than possible!

 

 

That shelf is MINE!

I have new housemates.  Mostly, they’re cool.  They’re mostly other science types, researchers of other subjects, good people to have a beer with.  However, they’re a little more mainstream, they like hunting and they don’t read for fun as much as I do.  I feel a little weird telling them all about my blog discussing alien life.  I also don’t feel comfortable telling them to take out the damn recycling and stop crowding my shelf in the refrigerator.  One of my pet peeves if people crowding my space.  Conflicts of this kind are inevitable with new roommates, so common in fact that I call it the “new roommate phenomenon” and most people know what I mean.

This got me thinking.  Are conflicts inevitable on any scale?  Is the current culture clash between many Muslim countries and the USA inevitable? Is conflict with aliens inevitable?  Obviously, this last is the most important question in the context of this blog.

One of the main concepts in ecology is the competitive exclusion principle.  This principle states that any two species that fill the same niche will compete until one of four outcomes occurs: Species A out-competes Species B, Species B gets wiped out; Species B out-competes Species A, Species A gets wiped out; Species A and B fall into an unstable equilibrium which eventually results in one of the previously mentioned outcomes, somebody gets wiped out; Species A and B fall into a stable equilibrium which eventually results in niche partitioning and everybody lives happily ever after.  On Earth, we have many more examples of the first three outcomes than of the last outcome.

David Weber is one of my favorite science fiction authors.  In a couple of his series (Mutineer’s Moon, Safehold), aliens seek to wipe out humanity because they (the aliens) occupy the same type of planet as humans and they do not want anyone to wipe them out through competition, which is an extreme expression of the competitive exclusion principle.  In fact, these alien cultures are wholly based upon this goal.  When meeting aliens for the first time, we obviously want everyone to live happily ever after.  Query: Could it be possible for intelligent life to create a stable equilibrium, even if one species is clearly better able to compete on Earth-like planets?

Answer: The Prime Directive!  In the Star Trek universe, Starfleet is prohibited from interfering with the development of alien civilizations.  In Star Trek, this was phrased as allowing for cultural self-expression.  However, the reality is that removing the threat of being wiped out for cultural and biological differences allows for the possibility of niche-partitioning.  The Prime Directive allows everyone to live happily ever after.

Holy cow, I just used Star Trek to answer a problem presented by David Weber! Is that even legal in sci-fi?

Sometimes Star Trek people ran into problems when they didn’t recognize other civilizations as such or when they broke the taboos of a civilization they were exploring.  Enter the “new roommate phenomenon”.  What do we do about that?  I have no idea.  What do I do about my new roommates? Content myself with dealing with the recycling more often and tell them about my blog.  I’ll also be labeling my refrigerator shelf!  You hear me, roommates?  That shelf is MINE!

BRAINS!

 

Brains are awesome.  Zombies eat them. Cannibals eat them. Hot-spring dwelling amoebas eat them. Aliens in sci-fi eat them. Also, brains are good for information storage and stuff.  It is important to have brains. But would extraterrestrials have brains (that they haven’t sucked out of humans)? In Agent to the Stars, a book by John Scalzi, the extraterrestrials are basically big blobs of goo. They have no brains.  They presumably store information, perform bodily functions such as metabolism and waste removal, and engage in movement in all cells.  That would be awesome for us. There would be no kidney failure, no brain tumors, no broken bones, no disease! Why then aren’t we big blobs of goo? Wouldn’t big blobs of goo be simpler to evolve than all of our specialized cells? I mean we have a different organ for every bodily function, and each of those organs is made up of a complex structure of cells.  Wouldn’t it be simpler to just have one cell that does everything?

 

The truth is there are cells that do everything.  They are called bacteria (and also amoebas, protists, archaeans,etc.).  In an evolutionary sense, bacteria and other single-celled organisms are quite succesful.  They are in every environment on earth, including boiling battery acid, glaciers, highly saline environments, and even in our guts.  They can form colonies, cooperate with other organisms and reproduce in fantastic ways.  However, these cells, that do everything, do nothing well. This is not to say that single-celled organisms are slackers.  It just means they are not adapted for passing on signals, protecting other cells, or storing information. They are adapted to reproduce, and exchange nutrients and waste with their environment.  That is the problem.  They require so much energy to perform these basic functions that they have none to spare for extraneous information storage.  Intelligence (loosely defined as non-DNA information storage,and exchanging signals to facilitate movement and reaction to an environment) requires specialized cells that are not involved in consumption of nutrients or reproduction.  Our glial cells provide protection, nutrients and insulation to neurons.  Neurons have very little to do but pass signals on and store information but they do it well.  Therefore, I predict that any intelligent extra-terrestrial species will have specialized brain cells.

 

Note: I absolutely love Agent to the Stars and John Scalzi’s books in general! I recognize that he must be more creative, more intelligent and a better writer than I and I do not wish to denigrate his many accomplishments.  This post is intended to set forth an argument and a prediction about differentiated tissues.  If you disagree with my argument, please feel free to comment (politely!) about my wrongheaded-ness.