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

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?


I think some clarification is in order.  The wikipedia definition of collective intelligence is “a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals“.  The Borg have enforced collective intelligence, where all members of their society engage in collective intelligence, willing or not.  Swarm intelligence is defined as the collective behaviour of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial (thanks again wikipedia), which is what I was referring to when I spoke of ants and bees.  Enforced collective intelligence is something to be afraid of, collective intelligence and swarm intelligence are not.  Swarm intelligence is really kinda cool (see my last post for a reblog on that subject)!  Do you (the readers) know of any defintions I missed on this fascinating subject?

More on collective intelligence!

Manage By Walking Around

What do the Southwest Airlines boarding process and the video game Halo have in common?

They both rely on swarm intelligence to improve their experience.

Swarm intelligence describes the behavior of a population of simple agents whose aggregate behavior exhibits intelligence unknown to the individual agents.  Groups exhibiting swarm intelligence have no central leader but rather members interact with each other based solely on information they have locally. Examples in nature include ant colonies, flocks of birds, schools of fish, and bacterial growth.

Stanford Professor Deborah Gordon explains in an entertaining news segment on what we can learn from ants:

Ants are not smart. But colonies are smart. So what’s amazing about ants is that in the aggregate, all of these inept creatures accomplish amazing feats as colonies.

In an ant colony, there’s nobody in charge. There are no managers. There is nobody telling anybody what to do. The queen…

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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!




To keep you entertained as I write my next post. For which I will cite at least one of these!

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!

I think I am guilty of this, but when discussing extra-terrestrial evolution our sample size is so small (sample size of 1) we can’t help but do this when we hypothesize. I hope you all know that I am hypothesizing, and that I fully believe that it is statistically improbable that all of my hypotheses will be correct. It’s figuring out which ones will be false that is difficult!

Science or not?

After a run of red lights, surely a green one is due, or is that a red flag?

How to recognise this tactic

This happens when you convince yourself, or someone tries to convince you, that some data reveal a significant pattern when really the data are random or meaningless. Some examples: seeing religious symbols in toasted bread or believing you are on a winning streak when gambling.

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Do aliens have zombies?

I spent all day sucking down smoke from a nearby wildfire in my beautiful outdoor workplace. I am so tired but it’s been a while since I posted. I don’t want to disappoint you, readers! The good news is I am not a scientist (yet) so my stuff doesn’t have to be backed up by data and logic. Ergo, today’s subject is zombies!

I like watching zombie movies and such because: A) they give me insight into the human condition (yes guys are still interested in girls despite the zombie apocalypse!)  B) I like to think of myself as self-reliant. I think I’d do well. Of course I’m not such a good shot so maybe not. C) Someday I want to be an extra in a zombie movie. I feel it’s my duty to support the zombie movie industry!

Please comment: Do you think extra terrestrials would have a zombie movie equivalent? Extra credit: Why do you watch (or choose not to watch) zombie movies?

I am 26 years old.  I have 2 college degrees and have set my sights on a third.  I have worked in some of the most remote places in the US.  I have built trails, used chainsaws, written scientific articles, fought wildland fires, and lived (usually) on my own since moving out at 18.  I do my own laundry, generally cook my own food and choose my own reading material.  I live 11 hours away from my parents.  And yes, they still call me their little girl.  *facepalm*

Human parents are actually pretty incredible.  They provide parental care for longer than any other species that I know of.  They provide us with food, advice, direction and love long after the time when we are able to walk and gather food for ourselves.  Maybe it can be a little much at times, but parents (the good ones, like mine and most peoples) really do a lot for us.  I really am grateful to my parents for all they have done for me.  But why do they do it?  Talk about social pressures and love all you want, there had to be a starting place, a reason for this particular trait to evolve.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Yes, Parents love us and do wonderful things for us, including cleaning our faces, embarrassing us in public and guarding us from strange photographers

Most organisms are trying to give their genes the best chance of success when they reproduce.  Many organisms do this by simply making lots and lots of babies, with the expectation that some of them won’t make it and the hope that at least a few will.  If you need an example, think of bunnies.  There’s a reason people say, “breeding like rabbits”.  Ecologists call these species r-adapted, because r is the variable in population growth equations that stands for reproduction.  Highly variable habitats are the dwelling place of r-adapted species because even if a few of the offspring are wiped out by a hurricane or something, it’s unlikely all of them would be.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Tadpoles, like the ones shown here, have gobs and gobs of brothers and sisters. I found these particular tadpoles in a wet meadow, which displayed wide variation in water pH, temperature, and cover for these little ones. The froggy parents were nowhere to be seen.

On the other end of the spectrum are us, elephants and a few others.  We are what ecologists call K-adapted.  K is the variable for competition in population growth equations.  Animals that are K-adapted occur in stable but highly competitive environments (think rainforest without the deforestation) and have relatively few babies but high rates of parental care.  K-adapted animals are attempting to give their young the most advantages they can so their babies can outcompete everybody else.

I met this young badger on a tour of a wildlife rehabilitation center. This particular badger was being raised by the Biologist in Charge because his mother had suffered an accident. Normally, she would have spent 5 months raising this youngling.

The discerning reader then asks, “Why are we K-adapted? What was so competitive about Africa?”  For the most part, I don’t think it was Africa that made us so very K-adapted (aside from the diversity of primates living there).  I think we did it to ourselves.  Everywhere we go we create cities, villages, towns, in other words communities of people.  These communities are highly competitive and have complex, confusing(!), vague, ever-evolving rules of behavior and even more importantly, language.  (Check out this TED talk for why language was important to our evolution and this TED talk for how we start learning our language even in the womb.  Also this TED talk for how babies learn language and what an exceptionally complex task it is! I love TED talks don’t you?  Here’s another one about SETI, just because!)

It takes us 18 years just to learn to communicate clearly, find a role in society, and act appropriately towards others.  (Actually, I’m still learning that last bit.)  Elephants, crows and jackdaws, dolphins, certain whales, horses, and primates all show extended parental care, have relatively complex social systems and display some characteristics of intelligence.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that we increased our intelligence to deal with our increasingly complex societies.

Of course there is one relatively intelligent animal that does not show much parental care or a complex social system.  We come back to the octopus.  What the hell octopus?  Why do you have to be the exception that makes my theory weak?  I really, really like you.  I think we could be friends if you weren’t so busy making my theories fall apart.  Reader, I am going to go think about the Betrayal of Octopus and how octopi could be intelligent without having a social system.  Until next time.  🙂

So Freakin’ Cute!

“I love frogs because they’re just so freakin’ cute.”  This Awesome Statement of Awesomeness was uttered by my boss’s 8-year-old daughter.  Then, I’m afraid I undermined my boss’s authority by cracking up.  I have to agree with her, frogs (and salamanders and snakes and lizards and iguanas all) are really, really cute.  I want to study them and have them as pets and hug them and hold them and feed them and ……. I just really think they’re awesome, ok?!

However, I don’t think they (the frogs, salamanders, snakes and lizards, hereafter referred to as herpetofauna) have what it takes to be intelligent.  One of the major differences between us and them is that we produce internal heat by metabolism, which we call endothermy.  Birds and the other mammals share this trait with us.  Herpetofauna and just about every other creature on earth do not.

Photograph is the sole property of the writer of extraterrestrialscience.wordpress.com.

Salamanders are cute! Not smart…unfortunately

Why is this important?  Our brain operates in a very narrow range of temperatures (95-100 degrees Farhenheit).  If we get too hot our brain cells do funny things like die.  Hypothermia, the other end of the spectrum, results in low oxygen in the brain, which is also bad for you.  In order to operate our brain at maximum efficiency, we need to keep it in the ideal range.  Herpetofauna on the other hand cannot produce their own heat in most cases, nor do they have effective mechanisms for dealing with too much heat.  Their means of gaining and/or losing heat are all behavioral (sitting in the shade or sun, going swimming, etc.).  As such they cannot maintain a constant temperature most of the time and their brains do not operate at maximum efficiency.

Most of the animals displaying characteristics approaching intelligence, elephants, primates, dolphins, whales and crows, are endothermic.  There is one big exception to this statement.  Octopi are the major invertebrate “smart” animal.  They are not endothermic and yet they are smart enough to outplan two graduate students.  However, they live in an environment with a relatively stable temperature.  They don’t need to produce heat to maintain a stable temperature because the unique chemical nature of water does that for them.

What does this mean for extra-terrestrials?  On a stable planet, with a (relatively) stable temperature, intelligent life forms would not need to produce their own heat, which is metabolically expensive.  Intelligent life forms from that planet could be lizard/frog-like.  Which would be so COOL!!  On a variable planet like ours, however, intelligent life would probably be more like mammals or birds.