View Full Version : Science Saturday: Aliens!

02-02-2008, 10:02 AM

02-02-2008, 12:44 PM
Even though I, like Carl, hated having my science-fiction-driven dreams trashed, that was still an awesome diavlog.

I have a gut feeling that Peter is wrong about the unlikelihood of deep space travel, though. There have just been too many instances in the past where the best scientific reasoning "proved" something couldn't be done, or was at best prohibitively expensive, and then something came from out of the blue to change the rules. This is little more than faith, I'll admit, and I'm certainly not a fan of a manned mission to Mars using our existing technology and bureaucracy, but if we humans survive at all, eventually we'll make if off the planet for real.

02-02-2008, 03:06 PM
With all due respect to Carl Zimmer and Peter Ward, and with my compliments for their estimable work, as a prolific scientist and science fiction author/editor/publisher (you know my co-authors and co-editors Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Richard Feynman), I refer you to the biographic and bibliographic data on over 9,390 Science Fiction / Fantasy / Horror authors, and roughly 25,000 books, films, TV shows, and stories, that I've assembled, verified, and placed online in the award-winning 12-year-old 15,000,000 hit/year web domain

I also specifically refer you to the comparative alien-ology
(overlapping the hardcopy chapters of this published as noted online):

Me Human, You Alien: How to Talk to an Extraterrestrial
Jonathan Vos Post
(c) 1996 by Emerald City Publishing
an excerpt from a book entitled MAKING CONTACT: A SERIOUS HANDBOOK FOR
July 1997, New York: William Morrow & Co.



02-02-2008, 04:07 PM
The most fascinating part of this conversation for me was when Carl and Peter began to grapple with the ethics of science, using synthetic life as an example of the dilemma of new technologies, and drawing rough analogies with the rapid development of airplanes and computers.

Peter raised the especially daunting problem of scientists, lawyers and politicians planning and pursuing rational policies, given their diverse philosophical agendas and vested interests.

I'd love to see these guys back for a third conversation on the ethical challenges of emerging technologies.

02-02-2008, 04:35 PM
You have to remember that Peter Ward is a guy that spend little time looking at the stars and most of it looking at his "toeses." Contemplating ones Feet (http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/8488?in=00:03:36) I actually prefer those that look at the stars and dream what can be than those who's focus is their feet stuck in the mud of time past.

02-02-2008, 04:45 PM
Phylogenetics is good enough that if it was from earth within the last 30 years even if there are functional constraints on the nature of biochemistry and the substrate of inheritance the nature of variation could tell us if it's earth derived. Or if it diverged 30 million years ago.

02-02-2008, 07:08 PM
The secret to interstellar travel is biological, not physical. If humans (or their future robot masters) learn to control the life cycle well enough to prevent aging, then space travel becomes possible with technologies that are basically already available.

02-02-2008, 08:11 PM
Did Ward say Karen Smith when he was talking about "crystal life"? [at about 45:00]

I did a google search and came up empty. Does anyone have info on her, like a webpage? Thanks.

02-02-2008, 10:07 PM
Godparticles -- I think he was probably talking about Graham Cairns-Smith. See here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Cairns-Smith)

02-02-2008, 10:47 PM
I think it would be extremely easy to find people who are willing to die in the name of something significant for humanity. It's a lot more noble than Iraq after all! The real problem might be the political pressures of maintaining the public perception of the space program. Even though there would be many eager volunteers for a one way mission to Titan, and the engineering upside is overwhelmingly strong, the general public wouldn't be so willing to accept it.

Oh and I'm sure we could tell if a bacterium from Mars was related to Earth life, couldn't we? Supposing a completely independent origin, and supposing it uses DNA, the same mapping code between base pairs and proteins, and the exact same key proteins, the codes for those proteins would almost certainly be different because there are many ways to code for an identical thing in the DNA. There is no reason except impossibly remote chance that all the arbitrary choices in code would match perfectly.

By looking at coding for the cytochrome C molecule, can't we even see the connection between humans and yeast in this way?

02-02-2008, 11:25 PM
Peter Ward hit it right on the head! Scientists are not lawyers! The major flaw in this very scientific debate was, that neither mentioned the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies" or the "Outer Space Treaty" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_Space_Treaty). I would also refer to Everett C. Dolman's "Astropolitik (http://www.powells.com/partner/31057/biblio/0714681970)" The US. as it is. would never have been founded on the same legal principles both Ward and Zimmer assume here. In brief, there needs to be an incentive to explore. Also, no alien race would accept an arrogant legal principle based on Earth's right to be the universal steward. Claiming a particular piece is jarring enough, but at least defensible both legally and practicably.

02-02-2008, 11:30 PM
I think it would be extremely easy to find people who are willing to die in the name of something significant for humanity.

This is how intractable wars start, when two disputants claim universalizable rights! And, who would volunteer for the battery of scientific tests needed to start Ward's evolutionary leap without something more substantial than duty and fame. The first person might, but the rest would necesarily be "lesser" mortals. Yet, exploration and colonization requires just these people. Crazy (http://www.thespacereview.com/article/960/1)!

02-02-2008, 11:43 PM
And, who would volunteer for the battery of scientific tests needed to start Ward's evolutionary leap without something more substantial than duty and fame.

Engineering humans for space travel was clearly the looniest idea of the dialogue. Carl seemed to dismiss it as a weird joke, and I can't quite believe Peter was taking it seriously either.

I found the idea that we may never be able to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe pretty persuasive.

Assuming we will never be able to travel near/at/or faster than the speed of light, the distances to planets where intelligence might exist seem to present an overwhelmingly difficult barrier.

02-02-2008, 11:55 PM
Right, but Columbus got over the belief that the world was flat, and Thomas Harriott, according to Giles Milton's Big Chief Elizabeth, wrote an Algonquian-English dictionary before the Roanoke colony was launched.

But, never trust scientists who haven't consulted a lawyer. Isn't that the movie stereotype?

Happy Hominid
02-03-2008, 04:32 PM
They also danced around the ideas of sending people into space - never to return and (heavier) genetically engineering a sub-species that is "fit" for space travel. Oh, and there was that thing about injecting people with sewer gas to make them cold blooded! Hey, I'm just agreeing with you that there is a lot they can do with the topic!

02-04-2008, 09:36 AM
I found the idea that we may never be able to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe pretty persuasive.

Visit is persuasive, but we can communicate at the speed of light. If there is intelligent alien life, the chances of it being at the same technological sophistication point as us is vanishingly small; and since our sophistication is only a few centuries old, they probably have a few hundred thousand years head start.

But say they decide the same thing as Ward suggests: We are all trapped on islands and cannot escape. It seems plausible to me they would do the next best thing, and send out what is essentially free; messages that could be easily interpreted by scientific minds. Perhaps like the Sagan "Contact" scenario, minus the giant equipment build. They can beam such messages by laser, without much dispersion, hundreds of light years.

And although four light years or a hundred light years is too damn far to travel, it might provide a great deal of existential comfort just to know that intelligence is not alone in the universe. At least I think it would for most scientifically minded humans.

We may be unique in having enough intelligence to command electromagnetic waves. The history of life on earth suggests hundreds of millions of years can pass by with nothing more than chimpanzee intelligence evolving. So if Earth like planets are exceedingly rare, and human-like intelligence is really a one-in-a-million accident, perhaps we are alone in our galaxy. There are millions of galaxies, of course, but the chances of detecting intelligent life at that distance is essentially zero.

Simon Willard
02-04-2008, 10:38 AM
I believe he said "toesies".

02-04-2008, 11:58 AM
I believe that you are correct.

02-04-2008, 01:35 PM
Yeah you're right. Thanks. Cairns-Smith sounds just like "Karen Smith"!

02-04-2008, 04:26 PM
Well, we could get an information care package from a couple of hundred light years ago/away that was trasmitted in 1800, and we could send them our Internet so that it would arrive in 2200.

Could be.

Or then again, there could be silence for a lot of reasons ranging from a) we're entirely alone; b) no one in its right mind would ever trust us; c) advanced civilizations typically crash and burn as ours is about to do; d) advanced civilizations typically solve their technological problems and turn inward (if we eliminated pain and lived lives of complete joy and tranquility, would we want to explore other worlds?); e) advanced civilizations would want to talk to us as much as we want to talk to squirrels or rosebushes; f) superpredator advanced civilizations would annihiliate us on contact just as a precaution or to suck up our resources to z) lots of unknowns.

02-04-2008, 05:40 PM
Turning inward seems most likely to me by far. As technology increases, even if people do not become immortal, the opportunity to engage in virtual worlds absent any constraints by the laws of physics seems mighty tempting. Artificial Intelligence can learn to gauge overall happiness, and provide just enough stress to keep people excited and engaged while also keeping them from despair. I could see people living their entire lives in virtuo; or in a some combination of virtuo and luxury. If you tap the energy of the sun you can go a few billion years of essentially unlimited prosperity and abundance for billions of people. Virtually all of the maintenance functions can be automated; such as producing food and servicing the infrastructure. I would be surprised if we aren't at this point ourselves in one or two thousand years, with everybody on Earth born with no need to ever work a day in their lives if they don't want to do so. Even with our primitive communications and animation, I know people that spend more than 10% of their waking hours playing in fantasy worlds. If you can jack your brain into World of Warcraft 500 years from now and feel like you are really there, I imagine the addiction rate for it and sites like it would go through the roof.

Why explore real star systems when the fantasy and simulated ones are so much more fun and interesting and surprising, and so much less time-consuming and life-threatening? And such a virtual life need not be pure entertainment; it would be just as useful for more challenging pursuits like academics, story telling, artistry, even sports.

02-04-2008, 06:10 PM
I disagree. I'm with Lazarus Long on this one: "It cannot always be time for tea."

Assuming other species have a human-like drive to explore and to take up new challenges just because they're there, I don't think turning inward would be a unanimous decision for a population. Sure, a lot of individuals would opt for being jacked in full-time, but the four- and five-sigma types wouldn't. If there was enough prosperity to allow the bulk of society to laze about, I'd imagine that spaceships would be paid for just to get the restless ones out of everyone else's hair.

Assuming they didn't just pump them full of Ritalin, Xanax, and Thorazine, I mean.

02-04-2008, 06:38 PM
Why explore real star systems when the fantasy and simulated ones are so much more fun and interesting and surprising, and so much less time-consuming and life-threatening? And such a virtual life need not be pure

With immensely more sophisticated virtual worlds and ever-better drugs, alongside a sustainable economy/biosphere, I think the urge to build big phalluses that ejaculate into space may detumesce and wither.

We may have a "singularity" and go transhumanist, but it's anyone's speculation what that may look like.

I'm much more pessimistic. I think we will self-destruct, and dystopia is far more likely than transcendent utopia. If I were an empathetic extraterrestrial, I'd shed a tear and avoid us like the plague. As a human, I try to remain hopeful.

02-04-2008, 07:00 PM
Yes, but living with the four and five sigma types, I can testify that they get bored and restless when nothing seems to be working either. Given the current rate of technological advance, within a thousand years there will be very little mystery left to find from astronomy or physics. We will be able to completely model stars, star systems, and our sensor resolution will be exquisite.

Such a civilisation would probably build giant interferometry telescopes that could resolve worlds the size of our moon with ease from across the galaxy, and would inventory and catalog their galaxy. But if the average number of high-intelligence races per galaxy is less than ONE, they will discover they are alone: It is plausible that from a distance they could detect if vegetation existed, and separately if animal life existed, and seperately again if industry existed. Other worlds might host plant and animal life, but with no sign of industrial life or space-based civilization or terra-forming or electromagnetic communications, our aliens would probably just not care, or might be happy to send a probe to the system with a standard exploratory A.I. and high-bandwidth communications channel back to the home planet.

I sincerely doubt that humans or any other intelligence is going to be motivated to spend their lives exploring a galaxy if they are pretty damn certain there is nothing more significant than common animals out there.

I think you are wrong especially about the highly intelligent: However you measure intelligence in the presence of high technology, they will be motivated by the intellectually challenging activities of their kind, and taking endless inventory of dead planets, microbes and the odd verterbrate animal with years of travel between systems seems like an intellectually deadening exercise to me. Where is the "new thing" you are learning? For humans, the secrets of neurology, biology, chemistry and nuclear physics will be long solved in a few thousand years. The chances of finding surprises on other worlds will be so slim as to warrant only robotic probes at most; not years of travel. Star Trek would be pretty boring if every episode is the psychological equivalent of exploring yet another empty warehouse. We came, we saw, we were bored out of our minds by the sameness of it all.

The intelligentsia will devote their time to impressing themselves and their peers, or as geniuses often do, to entertaining the masses with profound displays of the various forms of art.

02-04-2008, 07:58 PM

I should have been a little more clear -- by 4- and 5-sigma types, I did not mean only along an intelligence axis. I'm talking about the people who have an unusual quest for adventure, of being freed from the strictures of society, of getting a chance to do their own thing, even if (especially if) it's something that would be considered risky. These are the inventor and explorer types, but also those of certain artistic bents.

The way I think we'll get a move out into deep space will be by some kind of self-contained, self-sustaining vehicle with a lot of people in it. Possibly suspended animation could be an option, as well.

I have to say, I'd jump at a chance to go on a trip like that, even if it meant signing up for a one-way journey.

02-04-2008, 08:05 PM

The transhumanist possibility could work.

As far as being able to last until we develop realistic techniques for deep space travel goes: Sometimes I share your dystopian worries, and sometimes I don't. The pace of technology compared to the advance of humanity is always a worry -- a series of accidents and/or neglect could do us in, to be sure, and there's always a chance some loony could get his hands on a doomsday device. On the other hand, we've had some pretty admirable individuals throughout history who have dragged large chunks of the species up to the next level, so we have that going for us, too. And there is that innate will to survive and to reproduce, and a pretty good ability to adapt. So, I guess I wouldn't give odds either way, once I averaged out my daily fluctuations in mood.

02-04-2008, 09:29 PM
We should look at the results of, mostly European, exploration on Earth, and the first age of space exploration, as a guide to what we can expect from latter stages of space exploration. Restlessness has spurred technological advancement, but not necessarily to social advancement. The momentous changes in biological, dietary, and economic processes has also been a mixed blessing. Also recall that the Protestant reformation occurred after Columbus' discovery of America.

I'm not certain of the implications for Wonderment's argument here, but anyone recall the original "Solaris". I just assume the future will be more like "Outland" than "Contact".

02-04-2008, 11:46 PM
Well, presumably technology will be advanced enough to create a large vehicle like that; so you can have a city full of people going someplace together with all the comforts and escapes of both a complete physical environment and the virtual world to go with it. I am not sure why people would choose that.

Presuming you could scan in detail any system you intended to travel to in suspended animation, would you go even if you knew the system was barren, or had only plant life? I don't think I would. If I could pre-scan the
potential destinations and I knew they were all essentially uninteresting (remember the premise is one intelligent species per galaxy), why would I leave a system with multiple billions of minds and limit my self to a few thousand or a even a hundred thousand? Just to say I traveled among the stars? There is no adventure in traversing a desert to arrive at a forest with no animals, or a sea full of microbes.

If we were going to fly a city to another star system and use the materials there to construct another city, and reproduce and slowly populate the galaxy, I could feel a sense of mission, of preserving the race for all time. In a few billion years maybe the galaxy could be populated. Maybe in another billion years another galaxy could be reached and populated. I guess if we have all the comforts of home, there is no point in sitting in just one place.

02-05-2008, 12:10 AM

First, I think it's more likely that we'd develop some kind of travel capability before we developed the infinite precision sensors you imagine. I mean, we still don't know a whole lot about the Moon; we have to go there (with people or robots) to answer some of the questions we have.

Second, yes, I think going just for the sake of going would appeal to me, especially if the transport was reasonably comfortable. There's also the spirit of seeking out new lands and building something there, as you note. And I do think it makes sense to spread out the species for the sake of preservation, especially if we find that we really do seem to be alone, at least in our neighborhood.

02-05-2008, 09:14 AM
especially if the transport was reasonably comfortable.

Perhaps counter-intuitively for some, it would have to be, simply because it would have to be so huge. Very little can protect against cosmic rays, it takes like dozens of yards of rock or water to stop the least energetic of them. As Ward notes, the radiation in space will kill us. But magnetic fields will work, just as they do the job on Earth, if given enough distance and energy to work with. The energy from fusion reactors would be unlimited, but the distance requirement would require spikes several miles long extending from a ship that itself was miles in diameter. This is not a support problem in space, but imagine a ship that looks like a ten or twenty mile wide porcupine. The spikes are just there to project the magnetic shield and bend particles around the central seed, but if you are going big in space and energy is essentially free, you might as well go astonishingly big, and build a cozy ship core ten or twenty miles in diameter, with shielding spikes extending a hundred miles from the core in every direction. It would be something like 1/10 the diameter of the moon. That would be a sight, and with a virtual reality accompaniment, we probably wouldn't even notice we were travelling. I do not believe the light speed restrictions can be overcome, but I do think fusion driven ion engines can provide constant acceleration / deceleration without much fuel, so we could eventually get it up to relatively high speed.

I disagree about the sensors; we already know how to build interferometry telescopes (and use them regularly), an advanced space going race can build an interferometry telescope with a lens literally the size of their solar system, by deploying, perhaps, a few hundred kilometer sized space-built mirrors around the edges of it. I have read this would be sufficient to view any planet in the solar system [correction: I meant galaxy] with the same resolution as we view the earth from the moon. Now if we know the principles of how to do that, and we also have the ability to read the surgeon general's warning on a pack of cigarettes from space (which we do) I don't doubt in a few thousand years we will be able to gather as much information about all the other stars and planets in our galaxy as we desire, without ever leaving home. Also note that spectral absorption lines through atmosphere tell us everything about the chemical composition of the atmosphere; and there are telltale signs of life in that. I don't know the details, but I understand the chemical composition of our atmosphere would be much different if there were only plant life, and different again if there were no life; presumably due to the high reactivity of oxygen (it's tendency to bind to other elements and compounds), but it may involve other gases as well.

02-05-2008, 11:41 AM

Good point about space-based sensors. I had forgotten this consideration. You're right, this could massively improve resolution.

Still, though, remote sensing doesn't tell you everything. As was noted in the diavlog, we aren't certain about other forms of life. Spectroscopy done on a planet may well indicate the presence of life forms if they're similar enough to Earth life, but what about something completely different? Suppose there's a planet full of creatures that is silicon-based or even something that, say, inhales methane and sulfur and exhales hydrogren sulfide? Considering EM emanations: What if there are intelligent beings, but they don't use radio waves to communicate?

I must say that your design ideas for the planet-ship sound great. Sign me up!

02-05-2008, 04:49 PM
Breed tiny astronauts? Why not hire pygmies or people who happen to be short already? Was that some reference to some sci-fi book or movie? If wasn't, it was quite creepy... reminds me of transhuman eugenics ideas... I recall having heard about the idea of engineering humans in the future to have arms and hands instead of legs and feet, somewhat like orangutans, supposing that we would abondon the Earth and live in the space, without gravity, where legs would be somewhat useless. That's creepy anyway.