Sunday, November 25, 2012

Next: Hang-Gliding From Space

For many of us part of the fascination for sending balloons into space, and parachuting from it, is the proximity of such an exotic realm to our own world, and its accessibility, in some ways, with pretty mundane equipment. That's why personal space balloon launches are cool. (I wonder if the Peep they sent up with this one was still frozen when it came back down.)

And that's why this article on early Soviet space-jumpers was interesting, and why it seems strange that when astronauts come back down from the space station, the first thing they see is Kazakh steppe grass outside their window, and maybe a distant animal herd. More morbidly, that's why the sole of a shoe making it down from orbit separately, on its own during the 2003 space shuttle tragedy seems strange. This shoe made it from space? To the parking lot of a pharmacy? On its own? (It turns out that C. elegans worms survived it.) Even though a mere 20 miles above us the sky is black in daytime and you can see the curve of the Earth, 20 miles across the surface is closer than many of our commutes.

Inspired by this, I was curious whether soft-body gliders had ever been considered by NASA, in addition to the hard-body gliders and parachutes we now use. In the early 1960s glider technology was extensively tested but NASA went with an all-parachute descent. The Paresev glider is actually on display in the Smithsonian but I guess I wasn't paying attention.

If Baumgartner won't do it, then I wonder if Jokke Sommer could make a few phone calls to the usual crew of Branson, Rutan et al.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The C-Index: How Far Away Could We Hear Earth?

The C-Index is a quick-and-dirty way to determine the likelihood of our detection of, and our detection by, other technology-using aliens. Current technology changes over time, and this drives both what we emit (how loud we are), and what we can detect (how well we can listen).

So how close would we have to be to a twin Earth before we could hear it, i.e. hear ourselves? If twin Earth were orbiting Alpha Centauri, could we hear it with our own technology? How about fifty years from now?

In a post at David Brin's blog, he rounds up arguments about our own relative silence by stating "even military radars and television signals appear to dissipate below interstellar noise levels within just a few light years. Certainly they are far less visible -- by many orders of magnitude -- than a directed beam from any of Earth's large, or even intermediate, radio telescopes." (Interestingly, none other than Seth Shostak of SETI is credited with this observation.)

So right now it looks like our C-Index is ~3 light years. If you're interested in this kind of thing you probably already know this isn't even as far as the next closest star, which is 4.3 light years away. They could be right there, chattering just as loud as us, and we still wouldn't know.

Below: the yellow dot is the portion of the Milky Way
into which our radio waves have expanded (r=100 LY),
 but our current C-index is only 3% of that radius,
and therefore contains just 0.027% of that speck.

Aliens and Their Strange Obsession With Intelligence

A staple of science fiction is aliens that are obsessed with locating intelligence, and this is what drives their interactions with humans. What they do when they find intelligence varies. Sometimes they tiptoe around it, desperate for some strange reason to avoid revealing themselves. Sometimes they deliberately enhance it or invite it to achieve some level of enlightenment or at least join some great political organization, as the Firstborn in Clarke's 2001 or the Five Galaxies in David Brin's Uplift Series. But seemingly just as often, they eradicate it, as in the Revelation Space series by Alistair Reynolds or Beford's Galactic Center series.

Why should this be?  Some might be tempted to say, "Well they're intelligent.  And we're intelligent.  We should hang out!"  But this doesn't work well.  First let's get the obvious literary reason for this trope out of the way: these are works of fiction, and aliens in these books are made up because they are interesting for their own sake, and/or because through them we can ask questions about human nature and our perception of reality. Aliens that have no contact with humans aren't literarily useful, and at least on this planet, our intelligence is unique - so intelligence-seeking aliens who come to the solar system will pay attention to us. Among narrative motivations for why aliens seek human intelligence, it also flatters our conception of ourselves, either as grown-up and ready to take our place among the interstellar gods, or as self-flagellation about how we're uniquely nasty and brutish and combined with our intelligence we are a threat to the other peaceful aliens out there.

In reality, either scenario is incredibly unlikely to be true. The history of science is a history of one revelation after another of how we're not special, no matter how badly we would like to be. We're not at the center of the universe, we're not unique among animals, even though for a few biological characteristics we might be near one end of the distribution. (As is likely to be the case for every organism, which are complex entities that have lots of dimensions along which to vary. Sure, we're smart! And sea squirts have the highest vanadium concentrations. So what?)

I'll grant that intelligence may be more important than vanadium, and for the sake of argument, let's assume it's also not invariably an ecosystem-destroying dead end. It's not unreasonable to further assume that aliens we meet in places other than their world of origin got there based on being intelligent. Since we are just prior to our own expansion from Earth (if it ever happens), we are likely to be the stupidest things we encounter. And not just a little stupider. Millions of years stupider. How can I say this? Let's make an an assumption which is too charitable, which is that we only encounter aliens within 1% of our own level of development in terms of how long life has existed on Earth, and that development time correlates with intelligence. 1% ago there weren't even hominids yet. 1% from now, if some descendant of humans is still here, it's likely to be unrecognizably intelligent and powerful. So even with a 1% rule we should assume we'll meet aliens somewhere between as smart as us and 37 million yeasr smarter than us. On average they'll be 17.5 million years smarter than us. Visually:

(For more on this, go here and skip ahead to the second half for the review on McDevitt; also after I posted this, I read something by Michael Shermer which converges on the same argument.) Yes, this also begs the question of whether we know the speed and sequence of alien technological development. Surprise! We don't - so if we're to think about this at all, we should assume we're average.)

All this is to say that there is almost zero chance of meeting aliens just a thousand years smarter. If they're out there, and intelligence is required for space travel, then until we've been around a long time, we should assume they're almost all smarter than us. And getting back to the original question, what would this mean about their taking a special interest in our intelligence? It means there is likely to be none. It seems likely that the information they get from studying or molding the representational tissues in the skull of one species will be about as useful as any number of other biological innovations they could find here. I imagine the pride-wounded humans of the future who make first contact, jealously watching aliens that clearly find sea squirts more worthy of their attention, engaging in various pointless gestures of anger to give the aliens a piece of our mind that of course the aliens don't notice (shaking fists at them, using nuclear weapons, flinging feces - you get the idea.) Assuming we even recognized that they were there in the first place

But there is a benefit to being beneath notice, and that's being beneath notice, notwithstanding unintentional damage caused to us or our ecosystem or planet by their likely-to-be-unpleasant visit. We are highly unlikely to be a real threat, despite the moralizing built into science fiction on this question. (Forget The Day the Earth Stood Still. Arthur C. Clarke's frankly better-left-obscure 3001 contains a particularly cloying moral lesson as he reverses the benevolence of the Firstborn, which decided that we adolescent humans are far too nasty to be allowed to survive. Real aliens are unlikely to behave as such convenient mirrors of our own moral sense.)

Of course, if we kindergartners do somehow turn out to be a threat to the 17.5 millionth graders, we'll never know. There won't be a war, or anything we recognize as an extermination, any more than smallpox understands we deliberately eradicated it.

If any of the assumptions above are falsified, we cannot assume we are the stupidest. For example, if intelligence is not required for interstellar travel - that is, if replicators can evolve and travel between stars without intelligence, we should consider it likely that most extraterrestrial replicators will be space algae. Intelligence requires complex structures, meaning more matter than would otherwise be needed, and is vulnerable to disruption. if alien viruses can get between stars on their own, then there will be a lot more of them traveling back and forth than supergenius alien elephants. (I'm sympathetic to this argument.) If you think intelligence is a dead end, we won't meet intelligent aliens, because they die before they escape their solar system, just like we're about to do.   [Added later:  at least simple organisms can survive getting back down to the bottom of a gravity well without too much protection.  Caenorhabditis elegans worms on the Columbia actually survived the uncontrolled re-entry in 2003.]

It's worth looking at our own planet for concrete examples of how organisms of vastly differing intelligence levels interact. Even as the intellectual giants of our own ecosystem, the amount of contact we have with living things is not determined by those other living things' intelligence, but by other considerations driven by economics. Sure, we might not be as interested in cattle as we are in chimpanzees, but it's hard to say that chimp's lives have been altered by contact with the planet's dominant intelligence to the degree that cattle's have. Applying a similar argument, if our intelligence is useful to them, they'll pay attention. Refer to the development timeline above for why it probably won't be so useful. But that vanadium trick, now that's something!

The Xeelee are super-intelligent aliens from Stephen
Baxter's work.  They make things out of galaxies. The
things we meet, if we recognize them against background,
will be more like this than like us.  And they'll 
care about us helpless mortals?  Image rom Steve Burg's blog.

It might also be interesting to take the typical science fiction tropes of alien interest in humans as a given, and ask broadly why this might be. There are two questions that frequently arise in discussions of the simulation argument or Fermi paradox. One is why aliens would bother to trap us, either in a simulation or behind some other barrier that keeps us from spreading outside the solar system. (An ingenious rendering of the latter is the Bubble in Quarantine by Greg Egan.) In general motivations for doing this reduce to we're a threat (see above) or we're in a wilderness preserve or zoo. The second one makes for some neat fiction but it's hard to see why we should give it any credibility as a possible reason for why we don't see aliens or their artifacts or transmissions.

A second question is why uplift-seeking aliens would be concerned with making more intelligence, or accelerating trends. This reflects a larger problem of morality that all of us face in our individual, often misguided searches for "meaning". Morality is a tool that's embedded in the cognition of one particular social animal, so the animal can cooperate with conspecifics to spread its genes. Once that's assured, and it's living in a post-scarcity world, what then? How to live? Is suffering and happiness even meaningful freed from those constraints, and making the world better no longer inherently valuable (because nothing is?) It's possible that there is no way for us savannah apes to answer that question, once morality is taken out of its pre-scarcity context. Maybe then it's game-time, and that's what the Firstborn were up to, where the game is how many other species can you get to join you in Mindspace. But if you just want to fill your now-infinite time with difficult-to-attain goals, it seems that there are infinitely many of them, and elevating intelligence would not have any special luster. And if you think "interfering" in the development of aliens is somehow immoral, what could be worse than running around the universe pushing psycho-evolutionary amphetamines to every near-intelligent organism you find?

The bottom line:

1) If we meet intelligent aliens, they are overwhelmingly likely to be vastly more intelligent than us, and therefore not care at all that we exist, if indeed they notice us.

2) Therefore, if they do pay special attention to Earth or humans for some reason, it is unlikely to be due specifically to our intelligence, despite this being a central draw for alien attention on humans in much of science fiction.

3) If they do pay attention, to our intelligence or otherwise, it is likely that their attention will be very unpleasant, even if this is unintentional.

4) If for some reason we represent a threat, aliens will destroy us. We are unlikely to recognize what is happening let alone be able to fight back.

Nyiragonga Volcano and Darvaza Crater

How metal is this.

It's Only 10 miles from seemingly cursed Goma, Congo.  
Fast-moving lava wiped out the city 10 years ago.
The place has also been in the middle of some
kind of civil war or other for the past 20 years or so.

And here is Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan, which is appropriate to include 
because it is also total metal.  Darvaza is similar to Centralia, Pennsylvania, except that a) instead of coal burning in the ground forever, it's natural gas produced by compressed Tethys Sea plankton and b) there was no town over top of it.  Turkmen are luckier than Pennsylvanians that way.

Fermi's Warning: Problems in Interstellar Exploration and Detection

[I have an article on the Singularity coming up at the European science/fiction magazine Concatenation in a couple months. Please visit their website ahead of time!]

With the discovery of planets around Alpha Centauri, the time for serious discussion of interstellar exploration has arrived. (And it's been going on in earnest for a while now.) Of course, the people who launch the probes will know they can't possibly see the up-close pictures of any extrasolar planets in their lifetimes. But if we're willing to set aside money in endowments to compound interest for the sake of future generations, why not do the same with long-term space travel?

A sensible approach is to send multiple small probes that behave as a network. Even if they can't reproduce, and even if they can't repair each other to some degree, this is superior to putting all your hopes into one object moving at relativistic speeds in unknown domains. It would be bad if, after millennia of waiting, your single big ship hit a comet in Alpha Centauri's Oort cloud. This is the proposal of Allen Tough and is being realized through a Cornell-initiated project now funded by KickStarter. Landers are a tougher problem, particularly on planets with thin atmospheres where we can't use high effectiveness-to-mass technologies like parachutes to slow the descent.

A Sprite chip-sat.

Human missions are much more difficult engineering problems - either of engineering the vehicles, or engineering the humans inside them. The problem of how to get humans to another star is likely to take much longer to solve than how to get unmanned spacecraft to another star. At the same time, keeping our eggs in different baskets is a good survival strategy for the long term, but that's no reason not to send machines out ahead of us.

At the same time, it's possible that if we reach other worlds similar to the one where we evolved, life (intelligent or otherwise) may already be there, and this may impact on our survival also. Consequently any program of interstellar exploration must be part of a program which acknowledges the very frightening implications of the Fermi paradox and also how to detect intelligent life, if it exists. At all costs we should avoid detection, the results of which which may be another answer to the Fermi paradox (i.e. that the Drake Equation should contain a term for predation.)

Consequently, here's a brief summary of some problems in interstellar colonization and interstellar evolution. Surprisingly, I haven't found an argument map for the Fermi paradox, the Singularity and related arguments, which is what I was initially planning to use as a figure.

1. Whatever path we take to the stars, it will likely be one that yields profit in the near term. Interstellar exploration cannot do this, and will have to be borne on the backs of ventures that produce a return for the investors and/or citizens involved, like (possibly) asteroid mining.

2. The Fermi paradox is likely to be solved by one of two things: we are alone at least in terms of intelligent life (i.e., there is a great filter in front of us) or because they exist, but we don't know what we're looking for or at. This latter option complicates things and makes the universe seem more dangerous.

3. To find places that may be useful to us and/or alien life - assuming complex replicators made of matter (will we even recognize complex replicators that aren't?) we may also assume the following are more likely than not, and constrain our search accordingly:

3a. We should look where there is more matter, and more mature stars (longer for life to evolve and expand beyond its home world). This means to look inward toward the galactic center. On Earth, evolutionary innovation comes from the equator and expands north, for a similar reason: more energy into the system, more liquid water, and more evolutionary innovation. A similar principle may describe the distribution and migration of life in a spiral galaxy.

3b. Look for places with the best reaction media to produce replicators. Standing liquid makes the emergence of replicators more likely because you're creating an environment that favors the rapid interaction of molecules. Water is an especially good solvent because of the number of combinations it allows. This isn't an aqueous-carbon chauvenist argument - if there are other environments that allow replicator building-blocks to interact more rapidly and richly, then those environments will be better places to look for life than places with water.

Basis for aqueous chauvenism: it doesn't have to be a planet-wide ocean, but we don't
know of any reaction media that encourage diverse chemistry as well as water.

3c. Suspect life in proportion to reaction volume. If we're talking about water, this means more surface area, and more depth. As origin zones, possibly liquid-water-bearing super-Earths are then more likely to originate life than small worlds.

3d. Look for places with a good reaction medium as in 3b, but with low gravity. This directly conflicts with 3c, but low-gravity bodies with water would be good places for life to spread to (i.e. Enceladus) because of the economics of shallow vs. deep gravity wells. A watery moon of a warm gas giant would be even better. In this sense, super-Earths are interstellar East Africas; places like Enceladus are an interstellar Polynesia. (Admittedly intra-Earth colonization is a dangerous analogy in this discussion.)

4. We should look for artifacts at least as much as signals. Artifacts may be easier to recognize as extrasolar better than artificial signals; and, if some form of interstellar colonization is possible, or at least exploration, we should expect to find artifacts in our own solar system already, unless we think we're the first or are somehow amazingly lucky. The presence of artifacts is also a better test for te possibility of interstellar travel than signals. If von Neumann probes are possible (or "space algae", if we can tell the difference) we should look for evidence on small bodies in the solar system, again because of the economics of gravity wells. If we don't find evidence of artifacts once we've explored even a fraction on any low-gravity bodies, and von Neumann probes are possible, then the possibility of life or its artifacts expanding beyond its home solar system is de-valued significantly. (I would put this on Long Bets but at the rate of current exploration, don't think the question will be settled in my lifetime of maybe half a century more.)

5. I've already made many huge assumptions here, and I'm being more conservative than most. It bears keeping in mind that we have N=1 and we don't know what we're looking for or at.

Fear Factory, Zero Signal (Demanufacture, 1995)

The bridge section just after 3:00 is excellent.  Fast and not wholly atmosphere electronic elements are an element that FF didn't explore nearly enough.

They were also characterized by a machine-like square-edged always divisible-by-4 rhythm figures, stripping down to metal's basic mechanic of rhythm guitar + drum in a way that Helmet never truly captured. (For my money, the intro to Slave Labor from 2004's Archetype may represent some fundamental awesome limit in this regard.) That said, this was sometimes boring, and a lot of intervening time was what in pseudo-German is called angerfiller, leaving us waiting for these awesome bridge sections. For more of those, see 3m20s in Pisschrist, also on Demanufacture, or 2h43s in Archetype.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Boris Strugatsky Dies at 79

We've lost a great writer. His brother Arkady, with whom he co-wrote, died in 1991. Roadside Picnic is one of my favorite science fiction novels, and favorite novels period, of all time. If you haven't read it, you should fix that. It is everything a work of science fiction could be, and we should study it for its tone and its subtle never-stated (except in the title) paradigm shift. Thank you for your work sir!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Intelligence Itself as the Great Filter

[I have an article on the Singularity coming up at the European science/fiction magazine Concatenation in a couple months. Please visit their website ahead of time!]

I referred to the Great Filter in an earlier post.  This is the idea that the great silence the Fermi paradox seeks to explain is not illusory:  we really are alone.  If that is the case, then since we know of one example of life and intelligence which did evolve, there must some event or set of events that dramatically decreases the odds of life evolving, becoming intelligent, and spreading from its home or at least signalling its presence.  By self-indication arguments, we can assume that many other species have achieved a level of intelligence similar to our own, but that something must have happened afterward to keep them from persisting or expanding.  This means it is also likely that the filter is still in front of us, i.e. that we will go extinct or at least be permanently confined to our solar system.  I'm increasingly unable to discount the idea that intelligence itself is probably, usually, an evolutionary dead end. 

The less interesting version of this idea is that given the way evolution works, intelligence is invariably layered on top of older systems like emotions and appetites, which were previously constrained by the limits of their behavior but once amplified by intelligence quickly destroy the surrounding ecosystem.  (Essentially, the Special Agent Smith argument, but stripped of misanthropic moralizing.)

The more interesting version is that once a self-aware entity understands that pleasure and survival are separable - i.e., that its survival signal is not the same as its actual survival - and has the means to manipulate the former intentionally (ie full simulation and/or goal manipulation, which are the ultimate ends of heroin, pornography, and ideology) then the end is close.  This is a much more pessimistic version of involution.  Singularities could be thought of as either of these - a form of ecologic degradation that doesn't result in interstellar colonization, or as an opportunity to dissolve into fantasy worlds.

Finally, it could just be that it's incredibly unlikely that any life which evolves from matter, at the bottom of a gravity well, with a life-cycle inextricable from such an environment (needing an atmosphere, solvent, a complex web of other replicators), simply cannot expect to expand across a universe where even inside the comparatively cluttered galaxies the possible new homes are separated by light years.  To a first approximation, the universe is made of vacuum with some dark matter.  It may be then that every star is surrounded by an insurmountable Wallace Line.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

American Gerontological Society Meeting in San Diego, Right Now Nov 15-18

For the Transhumanists and others interested in aging. Here is the information. Leonard Hayflick is there.

(Little did I know until I read his Wiki bio that he discovered Mycoplasma pneumoniae, i.e. the pathogen that causes walking pneumonia. Cool.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Soviet Pressure Suits in 1939: Before Kittinger and Baumgartner

"As he was about to touch down, he realized he had only a few seconds' supply of air before suffocating; the suit had indeed proved to be hermetically closed. Steering clear of treetops, Yakov made his landing in the countryside, at the edge of a village. A woman carrying two buckets of water from the well saw what must have been the scariest thing in her life: a man in a bright-red fur suit — the color was to make Yakov easier to spot for the rescue team — with a glass cylinder on his head falling from the sky...Yakov touched down. He rushed to a tree and beat his head against the trunk to crack the helmet loose."

More here on this early jump from what we now call cruising altitude.  In some ways he seemed closer to Newton than NASA.

The suit description makes me think of Max Ernst. As a loyal J.G. Ballard fan that's never difficult for me. Here is 1940's Robing of the Bride (from

The Secret to Their Success

"I always thought it was strange when these artists like Kurt Cobain or whoever would get really famous and say, 'I don't understand why this is happening to me. I don't understand! Oh, the fame, the fame, the fame!'" he says. Nearby, there is a table covered with band photos that they have already signed. Kroeger looks around the room for a moment and then says, "There is a mathematical formula to why you got famous. It isn't some magical thing that just started happening." -Chad Kroeger, Nickelback

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Promising Candidate

At one point Seaworld in San Diego was running a radio promotion which began with a harsh-voiced Megatron declaring "Puny human insects! You and your precious city will all be destroyed! You have no chance of survival!" The first time I thought it was a Romney ad.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cousin Lovers (Live Jam, 1998)

Some truly shredding bluegrass: