Sunday, December 29, 2013

Modern Technology and von Neumann Probes: And Again, the Fermi Paradox

Good discussion here of how modern technologies (3D printing) could be applied to building our own self-replicating space probes, which in turn inevitably leads to a Fermi paradox discussion. Replicating probes are the way to go because they cover more territory faster. Authors cited in the article place lower and upper bounds on time to colonize the galaxy with self-replicators from 3.75 to 300 million years. Either way, it's difficult to square an apparently empty galaxy with these numbers, or indeed with the feasibility of such an endeavor. In fact, Frank Tipler (who made the upper bound estimate here) went so far as to argue that this has to mean there are no other intelligent aliens.

This version of the Fermi paradox can be solved by any of these:

- Most likely: they're around, and we haven't looked enough, or don't recognize them, or they avoid us because they're more interested in their own replication than in contacting other intelligent species, for some strange reason. We should expect that any self-replicating probes we find will have undergone natural selection to be primarily good at making copies of themselves, and secondarily at performing whatever mission their initial long-ago designers created them for.

- We're over-optimistic, and self-replicating probes are not feasible.

- These time estimates are not conservative enough.

- We really are the only intelligent species, or at least life is extremely rare.

Prebiotic Source of Nucleobases Found in Comets and Molecular Clouds

Formamide. It's been found in warm star-forming regions in about the same abundances as on some comets. Here's the possible synthetic pathway.

Star-forming region LH 95. Image credit NASA.

Franchise Gross, Per Movie Gross, and Profitability

Neat gadget from the New Yorker graphically showing that data. This is neat enough already, but the icing on the cake would be a way to look at per movie gross against ROI. Studios get nervous with big productions where they'll get killed if they don't make back their investment; better to have low-to-moderate-investment projects that are reliably profitable (hence Adam Sandler movies). Of course, you could be saying "but what about art!?!" in which case, there are any number of riskier projects on Kickstarter that would love your attention. The big studios pursue awards secondarily - they're businesses. (That's why they're big.)

Not surprisingly, with a much higher ROI on smaller initial outlays, more consistent ongoing returns over time, and distribution technology that allows them to control piracy much better, video games are commanding increasing attention as a fraction of the entertainment market. The only question is, where are the video game stars, and why haven't they outshone the film industry yet?

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Burgess Shale of the Singularity

This is the house in Palo Alto (or rather, the detached garage) where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their oscillator, HP's first successful device, in 1939. Although it's a private home it's listed as a landmark, and while I was taking this picture two other groups of people came by to pay homage (one from France, one from Brazil) which made me feel not so weird for walking over there.

When the machines are looking back at their own Cambrian explosion-equivalent, perhaps they will view this place as the primordial pool from whence they arose.

I Wonder If They Sell Nexus Hair Products There

Come to think of it I wonder if they even make Nexus products anymore...(in San Francisco, a block away from this.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Water Vapor From Europa's South Pole

PART I: Europa has water vapor plumes at its south poles, consistent with tidal heating (Science paper here.) These are more easily understood but no less exciting than the water vapor plumes seen last year over the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus, which turned out to contain organics.


The reason this is so interesting is not just the possibility of life in these alien oceans, but the broader implications for the spread of chemical replicators on water-containing low-gravity bodies. Increasingly it seems that many asteroids are just dried-out comets that last their external volatiles, like we just watched in accelerated fashion with ISON. It's now well-established that both asteroids and comets contain amino acids and nucleobases (PNAS paper there), both from samples of fallen meteors as well as sample return missions like Stardust, which brought back material from comet Wild-2, which turned out to have an extra-solar origin (as well as carrying the amino acid glycine). If there are replicators - either natively evolved, or von Neumann probes, mutant or otherwise - it is likely they'll be composed of easily available building blocks in low gravity environments, and spread during Oort cloud exchange between adjacent solar systems.

Another implication is that the answer to the Fermi paradox may be that we're a little premature in saying there's no evidence of life. This is especially true since humans haven't even made 50 soft landings on other bodies in our own solar system. The Dawn mission to Ceres arrives in 2015 and the findings will be interesting no matter what.

As an aside, replicators that spread between stars would ideally avoid gravity wells like Earth, because we're dead-ends, at least without expending huge amounts of energy to get back out. That said, if you think simple life at the scale of a virus or prokaryote couldn't survive re-entry simply by sheltering in a crack on a rock, try again. The C. elegans worms carried aboard the Columbia were found alive in a Texas swamp 3 weeks after the shuttle broke up on re-entry. And they're multicellular.

(Of note for amateur astronomers: here's a Twitter feed for a quick check of the positions of Jupiter's moons relative to Earth. If it's cold and clear where you live, take advantage and get out there with a telescope!)

PART II: Movie Review, Europa Report

Fittingly enough I watched Europa report about two weeks before this news came out. It's on Netflix, and if you have Netflix, go watch it right now. (Trailer) It's a recently released independent and I'd count it among the better science fiction movies I've seen. A la 2001 and other hard science fiction works, there's not a lot of screwing around with normal filmy conventions; although maybe too much character development for my taste, because character development is not what this film is for. It's a technically accurate, very un-wild-eyed tale about the first manned landing on Europa, told mostly in raw video logs from the spacecraft with occasional after-the-fact narration from the mission chief on the ground. Beyond that I can't tell you too much without spoiling the movie, but you don't need me to. My only criticism, and it's not really a criticism, is that at times I felt like it was made as a trick to get more young people excited about the next phase of space exploration. If that's true, they still made an excellent movie. (Like I said, not a criticism.)

Defiler Touring Australia With Mastodon, Dillinger, et al

Hasn't been officially announced yet but it's leaked online. Soundwave is kind of like Australia's Warped Tour, but mostly for metal. Coming up late Feb/early March 2014. And Defiler is on it. Go. Here's The Regulators:

Listen you idiots down in Oz, I saw these guys at the Whisky in LA, and then the rest of the world has been using them since then (e.g. Russia). Go to the show. If you're smart you won't give me a problem.

China Lands Rover On Moon, Western Press Barely Reports

China has landed a rover in the Bay of Rainbows. Tonight when you go outside, look up; it's here:

Bay of Rainbows is the red X, upper right. It's not near any other landings, which is good for learning more about the Moon. Interactive map of the Moon and previous landings here.

The second story here is the meta-story of how little of a story this has been in the U.S. press. Only Cassini's maneuvers around the Enceladus water plumes in 2012 rival this for the lowest ratio of reporting:importance ratio. The extreme under-reporting of this event - the first landing in four decades - shows the U.S. press bias against science reporting, and/or against the possible relevance of anything that is done by someone outside the U.S. Sometimes I think it was a miracle that the Higgs boson was reported! Plus, the more groups of people we have in space (public or private), the more competition and the better for space exploration and science.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Godzilla Slated for 2014: Score Indicates 2001 Crossover

Above: as it turns out, the apes at the beginning of 2001 weren't the first thing the Monoliths tried to uplift on Earth, but the first time they tried it was with T. rex and it didn't go so well. I just wish someone would put a Monolith in Texas already. ZING, Hey-O!

Ever since the debacle of Prometheus in mid-2012 and the too-lukewarm-to-be-bad live action version of Yamato, I've been hesitant to let myself get too excited about new releases of film or music. But here they come remaking my other favorite thing from childhood, Godzilla, and I again find myself getting hopeful. I never even saw the 1998 one all the way through. An argument can be made that the solid competition from a smarter-than-expected Pacific Rim will push it to greatness, but who knows.

What I do know is that the Godzilla trailer's use of the spooky Stanley Kubrick weird mental light show music from the end of 2001 makes me think the jump crew is about to attack David Bowman.