Responding to Stephen Hawking's new Discovery Channel program, I debated the "alien threat" on Larry King Live with Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak, and actor Dan Aykroyd (who pushed UFOs.)
The format - four smart. sure-of-themselves egotists, being interviewed by a fifth - made for some very short but avid sound bites. (See part 2 of the debate and Part 3)
In this field, as in the furor over Transparency, my attitude is one of fierce moderation. My fundamental point is that nobody knows a damned thing about aliens! Alas, that doesn’t keep almost everybody from behaving like children, weighing in with their “of course” explanations for how advanced sapient races would “naturally” behave, or why ETs haven’t been seen, or what they would do if we encountered them. I know a lot of very bright people who have opined in this field, and nearly all of them proceed to sigh and roll their eyes, expressing contemptuous disdain for anyone daring to have a different notion about Alien Life.
Sure, one explanation comes to mind -- any field suffering from a complete lack of data can become a mirror, in which even (especially) bright people see only a reflection of their own dreams and biases. Still, please! Does the reflex have to be followed by everybody? Frankly, watching the same phenomenon occur over and over, I am getting fatigued.
But let me try one more time, since the topic is public and hot right now. I've been at this a long time. Back in 1983, my Great Silence paper was... and remains... the only genuine review article ever published in the SETI field. Because almost every other paper has had a particular axe to grind, I attempted to catalogue and compare 100+ theories, covering the wide range of possibilities, re alien life, thus demonstrating just how little we yet know. While suggesting some avenues for research, I concluded by pleading for a tentative, contingent, openminded attitude, of the sort we’ll desperately need, if contact ever does occur.
For a general, popularized account see "Xenology." More recently I argued against messages” to ETI in "Shouting at the Cosmos" and pungently suggest "what to say to an ET lurker."
But, as I just stated, it seems this topic brings out the amateur sci fi author in every person who touches it. Hence, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond and Freeman Dyson... four of the very smartest human beings who ever lived... have all recommended that we not shout into the cosmos to draw attention to ourselves, because it might be dangerous -- (I agree so far) -- only then each of them goes on the fantasize some particular simplistic scenario for why aliens could be hostile or dangerous. In Hawking’s new show, for example, he posits that super-advanced civilizations might come charging in to exploit our solar system’s resources, use them up and then move on, leaving us in a trashed wasteland.
Now, at one level, Hawking’s fear is not entirely off target. I’ve pointed out elsewhere: “All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power. If they wanted to use our solar system, for some super project, our complaints would be like an ant colony protesting the laying of a parking lot.”
In contrast to this trend that’s seen across nature, we now have a new, tentative value system that’s arisen in the most recent generation of the Modern West, wherein some initial signs of self-restraint and satiability have started to appear. We relish this new trait of altruistic self-control and wishfully imagine that we’ll do even better, in our Star Trek future. Moreover, we hope that aliens will do the same, progressing in this new direction that we dream for ourselves -- toward universal altruism. And sure, I deeply hope this will turn out to be true.
On the other hand it ain’t necessarily so. This projection of our present culture’s idealized trend onto ALL star travelling races could be viewed as incredibly arrogant cultural myopia, even chauvinism! (Will the descendants of pack carnivores or stalking predators or paranoid herd beasts view such things the same way as we descendants of gregarious apes?) In fact, “altruism” is rare in nature, compared to Darwinistic predation or opportunism, or even quid pro quo. Those who declare that “of course” aliens would “outgrow all that” are engaged in bizarre wish projection, without any basis at all, other than their hopes.
On the other hand, Hawking’s scenario isn’t just about aliens rapaciously using up solar systems. It is about us foolishly attracting aliens who thereupon do such things. And this makes no sense at all. The Earth has been prime real estate ever since it got an oxygen atmosphere, a billion years ago. If ETs wanted a nice planet to colonize, or a system to loot, they could have come during any of that time. Paul Davies makes this point in his new book THE EERIE SILENCE, as I did in my 1983 paper.
A foolish METI “yoohoo!” message from us isn’t going to make them come for resource rapine. Though, in fact, Hawking’s scenario does have some plausibility as an explanation of the Great Silence (Fermi Paradox), along a different path of logic. Ponder this; if such a wave of greedy exploitation DID once pass through our region of the galaxy, and it just happened to miss Earth, then that might explain our current loneliness... the paucity of other new races around us. Because that prairie fire knocked down every other promising race or planet in the region, leaving Earth like an isolated oasis in a desert. I talk about this scenario (and many others) elsewhere.
No, Hawking’s reasoning does not make sense as a reason not to shout. On the other hand, there are dozens of other possible reasons why a Yoohoo Message could be dangerous I could go into lots of them...
... but I won’t! Not here. Because I am NOT trying to argue that METI will cause invasion or directed havoc. Personally, I think the odds of that outcome are low.
No, I am trying to get people to stop leaping to unjustified assumptions and conclusions and especially to stop proclaiming that things are so, just because you made a glib sounding assertion. (Isn’t that bad habit doing enough harm, in Culture War?)
For example, Paul Davies and George Dvorsky and Michio Kaku and many other smart guys have asserted “if they wanted to harm us, they would have done so by now.”
Say What? Oh, this is just more blithe, dismissive nonsense, with so many sub-variations and counter-hypotheses to ponder you could shake a stick at them all day. Leaping to make such a generalized statement is no less than an expression of the most outrageous smugness and incuriosity, especially unworthy, coming from such smart fellows.
Just like the idiotic cliche that “I Love Lucy” has already made Earth a blaring beacon in the sky, so why bother restraining ourselves now?
(Here’s an illustrative experiment: go to a lake with a rock and a laser pointer. Now drop the rock into the pond, making ripples. Then aim the laser pointer at the other shore. Which wave front will be detected on the opposite side? That is “I love Lucy” vs a high-power, colimated, coherent transmission from Arecebo. Sure, in theory, advanced scientists on the other shore, who are passionately eager and who know in advance exactly where to look, might detect the rock-ripples. But golly, try to employ some scale and some sense, before you blithely declare that everybody on all shores will always detect all ripples!)
These positions are arrant nonsense and deeply illogical. Here’s another. If we’re “already blatantly visible” out there, then what the heck is METI trying to accomplish, by deliberately making our Earth SEVEN orders of magnitude brighter? Hm? Ever study logic? Isn't the "we're already seen" point an argument against METI?
I do not have time to get into this vast topic in detail. I have spent decades on it, exploring countless ramifications like --
Why we might be alone (a popularized account):
Or, (for the real scholar) the much deeper and more scholarly 'classic' review of the field -- The Great Silence -- which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall 1983, v.24, pp 283-309,
Or might a lurker probe already be here?
Or a dozen other stories illustrating unusual possibilities for alien life.
But the crux is this.
Stop assuming that asserting something makes it so!
It doesn’t. Nor does positing an "of course" pre-explanation of the Great Silence make you wise.
In fact, it’s time for a much wider conversation about this, bringing together our best minds from dozens of fields and opposing viewpoints. This is a topic where nobody is right, who blithely rolls off cliches and says “of course the answer is this."
PS... re my suggestion - on Larry King - that SETI shift from one expensive and ridiculously over-specialized telescope to 10,000 net-linked backyard receivers... the SETI League is a real outfit that tries to do this. They believe the "WOW" signal would be detectable by a few thousand dollars worth of electronics attached to a 12-ft satellite dish. They're all about getting thousands of amateurs into the SETI field. While the sensitivity could never match the Allen array, the Allen array cannot hope to cover the entire sky, full time, over the entire radio spectrum. Only a large number of receivers give us any chance of detecting signals beamed our way. (By the way, on Larry King I should have pointed out a side benefit... that such a system would also help catch Dan Ayckroyd’s UFO saucer guys!)
Finally, some of the researchers in this field have expressed deep contempt for science fiction. This ready dismissal of the entire field of gedankenexperimentation by thoughtful and scientifically deep authors is nothing but flat out - and proud - ignorance. Such people dismiss - without having ever read them - mind-blowingly original thought experiments by the likes of Bear and Banks and Vinge (and me), which make up the only real library of what-if extrapolations that our committees could quickly turn to, in the event of a post-contact situation!
To call such explorations "simpleminded" and unimaginative and based solely on copying the human experience is to declare openly "I am satisfied that B-Movies typify 'science fiction.' I have never cracked the spine of a grownup science fiction contact scenario... nor will I, ever."
That’s just dunderheaded and closeminded and especially unworthy of people who have earned great merit in other fields. People who now propose to represent us, if and when we meet the alien.
======ON TO MORE SCIENCE =====
And while we’re on a similar topic.... According to a new book by astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch and science writer David Darling, we’ve had good evidence of microbial life on Mars since NASA’s Viking missions in the late 1970s. Now, they argue, all that’s needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that we are not alone is another ambitious mission to Mars—one that, like Viking, carries a life-detection experiment.My friend Joe Miller (prof. USC) has been saying this for years... that Viking found life on Mars, back in the 1970s.)
Solar Sails At Last? With its May 18 launch date fast approaching, Japan’s hybrid sail mission is at last getting a bit of press attention, long overdue in my opinion. The Daily Mail, at least, has just run a on IKAROS, which will combine two mission concepts within a single spacecraft. Its solar sail works conventionally, using the momentum of photons from the Sun to accelerate the craft. But the JAXA designers have added thin film solar cells on the sail membrane. These produce the electricity that could be used in future (and larger) iterations to drive an ion engine.
Oh and for you lazy Sci Fi fans... a Brightness Reef promo -- in case you need to be convinced to start the Second Uplift Trilogy.
Science and Tech Miscellany
HP Designjet 3D Printer Now On Sale, Churns Out Solid Plastic Objects From the Desktop.
Wow! “Anesthesiologist Lakhmir Chawla of George Washington University Medical Center and his colleagues recently published a retrospective analysis of brain activity in seven sedated, critically ill patients as they were removed from life support. Using EEG recordings of neural electrical activity, Chawla found a brief but significant spike at or near the time of death—despite a preceding loss of blood pressure and associated drop in brain activity....The jolts lasted 30 to 180 seconds and displayed properties that are normally associated with consciousness, such as extremely fast electrical oscillations known as gamma waves. Soon after the activity abated, the patients were pronounced dead. Chawla posits that the predeath spikes are most likely brief, “last hurrah” seizures originating in brain areas that were irritable from oxygen starvation. If these seizures were to occur in memory regions, they could explain the vivid recollections often reported by people who are resuscitated from near death, Chawla says.”
Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device.
See a way-cool student film “preview” of Rendezvous With Rama by AC Clarke.
Quickie T-Shirt advice for making contact with an alien.
Instead of fast food, we need fast fuel. A new time-saving recipe for bio-fuel: Make an algae soup. Heat to 300 degrees in a pressure-cooker for one hour. The result: crude bio-oil -- without waiting millions of years as in nature’s original formula. A possible replacement for today’s fossil fuels?
Did extinction events nearly wipe out humans–-causing a population bottleneck, as measured by decreased genetic diversity? One may have occurred 1.2 million years ago, when there were only 55,000 members of genus Homo. Another - an enormous eruption 70,000 years ago near Sumatra. At these bottlenecks, genetic mutations have had a greater likelihood of being passed on…and shifting the course of human evolution.
Just rediscovered a classic: Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) by physicist George Gamow. A bank clerk, Mr. Tompkins attends a lecture on relativity, falls asleep & dreams of a city where the speed of light is only 6 mph. He experiences the effects of relativity in everyday life, i.e. riding a bicycle: “if I step harder on the pedals city blocks become shorter and shorter.” Charming even if a bit dated.
A new solar driven method to de-oxidize magnesium.
It is officially described as an orbital test vehicle. However, one of its potential uses appears to be to launch a surge of small satellites during periods of high international tension. This would enable America to have eyes and ears orbiting above any potential troublespot in the world. The X37B can stay in orbit for up to 270 days, whereas the Shuttle can last only 16 days. This will provide the US with the ability to carry out experiments for long periods, including the testing of new laser weapon systems.
Piezo-electric, shoe-based battery charger.
Or else... an energy-harvesting device using stacked thermocouples that generates a few microwatts of electrical power from body heat or any environment where there is a temperature gradient.
The brain's power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons.
A Russian company is marketing a devastating new $10-20 million cruise missile system that can be hidden inside a shipping container, giving any merchant vessel the capability to wipe out an aircraft carrier.
Everyone in America pays some sort of taxes, which may take the form of income, sales or property taxes imposed by state and local governments, in addition to federal income, payroll and excise taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) estimates that the share of total taxes (federal state and local taxes) paid by taxpayers in each income group is quite similar to the share of total income received by each income group in 2009. For example, the share of total taxes paid by the richest one percent (22.1 percent) is not dramatically different from the share of total income received by this group (20.4 percent). (Nevertheless... I feel there should be some kind of MINIMUM tax. Everfybody, even the poor, should have to fork over something... and thereupon care where it goes. Even better, ,make it $100 when the budget is in surplus. and $300 when in deficit. Then even the poor will want a balanced budget!)
John Peterson suggested this one:
"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." - Thomas Jefferson
Ah sci fi....