Category Archives: Science

It’s a Dark World, After All …

Dark World

The Fermi Paradox asks a simple but unsettling question: With so many worlds spinning through space, each potentially breeding countless, unknown forms of life, why haven’t any of them paid us a visit? After all, the Drake equation predicts 20 civilizations in our neck of the cosmic woods. Yet the Active Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence program has transmitted a number of “Y’all come!” messages into space without receiving one lousy response.

So where is everyone? If our neighbors are too busy to drop by, why don’t they at least text us?

One explanation is the Dark Forest theory. It speculates that any species capable of beaming messages through space could be both formidable and hungry, so the wise strategy is to do what John Krasinski and Emily Blunt did in A Quiet Place — don’t make a sound, and hope the monsters don’t hear you.

But wait! That could work both ways. We’ve been telegraphing our presence for over a hundred years with radio and TV communications, completely oblivious to who or what may be listening in the dark corners of outer space. Have we doomed ourselves by giving away our position to megapredators? If so, why haven’t they landed in the middle of the Super Bowl with their bibs and eating utensils?

Here’s my explanation: Any aliens who receive our transmissions of “I Love Lucy” and “Friends,” or find our naked pictures in their inboxes, will surely conclude that only the baddest of bad-ass species would be so brazen. After all, what is a lion proclaiming when he shakes the trees with his blood-curdling roar? He’s letting everything within earshot know that the king of beasts is on the move. Get in my way at your own risk.

Feel safe now? That happy thought is my Christmas present. You’re welcome.

Happy 230th Birthday, Enceladus, Our Solar System’s Greatest Hope For Life Beyond Earth

Metaphorosis April 2018 The latest issue of Forbes Magazine features this article commemorating the 230th anniversary of William Herschel’s discovery of Saturn’s most intriguing moon, Enceladus. Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explains why this mysterious and beautiful body fascinates scientists:

Given that we know of 62 moons around Saturn, and that one of them (Titan) is enormous and has a thick atmosphere with liquid hydrocarbons on its surface, it hardly seems like Enceladus would be the place to look for life. It has no thick atmosphere like Titan; it has no lava-rich volcanoes like Io or cryovolcanoes like Triton. But still, Enceladus might be the most habitable place in our Solar System beyond Earth.

Its ultra-reflective, lifeless surface simply provides cover for a complex, possibly life-rich liquid ocean that begins just ~20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the icy crust. A series of pale blue stripes cuts across its surface, telling the tale of deep fissures that go down into the interior of the world. But what’s perhaps most remarkable is that we can actually see water-ice being spewed from these fissures into space, extending upwards for hundreds of miles (or kilometers) with every eruption.

With water, energy, and organic molecules, some new, alien form of life could very well be waiting here to be discovered. And just to deepen the allure of this remarkable little moon, Siegel reminds us that we once believed the sunless bottom of our own oceans could not support life, and yet we now know creatures do indeed live around hydrothermal vents. And those vents, with their rich interplay of chemical and thermal processes, may well explain the origin of life itself.

Nature has frequently exploded our notions of the possibilities of life, a truth that inspires both science and science fiction. Enceladus reminds us just how vast, beautiful, and awe-inspiring the universe truly is.

UPDATE: From the comments section:

Great read as usual and one I will look into more. Curious? Is there any works of science-fiction that feature this Moon.

MCT: Oh, here’s one:

Quote of the day

Spiritual science

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

Carl Sagan

Where science and story meet

The spirit of C. P. Snow lives on. Robert A. Burton, a neurologist and novelist, shares his insights into just how closely science and literature dovetail in the human psyche:

Science is in the business of making up stories called hypotheses and testing them, then trying its best to make up better ones. Thought-experiments can be compared to storytelling exercises using well-known characters. What would Sherlock Holmes do if he found a body suspended in a tree with a note strapped to its ankle? What would a light ray being bounced between two mirrors look like to an observer sitting on a train? Once done with their story, scientists go to the lab to test it; writers call editors to see if they will buy it.

Of course. Both disciplines aim to shed light on some aspect of reality. And when we make connections between events that deepen our understanding of related events, we feel that sweet twinge of discovery, whether in the role of author or reader. In fact, science now informs us that when we successfully recognize patterns, we get a dopamine reward. And we really, really like our dopamine, so much, in fact, that we tend to cling to reassuring stories long after science has superseded them with better, more robust stories. As Dr. Burton explains:

People and science are like bread and butter. We are hardwired to need stories; science has storytelling buried deep in its nature. But there is also a problem. We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible.

After all, what is religion other than the insightful blending of science and literature? As science uncovers more truths about ourselves and the universe, the storyteller’s job is to imagine new stories that make sense of new information, turning mere data into insight and wisdom.

Stephen Hawking predicted race of ‘superhumans’

Here’s a troubling insight from one of history’s great scientists, via The Guardian:

The late physicist and author Prof Stephen Hawking has caused controversy by suggesting a new race of superhumans could develop from wealthy people choosing to edit their and their children’s DNA.

Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time, who died in March, made the predictions in a collection of articles and essays.

The scientist presented the possibility that genetic engineering could create a new species of superhuman that could destroy the rest of humanity. The essays, published in the Sunday Times, were written in preparation for a book that will be published on Tuesday.

Can’t help but remember this episode from Star Trek TOS:

Who can forget this blistering exchange between Spock and McCoy:

SPOCK: Hull surface is pitted with meteor scars. However, scanners make out a name. SS Botany Bay.
KIRK: Then you can check the registry.
SPOCK: No such vessel listed. Records of that period are fragmentary, however. The mid=1990s was the era of your last so-called World War.
MCCOY: The Eugenics Wars.
SPOCK: Of course. Your attempt to improve the race through selective breeding.
MCCOY: Now, wait a minute. Not our attempt, Mister Spock. A group of ambitious scientists. I’m sure you know the type. Devoted to logic, completely unemotional

The problem with selective breeding, as Spock later points out, is that “superior ability breeds superior ambition.” Instead of Ghandis and Einsteins, you get Hitlers and Napoleons.

Indeed, that’s the problem with all utopian schemes, from eugenics to communism — those pesky unforeseen consequences. Our minds evolved to adapt and survive in small social groups facing a harsh, unforgiving environment. The complex processes underlying the universe are beyond our grasp, just as our muscles are incapable of tossing boulders into orbit. Our muscles and our minds are not only useful, but extraordinary, but each have their limitations. True wisdom is the recognition and acceptance of those limitations.

That’s why we should heed Hawking’s last words.