Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Would Aliens Care About Us?

I somehow came across this blog post the other day, "Why we'll never meet aliens." I'm familiar with the Fermi Paradox (if there are smart aliens, where are they?). There are a lot of assumptions built into that question, and a lot of possible explanations. But as imaginative as humans are (or imagine themselves to be), it's hard to get around the sample size problem. Everything we know about how intelligent creatures can be expected to behave is based on observing ourselves. If you expand that to other Earth life forms that are intelligent (other apes, whales, crows, etc.) or even just "interesting," you can certainly expand the range of possible adaptations (hive behavior, long lifetimes, different types of senses, metamorphosis, etc.). But all of these life forms evolved on this planet, and only one of them is known to possess the means to communicate or travel across space, or even to be curious about worlds other than this one. That is us. Are us. Sample size, N=1 for my purposes here.

One of the functions of science fiction is to go beyond that limited view, to imagine very different forms of life, intelligence, culture, and technology. There are zillions of examples of this, from the abysmal to the sublime. In "popular" SF (I'm thinking of most SF movies), writers tend to stay pretty close to human forms or at least motivations. This makes it easier to understand the story in terms of good guys and bad guys. Sometimes the bad guys (mysterious aliens) do pretty dumb things, like coming to Earth to take our water, because they need hydrogen (dudes, hang a right at Mars and check out Jupiter). That's one of the arguments of the "never meet aliens" blog post I found. They don't need us! They've got faster than light travel and they know where to find hydrogen (and anti-hydrogen) if they need some. They've been scooting through wormholes for millions of years, and they've seen all the possible forms of life. Humans? Yawn.

I mostly buy that. By the principle of mediocrity, our star and planet are nothing special (we've recently identified hundreds of planets orbiting other stars). We don't know how easily life starts (N=1 again), but we probably aren't very special in that regard either (although life had to emerge first SOMEWHERE in the universe, and it could be that we are that special - there's no way to know right now - just like someone wins the lottery, just never you). So I agree, it doesn't appear that we have much to offer an advanced alien life form.

Or do we? What is likely to be interesting or valuable to really old, advanced, intelligent entities? Maybe information. We have a lot of that here. Not so much in our computers and networks (though it's getting there), but rather in all the genetic material for all the millions of lifeforms on this planet. Although there may be similar beings elsewhere (filling similar ecological niches, much the way wolf-like creatures evolved independently in Australia - they happen to be marsupial and extinct, but OK), there is likely to be no life form elsewhere with exactly the same genetic signature as any particular species here on Earth. Evolution is a very big, parallel processing computer program that has been running for millions of years and generating millions of locally optimized solutions to the problem of living in some part of this world. The solutions (and programs) are recorded on tiny "reels of tape" called DNA.

That's the basic idea of a great SF trilogy I read in the last few days, Lilith's Brood (which collects all three original books) by Octavia Butler, although it's a lot more interesting than I've made it sound so far!  Written in the late 1980's, it starts with a nuclear war on Earth that very nearly wipes out humanity. But it turns out that a race of life-craving and life-preserving aliens have been studying us for some time from gigantic spaceships lurking in our stellar neighborhood, and they come in and rescue and heal a large number of surviving humans. Why? For a captive breeding program, basically. Wait, no, it's not what you think! Mars Needs Women, right? Vonnegut's zoo on Tralfamadore? No, it's not like that, but in a way it is, and that's what makes these books so confusing and engaging.

This blog post is already longer than I intended, so I won't attempt to summarize or review the books in detail. Some consider them to be an allegory on colonialism and slavery. I can see that, but I thought they were more about what it means to be alive, to be "a people," and what it is that is valuable about life, any life.  And why anything would "want" to live. While there is plenty of incidental technology (most of it could be considered extreme genetic engineering), that is not the main point. The Oankali have starships (organically grown!) but there is no discussion of their propulsion or the nature of space-time. Almost all of the book is about interpersonal relationships.

The Oankali are natural genetic engineers who can sense and manipulate genetic material as easy as you and I use a fork and knife. They crave new life forms, and they engage in genetic "trade" - integrating novel genetic "programs" into their own bodies to drive their own evolution (human cancer was a real find, like a fancy power tool if you learn how to harness its power, as they quickly do). They don't intentionally destroy life - unless you consider hijacking your reproductive system for the purpose of creating hybrid or "construct" children to be "destroying life." They certainly destroy "life as we know it," but humans would have become extinct if the Oankali had not come along. The Oankali value, preserve, and extend life, but they do not value any particular form of life. Their people have "traded genes" with many planets' species, and in so doing have changed their physical nature completely. While they will incorporate human DNA and adopt some human characteristics in the process, it is not in their "charter" to preserve the the culture or other defining characteristics of humans and human society. This is where the colonial and slave trade parallels really come to the fore - although the Oankali don't label the humans as "primitive" as Europeans once labeled native people they conquered (all genetic information is potentially useful!), neither do they honor or preserve most of the things humans consider important.

It sounds weird, I know, but the writing and characters are really wonderful. I still don't really know what I think about all of it. But I do believe that if there is any reason for other intelligent beings to be interested in us, it could be in the immense complexity and diversity of DNA that is within the genes of every plant and animal on Earth, including us. They can fill their hydrogen tanks at the nearest gas giant before they drop by here.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Carnival of Space #303

It's been a long time since I participated in the Carnival of Space. I've been doing other things like work and music, and I haven't been reading and writing as much about "space stuff" as I once did. I used to post frequently in the Carnival of Space and I even hosted a few, starting with #6 in June 2007.

So now that I'm paying more attention to space stuff again, I expect I'll be following CoS more closely and occasionally even contributing, as I did this week. Carnival of Space #303 (303!) is hosted by Pam Hoffman's Everyday Spacer blog. At my recent blogging rate of maybe 5 posts a month, I can't promise to be an everyday spacer myself, but I will try harder.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Phlogiston, Ether, Dark Matter, and Starships

I've been reading about and playing with space stuff again recently. There are so many great astronomy and space apps on the iPad (more later maybe), and so much interesting SF and non-fiction space stuff to read. Going Interstellar, edited by Jack McDevitt,  is a mix of SF stories and non-fiction articles related to interstellar flight, all written with the constraint that only “known physics” could be assumed. This means no warp drives or space-time worm holes, but fusion and anti-matter based propulsion and advanced AI are OK, even though a huge amount of “it’s just engineering” remains before such systems could possibly be built. And for anti-matter propulsion, even if you can build the reactors and starships, the energy costs and logistics of generating, collecting, and containing large amounts of anti-matter are non-trivial to say the least!

This limitation means that the starships in the fictional stories are limited to something like 0.2c (20% of the speed of light). While this is fast, a journey to Gliese 581 (20.1 light years) is going to take 100 or so years, so we are talking “generation ships,” or possibly some sort of hibernation technique to allow humans to survive the long journey (unless the travelers are technologically enhanced or even non-biological, advanced AI’s or hybrids of some sort). “Known physics” still allows a lot of room for imagination. The best story in the book is Michael Bishop’s Twenty Lights to “The Land of Snow,” in which a group of 990 Tibetan Buddhists sets off with the Dalai Lama to found a new homeland on a planet in the Gliese 581 system.

I also recently re-read Ender’s Game, where starships are still sub-light-speed, but there exists an advanced communication system captured from the enemy aliens. The “ansible”  somehow (quantum entanglement? It is never explained) allows instantaneous communication across interstellar distances. This supports the key plot point of a fleet of starships sent toward the enemy’s home world years before anyone knew who would command them. When Ender Wiggin finally arrives at the Earth orbiting Battle School to learn how to save the day, there needs to be a way for his commands to reach Earth’s faraway fleet with no light-speed delay.

All of this got me thinking about dark matter and the question of “known physics.” Of course SF authors have always felt free to assume that new and convenient features of the universe will eventually be discovered so that faster-than-light travel  and other amazing feats can be accomplished. The convenience of writing away the problem you need to solve is one of the luxuries of fiction. Quite possibly boring old Einstein is right and c is the ultimate speed limit. But once upon a time, there was phlogiston theory, which explained combustion in terms of a special essence contained within materials that burn. Chemistry and oxygen eventually provided a better explanation. And what about the ether? In the nineteenth century, physicists quite logically assumed that light waves would require a medium, much as do sound and water waves. Michelson, Einstein  and others showed that no such medium existed nor was needed.

“Dark matter” really sounds like phlogiston or the ether to me. A placeholder until some new Einstein comes up with a better explanation. Will that explanation allow matter or energy to travel faster than the speed of light? Not necessarily. Einstein was a pretty sharp dude and plenty of experiments have shown that going faster than c is pretty damn hard if not impossible.  I’m just saying that it’s quite likely that the physics we have now is nowhere near the final word on how the universe really works. It’s a very good approximation, as was Newton’s mechanics for most of the problems anyone could think to ask until around 1900, and still good enough for most purposes. Einstein’s special and general relativity theories are minor corrections for most mechanics problems even today (even for most orbital mechanics, but not quantum mechanics). Any “bigger and better” physics that may arrive in coming years will still have to reduce down to what we have now for most circumstances. But with any kind of luck, someone will figure out how to build some special circumstances into the back ends of starships, and when the new physics kicks in, we’ll be able to get to Gliese 581 in time for dinner.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Chris Hadfield's "Space Oddity"

Col. Chris Hadfield has returned to Earth from his five months on the International Space Station. His photos, videos, and tweets were amazing. He shared the space experience with the public better than any astronaut had ever done. But he had one more surprise in store before coming home - this music video, a lyrically revised version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," with vocals and guitar recorded in space! So cool. Great job, Chris! I hope they decide to give you another gig in space real soon (though I heard somewhere that Canada isn't eligible to send another astronaut to the ISS for three years).

Floating in a most peculiar way indeed! Though they should have had him "upside down" for at least part of this shot.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Ender's Game Teaser

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is one of my favorite SF books. I know I'm not the only one, and for years there have been rumors of a film version. I haven't followed this too closely, but apparently it's finally happening (release date November 1, 2013). So far there is only a brief teaser trailer, introduced by stars Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield (who plays Ender Wiggin). The full trailer is due May 7. The zero-G "Battle Room" plays a central role in the book, and the teaser shows a couple of brief shots of this, captured below. It looks really cool. I hope the movie is good. I just ordered the Kindle version so I can re-read it again (too lazy to go find the paperback!).

UPDATE (5/16/13): Ah yes, Ender Wiggin, not Wiggins. I saw the full trailer and didn't like it as much as I hoped. I suppose there are practical reasons for making Ender and the other Battle School kids older than they are in the book (Ender is six when he starts International Fleet Battle School, which he attends for only about three years before advancing to other things). And in his brief trailer scenes, Asa Butterfield doesn't quite look and act as I imagined Ender would look and act after re-reading the book last week. But there's a lot of potential there and I will keep an open mind and just wait for the film.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

JPL's Basics of Space Flight

Serendipity works in mysterious ways. While updating the Kindle app on my iPad, the installation got hung up somehow. I tried various things and finally deleted the app and all its data, i.e., all my local e-books. No worries for the purchased Kindle books as Amazon keeps backups for you on its cloud server. But I also had a bunch of PDF files. I wasn't sure exactly which ones, so I searched my laptop's external drive for larger PDF files. I found several PDF books I had lost or forgotten about, including a wonderful book called The Ascent of Science, and a JPL work called "The Basics of Space Flight."

I wrote about JPL's "Basics" back in 2007. It's a really great educational web site developed by JPL spaceflight engineer Dave Doody. The web site has a number of interactive features (including quizzes) and is maintained and updated by JPL. There have been PDF versions available too, but they have carried a disclaimer that they are not maintained, and past versions were not very nicely formatted (essentially PDF captures of the web pages). When I found a PDF dated 2001, I decided to check JPL for a newer version. Sure enough, I found a 2011 version that Doody had reformatted specifically for e-book and print purposes. It's really great.

The home page for the JPL Basics of Space Flight website is here, and this is definitely the most complete and up-to-date version if you wish to explore interactively. If you want a nicely formatted, albeit slightly older and non-interactive PDF version, click here (it's about 17 megabytes). There is also a paperback version available from Amazon.

In reading the introduction to the PDF, I learned about a more technical book that Dave Doody published in 2009, Deep Space Craft: An Overview of Interplanetary Flight. I read a few pages through Amazon's "Look Inside" feature, and it's definitely a piece of space-geek heaven. But it's a $92 textbook and I wasn't going to buy it (no Kindle version, and I very rarely buy paper books these days). But just now I saw a "like new" copy from a third party seller for $32 so I decided to go for it. What can I say about an addiction?