Friday, September 21, 2012

What Life on Mars Could Mean

I am optimistic that some time in the coming 30 years we will discover strong evidence that life once existed on Mars, or even exists now.  If you ask Gilbert Levin, he'll tell you we already have that evidence from the Viking lander's Labeled Release experiment.

This is nothing new to those who follow the discussion on Mars life,  but if we do find Martian life, past or present, it could have any of four possible implications for the origin of life, in ascending order of fascination:
  1. Life originated on Earth and migrated to Mars on Meteorites.
  2. Life originated on Mars, and migrated to Earth on Meteorites
  3. Life originated somewhere else (probably Venus), and migrated to both Earth and Mars.
  4. Life originated independently on both Earth and Mars.
Number 4 is by far the most interesting of the four possibilities.  It implies that the origin of life is not a rare event.

If not Mars, then we hope to reach this conclusion by studying Enceladus, Titan or Europa.  The odds of cross-contamination there are much reduced.  Is it possible, that whenever you have a sufficiently diverse mix of ingredients in sufficient amounts, and a stable flux of energy through a system for a long time, that the chemistry progressively gets more complex and eventually some of it becomes self replicating?

If so, then probably then entire universe is teeming with life, and some of it is looking at us and wondering; who's there?

Searching for a Co-blogger

I am interested in finding an open-minded but skeptical person to contribute to this blog.

Should have a keen interest in life in the cosmos and some demonstrable knowledge in a relevant area, such as evolutionary biology, space science, SETI, transhumanism, psychology, machine intelligence or physics.

Should be more interested in asking better questions than declaring answers.

There is the possibility of doing a related podcast as well.

Should be willing to submit relevant posts to me for pre-publication commentary and editing. At least 1 post per month in English. Many potential topics are out of scope for this blog, as you should be able to ascertain from reading it.

Need a Google+ account, a Google Drive ( free acct will suffice) and preferably a Twitter account as well. Podcasting or Blogger skills are a plus.

You don't need to be young, famous, photogenic or American, although it is fine if you are any of those things.

Please don't take it personally if I turn you down. This search could take a year or more.

Update: You don't have to get involved in the Wow! Signal Podcast to join the blog, or vice versa. While the two activities are coupled for me, they don't have to be in general. However, if you are interested in participating in both, that is fine.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Clarke's Third Law

Clarke's Third Law is really just a sage observation, and no one knows if it is truly a law, or just seems to work in the domain we're familiar with.  The most common statement of the law is:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
If you've ever seen a good magician perform, then you know it just takes a little technology to achieve the effect of magic: something completely unexpected and even absurd happens right before your eyes.  A good illusion makes you laugh out loud, as your realize how incongruous your perceptions are.  You might well experience a moment of humility when it hits you how well and thoroughly you have been fooled.  If the illusion is especially good, you could well experience deep admiration for the skill and intelligence of the illusionist, and in the worst case, you might ascribe supernatural powers to him or her.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Shy Psychics

You will believe he's psychic.  He's not.
Derren Brown is an elite mentalist. He makes a comfortable living theatrically exhibiting what appear to be psychic powers, and he is very, very good at it. He can make you believe; he can make you feel faint, and he can convince you of nearly anything. He can walk up to a perfect a stranger, chat for a moment, and then make off with his mark's wallet and car keys, freely handed over.  He is not the only mentalist who can do what he does.  He is the first to tell you, however, that he has no real psychic powers.

Some mentalists have even completely deceived academic researchers under what those researchers were sure were carefully controlled conditions.  People who believe that their academic credentials shield them from being fooled are among the most vulnerable.

Do we know that there are people who possess psychic powers?  No.  We know that there are countless people who pretend to have such powers, but are easily exposed by those with the requisite skills. To convince me, a genuine psychic would have to be able to do what showmen like Brown can not do, and under conditions that they do not control.  That's a high standard.  The usual tricks with cold reading and spoon bending don't hold up to even casual scrutiny. The question arises, how would we go about finding these people?

If genuine psychics do exist, we only know what they are not. They are not eager for publicity, or we would know of at least a few.  In fact, just the opposite, they are extremely reluctant to reveal their abilities to anyone.  This makes sense.

If you could predict the stock market, or read a poker opponent's mind, or heal the sick, or track troop movements without leaving your chair, imagine the disaster that would befall you if anyone knew this.  Millions would hound you, many would want to exploit you, and some would want you done away with.  With your skills you could easily make a good living quietly, so the Million Dollar Challenge would not draw you out.

The secrecy of the knowledge that someone was genuinely, repeatably psychic would be so unstable that such persons must not only be highly reticent to expose their abilities but extremely rare.  So rare, neither science not the financial industry has identified even one.

If you believe you are genuinely psychic, I would encourage you to first attempt to objectively test yourself.  For example, have a friend shuffle a deck of cards thoroughly some distance away from you (miles, preferably), have them look at them one by one and write them down as you write down what your perceive.

If that works, contact me and I can put you in touch with sincere investigators who will not reveal your identity or attempt to exploit your abilities for their own gain.  Maybe the answer will be that your gifts are not available to you on-demand as you thought, but wouldn't that be a relief?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What's not wrong with the ETH

Gort is not pleased with us
OK, I just got through slamming the ETH to the deck, and I have it in a sleeper hold, waiting for it to go limp.  Why would I defend it?

Recall that my main problem with the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) is the "Hypothesis" part.  It's not so much the answers it offers, but that it fails to ask useful questions that we can answer with real data.  However, I feel that I must also address some the attacks the ETH has unjustly suffered, as well as some of the false distinctions it is included in.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The so-called Extraterrestrial Hypothesis

Dr. Susan Blackmore is a little weird and more that a little smart.  She received the first ever British PhD in parapsychology, and believed in Tarot reading, out of body experiences, and psychic powers.  She was sure she could prove the existence of psychic abilities to even the most die-hard skeptics by amassing methodologically bulletproof evidence from a wide variety of experiments in clairvoyance and precognition, i.e. psi.   At the time, the whole field of parapsychology felt they were on the verge of breaking through to mainstream acceptance.

After a grueling series of consistently negative results, Blackmore began to be troubled by the definition of psi.  Psi was defined as whatever is causing psi experimental results to deviate from pure chance.  That is what psi isn't, but what is it?  Strengthening the methodologies made the signal drop down into the noise.  After repeated failures and not being able to define what to really test for, Blackmore soured on the very concept of psi and turned her research focus on to other things.

When it comes to UFOs, there is a shopworn old meme lying around frequently known as the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH for short).  It still attracts both derision and True Belief.  The ETH can be summed up simply as: some fraction (usually quoted at around 10%) of UFO reports are the result of something intelligently controlled that is not from Earth.

Do you see the problem?  It's analogous to the negative definition of psi.  By asserting that some UFOs - the otherwise hard to explain ones - are craft from outer space, we are really just stating what they are not - they are not ours.  But what ARE they?  A good hypothesis tells us where to look, and what information we can use to test the hypothesis.  The so-called ETH does not do that.  It's not a hypothesis!

Since aliens are very likely queerer than we can imagine, an alien spacecraft could be anything, and we would very likely not be able to perceive or describe it completely or accurately.  I won't address here the problem of the sparse, uneven quality of UFO data, or the thorny question of what phenomena to include, but even if we had terrifically good data, we still have no bonafide hypothesis to test it against.  "Not from here" doesn't fit the bill, and at this point, we don't know where to turn.  What happens in practice is that each of us invents our own private mental model of a single human-like alien race and wonder why UFOs don't behave that way.

Is there hope for the old ETH?  Not as such, but I believe it will have better successors. I do hope for really high quality hypotheses about the nature and behavior of alien intelligent life that we can really use.  The study of alien life, especially intelligent life, is pre-paradigmatic right now and starved of hard data.  We're going to need lots more information, and not much of it will be about UFOs (although I hope I am wrong).  The new emerging science of astrobiology will probably tell us much more about the constraints on development of intelligent species than any of our deeply flawed perceptions and memories of things we are unlikely to understand at all.

Nearly all hypotheses we develop about alien intelligences are likely to be wrong. Wrong, but the work of proving them wrong will lead us places we can't see at all right now.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Natural Philosophy of Queerer and Queerer

A man's got to know his limitations.
--- Harry Callahan in Magnum Force 

A bit about Haldane's Law, and what it means about the search for other minds in the cosmos.


You might recall that in our first post, there was a quote from the great Enlightenment thinker David Hume.  To paraphrase, all we can understand is what we have felt - either internally or externally.  The essential point is that when faced with something unfamiliar we interpret it in terms of the familiar.  We discover the universe in small steps.  Big conceptual leaps are rare, and even they depend strongly on what the "internal sense" has long known.

J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) was a distinguished evolutionary biologist and geneticist.  His Law is most often stated as:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.


A lifelong study of the evolution and diversity of life on Earth alone could easily have guided Haldane to that conclusion. We are still making sense of the biosphere that is right here in front of us, with the textbooks scrapped and rewritten on a regular basis.

Let's say Haldane was right. We believe we anticipate strangeness, but even the strangeness is strange. What could be stranger than a non-human intelligence, particularly a sophisticated one? Haldane says we can't meaningfully speculate about how strange they could become, and in ways we can't imagine. An alien being isn't just going to offer you a cup of coffee and then tell you about Seven Habits of Highly Effective Cosmic Guardians. Or it might, and then eat you.
Now that's discouraging. If Haldane was right, how can we know what to look for if we are in search of other minds in the universe? We might be looking straight at them and seeing nothing.

In fact, I would bet that we are doing just that. In his excellent book, The Eerie Silence, Paul Davies offers a different slant on the critique of UFO reality - that the UFO mythos taken as a whole isn't strange enough. Davies would fully expect something much weirder, not a phenomenon that falls right in line with millennia of folklore. There are those who would argue that UFOs are in fact plenty strange, but I think Davies has a point. If what is going on is something we can understand or even clearly define, then it's probably not aliens.
And yet when we talk about our first encounter with a non-human intelligences, we often think in terms of Hollywood fantasies like The Day the Earth Stood Still. Klaatu is a mythical man very much of Earthly making, and his landing on the Washington Mall only makes far too much sense to us. Why haven't they landed on the White House lawn? They already did - in our imaginations, which is likely as close as "they" will get. We are going to have to get way beyond that sort of scenario

So, if we are to form any hypotheses, or even conjectures, so we know what to look for when go in search of Other Minds, what hope do we have in light of Haldane's law? I don't have a clear answer, but perhaps we can formulate it in terms of our own limitations, and look for the silence behind our blind spots. What can't we see, and why?  


I am hopeful. Experience shows that we humans can eventually, over generations, get our arms around some pretty strange ideas, primarily using our talent for abstraction. For example, the very odd idea of a black hole was fished out of the mathematics of Einstein's equations decades before the first solid observational evidence that such things existed. By the time astronomers were ready to go looking for black holes, the theorists already had a fair idea of what to search for. Now there is evidence for many billions of black holes all over the universe and they are well incorporated into the astronomical paradigm.


The other bit of hope is that maybe Haldane's law is limited, and doesn't really hold for alien intelligences. Perhaps the constraints on the evolution of sentient life are so tight that we all end up resembling each other in important ways. Perhaps. But don't bet on it.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

UFO Busters

I have a low opinion of the new National Geographic show "Chasing UFOs."  Although I find the cast fairly likeable, the production is just laughably corny and the cases tend to be silly, content free, or have been long put to rest.  However, what's not to like about seeing Jaime Maussan's marmoset hoax roundly debunked?  That buffoon can not be put down hard enough.

The problem with any UFO show is that the better the job you do, the more the entertainment value is likely to be low.  Most cases evaporate immediately, most of the rest lack sufficient evidence for serious investigation, and the few that remain come along only very rarely and there is nothing to "chase." Instead of modeling their show after the laughably hokey ghost hunting shows, Nat Geo should look instead at the very successful Mythbusters as a model.  Mythbusters has been hugely successful by showing people building things, solving problems, facing frustration,applying science, and wrecking things thoroughly.   Most of the myths are busted, but some are judged plausible, or even confirmed.  See how that could be a UFO show?  You're welcome, NatGeo.

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First Post

could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
...it is impossible for us to think of any thing, which we have not antecedently felt, either by our external or internal senses.
- - - David Hume
This blog will be about the questions that in our hearts we most want to know how to ask.  Various answers may suggest themselves from time to time, come into fashion, become dogma, grow old and stiff, then fade away. But it is not the answers that move us.  It is the questions themselves, and questions that we do not even know how to ask today.

Our best hope of finding the questions that are worth a lifetime to ask or answer is to adopt a mental lens.  We humans can only understand new things in terms of things we already understand, and we can only seek the best new questions through questions we have already asked. In this blog, we honor this necessity, and we will begin by asking a very old question:

Who's there?

Our lens, then, is the search for intelligences beyond the human, and beyond Earth.  A well-selected lens promises to help us see through our common biases and expectations that blind us, takes us out of our comfort zone, and leaves us exposed.  Some of that exposure is to ridicule, but we are going to ignore that.  Far more challenging is the exposure to the sharp limitations of our cognitive toolkit - to utter bafflement, confusion, and even fear.   One of the common themes of this blog will be the close-in boundaries of our conceptual repertoire, and that to find even the tiniest kernel of truth we must accept a life of doubt, uncertainty and frequent, deep confusion.

Some will find this thrilling, others will prefer to disown the sky.

There is a great deal of confusion we can clear up, much new knowledge we can hope to acquire, and best of all, I hope for much better questions.  It won't be quick or easy.  Even the most tentative answers to "who's there?" will take generations to acquire, and controversies will rage.

Some of the topics I plan to cover in the new months:

  • Why science?  Are there other paths to true knowledge other than science?
  • Why we have to be wrong about UFOs, and what we might learn from studying them
  • The Fermi paradox and some of the best answers.
  • Would we know an ET if we saw one?
  • How to be a good skeptic, and why.
  • Is SETI silly?
  • Could the universe be a simulation?
  • Can reality be hacked?
  • Do psychic phenomena exist, and if so, what are they? Beyond bent spoons.
  • Is consciousness a difficult problem?
  • Is the Singularity really near?
  • Is some of the noise part of the signal?