Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Origins of Moons

There are a lot of moons in our solar system, and it has been impossible to detect whether there are similar numbers in any of the distant solar systems which have been detected or even if there are any at all, with one possible exception. The existence of Earth's moon may have played a large role in the origin of life here, and so it is an interesting question to ask where they might come from. It is certainly not necessary to assume that all moons originate in the same way.

Let's try to imagine the various ways a moon could originate. It could originate in place, in other words, form as a binary planet. A rotating cloud of gas and dust might be spinning too fast to simply condense directly into a single planet, and, similar to the formation of a binary star, the condensation starts in two places and continues to draw in the gas cloud, winding up with a planet and a moon. This would leave both planet and moon spinning rapidly, as the angular momentum of the whole cloud gets collected in the planet and moon, which must spin faster and faster as they condense. Tidal effects take over at this point, and begin to slow down the rotation of the planet and moon, while moving them closer together. If there was differential motion in the gas cloud that they condensed from, so the remainder is not following the same orbit as the planet-moon system, they will move into other regions of cloud and then accrete more mass, which may also affect the rotation and orbital rates over very long periods of time. The moon is smaller, and so it would intercept and accrete directly less gas, but since it is orbiting the planet, it sweeps out a much larger volume that would be swept by the cross-section of the moon. It sweeps out a volume corresponding to the cross-section of the swept volume of the moon's orbit, which can be huge compared to the moon itself. So the moon would grow in mass faster than the planet in this situation. Possibly the Pluto-Charon pair might have this origin.

If not formed in place, there must be a capture event. If the planet, already existing, has a large atmosphere, a smaller object could approach the planet and penetrate the atmosphere, losing relative speed. If its relative velocity was not too different from the planet, this might be enough to put it into an orbit around the planet, and then more passes would tend to circularize the orbit enough to stop the repeated interceptions of the planet's atmosphere, and the usual tidal effects could start their slow process to further circularize the moon's orbit. Both atmospheric drag and tidal pull tend to reduce angular momentum of the orbiting moon relative to the planet, which increases the major axis of the orbit. Tidal pull is stronger at the peri-planet part of the moon's orbit than at the apo-planet, reducing the eccentricity of the orbit. Tidal pull from a rotating planet also serves to reduce the axial tilt of the orbit. Likewise it affects the axial rotation of the moon, meaning it would tend to slow down any large rotation, relative to the planet, that it might have started with.

The reduction of angular momentum by the planet's atmosphere is proportional to the cross-section of the moon, meaning it goes as the square of the moon's mean radius. Angular momentum, however, goes as the mass of the moon, which varies as the third power of the moon's mean radius. This means that the chance of slowing a larger moon is less than that of slowing a smaller one with approximately the same orbit. Some of the moons around our solar system's four large gas giants might have come from this mode of capture. None of the moons is large in mass compared to the planet it orbits.

The likeliness of capture also depends on the relative velocity at the time of atmospheric entry. Too much speed, and the smallest of the impacting objects will burn up. Larger ones will go through the atmosphere and leave with sufficient remaining velocity to stay uncaptured. Gas giants have very deep atmospheres, and so there is also the chance that the impacting object will enter at an angle more steep than just grazing, and go so deep that the drag will overcome all of its velocity. Then its mass would simply be absorbed by the planet. For any giant planet-moon combination, there is probably a very sharp difference between nearby angles of entry, where one leaves the planet forever, another leads to absorption, and the gap between them, capture.

For rocky planets with minimally thick atmospheres, the possibility of capture by atmospheric drag must be very small. The only analog is impacting trajectories. If an object comes in and impacts a rocky planet's surface, it might lose some angular momentum and become a moon. Again there is likely a small gap between an angle of impact where the impactor is simply absorbed by the planet, possibly with some shedding of debris, and an angle of impact where the impactor simply leaves the region of the planet, and there would be a small range of angles where it stays on as a moon. The size of this gap may be negligible for large impactors, with one exception. If the incoming relative velocity is not much more than the additional velocity caused by mutual gravitational pull, the gap might be large enough so that some probability of retention of the moon is possible.

How could this velocity match happen? The first thing to come to mind might be some variation of the gravitational slingshot idea very frequently used in the trajectories of probes heading either toward the sun or toward the outer planets. These are used to augment or decrement the velocity of the probe by using the gravity of the planet and sun. Regrettably, these do not lead to orbital capture, much less low impact velocity. Another possibility is for the planet and impactor to have the same velocity almost exactly, as they would if they were in the same orbit around the sun. If a ring of gas around the sun did not condense into simply one single planet, but into two, at co-Lagrangian points, they would have nearly identical velocities, and if a slow migration started bringing them closer together, their relative velocity at impact would be only that provided by mutual gravity.

The L4 and L5 Lagrangian points are stable, and could conceivably collect mass from a gas ring simultaneously. Currently, there are a few asteroids at these points, but nothing large compared to the planet owning the orbit. Over time, the effect of other planets would probably make the two planets drift out of mutual Lagrangian stability, and thus an impact at slow relative velocity might happen, leading to a moon around a rocky planet. Like the Earth and Luna, for example.

In exo-solar planetary systems, there are often smaller planets at larger distances from the star, so there is no reason to immediately suspect that there would be radius bands for moon capture, mimicing what we have in our own solar system. Here we can hypothesize an inner band where Lagrangian impact might happen, then a band where large gas giants can capture relatively small moons, and then a band where icy planets condense in binary fashion. These bands might not correspond to anything relevant in other systems. However, the same mechanisms might exist, and can potentially serve as a guide for where to search. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Latitude, Seasonality and Evolution

When we are scanning planets for signs of life, there are levels of priorities based on what attributes the planet has – some planets are more likely to harbor life, as far as we know, than others, and therefore the largest effort should be put into extracting information from these planets.

These parameters are mostly very obvious. We don't want one that is too hot or too cold, as life is an organic process and its molecules are destroyed by heat and inactivated by cold. We don't want one that is too big or too small, as the big ones have to be gas giants as they can hold onto their hydrogen, and the little ones can't hold onto any atmosphere at all. Earthlings think having a small atmosphere is a requirement for life, and it probably is a requirement for the origination of life. An advanced alien civilization might find living on an airless planet not very difficult.

There are two planetary parameters in play here. One is rotation rate and the other is axial tilt. If they are both zero, there is no seasonality. Every minute is the same, provided the ellipticity of the orbit is also small. Unless the atmosphere had some type of difficult-to-imagine instability, then the weather would be the same from one minute to the next and one year to the next as well. It would be possible to define sidereal months, but they would be inconsequential. Nothing would ever change. The assumptions in this extreme case include no moon of significant mass.

Rotation rate goes to zero from the effects of solar tidal forces on the planet. The moon has suffered this and so have other moons in our solar system. No planets have, but Mercury comes close, with a 3:2 phase locking. Venus also has a very low rotation rate. An alien planet with this situation would place life on the planet in a strange situation: nothing every changes about the environment.

This is a different type of fitness test than was present on Earth. There shouldn't be variation in the winds, which would be driven by constant convection forces. Things are about as constant as they can possibly be, and life on such a planet would evolve to a very stable arrangement as well. On a planet such as this, latitude certainly plays a role as it does on every planet, but here longitude is like a variation of latitude. A rotating planet averages over longitude, so that only latitude makes a difference, but on a non-rotator, walking around the equator is very similar to walking to the north pole. There are simply circles of constant illumination, dependent on the angle the sun makes. It keeps the same angle and same position in the sky perpetually. The substellar point would likely be the hottest, and once one passed to the dark side, everything would be cold, except for heating done by winds and the ground.

Winds would likely flow inward on the surface toward the substellar point, driven by the heating of the atmosphere there. That means the flow of air at upper altitudes would be away from the substellar point, and where it would descend is somewhat indeterminate. Likely, descent would be in the circular band near the perimeter where the star is just on the horizon, although it could be a bit inside this. The atmosphere would be too thin to support the toroidal flows that are seen on our solar system's larger planets.

With no tectonics going on, as this needs to be driven by rotation interacting with tidal forces, if there is water, it would be in a circular ring. If the planet were hot enough, no surface water would exist at the substellar point, but as one moved away, there would be a place where water could exist, and perhaps it would create a tremendous moat. On the other side of the moat might be ice, which could continue onto the dark side.

Evolution takes place in a locality, as a huge gene pool takes too long to modify genes by fitness testing. So, in each radial band, circumscribing the substellar point, there would be optimized life forms. Each life form must have some form of mobility, although it might be quite different than here on Earth. With a constant surface wind blowing away from the substellar point, wind-blown seeds would only move outward, and reseeding at the location where a plant was already rooted would not happen. Thus, heavy seeds, such as in a fruit, would be likely in all the various bands.

Evolution likes to migrate, however, so plants would likely have something like rhizomes to move inward toward the substellar point, up to the ring where there is no longer any rain. Animals have no such constraints and could move freely toward and away from the substellar point, as their capabilities to compete in adjacent bands developed.

The other two possibilities, bring closer in or farther out from the star, would provide different bull's eye patterns. Too far out and there would be ice everywhere, with only snow falling near the substellar point and nothing beyond a certain radius. Too far in and there would be no liquid water on the lighted side, and perhaps some chemotropes living in the dark but wet band just past the light boundary.

Whether or not life could originate on such a planet depends on how it originates. If the theory expounded in this blog, the organic oceans theory, where life only could originate in an early Earth-like setting, would rule out life originating on a phase-locked planet, unless some very unusual planetary movements had taken place. Maybe if there was a moon, but it eventually drifted so far out that it could detach from its planet, and then the planet became phase-locked, something might be possible. If some other theory is the correct one, such as the sea-vent concept, this planet would would be a loser, as without continents and oceans, there would be no sea vents. Perhaps life would find a completely unique way of originating on such a planet however, but out preoccupation with life here on Earth inhibits our realizing how it might happen. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Convergence of Quality in Genetics


Consider an animal. It has genes which came from the gene pool for its species. If gene selection was random, looking at animals of that species you would see some which are superior in appearance, others superior in physical ability or agility, others superior in perception or mental abilities, others superior in strength, and so on. The best genes for one attribute set would be in some subset of animals of this species; the best genes for another attribute set would in another subset, and so on. The number of those who are superior in both attribute set one and attribute set two would be small, just the product of the fraction of these two qualities compared to the whole set of animals in that species. The number of those who are superior in three attributes would be multiplicatively smaller still. 

That’s not the way it goes. There is a correlation between having superior genes for one attribute set and for another, so the numbers are higher that just the product of the fraction in each attribute set alone. Just to give a numerical example, suppose the animals who are the fastest runners, moving individually, are 10%, and the animals who have the sharpest perception skills are likewise 10%. The numbers of course depend on the thresholds set for superiority. If everything were random, there would be 1% who are both the fastest runners and the most perceptive. But there are more of them, maybe 2% or 5%. Why does this happen?

Consider three types of animals. One, a species where individuals are loners. Two, a species that lives in herds and are prey for other species. Three, a species that hunts in groups.

In the first species, during mate selection, males of the species compete for desirable females. The competition in both males and females will go preferentially to those who are superior in one or more attributes. Who gets the superior spouses? The superior animals of the other gender, as they win the competition more frequently. Thus we have mating of superior animals, with superiority in different attribute sets, together, and some of the offspring will be superior in both parents’ categories. These offspring will survive to the age of mating with higher probability, and the correlation starts to increase. Over many generations, it will increase to a level controlled by the natural randomness of life and surely multiple other factors. But this is a possible mechanism by which the correlation can happen.

This mechanism works with all species, not just loners. Whenever there is a bi-gender competition for mates, the correlation will creep in.

The same correlation will occur in the gene pool if there is a correlation between two attribute sets in necessary activities. For example, if it is easier for some animal in a particular species to gather food if they are both better at reaching it, from length of limbs or something else, and also better at spotting it, from more acute perception, in a synergistic way, then this correlation will eventually translate over into a correlation in the gene pool. This does not only relate to food gathering, but also hunting, if the species does that, in avoiding predators, if it is subject to this problem, in surviving temperature extremes, or in finding the way back to its den, or other activities which contribute to the survivability and eventually reproduction rate of an individual animal.

For herd animals, where there are some special competitive actions, such as rights to the best food or to be protected by the largest animals of the herd, or to be nurtured by non-parental animals as a young animal, or to be the leader in any stampede, or anything else which might promote reproduction rate, then the same synergistic correlation in activities will translate into a correlation in genetic superiority in more than one attribute set. The competition between herd animals for these positions of priority is based on multiple attributes, and synergism is quite reasonable to expect. 

For predator groups, animals which live in groups and where the adults mostly hunt together, there is much the same group leader or top animal hierarchy effects which occur here. The attributes would be quite different, such as jaw strength, ability to intimidate, ability to inspire others to follow, ferociousness, and others, but those gene sets which lead to each of these might serve to add to the probability an individual will reach top status in the group.

In an alien species which is becoming intelligent, there is no reason to think that these two effects: mate selection and synergism in necessary activities, would be any less of an influence in producing individuals who excel in more than one attribute set, perhaps leading to an accumulation of superior genes in a small fraction of the population. Healthiness is an attribute set that has not been mentioned before, but it plays a large role in reproduction rate. So also might food tolerance, or the ability to digest multiple sources of nutrition. Many others certainly exist.

The downstream impact of this, as the alien species begins to live in fixed locations and develop a civilization, is that there would be a tendency for some class distinctions to arise, probably hereditary as well. The pathway exists in any alien civilization which has the wherewithal to develop tool use and start its way up the ladder of technology to a situation where there are large differences among individuals in many attributes, but in a correlated way. Thus, some nobility or upper caste or something similar is likely to exist during a phase of the species’ technology development.

This translates into a problem. Individuals who are superior in many ways, and are so since birth, and because of it have enjoyed more fruits of the civilization than others, would be loath to relinquish their position at the top. Thus, this group of powerful individuals might seek to block the spread of genetic wealth down to the remainder of the society. Is it possible that they could seek to freeze society in the state they find it in?

This would be a worry for any prediction that a civilization eventually reaches asymptotic technology, except for the fact that civilizations are not stable at intermediate levels. Stasis eventually leads to decline and then a turn-around and another climb, each time higher. Eventually the civilization should pass through the genetic grand transformation, and after that, can easily stabilize, and then proceed on to star travel, if such things are possible and within their grasp, relative to the resources of their solar system.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Dark Planets


What can happen concerning life on a planet without any sunlight? A planet at a favorable radius from its star, but with an atmosphere continually and completely covered with clouds is an easily concocted example. Earth had life long before life could use solar photons for energy, either directly or indirectly via feasting on a food chain starting with solar photons. It is believed that early Earth life was powered by chemical energy.

Chemistry can provide plenty of energy. To give our dark planet the best chance of making something impressive without photons, suppose that it has an abundance of chemical energy. Consider an ocean on the dark planet first. Suppose there are continuous volcanic events somewhere, and the ocean circulates the chemical products everywhere throughout the connected seas. Maybe there is a basalt flood going on somewhere, dumping something like methane and other alkanes into the water, along with ammonia, ferrous iron, and other edible tidbits. Far away from that, some chemotrophs are busy oxidizing these chemicals. It is like a whole ocean as rich as one of Earth’s undersea vents.

There might be a variable density of these creatures, with more of them nearer the principal sources of chemical energy, but not too close because the water temperature is higher there. There can be a wide variety of life in such conditions, as demonstrated by the various microbes and animals which inhabit sea vents. Our life forms are limited by the evolution that can happen in the duration of a sea vent, but if we imagine the dark planet to have recurring basalt flooding, maybe multiple at a time, perhaps caused by asteroid impacts, then evolution might go on for billions of years in a chemical energy-rich environment, leading to a variety of creatures far beyond what we see at a sea vent.

There is a question here on Earth as to whether the organic chemicals forming cells in the creatures inhabiting the vicinity of a sea vent have been contaminated or worse, contributed to by photic life forms living in the upper layers of the seas. This is not a question for the dark planet, as it could not happen there without any sunlight, but more pointedly, what can evolve in a phototroph can evolve in a chemotroph, although maybe not as speedily. DNA mutation is simply a change in DNA, caused by one mutagen or another or just by accidental errors in DNA copying. Where it happens is largely immaterial.

Consider the atmosphere. If the dark planet has continuously producing basalt floods, the atmosphere may also be full of chemical energy sources, such as the smaller alkanes and ammonia. Is it conceivable that an organism could emerge from the ocean and live on land on the dark planet? Breathing would be the same as eating, and the organism would not resemble anything easily imaginable from Earth’s examples.

One advantage that life had on Earth was that photons arriving on the land surface are more abundant than those arriving underwater, as water absorbs some of them. This means it can be an evolutionary advantage for a plant to live closer and closer to the surface, and eventually migrate to living in the shallows and then on land. A DP-plant would have a corresponding disadvantage, as the atmosphere, being a gas, can hold much less of the energetic chemicals. This does not mean that there would be no land life, but that it probably would not have the diversity that proximity to a solar energy source provides here on Earth.

On Earth, we have a nice clean division between plants and animals, as plants are almost uniformly photosynthetic while animals live on plants, or on other animals. On the dark planet, there might be a similar division, between DP-plants, which live on chemical energy in the oceans or in the atmosphere, and DP-animals, which consume DP-plants. Earth plants typically maximize the absorption of sunlight, by having such things as leaves. Sunlight is absorbed by a surface. Chemicals in a fluid have to be absorbed by maximizing the flow of the medium through or past an absorbing surface. One possible arrangement might be a porous DP-plant, though which the ocean continually flows. This would work if the DP-plant were fastened to the seafloor near a constant or almost constant flow of seawater. Any DP-plant which was free-floating would have to have a mechanism for circulating the ocean water past its chemical digestion tract, much like many Earth sea creatures do who dine on microscopic organisms floating in the water.

Without sunlight, vision might not evolve, neither in oceanic life nor in any creatures which manage to live on the land surface. Senses would be restricted to smell, taste, touch, and vibration. Perhaps some will evolve electrical discharge capability, initially for defense or predation, but perhaps later for communication. Earth has evolved creatures with electrical discharge ability, but perhaps none which can reliably detect a discharge. This does not mean that evolution is not capable of it, but instead that there are so many excellent competing senses possible here that it did not emerge.

How far can evolution take life on a dark planet? Suppose that such a planet were formed early in the history of the galaxy, so that life has had maybe ten or eleven billion years to evolve there. Could there be animals which live in packs, communicating with vibrations or electrical signals? These are all short range, and low frequency acoustics might serve for long-range communications. Another sense possible is echolocation, which has only evolved in the sea in mammals on Earth, but could easily be supposed to evolve in whatever DP-animals arise.

There is a stopping point, however, in the march of evolution on a dark planet. One problem is tool-use, and an example is the specific first tool used by primates, fire. There is nothing equivalent in an ocean. Nor are there advantages to developing the limbs needed to use tools, such as a primate’s hands. Thus, evolution can go a very long distance, but not in the direction of intelligence.

If there was such a planet as our dark planet, teeming with life but no intelligence, would it be detectable? With a cloud cover, no evidence would be visible to even a huge telescope. No oxygen is present, which is considered, perhaps prematurely, as the indicator of life. Such a dark planet might be passed over, even by a nearby alien civilization who were hunting for other planets with life. 

Does this make any difference? Could an alien civilization make any use of a dark planet such as the one we have been postulating? If the energy source is continuous basalt flooding caused by asteroid impact, then the question would be, could there be any regions present there which could be visited, even temporarily by an alien landing party? If the basalt flooding were underwater, in a deep part of the ocean, possibly the land surface might be tolerable, even if the atmosphere was extremely toxic. It is an extremely interesting thought exercise to see if there was any reason that an alien civilization would want to visit such a planet, or to establish some sort of colony there. Perhaps this blog will return to the topic to suggest something relevant.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Great Extinctions and Evolution


Great extinctions are times when the number of species that cease to exist per century gets a lot higher than the average. There are always extinctions going on, and the vast majority of species that ever existed are already extinct. It seems to be a common destiny of a species to begin, to flourish, to plateau, to diminish and then to become extinct. Lots of things make species go extinct, such as the food supply being cut off, some environmental change or catastrophe such as their only habitat being flooded, long-term or short-term. New predators can evolve. More efficient species can out-compete them for food supplies or nesting spaces. And so on.

Species counts are done by checking fossil records. It seems from fossils that there were multiple times when a large fraction of the existing land and/or sea animal species ceased to appear in later fossils, meaning they became extinct. These extinctions typically happen over a geologically short time, and geology being what it is, there is a minimum time that can be determined by fossil research, so no understanding of exactly how long the extinction lasted can be obtained, if it was shorter than the minimum measurable geological interval. Nonetheless, there are multiple periods in Earth’s history when a large number of animals became extinct, up to 96% as reckoned by fossil counts on the worst of these great extinctions.

The causes of such extinctions are obviously of great interest to geologists and many other scientific specialties. The earliest one is sometimes attributed to the oxygenation of the atmosphere, meaning that all sea creatures which could not tolerate the oxygenation of the atmosphere, and correspondingly, the seas, died off. No other atmospheric change seems to have caused other extinctions, but climate change has been called on as one possibility for some of them, although not the largest ones, unless you call a temporary clouding and the subsequent cooling of the Earth a climate change. Instead, some of these largest ones are attributed to either a large asteroid strike or a basalt flooding. A controversy arose over the last one, the End-Cretaceous extinction. Someone came up with a measurement that 76% of animal species became extinct during this one.

One of the earliest theories as to the cause of this extinction was the Decca Basalt Flooding, which was chronologically pinpointed to occur at the time of the extinction. A basalt flooding, when thousands of square kilometers become like a volcano, with exposed mantle material, produces such massive amounts of dust in the atmosphere that sunlight is blocked and photosynthesis stopped. The flooding lasts for many millennia, unlike a volcano whose principal eruption lasts only a matter of days or weeks. It certainly is reasonable that this could cause mass extinction.

Later, a large crater was discovered on the coast of the Yucatán peninsula, and it was timed to also be at the time of the End-Cretaceous extinction. The crater was named Chicxulub. Asteroidal material, specifically a higher than normal concentration of iridium, was discovered all over the world and dated in sediments to have been deposited by the Yucatán asteroid. The impact would have filled the atmosphere with dust as well, although for a much shorter period. If the End-Cretaceous extinction happened within a very short period, a few years which is the dust residence time from a single near-instantaneous event, this could also have been the cause of the extinction.

It is curious that the Deccan Traps, the current geological formation from the basalt flooding there, and the Chicxulub crater are almost on opposite sides of the planet. When a rapidly flying object hits a large obstacle, shock waves are generated which move from the impact location in the direction of the incoming object. These shock waves carry some of the momentum of the incoming object, and when they strike the opposite surface, they tend to spall off the outermost layer. Spallation of this type occurs when very fast projectiles strike armor plate, for example. On something of the size of a planet, it would mean that the crust at the arrival point of the center of the shock wave would heave upward, rupturing it and leaving it no longer intact. The Deccan volcanic activity may have been going on before the impact, but the shock wave may have been the cause of the large size and huge amount of atmospheric debris that was deposited.

The crater and the traps are not on exactly the opposite sides of the planet, now, but tectonic plate motions are of the right magnitude to make it more so 60 million years ago. Both India and South America have been moving north. Furthermore, if the impact was not perpendicular, there would have been some deviance of the shock wave direction from directly through the center of the planet so it did not go from a point on one side to the exact opposite.

The crater and the traps can be used to backwards track the asteroid, and doing this shows that if the impact was in the spring or fall, the asteroid would have been traveling in the sidereal plane, where all planets and almost all asteroids reside. Thus, the two events, asteroid impact and basalt flooding, may have been closely connected.

What is considered the most serious great extinction, the End-Permian one about 250 million years ago, is often attributed either to the Siberian basalt flooding, near the north pole, or to the Wilkes Land crater, in Antarctica near the south pole. The details of these two events are much, much less certain than those related to the End-Cretaceous one, but the possibility of a basalt flooding event triggered by an asteroid impact on the opposite side of the globe exists. For some other great extinctions, there are even less certain connections to basalt flooding and asteroid impact.

What happens after an extinction? When the atmosphere returns to transparency, there is much less life around. Most of the species have gone entirely extinct, and the remaining ones were greatly reduced in numbers. It has become a field day for evolution, because the constraints on new life are largely removed. Resources are available in abundance, and competition is less. Predation is almost absent. Thus, evolution goes much faster in creating new species that it could in a crowded environment where all ecological niches were already filled. Within some tens of millions of years, hordes of new species exist everywhere.

We humans arose from the chaos of new life that occurred after the End-Cretaceous extinction. Life was not extinct, and what life existed still kept many of the genetic tricks that had evolved up to that point. Thus, evolution took off again, but from a much higher starting point genetically. This is not to say that life could not have evolved intelligence without the extinctions, but it would have taken much longer. Maybe a factor of ten in speedup happened.

What exactly does that mean for a planet somewhere in the galaxy with eukaryotic, multicellular life already started. To get to this point might have taken 3 billion years of evolution. It will take another billion years of evolution, if the rate of evolution is the same as Earth’s, to get to intelligent life. However, Earth’s evolution rate was governed and greatly accelerated by all the mass extinctions our planet has known. If there were no extinctions, or only very few, it might take ten times longer to get to that point, or ten billion years. Almost no planets are that old.

So, one interesting thing to ponder is: Can an intelligent alien civilization come into extinction in a solar system where there are no or very little asteroid impact? Is the answer: Yes, but only billions of years from now. Thus we might have another peculiarity of our solar system which might be essential to the eventual capability for contemporaneous space travel: huge numbers of large asteroids.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Overcoming the Pernicious Effects of Affluence


Affluence allows all kinds of good effects. It means that there will be an excess of benefits for an alien civilization because of productivity increases, which is almost the definition of affluence. But this excess of benefits means, if there are alien individuals who are motivated to work, that there will be spare time so that more work can be done in the development of further technology. Thus, affluence implies at least an initial increase in the rate at which technology advances. This provides feedback to the effects of improving productivity, so productivity increases even more, meaning even more time can be devoted to technology advances, and so on. A venerable positive feedback loop.

As noted in a previous post, affluence has malign influences which can outweigh the benign ones, and cause the inverse of evolution, as measured by the counts of the most successful genes in the alien gene pool, or rather the genes which make alien individuals most successful in their reproductive success. Here it is useful to recall the difference between long-term goals and short-term goals, and how alien civilizations evolve into their early industrial stages without much consideration or awareness of long-term goals for their civilization. Short-term goals propel them into various successful avenues.

Short-term goals for an individual parent in some alien civilization relative to offspring and successive generations might include both support, meaning nutrition, protection, shelter, and other physical aspects of the life of youngsters, and tutelage, meaning teaching by example or by instruction. When the technology and affluence feedback loop gets going in an alien civilization, the tutelage part runs into the problem of the change in teaching needed for a generation where technology is changing. Tutelage by parents becomes inadequate, and needs to be done in another way, and is likely to be outsourced. But tutelage has many components, and only certain components are affected by the change in technology that occurs rapidly. However, it might be that tutelage in general gets outsourced, without the breakout of components. Thus, those components which relate to motivation to work, being goal-oriented, character aspects such as diligence, persistence, honesty, open-mindedness and educability, skepticism, and much more, as well as interpersonal relationship traits, all might be turned over to someone outside the parents or grandparents or other close relations to others who might be labor-specialized to tutelage. Here can be the fundamentals for a catastrophe, if technology for training has not progressed far enough to provide good, thorough procedures for training in the latter traits. Thus the question arises, in an alien civilization, will the material and industrial aspects of technology develop faster than the training and education aspects? They will both eventually succumb to the progress of technology, but there may be a gap between them, or in more graphic terms, a chasm. Will alien civilizations tend to fall into this chasm?

On the other hand, the support side of parent-youngster relations becomes easier and easier. Technology makes fulfilling the physical needs of youngsters easier for parents, and so the two effects of this, first, more and more products are provided with variety and quantity now expanding, and second, less effort is required to do this support, implying to the typical alien that those mental traits which formerly were so needed for providing support to oneself and one’s offspring, were not so much needed and could be diminished in attention. In other words, youngsters were having the option of spending more time on consumption-related interests, and parents were seeing less need for production-related interests, both for themselves and for their young. This would tend to add more impetus to the lack of need for preserving the training components that were useful in earlier times, especially times when evolution was striking down those without these traits. This means, the chasm is wider and deeper than it would be without the two-sided effects creating it.

The antidote to having an alien civilization collapse into the affluence chasm is the early realization of the need for long-term thinking, both in its conception and development, but also in its use in guiding some of the decisions of the civilization. Very specifically, long-term thinking is needed for the civilization to recognize what the consequences of affluence might be, and how it affects the alien society. Instead of continuing the drive to develop technology to provide more and more support goods, there would have to be a parallel drive to develop technology in training, in more detail, neurology, but also in sociology, meaning how society needs to organize itself and what individuals would need to be trained in so that they could act to preserve the civilization.

Long-term thinking is needed to appreciate that the civilization has value, in and of itself, and preserving it over the long term, meaning over multiple generations, should take precedence over amassing more variety and quality in the consumption goods that their initial short-term thinking would lead them to support. This is not a simple declaration, where the civilization suddenly says that it will perform long-term goal setting and then do whatever is necessary to achieve them, but instead it is a dedication to that parallel branch of technology, so that it does not lag too far behind the material branch that produces the affluence.

Developing this parallel branch of technology will require a major commitment by the civilization, meaning the governance and the population together, to forgo the maximum amount of material support in favor of having more intangible support, which will help the society to navigate its way around the chasm of affluence. It could very well be that the other feedback effect that occurs in neurology, where the brain adapts to its environment, will prevent this change. This feedback effect will mean that as affluence turns producers into consumers, and young members of the society into dedicated consumers, that there will be more and more specialized thinking about consumption, and less and less about long-term aspects of society and the potential troubles that affluence can create. The competition between thinking about consumption details, which can be manifold and complex, and thinking about society in general, which is also complex and variegated, will dictate if a particular alien civilization will make it to the final stage of technology, asymptotic technology, where the potential for collapse from its own decisions and choices will be almost eliminated. Without the proper early realization of the nature and details of this problem with affluence, the civilization will not be at a high enough living standard for the long time needed to invent and develop space travel.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Is Affluence the Bane of Alien Civilization?


The word affluence is used here to represent a condition of having needs satisfied, in abundance, without the requirement for much effort. It seems, strangely in a sense, that this is the direction that evolution would direct any intelligent alien civilization. Evolution starts out by making species that are more and more efficient at living in their environment, but this transforms into a situation, after the invention of tool-using, to the production of a species which becomes more and more efficient at altering the environment to meet their needs.

Affluence provides the basic needs for some subset of individuals, the ones to whom the word is applied in a particular civilization, and then it proceeds to deal with the non-basic needs. This might mean psychological ones, or ones related to interactions with others, or ones related to amusement. There are probably others. For basic needs and secondary needs, after being initially met, the elements of quality and variety are introduced as affluence proceeds and strengthens. Quality and variety can blossom and produce a cornucopia of ways to fulfill needs. The certain subset of individuals who are in the affluent class or group or faction, which might be large or small or even uniform or minuscule, are less and less required to do anything at all in order to be the beneficiaries of their society’s benefits. So, a species consisting of producers of goods to meet basic needs, after technology and social organization become established and grow stronger in influence, turns into a species where some subset are simply consumers.

What happens to individuals when affluence expands within their lifetime? It might be possible to use alienology to predict what lifetimes might be conceivable with a species as they gain intelligence and turn into a civilization, but that can be left to another blog. When an individual becomes affluent, after having been gestated at a time or in a group that did not have much of it, they do not lose the habits that were ingrained in them. One way to say that is that they preserve the desires, which become needs under affluence, to be productive, and so they would seek to adapt within their changing society, or actively seek to modify it, so that individual production might continue. This would be visible as a migration of work types as technology eliminates certain classes of it.

Evolutionary success, which any alien civilization would have achieved, does not simply consist of having individuals with their needs being met. Evolution is really about reproduction and the production of future generations. That is the measure of fitness, not survival, but reproductive rate. It is reproductive rate which dictates which genetic mutations spread through the gene pool and which are eliminated. Survival chances do not figure into evolutionary success, except so far as they improve the total reproductive rate of a gene carrier through its lifetime. Among plants on Earth, there are many annuals which have had great evolutionary success, despite a fixed and short lifetime. Other examples exist among insects. Earth’s higher animals, however, are all the equivalent of perennials.

Thus the proper question to ask is what does affluence do between generations? The earlier generation, pre-affluence, learned to work to achieve sustenance, shelter from elements and perhaps lodging, and of course reproduction. The later generations learn to consume. What a generation learns is strongly affected by what the previous generation chooses to teach it, in multiple ways, such as by example and by instruction.

Each generation has a choice as to what to teach its subsequent generation, and as successive generations have less and less need for diligence and other character traits that were critical to evolutionary success, it seems very reasonable that there would be less and less concentration on those aspects of education, and more on how to consume, according to whatever fads or other social aspects dictate within the society how to establish one’s preferences among a variety of ways to consume, both to fulfill basic needs and to fulfill secondary ones. Thus it would seem that successive generations would lose the drives that evolution demands, and turn into something almost unrecognizable by evolution.

As noted just above, the only real drive that evolution cares about is reproduction rate, which must be an instinctual drive in all animals, including those aliens who achieve civilizational status. But the instincts behind reproduction can be thought of as needs, and technology can satisfy them, without requiring much effort directed toward reproduction. In other words, the affluent class can fail to reproduce sufficiently to maintain their population. Thus affluence seems to be a malign influence, which will lead to extinction for those who have it, not necessarily immediately, but after some numbers of successive generations. The subset that achieves it, and does not figure out how to overcome its influence, will die out.

Who, in an alien civilization, is most likely to achieve affluence? Clearly the subset which is most successful in meeting their own needs, under evolutionary times and just after them. This is the subset which has the genetics that allow them to be comparatively successful, perhaps dominating others, and which has mastered the use of tools, which includes the training of successive generations to use them. In other words, affluence, an inevitable result of success in the evolutionary period, both in hardware, the genes, and software, the intergenerational training, results in a potential extinction of those who achieve it, meaning that the best genes sort themselves into a group which then becomes extinct.

If evolution is continually producing these same super-successful genes and training techniques, there might be a flow of individuals out of the non-affluent gene pool into the affluent one, where they go extinct after a few generations. But evolution does not work after civilization becomes established. The qualities which are selected for under civilization are quite different from those under pre-tool conditions, initial tool use conditions, and hunter-gatherer conditions, if this particular alien species followed this path, which seems the only possible one to civilization. So, projecting the future of an alien species becomes quite murky at this point. The question to be asked is, does the most successful subset of individuals figure out the dangers of affluence, and do they any longer care about preserving the evolutionary success qualities?

If the answer is no, then the mystery of why there are no alien visitors here is unshrouded.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Great Children, Great Parents, Great Leaders

It may be that leaps of progress in an alien civilization are only possibly through the intervention of what might be called 'great individuals'. This theory, called Carlyle's Theory of Great Men, says that major events are originated by one of a small number of very capable people. Whether it is true or not, Earth's history is often written as the record of what a certain few individuals did. They may have been generals, monarchs, scientists, inventors, explorers, writers, or another leading role. One way or another, they managed to move history in the direction they wanted, or perhaps, history took a turn because of their actions, whether they predicted it and desired it or not. It could very well be in many situations that once the 'great man' did his specific action or actions, others responded to make the large changes that resulted. Either way, the question of great individuals being needed in an alien civilization seems like an interesting one, meaning, that if for some reason, they did not sprout up there, the civilization would reach some dead end, and never get to the stage of asymptotic technology and star travel.

It is often asked, in the generation of great individuals, is it nature or nurture? In other words, is it a marvelous combination of genes that is responsible for great individuals, or can any above-average set of genes, with the addition of quite exceptional child-rearing, training, educating, mentoring and maybe more lead to the great individual? This is a very common question and many have weighed in on it. But it seems that the question is incorrect; an incorrect question is one which makes implicit assumptions which are wrong. Nature and nurture are not independent events, meaning that any individual born on Earth goes not get to participate in a double lottery, one to get good genes and another to get a good upbringing.

Suppose we have a winner of the first lottery, an individual with great genes, all of the ones needed to become a great leader of some sort. Whoever is raising the child, assuming they are the parents and share these genes, perhaps some in one parent and some in another, would be intelligent enough to recognize the talent of the young alien and adapt their raising techniques accordingly. So, the genes themselves evoke the upbringing needed to allow them to reach their potential. Of course, it might be possible that some young alien with these qualities is brought up in a harsh environment, cruel, degrading, restrictive, or in some other way limiting, and therefore he does not reach his potential. The point is not that there are bad environments, but that good environments have a flexibility that can be used to adapt to the great capacity and potential of the child, from very young to much older, and provide the nurturing necessary to allow him to grow into a great leader.

There is more to this adaptation. Often the best learning that a child receives is that which he obtains for himself. Recall the insights of Montessori, who started off the training of children with a hands-off, rich-environment arrangement. Even without any special environment, a great child can seek out the information he needs to expand his intellect and develop his capabiities for some special vocation. This goes on, on a daily basis, while the child grows. With each addition to his capabilities, his ability to find more learning opportunities, and his capability to extract learning from opportunities that others would pass by increases.

When other aliens become involved with the exceptional alien, they might choose to devote some effort to assist the parents to raise him, or better said, to allow him to educate himself. Thus, there is a large feedback effect which continues to grow. The more exceptional the young alien, the more opportunities he will find and others will open up for him, in the area of learning or specializing in some profession or vocation which will produce something memorable and possibly history-changing. This means that some alien who is born at the top of the genetic ladder will have a good chance of grabbing the learning he needs to accomplish some great task. Thus, the division of the world into nature or nurture is hardly possible. A great child would have fairly great parents to begin with, and in the possibly more usual situation where they both are involved with the raising of the child, they would start the process of separating him from the rest of his generation in capability and ability. When he became older, he would strongly act to continue this process, and when older still, others would be impressed with his capabilities and take actions to continue it even further. Many individuals might enjoy serving as the mentor of an exceptional youngster.

Does this feedback effect happen for other individuals than only the exceptionally gifted? One way to discuss this question is to remember that different types of great individuals have different talents and abilities, and great in one field does not mean great in another field. Exceptional individuals somehow find their own direction, where their unique abilities might flower. So, exceptional individuals, capable in different ways, would still have the feedback effect happening, but they would travel different paths through their lives, leading to different categories of great individuals.

The other way to answer this question is to assess whether the feedback effect will provide better-than-average nurturing to better-than-average children, and average to average, and below-average to below average. If there is a sizable amount of correlation here, then the question of nature versus nurture is totally incorrect, not only for the exceptional but for an entire generation of children. It is quite possible that some alien civilization would have child-rearing arrangements that are different from those hypothesized above, and where, for example, specialized child-rearing agents took care of all children. Then, if they took no action to single out exceptional individuals, and possibly limited the attempts of any exceptional individual to seek out mind-expanding learning, there would be no such feedback effect. If so, this civilization would get nowhere, unless Carlyle's theory is totally wrong. This means that the feedback effect would be operating in any alien civilization that was progressing through the different phases, and so as long as the alien gene selection process allowed mostly great members of one sex to mate with mostly great members of the opposite sex, technological and social progress will continue.

Another way of looking at this is to say that alien civilizations that lose the genetic combination game, by not encouraging the intersection of good genes with other good genes, do not get to travel to the stars, and ones which win it, by whatever social customs they espouse, will at least have a chance to spread beyond their home solar system. Similarly, those alien civilizations with no way for an exceptional gifted child to get the learning he needs to become great, will flounder.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Asymptotic Medicine

Once science proceeds far enough in an alien civilization to completely understand biology, from genetics to cell protein use and formation, and all the details of molecular signaling and ontogenesis, there would have been applications to medicine all along the way, leading at the end to something that might be called 'asymptotic medicine'. This would not be restricted to simply understanding every last detail of the alien's bodies, but also would include the engineering aspects of making repairs and even modifications to them. These engineering considerations involve the action in different locations in the body of a variety of chemicals and compounds not naturally present there, as well as the use of current, temperature, strain and motion on the cells and organs of the body. The use of autonomous objects, large and microscopic, to perform various actions within the body would be understood as well. This grand body of knowledge is asymptotic medicine.

Medicine refers to doing something with an existing alien, rather than industrial gestation which is the production of one outside the normal process. It would include termination of an alien's life, for example after some aging process had run its course, or for some other reason. It would be used if there was some damage to an alien, after an accident. Regeneration of missing tissue or components would be a mainstay of asymptotic medicine, and a question for the future is how fast can regeneration be accomplished. If the details of cellular growth are totally understood, would it be possible that they could be accelerated, by a percentage, a factor of two, or even a factor of ten or a hundred. This is a feature of current medicine that is currently absent, as it has to be because our knowledge does not yet extend to cellular activity, such as what signals a cell might accept in order to replicate its nucleus or to divide its cell wall. We do not know how much acceleration a cell's protein synthesis might be able to deliver, and what might be done to slip needed precedents through the cell wall, or how to make temporary cells that gradually replace themselves with complete cells, or really anything about any possible mechanisms for medical regeneration, or even what concepts will eventually be the most relevant for that branch of technology.

Medicine also includes the preparation of all those chemical compounds needed for treatments of any sort, the construction of any tools needed to perform some actions, and the growth of cells or organs outside any body, as well as the techniques for inserting them in an alien's body. It may be simpler to accomplish damage repair by regenerating some damaged parts in place, and growing replacement parts outside and then replacing the damaged ones.

There would be the ability to detect and diagnose any cellular damage that was beyond the ability of the alien's cells or immune system to cope with. This would involve cancerous tumors or instances of poisoning. Then, in addition, the treatment of such cellular damage would be known and perfected. Whether it involves restoration of existing cells to normal activity and status, or the removal of damaged cells and replacement, either en masse with externally grown cells, or internally by normal or accelerated cell reproduction, this would be available for use.

If the alien living facilities, arcologies or whatever else was used, still had infectious agents present, then medicine would also include techniques and tools for ridding any alien of any infection. How that would be done probably depends on the infectious agent, with the options being simply enhancing the body's ability to deal with the agent, to inserting chemicals, autonomous cells, or robotic devices of small scale, locally or globally within the body, or by some external application of radiation, heat, ultrasound or something completely different.

An aspect of alien asymptotic medicine hardly contemplated today on Earth involves the modification of the genetics of the aliens themselves to improve some aspect of their health. The alien genome might be improvable in multiple ways, each of which is designed to improve one aspect of health. Each organ has specific genes which control its expression, and these might be tweaked to help that organ survive damage, aging, infection or any other ill effects. These genetic modifications might be limited to simply tweaking of an organ's capabilities, but might also be much more extensive. The aging process occurs by multiple means, but at the most universal level, there might be cellular aging in a particular alien species. This, if it exists, might also be slightly modified or actually replaced to allow greatly expanded lifetimes for aliens. Aging of aliens can be dealt by with palliative treatments, or by actually affecting the underlying cause of the aging. Besides generic cellular aging, there can also be some specific aging processes, each unique to a particular organ. After the approach to asymptotic medicine is completed, these would each be treated separately, leaving the alien individuals with an extended lifetime, together with excellent health and the ability to respond to injury quickly and efficiently.

These are simply the possibilities, and the important part for an alien civilization is what are the limits that will be found for each of these aspects. If an alien has a visual sensor, like our eye, the question that they will find the answer to is how fast can one be regenerated. This limit will be known, after enough investigation has occurred to find the final limit. There will be limits known for everything, including the limits to which the lifetime of an alien might be extended.


The essential concept behind asymptotic medicine is the same as behind all other branches of asymptotic science. There is only so much knowledge to be gained, and the accumulation of it is a one-way street, with continued progress, meaning that the end will be reached. Our understanding of science to date here on Earth is enough to let us know that the rate of progress is not infinitesimal, but rather enough to allow the end to be reached with some centuries of work. Perhaps it is faster on an alien planet, or perhaps it is slower, but the rate of progress is not different by more than an order of magnitude or two. Thus, within a reasonably short time compared to the duration of the species, and within a negligible amount of time compared to the duration of life itself, any alien civilization which does not crash and collapse will reach asymptotic medicine and other sciences as well.   

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Why Gas Giants Have Bands and What it Means

There is hardly any need to describe the surface appearance of Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system. Everyone has already see fly-by pictures of them. They are both distinguished, not only by their huge size compared to Earth, but by the bands of color that stretch across them in longitude. The bands are fairly well confined by latitude, but there are countless large and small cyclones scattered around the planets.

Where these bands come from is fairly easy to understand. Earth has retained heat from its collapse, and it slowly seeps to the surface. We see it in geothermal power stations, and watch it in volcanos. These two gas giants are so much heavier than Earth that the heat of collapse of them would be much larger than on Earth, and because distances are longer from the core to the surface, where the heat can be radiated into space, cooling is relatively slower. That does not mean that the amount of heat seeping up from the surface is smaller than on Earth, just the opposite to orders of magnitude. How it manifests itself is quite different, spectacularly so.

The core is hotter than the surface, so heat rises up. Most of a gas giant is fluid, so the heat is convected. But it is physically impossible for a whole spherical layer to rise uniformly, just because there is nowhere for the gas above the layer to go, but mostly because this is unstable, and specifically a Raleigh-Taylor instability. This means that somewhere hotter gas is being convected upwards, and cooler gas is moving down to compensate for the mass movement. Now we note that Jupiter is spinning rapidly and Saturn as well. This means there will be Coriolis forces, and since Coriolis force is in the direction of the cross product of the rotational vector and the velocity, any vertical velocity is going to result in a longitudinal force, opposite in the two hemispheres. So, gas rises from heat, and gets pushed longitudinally, leading to a longitudinal flow. But the Coriolis force on a longitudinal flow is latitudinal, and therefore gas which goes upwards gets pushed longitudinally and then latitudinally. The latitudinal flow leads to a downward flow. It is fairly easy to see that the overall effect will be gas flowing in a toroid, confined to some range of latitudes, and moving relative to the core rotation rate.

How deep does the flow go? Heat is convecting gas up from deep in the atmosphere, even from what might be called the mantle, where hydrogen solidifies under intense pressure. Gas rising deep in the atmosphere is subject to the same Coriolis forces, so the toroids should be quite deep, and certainly not surface features. Coriolis force depends on latitude, so the toroids would be moving with different rotation rates, leading to shear forces between them, where downgoing gas from one toroid meets upwelling gas from another. Shear forces lead to cyclones.  Cyclones are fed by heat convection and Coriolis forces as well.

Why are the bands differently colored? If they were all the same color, they would be much harder to detect and measure, and wouldn't look so spectacular in telescopic pictures. Just like the Earth, there is a mixture of different gases in the atmosphere of the gas giants, and just like the Earth, gravity separates them out, with heavier elements and molecules settling out at lower altitudes than lighter ones. We would expect to see hydrogen in the exosphere of Earth, and we do. This process, by the way, is how small planets like Venus and Mars lose components of their atmospheres. Jupiter and Saturn are large enough to be able to retain their hydrogen for very long times, compared to the age of the solar system. The composition difference at different depths means that as one layer of gas is getting mightily convected, en masse, different colored materials are being brought up for us to see. Coriolis force varies with latitude, so the depth to which the toroids extend should be different as well, meaning different compositions are at the lower edges of toroids manifesting as different bands, and therefore, different colors are at the upper surface.

What does this mean to us and to an alien civilization? It seems that gas giants act to stabilize planetary orbits, so an alien civilization on an Earth-like planet probably has a couple of gas giants in their heavens. We on Earth are hardly traveling at all through the solar system, just getting started in a small way to look closer at planets and satellites, but an alien civilization, centuries or millennia older than ours, might be traveling quite a bit in interplanetary space. What would they be doing with gas giants?

Energy is what keeps everything going. We have multiple sources, mostly now from carbon deposits, but also from uranium and solar photons. Wind and tides also play a role. Geothermal energy plays a role as well. An advanced alien civilization is going to be looking for other sources of energy, and a gas giant, rotating fast like Jupiter, has a tremendous amount of energy in its winds. Could even a millionth part of that be extracted and used for various purposes beyond the home planet?

It is almost impossible to even conceptualize something being done on a planet like Jupiter, which has storms many times the size of our entire planet, and lasting centuries. The scales of size and mass are so out-of-proportion that is is hard for an Earth person, and presumably an alien from an Earth-like planet, to think of. Even the scale of time is grandiose compared to our time scales. Maybe it takes some colony of aliens living out near their largest gas giant to be able to imagine how to do something with all that energy. Yet far out, solar power is much weaker, so a source of energy from Jupiter and Saturn, or their alien equivalents, would allow the exploration of the solar system to go much faster and be much more extensive.


Thus, we cannot visualize it now, but it might be that if energy can be harvested from a gas giant, large colonies might be possible out in the farther reaches of an alien solar system. This would change how we imagine the future of an alien civilization. It is the difference between a single-planet civilization that exploits some material resources beyond its own planet, and an interplanetary culture, with civilizations in multiple places, and where traveling for interplanetary distances becomes commonplace. The civilization that masters gas giant energy is much further and much closer to interstellar travel than one almost imprisoned on its home planet.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Will Aliens Say “Take Me to Your Leader”?

Old-time cartoons would sometimes show a flying saucer having landed on Earth and a ramp open, with an alien standing on it saying “Take me to your leader.” It seems like a reasonable thing for aliens to do, in that they might envision themselves as ambassadors to Earth. But does it make sense, or is it simply a product of our lack of questioning of our own assumptions?

From the dawn of recorded history there has been somebody in charge of each group of humans. Back when humans lived in clans, there was a boss of the clan, the big guy, who made decisions and enforced whatever rules they had. When clans merged into tribes, there was a tribal leader, and when settlements became permanent, every settlement had somebody to be the top person, except in rare anarchic situations, like after a death, or a loss in battle, or some natural disaster. When some settlements got large enough to have warrior classes, and one settlement conquered another, leading to small states or regions, there was a king or some other titled person who was on top. When we graduated to large nations, there had to be some emperor or prime minister or president or someone else at the top of the ladder.

Doesn't this mean, that since it has always been that way in human societies, that it will always be, and in alien civilizations as well? To answer this, there needs to be an accounting of what alternatives there might be. One possibility is that there is nobody in charge of any large region, or the whole planet, or pretty much everything. Decisions have to be made, and disputes settled, but that might have been automated in an advanced alien civilization. After the civilization reaches asymptotic technology, and changes from that source aren't happening any more, and politics and sociology and everything else is understood, completely and absolutely, why couldn't decisions simply be made by some intelligent automaton. There wouldn't be any new items coming up for decisions, as everything has been stabilized and just goes on, century after century after millennium, and any disputes would have as precedents identical ones already decided long ago, and decisions would be abstracted rather than being unique. There would simply be no need for any individual to concern themselves with making decisions or judgments or influential choices. It would all have been done so many times before, and would be so organized and simplified and logical and reasonable that no subjective human or alien intervention would be necessary. There wouldn't be any place in the society for that.

This does not mean that individuals would be pets or vegetables, just the opposite. They would be able to engage in decision-making regarding their own lives, to advise friends, to make whatever subjective judgments still existed, such as possibly meal quality, living space arrangements, clothing, and so on. There would however be no options for changing the system of laws, however, as that would be worked out and optimized as part of the diffusion of science thinking into all realms of life.

Since space travel between solar systems is a very large endeavor, time-consuming both in preparation and execution, it would be expected that asymptotic technology would be achieved long before any aliens left their home solar system to come to Earth. Thus, they may have lived for centuries without any 'leader' existing, and it could be many thousands of years since there was any such position or even concept in their civilization. So, when they get here, they might just start interacting with whoever they meet, oblivious to the idea that we Earthlings might still arrange ourselves in hierarchies.

No one on their flying saucer, or whatever craft they have built, is in charge of anything, and no one needs to be. There is no Captain, no First Mate, no anything. Everyone knows what has to be done and what is the logical way of getting it done and if there are tasks still done by aliens, which one is to do each one. They know this, and if they forget, their AI box will help them remember.

Consider another aspect. What would the aliens expect to do here, if they did come to Earth from some solar system tens of light years away or even further? If they did look up their own history, or used their own branch of science which predicts how primitive societies organize themselves, they might know that there would be leaders and hierarchies on any planet they managed to get to. But why would they want to meet them? They aren't there to set up diplomatic relations, as the interstellar distances are so large no reasonable communications could be carried on, and it would make no difference anyway.

Maybe they came to simply start a colony here. Their idea is to get off the ship, and start to build some dwellings, set up some food supply, and do the other various things that someone arriving on a new planet might do. They would be not so naive as to assume that there would be no reaction by the population, so they would not have chosen a planet with civilization on it, unless they could deal with it. No alien civilization which goes to the immense effort of building a ship capable of transporting something of their culture to another solar system is not going to be prepared for any contingency, and certainly with multiple options. Surprises do not happen to advanced civilizations, as they would be able to predict potential scenarios without any difficulty.


Science fiction writers like to reduce the difficulty of interstellar travel in order to make a good story, and so there are stories of aliens who are the last of their species coming, or renegades escaping from some expanding empire, or various other options. These stories all ignore the progress of technology, except in the area we are familiar with or at least have imagined the most, such as starships. Technology will cover all aspects of life and physical existence, and this will happen in a quite short time compared to the lifetime of an alien civilization. Aliens that do come to this planet will not be suitable for being the heroes or villains of a science fiction story, but instead will be completely prepared to do whatever it is that was accepted as the mission of their civilization, vis-a-vis interstellar travel.  

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Carlyle’s Theory of Great Men


Carlyle was an English historian who, in 1840, wrote an explanation of his view of history as the biography of great men. He felt that all history is determined by the actions of a small number of great men, and that these men were created by their heredity and upbringing, and then tried to find an opportunity to lead others and essentially write history. It gained a wide acceptance, but there was an opposing theory, started by Spencer in 1860, that society develops in a way that provides opportunities for great leaders and there is a pool of them in the population so that when an opportunity arises, one steps in.

Neither side stated that great men did not accomplish history-changing things, whether they were political or military gains, breakthroughs in technology, epochal writing, or something else. The basic difference is that Carlyle thought that there were potential great men who looked for a spot to fill, an opportunity for their greatness to fulfill itself, and Spencer who through there were great potential great men who were called by an opportunity for greatness. The former thought the men would do something to create the opportunity and the latter felt that the opportunity would beckon to someone who was waiting in the wings for one. There does not seem to be a great deal of difference between then.

The essence is that, in modern terms, there are individuals who have the right genetics and training, and social dynamics creates opportunities or allows opportunities to be exploited in which some great acts can be accomplished. Carlyle thought there were few potential great men and they would often be able to find an opportunity and Spencer felt there were many potential great men and few opportunities so that when one arose, there would be someone to utilize it. Not a lot of difference, considering the fuzziness of the definition of a great man and a great accomplishment. There might be more or less of one or the other depending on how one defines the set.

In an alien civilization, the same thing should happen, except it might be a great crustacean or a great octopus instead of a great man who does the history-changing action. Civilization progresses as long as there are great individuals who find great opportunities. Civilization does not progress if there are no great individuals anymore or there are no great opportunities anymore. This is the unavoidable conclusion of either Carlyle’s or Spencer’s theory of Great Men and history.

So, if we are asking why alien spaceships have not made it to Earth, we might consider one explanation is that in all alien civilizations, they either run out of potential great men, or have no great opportunities. The latter seems impossible, as technology will continue to have breakthroughs until it exhausts itself in asymptotic regions, and society will continue to have openings for change until a final asymptotic form is reached. In these asymptotic times, space travel would be possible, rather than any other, so that a failure of great individuals to do their tasks prior to reaching the stage where space travel is conceivable. Thus the question to be asked is, what might cause, perhaps universally across all alien civilization, the pool of potential great men to dry up and disappear in pre-asymptotic technology eras?

One answer is that genetic shifts in the gene pool lead to no potential great individuals being born (or hatched or whatever). This possibility depends on the genetics necessary to produce a great individual. If it is combination of multiple genes, which seems infinitely more likely that a single ‘great man gene’, it would mean that the probability of an individual being conceived with the whole set of necessary genes gets lower and lower and eventually becomes so small that in the population, none are produced at some particular time. It is very easy to see how this could happen. Suppose there is a subpopulation which mostly breeds within itself, and has some distribution of all the genes that are necessary. For an example, suppose there are ten genes required, and the distribution of the population is such that each one is present, randomly, in 20% of the population. This means that each new individual has 0.2 to the tenth power chance of having them all, or 1 in 10 million chance. If the subpopulation has 100 million people, 10 of them would be potential great men. Now suppose the subpopulation is absorbed in a population of 1 billion, ten times as large, and the absorbing population does not have any of the ten required genes. Now the probability of an individual having all ten required genes is 0.02 to the tenth power, or 1 in 100 quadrillion. For reference, a quadrillion is a million billion. This means the whole population, after the absorption of the subpopulation and assuming random breeding, has a one in a hundred million chance of having a single great individual.

The point of this example is not the numbers, but that it is very easy to lose any chance of a combination of genes occurring if the population is absorbed by one without them. A hundred different variants of the example could be quantified, but the point does not change. An alien civilization can lose its ability to progress by simply merging populations. Things in real life probably don’t happen suddenly but take generations to happen, but if there are enough generations, the conclusion would be inescapable.

The other side of the coin is upbringing or training of those individuals who do have the right genetics. Training is not something that is composed of nice neat discrete parts, like genes, but that actually makes the alternative example possible. Suppose that universal affluence has a corrosive effect on the upbringing of great individuals. This does not mean that affluence in one parental group or family, or the equivalent in a different form of reproduction, causes the halt of raising great individuals, but universal affluence does, in that it causes effects on the social environment which deter the parental group from following the precepts and protocols necessary to produce a great individual.

To summarize, it is easy to see how an alien civilization could cut off its own progress, by either merging of populations or of being successful in providing affluence to the large masses of population. There are probably other easy examples of how either of these detrimental effects could happen. Thus, here is a possibility for alien invisibility that needs to be considered.