Thursday, March 21, 2019

Colonizing Frozen Worlds


An alien civilization which has mastered the art and science of traveling between solar systems might have done something else which will surprise us. They might have decided that worlds like their origin world are fine for the origination of life and evolution and technology development, but there are better choices for an established, advanced, expanding civilization. They might like frozen worlds.

Back here on Earth, we are all excited about the developments in the detection of planets around other stars than ours, and are contemplating how we might search for life on them. The great hope is that oxygen in the atmosphere will be the clue. Oxygen is a reactive element, and would combine with exposed rock, removing it from the atmosphere. It is plant life which renews it, by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Before we had plant life on Earth, we had a different atmosphere. Nitrogen is not very reactive, and carbon dioxide even less; they were there. There may have been other constituents, but no matter. Oxygen was not one of them. If life all died out on Earth, the oxygen in the atmosphere would disappear. So atmospheric oxygen has been chosen as the signature of life.

This means that our search for oxygen in the atmosphere of all those exo-planets is directly solely at finding origin planets. To understand what this means, let’s consider an example. Civilization Z originated on planet A101, after a billion years or two of evolution. They used up all the resources, but being a very intelligent civilization, they developed star travel before that happened, so they could travel to other solar systems and use up the resources there, before traveling on. Maybe they had communication between the different colony worlds, and maybe not. Perhaps they always did more than one new world from each colony, after about a million years on each one. Then, to do the very simple math, after one million years there would be two colonies, plus the origin planet which can no longer support a civilization, lacking resources. After two million years there would be four colonies, plus two old colonies which had died out and old A101. After three million years, eight colonies, plus six old colony worlds, now without any civilization, and A101. Just remember, in the calendar of the galaxy, three million years is very, very short. Maybe they would run into some expansion problems at some time, as exponential growth gets large very quickly. For the sake of the example, suppose that at the time we start looking for life in the galaxy there are five thousand colony planets with life, meaning civilization Z, two or three thousand ex-colony planets, and that old origin planet.

So, if some brilliant astronomer wants to find life in the galaxy at this point, there might be five thousand planets with life and a civilization to boot, and one origin planet. Where should he look for life? Origin planets?

To try and figure out what planets might be serving as colonies for civilization Z, ask: "What are they going to need?" Resources, and principal among them, energy. If the planet being considered is not a rogue planet, floating free in interstellar space, there will be a star to orbit around, which is giving off energy in the form of photons. These might be collected. Otherwise, there is uranium and thorium to fission and deuterium and other light nuclei to fuse.

Perhaps there are two stages of resource needs. One relates to the initial time on the planet, after the alien colony ship arrives and lands. Since fission reactors are relatively simple to build, compared with fission ones, at least as far as we know, they might seek planets with lots of uranium, and uranium that is not too old so there is still lots of U-235. Old uranium has only the U-238 left, which is much harder to fission. As uranium ages, the fraction of U-235 goes down. The planet from which civilization Z is expanding might start a hundred thousand years before they need to migrate, and send out some exploration ships. A ten thousand year voyage, and they can start reporting back on what the target planet is made of. So, in this particular scenario of colonization, there is plenty of time to carefully plan their next planetary colonization.

To have uranium, which is thought to be produced in supernova explosions, there would have to have been a few in the previous billion years prior to the formation of the star they are considering. Then there would be uranium, young enough to be useful. Figuring that out might not be too difficult, by looking at the contents of the gas clouds around the solar system in question.

Do they want a larger planet, with an atmosphere, or a smaller planet, maybe Mars-sized, with almost none. This might depend on the details of how planets form crusts and how mineral deposits accumulate in the crust. We’re not too sure of these details now, but if Mars has good mineral deposits, then Mars-like planets might be just what they want. Low gravity means not so much propulsion needed to get out of the gravitational hole. Little atmosphere means no winds to worry about.

Our knowledge of exo-planets is fairly sparse at the current time, but it might be such smaller planets are typically cold. If the star is smaller, but there was a lot of residual angular momentum in the cloud it formed from, there might be many smaller planets, completely frozen, but with excellent mineral resources. Could an advanced alien civilization cope with extreme cold? Can they master insulation? Very likely. Thus, perhaps frozen smaller rocky planets are their preference. If so, even a rogue planet might be just fine. There may be huge numbers of them roaming the galaxy, largely invisible to us.

There is another follow-on conclusion from this possibility. Earth would be of no interest to an alien civilization which was colonizing all the mineral-rich, frozen, small planets in the Milky Way. Earth is too big, with too much atmosphere, too large with too much gravity, and also has the minor inconvenience of already having life on it. Perhaps we should think through the alienology of colonization a bit more to see if this option is a dominant one.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Momentum and Goals in an Advanced Alien Civilization


In this blog, the various eras of an alien civilization are described by the technology that is possessed. There is the early fire and stone era, then comes the age of metal, followed by the age of mechanical industry, followed by the age of electronics, then the age of genetics. It was convenient to divide these eras up by naming transition periods, 'grand transformations', when the knowledge and capability in one of these areas of technology was changing fast and leading the civilization into new directions and plateaus. All of the areas of technology continue changing at once, so there is necessarily overlapping of inventions in different fields, but the effect on society would seem to have peaks and valleys. In the peak, society is reorganizing itself to take advantage of the new technology. In the valleys, the reorganization is diffusing out but the main changes have passed in the part of the civilization that is at the forefront of technology change.

There are several possible catastrophes that could end an alien civilization and prevent it from ever traveling in space to visit Earth. Most of these are physical, such as a nearby supernova or a basalt flood or an asteroid impact. Some are social, such as idiocracy, which is the failure of the society to generate enough intelligent people to keep it running, or factionalism, where the civilization devotes itself to strife between factions, which again prevents it from pursuing higher technology or maintaining what has been achieved. A third one is resource exhaustion, where the cost of obtaining mineral or energy resources gets too high to maintain the standard of living necessary to keep technology going forward, and incidentally doing anything sufficient to prevent resource exhaustion. As noted in the posts on idiocracy, this happens when the culture ceases to value reproduction of intelligence, on the average, and might best be referred to as a situation of social momentum.

One way to think of social momentum is to think of a herd of herbivores outrunning some predators. They have no plan to follow, just speed to use to their advantage. So they run without thinking, most times to a successful escape, but sometimes into a cul-de-sac or over a cliff. The essence of social momentum is that the civilization has not reached the point where the goals of the civilization as a whole are discussed and clarified, but instead, they have not crystallized into any usable form. Goals are all personal and do not align. During a special period like a war, there will be a goal of at least a faction of the civilization, but other times, none exists.

For idiocracy, the social momentum is in the direction of differential breeding, with lower intelligence individuals breeding at a higher rate. For factionalism, there is a goal for each different faction, but they are opposite and pertain to the destruction of the other faction or factions. The social momentum is toward destruction of assets. For resource exhaustion, the social momentum is in the direction of individual consumption, and resources are not thought of as being needed for the successive generations, but only for the current one; otherwise they are thought of as being so huge that infinite is a good approximation in economic thinking.

Where does social momentum, in self-annihilating directions, arise? The nature of individual decision-making, in overview, is quite simple. Individuals make decisions for themselves or they copy the decisions made by others, which they obtain through individual contact or via media. Those controlling the media can filter such decisions, leading to a limited scope of choices for those individuals who prefer to copy the selections of others. Some number of individuals will make their own choices, depending on their feelings or using some amount of reasoning. If those who control the media make their choices in such as way as to have them fulfilled by spreading some particular set of goals, then the direction of the social momentum of society is determined by them. If in a particular alien civilization, there are divisions in choice among the media-controlling elements, then social goals will be diffuse, otherwise they might be more aligned.

Some economic systems have strong feedback loops which tend to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals. Other systems might not have these loops. So one question to ask is, if factionalism is part of the social momentum of a particular alien civilization, will the economic system present on the planet allow power, in particular media control, to be concentrated. Technology might also push toward concentration, or rather, work via economics to do this.

Does technology and its understandable stages and steps tend to have economic changes along with the other social changes that it brings, and do those economic changes favor economic systems which concentrate power? One aspect of technology is a kind of communication range that individuals have. In the fire and stone era, there were only a small number of others who could communicate with any particular individual, maybe only one or a few families. In the metal era, there was surplus food at times, which allowed individuals to be used as travelers bearing communications. In the industrial era, communications begins to open up so that an individual might be in contact with thousands, via printing. Then electronics opens the gate even further, perhaps to the maximum possible, where any individual on an alien planet could without great difficulty communicate with any other one.

Is concentration of power also a social momentum artefact, so that if there at one time a high degree of it, does that continue for a long period, through technology changes? The feedback loop which promotes this might be the default condition of the civilization, and only by some unusual circumstances would there be a smaller concentration. The feedback loop works very simply. Someone with a large amount of power can use some of that to increase the amount of power he possesses, leading to a greater concentration. In the later stages of technology, transportation and communication are no longer hindrances to such concentration. So, the three social catastrophes, idiocracy, factionalism, and resource exhaustion might well be in the cards for many alien civilizations, as they will allow power to be concentrated to the point where the feedback loop begins to function, leaving the concentration to increase inevitably. The three catastrophes are not sudden, but very gradual, and the concentration of power effects will continue to push towards their final state, while power continues to concentrate even more.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Later Stages of the Genetic Grand Transformation


In an older post, it was noted that the genetic revolution is likely to be, by a large margin, the most revolutionary of all, in the sense that an alien civilization will be wholly transformed when it happens. The different stages of this grand transformation can be laid out, as they are necessarily sequential. The knowledge gained at one stage is needed for the next stage.

The first stage is very simple, chromosomal selection for embryos. This is extremely old news here on Earth, and there has even been a movie produced about it, entitled GATTACA, from twenty years ago. A couple has twice as many of each chromosome as an embryo needs, so the best two of each type can be chosen. The second stage is what we hear in the news nowadays, which is when specific genes are chosen. Tools for that are just now being found here, and surely in any alien civilization reaching its maturity this would be as routine as antibiotics. Small amounts of changes are what we talk about now, as we don’t have confirmed technology for even that. The technology must exist, however, as inside the cell, genes are moved around during evolution all the time.

Right after that, industrial gestation would be the likely mechanism to be developed next. This particular invention will change an alien civilization more than the Internet has changed out, which is totally. No more parents and no more child-bearing, just new humans. Will parenting become a specialized business, just as has almost every other aspect of life? Why would it be any different? Parenting is extremely rewarding, perhaps more so than any other activity in life, but why not outsource the child-bearing to a machine? Yes, bonding between mother and child will be diminished, and in time, as an alien civilization ages, the role of mother might be also performed by specialists, either trained aliens or some robotics. It is almost trivial to be able to think up problems that might happen with this, but it will be just as trivial for an alien civilization to figure out how to avoid them or turn them into advantages.

Consider for a moment what this point represents. It means that any organism that can be developed in a laboratory can be put through industrial gestation and be ‘born’. This refers to things on alien planets like mammals, but similar processes would be similarly possible for things like plants and insects and whatever else evolved on the planet. In other words, life becomes something like a recipe or a cookbook. AI will undoubtedly be very powerful by the time industrial gestation is well-developed, so the concoction of forms of life which can successfully pass from the egg stage to the real world and on to an adult animal or plant will be quite possible. A huge amount of data will have to be collected, about all the molecules that operate in a living organism, but huge data stores are just the media AI likes to live in.

Now, on Earth, to come up with a new species of plant or animal takes a lot of careful breeding and selection. On a planet with technology a few centuries past ours, it will be done from scratch, without experimentation, as ontology and growth can just be simulated. There can be as many new species as anyone wants to take the time and expense to come up with.

This is by no means the end of the genetic grand transformation. Since reproduction of anything will be economically done industrially, why would there be any species at all? Species are defined as groups of individuals capable of breeding with one another. There would be no need for this, so why have species? There could be a billion clones of some plant if it were desired, or none, meaning that organism was its own species.

Is DNA sacred, or whatever form of organic molecule evolved on an alien planet to serve as the template for genetics? We on Earth are far from knowing how many kinds of molecules can do this job, and if there are more than one, is there another which is more versatile, or more reliable, or easier to work with, or anything else which might mean that the alien technologists would start switching over to it for successive generations of organisms?

And whether DNA or XYZ is used, the legacy method of ontology might be changed. We don’t understand this process very well, but we have observed it in detail. The idea is that each successively evolved species keeps most of the ontology of its predecessor, and adds a little twist to it. Perhaps an alien civilization would rewrite the book, and have a completely different order of development of organs in some new organism they created. Just because something evolved does not mean it was the best that could exist, as there is a barrier posed by the need for evolutionary change to work gradually.

One point made in that earlier post is by the time of these later stages of the genetic grand transformation, it might be reasonable for aliens to switch over from mono-genetic organisms to multi-genetic organisms. We refer to these as chimeras, but that is only a tiny little glimpse of what might be possible. Any optimized genetic package can be used for any organ or part of an organ in a designed chimera. Aliens could choose to use just two or as many as desired. This would mean that an embryo would be fashioned by amalgamating cells of different genetic varieties, all of which were tuned so they could form a cooperative package of cells that could be gestated and have different genetic codes in different parts of the organism.

All the previous stages involve organic biochemistry. At some point, there could be a closer bond between organic and inorganic components in some hybrid object. We on Earth use certain types of microbes to sort out dilute liquids containing minerals, and of course that should be expected to expand far beyond these ideas. For example, technology may well allow communication between whatever passes for neurons on an alien planet, and some semiconductor gizmos of equally small size. The neurons would be tailored genetically for this, and the gizmos specifically designed and printed to be a good substrate. Then anything is possible.

Authors and screenwriters like to play with the idea of a person from some centuries ago being brought into the modern world and being astounded by what they see. Someone from before the genetic grand transformation being brought to a time after it would be immeasurably more confounded by what is seen. We on Earth would do well to simply contemplate these potential changes to better appreciate what an alien civilization of advanced technology really looks like. Then we can better ask the question of why haven’t they visited us here.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Death by Erudition

When contemplating why an alien society might never reach its technological zenith, but instead get stuck at some lower point, there are many, many possibilities. If technology never reaches its finale in asymptotic technology, then space travel is impossible, the alien society lives and becomes extinct on its own planet, and we never get visited by them. One boondoggle that an advanced or middle-technology society can get in might be called 'Death by Erudition'.

Erudition is a nice English word which has the meaning of the accumulation of already known knowledge. In other words, it is the opposite of learning by experiment or by trial-and-error. The example that springs to mind is the old Chinese Empire, where opportunities for advancement and personal power were largely confined to the imperial government, and there were tests that were used to filter out the more qualified from the less qualified. The subject of the tests was Confucian learning and the derivations from it. Confucianism is something like a religion, but without any supernatural entities floating around, and a large behavioral code. Alien individuals would need, at that time and at all times, some basis for choosing how to behave in a multitude of situations, and what type of mandatory behavior would be necessary as well. If there was an alien civilization which developed a globe-spanning empire, and which put up a chokepoint to advancement as erudition in some subject like a behavioral code and all its trappings, then any alien who might have had a possible future in advancing technology would be steered away from that into the task of passing through the chokepoint.

Technology advances when there are some precursors to it. One is the scientific method, and we have Francis Bacon to thank for kicking off the theory of how to do good science. If an alien society took its Francis Bacons, meaning those aliens who had the equivalent of his mental abilities and freedom of thought, and induced a very large majority of them to instead work on following to the last detail some behavior code, “alien Confucianism” if it needs a title, there might be no one, between the time of the foundation of the empire and its collapse due to resource shortages or something else intrinsic to a colossal government, who invents the scientific method. With that, there would be no guidelines for interested aliens to follow in order to push the civilization up the technology ladder.

The alien empire does not have to be completely globe-spanning, but it does have to be large enough to dominate the globe and to set an example to all the outlying areas, where some minor kingdoms might be set up. It would seem quite logical that these outer regimes would try to imitate the globe's largest empire, and copy their focus on erudition and on having a chokepoint to advancement being the mis-directed competition on knowledge of some body of behavioral rules or some other religious category of knowledge. It is easy to imagine many ways such a competition could be organized and many sets of knowledge domains it could cover, without there being the slightest impetus to advancing technology.

It might be thought that some upstart kingdom on the periphery would want to be an alien Kublai Khan and conquer the empire, using some new technology. But technology provides an incremental advantage, and sheer numbers provides a different one. As long as the empire paid attention to the smaller kingdoms and maintained control over them, so they could not be amalgamated under one leader, their numbers could be sufficient to overwhelm any technology advantage, or for that matter, any inspirational leader or any secret cabal or so on. The key is that the empire has to pay attention to the details of what was going on in the periphery. With that in hand, an alien empire might easily prolong its existence, and the counter-technology chokepoint, until resource shortages or environmental effects or some natural catastrophe put an end to that civilization's window of opportunity to explore interstellar space.

There have been many examples of empires here on Earth, and three stand out as examples of humongous empires. One is the Chinese Empire, already mentioned, which had the chokepoint and which serves as a good example. Another is the Incan Empire, which was huge as well. The Incan Empire did not last long enough for such effects to be manifested, as it was swallowed up by the Spanish Empire after it had existed, as an empire, for only about a hundred years. The third is the venerable Roman Empire. Each of these three had suppressed or swallowed up the nearby competition. The Incan Empire had its own belief system, but it was so short-lived that it was still in the condition of having military leaders rule over it and take positions of power within it. The Roman Empire had passed that stage, but it was so diverse that it did not have any standard belief system to use in harnessing the ambition of young potential leaders. Thus the Chinese example is the only outstanding one, but it serves as an illustration of what might happen.

Are there any features we could observe on distant planets that would have an effect on the rise of such an empire? Is there anything unique about Earth which means we don't have such features and therefore escaped from that collapse mode?

Empires grow because they have a central granary, a large area where foodstuffs can be grown and where villages and cities can be formed. Rome had the Italian peninsula, the Incans had the terraced mountains up and down the Andean mountain chain, the Chinese had central China. They also had to have transportation, and that consisted of one spine of roads plus branches for the Incas, a network of roads emanating from the capital for China, and the Mediterranean Sea plus roads for the Romans. To have a globe-spanning empire would means there would have to be a large continent, all fertile, without barriers to transportation. Alternatively, an archipelago with all the fertile land might do. There would have to be no obstacles such as mountain ranges dividing the sole continent, or multiple fertile continents at large distances. Thus, once we have constructed a telescope of kilometer size or greater, we can look at exo-planets which are otherwise likely to have originated life, and see if they might have had a civilization which collapsed early in their technological progress, owing to 'Death by Erudition'. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Approach to Arcologies in Alien Civilizations

Arcologies and massive recycling go hand-in-hand. An alien civilization which reaches the stage where it is aware of resource constraints on their home planet will gradually improve recycling, and work to decrease the fraction of materials used in production that come from resource extraction, using recycling instead. Having the population concentrated in arcologies makes high-level recycling easier and more efficient.

An alien civilization cannot just decide that on some date everyone will move into an arcology. It must be a gradual process. But just what might that process look like? Are there any stumbling blocks along the way that might interfere with the civilization's eventual decision to leave their solar system and travel to another?

Recycling itself grows bit by bit. On Earth we are familiar with collection of a few materials which can be reprocessed and re-submitted to manufacturing. There is also other forms of recycling going on here that we do not necessarily categorize as recycling, but which would be a major feature of life on any advanced planet that had decided it wanted to survive for eons. One is re-use. If an item is not discarded while still being useful, but instead is transferred to a new user, this is a form of recycling. Not much is recycled here, perhaps clothing and children's toys, a small amount of furniture and a few other things are simply sold or transferred to new owners, such as family members or friends. Housing is the other large component of goods which are transferred from owner to owner, along with vehicles.

Refurbishing of goods prior to resale also occurs in a few instances here on Earth. Recycling of organic materials in compost is used on Earth and has been for thousands of years, being perhaps the first of all recycling that humans have done. All of these techniques and several others would be needed to push the level of recycling in an alien civilization up to 80%, 90%, 95% or higher. These high levels translate into large increases in longevity for the alien civilization, provided catastrophes do not occur. A long duration alien civilization is needed to prepare for and conduct space flight between stars.

Recycling, to reach the high levels that might be mandatory for longevity, needs to increase both in degree and in extent. The increase in degree means that, if copper is being recycled, as time passes, the percentage that is mined dropped, and the percentage that is lost and unrecoverable diminishes. This limits the type of usage that can be done. Losses occur when a substance is too completely mixed with diverse other substances to be economically separated, or when it is used in consumption, such as the liner of rocket nozzles, where ablation would remove it and irretrievably disperse it. A mixed material that can be simply treated and reused in the same or similar function is certainly categorizable as recycling, and it is only if the material is dispersed would it be lost. The combination of mixing and dispersal might remove some substance that either one of them would not.  The expansion of extent means more and more substances are submitted to recycling, eventually approaching 100%.

There will certainly be a preference for making all items in the civilization out of parts which can be recycled, and in increasing the lifetime of all parts as well. A bearing which lasts for fifty years cuts losses by 80% over a similar bearing which only lasts for ten. Such longevity increases might come from simple design changes, not involving any different materials. It is not clear immediately how the selection of design will be made and by whom in any particular alien civilization, but it is clear that one of the strongest constraints on design will include reliability and the possibility to remove all or most of the materials for recycling as a materials or as parts.

If the population of the alien planet is spread out everywhere, with low density, the transportation costs of recycling will be larger, and it will be more difficult to collect waste. To get to very high levels of recycling, it might be necessary to collect dust from manufacturing areas or perhaps elsewhere, or even to filter the atmosphere. Thus, one of the pressures in the alien society is to bring everyone who consumes resources into one of the locales where collection and reprocessing can be done. This means more population in large cities and less in non-urban areas.

Another aspect of resource usage minimization is the introduction of efficiency in every process that occurs in the alien civilization. Earthlings know a little about this, as we understand that reducing gasoline per distance helps cut losses of resource, as does home insulation. Efficiency becomes another strong design driver in an advanced alien civilization on its pathway to the stars. Transportation efficiency comes not just in fuel usage, but in mode of transport and distance between sites as well. In an arcology, elevators and the horizontal equivalents can be used as the distances are smaller, and this is yet another factor that will tend to make arcologies the only viable choice for a long-term alien civilization.

Not only will distances that are mandatory for transportation be reduced in an arcology, but so also will the mass involved in transportation. If something universal, such as food, needed by all aliens, has to be transported, having an apparatus within the arcology to do it is likely many times more efficient in transportation costs than any other options.

It would seem reasonable, after recycling technology reaches a certain point, that large buildings would be built in cities, not like the small ones we have today, but ones which occupy much more space and house much more population, thus making this type of transportation apparatus sufficiently economical to replace other types of transportation. Then, recycling centers can be constructed at short distances from other components of the system, such as refurbishing facilites, collection of materials for preprocessing facilities, waste handling facilities and all the other needed to bring the civilization up to a high level of recycling and cut resource usage down to a small fraction of what it was before these sequential changes take place.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Technology Can Outrun Economics

One question which can be posed about the ascent to space travel in an alien civilization is: Are there barriers to the achievement of asymptotic technology by an alien society in the realm of economics? In other words, as we try to hypothesize how alien civilizations develop, are there pitfalls within their economic systems which might lead to a halt in progress or a descent from a high standard of living to one which cannot support space travel? Thinking through economic systems and their evolution, in parallel with technology, might provide some insights.

All alien civilizations start out when a species evolves, because of elementary tool use, into something which can accumulate knowledge of a technology nature. Perhaps the first tool use is fire, or stone, or something else on some exo-planet. But after some use of this, the species starts to live in groups, and then to live in fixed sites.

An economic system that works very well for a village, with a clan living within it, may not be the best system for a society where technology has advanced beyond the handiwork stage. First consider how village economics works, or at least might work. There would be a village boss, whose role was to make decisions, along with some other influential people, and to ensure the whole clan was taken care of. He needed to make sure the food supply was adequate, in all seasons of the planet's year, and that everyone received a sufficient share. He was also responsible for safety, from invasion or physical catastrophe, for making the largest decisions such as the choice to migrate to a more favorable location, for regulating trade, for encouraging skill improvement in whatever handicrafts were present, for following the rituals of the clan, such as might be related to death and burial, and more. The economic system was not communism, as some people were rewarded with significantly more than others, and was not capitalism, as there was a strong current of compassion, meaning those too old, infirm, disabled, young, or whatever were taken care of.

Work motivation is a critical requirement for a large village or larger urban region. There are only two ways in which individuals can be motivated to work, and one is for personal gain or the gain for those closely associated with the individual, and the other is for altruistic reasons, for the benefits of all clan members. In a small village, where everyone knows everyone, these two reasons partially merge.

In general, individuals of any intelligent species can be happy and content either from two causes, one, because they produce a large amount, or with a high degree of skill or, two, because they consume a large amount, or consume things of higher value or quality than others. It doesn't seem it would be too common that a single individual has both sources of happiness in high degree. The productive individual is often somewhat indifferent to the distribution of his production, as long as it is appreciated by the whole clan. This type of personality is what is encouraged by the clan and its leaders.

Those who care mostly about consumption find themselves without much support in a small clan. They certainly can exist, and serve some role in the clan by creating a demand for better quality products, more carefully done, and with attributes which might be unique. A productive individual can also create such demand, however, so there is a little utility within a village for a solely consumption-oriented individual. When the size of the habitation increases, however, from the level allowed by improvements in technology, things can change.

One of the first results is factionalization. A brain, in any creature, is not infinite and not uniform. Some sort of division of other individuals must occur, and there would be a preference relating to them. This translates into a preference for some to have benefits more than others. Contact frequency might affect this, of which the strongest is familial relationships. The alien civilization in each small town would gradual factionate, and at least at first, into families. Members of one family would seek benefits for their family, at the expense of others. There are a great many benefits possible in this division, both tangible and intangible ones, such as opportunities to take positions, learn skills, occupy areas, and so on.

Factionalization can expand beyond families, either in such a way that the population of the town is divided into sub-clans, or in different directions, that is, based on different types of divisions, like profession or something even more arbitrary, like groups formed in regions of the town. The point to be made is that the village economic system had universal compassion as a component, and as growth in population continues, this becomes stretched beyond its limits and breaks down. We have instead compassion and benefit-seeking divided into competing factions.

As this continues and becomes more rigid, one might have castes or classes forming, and furthermore, the rules or customs which controlled the village are rewritten so that the more powerful factions can create even larger discrepancies between benefits for individuals. The village boss role is fractured into multiple heads of family and other groups. Possessions are not freely divided and shared with those in need, partially because the level of production is higher and fewer individuals are near minimal sustenance level, but also because the feelings inside each individual no longer tend to compel this. We have a different economic system.

Production fractures as well among the factions, so that any technology items are made by one or more of the factions, and there is no conduit for an individual to become expert in a technology if he does not belong to the appropriate faction. Professions are likewise divided. The skills needed for defense of the town are concentrated, as well as the equipment for this, and this may be turned inward instead of outward, meaning force now can replace volunteerism. The rules by which trade is conducted can be changed. There is little left of village economics in a larger town, although there may be facsimiles within some factions.

This 'town economics', as it might be called, is something that can linger as technology continues onward and onward. The principal derivation from this is that factions become an integral part of an alien civilization, and it would be important to see if they can also be a limiting factor in the progress of the civilization up to the level needed for space travel. A little more subtly, the goals that individuals gain in their upbringing under town economics is different that those in village economics. In town economics the goal is to get a larger share of the benefits for your faction. In village economics, the goal is to increase the overall amount of benefits to be shared within the village. Factionalism may or may not lead to technology progress and utilization, and this question needs to be explored further.





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.