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.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Population Decline in Alien Civilizations

Population decline has to eventually happen in all alien civilizations. Sooner or later, growth in population must cease, if only for the reason that all resources have been consumed and there is no way to continue to support the existing population, much less allow it to grow. This may be many centuries after asymptotic technology has been passed, and material substitution may have provided more centuries of growth, but eventually all of these ideas are found, exploited, and the end is reached.

Population decline can happen for many reasons other than resource shortages. There could be many types of calamities, that might, for example, render part of the planet uninhabitable, such as basaltic flooding. Epidemics would not be a cause, as once medical technology reaches a certain point, infections would be easily cured and prevented from spreading. An asteroid that impacts the planet could make part of it uninhabitable for a long time following the impact.

Population decline does not have to be involuntary, as it could come from a decision made by the governance to discourage population growth, or if population is generated by industrial gestation, rather than by the means which served the population well until that time, there could simply be a decision to produce less new aliens each year that ones which died. If the population is generated, at least partially, by the original biological means, there might be a decision on the part of the population involved in that process to restrict the numbers. For example, if the alien civilization is like our insect species, and only a few individuals are genetic sources for succeeding generations, then those individuals could simply decide to cooperate in generating less individuals than currently die each year, so the population numbers would go down.

Population decline might happen before asymptotic technology has been reached. At this point in the progress of an alien civilization, many other reasons can exist for population decline. There might be factions, dividing the population in a variety of ways, regionally, by some genetic factors, in a caste system or whatever. Conflict between two factions might reduce population.

Whatever the cause, one question that can be asked, is population decline in an advanced civilization destabilizing? There might be at least two mechanisms by which destabilization could happen. One exists where the civilization has different roles for individuals, based on their age. Perhaps the first quarter of each member's life is education and physical and mental growth, the second involves some critical work tasks, the third is involved with monitoring and managing, and the fourth is leisure-oriented. If the ratios of the population in the different quarters of age is critical to the functioning of the civilization, some destabilization might conceivably occur. This does not seem to be a likely possibility as the problem could simply be solved by moving the thresholds between the four sectors of the population a bit each year to adjust it to the demographics. If the civilization had no way to do this, for example, it was composed of a species that metamorphosed at a precise age, then this mechanism might be relevant. This would only be the case if the tasks were likewise immutable, or something like working hours could not be adjusted to cope with the demographic change. It is hard to see how a civilization could be so constrained by age-related functions that it would destabilize following a decision to reduce population.

The other mechanism, or set of mechanisms, might be when the functioning of the society is dependent on the continual growth of numbers of members within the civilization. This would seem to be a very unlikely situation, except that such arrangements exist on Earth, and therefore could conceivably exist elsewhere. One process by which a society could arrange itself to be dependent on growth involves the society having a hierarchy or some gradation of worth in the society, and individual members rise in the hierarchy as they grow older, provided that there are sufficient numbers in the hierarchical levels beneath them. This is called a pyramid scheme. Could an alien society arrange itself so that there was such a hierarchy, and elevation in it was principally dependent on increasing numbers? Possibly, in the pre-asymptotic technology era.

Once technology expands beyond the hard sciences, the easiest ones to figure out and organize, into those related to social organization, psychology, and others, such schemes would be recognized as undesirable in a long-term sense, and would cease to exist. Thus, only a society in its earlier stages could fall prey to such a social arrangement. Population decline would have to appear very early in the civilization’s history in order to find an era in which such a social structure would be allowed to exist.

Another Earth scheme in which continual growth is the only way to stabilize it is referred to as the Ponzi scheme. This occurs on small scales on Earth, and can be recognized as a means of deception to allow the perpetrators of such a scheme to obtain benefits which continue as long as the membership count in the Ponzi scheme participant list increases. An entire society could be structured around such a concept if there was a division of the population into two factions, one, probably quite small, which receives benefits from the larger one based on the promise that such benefits will be returned to the larger one later on, and in larger quantities. This is impossible, except if the number of participants continues to increase, or the time of payoff is pushed out further, or the amount of required contributed benefits is increased. Sooner or later there will be an unfolding of these promises, and if a large part of an alien society was involved in it, it could destabilize it. This would be part of that alien civilization’s learning experiences in the field of economics and social organization.

Are there other mechanisms by which an alien society might decide on population reduction and find that it had inadvertently destabilized itself? Perhaps it will be necessary to monitor the deceptive devices developed here on Earth to learn of some new scheme.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Time Horizon Shifting in Alien Civilizations

When alien species initially evolve intelligence, the use of the intelligence is to deal with problems in the present. Food, predators, reproduction, competition all require an intelligent response to maximize success. This predilection for immediate gain or benefits lasts for a long time, as there is nothing in the society to change that. Achieving some short-term benefit brings physical and social rewards, which means that sort of thinking, that time horizon, will be psychologically rewarding. It will stick around.

The long term thinking that might occur during this period is that of leaders or other important people, who want to see their offspring do well, and plan for the early portions of the lives of their offspring, so as to provide them opportunities. If the civilization is divided into warring factions, some long term thinking might go into strategizing how to best secure a good position, or any of a number of other options that arise in warfare scenarios. But there is little thinking about their own species in the long term, as a whole. One faction may be thinking about immediate steps to assure a good future of their faction, but the time scale is likely to be a generation or so.

This type of thinking will lead to the near-total exhaustion of their planet’s resources, or if they are fortunate enough to have a solar system where resources are economically obtainable from one or more other planets, asteroids or satellites, of the whole solar system’s resources. However, if the thinking in the civilization was centered about how to have their species exist for as long as possible, at a high technological level, they would have to have a very different attitude, that of conservation, recycling, reliability and reuse. The switch to this type of long-term thinking, which might have a span of many thousands or even a million years, is an important event in the history of the civilization. The switch over is such an important event in the history of an alien civilization, it should be given a name. Let it be the Horizon Transition.

If the Horizon Transition occurs late in the history of the civilization, when resources have already become scarce and substitutions are occurring to cope with shortages, the result of it will be to prolong the life of the civilization somewhat. If it occurs early, the civilization will have many more resources at its disposal for the later millennia of its existence. Since space travel is a powerful consumer of resources, this means that an alien civilization which is, for some reason, asleep to the important considerations of resource scarcity until very late in their domain of existence, it will not be nearly as likely to be able to travel to other stars, seed life, establish colonies, or any other tasks as one which was very early astute enough to recognize the peril that scarcity is.

Thus, if we find ourselves in a galaxy with many civilizations on other planets, but only a few have even traveled to the nearest solar system to their own, we might attribute that to the blindness that a civilization, coming from an evolutionary past, has toward the Horizon Transition. That means that the question of how a civilization stumbles on this important problem and figures out how to deal with it is an important one for alienology.

It is already clear that all alien civilizations are forced by their evolutionary past to be short-term thinkers when they enter the technology climb. Intelligence gets better and better, and it makes their short-term thinking more and more efficient and pointed. When does the leadership of the civilization state that it is no longer enough for the aliens to worry about what will happen next year or next two years, but instead, they need to consider what will happen in the next five thousand years? Why would they? It represents a tremendous value shift. They would have grown up worrying about their own wealth or status or power or security or something else, or that of people related to them or somehow connected to them, not imagined people of some large number of generations in the future. Why would a leader give up a concern for those whose interests he works for and replace it with a concern for those who will live long, long after all the current aliens have died? It makes almost no sense to think they would.

Instead, resource exhaustion will cause some effects, regulated by whose short-term gain can best be improved by the use of some of the tools to conserve or reuse resources. This means that it will be a piecemeal effort, resource by resource, as they each grow more and more scarce. This type of effort will not result in the substantial prolongation of the civilization’s future. Only a massive switch, the Horizon Transition, can do that, and there are powerful forces that must exist, in every alien civilization, that will prevent one.

How might such a transition occur? If resources are still abundant when living standards reach a high enough level, there will be a diminution of interest in short-term gains. In the spectrum of individuals in an alien civilization, there will be those who can never have enough material goods to satisfy their psychological needs, but the large majority can be satisfied. At this point, if there is some influence, some leader, some call for a Horizon Transition, it might be possible that one could be effected. Thus, if the population of the civilization does not grow as fast as the growth in living standards, as generated by the various technological innovations and revolutions, then living standards on the average can increase. If the alternative is true, population growth, in response to living standards rising, stays high, then this situation cannot arise, and a Horizon Transition cannot happen. This means that, unless population numbers are somehow restricted, it would be much less likely that an alien civilization would be able to afford a major project to travel to another solar system. Thus, the Horizon Transition question leads to a population growth question, specifically, what influences the growth of a population. In other posts, the problem of idiocracy was discussed, and that might be the deciding influence. This is again a topic for further thought.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Experiments Before Star Voyages

Once an alien civilization has reached asymptotic technology, and has made the decision to spread their species or life itself to other solar systems, they wouldn’t just build a rocket and launch it. There would be some specific experiments they would need to do before they felt confident enough to launch. The cost of an interstellar voyage has to be very high, and so there would be the necessity to prepare for it, including testing as much as possible, before any commitment was made to a single chance.

Estimates made elsewhere in this blog indicate that an alien civilization might last, living at the highest technology levels and a high individual standard of living, for about a million years on the resources available within a single solar system. That is an order of magnitude number, meaning somewhere between a third and three million years, and the estimates are even rougher than that. The accuracy of such as estimate is irrelevant, in that what is important is the comparison of the time the civilization will last to the time necessary for a space voyage.

If we take the distance to their target solar system to be related to the density of stars in a spiral arm, something like a hundred to a thousand light years is the range. This estimate might be very low if they are looking for a planet which already has a burgeoning ecology, where they would be able to land and fit in immediately. If it is true, as has been indicated in this blog on other posts, that life is hard to originate, then looking for another planet with life already evolved up to vegetation and animals might take them across the galaxy. If they are only looking for a planet where they could seed life, and have it evolve on its own for a billion or two or three years, then the shorter distances would be relevant. Their goals can be either of these. For the goal of starting life, they would realize that they would become extinct or at least reduced to a primitive level, very, very long before they could migrate to the seeded planet, but their goal would include the expectation that evolution on the target planet would result in something like them, given enough time.

Travel speed is a question, but given the monstrous amount of propellant and energy that are needed, assume an upper limit of 0.01c. This means they will have to prepare a ship to travel without breaking down for ten to a hundred thousand years, and then function in a very intricate way to drop their cargo off on the chosen target planet. We on Earth have a few things which still work after a hundred years, but our learning technology is so recent, we haven’t had enough time to have built something that would be tested for a thousand years.

Things go wrong over long periods of time that do not go wrong over short periods. Things go wrong in space that do not go wrong on a planet. Consider the simplest thing, the hull. It is going to have erosion at the front end. Going at 0.01c means that every piece of dust hitting the hull is going at that speed, relative to the ship. This is a vaporization level of energy. There is very little dust outside of solar systems, but there is some, and dust clouds may exist that the aliens do not know about. Can they map all the dust clouds, and if they could, can they steer a ship moving 0.01c around them without insane amounts of additional energy and propellant? Even individual atoms and molecules will abrade the front surface of the hull, and there are clouds of hydrogen in the galaxy just as there are dust clouds.

What does ten thousand years of exposure to galactic cosmic rays do to a steel hull? A single cosmic ray, meaning high energy proton, will most frequently splash some electrons around inside the first millimeter of hull. There is a lesser chance it will displace an atom or two in the steel. The degrades the crystal structure, and the outer layer of steel will grow weaker and weaker. Small nanoparticles may come off, especially if the angle of penetration is far from perpendicular. This is simply another avenue for erosion of the hull, and it works in combination to dust particle erosion by weakening the hull prior to the impact of a dust particle, which can then remove more mass.

Besides erosion, what goes on in a material like steel if you just let it sit still somewhere for ten thousand years, in a non-corrosive environment? Is there very slow migration of non-iron atoms, so that the material becomes less homogeneous, and therefore less strong?

To figure out erosion, experiments with a high rate of dust and particle flow could be done in a laboratory. It should be possible to do these experiments over a relatively short period of time. To do the chemical segregation question, temperature might be used as a surrogate for long periods of time, but just how accurate this is is not clear. Certainly, observing some metals, semiconductors, amorphous compounds and other single materials for a thousand years at different temperatures might completely solve this problem, and allow the alien civilization to extrapolate to ten or a hundred thousand years.

This sounds straight-forward, and with the alien civilization having a million year horizon, a thousand year experiment doesn’t sound too bad. If they found that certain materials failed after a few centuries, then a series of experiments might have to be done to try various solutions to the problem. There goes another few thousand years. It is hard to see how the requirements to evaluate reliability and fix problems in this arena would take more than some tens of thousands of years. This means that the experiments to prepare the materials and equipment for the ship might be done in the first ten percent of the expected time of their existence, and that the need for experimentation would not prevent an alien civilization from traveling to another planet and at least seeding it with life.

What might overturn this simplistic conclusion is the finding that there was some very difficult engineering problem that was related to extremely long periods of time. For example, there will have to be some embodiment of intelligence in the ship, in order for it to decelerate correctly to the target planet, go into orbit, and prepare its cargo for descent. It might be guessed that nothing organic would last that long, so DNA and some entire cells would have to be created by scratch once the ship gets to the target solar system. Can a thinking automaton be built that will continue to correctly function for that length of time? We think of automation as involving semiconductors used in computation and data storage. These could be shielded from cosmic rays to a great extent, but there would have to be something connected with the ship’s systems that the shielded computation system would have to manage. How would the external system survive? If a mechanism is conceived which will unpack the automaton after a hundred thousand years, how is this mechanism supposed to last? What system will be monitoring the location of the target star and tell the ship when it is time to do the final deceleration?

Thus, the very first guess at what would be a very difficult engineering system might be the external ship sensors and data processors for them. Can the ship be run as a dead lump, with the entire automation apparatus enclosing itself inside a suitable shield, and then emerging after exactly the right amount of time? In other words, would it have to be engineered so that the first part of the trip, the acceleration, and the final part of the trip, the deceleration to orbit, would be done with the automaton exposed, but for the large majority of the trip, inside a shield? This means the propulsor would have to be much larger than for a continuously operating trip, as all the acceleration would have to be done in a short time.

How is energy going to be stored for thousands of years and then become available? If the automaton hides inside a shield for almost the whole trip, it must have some energy inside to at least run the clock and figure out when to open the shield, and then to run the mechanism to open it? Or should the shield be a labyrinth instead of a box, with no direct path to outer space which does not pass through a thick wall, but plenty of ways to snake connections out?

It seems that building a ten thousand year ship can be considered today, and that our knowledge of science and engineering might be enough to produce some ideas that will help us determine if such a ship could be built – a sort of feasibility thought-experiment. Such a thought-experiment would help alienology determine better if there are any very long term experiments that would have to be run. Another interesting challenge...

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Civilizational Collapse Prior to Asymptotic Techology

Intelligence is like a magic bullet. By intelligence, we do not mean literacy, like the familiarity with a hundred ‘classic’ works of literature. Nor is it numeracy, like knowing how to solve calculus and set theory examples. It is problem-solving ability, which is completely separate from literacy or numeracy, except that they can serve as tools for the problem-solver in his quest to overcome some difficult parts of a problem. Problem-solving takes place every day in every society, as when a person decides how to fix an appliance or substitute cooking ingredients. This is the low level of problem-solving, not involving anything new, just solving a problem that many others have solved before. The high level of problem-solving occurs when no one has solved a problem before, or at least no one in your tribe or city or wherever it is that you might learn from. It is like figuring out how to put a pointed rock on the end of a stick and reduce the threat of tigers by killing them more easily instead of running, climbing or hiding. It is like figuring out how to get somewhere faster by hanging onto the back of a horse and forcing it to go where you want instead of where it wants. It is like figuring out how to heat certain stones very hot and then use the metal that drips out of them. It is, in essence, pushing the envelope of how society used to do things into a region of more capability. It typically uses technology, in the broadest sense that includes organization, management, and delegation just as much as physics, animal husbandry and metallurgy.

If society collapses for some reason, famine, war, volcanoes, pestilence, or something else, intelligence cures the problem, sometimes only low-level and sometimes high-level, perhaps re-inventing something that was wholly or partially lost. Basically, the ability to solve problems with intelligence is an almost universal cure for civilizational collapse. It can’t cure extermination of course, but most lesser problems involving either population reduction or environmental catastrophe are eventually solvable, generations in time perhaps, or even centuries, but sometime. What can’t be solved? In other words, what problems can’t intelligence solve? This is the question that will answer the more formidable problem of “Would alien civilizations collapse prior to reaching asymptotic technology?”

Intelligence can’t solve problems that involve the destruction of the intelligence necessary for problem-solving. In other words, we have a tautology. If there is no more intelligence in a society, no more technology would get invented, some might be lost, and society can collapse. So, how could intelligence be destroyed across the board in a whole civilization? More specifically, how can the level of intelligence capable of solving higher-level problems be destroyed? If a civilization maintains lower levels of intelligence, capable of solving lots of lower level problems, it might get to statis, a fixed state of civilization, and never go forward to asymptotic technology. If something happens to an alien civilization that allows lower level intelligence to flourish, but eliminates some necessary factor for higher levels of intelligence to occur, it will hit stasis or collapse. The numbers of individuals who do higher levels of problem-solving are very few, so it is not necessary to have any widespread slaughter of anyone who can read or anything like that, it is only necessary to remove from society those mandatory, but possibly unknown, factors that allow some low level smart person to develop his mind and become a genius able to solve some hitherto impossible problem.

Intelligence comes from two factors, genetic and environmental. The highest levels of intelligence need contributions from both of them. If smart aliens stop having young aliens, in the period before the genetic grand transformation and industrial gestation is possible, then the genetics side of intelligence will fail and this particular alien society will fall into stasis, possibly never reaching the genetic revolution, or into collapse and descend into some earlier state of living at a lower technology level. If an alien civilization simply does not recognize the absolute necessity of having a requisite number of high-level problem-solvers, or does not understand the genetic lottery that produces them, they could collapse without even understanding what is happening to them. Consider an alien born into an alien civilization which is in the industrial revolution stage or perhaps in a later stage of it or beyond it. Suppose this alien is one with some portion of the genes necessary to provide a young alien with the total complement necessary to become a genius problem-solver. The alien is not a problem-solver, as he does not have the full complement, and the only way to get to a full complement is to breed with some other alien who also has a partial complement. This assumes the alien species is bisexual, which seems to be a reasonable assumption of evolutionary convergence, meaning that’s how it has to happen on any planet with evolution, and therefore Earth is a good example of it.

If either the partial complement alien decides not to have offspring or decides to breed with someone without a partial complement of genius genes, he will produce no high-level problem solvers for the next generation. So, if the alien civilization could either not reward having offspring, or need these partial complement people, who have mid-level intelligence, for other tasks, or promote breeding between partial complement people and no complement people, or in any other way interfere with the genetic lottery producing super problem-solvers, then the civilization can collapse. Maybe after it collapses, it can recover as the discouragement processes are terminated, or maybe it does not collapse that far but maintains the traditions of the former ‘golden age’, meaning no high-level intelligences or too small a number to matter.

The other side of the coin of intelligence is training and education. If training for problem solving is abandoned, such as by training everyone to only a low level and not allowing the best to fulfill their destiny, the alien civilization could just as easily sink into a slow collapse, with the collapse time measured in generations. Alternately, the alien civilization could disparage problem solving and laud such things as power over others or physical skills or humor or anything else other than problem-solving, so that those capable of this were seduced into never using their skills.

In short, it is certainly possible to devise ways in which the magic bullet of high-level problem-solving is never fired, or fired such a few times that the noise of society eliminates any benefits of some problems being solved. Known solutions could be forgotten, or even worse, disparaged for some reason or another, and then even stasis would not be possible, only collapse. If it is a real possibility that any alien civilization will run into this morass, and sink below the sea of mediocracy, then this is a potential answer to the question of why they never came here. The reason is they foundered in idiocracy, but of a peculiar type: they only got rid of the few who could carry their civilization to higher levels.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Invasive Species on Alien Worlds

Invasive species are simply those species that are transported from one region to another region with a similar environment, where they can out-compete the native species. This usually means they can eat what is available if it is an animal, but there are no predators for them among the native species. They have free rein to survive and multiply fast, and even to drive some native species into extinction. Plants colonize some areas, spread rapidly, and choke out native plants.

Since it takes a long time for a predator for these plants and animals to evolve from native species, or for the prey to develop means of surviving them, there is often a large overshoot of population, which is what leads to the extinction of the prey species, or the pushing out of native plant species from whichever type of habitat the invasive plant can occupy. This invasion of non-local species has probably been going on for billions of years, but recently mankind became involved, by being the vector by which the animals or plants travel to their new location. They might go on ships or airplanes, or be brought as decorative plants or pets, or via many other human interactions.

Humanity’s response to noticing this is to sometimes try to eliminate the invasive species, which rarely but occasionally works or at least serves to keep down the population of invaders. Mostly it is simply given up as a hopeless problem. Maybe someday there will be some robotic or genetic technology to restore an ecology to the way it was before mankind introduced the invasive species, but for now, there is none. People just see it as a sad situation.

Invasion can also occur at the microbe level, but that would be mostly invisible to humans. The exception is when the bacteria or virus involved preys on humans. The “Black Death” in Europe, killing off a large fraction of the population, was an invasive bacteria transported by trade from Asia, where it was endemic. Similar die-offs happened when diseases common in Europe arrived in the Americas. We also see these invasions in our food crops, where some monoculture is affected by a fungus or a virus or something else microscopic that lived in some wild area, but found the monocultured crop to its liking. Because of the immense investment in food crops, these invasions are often met by the best killing techniques technology can offer, or alternatively genetic alteration of the monocultured crop to resist the invader.

On any alien world where tectonics has divided up the land mass into regions, or climate has, there is the same possibility. An alien civilization would seem to be likely to make the same introduction of non-local species and see the same result. If the civilization had passed the agricultural grand transition, their food crops might be affected, leading to occasional widespread famines. If, later on, they were interested in preserving natural areas, with native plants and animals, they could easily find themselves victimized by some invasive species from another part of their world. Perhaps they would have found some solution in a bit higher technology that we possess or perhaps they would be forced to regard the problem as much too expensive to cure. Being able to build robots that can hunt down some invasive predator and kill it might mean too much expense on these robots, or side effects might happen. They might just have the same response that we do: sadness and resignation, and a set of techniques or preventive methods to minimize the number of occurrences.

When an alien species becomes intelligent and climbs the mountain to asymptotic technology, the ultimate stage of technological capability and knowledge, and generates for itself the ability to travel to other solar systems, will this experience affect their thinking? Will they ask themselves: Do we want to make ourselves into an invasive species? This is the exact opposite viewpoint that nations have used when exploring other parts of our world. "We are bringing our culture to new regions." Is that what the alien civilization would want to do, or would it instead just stay at home, trying among myriad other projects, to keep some of its remaining natural areas undespoiled by either its own intrusions or by invasive species from wild areas in other parts of the globe?

Recall that, if technology becomes available to travel to other stars and start a civilization on other planets, exo-planets (to the aliens – it might be Earth to us), the question as to where to go and if they should go becomes one of culture-wide philosophy or psychology. We on Earth can’t easily deduce what answer they will come up with, as we have stalled in our search for asymptotic philosophy, the end-all answer to philosophical questions. We are still circling around trying to figure out what philosophy is and what questions it should answer and how to integrate our knowledge of the universe into it, and many, many other aspects which we haven’t elucidated yet. It seems weird to say that we should be studying philosophy in conjunction with harder technologies if we want to coherently answer the questions of alienology, which is figuring out in the abstract what an alien civilization would do, as well as how it would develop.

The question that would face a potent alien civilization of whether they want to become a conquering people or an invasive species, which is exactly the same thing just with different points of view, or they want to stay home until something happens to exterminate them, is an essential one. We already have deduced that this question would be asked and answered in an alien civilization around the time it was passing through the genetic grand transition, because in conjunction with that would be a set of breakthroughs in neurology and training. These breakthroughs would enable those having the most influence on the alien civilization’s path forward to cast their opinions into the repetitive training that new generations would receive, and have these teachings, which we call memes here, preserved for very long periods into the era of asymptotic technology.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Non-gaussian Bell Curves in Alien Civilizations

Numerate people are familiar with the bell curve. It is a simple result that crops up in elementary probability and in the translation of its results to some simplified genetics. If you have some quantitative attribute, like height, and have a number of genes that contribute to it, each with their own amount, and then you have a gene lottery in which these genes are selected randomly, the population will have a distribution of heights that looks like a bell. There will be a median height, and heights above and below it will drop off according to the gaussian curve. This has its limitations, as obviously there would be no aliens with heights ten times the median, but it is a good approximation.

If aliens on some planet reproduce bisexually, as do all higher organisms here on Earth, then there may be a complication which arises if there are genes which both affect the external quality, such as height, and also the success of a haploid cell in the fertilization process. If there is a positive correlation, such as between height and haploid success, then there will be more embryos with genes that contribute to more height, and the resulting bell curve will bend toward taller individuals. The opposite result happens if there is a negative correlation between the attribute and haploid success of cells containing genes which increase that attribute. If there has been convergent evolution between the alien planet and Earth so that the alien species there reproduce with sperm-egg meiosis, any genes which contribute to the viability and fusion success of either the sperm or the egg will have some evolutionary advantage, and also those related to motility of the sperm. If these genes also affect an attribute, such as height, there might not be a gaussian bell curve, but instead a bell curve following a different formula.

These results are an effect of a double function of a particular gene, and double functioning genes that affect two attributes can also result in a distorted bell curve. Thus, even before environmental effects are considered, there can be non-gaussian bell curves for some attributes.

The external environment can have an early or late effect on the success of a particular gene or combination of genes. These effects are part and parcel of the fitness tests that evolution provides to each planet to improve its gene pools, or better said, to adapt its gene pool to a particular local environment on the planet where some species inhabits. The attribute distribution curve after each particular test will be affected by the results of test on survival. If height improves survival of infants and toddlers, it will be selected early, and after this test there will no longer be a bell curve of the exact gaussian variety, but a distorted one. For example, if very short individuals do not survive the litter of a species which produces large litters at each birth, the curve of heights will be clipped at the bottom. Similarly, if height is a disadvantage, for example because of increased caloric requirements, the curve will be clipped at the top.

The more interesting phenomena is when an attribute, in an individual’s interaction with the environment, affects itself in a kind of feedback loop. Consider height of juveniles of a species on some alien planet, where there is competition for food, and consider that height assists in the competition for food. But also consider that an increase in food intake in a juvenile individual results in more growth. Then what we have is the upper tail of the bell curve stretching itself out toward even taller individuals. If an infant of the species has won the genetic height lottery, it is then more capable of out-competing others who did not, and it becomes even taller because it has obtained more food, which in turn has increased height all the way to adulthood.

There cannot be too many examples of attributes which can interact with the environment to increase themselves, but perhaps there are some important ones. Consider an alien immune system which becomes capable of resisting more infectious organisms by some means if it is successful in doing so. To be more clear, consider an alien species which has several immune responses to infections. One of them grows more capable each time it conquers an infection, but the others do not. An individual with a better set of genes for the first type of immune system will conquer more infections with it, and that system will grow stronger and more capable each time. If it were possible to measure immune system overall capability, the distribution curve would be stretched out on the high side because of this feedback effect.

What might make a tremendous effect on whether an alien civilization climbs to the pinnacle of technology, giving it interstellar interests and possibly capability, is the attribute of intelligence, specifically not literacy or numeracy but problem-solving. This variety of intelligence is what drives a civilization toward heights of technology, while the others play a supporting role. Suppose that the environment of an alien civilization, in its primitive stage, is such that intelligent individuals with higher problem-solving skills can be trained or can train themselves to have even greater problem-solving skills. One might imagine a civilization in which bright individuals, meaning ones which solve problems in a displayable manner in front of their parents or mentors or whatever they use, and is therefore rewarded by being given the opportunity to learn more tricks and techniques for solving problems. Alternatively, just imagine that doing problem-solving is a inherent learned skill in the higher levels, but is genetically based at the lower levels, and an individual with a high lottery score in the genetic basis of problem-solving has opportunities to learn and improve on his or her or its own. Then, with this feedback loop in place, the civilization will have a continual supply of individuals who can advance technology at different eras in the civilization’s history.

This concept, of environment providing positive feedback to intelligence genes, may be a deciding factor in whether a civilization progresses continually or does not. For example, it will be worth considering if a society at different stages of its progress will support such feedback actions or will dissuade them, perhaps totally inadvertently, before it understands the importance of what it is doing. In other words, can a civilization kill its own progress before it understands the requirements for continued progress?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


There are a lot of headlines about exo-planets. It would seem the general public has a modicum of interest in whether there are other planets on distant solar systems, and the continual addition to the collection of known solar systems or at least some selection of planets of distant solar systems keeps the interest up. One of the more prevalent news stories is about how some telescope or some astronomer has reported some super-Earth hundreds of light years from us.

There is a selection effect, in that small planets are harder to detect than a larger planet would be in the same orbit. Larger planets induce more wobble in their parent star and cause a bigger reduction in light when they fly in front of the star. So far, not many planets of the same size as the Earth have been found, but there are multiple super-Earths, which are planets only a small multiple of the mass or diameter of the Earth. This will certainly change, as budgets permit even higher resolution telescopes to be constructed and turned to the search for yet more exo-planets.

There is one Earth-sized planet that seems to be largely neglected, Venus. Venus is almost the same size as the Earth, both in mass and diameter. It is located about 72% of the distance to the sun as Earth, meaning solar radiation is about twice as much. From this alone, Venus should be hotter than the Earth, and it is, but the temperature difference is greatly exaggerated by the fact that Venus has a carbon dioxide atmosphere about a hundred times the mass of Earth’s. This produces a great greenhouse effect, which helps to explain why the equator of Venus has something like 465ยบC, rather uniformly because the thick atmosphere spreads the heat.

Venus and Earth would produce identical signals to some alien world watching our star, using the same kinds of instruments as we currently use to find exo-planets. The same mass means that the wobble induced by Venus would be the same as that induced by Earth in the same orbit, and the same diameter means that Venus would block as much of the sun as Earth in the same orbit. So the conclusion from this is that when an astronomer issues a press release indicating they have discovered another super-Earth, or even something similar to Earth, they could just as easily produced a press release saying they discovered a super-Venus, or something similar to Venus. Atmospheres are quite thin compared to the diameter of a rocky planet, so it will be a while before reputable measurements of the atmospheric mass are available, which is what would be needed to directly discriminate between a Venus and an Earth in some distant solar system.

There are two explanations for why the atmospheres of Venus and Earth are so radically different. One might hark back to the formation of the Earth, during the first period of bombardment by asteroids, when a large planetoid is believed to have impacted the Earth, producing the moon. This impact might have blown off much of the atmosphere during the impact, and even more might have been ripped off if the moon started out its life in an orbit very close to the surface of Earth, from which it was torn. Venus has no moon, and it might be quite unlikely that such an impact, with just the right masses, velocities, and miss distance center-to-center, would happen to other planets in other solar systems. If this hypothesis is correct, we should be detecting super-Venuses instead of super-Earths, and soon, Venuses instead of Earths.

Another possible mechanism is that life ate up all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a primitive Earth, producing oxygen in its place, creating the lightweight atmosphere Earth now has. This hypothesis has some difficulties. If there was an Earth with a huge carbon dioxide atmosphere at the present Earth orbital radius, it too would have a greenhouse effect that would raise its temperature above that where life could form. The older sun was somewhat less bright, but not that much less bright so as to allow this form of atmospheric modification to occur.

Just consider for a moment the situation in the galaxy if rocky planets forming in solar systems like the one we inhabit almost invariably have heavy carbon dioxide atmospheres, and there is rarely a situation with the right type of planetesimal collision to strip it down. Using our G2 sun as an example, if there was a Venus-like planet at Earth’s radius, there would not be life because of the high temperature, which means no aliens and no star travel. If there was a Venus-like planet further out toward Mars or even beyond, there would be a range of orbital radii where life could survive. A Venus-like planet in that range, if it somehow originated life, might have the same phenomena happen as happened on Earth: carbon dioxide disappears and oxygen appears. Exactly how so much carbon dioxide goes away might be a further question, but just suppose life is potent enough to have this happen almost completely. But when the carbon dioxide goes away, into rocks or sediments or living creatures, the greenhouse effect diminishes, and the planet gets colder and colder.

We had an ice age on Earth, nicknamed snowball Earth, which did not kill off all life. Quite possibly there was an equatorial area where there was no ice cover. But if Earth had been out at a Mars radius, the equatorial safe zone would likely not exist. The whole Earth would be a snowball, ending the chances of life surviving and evolving. And it would likely stay that way. Thus, one option for the non-existence of aliens traveling to Earth and giving us their business cards is that all the planets out in these distant solar systems are Venuses, too hot for life, or snowballs, too cold for life. Earth, with its fortunate collision four billion years ago, somehow was transformed into a planet where life could both originate and evolve. Perhaps there are other planets like ours, with a moon lingering as evidence of the collision, but the numbers would be drastically less than the count of super-Earths (really super-Venuses) would indicate.