Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Interstellar Nomads – Part 4 – Biological Ships

It was previously noted in the blog that the genetic grand transition is likely to be a bigger revolution in an alien civilization than any other grand transition. We don’t see it coming here on Earth, because it is in some sense far away from us in some abstract distance. We are so used to thinking about mechanical devices because the industrial revolution happened long enough in the past that the implications of it have become gigantic and projections of further changes are somewhat easy to come by. Robotics is really an extension of the mechanical devices of the past, plus computing technology. Computing technology is more of a close relative of mechanical devices than of biological organisms. But once the changes start happening in the genetic arena, the relative scale of biology as compared to mechanics will become clear.

There was a post in this blog about biological factories, which are factories for making something, maybe a plastic for covering food in the refrigerator, that have no mechanical parts to it. One immediate response is to think of exceptions. What about the structure? Maybe the biological stuff would be inside in vats, and cement would be used to keep the weather off the vats.

Did you ever hear about trees? They provide structure, they grow in predefined patterns, they work well exposed to weather, and they don’t require much maintenance. Could the genetic engineers in an alien society, well past the genetic grand transition, come up with some seed that would grow into a building? It would have entrances, it would have bark on the outside or something similar, maybe scales, it would have a roof over the top perhaps made of photosynthetic sheets, that look like giant leaves. So why use cement when you can plant a seed?

Possibly some alien would have to carry another seed inside to be a parasite on the treebuilding, which absorbed carbon dioxide, water, and some sap from the treebuilding and produced plastic goo, which flowed down a surface to make the wrap. Of course, there might be no use whatsoever in the alien civilization for plastic wrap to cover food in the refrigerator, because there aren’t any refrigerators as food comes in pipes to residence, and leftovers go out through pipes to be recycled. The pipes might use peristalsis instead of a pressure head to move things, or maybe some other more interesting mode of propelling material on the insides in one way only. They would repair themselves, feed themselves through smaller pipes down to capillaries, and in addition there would be small creatures that move through the pipes to check on their health and perform whatever medical treatment was necessary. Veterinary science, if you can call repairing biological buildings, factories, piping, recycling facilities, and lots more veterinary work, would be the biggest employer, possibly. But it would be largely automated as well, if you can call having interestingly designed organisms doing veterinary medicine automation. We are a little short of words in Earth languages to describe what might be entirely commonplace in an alien civilization; this reflects the fact that we are a little short of imagination on what might be there.

If the aliens have discovered that biological things are better in many ways than mechanical things, and they responded by designing everything to be biological with some few exceptions, they would be accustomed to doing all their design work in the framework of biology. How to you want an organism to look and work to perform some certain task? And then how to arrange for the ontogeny, is a seed enough, or is there something more advanced, like a multi-genetic combination – several different but compatible cells that together grow to produce what is wanted?

This means they would design the ship to be the same as their cities’ infrastructure, biological. When we think of a spaceship hull, we think of some steel structure, and have to worry about embrittlement from the particles that the ship rams into going at a fractional light speed. If the hull was just bark or something like it, and it was renewed automatically periodically, there would be less worry about it fracturing and shattering into pieces, endangering the innards of the ship. Maybe there would be multiple layers there, with a growing layer and a static layer. Perhaps there would be organisms that swept over it, consuming the outermost layer and bringing it back into the ship for recycling.

A nomadic ship is like a city, just with no gravity but propulsion engines instead. To keep the crew alive and happy, the same functions need to be performed. If the aliens can engineer a city which is 50% biological, or 90%, or even more, they could do something similar for a starship. No one would think of propulsors capable of accelerating a starship to some fraction of light speed as biological, at least no one on Earth. No one would think of a power plant, either fission or fusion, as biological. These parts of the ship would have to be mechanical, and undergo the types of maintenance and repairs that are most familiar to us. Conceivably there could be organisms that do the repairs, perhaps some beings that are largely immune to radiation and could survive it for long enough to do whatever was necessary. Alternatively, there could be multiples of each of these, multiple propulsors and multiple power plants, and there would be reliability in the numbers, and no repairs done in interstellar space, but only when orbiting some asteroid in some solar system where there are material sources for things that have to be replaced.

A nomadic ship doesn’t just have to survive the voyage though space, it has to carry with it the capability of gobbling up whatever resources, including energy sources, that it needs when it parks somewhere in a solar system. This may mean small shuttle vessels able to go down to an asteroid with 0.01 g maximum, and dig out something from the rock there. These small vessels might be designed and grown in the same way the mother ship was, largely biological, with some power and propulsor pieces somehow bonded to the rest of the ship.

Just how visible would a nomadic ship in our own solar system be, for example if it was parked, consuming an asteroid? If it was biological, the albedo of the bark-like outer surface might be low. It might have a thermal signature showing about the same temperature as nearby asteroids. There might be insufficient separation between the asteroid and the ship to show up on most observations, or alternatively, the ship could simply dock down on the asteroid, with no use of shuttles. This would be invisible to us at this time, unless we were lucky enough to have one of our space probes going by the asteroid and noticing this funny thing protruding on one side of it. We do take pictures of many larger asteroids using high power telescopes, but so far, no one has noticed anything looking anything like an alien ship. Perhaps next year?

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