Sunday, May 14, 2017

Later Stages of the Industrial Revolution

It’s not completely simple to figure out the stages of an alien civilization’s climb to technological sophistication and the accompanying societal changes, but at least we here on Earth have one example. We have some recorded history of the agricultural revolution, some archaeological results, and some understanding of agricultural technology’s stages to use. For the first part of the industrial grand transformation, we have just recently lived through it, and have an infinite amount of detail to examine. But for later stages of the industrial grand transformation, meaning the technological revolution and the societal changes they induced, we have to project forward. More care is needed.

The first stages of the industrial grand transformation involve energy sources, transportation, mechanical devices, and chemical engineering. The elements were discovered, oils were found to be useful for lubrication, coal was found for energy, and the engineering process of conceiving a new invention, testing it in gradually increasing steps, and then developing a manufacturing process to produce it came into being. The scientific method initiated by Francis Bacon gets all the credit, but the engineering process was as much a contributor to the industrial revolution as was the scientific method. These two methodologies contributed to all stages of all subsequent grand transformations.

Later stages of the industrial grand transformation are only speculation, as we do not know, for example, if fusion will become a success story and power humankind for the next many millennia, and neither do we know if any alien civilization will succeed, even if we fail. Possibly if we do fail, there will be some scientific understandings that will result from the attempts that can clarify the possibilities with fusion. For now, we can only guess that the difficulties will eventually be overcome, in some manner, and power will be available. Without it, an alien civilization might power itself with uranium, dug on its own planet or on ones closer to its star, stellar photons collected on the planet in some way or another, in space or on some other planet. It even might have monumental sources of chemical energy, such as we might tap by skimming hydrogen from Jupiter and somehow bringing it back to Earth for combustion. Power sources make a huge difference in an alien civilization’s options for star travel, and the only way to deal with this unknown is to consider both options, fusion and no-fusion.

The internals of the alien civilization are not affected so much by the sources of energy as by the computational powers and communication options afforded by the electronics component of these later stages of the industrial grand transformation. They eliminate the need for aliens to work, and work itself transforms from a dire necessity to an interesting amusement. This represents a huge upheaval in the organization of their society. During the agricultural phases and the early part of the industrial grand transformation, work had to become specialized and these specializations led to stratification of society, inevitably. But when work disappears, what is left to provide a stratification and a hierarchy of control? There is nothing that is mandatory, and this means that any alien civilization will have organizational options available to it that we can only imagine.

In our society, work is used as a rationale for the existence and magnitude of the hierarchy of wealth and power that exists. Would an alien society, in the later stages of the industrial grand transition, have anything but legacy to justify these hierarchies to an increasingly intelligent population? It is hard to see how the inevitable result of the later industrial grand transformation would be, after some long duration of social change, anything other than more egalitarianism.

Another product of the later stages of the industrial grand transformation is a reduction in scarcity. Technology makes production increase, and if it occurs fast enough, more rapidly than population increases, this will mean a higher level of per capita production. If the diversion of production to capital and infrastructure costs is not too great, this means scarcity diminishes. Thus, unless deliberately enforced by the alien civilization, material needs and wants are increasingly satisfied to some mininum level, and an increasing segment of the alien population sees no need for work, as it becomes less and less tied to the alleviation of scarcity. A legacy hierarchy would see less and less aliens willing to work in lower positions, and more and more substitution of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Does this still respond to such a legacy hierarchy top members’ desires for feeling superior and in control of others? Possibly not. So, not only would there be less interest in maintaining a legacy hierarchy from the bottom, but also from the top levels as well.

Property, or better the desire to possess property, is a result of scarcity, plus other factors. To think about this, imagine a situation. In an alien civilization, there was housing available in abundance. For whatever reason, completely furnished dwellings were everywhere vacant, and maintained by the in-house automation. What would be the reason a particular alien would want to own one? The costs of one would be nil, as there were vacant ones, completely in good order, paid for by the civilization itself rather than by any individual aliens. Wouldn’t the aliens adopt a habit of moving whenever it suited their needs? This might be thought of as a hotel culture, as opposed to a home culture. This is simply one more example of how technology determines culture, as embodied in one of the main ideas of this blog, technological determinism. What would it mean to the society if there was a surfeit of housing and anyone could move into a vacant dwelling, all largely identical, anywhere they chose? With no work to tie them to a particular location, aliens would become internally nomadic.

The lack of ties to particular pieces of property does not mean than individual aliens would become nonchalant about maintaining them in good condition during their period of residency. This attitude is more connected with cultural norms in the property surfeit situation. It the prior stages of the alien civilization, there was scarcity to propel individual aliens to protect and maintain property that they had control over, but with scarcity gone, something else would need to take its place, and only cultural norms seem to fit that requirement.

Now it is possible to ask a germane question: With no sense of desire for property, would the aliens in such an advanced civilization want to go and establish colonies on distant exo-planets, far from their star? How much does the desire to avoid scarcity establish a psychology for colonialism, and after centuries of experiencing none at all, does this impetus remain?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Water Planets

It is relatively easy to compare the mass of the atmospheres of Venus and Earth and ask why is the atmosphere of Venus so much more massive than that of Earth. A simple answer, that it came from some peculiarity of the formation of the planets, allows much speculation, but there are other ways of looking at the question. Earth has an ocean, Venus does not. The comparison of the surface fluids of Earth and Venus goes the other way. The surface fluid mass on Earth is about three times that of Venus. So, perhaps the correct question might be: “Why is the surface fluid mass of Earth so much larger than that of Venus?” The speculative answers as to where the missing atmosphere of Earth is would be no longer applicable.

If the mean surface temperature of Earth were quickly to go up, not to that of Venus, but something high enough so that the whole surface was above the boiling point of water, then the mass of the atmosphere of Earth would be about three times that of Venus, instead of a small percentage. Venus’ atmosphere is almost all carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and Earth’s would be almost all water. The perspective changes. Instead of asking about the mass difference of the atmosphere’s, the most striking question is about the chemical compositions. Where did all the carbon dioxide go from Earth’s atmosphere, and where did all of Venus’ water go? The two planets formed out of the same original cloud of gas, flattened into a ring and rotating about the newly forming sun. They aren’t all that different in distance from the center of the solar system. They aren’t very different in mass. What caused this?

If we want to understand upon which planets life could form, and where it might evolve into star-faring aliens, it would be certainly important to understand how an atmosphere that could support life would form, and how it would transform over the lifetime of the planet. It is apparently much more complicated than might be first imagined.

Suppose the early cloud that formed the inner planets had a slightly different composition, with less of a percentage of heavier elements, those that form the huge core of a planet, and more of a percentage of lighter elements, which might form an atmosphere. If this happened, there might be more of an atmosphere. A solar system with this arrangement might have a rocky planet with more water, among other constituents, in its initial atmosphere, and if the temperature dropped below the boiling point of water, it would condense. Most of the water would condense out of the atmosphere, as the vapor pressure of water is not very high at temperatures well below boiling.

If the mass of water on this alien planet were five times at much as on Earth, and the planet was about the size of Earth, there would be so much water that a mountain range, as high as Everest, would be completely covered. There would be no dry land. This obviously is a major impediment to evolution leading to intelligent aliens. The mass of the oceans are about 0.025% of the mass of the whole planet, and so raising that to 0.125% would do the trick. This is not a large fraction of the mass, meaning there does not seem to be any need for some exotic process to get all the water to the planet. So, one question that pokes up is: “What is the water fraction in distant solar systems?” If it is too large in the region where rocky planets form, we have a water world, with no dry land. Even on a planet which had only a few small islands, like the tips of the Himalayas, it would seem to be unlikely for an intelligent alien species to evolve.

The fraction of mass throughout the universe that is heavier elements is small. It is mostly hydrogen, plus some helium. Somehow this ratio is inverted in the region where rocky planets form. Whatever the totality of processes that do this are, it would seem that a factor of five or ten in the ratio of water is not unlikely. So, water worlds may be common instead of worlds like Earth, where we have almost 30% of the surface dry.

A cloud of gas that is about to form a star and solar system might have enough heavier elements to make rocky planets in it, but how do they get concentrated? If the cloud is rather homogeneous to start, this means that the concentration operation has to get completed either during the initial formation of the central mass or during the time where there is a disk of gas forming into planets or preplanetary clumps. During both of these eras, the gravitational attraction of the protostar causes a migration of heavier elements and molecules toward it. If there is enough time for these twin processes to come to completion, then the ratio of water to heavier elements would reflect the mass of the protostar and the overall composition ratio of the primordial gas cloud. The mass of the protostar is again a reflection of the total mass and volumetric density of the gas cloud. The original composition ratio reflects the history of the cloud, and, according to the current theories of the formation of heavier elements, how many supernovas went off in the vicinity of it during its life in the galaxy.

Both of these go in the same direction. In regions of the galaxy where the density of gas is larger, larger stars would form and more gravitational segregation of heavier elements is possible. In the same region, more supernovas of type II, the most common type in the earlier galaxy, massive stars which explode at a pre-ordained point in their history, should form and contribute heavier elements. Thus, in denser parts of the galaxy there might be dry worlds and in less dense parts, water worlds. In between, worlds which can form alien civilizations that might venture out into interstellar space.

The total mass density of the galaxy is highest in the central core, still high in the bulge, and less in the disk, dropping off as the distance from the galactic center increases. Spiral waves pass through this, changing the density up and down as they pass, but they do not affect the time-averaged density. So, if we want to find alien civilizations, a band of galactic disk about the same distance from the galactic center as Earth is might be a good place to look, if only because that is where partially wet and partially dry rocky planets might be more likely to form. It also means that would be a good place to hunt for planets to colonize, if Earth ever reached that capability and had the desire to do so.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Geothermally Powered Alien Civilizations

Geothermal power has some advantages that should exist, in certain situations, for alien civilizations. It is a fairly simply technology, designed to extract energy from the heat generated inside larger planets from gravitational collapse and impact. Because heat conduction is so slow, this energy can exist in extractable amounts for billions of years. It is one of the few ways of extracting gravitational energy, another being tidal power.

On Earth, it is used very little, as other sources, nuclear, hydroelectric, fossil fuels, wind and even solar usually produce more high-value energy at lower costs. For making electricity, these sources are more efficient. The majority of uses of geothermal power are for heating, as the energy it produces is simply low temperature heat.

The technology just involves drilling down into the Earth and extracting the heat. Usually heat transfer with a liquid is used, as liquids have a higher heat capacity than gases, and conduction is even worse. On Earth, in some areas with volcanic conditions, where hotter mantle material is closer to the surface and forcing more heat upward, it can be readily used. Iceland is everyone’s well-known example. There, by drilling down a half to one and a half kilometers, temperatures in the region of 200 to 400°C, which can produce steam at the bottom of the pipe, which then rises and turns a turbine or serves directly to heat something. Drilling and inserting pipe, even pipes with good insulation, is not difficult compared with other contemporary technology, and so this might be expected to be used by any alien civilization that has the heat source available.

Iceland itself is a volcanic island, and still has volcanic activity on and near it, resulting in, besides volcanoes, hot springs, warm lagoons, and geysers. On an alien planet, with these features widespread, it would be possible for them to dispense with fossil fuels. There is an obvious question as to whether geothermal power could provide the same transitional energy, taking an alien civilization from biomass, flowing water and wind power to nuclear power of the fission and fusion varieties. If that is the case, then this would be a separate line of development, differing significantly from those worlds which might be analogs of Earth’s development.

In an Earth analog developmental path, biomass is used for a long period, until coal is discovered and used as an improved power source. The higher energy density in coal allows machinery to be invented and powered, including mobile machinery. Coal deposits near the surface in England were one factor in why England initiated the industrial revolution here on Earth. In an alien world without coal deposits like this, or something equivalent such as large tar deposits, would it be possible for their technology to develop industry using geothermal power? Geothermal power is not mobile, and so the great advantages of coal in powering locomotives and hauling large quantities of materials, say from mines to processing plants, would not exist. This would mean the population would have to concentrate around the geothermal sites, if they were going to take advantage of the power.

Instead of watermills and windmills, it might be expected that sources of steam would be used to power mills, in some method or other. This might lead to the invention of some machinery, but there would be much less use of it, both because of the lack of mobility but also because of the lack of metals from mining, which on Earth was greatly facilitated by coal and later other fossil fuels. Metals were available as far back as the stone age on Earth, so they would be available on alien planets, if the right ore deposits were available. However, smelting takes advantage of the concentrated heat that can be generated by coal. Blacksmiths from the Roman era and even before used bellows to concentrate heat from hardwood fires and produce iron and steel, but there is a quantitative difference in the amount that can be produced.

With no coal for the first railroads, would there be any industrial revolution on an alien world that depended on geothermal power? Iron would be much more expensive, meaning machinery would be invented much more slowly and would not propagate as fast, meaning that progress would be very much slower than in the rapid pace of Earth’s industrial revolution. Electricity would be invented, but perhaps centuries later. Once electrical machines were invented by alien equivalents of Moritz Jacobi and Werner Siemens, the inventors of the ac and dc motors, and many other equivalents and accessories needed for an electrical power industry, along with generators, transformers and so on, the alien civilization should be able to develop some sort of mobility other than by animals and wood-fired engines. Because this type of transportation is much less efficient than fossil fueled transportation, the rate of progress would remain much slower than we experienced here on Earth.

Slower, but not impossible, is the diagnosis of the various technology steps that a non-fossil fuel world would experience with an abundant source of geothermal power. What kinds of worlds might have this?

There is a relationship between the presence of heat sources just below the surface of a planet and the surface temperature. If it is too hot, life cannot evolve in the same way that it did on Earth. Carbon-based life needs a fairly narrow range of temperatures to exist, and an even narrower one to evolve into multicellular creatures. It is not clear if there is even a narrower range in which large differentiated creatures can exist. So, a planet with a generally hotter core might prevent this. Is it possible that the phenomena that exists in Iceland could exist on an alien planet in many more places, but not so much as to heat the surface by more than a few degrees? Iceland is located on a boundary between two tectonic plates, where molten magma can rise to the surface more easily. Hawaii does the same, but the volume is less there and there are only few places where geothermal energy can be tapped as readily as in Iceland.

Suppose the chemical distribution of elements was somewhat different, and there were less lighter elements and the crust slightly thinner on some planet. The thickness of the planet’s crust cannot be much less than Earth’s, or heat would pass through too fast. Thus, a bit less light elements might do the trick. Then there might be many locations like Iceland, and industrial development could occur, only over millennia rather than centuries.

Another consideration is that there would have to be no fossil fuels available to the civilization, as these would displace any use of geothermal power and more accurately align the development there with that of Earth. The two theories for fossil fuel origination are the biotic one, in which vegetation is buried and becomes heated, transforming the remains into mostly carbon chains, and the abiotic one, in which carbon chains form and chemically separate, just as most other minerals separate into segregated ore bodies. However, it doesn’t have to be that there are no fossil fuels on the planet, but just that they are not available. This could mean no coincidence of shallow burial of coal deposits and alien civilization areas. With the biotic theory of origination of fossil fuels, this does not seem likely on a planet which has enough life to generate eventually intelligent aliens. So this may be the actual show-stopper on the geothermal variant of alien civilization. It certainly needs to be thought through more deeply.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Multiple Pathways to Idiocracy

Idiocracy has been bestowed a dictionary definition, meaning, primarily, a government by idiots. In this blog we have been using it in a slightly different way, meaning, a society populated by idiots or at least by people whose genetics, training or education are not sufficient to maintain the society, leading to a regression. It stands to reason that if the population doesn’t have the intelligence to maintain the society, that the governance they would have would be not very bright as well, so the more general definition implies the more specific one. Our use does an injustice to the roots of the language, but there isn’t a substitute.

This blog discusses the routes that might lead to this situation in an alien civilization. Here on Earth we haven’t yet developed any good metrics for intelligence, so the discussion has to be a bit vague on that point, but in general intelligence is used here to mean problem-solving ability. It does not mean formal test-taking ability or its variants, except to the extent that taking tests well can be taken on as a general problem to be solved, and the intelligent alien, who has the ability to solve problems, can figure out what has to be done to allow him/her/it to take tests well and then implement these ideas. However, it an intelligent alien does not choose this task as important, it will not happen, so test-taking ability is far from synonymous with intelligence. Probably in any alien civilization, test-taking ability can be inculcated into an alien without general problem-solving abilities.

For intelligence to occur in any individual alien, there has to be three predecessor events. One is that they must be conceived of with the genetic complement necessary to allow learning problem-solving. The second is that they must receive training which motivates them to do problem-solving. The third is that they must obtain the necessary education to equip them with the intellectual tools necessary for problem-solving. If any one of these fails in the alien civilization, then idiocracy can result.

For any complex skill, there is a distribution of attainments. By complex skill, we mean one that is underpinned by multiple distinct capabilities or attributes. Consider size for aliens. If they are anything like us, and the concept of convergent development implies they would be, there would be multiple genes that dictate what size an individual alien will attain. If, for each of these genes, the population has a distribution of variants, then when put together, a smooth distribution would occur. For any one of the genes, there is simply a percentage for each of the variants, and if there was only this one gene to affect size, the population would be divided into groups according to which variant of the gene they received. If there were multiple genes, and importantly enough, if they were independent, the laws of statistics can be used to show that a Gaussian distribution, often nicknamed a bell curve, must result. It doesn’t matter if the effects of the different genes were different in magnitude, for as long as none of them were responsible for most of the variation, there would be a Gaussian. In the case where one of them contributes, say, 50% of the variation, then there would be a distribution that looked like two Gaussians next to one another, where the spread comes from the genes which contribute small contributions and the difference between the centers of the two distributions comes from the single gene which dominates size.

If there is correlation between the genes that control size, then the distribution would not necessarily be Gaussian, but something else smooth and with a central median and a width, both of which can be measured statistically. This conclusion finally allows the discussion to continue. For a distribution for either of the three necessities for an intelligent alien to arise, genetics, training, and education, there is a median and a width.

In an alien society that is approaching idiocracy, it is possible that the median of either of these three is being lowered and it is alternatively possible that the width of the distribution is being shrunken. The median-lowering effect happens if there is a correlation between reproduction rates and position on the distribution. For genetics, if parents, or whatever predecessors contributes genes to a future generation, with good genes produce less descendants than those with worse genes for intelligence, then the median drops. For training, if parents, or whoever in the society trains young aliens, in successive generations provide less motivational training, then the median drops. For education, if parents, teachers, mentors, or whoever is responsible for education of each younger generation, in successive generations provide poorer education, then the median drops. These represent three distinct pathways to idiocracy.

If the alien society needs very intelligent members to continue to function, as it would in the earlier periods of the civilization before some artificial intelligence was developed to an extent sufficient for it to fill in for a lack in the population, and the width of the distribution of intelligence drops, then the society would again drift into idiocracy. Again, there are three distinct pathways. There could be a reverse correlation in mating, where those with good genes couple with those with worse genes, shrinking the width of this distribution. There could be a negative correlation in the training arena, where those who support proper training are marshalled into allowing and accepting poorer training, and the motivational training becomes more and more uniform and average. And lastly, there could be a negative correlation in the educational arena, where those who could provide proper education are convinced to provide successively poorer education in order to follow some poorly-conceived guidelines or to support some non-educational goals which conflict with the provision of top-notch education.

Thus, we have here at least six pathways to idiocracy which any alien civilization might fall into. How is it possible that an intelligent alien society could make such seemingly obvious and disastrous errors in managing itself? One would be that the lack of a metric means that the falling of capability is not clearly demarcated. Another would be that the society is simply absorbed with other questions and pays very little attention, as a whole society, to the importance of maintaining intelligence in the population. Certainly there are others, and each of the six pathways might be further subdivided as to the mechanisms by which they could occur. As noted elsewhere, idiocracy is a major peril that any alien civilization that achieves affluence, at least in a faction, will face. It could be one of the principal factors explaining why there is no noticeable alien travel in our galaxy, although there are many competitors for that distinction.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mundane Science Fiction

While wandering around in the Perez Art Museum in Miami, I stumbled over a quotation on the wall related to mundane science fiction, which I was easily able to find on the web. Mundane science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction that was of interest to a group of authors for about a decade earlier in this century. There was a manifesto generated at one point, which summarized the points of view held by the progenitors of the subgenre.

The manifesto said that much science fiction is escapism, revolving around a few magic items, such as faster-than-light interstellar travel, time travel, aliens, and interstellar instantaneous communications. It denounced, albeit in humorous language, these magic items and the distraction that they provided to the large numbers of fans of the novels and films made utilizing them. They felt that science fiction should rightfully focus on the Earth, hence the term ‘mundane’, used with the meaning ‘of the world’ as opposed to ‘boring’. They felt that the problems of Earth would be benefited by science fiction being used to describe them and also to describe, in a compelling way, possible solutions to them or consequences of them. In other words, there was a political activist tinge to the manifesto, stating that science fiction actually does help society understand how the planet and the civilizations on it will change with time, by providing some meaningful framework, with understandable characters and plots, that readers can use to interpret these changes. They listed a few technologies on the horizon or even closer than that which would make excellent contexts for changes in society and whose implications might not be obvious except for the spotlighting that competent science fiction writings can provide. It does sound a bit presumptuous, but good authors do deserve some applause for what they can do and have done.

The same criticism might be laid at the doorstep of fantasy writers, who seem to vastly outnumber science fiction writers, or at least outsell them. Fantasy, of the magical kind or the historical kind or the superbeing kind or any of a number of other kinds also serve to distract readers temporarily from the world they live in. The basic criticism that people are too much distracted and too little focused on the problems that the writers of the manifesto feel are most important applies most directly to these fantasy writers as well, but they were excluded in the manifesto. Instead of flying through space at superlight speeds, we have flying without power through the atmosphere, which is equally magical. It might even be more distracting, as it is more closely connected with our familiar social and physical environments. So the basic concept of too much distraction might be relevant, but it was not substantiated in any way. Are people, readers of these subgenres, likely to remain wholly disengaged with the world’s real problems, or the subset the manifesto’s authors singled out, or are they likely to be energized and optimistic about the future and therefore contribute to the solution of these problems? Without some data in this area, the conclusions of the manifesto authors are suspect.

Besides distraction, they objected to the use of magic in science fiction as it proposes to the readers that Earth’s problems might be unsolvable, but humanity can simply migrate to another Earth somewhere in the galaxy and start again, perhaps doing better this time. This was the second principal objection by the manifesto’s authors. This is like a second-order distraction, in that if some reader actually believed that new Earths would be found and migration would be possible, they would not be very interested in trying to solve Earth’s problems, but rather solving the problems associated with interstellar discovery, exploration and colonization. Further in this vein, if some readers felt that aliens might show up at any minute, thinking out how to deal with them might be more important that figuring out what to do about Earth’s problems.

The authors did not seem to be well-versed scientists who made a career change into science fiction writing and were incensed about the absurdity of these magic tricks, although perhaps one or two did fall into that category. The abasement of science to provide these wonders would have offended some scientists, but there was no indication in the manifesto or any of the writing that it inspired, over the course of a decade or so of interest, that this was a motivation for writing it. Instead, it appeared to be political activism, expressed in a very unique mode. Nothing can be said against the desire of the manifesto authors to motivate people to work on problems related to humanity’s continued existence here on Earth, but the method of motivation has a lot of missing details, both in the logic and in the supporting data.

Putting all that aside, the main idea of junking all this magic seems to be a good one. It is not going to happen, and the manifesto did not seem to have the slightest effect on curtailing novels and films being made exploiting it. As noted elsewhere in this blog, science fiction writers are in the business of writing what will sell the best, and utilizing the now-standard magic of FTL drives and other paraphernalia associated with it is a tried-and-true method of doing this. It is simply not going away until the readership tires of it, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, enthusiasm for such novels and films seems to be even increasing.

As for aliens, we can only agree that aliens can arrive here only after the most strenuous of voyages, and certainly can not do it for tourism. We cannot agree that studying aliens is a waste of time or a distraction, as understanding where they can live, how long they can survive, what their civilizations might be like, and how they might travel or communicate, can lead to insights about the very problems that they contend should be the principal topic of science fiction. Alienology, as defined here and in my book, is a subject with potentially signficant payoff in these areas, as has been detailed in this blog. In short, thinking about alien worlds allows one to consider variations of this one, which does lead back to understanding our own world and our own civilization better, from a different point of view. So, mundane science fiction has a couple of important overlaps with alienology, but at least one of them was completely missed by those who devised it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Formation of Black Hole Swarms

Black hole swarms are collections of black holes, as many as you want up to millions, occupying a small galactic space, like a light year or so. Because black holes are only the size of a planet like Earth, there is virtually no chance two of them will collide. So a swarm, if formed, will simply go on buzzing around for the rest of the age of the universe.

The evidence for massive black holes, thought to occupy the centers of many galaxies, is indirect and matches the evidence that a swarm of black holes would display. So there is no simple way to tell which it is that occupies the dead center of galaxies.

Here’s a little astronomical background. Globular clusters are collections of stars, held together by mutual gravitational attraction. They look like spherical balls of stars, and if you could watch one closely for millennia, you would see the individual stars moving like Brownian motion, going every which way, and having their straight-line orbits disturbed by near stars. The central area of the globular cluster is denser, as most stars are not simply orbiting it a circle around the center, but dive into it, coming out on the other side. The denseness of the center is caused by the relative numbers of stars that happen to be passing through it at any given time, as compared to the number per cubic lightyear which are in the further out regions.

The less kinetic energy a particular star has, the longer it will linger in the center. If there were a lot of stars with not much kinetic energy, the center of the globular cluster would be even denser, as those low KE stars would be spending a lot of time there and increasing the mass density near the center. Then the higher mass in the center would pull in even more stars, again adding to the local density.

Globular clusters exist in which many stars have somehow lost much of their KE and spend their time in the central region of the cluster. The astronomical name for this phenomenon is core collapse. Essentially the core of the cluster has collapsed in upon itself and has grown denser, because somehow kinetic energy was transferred from one subset of stars, the central ones, to the rest, which still go flying out to the edges of the cluster before turning around and coming back in. The process for this KE transfer is gradual and statistical. An ordinary star transfers kinetic energy continually by its gravitational interactions with other stars, and if one gets lucky, it can dump most of its KE on the way in, and then stay in the center. When the center becomes more dense, these interactions become more frequent. Can core collapse happen by this process alone? Once it happens, and say 20% of the stars are restricted to the center, it might stay that way, but the difficulty is in getting it to happen in the first place.

Since the 80’s, astrophysicists have been estimating how long this takes by looking at the number of close interactions a sample star might have, and how likely it was that this could result in a significant reduction in KE, thereby providing another candidate for the central stars in a core-collapse globular cluster. This approach in interesting, but it ignores the fact that stars interact with many other stars at the same time. If there was a clot of a thousand stars, the gravitational force on a sample star could be much greater, and this relaxation time would be shorter. Stars don’t clot like that, but they do have density fluctuations and perhaps even waves of density. Density waves have not been studied much, but they are the likely culprit for the beautiful spirals on galaxies we see. Thus relaxation times might be much shorter than the one-on-one calculation indicates, if there were turbulent agglomerations of stars, density fluctuations and density waves in a globular cluster.

A second feature is the segregation of stars by mass. In a potential field, heavier stars with the same average energy don’t move as far out of the field, simply because they have less velocity for the same energy. On the average, there should be more heavier ones in the center than at the fringes, in a large globular cluster. This means they might be more subject to becoming core-collapse participants than lighter stars. This does not mean that all O stars are found in the center of globular clusters, and M stars are found at the edge, but it does mean that there is a tendency for this to happen, and the relative ratio of O’s to M’s would be different as one goes further out from the center of the cluster.

If an M star interacts with several O stars during its passage through the core of the cluster, it may pick up even more speed than another O might, and then spend even more time out of the core region. And recall that O stars become black holes when they age, meaning that there would be black holes preferentially in the core of a core-collapsed globular cluster. They would not be visible, but would contribute to the severity of the core collapse. Since the lifetime of O and other stars which produce black holes are quite short from a universe time viewpoint, there could be quite a lot of them there.

What works for a globular cluster works even more for an elliptical galaxy or the bulge or bar in a spiral galaxy. There is a mechanism for large stars, destined to become black holes, or more likely, already made black holes, with masses ten to a hundred or more solar masses, to have a core collapse situation in the center of some galaxies, and thereby pretend to be a huge single black hole, confounding observations. The formation of a swarm of black holes is not that unlikely, and the concept is certainly worth considering. Galactic cores are more or less invisible because of the dust and gas there, but perhaps there is some clever way of better finding and discerning black holes that reside there.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Interstellar Convergence and Intelligent Design

Interstellar convergence is a term, perhaps unique to this blog, that says that evolution drives organisms to optimality, and what is optimal on one planet is close to optimal on another similar origin planet. In other words, planets hundreds of light years apart both with the same mass, stellar class, composition and other details, will have organisms that look similar, and which are similar, down to the cellular level. Interstellar convergence has limits we do not know yet. If it turns out that DNA is the optimal coding chemical for genetics, most planets will have it in their organisms’ genomes. If neural nets are indeed the optimal information processing mechanism that can be grown from genes, then all intelligent aliens will have them. If hands are optimal for tool-using, then all intelligent creatures everywhere will have them. There might be some exceptions, but we are far from being able to figure them out.

Intelligent design is used here in its essence: if genetics is understood, creatures can be designed to fill in whatever niche is desired. It means that aliens, not necessarily super-creatures, but just ordinary, hard-working, well-motivated, intelligent aliens, would be able to design a genome that would lead to a viable, living organism, able to reproduce if that was desired, able to think if that was desired, able to do whatever it was that the designers wanted them to be able to do. They could have docile personalities or be hard-as-hell to manage; this is the designer’s choice.

Here’s another word: self-speciation. This means that an intelligent alien species would have the ability to modify its own genome, and create a different species, if they chose to do so. The different species might be better than the original aliens in some aspect. Evolution is expected to do a good job of moving species to the optimal, but it can’t work after a civilization gets started, so evolution would have created a species that was good for surviving and reproducing in a pre-civilization situation. It would be up to the aliens to modify their own genome, or create a brand-new one, to match what would be optimal for living in the world of giant cities and interplanetary travel.

When alien civilizations start sending their citizens into low planetary orbit and then into interplanetary space, and finally to other planets, satellites or asteroids in their own solar system, they will soon realize that the design that evolution created for life on their home planet was far from optimal for life in other, radially different, environments. They may well embark on some self-speciation to design aliens which were at home in space or on low gravity satellites. If they happened to originate in a solar system which had two planets with similar conditions, but only one which originated life, they might migrate to the other one and modify their genome to better match it. If it had 20% higher gravity, for example, they might want to redo their skeleton to cope with that, and their musculature as well, and perhaps their circulatory system. If there was a planet with less oxygen, the lungs might be modified. If the other planet was an origin planet as well, or life had spread there from meteoritic transmission or some other way from their home planet, and had grown up differently, they might need a different digestive system to be able to consume what grew on the second habitable planet. Once the genetic grand transition had been passed, all of these would be possible. If for some reason, there was not much benefit to be gained, as for example, their naturally evolved bodies tolerated space life with few problems, they could keep their own genome; this seems to be an unlikely possibility.

This self-speciation is not something that one out of all alien civilizations might do. They all figure out the same genetics knowledge, as knowledge doesn’t depend on the planet that finds it; scientific knowledge and technology is universal and the same on all planets.

The stage of interplanetary travel and migration would almost assuredly occur before they attempted any interstellar voyages. The technology developed for going to other planets in their own solar system is an excellent beginning for the technology needed for an interstellar cruise. That technology is quite diverse, involving figuring out how to make something last for a thousand years; how to carry enough energy and propellant to get the trip and the arrival accomplished and still have enough left over for whatever they were going to the new solar system for: as a probe, for colonization, or something quite different. So, it seems likely that they would have a species, similar to their own, that is better adapted for space, and which lives on constructed space stations around some of the planets in their solar system. If there were any satellites worth building a colony on, for mining or anything else, there might well be another variant species living there.

As an aside, an alien civilization at this stage of development is likely past the times of troubles that existed on their home planets. Just because they were a different species, they would not decide they wanted to go to war with the home planet. That is a device of science fiction: taking something of present day Earth and changing the situation to a future one where different planets were inhabited. Neurology and sociology would be well-understood sciences and would have eliminated such a possibility.

Now ask yourself what they would do for colonization, should that be part of their legacy goals for their own set of species. If there was an interesting exo-planet somewhere, and they found it was an origin planet, and already had an intelligent species, would they want to go and colonize it and subjugate the original inhabitants? Not likely. They would understand that the other planet would have evolved creatures optimized for that planet, and if they went and used intelligent design for a creature like their own to live there, they would wind up with something very similar to what was already there. So why bother?

Colonization is likely to take place only on worlds which do not have intelligent species already. It would be superfluous to go there and replace something almost identical. Colonization would go to origin planets with primitive life, not solo planets with intelligent life. This is actually a very small restriction, as life exists for billions of years on an origin planet, before it can evolve intelligent creatures. Much of that time would be suitable for colonization, if it were desired. Intelligent life only lasts for a brief interval, and technological life, probably less than a million years. This would eliminate only a small fraction of planets a space-traveling alien civilization would encounter. In essence, we don’t have to worry about being displaced by aliens. There might be other reasons they would interfere with us, but it is impractical for them to bother colonizing an already inhabited planet.

Monday, February 6, 2017

What Fluid Fuels Might Power Alien Civilizations?

Here on Earth we are in the first part of the industrial grand transformation, and so know a bit about basic chemistry and physics, so we should be able to shed some light on fluid fuels, as they might exist in alien civilizations. If we can list the functions that energy in general must perform in an alien civilization, we might figure out what would be the likely class of fuel used there.

Energy functions in providing temperature control, transportation, communication, power for robotics, preparation of nutrition, surveillance, research, construction, recycling, maintenance and repairs, information transmission and storage, mining and resource extraction, and health. While there may be others, this wide a spectrum probably covers the fuel requirements. Electricity can be used for most of these, and it can be generated at a power plant or locally from a fluid fuel. Power plant generation implies some means of moving the energy from the power plant to the cities where the aliens live, which can mean direct transmission in a network of wiring, or transportation of fluid fuel.

The trade-off between wired electricity and locally generated electricity might be done on the basis of efficiency, or its equivalent, cost in whatever accounting system the alien planet uses. Efficiency depends on how much storage is needed for the energy, as electricity is harder to store than chemical energy. Power plants might work continuously except for maintenance breaks, seasonally if dependent on some seasonal source of power, diurnally if dependent on some solar source, or with another periodicity, such as that related to a large satellite producing tides. There could be a large random contribution or none at all.

Likewise, consumption can have temporal fluctuations in it as well, diurnal, seasonal, or related to other cycles of the civilization. Arrangements can be made to modulate the fluctuations in both production and consumption, but there will likely be some residual mismatch, implying storage of energy is necessary. Storage of hard-to-store-directly electrical energy can be done by transforming it into thermal energy, gravitational energy, mechanical energy or chemical energy, and each transformation, one-way or round trip, has an efficiency cost, which might be of the order of 50%, as opposed to 5%. This does not include the inefficiencies in producing or collecting the energy, which might also be other order of 50%, to use an order of magnitude. The overall result is that most of the energy produced or collected is turned into heat at the production site, as opposed to at the consumption site. This is inevitable in our Earth society or in any alien civilization.

For most of the functional uses of energy in an alien civilization, electrical energy works fine, whether transmitted over long distances or whether generated locally. The utility advantage breaks down in transportation, as energy must be stored and then transported on the vehicle, except for transportation corridors which have electric transmission systems built into them and can couple energy into the mobile vehicles, either kinetic energy or electrical energy.

Inside an arcology, transportation could easily be done electrically, and if the large majority of movement occurred there, there would be no need for fluid fuels for transportation on the inside. On the outside, if there was still some substantial amount of transportation taking place, either gaseous or liquid chemical fuel could be used. Hydrogen is one obvious candidate for a gaseous fuel, but the energy content per volume is low, meaning that tankage needs to be large, and consume considerable volume and weight. The trade-off is between the efficiency of converting hydrogen to some other, more dense fuel, such as an alkane, and carrying around the tank weight. If the whole point is simply to transport energy to an arcology from a distant power source, then the tradeoff is between the production of electricity and then a network of conductors to bring it to the arcology, and the production of hydrogen or a gaseous alkane and then a pipeline or vehicle ensemble to bring it there.

If the energy at the power plant is initially used to create electricity, then it would seem that there is little to be gained from converting to a fluid fuel and then transporting the fuel to the arcology, where it would be converted back to electricity. Our limited knowledge of electrical transmission versus pipelines would indicate there is no way to made the latter more efficient, given the round trip inefficiencies of conversion. Thus, the only use for fluid energy sources would possibly be in transportation outside of the arcologies, in situations where it would not be most efficient to have a wired corridor, such as between two arcologies.

Thus, storage of large quantities of energy, such as at the power plant, and mobile vehicles using significant energy on non-corridor transportation, would be the only two possible uses of fluid chemical energy sources in an alien planet, once they are past the stage where there was abundant fossil fuels. Would the energy storage at a power plant be done with hydrogen or with alkanes? Chemical energy is one of the most dense forms, and so one of these would be the likely choice. The tradeoff of tankage versus chemical form might be based on the duration of the storage, which relates to the amount of material needed to be stored. Diurnal storage might be with hydrogen, as the amount of tankage is not so large, and seasonal storage might be with alkanes, for the opposite reason.

This route of technology would mean that all three of the energy modes, electricity, hydrogen, and alkanes, would be available at a power plant site, and the other use of chemical energy sources, irregular transportation, might avail themselves of either fuel, both originating from the same source. Since alkanes have a significantly lower tankage cost, and have about the same available energy per mass, assuming atmospheric oxygen is used for combustion, then it is likely that an alien civilization would, perhaps unexpectedly, have vehicles analogous to those on Earth. This would be a strange case of interstellar convergence, when the physics, chemistry and other laws of nature push all civilizations in the same direction.

The last use of energy for transportation is for interplanetary travel, or simply to travel into orbit around the alien planet. Here, energy per mass and energy per volume are dominant. To keep tankage costs down on the heaviest stage, solid fuel propellants are used by most Earth launchers with liquid alkanes being the alternative, with liquid hydrogen and oxygen used for higher stages, where energy per mass counts more than energy per volume. This optimum has been well explored, and might be also expected to occur on exo-planets that do not barren areas on their planet where nuclear thrust options might be employed.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Alternatives with Arcologies

Somewhere along the pathway from hunting to asymptotic technology, an alien civilization must realize the threat that resource exhaustion poses to their living standards and the status of their civilization. One of the responses to this threat is the adoption of recycling to reduce new resource consumption and substitute re-use and re-cycling.

If recycling is done on a civilization-wide scale, with all citizens participating in the same processes, the efficient organization of the civilization is to have everyone living into cities, structured like arcologies, with the logistics pathways for all goods and waste short and efficient. Efficiency is one of the other tools that the resource exhaustion threat demands.

If the assumption is relaxed that all citizens participate in the large-scale recycle in identical fashion, the concept of universal arcologies becomes superfluous. If the population is large, of the order of ten billion citizens with energy consumption rates perhaps ten times that of industrial civilizations on Earth, then the large majority would have to live in arcologies, but there could be a minority living with disaggregated recycling.

Another factor that might be decisive on the need for arcologies and the fraction of the population living in them is the final trade-off made between robotics and genetics. Robotics need manufacturing centers, but biological solutions to accomplishing some of the civilization’s tasks might need only some facilities for growing the proper organisms, and even these might be biological as well. If some of the population were dispersed, then recycling of all biological goods might be equally dispersed, and only manufactured goods would have to be transported back to some recycling centers, perhaps located in one of the arcologies.

The transportation costs might be ameliorated by some biological conversion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen and separated carbon compounds. This is exactly what photosynthesis does, but if it could be powered alternatively, such as by fusion-generated electricity, it would be more under control of the civilization. Once this was accomplished, some minimal amount of carbon compound liquids or gases could be used as the excellent energy storage medium they are, and a certain amount of transportation could be arranged for to accomplish the recycling of manufactured goods.

Manufactured goods would be designed for efficiency from a whole-life viewpoint, as opposed to what would happen in early industrial times, when the design viewpoint might be manufacturing efficiency or once-through consumption efficiency. If a manufactured item is designed without re-use of parts and recycling of everything else in mind, so that re-use and recycling costs are very high, then the total lifetime costs are very high as well, as the end stages dominate the cost cycle. If instead, manufactured items are designed with a full life-cycle in mind, meaning that a closed loop of resources is attempted, without only energy inputs plus a very small amount of resources to fill in impossible-to-control losses, then there is little energy cost expended in extracting resources and transporting them, as well as processing ores. Instead, the civilization’s energy use is more devoted toward immediate consumption plus recycling costs.

Consider the fraction of the alien population which is dispersed in whatever natural surroundings evolved on their planet. Aside from manufactured goods, everything else in the consumption arena can be recycled in the natural surroundings. Whatever they need for nutrition can be produced either from the surroundings or from wholly biological means, either involving the surroundings or in special micro-facilities, and either using evolved genetics or designed genetics. Most likely the most efficient way of organizing a community living outside the arcologies would be strongly dependent on the locale, the climate, the environment, and other factors that differ all over the planet. Community size could range from an individual, living outside the arcologies for some period of time, up to groups numbering in the order of thousands. Too large an outside community would seem to break the ecology of the area.

There would be costs of moving everything that needed to be moved between the arcologies and the dispersed population. These involve the two-way transport of manufactured goods, plus population transportation and the transport of specialized goods, like seeds or certain biological materials. The transport vehicles would likely be manufactured goods, which would be produced in the arcologies, and recycled there. Energy could be anything simple, such as hydrogen gas for land surface vehicles and carbon compounds for either land or air transport.

Energy production in the dispersed areas might be either locally gathered energy, or transported energy. If energy was not produced in the dispersed areas, this might be the largest single item for transportation. One example might be the frequent transportation of hydrogen gas to the dispersed areas, where it might be transferred from the transport vehicles to community tankage. Just how much energy such a dispersed community might need is probably beyond our estimation ability. If the community was largely utilizing biological means to provide the means of living, then photosynthesis might provide a large part of that energy. Other means of collecting energy from their star’s fusion could happen, but the efficiency that could be achieved is not easily guessed. Given a total control and understanding of genetics, how much of the solar energy falling per meter of planetary surface could be absorbed and turned into accessible energy or carbon-based products?

A few hundred million years of evolution has pushed the efficiency of Earth plants to a range of 0.1 to 2% conversion of solar photo-energy to carbon biomass. A different star would have a different spectrum of light, which affects conversion efficiency. Furthermore there is a second efficiency which relates to the utility of the carbon biomass the plant or other organism produces as far as the uses to which the alien civilization has for it. This efficiency is also low and highly variable, but for bred crop plants might get to a few percent. How much higher could this be pushed with a complete knowledge of genetics plus the ability to design and construct any genetic concept? This number indicates what the collection area might have to be for a community of a given size.

What are the extremes that we might observe with a giant telescope on a planet found to have an alien civilization? One is a planet with nothing but arcologies, perhaps hundreds, all of which would be emitting heat and serve as thermal point sources for the telescope. The other end is a planet with only one arcology, where all manufactured goods were produced, and the remainder of the population dispersed and making use of mostly biological organisms for their life support. Either could be the choice of the governance of the planet, and there does not seem to be any reason why a particular planet could not go one way or another, or more likely, something in the middle. The latter extreme case would have only one thermal source to observe.

Another way to consider alien options is to consider the design of an arcology. Could one be cubic and another be large, low and flat? Something to be considered at another time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Smelting and Early Metal Technology in Alien Civilizations

The great development of the brain is associated with the stone age, when available materials began to be used as tools, and this use engendered the development of thinking and the evolution of larger brains. As far as we know, most planets like Earth and originating life will have available stone resources, so there is little reason to assume the lack of stone will be a barrier to the development of an alien civilization. The same goes for other items that could be used as improvised tools, such as sticks, hides, leaves, reeds, vines, and certainly others. Stone is the only one which lasts for a million years, so we have the ‘Stone Age’ in our pre-history books, instead of the ‘Stone and Stick and Vine and Other Stuff Age’, but that is the expected situation, lasting for a million years or two or maybe something a bit shorter or longer on other planets.

Gold is the only metal found predominantly in the metal form. Some copper is also, but most copper along with other early metals have to obtained from their ores by roasting, at the very least. This is the simplest form of smelting. The use of fire is necessary, and so the question is, how did metals become discovered? Clay was used on Earth around the same time, and clay can be dried to transform it into something waterproof and rigid, but heating it makes many clays even stronger, sometimes producing a coating on their exterior. That means hot fires are needed. Even earlier than this, certain stones were thermally fractured, notably flint, so in this situation we have a culture that is used to putting rocks into a hot fire, maybe in a pit, and seeing if they fractured into sharp edges. Putting rocks into a clay kiln appears much less likely, but certainly possible, perhaps to support the fuel.

The earliest metal droplets found in archaeological digs were tin and lead, although this may be affected by chance finds. Copper is the metal that makes all the difference. Roasting copper ores with charcoal can produce copper, which is a malleable metal. Some copper ores contain arsenic, which makes the metal much harder, which would be preferred for some uses, such as weapons. Arsenical bronzes, which are just copper with the major impurity being arsenic, were invented at least twice, in the Andes and in Asia minor, and possibly many other places as well.

These metals might seem a mandatory material for an alien civilization to proceed out of the stone age, but cultures which did not have them seemed to be able to produce all the trappings of a civilization without them. The Mayan states had no metal, but they had monumental cities, writing, a religious hierarchy, organized agriculture, craftsmen, paints, and other accouterments of civilization. They even invented rubber balls and ball games, which the Eurasians never did. But the Mayan civilization could not progress beyond the agricultural grand transition without metal. It is simply not possible to move to energy sources beyond animal power without metal, and energy is one of the inputs to an industrial civilization. Even animal power is difficult to make the best use of without metal. So, copper ore and in fact, metal ores for many other metals are mandatory surface items for civilization to develop.

To have copper ore on the surface of an exo-planet of roughly Earth size requires that there was copper in the initial gas cloud which condensed into the planet, and that there was a segregation of elements in the molten magma, leading to lighter ores which could rise to the crust and condense. Then they have to be exposed.

In order for life to form, there must be some minerals, but they can be principally phosphorus, magnesium and other lighter elements. Microbes do not need copper to exist and evolve, bu there are some uses for it. This implies that a planet can originate life without heavier metals, but some efficiency in chemical processing would be lost if they are absent. How far evolution could go on a planet where there were no or few sources of heavier metals is not clear, as we do not understand anything about alternative forms of life. However, if it is possible to evolve land animals without metals like copper, civilization would likely be stopped by the lack of metals at the agricultural stage.

There does not seem to be any reason why an alien civilization would not discover smelting of at least bronzes, just by chance. The Mayan example means that it takes time for the right accident to happen, or possibly that if smelting were discovered accidentally, something in the culture, like a theocratic decision, might have forbidden a continuation of the discovery.

After a culture has been in the bronze age for a period, iron is usually discovered, as we have seen in different regions on Earth. But iron ore must be heated to higher temperatures than copper ore if metal is to be extracted. Charcoal can produce such temperatures in the right type of vessel, but there are some requirements. Air does two things: it provides more oxygen for more combustion in the same region of fuel, and it cools the fuel by conducting heat away from the combusting surfaces. Clearly, the fraction of air that is oxygen controls whether the temperature generated by the combustion reaches the temperature needed. A planet with a lower fraction of oxygen would have lower temperatures in the same physical arrangement, and if the fraction were sufficiently low, would not be able to smelt iron ore.

Similarly, if the atmospheric pressure were less, oxygen would be delivered by convection to the burning fuel more slowly, and again, the temperatures generated would be less. This may help explain why the Inca nation, principally living at higher altitudes in the Andes, never made the leap from copper alloys to iron. Temperatures in most of their kilns were lower, and only the smaller number of low altitude regions could possibly do it, reducing the probability of the discovery of iron as a more useful metal.

Thus, if oxygen content and atmospheric pressure are either too low on an origin planet, the civilization that might develop there would not make the transition into an industrial era, not having iron or perhaps, if one of these two were significantly lower, bronze. Some more thinking into what controls these two quantities might be useful in helping us locate potential worlds with other civilizations.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Early Steps in the Climb to Asymptotic Technology

A species which evolves to the beginnings of intelligence and tool use is on the pathway to having a civilization and to developing asymptotic technology, which is the final state of technical knowledge and capability. There are some huge changes in the civilization as it advances, and these stages have been separated by great alterations in the civilization, which we have termed grand transitions. These include the transition to hunting from gathering, to agriculture, to industrial capability, to robotics, and lastly to genetic technology. These should occur more and more rapidly, and be finished before the civilization took to the stars, if it chose to do so.

On the other end, the changes are slow. There is little communication of new ideas, and few involved in devising them. There is a question as to whether there are some barriers to technological growth that occur very early in the technology sequence, and also as to whether there are planetary conditions which would be involved in these barriers. If there were, and we on Earth developed large enough observatories to detect these planetary details, we might be able to filter out some worlds as capable of originating life but not of supporting its climb all the way to asymptotic technology.

Having grasping appendages is the key and final evolutionary change that kicks off the climb in technology. This could evolve as one of the side-steps that evolution can do, where there is one reason that leads to an evolutionary mutation, but then that mutation proves to be useful in a different task. Tree-climbing to escape predators or obtain food can be the driver for grasping appendages, and then they can enable tool use, where the tool is a stick or a stone or a vine. Once this side-step happens, the road to improved tools is opened up, and that is all that a species needs to grow its brain and dexterity together.

Obviously, the planet would have had to developed in such a way that these very primitive tools were available in the area where the species emerged. Sticks can be found which are already pointed, but if a point can be developed, it can be a much better hunting tool. This requires trees with long straight trunks and hard wood, plus some exposed smooth stone surfaces for grinding the points. There does not have to be many of this type of tree, as the stick can be re-used many times. Such a tool would make a difference in the type of animal that could be killed for food. On Earth, hardwood grows in many different forests around the world, meaning that it is not climate-dependent. Outcroppings happen everywhere, so this requirement would not be a barrier on any world with tectonics similar to this planet. It would not happen on a planet without continental formation, where the only surfaces were sand and dirt.

In the hundreds of millions of years it takes for land surfaces to have photosynthetic plants and mobile creatures to use their energy, if there is no vulcanism or continental formation, there would be little chance for the co-location of forests and exposed rock surfaces. Soil would form a covering layer, except where sand was brought in by ocean activity. Theories have not yet been developed about exo-planet continental formation, so it is not clear at this point if planets of Earth size would necessarily have tectonics. It is certainly possible to imagine a more homogeneous mantle and crust where vulcanism doesn’t occur, and where there is much less vertical variation. Alternatively, vulcanism could be confined to the polar regions.

One signature of large variations in vertical extent would be the existence of large oceans, as opposed to only multitudes of lakes and rivers over the whole planet. An ocean would be observable, clouds excepted, on a planet out to a hundred light years or so by a space-borne telescope of a kilometer diameter, and this might be Earth’s only clue as to the status of a found origin planet.

The next steps in tool-using might involve clubs, which are simply found objects, and sharp stones, which might originate as found objects, but might have to be made. Sharp stones serve as cutting tools, although shells are also thought to have been used for that purpose on Earth. Large, hard shells pretty much need an ocean to form and exposed rocks to be sharpened, so we are back to needing an ocean. Sharp stones also required exposed rocks, but of a particular type. Basalt can be given an edge, as can quartz, and obsidian. These rock can be naturally exposed, such as by running water. Flint can also be used. Flint is a sedimentary rock, meaning oceans once again. There seems to be no avoidance of the necessity for continental upthrust and oceans on any world which gives rise to an alien technological civilization. Without these, it doesn’t get started.

Non-human primates have been observed using stones as tools, so there is no requirement for the development of any human skills, such as speech, prior to the use of stone tools, and this means that brains can co-develop with stone tools, rather than having to precede them. On Earth, stone tools with manufactured cutting edges have been excavated from sites dated over two million years ago, which is another confirmation that creatures that get started on stone tool-using do not have to be developed to the degree of homo sapiens. It must be the opposite, that homo sapiens, and similarly capable alien species, develop via the use of stone tools.

The list of necessary geology does not stop with the need for certain types of stones being available. After stone tools, almost in recent times, pottery developed, needing clay. Clay is weathered rock of certain types, with particle sizes of the order of a micrometer or smaller. It is widely available, and again simply requires exposed rock and weathering by water. If stones for stone tools are available on an alien exo-planet, clay should also be, leading to the first manufactured products. There does not seem to be any obvious requirements other than continental upthrust and oceans necessary to allow a species to step over from pre-civilization to civilization.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Is Industrial Gestation Magic?

Magic is a code word meaning that it cannot happen for scientific or economic grounds and industrial gestation simply means the growth of young organisms in industrial settings, as opposed to the evolutionary means, such as by budding, sprouting, seeding, chrysallis or pregnancy. On Earth, we do this with plant seeds continuously, and also with plant buds, insects and poultry, but not with mammals. The technology would be much more complex, but certainly not impossible in an advanced alien society. What is needed is a complete simulation of the environment that an embryo encounters. This includes the physical environment, as it develops along with the embryo, including the attachments if any, the nutritional and growth-controlling inputs, and the thermal and chemical baths. For some aliens, there may be tactile or auditory inputs as well. There may be a complex birth process. However, none of these would be beyond the capability of a highly advanced alien civilization. However, this does not mean that the costs could be borne if it was to become widespread.

What is feasible in a laboratory setting is not necessarily feasible on a mass-production scale. There are incredible savings possible arising from re-designing a laboratory scale device to mass production. For these industrial gestation devices, the care that might be needed in the laboratory setting would have to be automated. There would still need to be staffing, but significantly fewer per device. Robotics could be used for most of the operations, leaving staff demands for only the initiation or completion. Perhaps even the initiation could be largely automated. The separate production of the nutrient solutions or feedstock could be incorporated into the industrial facility, using less specialized ingredients.

One way to look at the cost feasibility of this technology on a mass scale is to compare the labor requirements to available labor. With everything automated to the maximum extent possible, perhaps one year of citizen-hours of labor might be required per new alien, principally at the last stage, but also at the beginning, for genetic choices to be made and during the middle, to monitor that everything was proceeding as desired. This might be an upper bound, on the premise that automation never becomes fully equivalent to an alien in intelligence or capabilities. Total citizen-hours of available labor per alien might be several decades of time, meaning that the labor costs are not prohibitive, even in this worst case scenario.

Resources are the other side of the ledger, but it is hard to imagine how these processes could consume large amounts of resources. The mass involved is not large, re-use would be overwhelmingly large, and most resources would not be unique in any way. Thus, neither from a technology nor a cost viewpoint is industrial gestation a magic concept.

The implications are extremely important. With industrial gestation, the alien civilization can much more easily take control of its own genetic makeup, and the training of young aliens as well. The development of this process would help revise the evolutionary path of older aliens having families to give rise to young aliens. The evolutionary path is one which is prone to being non-evolutionary, although this statement doesn’t make sense on first view. What happens is that as the alien civilization becomes more affluent, there is no evolutionary pressure toward genetic improvement. Genetic improvement only occurs when there is some sort of fitness testing, resulting in a difference in reproductive rate.

With no evolutionary pressure, the exact opposite is likely to occur, with the population distribution sliding toward emphasizing those genetic make-ups which maximize reproductive rate. If the alien civilization had a culture which emphasized success as a prerequisite for reproduction, some imitation of evolutionary pressure would still prevail; in the opposite situation, where reproduction was something which might interfere or distract from other goals in their society, then the reverse effect would take place. The nickname for the eventual result of this negative correlation is idiocracy, which is an unreachable situation, as the civilization would cease to function at its former level if a shortage of intelligent citizens occurred.

With industrial gestation, an attempt could be made to improve the genetics of the population, and any negative correlation between improved genetics and reproduction rate could be mitigated. However, this is a linear solution to an exponential growth problem, and it obviously cannot solve the problem by itself. As long as there is a subset of the population which uses evolutionary methods of reproduction and in which this negative correlation of genetic advantage and reproductive rate exists, there will be a growing fraction of the population with gradually declining genetic levels. Affluence is an unstoppable current in this situation.

There are many solutions an alien civilization could try to resolve this problem of affluence leading to negative genetic levels. The simplest is governance exerting some influence over the situation, through a variety of means. One would be education, another would be outreach, another would be regulation, another would be some sort of feedback taxation, and another might be a voluntary genetic improvement program. Any one of these might serve to tip the balance so that genetics could stay on the upward direction.

The feasibility of an industrial gestation process means that these solutions would not have to have as much of an effect as if there were no industrial gestation. The problem must be solved so there is no exponentially diminishing genetic level among any fixed fraction of the population, but the other side of the negative correlation between genetic levels and reproductive rate can be overcome with a constant supply of genetically improved citizens. Instead of having two sides of the problem to simultaneously solve, those in governance would only have to solve one side. The other side can be solved by simply devoting resources to the problem. Since there does not need to be a great amount of resources involved, nor an unavailable block of citizen time, there is no reason to assume that alien civilizations will be barred from star travel because of their inability to maintain good genetic levels among their home planet population.

Other implications of this realization are also large. This means that biological creatures can be created to design. If the civilization needs anything that a biological solution exists for, this will not be an insurmountable barrier for it. As one example, intellos, an artificially created biological, intelligent creature, could be created to fill various tasks or activities within the society, and if these are more cost-efficient that robotic solutions, they would be used. Other examples exist, and the availability of these solutions to problems of the civilization means it would have a very different character than one which was largely mechanical in nature.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Genetics and Magic

Magic is a nickname for something impossible to do but easy to imagine and portray. Genetics is just genetics. In an alien civilization, genetic manipulation of their own species may be so costly to do, safely and surely, that it cannot be afforded as a substitute for the random selection of genes that evolutionary breeding patterns provide. The goal can be as explicit as needed, meaning that the alien civilization would like to force evolution in the direction the civilization desires, meaning toward alien citizens with better health, longevity, strength, athleticism, intelligence, appearance, mental stability, and anything else that was considered a positive in their civilization. All that is necessary is for the civilization to figure out exactly how each gene in the genome works, not merely as a correlation with some observed attributes, but how it is awakened during the development of the organism from a zygote to an adult, and what roles it plays in the different cells of the organism, at each stage of its existence. They need to figure out how each variation that might be used affects the organism. This is a very formidable task. But is it out of reach for an alien civilization at the height of their research capability, when resources are plentiful and the existing population has sufficient genius-level members to undertake this research? If an alien civilization which is optimally disposed to be able to accomplish this cannot, the barrier must be universal and no alien civilizations will be able to.

Mechanization of DNA decoding, including epigenetic signals, might help make this feasible. Suppose there are a thousand different types of cells in the alien species. The task of determining the signaling that turns a gene on or off in a unique type of cell has to be determined, first of all. This might mean a thousand runs of a DNA decoding machine, which is negligible in costs. Extracting specific types of cells is also not prohibitive. Thus the map of chemical signaling which occurs during ontogeny is feasible; even we could do it within a century or two. Doing this for related species, numbering a hundred, in order to understand better what the signaling is, is also within cost bounds. Next the source of the signaling has to be found, in neighboring cells, or perhaps in something more distant once the initial equivalent of blood flow starts. Finding what molecule is used for the signaling is a chemical analysis task involving each individual cell type, and with the myriad numbers of molecules in any given cell, simple detection is not going to be a promising path to take.

Instead, some detailed research into the chemical classes of molecules that can be used in signaling epigenetic switching would need to be done, so that some markers that these classes have can be found. Each alien species might have its own, or there could be a sort of convergence. This does not matter as there would have been no contact between alien planets before this stage of civilizational development. In vitro experiments with DNA strands would be needed to narrow down the possibilities and then confirm the right one was detected for any particular transaction.

If we assume there are a thousand cell types, and double that to take into account unique cells in related species, and fifty possibilities for each cell, and ten citizen-years to solve one combination, that is a million citizen years of scientific and technical talent. Over two centuries, this means that there would have to be a staffing of fifty thousand scientists and technicians on this task. This is not a large amount for a population greater than a few billions. Thus, the signaling determination should be able to be accomplished over two centuries of work. Likely after the first ten percent was completed, ways to expedite the process could be invented, and the time reduced. But since the initial upper bound is feasible, this would not change the result.

Finding the source of the chemical signals would be a simultaneous research area, once the initial ones were found. Finding the source of these molecules in neighboring cells would not be anything like determining the chemical nature of the signaling molecules. Thus, it would be feasible to make a complete map of the development of cells within the alien species and within some related species.

Then comes the evaluation of the effect of each of the genes. At this point, knowledge is available of which genes are functioning in which cells, and this comes from knowing when they turn on and off. The effect of a genetic variant would be isolated to those cells in which it plays a role. Some genes would be functioning in every cell in the organism, and this might be the majority of them. Genes which function in all cells are likely doing the same thing in a wide variety of organisms, and these genes would be deciphered early in the genetic research period. However, these are not likely to be the genes that affect the qualities desired by the civilization for its successive generations of adults. Variations in these genes are likely to be fatal. There may be a few that have an effect on adult aliens, but the number would have to be quite small to have not been filtered out by the many generations that the alien species and all its predecessors underwent evolutionary pressure. Thus, work could be concentrated on a few genes in locations that were already found.

At this point, gene expression would have to be understood, if it was not already. That means that besides the map of gene signaling that was created, there would have to be a listing of what proteins are produced in each cell by each combination of genes, assuming that it is a many-to-one relationship in most situations. This listing should be deducible once the basic rules for the translation of genes to proteins are worked out. This again is not a show-stopper.

After the understanding is generated of what proteins are altered by a genetic variation, there would next be the task of determining the activity of each protein in a cell. What does the original protein do and what does the variation do? Most likely it is the same function, but not necessarily. If there are multiple copies of a gene, meaning many sources of a single protein, having a variation of one of those copies would produce a different protein without diminishing greatly the number of the originals. Thus, in some small set of situations, it might be necessary to re-engage the research task that determined the activity of each protein originally, in the baseline alien cell.

Neither the determination of the effect of a genetic variation, nor the unusual case of a single variation of a multiple copy gene, seem to take anywhere near the effort needed for the determination of the ontogeny of the organism down to the genetic signaling level. This can only mean that the determination of what gene copies the alien civilization would want to install in its citizens can be done, and it is not magic. Remaining to be addressed is the implementation of this knowledge.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What Genetic Modifications are Magic?

‘Magic’ is used here as a code word to mean something that, for one reason or another, cannot happen. Magic items can be impossible because of scientific reasons or economic ones. In this example, that would mean that there is some technical barrier that would prevent some type of genetic modifications from becoming universal, or that the cost of doing so would be prohibitive, even in an advanced alien civilization. One extreme case would be that any genetic modification would be feasible and affordable, and then the conclusion would be that no genetic modifications were magic. Another extreme case would be that the cost of a certain level of genetic modifications was comparable to the cost of raising a young alien from the first steps until they reached adult status, effectively doubling the cost to add a new alien to the adult population.

Since genetic modifications would create a tremendous difference in the nature of an advanced alien civilization, it is worthwhile examining this question. Previous discussions have assumed that the feasibility is there and the costs are low, but is this true?

There are two aspects to genetic modification. One is the technical side, meaning the procedures and equipment needed to either create a new string of genes, or to modify an existing one. It would also include the ability to map an existing string of genes, prior to any modifications. This is close to where Earth science is now. We on Earth have invented machines able to decipher and record strings of genes on almost any set of chromosomes, for any organism. The cost of such deciphering has dropped astronomically over the last few years. The modification part is also currently a topic of research, and appears likely to be solved within a few more years here on Earth. By solved, we mean the ability to remove any gene from a series, insert a new one wherever desired, or both, meaning replacing an existing gene with a different one. The methods used today do not do modifications of genes in place, but that step will likely occur over the next few decades. This last step will make modifications somewhat less chancy and more robust. But whether or not this step is completed here in a few years or much later than that, it does not seem to pose any feasibility problems.

The other aspect of genetic modification is further off for us, and therefore may be an obstacle not clearly envisioned. That aspect is the determination of what each gene does, in the context of the complete organism. The two ways of assessing the functions of each gene are the same two that appear in any investigation of a complex problem. One is statistical, and the other is normative.

With a large number of organisms of the same kind, with some genetic variation between them, a collection of attributes, perhaps quantitative, can be matched against the genetic code for each individual organism. For those genes where there are variations, it might be possible to determine a correlation between attributes and gene variations. This is easier to do with gene variations that lead to single changes, such as some non-fatal problem. When there are interacting genes, the problem of translating gene variations to attribute changes becomes much harder. First, there is no list of all attributes that might be affected, and creating a list requires more than just taxonomy. Second, there is no reason to assume that a single gene only creates a single change. Third, there is no reason to assume that genes do not cooperate to produce some attribute. These three reasons, and certainly more, mean that the statistical approach will be a slow one, and perhaps not successful.

Another problem with the statistical approach is that there may be no variations present in some genes. Without these variations, nothing about the function of the genes can be determined. Even if there are some variations, the numbers present may be small. If a gene variation is only present in one in a million individuals, there will be no good statistics without a very large population. This means genetic deciphering of a huge number of individuals, at a large cost. For bacteria this might be a feasible approach, but for larger organisms, not so much.

These and other problems with the statistical approach to interpreting the functions of individual genes means the other approach, the normative one, needs to be considered as well. This approach means that an understanding of the entire ontogeny of the organism. The problem with this is that the original zygote or equivalent is composed of identical cells, but they soon differentiate. This differentiation is one part of the genetic control of the cells, and this differentiation would not be solely controlled by the genetic code, but also by chemical signals from other cells. In other words, each successive modification of a pluripotent stem cell would have to be understood, as well as the determination of the signals which lead to each of these modifications. Some genes in the genetic code may be tail-end genes, which only come into operation after a cell has differentiated to the final stage, such as Kupffer cells, which are macrophagic cells only found in a liver, or photoreceptive ganglions in a retina or a thousand others. Others could be front-end genes that operate even in the stem cell. Others could be coding for the chemical receptors which govern differentiation.

To understand genes from a normative viewpoint, a complete ontogenic map would have to be drawn, showing what different differentiations occur, in all the different organs of the organism, and what genes control the differentiation and then which genes control the quantitative aspects of each differentiated cell. Genes do not differ between differently differentiated cells, but the epigenetic methylation on each gene can control how the gene operates, or if it operates at all. The question, is the situation simply too complex to be completely figured out? If so, the genetic transformation will not be able to reach the limits that can be so easily imagined.

It is possible to do, not a genetic transcription, but an epigenetic transcription. These would have to be done for each type of differentiated cell in the organism in order to figure out the functions of genes in different cell types. Knowing the difference in epigenetic controls in each type of cell would help to determine the function of the genes, but would certainly not provide the full story. There would have to be a coupling of the genetic variation information with the differentiation information, as well as the mechanisms by which differentiation happens. The very large amount of research needed for all this might never be supported on an alien planet, as the large majority of it does not lead to any clear benefits. Perhaps the best tentative conclusion would be that only in alien civilizations which have a surfeit of productivity at the time of the genetic grand transformation would be able to accomplish the transformation. Both the success stories and the failures need to be considered in assessing the presence, longevity, and traveling of alien species.