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.