Beyond Pangaea

This morning I came across a remarkable website that attempts to illustrate the concept of deep time using a metaphorical 12 hour clock.  As I stated before in The Ratchet, metaphors like this are necessary for the human mind to conceptualize millions and billions of years.  They are also necessary to conceptualize some biological events like speciation and most geophysical events like the formation and separation of continents.  This is because phenomena like speciation and the separation of continents occur on larger time scales than we are accustomed to experiencing.

In fact, the process of plate tectonics (which causes the formation and separation of continents) occurs so slowly that our collective popular imagination has really only allowed for the incorporation of one supercontinent: Pangaea.  Most people have heard of Pangaea from high school geography class (or from the animated film Ice Age: Continental Drift, which incorrectly includes the separation of the supercontinent within its narrative).  However, few people are aware that Pangaea is not the first supercontinent to have existed on Earth, nor will it be the last.

Early Earth

Pangaea existed between 300-200 million years ago during the late Paleozoic and the early Mesozoic. During this time the clade Dinosauria evolved and dominated the terrestrial landscape.

But the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and geologists have realized that our planet goes through supercontinent cycles that occur roughly every 600 million years.  This means that Pangaea was not the first supercontinent; it was just the most recent supercontinent, which makes it the easiest to conceptualize.

During the first billion years of Earth’s existence continents as we know them today probably did not exist. Once the Earth cooled oceans dominated the surface.  However, proto-continents began to form driven by the slow movement of Earth’s super hot semi-solid mantle.  Geologists are still unsure if supercontinents existed during this period of our planet’s history.  Some suspect that parts of modern day Madagascar, India, and Australia were connected but this claim is still highly controversial and not known with a high degree of certainty.  But even if a connected landmass did exist at this time, it would have only been half the size of modern day Australia!

The Three Known Giants

Evidence of the Earth’s terrestrial composition is far more reliable as we approach what many geologists consider to be the “first true supercontinent”: Columbia.  Columbia existed 1.8 billion years ago in the Paleoproterozoic Era. Although this landmass was 50 million square kilometers in size, that is quite small when compared to the 150 million square kilometers of land exposed on Earth today. For some further context Afro-Eurasia alone is 84 million square kilometers, almost double Columbia’s size.  However, after approximately 200 million years Columbia split leading to a new era of continental drift.

Rodinia was the next supercontinent to form approximately 1 billion years ago in the Neoproterozoic era.  Although it was larger than Columbia, Rodinia formed entirely south of the equator.  Like Columbia, Rodinia was completely devoid of life. The supercontinent existed before the Cambrian Explosion and all life (both single-celled and multi-celled) had yet to transition to a terrestrial niche.  When Rodinia began to separate (~750-650 mya) it may have initiated a transformative global environmental period: Snowball Earth.

Our beloved Pangaea was the next in the succession of supercontinents.  It was the first supercontinent to possess life and was home to the first major proliferation of megafauna on our planet.  Pangaea may have allowed dinosaurs to become globally dominant quickly because there were no major oceans separating populations.  Many paleontologists believe that Pangaea also contributed to low genetic diversity within the Dinosauria clade and a homogenization of general dinosaur body plans.  The most obvious physical evidence of Pangaea’s existence can be noticed an any world map: the South American and African coasts (which appear to fit like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle).

Future

Today many geologists believe we are in a half-way point between supercontinental cycles. We know that a future supercontinent will exist, but we are unsure of what type of supercontinent it will be. Currently there are three different models: Pangaea Ultima, Amasia, and Novopangaea. These three forms are all based on calculations of contemporary incremental movement and fragmentary data of plate tectonic dynamics.

In the Pangaea Ultima scenario the Atlantic Ocean will start to close, opening up the Pacific once again. North American and Africa would collide, South American and Antarctica would collide, and Australia and South-East Asia would collide.

In the Amasia and Novopangaea scenarios the Atlantic Ocean would become the “super ocean” and the Pacific would close. In these scenarios the Americas would crash into Asia, but it is unknown whether Antarctica would join the other continents in the Northern Hemisphere.

Either way, current calculations predict this future supercontinent will exist in 250 million years.

The study of plate tectonics is remarkably young and geologists have just started to figure out our planet’s continental history (and potential future). The effects that major continental collisions and separations have on ecosystems are profound. Future research should reveal more about how they affect climate and biodiversity. But in my opinion we already have enough data to reveal the astounding fact that if you were to go backwards or forwards in time 250 million years, our planet would look like an alien.

Like life itself, our planet is undergoing constant change. This means that the number of future supercontinents will only be limited by the life of our star.

(Below is a video illustrating the past 250 million years of continental drift and the next 250 million years of continental drift under the Pangaea Ultima scenario):

Cadell Last is on Twitter.  You shouldn’t wait for the next supercontinent to follow him!

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Comprehending Deep Time

Last year an important study on great ape generation length effectively doubled the amount of time since our divergence with chimpanzees and bonobos.  Many evolutionary anthropologists now believe that the human-chimp-bonobo divergence occurred between 7-14 million years ago, as opposed to 6 million years ago (the large range of the speciation gap is because the speciation event is now thought to be a long-term process, as opposed to a temporally swift event).  And last week the European Space Agency announced new data indicating our universe is 50 million years older than previously believed (from 13.77 to 13.82 billion years old).  Both of these studies force us to reconceptualize our reality: the first challenges our interpretation of human evolution, and the second challenges our interpretation of the universe’s history and development.

But how can we best understand these numbers and reinterpretations?

Attempting to comprehend the unimaginably long stretch of time that preceded the present is something many scientists must confront.  This usually poses incredible challenges because our minds have evolved to conceptualize time on scales of years, decades, and centuries; as opposed to time on scales of millions or billions of years.  In fact, even conceptualizing the timescales of human civilization is quite daunting.  For example, Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted from 3,000 B.C.E. to 332 B.C.E., which for context is 13 times longer than independent United States history.

Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen J. Gould dedicated his life to understand phenomenon on deep time scales.  He stated that:

“The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it. An abstract, intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily enough, getting it into the gut is quite another matter.”

— Stephen J. Gould

I understand (and respect) Gould’s opinion on this issue, but I slightly disagree.  I do not think that an abstract, intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily.  When I was in college I spent hours thinking hard about deep time.  In order to improve my understanding of phenomena on these time scales I frequently relied on metaphor and varying time scale comparisons.  I also read books about the history of the universe that detailed events in reverse chronology.  I felt as though reverse chronology accounts of our past eased me gently into ever greater time scales.  Once I had absorbed an understanding of phenomena that occurred on scales of millennia, it was far easier for me to absorb an understanding of phenomena that occurred on scales of hundreds of millennia.  After applying this approach, it became progressively easier to view all events in our contemporary world from the perspective of cosmic time.

Applying this approach also helps to understand studies that alter the master narrative of existence like the two papers mentioned above.  How should we approach an understanding of the new human-chimpanzee-bonobo divergence time and the new age of our universe?  I would argue that for proper context we should consult one of the most important intellectual tools humans have developed to understand deep time: the Cosmic Calendar.

Astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the Cosmic Calendar in the 1980s.  This calendar is used to map the entire lifetime of the universe, and all significant events, onto a single calendar year.  By employing this calendar metaphor, the human mind is able to approach un-human time scales in a human format.

For the recalculated human-chimpanzee-bonobo divergence time we must now conceptualize a gradual split that occurred over a scale of 7 million years (14-7mya), as opposed to a relatively sudden split 6 mya.  A speciation occurring over 7 million years is almost an unfathomably long period of time.  Once modern humans had left Africa it took them ~50,000 years to colonize nearly every available landmass on the planet.  That means the human-chimpanzee-bonobo speciation event took 140 times longer than human colonization of the entire planet!

On the Cosmic Calendar our previous understanding of the human-chimpanzee-bonobo speciation event occurred on December 31st at approximately 20:04 P.M.  So with this framework the critical split leading to the evolution of humans occurred about 4 hours before the New Year!  Under our new interpretation we can still imagine the split as occurring on December 31st.  However, the key difference is that the split will be occurring over several hours: from 15:24-19:04 P.M.  So the human emergence story is now occupying a slightly larger fraction of the famous Cosmic Calendar.

But let’s remember to put this in proper perspective.  Biological evolution, and speciation specifically, can take millions of years.  For the human mind this is nearly impossible to understand without a useful tool like a Cosmic Calendar.  As I stated above, the speciation event between humans and our closest relatives took 140 times longer than the complete colonization of the planet.  Yet we still only emerge on the last day of the universe’s time scale.  Our distant hominid ancestors made it just in time for the New Year’s Party.

The universe’s age was also recalculated last week.  For many people this may not mean very much.  What is the difference between 13.77 and 13.82?  This may seem like an inconsequential age extension of a universe we already knew was ancient.  But let’s remember that 13.77 BILLION to 13.82 BILLION (~50 million years) is the difference between primates and no primates.  Almost all of primate evolution, and certainly all-significant events within primate evolution, occurred within the last 50 million years!  Approximately 50 million years ago, lemurs had yet to raft to Madagascar, New World Monkeys had yet to make their mysterious journey to South America, and apes did not exist at all!

The reason I discussed time scales related to great ape evolution (e.g., hundreds of thousands of years and millions of years) first was to ease you back into the world of billions.  On the Cosmic Calendar the reimagining of a universe 50 million years older does not change very much: our galaxy still forms around the same time, as does our planet, and life, and all other significant developments in the history of our universe.  This is because on the scale of the universe, 50 million years is comparable to a couple of months for a human.  The equivalent of adding all of primate evolution to the Cosmic Calendar is inconsequential to the unimaginable expanse of cosmic time.

Why is this important to understand?  Apart from being mind-bendingly cool and being a useful tool to help you understand scientific discoveries; it should also help you put your own life in context.  Our entire order’s evolution is nothing on the temporal scale of billions of years.  Our species emergence is but a preamble to the universe’s New Year’s Eve party.  And modern civilization?  We arrived a few seconds (13 seconds to be fair), before the ball dropped.  When we start to discuss an individual’s life, we may be diving into the temporal scales of nanoseconds.

If those scales do not humble you, nothing will.

Cadell Last is on Twitter!  It will only take a few seconds to follow!

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Are You Ready For De-Extinction?

Humans have been fundamentally reshaping ecosystems and causing massive megafaunal extinction events since we emerged from East Africa ~75,000 years ago.  Over this time period iconic animals like the wooly mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, giant wombats, American horses, western camels, giant beavers, saber-toothed cats, and many other species suffered extinction.  It is estimated that the world lost at least 178 large mammals during our migratory emergence.  Ecosystems continued to collapse as we established ourselves globally and continued to extend our use (and misuse) of resources throughout the Holocene.  Today many of the animals that suffered extinction during this period (e.g, Tasmanian tiger, dodo, passenger pigeon) have become permanently associated with our species capacity to destroy ecosystems.

But what if we could undo this damage?  What if we could bring all of these species back and revive the healthy megafaunal ecosystems that existed throughout the world before our emergence?

Remarkable advances in synthetic and molecular biology within the past decade will allow us to bring back Paleolithic ecosystems.  Researchers can now take ancient DNA fragments (e.g., like preserved wooly mammoth DNA) and compare them with DNA from the extinct animals closest living relative (e.g., for the mammoth that would be the Asian elephant).  After the genetic comparisons have been made, McMaster University geneticist and biological anthropologist Hendrik Poinar claims the possibility of de-extinction is theoretically plausible:

“We can in theory use that information to modify existing chromosomes with what we imagine to be mammoth substitutions, the result would be an elephant-mammoth hybrid, and such a creature could theoretically be implanted into the womb of a mother elephant. Get the formula right, and the offspring might be a mammoth in the eye of the beholder.”

— Hendrik Poinar

As a result of these scientific possibilities, The Long Now Foundation’s Revive and Restore program held a de-extinction conference on March 15th 2013 supported by TED and the National Geographic Society to begin discussing these scientific and ethical issues.  The fact that science has progressed so far as to enable the possibility of de-extinction may at first seem like a compelling enough reason to do it.  After all, who wouldn’t want to see iconic ice age mammals like the saber-toothed cat and wooly mammoth?  However, we immediately run into ethical questions that prove challenging to answer.

Biologist and de-extinction enthusiast Stewart Brand stated that Revive and Restore held this recent TED conference in order to “open the discussion to the public.”  So in this article I want to list the pros and cons of de-extinction so that everyone can make an informed decision for themselves.  Whether you are scientifically literate or not, whether you have a love of science and nature or not, de-extinction would effect everyone.

Let the De-Extinction Revolution Begin!

1. We have a responsibility to the biosphere

As I stated at the start of this article, our species is largely responsible for the high extinction rates of the Middle Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic, and Holocene.  Of course, extinction is a natural process and it is a driver of biological evolution.  However, in contemporary times the extinction rate is more than 1,000 times above the “normal” estimated background extinction rate before our emergence.  This means that there is overall declining biodiversity and ecosystems are suffering as a result.  Therefore, we have a responsibility to not only reverse these trends, but also to “re-wild” what we have destroyed.

2. Increase ecological and biological diversity

Many ecosystems today are unstable. Some rainforests suffer from “empty-forest syndrome” and food chains in the oceans, seas, prairies, and mountains are collapsing as a result of extinction and climate change.  We could potentially revive and re-create vibrant ecosystems by bringing back species that used to play pivotal roles within various niches.

3.Iconic, Beloved, Missed

On the Revive and Restore home page they claim that key revival criteria is how “iconic,” “beloved,” and “missed” currently extinct species are.  This may seem like a trivial reason, but many humans love and care for nature, and would love to see Paleolithic biosphere revived and restored.  Certain animals hold cultural capital and unique places within the population imagination.  For this reason many people would argue de-extinction is intrinsically good and morally justified.

4.Science!

Understanding nature and the biological world is important for our own understanding of the universe and our planet.  If we started to recreate ecosystems specifically designed for currently extinct flora and fauna we would learn a great deal about how ecosystems function.  We would also learn about currently extinct animal behaviour that we cannot learn from fossils.  Selfishly, I think the evolutionary anthropologist in me would be interested in studying Paleolithic fauna because it would potentially help us better understand our own evolution.

Keep The Past In The Past

1.Many Paleolithic biospheres no longer exist

There is a massive ecological problem with bringing back species from the Paleolithic: many of these species habitats no longer exist.  The last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago.  This means that most of the species that suffered extinction as a result of our emergence lived in habitats and ecosystems that cannot be redesigned today.  This problem would be most pressing for Eurasian megamammals like the wooly rhinoceros and the wooly mammoth.  These species would be revived into a quickly warming world that may not be able to support them.  The consequences would likely be a quick “re-extinction.”

2.No country for wild carnivores

A second equally important question is whether there would be a country that would want to protect and maintain populations of vicious Ice Age carnivores like the saber-toothed cat.  Stanford University ethicist Hank Greely and de-extinction enthusiast claimed that it would be “neat to see [a saber-toothed cat].”  However, would they be destined to live their lives in zoos and labs?  Would we ever be able to establish a population in the wild? As paleontologist Brian Switek pointed out:

“Wildlife experts in and around Yellowstone National Park have enough trouble trying to get the public to accept the presence of wolves – carnivores that were extirpated from the area within recent history before being reintroduced two decades ago – and conservationists continue to struggle with the persistent conflict between jaguars and ranchers in South America. Can you imagine the uproar over sabertoothed cats being returned to the western United States or South American grasslands?”

— Brian Switek

3.Lack of conservation funding

Conservationists struggle to make progress with limited funding.  Although many international organizations have managed to stabilize many animal populations that would otherwise be de-extinction candidates today, they still have not managed to significantly reduce the background extinction rate.  If we bring back currently extinct animals that may put even more stress on underfunded conservation organizations and prevent them from allocating resources effectively.  The result could be increased extinction of currently endangered species.

4.Genomic engineering can serve more practical purposes

There are several population of megafauna today (e.g., cross-river gorilla, white rhinoceros) that are on the edge of extinction.  With genetic engineering we could help these populations stay afloat by adding genetic variation to populations in risk of a genetic bottleneck.  This would give conservationists a useful tool to help these populations rebound in the wild, as opposed to suffering from genetic inbreeding and eventually collapse.

Let The Debate Begin

We are currently on a revolutionary scientific frontier.  De-extinction is a real possibility right now.  What will we do?  Will we bring the Paleolithic into the Anthropocene?  As I have tried to illustrate, de-extinction raises very complex questions.  Undoubtedly there will be very passionate de-extinction enthusiasts and equally passionate de-extinction opposition.  I hope that this article helped inform you about some of the important questions that we will all be encountering this decade.  The fate of the biosphere is now in our hands.

Have an opinion on De-Extinction?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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Another Earth

Astronomy is often referred to as the most intellectually humbling academic subject.  When you study astronomy you are confronted with scale, size, and time that is completely alien to the human mind.  We evolved to understand spatial scales of kilometers, not light-years, and to understand temporal scales of decades, not billions of years.

Despite this, it is always important to contextualize the human experience with astronomical knowledge.  And last year was a year of particularly insightful discoveries relevant to understanding our species place within the universe.  In 2012, astronomers discovered: a) the first earth-sized planets, b) an earth-sized planet in the nearest star system to earth, and c) the first earth-sized planet within the habitable zone of its parents star.  These discoveries represent major milestones in the development of human knowledge.  They allow us to better-contextualize our planets relationship to the rest of the universe.

To me, these discoveries provide the first empirical evidence that earth-like planets are likely very common in the Milky Way galaxy (and probably in most other galaxies as well).  As soon as astronomers had the technology and methods developed to detect planets as small as earth, they started detecting them.  In the coming years I expect that we will become overwhelmed with headlines similar to: “another earth-like planet detected.”

Interestingly, a paper accepted yesterday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters provided a statistical analysis indicating that we should find some of those earth-like planets in our cosmic neighbourhood.  Ravi Kopparapu, lead author of the study claims: “we now estimate that if we were to look at 10 of the nearest small stars we would find about four potentially habitable planets, give or take.  That is a conservation estimate.”  Since there are eight M-stars (small stars) within 10 light-years of Earth, we should conservatively expect to find three Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of their parent star.

For me, these estimates are very surprising.  Last decade we had no data on likely frequency of earth-like planets and relatively little data on frequency of exoplanets.  I was someone who thought exoplanets would be very common (which they are), but I thought earth-like planets would be relatively rare.  But it looks like that guess was off.  And if current estimates are accurate, and there are three Earth-like planets within 10 light-years of Earth, we should expect some BIG discoveries in the next two decades.

Why? Because of the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

I remember a few years ago I went to a special presentation at McMaster University with my granddad and a friend about the first image ever recorded of an exoplanet.  I was excited, but I knew before the presentation started that what we were going to be observing would be a grainy pixel on a dark black screen.  Even our best telescopes are very poor at directly detecting exoplanets (which is why all exoplanet discoveries are made indirectly by either a) detecting the light they bend when they cross their parent star(s) or b) their gravitation effects on their parent star(s)).

However, when the JWST (successor to the Hubble Space Telescope) is launched in 2018, we will be able to directly detect exoplanets within 25 light-years of our star system.  This means that if Kopparapu and others are correct we are going to be able to see images of other earth-like planets in the 2020s.

I’ll let that thought sink in a little bit.

But wait! It gets better.  The JWST can also determine the chemical composition of planets.  This means that not only will we get detailed images of other Earth-like planets soon but also we will likely be able to tell if those planets are home to life.  This is because life creates, transforms, and regulates the biosphere, radically altering a planets chemical composition.  Obviously we will not be able to identify species and get specific biological information, but we would likely be able to tell if they were carbon-based life forms that depended on oxygen and hydrogen for survival (for example).

If this doesn’t get you interested in scientific discovery and the future of human understanding, I don’t know what will.  The discoveries of the past two years in astronomy definitely help us conceptualize our place within the Milky Way.  However, these discoveries make me even more excited for what is just around the corner.  We are on the technological edge of making the most profound discoveries in the history of science: finding another earth.  And if you think about how much seeing a picture of our planet from space did to our understanding of life and our place within the universe, just wait until you see another Earth.

Love space and the future?  Find out more about both by following Cadell’s Twitter!

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Thoughts on the Future pt. 3

I feel that both parts 1 and 2 within this ongoing “Thoughts on the Future” series were sufficiently broad in their focus to lay the groundwork for more specific discussion.  In part 1 I discussed how we can use exponential modeling of our past to predict future meta-system transitions in the future.  In part 2 I discussed how dystopian futuristic narratives tend to follow a simple and flawed logical structure.  In part 3, I would like to start analyzing important research in the biological sciences that indicate our species will achieve radical life extension this century.

Humanity has long dreamed of radical life extension or biological immortality.  There are several myths from ancient times that reflect our deep desire to prevent aging and conquer death.  Biologist Aubrey de Grey shares our ancestor’s desire, but unlike them, he seems to have developed a plausible roadmap towards achieving this goal.

Aubrey de Gray

According to de Grey, our species is currently within a global trance.  Almost everyone believes that aging is undesirable, but everyone also believes that aging is inevitable.  Therefore, everyone logically deals with this reality by putting aging and death out of our minds and forgetting about it.  However, this leads to a lack of research funding and general public skepticism of research focused on “curing” aging.

From my perspective, I have always viewed aging as a disease of sorts.  And I have also thought it logical to assume that if intense and regular maintenance could keep a building, car, or any general object indefinitely in tact and functioning properly, then we could apply the same principles to an individual human.  Of course, many have argued that this analogy is useless because it fails to acknowledge the distinction between maintenance of living and non-living things.  However, recent research by de Grey and others has revealed that it is in principle possible to live indefinitely through advanced biological maintenance.

The Roadmap

According to de Grey there are 7 major causes of aging at the cellular level: cell loss/atrophy, death-resistant cells, nuclear mutations and epimutations, mtDNA mutations, protein crosslinks, junk inside cells, and junk outside cells.  Furthermore, de Grey argues that these causes of aging have been known for several decades, which indicates that we are unlikely to discover any other causes.  And to make matters even more promising, biologists have also developed a theoretical grasp on how to prevent and/or reverse these causes of aging.

So now it is time for action.

The action comes in the form of the Methuselah Foundation, which is a non-profit organization co-founded by de Grey to radically extend the lifespan of our species.  Through this organization, de Grey has been helping to fund research on robust mouse rejuvenation (RMJ).  The average lifespan of a mouse is 2 years, and RMJ is an attempt to dramatically extend that lifespan so that we can, in principle, apply the same methods to humans.  However, to make this research applicable to humans of all ages, researchers must not attempt to reverse aging in mice until they are approaching death.  So far, a few teams have successfully doubled the life expectancy of the mice studied, even with the age restrictions, via modification of the growth hormone receptor and calorie restriction.

Of course, further research and studies are needed before more effective methods can be developed and applied to humans.  However it is a strong indication that aging may not be inevitable.

For Aubrey de Gray, he believes that this is the first stage in a long-term project that will allow people today to live for millennia.  He contends that the therapies to allow this radical life extension may not be developed within the 21st century, but that people living this century will be enabled to age slower than longevity therapies will be developing.  This idea has been termed the Longevity Escape Velocity (LEV).

In practice, this means that if we can double the human life span to 150 or 160, then people will be aging so slowly that by the time anyone actually is 150 we will have discovered how to extend life span to 300, 600, and so on, ad infinitum.  This possibility leads de Grey to conclude that the first 1000-year old will probably only be ~10 years younger than the first 150-year old.

It should be no surprise to anyone who follows The Ratchet that this research all seems logical and sound to me.  As I have said in the past, there are several lines of evidence suggesting that life expectancy for people born between 1980s-2000s should be 160 (effectively allowing this cohort to live indefinitely).  Therefore, the interesting questions for me are not whether de Gray’s research will reveal insights into how to slow and reverse aging, but how these discoveries and methods will be affected and merge with non-biological attempts at extending human life.

Revolutions in biology and genetics specifically, will likely be succeeded by revolutions in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.  How will methods allowing for biological immortality be applied when most of humanity has merged with nanotechnology?  Will they be necessary?  Will a biological bridge for indefinite lifespan be necessary when other technologies will be able to do the same job better?  Or is it possible that humanity will fracture between those that wish to remain indefinitely biological and those that wish to essentially become cyborgs?

As a futurist, it would be interesting to hear Aubrey de Gray comment on these issue specifically.  In my opinion, de Gray’s research in this area may partially aid in allowing people currently in there 50s and 60s to live through the nanotechnology and artificial intelligence revolutions.  I think that once nanotechnology is developed that functions more efficiently than our cells, most of us will start merging with these technologies.  Evidence that humanity will merge intimately with technology is all around us already.  And interestingly, resistance to merging intimately with technology seems very low.  In the 2030s and 2040s it is likely that this merger will be seamless and the dichotomy between what is biological and what is technological may be irrelevant.

Either way, we live in interesting times.  As stated above, humanity has always dreamed of defeating aging.  We now live at a time when we can all start thinking about what we will do with radically extended lives.

Want to know more about the future?  Then follow Cadell Last on Twitter!

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Life on Europa

mag_cover_v02

Our solar system may be host to microbial life on multiple planetary bodies.  Mercury, Mars, Titan, Enceladus, and even some asteroids are plausible candidates.  However, in my opinion Jupiter’s fourth moon Europa represents the most likely candidate for extraterrestrial life in our solar system.  Europa is a moon covered with a 20-kilometer deep ice shelf, but beneath that shelf there is a subsurface ocean 100 kilometers deep.

Astronomers and planetary scientists have proposed traveling to this distant world in the past.  In the 1970s it became evident that Europa would be an ideal location to start our search for life in the solar system.  Since then, several studies have provided us with evidence that Europa could be home to life.  Although Europa is nowhere near our solar system’s goldilock’s zone, it does generate energy from tidal flexing and radioactive decay.  Those sources of energy would not permit a large and diverse photosynthesis-based ecosystem, but it could allow for an ocean of microbial life.  There is also evidence that Europa possesses “great lakes” within its ice shelf that could provide us with a great place to start looking for life.

Despite the promise, funding for an exploratory mission to Europa has been a major roadblock to future research.  It is considerably cheaper (and easier) to send a terrestrial robot to Mars than it is to send a robot that can land on Europa, drill through a dense ice sheet, and navigate a global ocean.  However, I would contend that such a mission should be a top priority for our species.  Understanding the biological nature of our solar system has profound implications for understanding our universe, and our place within the universe.

Robin Hanson of the Future of Humanity Institute views such explorations as imperative for understanding what “great filters” exist between dead matter and cosmic transcendence.  Hanson reasons that such a filter exists because despite the immense size and age of the universe we see no evidence of intelligent life beyond ourselves.  Therefore, it is plausible to suspect that there may be a few major universal obstacles (or “filters”) to the development of such a phenomenon.  Gaining a deeper perspective on where “great filters” exist on the continuum between dead matter and cosmic transcendence could reveal important information about our species probable future.  If our solar system is full of microbial life then we most likely live in a universe filled with simple life; and it increases the possibility that some great filter exists between advanced life and the creation of multi-star civilizations.  However, if our solar system is dead, then perhaps the great filter is the creation of life itself.

Therefore, searching for life in our solar system can be thought of as searching for cosmic omens for our future.

Back to Europa.  Although it seems unlikely that we will design and send a robot to the Galilean moon capable of exploring its deep ocean, it may be possible to understand Europa’s ocean by scanning its surface.

In a research article released yesterday by astronomers Mike Brown and Kevin Hand, they reveal that Europa’s ocean is not isolated (e.g., Brown & Hand, 2013).  Mike Brown stated: “we now have evidence that the ocean and the surface talk to each other and exchange chemicals.”  Kevin Hand echoed this idea claiming: “the surface ice is providing us a window into that potentially habitable ocean below.”

Their study focused on the spectroscopic features on Europa’s surface.  They discovered the presence of magnesium sulfate salt, a mineral that could have only originated from Europa’s subsurface ocean.  From these data they also suggested something even more tantalizing: Europa’s ocean may resemble the composition of Earth’s salty oceans.

Luckily, we may get a closer look at Europa in the 2030s.  The European Space Agency is planning the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), which is a spacecraft designed to investigate the surface of Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa.  During this mission JUICE should perform the first subsurface sounding of the icy moon to determine the exact thickness of the ice shelf surrounding the subsurface ocean.  How much we will learn about Europa’s chemistry (and biology?) is still unknown, but if the ocean and the surface are “communicating” with each other, it is likely that we will be able to learn a lot from the surface alone.

Either way, the more we find out about Europa, the more unbearably excited I become about future research missions.  Robert Pappalardo, an assistant professor in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado seems equally optimistic about pushing for further exploration of Europa:

“We’ve spent a bit of time and effort trying to understand if Mars was once a habitable environment.  Europa today, probably, is a habitable environment.  We need to confirm this… but Europa, potentially, has all the ingredients for life… and not just four billion years ago … but today.”

Curiosity could still discover evidence for life on Mars (although I’m not holding my breath).  But all evidence leads me to conclude that Pappalardo is correct.  Europa probably is a habitable environment today.  There may be ecosystems on Europa.  And being able to study an island of life that evolved independently from Earth’s could help us answer so many questions about the universe and humanity’s place within it.  Of course, I am not advocating for the reduced funding for Mars-related exploratory missions.  But more funding for the exploration of Europa could be the best science-investment our species can make at the moment.

You can find out more about our future if you follow Cadell Last on Twitter.

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Technology for the World

This morning Nigel Warburton published a fantastic article titled “Cosmopolitans” in Aeon Magazine.  Within it, he discusses how our nation typically defines us geographically, and our immediate social networks dominate our social thinking.  He argues that as evolved social apes we tend to think on small social scales.  Despite this, there is an ancient philosophical tradition, cosmopolitanism, which emphasizes that we think globally.  Warburton believes that there is a high likelihood this philosophical tradition will predominate in the future.

I most certainly agree.  As I have discussed before in The Ratchet within the context of “othering,” thinking of humanity as an equal and united whole is a philosophical view that is becoming increasingly popular.

Interestingly, in the last half of the 20th century, most astronauts embraced cosmopolitanism.  As Mike Rugnetta of the PBS Idea Channel has pointed out, astronauts embrace this view because they are “bludgeoned with perspective.”  They realize that we are one species, living on one planet when they gaze upon Earth from space.  Alan Shephard, lunar module pilot for Apollo 9 explained this experience well:

“When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change. It comes through you so powerfully that you are the sensing element for man.”

— Alan Shephard

But of course, we don’t need to go to space to adopt this philosophy and feel this way about our species and planet. In 1972 we all had access to The Blue Marble image, the first picture of our planet from space.  And in 1990 we received The Pale Blue Dot image, a picture of our planet from 6 billion kilometers away, which put our existence into even deeper context.  We can now all think and imagine our species to be globally connected, as opposed to being divided by borders, religions, and ethnicities.  In fact, The Pale Blue Dot image is my favourite picture because it allows everyone to imagine this.

This philosophical view that we are all one species is translating into people creating technologies to help the world, as opposed to creating technologies for one group of people, or one nation of people.  Peter Diamandis, co-creator of Singularity University is a great example of the potential practical application of this perspective.  At Singularity University he challenges students to use modern information technologies to solve humanity’s grand challenges (e.g., scarce energy, clean water, access to medicine, etc.).  The key point here is that individuals are creating technologies to improve the lives of everyone, our entire species.

The liberating possibilities for our species this decade are mind blowing.  For example, Dean Kamen has developed the SlingShot, which is a water purification technology that can generate thousands of liters of clean water per day out of any liquid source.  Dirty water, sludge, and salt water, can all be transformed into fresh and clean drinkable water.  This technology will be distributed around the world this decade and potentially give all humans access to clean water.

Also, there is the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize challenging teams around the world to create mobile devices that you can speak to, can cough on, do a finger blood prick with, and can diagnose anyone better than a team of board-certified doctors. In the future, we may all be able to have a mobile-sized “Watson-doctor” on our phones. These technologies should also diffuse throughout the world in the same way that cell phone technologies did throughout the developing world this past decade.

What does the world look like when everyone has access to clean water and world-class medical expertise?

These are but a few examples of how great thinkers are thinking about the health, safety, and welfare of people globally.  We are going to be developing technologies that help everyone, not just a few, or the wealthy.  We are one species. We are starting to think of ourselves in this way.  The philosophy of cosmopolitanism is alive and well. And it has a very bright future.

Are you on Twitter?  If so, you can follow me from anywhere on the planet!

Also posted via Svtble:

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