Infinite Boltzmann Brains

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I have finally encountered an idea that is too mind boggling for me to really comprehend. Unsurprisingly, it is from the world of theoretical physics. In a recent paper published in Physics Review D string theorists Claire Zukowski and Raphael Bousso explore the idea of Boltzmann brains.

Boltzmann brains are hypothesized self-aware (conscious) entities that are produced from random fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime. That just means that stochastic fluctuations in the level of entropy (disorder) in the universe could theoretically produce something complex (i.e., a self-aware entity) if given enough time. Apparently brains can theoretically blink into existence.

Physicist Ludwig Boltzmann first demonstrated that this was mathematically probable in the 19th century.

Fortunately for Boltzmann, dominant cosmological models today allow enough time for his brains. Current models suggest that our universe will produce Boltzmann brains post Black Hole Era, before the universe decays out of existence.

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Image Credit / Wikipedia

Boltzmann brains are a serious paradox for physicists to explain away. If there is enough time remaining in the life of the universe for essentially infinite number of Boltzmann brains to come into existence, our subjective experience of the universe will be highly unusual. We perceive the universe to have a directionality, or an “arrow of time” and all of our understanding of the physical laws derive from this observation. But if the experience of Boltzmann brains is the usual experience then we must question the universality of our physical theories. This is because in a post “Black Hole Era” universe there will be no distinguishable past and future; there will be no arrow of time.

Zukowski and Bousso are working to resolve this insane paradox. Zukowski stated:

It has to be more likely to be an ordinary observer than a Boltzmann brain

They believe that we have to rely on string theory to resolve the paradox. String theorists believe that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes within a larger multiverse. In this multiverse, universes are constantly budding off of parent universes and inflating over time. Zukowski and Bousso contend that in this framework there are more universes with a discernible arrow of time than universes without (i.e., more universes decay before the appearance of Boltzmann brains than the opposite situation). This would mean experience like our own, with a discernible arrow of time, should be the dominant experience in the multiverse.

Obviously, this is all theoretical. The multiverse itself has not been empirically demonstrated, and is but one of several competing theories to describe the conditions that caused the big bang.

I suppose it is reassuring to know that if the multiverse does exist, it may not be overrun wit Boltzmann brains that have no concept of entropy?

As bizarre as this is to think about, it is too much for me to comprehend for evolutionary reasons. First, I have no idea how the trillions of atoms that create our conscious experience could possibly assemble randomly, even if given infinite time. Second, how strange would it be to have no concept of the arrow of time? To not have a temporal lineage with which to trace your own existence? You just exist, seemingly out of nowhere. You would have no baring on any direction at all. No possible way to understand your origin. A consciousness produced from nothing.

I’ll clarify that I am not saying the math is wrong. I am not qualified to say. Clearly if it is being taken seriously by physicists the math is something to be concerned about. And incredulity is not a good enough reason to doubt the possibility of such entities. If it is theoretically possible, so be it. I’m just saying it is an idea too bizarre for me to really grasp. I don’t think I’ve encountered a stranger idea.

Thanks physics.

What do you think of Boltzmann brains?  Let Cadell know on Twitter.

Should We Send Messages to Space

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Should we purposefully transmit messages to space? That is the question posed by a team of earth and space scientists in the February 2013 edition of Space Policy.

The question has been raised because various independent groups have been sending purposefully directed high-intensity messages intended for extraterrestrial intelligences (ETI), or METI’s.

The authors of this study made two conclusions regarding METI:

1) The benefits of radio communication on Earth today outweigh any benefits or harms that could arise from contact with ETI

2) Current METI efforts are weak, mostly symbolic, and harmless

But are the answers to independent groups sending messages into the cosmos really that simple? I mean I think it is fairly obvious that the potential for ETI in our galaxy should not deter our species from continuing to improve our communication abilities. We have no evidence to support the idea that there are intelligent civilizations in our galactic neighbourhood, much less evidence to support the idea that there is an ETI civilization that poses danger to our existence. However, expanding Earth’s radiosphere and directly sending messages into the cosmos are two very different things. For example, SETI astronomer Seth Shostak has claimed that, due to decreasing signal strength our radiosphere is not detectable beyond five light years. Whereas purposefully directed, high-intensity messages significantly increase Earth’s detectability beyond the radiosphere.

Essentially, this is the reason SETI pioneer Philip Morrison believed that we, “the newest children” in the cosmos, should be passive and just listen for a long time. We should not ‘shout at the cosmos’. We should not explicitly make our presence known before we know the types of intelligence that may exist.

This is a very complex issue. What should we do moving forward? Should we be engaged in an active search for ETI? Or should we be passive?

For me personally, I mostly agree with astrophysicist and science fiction author David Brin. He supports the International Academy of Astronautics Second Protocol for dealing with Transmissions from Planet Earth. This protocol states that:

all of those controlling radio telescopes forebear from significantly increasing Earth’s visibility with deliberate skyward emanations, until their plans were first discussed before open and widely accepted international fora.

To me, this seems like a reasonable position. If we are to purposefully send a METI, that message should be first discussed by an international panel of experts in astronomy, physics, biology, anthropology, history, and politics. And the message should be collectively sent as a message from Earth and by Earth; not from an independent collective. As David Brin stated, no one should feel free to:

broadcast from Earth, whatever, whenever, and however they want.

On the other hand, there are those who would prefer to completely ban METI’s; I disagree with that stance. Don’t get me wrong, I see wisdom in the perspective that we should remain silent, passively listening to the cosmos for thousands of years, before sending messages into a cosmic environment we are just beginning to understand. However, I feel as though we should send controlled and well thought out messages from our species and planet for two main reasons:

1) If there are highly advanced civilizations in the Milky Way, they would know we are here by studying the physical and chemical patterns of our planet, regardless of our radiosphere.

2) I believe it to be probable that any civilization with the capability of traveling to another solar system would not do so with the intention of eradicating life and high intelligence.

The first point is simple, not controversial, and easily explained: a sufficiently advanced civilization could easily detect the presence of our civilization by analyzing the spectrum of reflected ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared sunlight for our planet’s surface. They could also, perhaps more easily, become cognizant of our existence from artificial nighttime lighting and the unusual chemical composition of our planet due to the excessive burning of fossil fuels.

The second point is far more complex, certainly controversial, and not easily explained. Biologists have often warned that contact between species that evolved in different ecosystems often leads to one species going extinct. Likewise, historians have argued that “first contact” between more advanced and less advanced civilizations have often led to disastrous inter-human relations (e.g., slavery, colonialism, civilization collapse, etc.). From this reasoning, they often conclude that if we make our presence known to a vastly more advanced civilization than our own, we are placing own existence in extreme peril.

However, consider the following: as our species has become more knowledgable and technologically advanced, we have also moved strongly in the direction of compassion, altruism, and the inclusion of all within the protection of law. I believe that this is directly tied to satiation. As we create a world of abundance; a world with drastically reduced levels of hunger and poverty, we elevate our cultural ideals. David Brin referred to this as:

an abstract sympathy, unleashed by full bellies and brains that are capable of seeing enlightened self interest in the long term survival of the world.

Natural selection is the driving force for the creation of our biosphere. It may be that natural selection is the driving force for all biological evolutionary processes in the universe. Natural selection permits populations to evolve via differential survival rates. And although we are a very young species, we are already close to releasing our species from this process. In essence, natural selection is permitted to operate because of resource scarcity. But as we continue to raise the standard of living for our speciesas a whole, we accelerate ourselves into a world where we all live long enough to reproduce. Differential survival rates will no longer drive our evolution. As a result, we also accelerate ourselves towards a world free of the byproducts of resource scarcity (i.e., extinction, war, slavery, etc).

When we create science fiction work depicting human-alien conflict, we are projecting biological system conflict produced from a world governed by natural selection. But the interaction between two highly advanced technologically-based systems will not likely be governed by that type of system conflict. A new, more intelligently directed form of evolutionary change should take the place of natural selection. Surely, any species with the capability of visiting our planet would have long ago released themselves from the biological tyranny of the process that created them.

As many scientists have pointed out, including theoretical physicist Paul Davies, biological intelligence is likely to be a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe. If this is the case, it stands to reason that any civilization able to receive our messages and visit our planet would undoubtedly be post-biological. This essentially means they would be post-singularity. And a post-singularity species has not only lifted itself from a world governed by differential survival, but has also lifted itself from finite sentience and death. Therefore, I would not expect conflicts produced by the mechanism of natural selection to dominate an encounter between us and an advanced space faring civilization.

At least, that is my reasoning, and it is why I fully support a controlled, globally agreed upon form of METI. I think the benefits of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence and making “first contact” would outweigh the risks.

That being said, I am sure many would disagree with me. Perhaps it is foolish of me to assume that all advanced intelligent species would have lifted themselves from natural selection and tend towards extraterrestrial altruism. But that is why we must have open dialogue about METI. We can’t tolerate random independent groups to send messages without first consulting the global community. If we send messages we must be prudent. And, from my perspective, prudence would be making sure that any message is sent from Earth and by Earth. No one should be allowed to send whatever messages they want, whenever and however they want.

What do you think?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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Intelligent Life in the Milky Way

Over the past few years astronomers have been making considerable progress on estimating the number of Earth-like planets we should expect within our own galaxy. The most recent study by a team of astronomers at the University of Auckland claim that there are approximately 100 billion. This estimate increases the likely number of Earth-like planets by 82 billion. A study published by astronomers from Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in January posited that there were approximately 17 billion Earth-like planets. In my opinion, I think the 100 billion estimate is probably more reliable. The study produced by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics collected data from measuring dimming of planets orbital periods, whereas the study produced from the University of Auckland collected data from gravitational microlensing. Gravitational microlensing is a more effective method for finding smaller planets with Earth-like orbital periods.

However, whether there are approximately 17 or 100 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way (or more) the important point is that astronomers now have reason to believe that there are a ton of Earth-like planets. This definitely puts a previously contentious issue to rest in the world of astronomy. In the 1990s and 2000s we had very little to no idea how common Earth-like planets would be. Obviously, these data have tremendous implications for our search of extraterrestrial intelligent life. As a result, these data raise some of the biggest questions we can ask as a species. And in this post, I would like to analyze them.

In short: if we now know that there are several billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, why is it so quiet out there?

Possibility 1. We are the first

Our universe is 13.82 billion years old. That is a long time. However, our universe has not been habitable for this period of time. The universe has gone through stages of development that astronomers and cosmologists understand fairly well. Throughout the early stages of this development life could not have existed. Furthermore, the first galaxies and star systems were composed of stars that were much larger, less stable, and had shorter lifespans than second and third generation galaxies and star systems. This has important implications for the search for intelligent life because although we have only one case example of how life evolves (that would be us!) I still feel that it is a reliable indicator that biological evolutionary processes require billions of years to produce highly complex life forms. If that is a valid assumption of the time scales required for biological evolution to produce complex life forms then the first galaxies and star systems would not have been ideal candidates for the development of intelligent life. Many of the early stars lasted for 10-100 million years. Complex life requires stable star systems that last for billions of years.

Our Milky Way galaxy is approximately 8 billion years old. If life requires at least 2-4 billion years to produce highly complex life it is still plausible that many planets in our galaxy possess complex life forms and healthy biospheres. However, we also know from our one known case example of life that intelligent life is very rare. Trillions of multi-cellular species have inhabited our planet. Only 1 has evolved meta-awareness and the ability to understand the processes that allowed for its existence. Again, if this is characteristic of biological evolution we should expect most Earth-like planets (that remain stable for more than 1 billion years) to produce a biosphere with no self-aware intelligent species. If this is the case, it is definitely plausible that we are the first (at least in the Milky Way).

How plausible do I think this situation is? I actually think it is highly plausible. Selection for high intelligence is rare in nature. Brains are the most expensive organs. The Milky Way may have billions of biospheres, but only 1 biosphere with an intelligent civilization.

Possibility 2. Intelligent Civilizations have a short life span

Our civilization is very young on the scale of deep time. To accurately conceptualize how young we must turn to the Cosmic Calendar. If the entire history of the universe were conceptualized within one calendar year, modern, sedentary, agricultural human civilization would arrive 13 seconds before New Year’s Eve on December 31st. In this astonishingly short period of time we have completely transformed our planet, landed on another celestial object, and started to explore our solar system with robots. This pace of change is accelerating. If the cultural and technological evolutionary processes that have enabled us to do this are characteristic of intelligent species, we should suspect intelligent civilizations to develop very quickly on galactic scales. We should also suspect them to be very loud. Already, within barely a century of using global communications technology our radio waves have reached hundreds of other star systems (check out a this brilliant atlas depicting the extent of our radio emissions).

I am trying to emphasize an important point here. If intelligent civilizations are common and develop on many Earth-like planets, they must have short life spans because we have not heard them yet. As Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine has pointed out: “no impressive feats of macro-engineering shine out from our galaxy’s depths.” But if intelligent civilizations develop often and have long life spans (on scales of deep time) we should expect to see such feats of macro-engineering. Could it be that intelligent civilizations have very short life spans?

Robin Hanson of The Future of Humanity Institute believes that there must be a “great filter” between the development of life and a galactic-sized civilization. He suspects that if microbial life is very common in the universe (which it probably is), then the great filter must be between a civilization like ours and a larger-scale multiple star-system civilization.

How plausible do I think this situation is? Actually, I don’t think this is the most plausible situation. I think that once a civilization like ours exists it would take an extreme catastrophe to eradicate it entirely. Almost all potential natural disasters that could erase a civilization like our own would not cause complete extinction. And complete extinction is what would be necessary to prevent further development of our species on the scale of deep time. Perhaps I am being naive regarding this assertion. There may be some great filter and maybe it is the development of nuclear arms. Maybe it is the development of advanced nanotechnology and A.I. Maybe it is something that will exist in a century or two. However, at the moment I think it is more plausible to suspect that intelligent civilizations are rare with long life spans, as opposed to common with short life spans.

Possibility 3. Space Expansion Hypothesis incorrect; Transcension Hypothesis correct

For a long-time many astronomers, cosmologists, and futurists assumed that the natural trajectory for an intelligent civilization was expansion into space. In my opinion this is a foolish assumption. Of course it is possible (in fact plausible) that expansion is the natural tendency for intelligent civilizations like our own. However, we cannot discount the possibility that intelligent civilizations do not expand; they transcend. This hypothesis posits that the reason we do not see any “impressive feats of macro-engineering” in space is because intelligent civilizations turn inwards. Intelligent civilizations may start to compress space, time, energy, and matter (STEM compression) to the point that virtual minds inhabit nano-scales (as opposed to minds inhabiting the macro-scale). Eventually this compression should lead to the ability to exploit the extra-dimensions of space, and perhaps allow intelligent civilizations to escape this universe into a different (or neighbouring) one. If you would like to read an article by the futurist who proposed transcension: read this. If you would like a quick video explaining the idea: watch this.

At the moment the Transcension Hypothesis is quite controversial and untested. To many the ideas seems ludicrous. But many ideas seem radical when they are first proposed. John Smart, who proposed the hypothesis, believes that if Transcension is the fate of intelligent civilizations, we should suspect mini black holes in the habitable rings of spiral galaxies. These mini black holes would be the remnants of “transcended civilizations.” If true, this would certainly explain Fermi’s Paradox and account for the eerie silence.

How plausible do I think this scenario is? To me, this is the most difficult one to make a firm conclusion on. At the moment, I am still convinced that the Space Expansion Hypothesis is correct. But I do not want to assume that it is correct. In the future we may find out more about how intelligent civilizations evolve. If the technological singularity is a “thing” (which I’m pretty sure it is) then we have no clue what our civilization will look like in 100, 200, or 500 years. We may explode into space, or we may explode into the nanoscale. Either way, at the moment I’m going to say that we should suspect robotic expansion to be the expected trajectory of intelligent civilizations. So this would make both possibilities 1 and 2 more plausible.

Possibility 4. Intelligent Life Ignores Us

Arthur C. Clarke famously stated that: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Certainly that is true. It would literally be unimaginable for someone 200 years ago to conceive of a smart phone (for example). If there are intelligent civilizations out there (perhaps Type II or III or even IV level civilizations), then they would certainly possess technologies and produce patterns that were impossible for us to imagine. This raises two possibilities:

A) If they wished to remain invisible to us then they could certainly achieve that goal.

B) They could produce patterns that we are unable to detect or recognize.

In situation A) they could know we exist and not care. Or they could know we exist and wish to just observe us from a distance and see what we do. Whatever a civilization (Types II-IV) like this wanted to do they could.

In situation B) organizations like SETI are just unable to detect the types of signals or recognize the types of patterns produced by advanced civilizations. This is an intriguing possibility to me. Consider the fact that we do not know what most of the universe is composed of (e.g., dark matter and energy). If we can’t even understand all natural patterns and phenomena in the universe, why should we suspect to be able to detect patterns and phenomena of advanced galactic civilizations?

How likely do I think these scenarios are? I think that any opinion on these scenarios can only be made by a gut reaction or perhaps a marginally educated guess. I personally think both situations are unlikely. I will say that I think situation A) is more unlikely than situation B). I think it is more likely that advanced civilizations are doing things that we can’t detect. I don’t think there is some advanced Milky Way federation of civilizations that are observing us from a distance. Finally, I will add that I think possibilities 1, 2, and 3 are more likely than these possibilities.

Possibility 5. Faster-than-light travel is impossible

The final possibility is that the universe has a speed limit and there is no way to get around this speed limit. If this is the case then expansion into space makes very little sense and intelligent civilizations would give up on this idea. Instead they simply continue to inhabit their home planet until global catastrophe eradicates them (whether that be self-inflicted or natural).

Of course, light travels very quickly. In fact, light travels so quickly that it can circle our planet 7 times in 1 second. However, even if an intelligent civilization developed a space craft that could travel this quickly, it would still take 4 years to travel to the nearest star system. Developing a civilization connected over these distances would not be feasible, especially when you consider that our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. However, I suppose it would be possible under this scenario for civilizations to expand and disperse. There could be rings of civilizations that diffuse outwards to new planets and then remain disconnected from one another (or very loosely connected — perhaps tweeting back and forth every couple hundred years).

How plausible do I think this situation is? I actually think this is the least likely of all the scenarios. We are not even a Type I civilization and we have already proposed several theoretical models that explore the possibility of faster-than-light speed travel. A few of these ideas include wormholes and the Alcubierre drive. Wikipedia has great articles on both if you want to learn more about them. My point is simply that just because we currently have a poor (or limited) understanding of how to circumvent the speed-of-light we should not expect a more advanced civilization to find this problem insurmountable. I would not be so foolish as to claim it impossible that speed-of-light really is an impossible speed limit to pass. However, I think it is unlikely to be. I think it is a problem that an intelligent civilization could solve if given enough time.

Implications of 100 Billion

The implications of 100 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy is profound (it may have even more profound implications for the universe as a whole). The knowledge that Earth-like planets are abundant forces us to confront big questions about extraterrestrial life. The point of this article was to explore these questions with some level of depth. I believe that everyone’s opinion on what the implications are will be slightly different. In my opinion, current evidence presents us with five potential scenarios for advanced intelligent life. In this article I have tried to rank them from 1-5 (with 1 being the most probable and 5 being the least probable).

  1. We are the first (at least in our galaxy)
  2. Intelligent civilizations have a short span
  3. Space Expansion Hypothesis incorrect; Transcension Hypothesis correct
  4. Intelligent life ignores us
  5. Faster-than-light travel is impossible

What do you think?

Did you like this article?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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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.

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Universality of Preadaptation for the Human Condition

Originally posted on  the Scientific American Guest Blog (16/01/13)

I have often wondered about whether key human adaptations (e.g., bipedalism, large brain size, opposable thumbs) represented universal traits for the development of high intelligence and technological complexity.  In (2012) by evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, he posits that they are.  Wilson argues that highly intelligent, technologically complex species have been so rare in the history of life because there are specific universal preadaptations required to produce the human condition.  He contends that without these preadaptations, a species intelligent enough to “build a microscope, deduce the oxidative chemistry of photosynthesis, or photograph the moons of Saturn” is an impossibility (Wilson, 2012: 45).  From Wilson himself:

“Overall, it now seems possible to draw a reasonably good explanation of why the human condition is a singularity, why the likes of it has occurred only once and took so long in coming. The reason is simply the extreme improbability of the preadaptations necessary for it to occur at all. Each of these evolutionary steps has been a full-blown adaptation in its own right. Each has required a particular sequence of one or more preadaptations that occurred previously. Homo sapiens is the only species of large mammal – thus large enough to evolve a human-sized brain – to have made every one of the required lucky turns in the evolutionary maze.”

— Wilson, 2012: 45

So what are these “lucky turns”?  And are they as universal as Wilson supposes?  First I think it is appropriate to explain what is meant be an “evolutionary maze.” An evolutionary maze is a metaphor to understand the probability of an organism acquiring a certain trait (i.e. large size, flight, echolocation, intelligence, etc.).  By using this metaphor we can say with certainty that descendants of contemporary pigs could become aquatic, but will never be able to fly.  This is because their ancestors acquired adaptations that “closed the door” to flight as a future adaptation through the evolutionary maze.  In essence, Wilson uses this metaphor to illustrate how many, and what type, of preadaptations it took for evolution to produce a highly intelligent, technologically complex species.  So that brings us back to “lucky turns”. What were they for us?  And can we deduce that these preadaptations represent a universal process for biological evolution?  Is the human condition a singularity?  According to Wilson there were four major turns, and these turns can be seen as prerequisites for biological evolution to produce another species with our abilities:

1. Land

The first of Wilson’s lucky turns is an adaptation to a terrestrial environment.  This is the first key preadaptation because Wilson argues that technological evolution past simple stone tools requires fire.  This means that in the evolutionary maze aquatic species could develop technology, but could never develop technologies with evolutionary trajectories of their own.  Therefore, no descendant of the octopus or dolphin could deduce oxidative chemistry of photosynthesis, or photograph the moons of Saturn, without first adapting to land.

2. Large body size

Wilson’s next preadaptation is large body size.  The reason for this adaptation is fairly self-explanatory: in order for a species to develop human-level intelligence, they must have a body that can support the evolution of a human-sized brain.  Wilson draws on his experience studying the highly complex societies of ants, bees, and termites to support the inclusion of this preadaptation: “[body size is the] one reason why leafcutter ants, although the most complex of any species other than humans, and even though they practice agriculture in air-conditioned cities of their own instinctual devising, have made no significant further advance during the twenty million years of their existence.” (Wilson, 2012: 46).  In contrast, we acquired this adaptation gradually over time within the order primates.

3. Grasping hands

The third preadaptation is grasping hands.  For Wilson, a species that has not acquired this ability will never be able to manipulate the environment in the way necessary to produce complex technologies.  Of course, this is a preadaptation that our lineage acquired within the order primates.  Grasping hands distinguishes primates from all other mammals.

4. Meat/Control of Fire

The fourth preadaptations are the consumption of meat and control of fire.  Meat is a necessary adaptation for Wilson because it yields higher energy per gram eaten, and because of the cooperation between individuals required to acquire meat.  In our lineage, meat was first consumed regularly within the genus Homo.  Before this the australopithecines subsisted off of vegetation, although they were potential scavengers as well.  Regular consumption of meat was followed shortly by the control of fire.  For humans, control of fire allowed us to catch larger game, and created a central common cooking space, which facilitated the development of an even more complex social environment dependent on altruistic sharing of resources.

The Evolutionary Maze

The metaphor of the evolutionary maze is a useful one.  It can help us conceptualize biological evolution.  However, Wilson depicts the human journey through the maze to be the only possible way for biological evolution to produce both high intelligence and technologically complex species.  Of course, I agree that the maze towards these evolutionary developments is narrower than the maze towards less complex adaptations.  I also agree that a great number of preadaptations are necessary for a species to achieve high intelligence and technological complexity.  However, the human condition may not be a singularity.  Unfortunately, we know of only one species that has developed high intelligence and technology with an evolutionary trajectory of its own.  Therefore, our sample size is too small to be definitively sure that our path through the maze was the only one.

As a consequence, I believe questions about the universality of the human condition must be relegated to a grey borderland between philosophy and empirical science.  Are there universal preadaptations?  I think it is possible, but we can’t scientifically determine that yet.  Take for example Wilson’s first preadaptation: adaptation to land.  Is it impossible for a lineage adapted to an aquatic setting to develop high intelligence and technological complexity?  I am just not sure how we can scientifically rule that out.  Just because it hasn’t happened on Earth, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen in the future, or on some other planet similar to our own.

As Wilson point out in the book, alien scientists studying our planet three million years ago would likely think nothing special of the australopithecines.  However, they were part of the maze that ended up producing us.  Could our species be making a similar mistake as Wilson’s hypothetical alien scientists if we conclude that the evolutionary maze to high intelligence and technological complexity is shut to the descendants of octopuses and dolphins?  Furthermore, we can’t conclude that consumption of meat and control of fire are necessary preadaptations, even though they were for us.  Although meat yields higher energy per gram eaten when compared to vegetation on Earth, it may not be the case on other planets.  I would argue the same with the preadaptation for control of fire.  It was important for our lineage, but could technology develop without control of it in an aquatic setting?  We don’t have the data to rule it out.

On the other hand, I believe the preadaptations Wilson explored do give us important insight.  For example, I would think it to be highly unlikely for a species with a small body size to develop human-level intelligence.  As he mentioned, the lack of advance among the social insects is likely attributable to this variable.  Also, I am in general agreement with Wilson that a species like us would require some type of grasping preadaptation.  Of course, grasping hands could be supplemented for the evolution of some other type of appendage (e.g., fin, tentacle, etc.) that could be used to manipulate the external environment.

This means all intelligent science fiction aliens should be equipped with some type of grasping appendage, in order to be scientifically appropriate.  Jokes aside, this type of question is worth exploring.  However, I think we should be cautious and hesitant to make any broad conclusions.  A scientific consensus will not likely be reached until we have more data, and that requires understanding life off of our island of life: Earth.

You might want to follow Cadell Last on Twitter.

References

Wilson, E.O.  2012.  The Social Conquest of Earth.  New York: W.W. Norton.

A Two-Planet Species

When humans first landed on the moon on July 21, 1969, many people believed that we would have visited Mars before the end of the century.  However, the year 2000 came and went, and dreams of going to Mars felt no more realistic than they had in 1969.  Our species underestimated the challenges that sending humans to Mars posed.  Although we discovered several challenges that needed to be overcome with scientific and engineering ingenuity, the biggest obstacle was with government funding.  The richest country on the planet during the past four decades has been unwilling to invest the funding it would take to make us a two-planet species.  As a result, people pushing for Martian colonization are looking to private industry.  In 2012, two companies have made firm proposals with the goal to colonize Mars this century: Mars-One and SpaceX.

Mars-One

On May 31 2012, Mars-One announced plans to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2023.  This would be a one-way mission with four astronauts that would be followed every two years with more astronauts.  By 2033, they intend to have a colony of 20 people living and working on Mars.  Throughout the year Mars-One has been acquiring more donors, collaborators, and supporters.  Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and President of Mars-One shirks any suggestion that these goals are unrealistic:

“Since its conceptualizations, Mars-One has evolved from a bold idea to an ambitious but feasible plan. Just about everyone we speak to is amazed by how realistic our plan is. The next step is introducing the project to the world and securing sponsors and investors. Human exploration of Mars will be the most exciting adventure mankind has embarked upon in decades.”

— Bas Lansdorp

He also believes that going to Mars is something that will inspire us for generations to come and garner the attention of the entire planet:

“It will inspire a new generation of engineers, inventors, artists, and scientists. It will create breakthroughs in recycling, life support and solar power systems. It will create a new generation of heroes – the first explorers to go to Mars will step straight into the history books. Finally, we expect it to capture an audience of millions, culminating in several billion online spectators when the first crew lands on Mars.”

— Bas Lansdorp

In order to make this dream a reality, Lansdorp has a very clear and thorough timeline:

  • 2013: first 40 astronauts will be selected; a replica of the settlement will be built for training purposes
  • 2014: The first communication satellite will be produced
  • 2016: A supply mission will be launched during January (arriving October) with 2,500 kilograms (5,500 lb) of food in a 5 metres diameter variant of the SpaceX Dragon
  • 2018: An exploration vehicle will launch to pick the location of the settlement
  • 2021: Six additional Dragon capsules and another rover will launch with two living units, two life support units and two supply units.
  • 2022: A SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch with the first group of four colonists.
  • 2023: The first colonists will arrive on Mars in modified Dragon capsule
  • 2025: A second group of four colonists will arrive
  • 2033: The colony will reach 20 settlers

Mars-One plans to build a global audience and fund this project with a reality television show.  This show would start filming the astronauts as they are selected and as they start to train between 2013 and 2023.  Mars-One claims that the astronauts would continue to be filmed during the journey to Mars, and during their stay on Mars.  Their hope is that a reality television show will galvanize the world to support this project.  However, Mars-One isn’t without competition.

SpaceX

Elon Musk started the company SpaceX with the long-term goal of establishing a permanent human colony on Mars.  Unlike Mars-One, there is no specific timeline, however, SpaceX has a massive financial advantage and a more ambitious proposal: a Martian colony 80,000 people strong.  There is no set date yet as to when this 80,000 people colony will be established, but their approach to colonization seems well developed.

Like Mars-One, Elon Musk envisions this project to begin with a pioneering mission of fewer than 10 individuals.  However, instead of starting a reality television show to raise the necessary funds, Musk plans on charging a $500,000 ticket price.  He believes that there are enough upper class individuals who would both be willing to go to Mars and pay the ticket price.  But a $500,000 ticket price alone will not get this project off the ground.  Musk is also looking for collaboration with the United States government.  He claims that if the United States contributes 0.25 per cent of GDP, $40 billion would be raised, which would cover the necessary equipment and operating costs.  However, it is yet to be seen whether the United States will support this venture, despite Musk’s vision:

“This is not the path to go to maximize riches. It’s a terrible risk adjusted return. But it’s gotta happen. I think that for me and a lot of people, America is a nation of explorers. I’d like to see that we’re expanding the frontier and moving things forward. Space is the final frontier and we have to make progress.”

— Elon Musk

Two-Planet Species?

So will Mars-One or SpaceX be successful?  Will they both achieve their goals?  At the moment I’m still unsure which project sounds more plausible.  To me, Mars-One still sounds too unbelievable to be true.  They came out of nowhere, and have goals that seem to be unachievable for such a new start up.  However, I obviously support their ambition and really hope they are successful.  SpaceX on the other hand seems to have a better organizational infrastructure in place, and a more realistic approach.  My concern for SpaceX is that the United States government will remain unwilling to assist in the funding of a permanent human settlement on Mars.

The Long Term

If either, or both projects are successful becoming a two-planet species may be our most important achievement to date.  Some may think that this is an over statement, but I am of the firm belief that it is remarkably foolish to remain a one-planet species.  As far as we know, there is nothing else like us in the entire universe.  We know that it took a process of biological evolution 3.5 billion years to produce an organism with the capability understanding the processes that created it, and ask what it means to exist.  It may be the case that entities with our capabilities are common throughout the universe, but I find it equally plausible given our current data to suggest that intelligent life is a very rare phenomenon.  If we make the right decisions, our species has the capability to do great things.  Think about the progress that has been made in just the past 100 years.  What will our descendants be achieving 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now?  Becoming a two-planet species makes us a little safer.  As Carl Sagan said: “Our remote descendants […] will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was.  How perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings.”  Early humans were far more vulnerable than we are today.  A large earthquake, volcano, or tsunami could have ended their existence.  Today, those events do not jeopardize our existence, but there are other natural phenomena that could easily end it.  Establishing a sustainable civilization on Mars makes us even safer.  It ensures that if anything catastrophic happens to Earth, we have another planetary civilization to help, and migrate to if necessary.  By colonizing, and eventually terraforming Mars, we also learn a great deal about how our species should best approach colonization at a larger scale.  For those reasons I hope that Mars-One and SpaceX are a success.  I hope that the world supports the reality television experience that develops around Mars-One.  And I hope that the United States government contributes the relatively small amount of GDP necessary to fund SpaceX.  For our species’ long-term good, there is no greater investment.

The Universe’s Adolescent Pictures

During the early years of the 20th century most astronomers believed that the universe was static.  Even Albert Einstein incorporated the notion of the static and eternal universe in his equations.  After Edwin Hubble conclusively proved that the Universe was in fact expanding, Einstein admitted that describing the universe as static was “the greatest blunder of my life”.  Later observation revealed that the universe wasn’t just expanding – it was expanding at an accelerated pace.  Astronomers were puzzled and had no idea how to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe because their calculations revealed that there should be enough matter in the universe to eventually slow the expansion.  A hypothetical form of energy – dark energy – was used to explain the accelerated expansion.  Although dark energy has never been directly observed it is thought to permeate the entire universe.

Recent observations have continued to make the picture more confusing.  An international team of scientists revealed that there was a stage in the universe’s history when the expansion of the universe was decelerating.  These observations were made using the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), which is part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  The results indicate that when the universe was in between 2.5-7 billion years old, it was expanding at a decelerating pace.  This is perhaps what would have been expected before the understanding that the universe is currently expanding at an accelerated pace.  It now appears that for the first 2.5 billion years of the universe’s existence the force of the Big Bang caused rapid expansion, which was slowed in between 2.5-7 billion years due to the force of gravity.  Astronomers call the first 7 billion years the “matter-dominated” universe.

However the divide between the transition from decelerated-expansion to the current state of accelerated-expansion was sharp.  And if dark-energy is causing this expansion, how did it come to affect the universe when it did?  As many astronomers are now realizing this is one of the biggest questions in all of cosmology and the answer to it could have deep implications for the fate of the entire universe.  Most importantly, will dark energy continue to push the universe apart forever?  Or will gravity eventually re-gain control over the expansion and start a phase of contraction?

The answers to these questions depend on three important variables:

  • The overall shape of the universe
  • How much dark energy it contains
  • How dark energy density responds to continued expansion

It may surprise you to realize that scientists do not currently know for sure what the shape of the universe is.  There are thought to be three possibilities: closed, open and flat.  If the universe is closed (like a sphere) then it should eventually enter a phase of contraction, unless there are significantly more amounts of dark energy than presently hypothesized.  If the universe is open (like a saddle) or flat, than the universe will continue to expand forever.

The results of continued expansion or eventual contraction have far reaching consequences for the ultimate fate of the universe.  If the universe eventually enters a phase of contraction (i.e., gravity beats dark energy) than the universe will experience what is known as a Big Crunch.  During the Big Crunch the universe would return to the state at which it began, as a dimensionless singularity.  In this universe all of the galactic clusters and galaxies would start to get closer and closer together and the universe would start to get very warm, perhaps mirroring the state the universe was in during its infancy.  However, if accelerated-expansion continues (i.e., dark energy beats gravity) than the universe will likely experience a Big Freeze or Big Rip.  In a Big Freeze scenario everything would be so far apart that no more stars or galaxies would form and the universe would reach a temperature of absolute zero.  Or it is even possible that the universe could experience a Big Rip.  In this scenario all material objects in the universe would disintegrate because the universe would be accelerating so quickly that all objects would be ripped apart at a molecular level.  Current expansion is only accelerating a pace that affects objects on a galactic cluster scale of reality.

Unfortunately, at this stage in our knowledge about the development of the universe it is still premature to conclude with any certainty that one scenario is more plausible than another.  And the recent observations made by BOSS raise more questions and make our understanding of the universe more complicated than it was previously.  Could dark energy’s effects on our universe decrease in the future?  It appears as though dark energy’s effects have changed in the past (i.e. 6.5 billion years ago).  Could we be in a dark energy phase?  Could gravity start to re-assert control over accelerated-expansion?  Or is the universe now too big for gravity to pull it back together again?

The only way to know for sure will be to continue making observations and developing new technologies that will be able to reveal aspects of the universe that are currently unknown to us.  If the universe’s ‘adolescent’ pictures tell us anything, it is that we still have a lot to work out.  Either way, whether the universe expands forever, or eventually starts to contract, it will be tens of billions, if not trillions of years, before complex life (like us!) should begin to worry.