The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

There are a lot of differing opinions today among astrobiologists and planetary specialists as to whether life is common in the universe, and how many intelligent and sentient life-forms (like humans) are out there in the heavens. On the one hand, paleontologists, biologists and geoscientists have found over the past twenty years or so that life forms can flourish in very harsh environments, places with little or no light or oxygen and very cold or very hot temperatures, even places with relatively high exposure to ultraviolet or radioactive radiation. Of course, most of these life forms aren’t much more than very simple one-celled germ-like things. But they are alive.

Furthermore, the accelerating pace of exoplanet research and discoveries have allowed the detection of a rapidly increasing number of planets whirling around far-distant stars. Our scientists have learned how to distinguish rocky Earth-like planets from “gas bags” like Jupiter and Saturn, and in a few years they might even be able to detect whether these planets have an atmosphere, and what kinds of gasses are in that atmosphere. The boffins are obviously very interested in finding out how many “second Earths” are out there, rocky planets of near-Earth size orbiting a bright but stable star at a distance where liquid water could exist and where a favorable atmosphere could form. Again, we are still some years away from being able to pinpoint such stars and planets, but thus far, a large number of candidates have emerged.

So, given that life can form even under very tough conditions, and given that “habitable zone” planets may relatively common in the cosmos, many scientists are coming to believe in a “cosmic life imperative” in the Universe. But recall that all of this was “on the one hand”. On that other hand is the increasing realization that planet Earth and our Solar System may not be your garden-variety planetary situation. A lot of the newly discovered exo-planetary systems are quite unlike our own. Even the ones with rocky planets that are Earth-size often orbit stars that are much more dim or which pulsate or which have twin stars or which frequently belch out huge flares or X-rays that would make life very sparse, if it could get started at all. At best, a few microbe colonies might struggle to stay alive at fringe locations. And even the discovered Earth-like planets are often too close or too far from the star to allow running water (or have highly elliptical orbits where water would boil on one end and freeze on the other).

But even if you get a “Goldilocks” star like our sun with rocky planets at just the right distance, life is still not guaranteed. A recent article on the Nautilis site talks about how life needs to be able to “catch fire” (in a sense) on a planet; it needs the right local conditions for the right amount of time in order to spread and evolve and start changing the planet itself into a more habitable environment for further life. The author of this article, David Grinspoon (a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute), calls this an extension of the “Gaia hypothesis”, i.e. that the whole Earth in itself should be considered a very complex but ultimately integrated and unique form of life. Dr. Grinspoon compares the fate of Venus, Earth and Mars, three rocky planets of relatively similar size, all of which exist in the habitable zone of our Solar System. Obviously, only one of the three became “infected” by life. Dr. Grinspoon feels that life did get started on both Venus and Mars, as they once had enough water and preliminary atmospheres to allow this. But that life never reached a “critical mass” whereby the atmosphere and temperature and surface chemistry of these planets were altered sufficiently to allow for verdant development and growth of myriad species of life. Only Earth had the right combination of volcanoes, plate movements, magnetic fields caused by an iron core of just the right size, etc. So, despite some evidence that Mars might still have a few isolated colonies of microbes at certain spots, Dr. Grinspoon contends that habitable planets will either become verdant habitats dominated by life-forms as the Earth (aka “Gaia”) is, or will be mostly dead, with at best a few tiny germ-like things that do next to nothing but barely hang on.

Many planet hunters and exobiologists remain optimistic that given the incredible number of stars and galaxies that litter our Universe (as the Hubble space telescope and other new space observation platforms have helped us to realize), there have to be many, many places where life has emerged, and has developed into sophisticated forms like our animals and humans. Even if only one out of a hundred have the potential for life (one study indicates that 20% of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy are like our sun, and 20% of them have Earth-sized planets in a temperate zone), that leaves a LOT of chances for life to develop. Planetary scientist Sara Seger was the subject of a recent article in the NY Times, where she was pictured at her kitchen table “with her empty mug . . . talking about hundreds of billions of galaxies and their hundreds of billions of stars. Tens of billions of habitable planets, far more of them than there are people on Earth. There has to be other life somewhere out there. We can’t be that special.”

And yet, Howard A. Smith, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard‐Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, also had a recent article on the Nautilis site, where he basically said that human-like life may NOT be common at all despite the unimaginably vast expanses of star and galaxy fields in the heavens, and thus we probably ARE quite special. He feels that the exoplanetary evidence to date is not very encouraging, and also cites the growing realization of all the special circumstances and strokes of luck that allowed higher forms of life to emerge on our planet (E.g., the early oxygenation of the atmosphere by an evolving type of cyanobacteria during the Proterozoic period came close to poisoning all of the existing anerobic life forms before the new oxygen-loving germs that eventually evolved into modern life could develop from them). Dr. Smith concludes his article by saying

I think it is good advice not to make too many assumptions, and presuming we must be commonplace is an assumption. Of course, presuming we are rare is another. Instead, we must learn from nature with an open mind. I think the evidence, and the simplest conclusion, is that humanity is not ordinary and we may have a significant cosmic role. There are, therefore, ethical issues to consider, and religion can contribute a meaningful voice to this discussion. We should treat one another as the priceless beings we appear to be, and care for our rare cosmic home, the Earth. Modern science may have prompted this re-evaluation, but addressing it will require the best of all our human abilities.

So, perhaps humanity is pretty special after all, and maybe we do have some sort of cosmic mission. Maybe we should stop thinking that human life is cheap, and that if we disappear because of our own stupidity, some other intelligent space aliens (like we see on so many popular movies like Arrival and Star Trek and Independence Day) will zoom in with their megaships and take up where we left off. But what if they don’t, because they don’t exist? Well, wouldn’t that be a shame. We have come an incredibly long way with our social organization and our technology. Without all of this social structure and technology, we’d never know all of the good stuff that I’ve just described about life chemistry and stars and galaxies and exoplanets. You’d think that social organization and technology should then be leading us towards what Dr. Smith advises, i.e. “treat one another as the priceless beings we appear to be”.

Unfortunately, an article in the November Atlantic throws some cold water on that notion. E.T. Brooking and P.W. Singer wrote the cover story entitled “War Goes Viral“. No, they are not talking about biological warfare. They are talking about “viral” as in Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Instagram, etc. In their own words, Brooking and Singer “sought to untangle a seeming contradiction. The internet has long been celebrated for its power to bring people together. Yet as it turns out, this same technology is easily weaponized. Social-media platforms reinforce ‘us versus them’ narratives, expose vulnerable people to virulent ideologies, and inflame even long-dormant hatreds.” Humankind is showing its usual craftiness in making greater and greater use of modern internet technology and smart phones and social media to forward its worst instincts.

This isn’t exactly new, however. Brooking and Singer point out that the development of the telegraph in the early part of the 19th Century was hailed as a tool that would bring humankind together and foster greater states of understanding and sympathy — but soon became mostly an engine of trade and warfare. Quote:

According to the historian Johanna Neuman, great thinkers of the day believed that ‘the knowledge relayed by the telegraph would make nations so conversant with the national interests of their one-time enemies that war would come no more.’ The first transatlantic cable was laid between North America and Europe in 1858. In an exchange of congratulations, President James Buchanan expressed to Queen Victoria his belief that the telegraph would ‘prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument designed … to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.’ Within a few days, Britain would use the same cable to send orders to its military.

The prognosis from Brooking and Singer for a human species armed with smart phones loaded with social media apps is not encouraging.

For all the hope that comes from connecting with new people and new ideas, researchers have found that online behavior is dominated by ‘homophily’: a tendency to listen to and associate with people like yourself, and to exclude outsiders. Social networks are bad at helping you empathize with people unlike you, but good at surrounding you with those who share your outlook. The new information ecosystem does not challenge biases; it reinforces them. Within a circle of friends or like-minded acquaintances, social media certainly fosters connection. But the further one zooms out—to whole societies or the course of global affairs—the more this connection is marred by tribalism and mutual mistrust

Radio and TV and the telephone were significant communications technology jumps over the past 100 years, but hand-held social media kicks it up a notch by allowing everyone to have a world-wide audience. We don’t just passively entertain our opinions and prejudices in private, we find many, many others with the same prejudices and add to the fire.

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about the political dangers of “fake news”. Fake news is the new front line in the political wars that are tearing America apart. And the social media revolution provides the ammo:

Perhaps the greatest danger in this dynamic is that, although information that goes viral holds unquestionable power, it bears no special claim to truth or accuracy. Homophily all but ensures that. A multi-university study of five years of Facebook activity, titled ‘The Spreading of Misinformation Online’, was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Its authors found that the likelihood of someone believing and sharing a story was determined by its coherence with their prior beliefs and the number of their friends who had already shared it—not any inherent quality of the story itself. Stories didn’t start new conversations so much as echo preexisting beliefs.

America, when you fell in love with all of those pretty I-Phones and stimulating social sites, you were unknowingly asking for a leader with little regard for truth and accuracy. And sure enough, you got him!

I once thought that the only way for humankind to find one-ness would be for a common non-human enemy to present itself clearly right to everyone’s face. I.e., an invasion from space, Independence Day style. The real thing, not something playing on your Samsung Galaxy. Maybe more of us should go out at night and turn off our phones and look up into the night, and think . . . what if we are alone? Would we start moderating our political vehemence and start looking harder for common ground and stop being sure that our views are always right, just because the Huffington Post and Bernie Sanders, or Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich, say they are right?

Well . . . probably not. I’m sorry to be fatalistic, but what’s gonna happen is gonna happen. The stars remain beautiful and inspiring, and the quiet and loneliness of the night can be haunting. But if humankind gets past its warrior instincts and its climate change crisis and it somehow achieves a peaceful and sustainable state, it will be just by luck. Luck has gotten us as far as we have gotten, considering the fates of Venus and Mars, the oxygen catastrophe, the earth-like planet around the star nearest to us (Proxima Centauri b) that remains sterile because of X rays and solar winds, etc. Let’s hope that we’re not pushing our luck one step too far!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:49 pm      

  1. Jim, Seems to me as if you have two separate topics here; you seemed able to join them, but I keep wanting to keep them apart. So, this comment will be one of “keeping apart” these two topics; at least at this point I think that’s how it’s going to work.

    In a lot of ways I can appreciate the search for life elsewhere in the universe. But I have a couple of problems with it too, while I’m appreciating it. First: If I understand this search for life elsewhere in the universe correctly (and tell me if I’m wrong), I think it is a search for life as we know it; or to put it another way a search for life just like US. Is this life supposed to be just like us? I keep thinking yes it is. Are they supposed to speak the same language as we do, so we can communicate easily? I really don’t know what people who are looking for life elsewhere in the universe think it will be, but it seems like those looking think it should be just like us; and I think it should be very different.

    That seems somehow very uninteresting to me. I keep thinking that a search for life elsewhere in the universe would be a search for something entirely and totally different from the life we have here on earth. I can’t help but think of the long ago episode of the first “Star Trek” program on TV. One of the episodes dealt with life on another planet. The Star Trek people had landed on this planet filled with rocks and pebbles which had some value to the people on the Enterprise (I think that was the name of the ship). Strangely enuf, while there was no one else on the planet (so it seemed) “guards” were sent to protect certain areas where the pebbles were most valuable to the “Trekkers”. (Can’t remember why they’d need to protect those areas if there was no other life on the planet.) These guards would all turn up dead in the morning with no evidence of who might have killed them or why. It was a mystery that drove that episode of “Star Trek”.

    Turned out the life base of that planet was rock-based and the “rocks” were the parents and the “pebbles” were the babies and children of the rocks. A simple story, maybe silly in some way, but it impressed me at the time. And set me to thinking that any life we might find elsewhere in the universe might be very different from what we look like. I’ve long tho’t: If the “rocks” were the parents and the “pebbles” the children, what a different kind of life that would be and how differently it would manifest itself.

    I have always wondered when scientists think in terms of finding life elsewhere in the universe that if they expect to find “us” “out there”, they are probably sadly and badly mistaken.

    This tho’t led me to wondering about the various life forms on earth and whether or not they have intelligence.

    There has been much study done on Whales and Dolphins and other aquatic “animals”. When I read and study about what science has found about these animals, (I’m going to limit my text here to “Whales” but think in terms of all the other types of higher aquatic life too that would “fit in” with these questions.) I can’t help but think that these “animals” may have far exceeded us in intelligence; but their form of life requires a different way of looking at how their life would have evolved. What if the intelligence of Whales, for instance, was developed to evolve inwardly rather than outwardly as humans intelligence seems to have evolved? Looking at Whales like this gives a lot of evidence of just such kind of development, an inward, not outward, kind of development. Thinking about an inward type of development leads one to a lot of questions as to how the intelligence of Whales might manifest itself. (I’m not going into all such questions, but such questions come easily once one know even a little about Whales.)

    What if there is other intelligent life right here on this planet? That would not mean there might not be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe either. Perhaps both exist and we are simply too limited in our own thinking to consider such concepts.

    Another thing that struck me about your post was Grinspoon’s “Gaia hypothesis”, the earth as a being in itself. Now there’s some good thinking, I say. One might expand the “Gaia hypothesis” to include the universe as a whole. I can’t help but find myself wondering where “god/God” might fit in all this. Would the Earth itself be “god”? Would the universe as a whole be “god”? How would Gaia manifest herself? (I always tho’t of Gaia as feminine.) How would we relate to her IF we relate to her? Or would Gaia be a neutral gender?

    Perhaps scientists should start with a broader concept of what might be the basis of intelligent life. (Just tho’t of this: What if “intelligence” is not the most important thing in life? What if “ethics” would be? Where would that put US on this planet and in this time of “fake news” and “homophily”? We would not be very high on the list of who should be looking for life elsewhere.

    Which leads me to your point of “Fake News” and getting the leader we might deserve, a thought which might be very correct. I have no clue how to even start to address this issue. It is a severe problem. (Just this last week I got a Christmas card from a relative with a note inside praising Trump and asking for prayers that he be a good president; the person was sure that he was the ONE to lead our country and would be the only one to save it. I think what is lacking a great deal is empathy with others, sure that one is right cuz of one’s religious or political or ethical stance. Up to this point there has not been a issue of wondering what is true. It seems this problem of what is truth seems to have sneaked up on “us”, and we do not have enough experience yet to know where to begin to address this issue.

    However, I find that even considering empathy with others presumes that those one is empathizing with are themselves empathizing in return and that is not necessarily the case, I find. Thus, empathy seems to lead nowhere. Then again, I find myself wondering if this problem of “fake news” or in some cases “truth that seems to vary, depending on the mood of the individual at a particular time may be easy to solve: Get a grip on your mind and know what the truth is. I have actually see people at time tell a lie once and know it is a lie; they tell the same lie a 2nd time and it’s easy to see they wonder if it is a lie or the truth; the 3rd time they tell the lie they are 100% sure it is the truth. There’s something wrong with the thinking going on there in such a case. One has to hold firmly to what is true and stick with it. But doing that on a “national” basis could be very, very difficult if homophily becomes the situation.

    I think this is the first time we have had such a national problem. We need to give this a good think. And even perhaps we may need to address the issue to and with Gaia. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 15, 2016 @ 11:39 pm

  2. Hi Jim, it’s been awhile. SpunkyKitty has morphed into Bunnyhopscotch. It’s good to read your very thought provoking words again – almost a year after my PhD submission, my brain definitely needs waking up from its exhausted slumber! I love that you ended this ramble with “what’s gonna happen is gonna happen”. To me, a poignant yet simple brushstroke that frames this tapestry full of tightly woven threads.

    [Hey DJ, great to hear from you again !! I need to catch up with your stuff too. Thanks so much for checking in !!! And hey, as to whether you are a spunky kitty or a hoppin’ bunny — either way, it’s all good! Jim G]

    Comment by bunnhopscotch — December 17, 2016 @ 3:59 am

  3. Jim, Just found an article in “The Atlantic” (got it yesterday) on octopuses (octopi is preferred second in the dictionary) and it expresses so well what I was struggling to say and said so poorly above; here’s Olivia Judson quoting Peter Godfrey-Smith: She is (as I see it) trying to make a case for consciousness in the octopus (and all the varied kinds of them); she does a better job of it than I did of making a case for consciousness in Whales and other aquatic life. Here she adds non-vertebrate aquatic animals.

    Judson says that (and I paraphrase) making contact with various highly conscious aquatic animals is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

    Further she notes and this is what I was struggling to express: Godfrey-Smith expressed the idea that evolution can, could, and probably did allow consciousness to evolve in many ways. And I say, Why not? If everything else has evolved (and is still evolving), why not consciousness too? Who says that even on this planet humans must be the highest consciousness? Only humans. Which when one thinks about it is highly narcissistic.

    It then seems to follow, as I see it, that any “alien” minds we seek in the universe will be very, very different from ours and will communicate very differently than we do. Seems to me we need to approach this subject with a much broader view and even a way of looking for consciousness that may exist in ways we would not ordinarily think of it existing. (And here I think of the scientist who discovered elephants communicate over long miles by very low frequency vibrations. Not a way of communicating that we would easily find except for the wise perception of the woman who felt the vibrations and decided something was going on there. Turns out the elephants were communicating with others they knew.

    I’m expressing this very poorly, even tho it’s a topic that fascinates me and intrigues me. I find myself thinking that we who think we are the highest level of consciousness on earth may be fooling only ourselves. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 17, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

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